Sins of ‘a pimp and a rat’ exposed
BRIBERY, blackmail and arson were as natural to Abe Saffron as breathing. The only thing he couldn't cheat was death, although he managed to live to 87, untroubled by a lifetime of inflicting misery on others.
To the end, he was a pimp and a rat. When he wasn't pulling strings or the wings off butterflies, in old age Saffron amused himself by using his filthy millions to fire off lawsuits against anyone who dared mention that his nickname was "Mr Sin". I know, because I was one of them.
"Mr Sin" is spot on for Abraham Gilbert Saffron, like "the Black Death" was for bubonic plague. He hated the name because it was the one thing his network of corrupt cronies and cynical lawyers couldn't fix.
Saffron's collection of bent tools ranged from shifty lawyers to police chiefs and politicians. A few tame reporters played the Abe game, unlike the brilliant and brave (and mostly female) ones whose efforts over three decades laid the foundations for the three-part documentary the ABC launched this week.
"Exposed: The Ghost Train Fire" is about the cause and effects of the inferno at Sydney's Luna Park that killed six children (and the father of two of them) in 1979.
Some say the ABC too often wastes taxpayers' money on half-baked projects but, judging by the opening episode, this doesn't seem to be one of them. It is an arresting and detailed reworking of a known story that is still absolutely in the public interest.
The only criticism, maybe, is that it is so overdue it is being treated as if it's new. Those who have suffered because of Saffron might wish something this damning had been broadcast when he breathed his last in 2006, so that he'd die knowing his name was forever stained by the evil he did and the bottomless grief it caused.
That's if you believe, of course, that Saffron was behind the fatal fire - unproven legally but a fairly safe assumption in the real world. The same goes for his links to the unsolved killing of the anti-development activist Juanita Nielsen, who was last seen entering his Carousel Club in Kings Cross in 1975.
Elapsed time and the subsequent deaths of stooges who did Saffron's dirty work have given the film makers more freedom to make the case against him more powerful.
After 40 years, nervous interview subjects are now braver, so fewer punches have to be pulled. When the likes of Wendy Bacon, Marian Wilkinson and Kate McClymont tackled the subject from 1980s until Saffron's death, they risked danger legal and actual from people who'd gotten away with murder.
Fires can happen accidentally, just as guns sometimes go off accidentally. But that's not the way to bet about the Ghost Train fire, because Saffron and his mates had form.
A string of businesses which Saffron and a particular associate owned were destroyed by suspicious fires over a few years. The associate with the lightning touch we will call "the Tosser" because he tossed matches around like confetti and had a whiff of kerosene.
Unfortunately, "The Tosser" is reportedly still alive. But the time is coming when he won't be able to hide behind lame libel laws that shield the sort of people who burn children to death.
Saffron's malignant presence looms behind the fire, the timing of which is suspicious because it looked likely to cripple the fun park business and eliminate it as the long-term tenant on what had become one of Sydney's finest pieces of harbour-side real estate. There was a fortune to be made (by mates of pliable premier Neville Wran) on the Milson's Point site - but only if Luna Park's leasehold became worthless to its operators.
The callousness and depravity of such a crime meant nothing to Saffron. He had spent his entire adult life conspiring crimes. So much so that when his only son wrote a memoir of his father he called it "Gentle Satan".
Saffron was "gentle" only in the sense he could afford to live in luxury while getting others to do the procuring, bashing, and killing - and "torching", a favourite tactic to defraud insurance companies, eradicate competitors and bulldoze planning laws.
Saffron's criminal tendencies were always evident but you wouldn't know that by looking at his suspiciously short record. One reason for that is that he managed to have virtually every reference to his brushes with the law removed from public records in Sydney - even including the Parliamentary Library. I know this, because I went looking for them in 2005 after he sued me and others over the "Mr Sin" label.
The chilling thing about Saffron was that he could reach out and make things vanish and could silence people. This invisible influence was a force field around him - not just in Sydney but in Adelaide and Perth, where he had hotels, strip clubs and brothels. Mr Sin was Mr Sinister.
Just before one of Australia's oldest bookmakers died last year, he told me about living by his wits in the 1940s, moving up from smuggling contraband and hustling card games to SP bookmaking and, eventually, becoming a licensed bookie.
The old gambling man's name was Jan Jarrick. As a knockabout sailor at the end of World War II, he recalled, he smuggled boxes of cigarettes ashore after liberating them from the bond store at the Navy dock in Sydney Harbour.
Cigarettes bought in bulk, duty free, for a few cents a packet from "the Yanks" overseas were worth ten times as much in Kings Cross. Jarrick's go-to man on shore was young Abe Saffron, who peeled off 500 pounds to pay him. Abe was a cash buyer for anything that could be re-sold on the black market.
The old bookie's tale is a rare insight into Saffron's shadowy beginnings. By the 1960s, with the Vietnam War in full swing and the Cross bursting with soldiers on R and R, Saffron was as big in Sydney as Meyer Lansky in Las Vegas or the Kray brothers in East End London.
As a crook, Saffron was a businessman: his business was cornering the market in sex, drugs and gambling, then siphoning the black money into property deals to launder it.
If he could rob people along the way, he would, but not with a gun and mask. He made himself unassailable by intimidating, bribing, compromising and blackmailing everyone he could from street level up to police headquarters, premier's office and law courts.
Saffron made a fortune running thinly-disguised brothels out of his nightclubs, but money wasn't enough. It was said he secretly recorded useful clients with hidden cameras, microphones and two-way mirrors, an insurance that became a magic wand against prosecution.
If anyone in public life, business or the law had a secret vice, Saffron would procure prostitutes, including under-age ones, to pander to their deviance. That sort of knowledge was power.
Some clients paid him not with cash but with favours. So Saffron became the Machiavelli of Sydney's underbelly: he could nobble judges and lawyers, police and politicians, pulling favours at every level for those willing to pay.
When the vicious old rat finally died, a rabbi worked hard at his funeral to find any good things to say about the king of pimps. As a wise man said this week, he could buy anything he wanted except a good reputation.
Every beneficiary of Saffron's estate should watch The Ghost Train Fire. And live with the truth of the proverb that behind every great fortune is a crime.
Originally published as Sins of 'a pimp and a rat' exposed