While living in hiding, Nicola Gobbo spent months talking to the ABC to explain for the first time in her own words why she became a police informer.
As Nicola Gobbo made the frantic dash to a morning court appearance in August 2005, she had no idea she was about to upend her entire life and turn the justice system on its head.
“I can vividly remember thinking I just can’t keep going, I can’t do this anymore,” Ms Gobbo told the ABC.
Even before she arrived at the courtroom, she had already crossed an ethical line.
That morning she had called a Victoria Police detective and confessed that her infamous client, drug boss Tony Mokbel, was pressuring her to take on that morning’s case.
When she arrived at court, the case was postponed.
Instead, Ms Gobbo found detectives standing outside the courtroom. She saw them as a safe haven.
Amid tears, she unleashed her deepest fears and worries on the detectives. She told them her criminal clients were pressuring her to break the law.
The police saw a rare opportunity to infiltrate the underworld but it would mean doing something that had never been done in Australian history: signing up a criminal defence lawyer as an informer.
Nicola Gobbo has gone into hiding and is currently in an unknown location. (ABC News: Greg Nelson)
The events set in motion that day would eventually spark a royal commission into Victoria Police’s police use of informers and lead to Ms Gobbo living in hiding.
Already, one former client of Ms Gobbo’s has been released from prison because a judge ruled her informing constituted a miscarriage of justice. Eight more former clients have appeals pending.
The royal commission heard that more than 1000 people could be affected by her informing. It heard 124 cases may have been unfairly affected.
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The story has been told in TV dramas, tabloid front pages and statements of evidence but it has never been fully told by the woman herself.
While in hiding, Ms Gobbo spent months talking to the ABC podcast Trace: The Informer, to explain for the first time why she fed the secrets of some of the most dangerous and violent criminals in the country to police, while acting as a defence barrister.
More than that, she revealed why — after years of working with the police — she stopped and why the separation has been so acrimonious.
Always an overachiever
In media reports, Ms Gobbo has sometimes been dubbed a “blue blood”, which has served the tabloid narrative of a posh, high-flying lawyer who fell from grace.
It is true her uncle, Sir James Gobbo was a Supreme Court Judge and a Governor of Victoria but when Ms Gobbo’s grandparents first arrived from Italy, they started out by opening a soup kitchen in Carlton.
A young Nicola Gobbo. (Supplied: Nicola Gobbo)
Her father took over it over at 17-years-old and provided for the family.
“Sir James rose to where he did by reason of the hard work of my dad but my dad never resented him for his success,” said Ms Gobbo.
Ms Gobbo jokingly refers to her famous uncle as “Sir Arsehole” because, she claims, he had little to do with his nieces, and was largely estranged from her family.
Sir James declined to comment.
Nicola Gobbo described her childhood far differently than the posh upbringing many have imagined. (Supplied: Nicola Gobbo)
Nicola Gobbo’s father died while she was still in high school. (Supplied: Nicola Gobbo)
When Ms Gobbo was in primary school her mother was diagnosed with non-hodgkin’s lymphoma. Nicola recalls her mother vomiting and crying, juggling night shifts at a hospital with fears of leaving her two young daughters behind.
Her mother survived cancer but her father would later develop the same condition and die while Ms Gobbo was in high school.
Nicola’s loss of her father at a pivotal age affected her deeply and she said this would leave her with a life long craving for a certain type of male attention and approval.
She attended the prestigious Genazzano private girls highschool and studied Law at Melbourne University but in Ms Gobbo’s telling, these were the product of a fierce work ethic and a “type-A personality” rather than entitlement.
“I do something 150 per cent or don’t do it at all,” she told the Royal Commission into Management of Police Informants (RCMPI) last year.
Nicola Gobbo said she developed a desire to excel and please others during her upbringing. (Supplied: Nicola Gobbo)
Sharehouses, drug busts and Nicola Gobbo’s first offer to assist police
The first time Ms Gobbo found herself on the wrong side of the law, she was studying it at Melbourne University.
She was charged with drug possession, after a small amount of drugs were found in her room at her Carlton sharehouse. She had no conviction recorded.
It’s something her first mentor in the law, Alex Lewenberg, didn’t worry about when he hired her at the criminal law firm he managed, shortly after she was admitted to practice in 1997.
Nicola Gobbo was described as highly intelligent and articulate by Alex Lewenberg. (Supplied)
Mr Lewenberg asked Nicola if she had told the Board of Examiners, when she applied to practice, which she had.
She had also told the board that she had been the one who tipped off police five days before the raid, having become suspicious about her boyfriend’s activities.
“I thought no more about it,” Mr Lewenberg later told the royal commission.
What Ms Gobbo did not tell Mr Lewenberg was that $80,000 worth of speed belonging to her boyfriend was found in the raid on her Carlton home. Her boyfriend was charged over the haul.
Later, after the relationship had broken down, she helped police organise an undercover sting to try and get her ex-boyfriend out of the house. The sting never went ahead as police saw the law student as an over-enthusiastic loose cannon.
But by the time she began practicing law, she felt like she had found a herself a new home at Mr Lewenberg’s firm.
“(He) became like a second father to me,” she told the ABC.
“There’s definitely always been a level of insecurity where I’m concerned because of not having a dad.”
Mr Lewenberg thought Ms Gobbo was highly intelligent and articulate but he also wasn’t blind to his new charge’s activities outside of work.
“About six months into Ms Gobbo’s employment, I became concerned that she was socialising with clients of the firm and police,” he wrote in his statement to the royal commission.
He warned her to stop and his young employee assured him she wasn’t doing the wrong thing.
But whispers about Ms Gobbo’s social life would follow her throughout her legal career. Around Melbourne, she became highly recognisable and began attracting attention.
To Paul Dale, a detective who got close to Ms Gobbo, the lawyer was just plain good company.
“She was extroverted; long blonde hair, low-cut top, big breasts, very short mini skirts, loud, centre of attention,” he told the ABC.
Meeting Carl Williams and Tony Mokbel
After about a year, Ms Gobbo left Mr Lewenberg’s firm and became one of the youngest women to pass the bar in Victoria.
She started to attract big-name criminal clients like Melbourne gangland bosses Carl Williams and Tony Mokbel, representing them at bail hearings.
“(I was) someone who was just good at unravelling police briefs and pointing out the weaknesses,” she said.
“Any high-profile or high level drug trafficker they arrested either had my phone number in his phone at the time of the arrest or opted to ring me.”
“Getting Tony Mokbel bail after two failed attempts and exposing corrupt police assisted in building that reputation,” she said.
Nicola Gobbo was a legal adviser to infamous Melbourne figure Tony Mokbel. (AAP: Julian Smith)
Others saw her reputation differently.
Former Crown Prosecutor Geoff Horgan QC handled most of the big murder trials during Melbourne’s gangland years and often crossed paths with Ms Gobbo.
“She could be a bit annoying because she would be contesting (an application for) a DNA sample or something like that, you don’t expect people seriously going to contest those sorts of applications.”
“My impression is that she liked to big note herself; to be the centre of attention,” Mr Horgan said.
Police investigating Ms Gobbo’s gangland clients already believed she had started to cross ethical lines, according to commander Stuart Bateson’s evidence at the royal commission.
“There was a small group of criminal lawyers we believed were part of a criminal enterprise,” Commander Bateson told the Commission.
A gangland taskforce request for surveillance on Nicola Gobbo in 2003, tendered to the royal commission, revealed that police suspected at the time that the barrister was assisting her big name clients in their drug trafficking activities and providing them with information about other criminals in relation to gangland murders.
Ms Gobbo denies those allegations and told the ABC she did not break the law.
“But a number of police over that period of time made disparaging remarks to my face and behind my back along the lines of, if they could eliminate me they would be happy to do so, presumably because I was so successful at getting people out of custody,” she said.
At the height of Melbourne’s gangland war, Nicola Gobbo collapsed
As Melbourne’s gangland war of the 2000s intensified, the life of an underworld lawyer became a heavier weight to carry.
People were being shot dead in broad daylight, mostly in a tit-for-tat feud to try and seize control over Melbourne’s illicit drug trade.
The murderous environment enveloped Ms Gobbo in 2004 after a hitman close to Carl Williams was charged with murder.
Carl Williams became a client of Nicola Gobbo’s as her legal career began to take off. (AAP: Julian Smith)
She told the ABC that Williams’ crew didn’t want the hitman to turn on Williams but this meant the crew wanted her to find a psychiatrist to rule that the hitman was insane.
“They were actively seeking that I pervert the course of justice and break the law by misrepresenting that accused and by stitching him up in a way that if he ever decided to give evidence, that his evidence would be worthless,” she said.
She told the ABC she refused to follow her clients’ request.
Ms Gobbo said that at this time Tony Mokbel was profiting by sending associates to her.
She claimed she later found out the drug baron would tell his associates that she charged more than she actually did.
“He was actually making a commission off the people that he was sending to me.”
A lawyer for Tony Mokbel, who is in maximum security prison, said his client declined to comment.
These were some of the stressors she was contending with when, in July 2004, she had a stroke and collapsed at home.
It left her with debilitating pain.
“Pain so bad that I couldn’t be bothered socialising, eating hurt and even talking hurt.”
“(I was) work-obsessed so my level of self-care was zero. Over achieving again, wanting to be a QC in record time.”
Meeting her police handlers
Ms Gobbo had reached a point where she didn’t know how to say no to her big name clients, according to her testimony at the royal commission.
Significantly, she was also worried that police might believe she was on the wrong side of the law herself.
The royal commission has heard she was the target of a surveillance operation by gangland detectives, who suspected she was passing on messages between her clients.
Although it also heard these suspicions were never proven.
“I was frightened of being put in a position where I would be charged because of exposure to the accused,” Ms Gobbo said.
She insists she never did anything unlawful but was worried about the view detectives, who were closely monitoring telephone intercepts of her conversations, might form.
Nicola Gobbo’s file, held by the Victoria Police homicide squad. (Supplied: RCPMI)
So partly to save herself, she started talking to Victoria Police.
After her outburst at the Melbourne Magistrates Court in 2005, the detectives she unloaded on, passed her on to a secret police unit, set up to handle informers.
A meeting was set to be at a discreet, highly secretive location but instead Nicola found herself meeting police at a building adjacent to her client Tony Mokbel’s apartment.
“I just thought this is, this is madness! Are these people for real?” Ms Gobbo told the ABC.
But instead of cancelling the meeting, she met two police ‘handlers’ to discuss becoming an informer.
This crucial relationship began with a lie.
One of the handlers, whom she was trusting with her life, assured her the meeting wasn’t being recorded. But it was.
In the secret recording of the meeting played at the royal commission, Ms Gobbo said she was willing to work with police, against her own client Tony Mokbel.
“I’m here because I’ve had enough… and I don’t know the way out,” she told police.
“I’m nearly 33, what have I done with my life? I’ve had a stroke, I get up at 6 o’clock, go to work by seven, spend all day working, very rarely do I go anywhere or do anything… for what?”
“I know that if I was married or if I had some particular reason to race home every night, I would. But the rate I’m going, I’m gonna end up dead,” she said to them.
She joked with the handlers about needing a couple of bottles of red wine for the conversation, instead of the offered cup of tea.
‘The only friends she had were criminals or cops’
Ms Gobbo was still handling her clients and court work, while secretly communicating and meeting with police, passing on huge volumes of information.
Victoria police filed more than 5000 written reports from her information in four years and in a letter written to senior police in 2015, Ms Gobbo insisted her information helped Victoria police make nearly 400 arrests.
Her main police handler, a man known by the pseudonym Sandy White, came to know her very well.
“She was a very needy person…. she didn’t seem to have any social life, everything revolved around work,” he told the royal commission.
“I do think her whole social needs were provided by serious criminals and then over time that transferred to the source handlers.”
Another handler, known at the royal commission as “Officer Fox” said he believed talking to police filled a void in Ms Gobbo’s life.
“Her only social circle was with very serious criminals in Victoria and Australia and we were the only ones outside that circle who probably had some kind of moral compass.”
Ms Gobbo became increasingly dependent on her handlers, as the level of danger she lived with grew.
“They (handlers) would say I wanted to keep going but they kept moving the goalposts,” she told the ABC.
She said she slept less and less, always wanting to be prepared for complicated conversations she was going to have, in her complex double life.
Ms Gobbo fiercely denied ever using illegal drugs with or without her clients.
“For the record amphetamines and coke were not used as helpers — I still can make it through a night without sleep if I need to with the assistance of caffeine.”
The people she was informing on inhabited a world where speaking to police was a death sentence and Ms Gobbo said she was aware of the stakes.
“I’m on multiple recordings saying to Victoria Police, ‘if this comes out you will be answering questions at a Royal Commission and I’ll be dead.’
“I used to regularly say: you’ll have to say nice things at my eulogy, because I won’t survive this.”
She told the ABC that if she did become isolated and dependent on her Victoria police handlers, it wasn’t a lifestyle she chose.
“Victoria Police… actively encouraged me to have no life except for assisting them. And if that meant being out at three o’clock in the morning to meet someone, they were all in favour of that, even at a time when they knew that I was in significant pain and under the care of a pain specialist.”
Victoria Police said they would not comment on those allegations until the full royal commission report is released.
“As we have made clear, Victoria Police has absolute respect for the royal commission process and as such we will not be commenting further until the commissioner has had the opportunity to consider all the submissions made and provide her final report.”
While she doesn’t abdicate responsibility for her choices, Ms Gobbo said that her weakness was wanting approval and she claimed Victoria police used this.
“It’s almost like they would challenge me, by saying ‘we don’t really believe that’ or ‘are you sure?’
“Knowing my personality, which is ‘well if you give me a challenge I’d rise to it’, they did manipulate me in that way because they knew me very well.”
As the informer/police handler relationship developed, Ms Gobbo started to believe the people she had trusted with her life were using her.
She claimed her key handler, Sandy White, referred her to a psychologist, ostensibly for her well being, but Ms Gobbo claimed the real motivation was that police wanted to find out what she was thinking.
“He said that it was an operational health and welfare issue, and that he needed to satisfy his bosses.
“Fundamentally, the problem was that she (police psychologist) was reporting back to my handlers.”
Sandy White told the Royal Commission he was genuinely worried about Nicola. She’d lost 49kgs since she started working with the police.
Nicola Gobbo had lost 49 kilograms in the time since she began working with police, according to Sandy White, her former handler (Supplied)
“She was under a lot of stress, and that impacted on her physically …at times she would report she couldn’t sleep and she was grinding her teeth,” he told the royal commission.
Other officers detailed their impressions to the Royal Commission of how their formerly ebullient informer was declining, mentally and physically.
“source described herself as clinically depressed and unemployed, advised source to call psych, very quiet, deadly quiet, bored, could not be bothered leaving couch”- Officer Green, Informer Contact Report — 22/1/07
“suicide and depression brought up, admits has been been suicidal twice” Officer Wolf, Informer Contact Report— 4/8/08
“she spoke to a doctor about dreams of killing herself, nausea, paranoid with fear, using too much morphine, 120mgs yesterday” Officer Smith, Informer Contact Report — 28/11/08
The murders that really started it all
By 2009 Ms Gobbo had stopped informing and her relationship with Victoria Police was completely acrimonious.
She was in poor health and claimed she had been forced into being a witness in a murder trial of two men accused of killing a police informer.
Terence and Christine Hodson were murdered in 2004. (Supplied)
The Royal Commission heard that in 2008, Ms Gobbo wore a recording device to try and gather evidence for police against her former lover, a drug squad detective, Paul Dale.
Lawyers assisting the royal commission outlined details of the police case in their submissions to the commission which were made public last week. Terence Hodson, a client of Ms Gobbo’s, had been about to give evidence against Mr Dale and another detective over a burglary of a drug stash house in 2003.
Paul Dale leaving a 2005 Supreme Court hearing. (AAP: Julian Smith)
Before Terence Hodson could testify, the middle-aged carpenter turned drug dealer and his wife Christine were found shot dead, execution style, inside their living room in the Melbourne suburb of Kew.
The police case that followed was described at the royal commission as the most significant murder investigation in Victoria’s history.
It’s taken 16 years for the multiple links between Ms Gobbo and the infamous Hodson case to emerge.
Counsel assisting the commission’s submissions said Paul Dale was a police suspect, as was Carl Williams and Tony Mokbel. Submissions said police later dismissed Mokbel from being involved.
Submissions from counsel assisting the royal commission said that in the weeks before the Hodson murders, Ms Gobbo put Paul Dale in touch with her gangland client Carl Williams.
The submissions from counsel assisting the royal commission said that police had a belief Ms Gobbo:
“May have been (a) conduit between… Williams and Dale re IR (the police information report identifying Hodson as an informer). Leading to killing of Hodsons.”
The submissions said that Carl Williams told police Mr Dale asked him to arrange the murder of Mr Hodson, although this was just one of many leads police pursued, none of which were proven.
Mr Dale has categorically denied any involvement in or knowledge of the Hodson murders and claims he was set up. Williams was a proven liar with reasons to make it up, according to Mr Dale.
In a submission to the royal commission Mr Dale said he had suffered for years ‘screaming under water’ working against ‘powerful institutions’ who sought to hide Ms Gobbo’s role as a secret informer.
Paul Dale, a former Victorian police detective (ABC News)
Did guilt drive Nicola Gobbo to become a police informer?
Through the steady release of never before seen documents tendered to the royal commission, including police reports, videos, secretly recorded phone calls, it’s emerged police believed the Hodson murders may have been a factor in Ms Gobbo’s journey to becoming a police informer.
Victoria Police officers have told the Royal Commission into the Management of Police Informants RCMPI they suspected Nicola Gobbo was somehow indirectly involved in the murders of Terrence and Christine Hodson.
In statements to the Royal Commission, four of the police handlers who worked most closely with Nicola have speculated she might have felt guilty about the Hodson murders and this might have motivated her to become a police informer.
“It became apparent over time that she had maybe unwittingly assisted with the passing of information, phones and/or documents between parties that ultimately led to the Hodson murders,” Officer Fox wrote in his statement.
Sandy White told the Royal Commission: “maybe she felt guilty about that (the Hodsons) and felt she had to do some good, it did cross our minds down the track.”
Former gangland taskforce head Gavan Ryan told the commissioner in a closed court session: “my hunch is she knew something was going to happen then, that’s my hunch, my theory. And she regretted not doing something and decided to roll over.”
Police suspicions of Ms Gobbo’s guilt were never proven
She became a registered police informer in 2005, one year after the Hodsons were killed.
In submissions from lawyers assisting the royal commission, Ms Gobbo said she had no knowledge of a plan to murder the Hodsons.
But during her evidence, Ms Gobbo admitted her behaviour as a lawyer was inappropriate and improper.
Counsel assisting submissions said that behaviour included acting for almost everyone involved in the drug house burglary, at the same time as she was meeting up with Mr Dale to discuss the case.
“What put me on the path that I ended up on in 2005 (becoming an informer) is because of being so, so far off the right track and out of my depth and out of control in 2004,” she told the royal commission.
Nikki Komiazyk and Mandy Hodson were offered assistance by Nicola Gobbo ahead of the 2014 coronial inquest into their parents’ murders. (AAP: Julian Smith)
The two daughters of Terence Hodson, Nikki Komiazyk and Mandy Hodson, met with Ms Gobbo before the 2014 coronial inquest into their parents’ death.
She offered to help find them legal representation and introduced them to her former boss, Alex Lewenberg.
Nikki Komiazyk and Mandy Hodson were offered assistance by Nicola Gobbo ahead of the 2014 coronial inquest into their parents’ murders. (AAP: Julian Smith)
The Hodson family, including (from left to right) Andrew, Nikki, Terence, Christine and Mandy. (Supplied: Mandy Hodson)
Ms Komiazyk said she felt uncomfortable with Ms Gobbo’s desire to assist her family from the start and now feels betrayed, as the Royal Commission has revealed more about Ms Gobbo’s behaviour.
“Very much so, yes because I can’t understand why she wanted us to pursue the coroners (inquest) for Mum and Dad…it doesn’t make any sense,” she said.
After life as a secret police informer, Nicola Gobbo became a regular suburban mum
Nicola Gobbo sued Victoria Police in 2010 for failing to protect her as a witness.
The police agreed to a secret settlement, reportedly almost three million dollars.
Then Ms Gobbo disappeared from legal and public life almost entirely and made a life for herself in Bayside, Melbourne.
Ms Gobbo received an award for her volunteer work after moving to suburban Bayside, Melbourne. (Supplied: Nicola Gobbo)
Nicola Gobbo with Jenny Mikakos MP after receiving her award for volunteer work at Victoria’s Government House. (Supplied: Nicola Gobbo)
She had two children in quick succession, a girl and a boy, and threw herself into life as a full time mother.
She received a Volunteer’s award at Government House for her work at a Brighton kindergarten.
But word of her past life was seeping out.
The Herald-Sun newspaper ran a series of front page articles about an unnamed lawyer who was a police informer.
Nicola’s identity was kept secret after a desperate and costly legal fight by Victoria Police and instead she was known only as Lawyer X.
But some in the underworld knew just who that was and she received death threats.
Eventually, four years after the public heard about Lawyer X, the High Court would lift the suppression order on naming her and Ms Gobbo was forced to leave her new-found community.
She said Victoria Police convinced her to leave Australia before the start of the royal commission, for her safety.
Some time after she fled the country, the ABC made contact with Ms Gobbo and she eventually decided to tell her story.
She told the ABC she was living in fear of corrupt police finding out her overseas location, particularly as she claimed a police officer tipped the Herald Sun off to her informer role.
“Whomever it was who leaked the information to the Herald-Sun and Weekly Times in early 2014 is a high ranking copper who would have to be worried by now. And he could potentially know where I am. I fear that possibility and the stark reality that if something happened to me, nobody would know,” she said.
Nicola Gobbo has gone into hiding and is currently in an unknown location. (ABC News: Greg Nelson)
She wanted to return to Australia but said police were threatening to take steps to remove her children from her care if she did, as their safety would be at risk due to Ms Gobbo’s notoriety.
The ABC has seen an email from Victoria Police stating that “VicPol would notify (authorities) if the client comes back to Australia.”
Ms Gobbo said she was stuck in a stateless limbo.
Nicola Gobbo text messages Josie Taylor
My life each day when I wake up actually feels surreal. Like a bad movie. Like WTF am I doing in another country with two poor little kids? …
I will never come up with sufficient words to express how angry and disgusted and revolted I am by those surly ‘we know what’s best’ bullies
She was furious at police for, as she put it, leaving her in a foreign country with no support or protection.
She sent the ABC the last text messages police had sent her; the woman the Royal Commission heard was in the highest category risk of danger.
Text messages from Police to Nicola Gobbo
“I don’t know if anyone had previously discussed an Emergency Action Plan with you, it is mostly common sense.
If you are in immediate danger call police on the local emergency response number, being xxx here
If you can, get to the nearest police station
In a statement to the ABC, Victoria Police said it “does not as a matter of necessary practice confirm nor deny the security arrangements in place for any person who might be assessed as ‘at risk’. To do so would be counter-productive as it could elevate the risk to that person.”
Eventually, an on camera interview was secured for the 730 program. After it was broadcast, the royal commission demanded an explanation. Ms Gobbo was yet to give evidence before the royal commission; yet she was telling her story to the ABC.
Nicola eventually gave evidence herself to the royal commission via video conference. Only the commissioner could see her face and the ABC lost contact with her.
She remains in an unknown location.
Before losing contact with the ABC, the former lawyer mused on whether it was all worth it.
“Look where I am, no it wasn’t.”
“People’s lives may have been saved, no doubt people’s lives have been saved, but not from my point of view,” she said.
“There’s nothing good been said about me I don’t think, let alone anything that commends or praises me.”
The ambitious young woman who wanted to be a Queen’s Counsel still cares what people think of her.
As for Victoria Police, she remained bitter about its treatment of her.
“Used, abused and kicked to the curb; not just kicked to the side of the road but run over, reversed the car back and run over again,” she said.
The ABC does not know of Nicola Gobbo’s current whereabouts.
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- Reporters: Josie Taylor and Rachael Brown
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