Roger Rogerson: the ‘icon of the force’ who became the ‘best policeman money could buy’ | Australian police and policing

If power corrupts, then Roger Caleb Rogerson – who died on Sunday aged 83 – proved that absolute power corrupts absolutely. The former New South Wales detective had a high IQ, epic courage, brilliant instincts for policing and a preternatural talent for manipulating people. Yet he came to embody evil at its most enigmatic for many, that most despicable figure in any civilised society: the officer sworn to serve and protect the public but who lies, cheats and murders.

“You could say I ruled by fear but that was just the reputation I acquired,” he once told me. “Truth is, I did better tricking crims into thinking that I was their mate. That was my edge. The fear fell away after a while and I ran on adrenaline. Battle and bloodshed became part and parcel of the job. For me it was never about civic duty, that ‘serve and protect’ shit. I was a cop and my job was to mix with dangerous offenders and solve underworld crime.”

Roger Rogerson is led to a prison van at the NSW supreme court in Sydney in June 2016.
Roger Rogerson is led to a prison van at the NSW supreme court in Sydney in June 2016. Photograph: David Moir/AAP

Why Rogerson went from “icon of the force” to “best policeman money could buy”, few knew. But I came to know The Dodger a little in his later years when as a journalist I’d visit his home in Padstow, south-west of Sydney, chasing the truth of why a good cop went so rotten.

Born in Paddington in 1941, the first son of a Yorkshire boilermaker and Welsh soprano mother, Rogerson was raised on an acre lot in Sydney’s west with a brother and sister, three cows, six goats and an old mare named Bessie that he rode to Bankstown primary school. In the Bible, Caleb was a spy for Moses, but Rogerson was named for his grandfather, a bare-knuckle boxer. “He always told me: ‘Treat people properly. And don’t make a cunt of yourself.’”

As a boy, he built things – billy carts, soapbox racers, tandem bikes – then he took them apart. In 1958, age 17, that agile mind and industrious spirit took Rogerson to the police academy. His animal aptitude for the job was apparent from the get-go. Before he became “The Dodger” he was “The Boy Detective”, a prodigy. “If I knocked on your door, you had a problem. If you hit me, I hit back. Hard. If you shot at me, I shot back. Straight.”

By the time Rogerson won the Peter Mitchell award as most outstanding officer in 1980, after single-handedly arresting a gang for a series of bank hold-ups, he was at a crossroads. He had already shot three men in the line of duty by then. But in June 1981, he gunned down drug dealer Warren Lanfranchi in an inner-city laneway, stealing $15,000 in cash and loading him up with a defective pistol from 1900. All while 18 of his cop mates looked on.

One day I showed him a photo of that day, Rogerson standing over the body of his victim. “Victim?” he snarled. “He didn’t get shot because he was a victim. He got shot because he was a fucking scumbag druggie. His father was a gun dealer, his girlfriend was a drug addict. He got shot because he was wanted for five bank robberies and he’d tried to shoot a cop.” He later wrote on the photo: “Angus, don’t fuck up or this could happen to you. Roger.”

Richard Roxburgh as Roger Rogerson in Blue Murder.
Richard Roxburgh as Roger Rogerson in Blue Murder. Photograph: Supplied

True, he was acquitted. But it was the point everyone knew Rogerson had gone truly rogue. Afternoon tabloids splashed with headlines such as “Man shot like dog, Rogerson at scene” and the nightly news was a dizzying maelstrom of foul deeds and accusations against him. For me, a kid, his name hit like a one-two punch from the fables. He was the white knight who wore black, a Jedi seduced to the dark side, a one-man wrecking ball for rough justice.

About the time I became a reporter and a decade after Rogerson was acquitted of conspiring to murder fellow detective Michael Drury, Blue Murder broke big. The 1995 ABC TV series written by Ian David and directed by Michael Jenkins told the machiavellian rise-and-fall stories of Rogerson, Drury and Neddy Smith, the career criminal and informant to whom Rogerson had granted a “green light” to break the law with his assistance to their mutual profit.

In 1999, I profiled actor Richard Roxburgh, whose gimlet gaze and cardigans had taken Roger global, and naively called Blue Murder a “love story”. Rogerson found me and rang, fuming. “We both played subterfuge but there was never a friendship,” he growled. I offered an olive branch in his preferred currencies – cold beer, free food, company and mild flattery.

Like an old gunslinger, Rogerson walked into the bar bow-legged. He was 63, his shooting shoulder was slumped after a fall from a ladder and the fists that had thumped phone books into crims to extract bruise-free confessions were so racked with arthritis, I had to help him cut up his steak. Afterwards, when I gave him a water pistol for a photoshoot, he calmly pointed it at me. Bang. Bang. Bang. All head shots. Even with a toy gun, he shot to kill.

Roger Rogerson, centre, with Mark ‘Chopper’ Read and Mark ‘Jacko’ Jackson when they toured as theatre comedy group Wild Colonial Psycho in 2004.
Roger Rogerson, centre, with Mark ‘Chopper’ Read and Mark ‘Jacko’ Jackson when they toured as theatre comedy group Wild Colonial Psycho in 2004. Photograph: Rob Hutchison/AAP

“Roger was a good friend and a bad enemy,” Neddy Smith reckoned. “He was loyal, as long as it didn’t involve discomfort to him. I trusted him more than most would but I kept my guard up. But I never underestimated him for a second. He was a man who could turn on you in a flash. Our friendship was one of convenience. He used me to suit his own purposes.”

In time I realised he was using me – and the mastheads I represented – in much the same way. Last time we spoke he was heading back to jail and had sobbed into his hanky, scared. But regret or remorse? That really wasn’t Roger Rogerson’s style. He turned those ice blue eyes on me and my marrow ran cold. “I’ve got more commendations than most – sure, more convictions too – but when all is said and done, I look back and think: I wasn’t that bad.”