Two drive-bys and a ‘dog’: How an apparent police failure left this man fearing for his life

It was September 2018 when Melbourne man Engin Ofli says he received the first of many calls accusing him of being a “dog”, underworld parlance for a police informer. Soon after came the death threats, which Ofli says have never stopped and often mean he’s too scared to leave his house.

The genesis of these threats was in 2016, when Ofli dealt with police after his home in Melbourne’s northern suburbs was the subject of two still-unsolved drive-by shootings.

Engin Ofli who has been threatened by underworld figures. Credit:Scott McNaughton

That single interaction kicked off a drama reminiscent of the darkest days of Melbourne’s gangland wars: it produced a sensitive police file which suggested Ofli was a one-off police informer, a file that later found its way to the jail cell of a murderous gangland boss and into the underworld.

A policeman was later recorded describing Ofli as a dead man walking.

Ofli denied he ever briefed detectives as an informer, or even said what police claimed he told them. Formal complaints from the 40-year-old recently prompted police to give him a secret $50,000 taxpayer-funded settlement.

Beyond those dramatic details lies a much bigger story. It involves a police force still grappling with how its officers should handle and disclose sensitive information – including to criminal suspects. It’s a quandary that has left a trail of scandals and prompted reforms some officers say have gone too far.

That issue is hardly the most pressing for Ofli. He just wants the world to know he is not, and has never been, a dog.

Two drive-bys and a ‘dog’

Ofli – who has been the subject of occasional police attention – says his ordeal started when he was the victim of a crime. The drive-by shootings were part of a seemingly endless cycle of violence involving criminal organisations in Melbourne’s northern suburbs which this month led to the creation of a new police taskforce, Viper.

The key suspect was underworld boss and convicted murderer George Marrogi. A day after the drive-bys, he murdered a man in an Officeworks carpark – a crime for which he is serving a 32-year sentence. Marrogi was and remains a subject of state and federal police scrutiny, a purported major organised crime figure accused of running a drug empire from jail.

Ofli knew enough of this to refuse a police request to be interviewed as a victim of the drive-bys. He feared retribution. But after police searched Ofli’s house looking for CCTV of the attacks, they found a small amount of the drug ice and arrested him for minor possession offences. Ofli has a relatively minor criminal record, including for possession.

Senior Mongol bikie and jailed killer George Marrogi.

What happened next is heavily disputed. Ofli says, having declined to give a statement about who was responsible for the drive-bys, he said little else, making it clear he feared the consequences if he co-operated with authorities.

A short time later a policeman, without Ofli’s knowledge, created a confidential police document. It was headed “offender debrief” and described Ofli as an “untested source” whose information “may be disseminated to other law enforcement and government regulatory bodies”.

An explosive document

The document invites a perception that Ofli is a one-time informal police informer, a proposition he denies and fears could be tantamount to a death sentence in the underworld. It described how Ofli had “talked openly in regards to Marrogi’s involvement in the drive-by shootings at his property” and suggested the motive was that Ofli had called Marrogi’s brother “a goose.”

According to the police file, Ofli had “sent Marrogi a text message asking for $50,000” in return for not reporting the violent attack on his house. The debrief file also recorded that Ofli claimed George Marrogi was “driving [a] … silver Ford XR6 and that he believed firearms or drugs would be stored in the vehicle”.

“When queried in regards to Marrogi’s possible drug use, Ofli stated that he [Marrogi] used to sell it but that he never used it, stating that he’s mad enough without using any drugs”.

The document also states that Ofli briefly discussed the activities of two other underworld identities, a man who carried a pistol and a female drug dealer.

Ofli denies he was at any point a police informer. The risks of letting the underworld believe a person is informing to police was highlighted by the 2004 murder of a formally registered informer, Terence Hodson. He was killed after his informer files were leaked to the underworld.

A more recent scandal, the Lawyer X affair, involved the police failing to tell suspects in court cases that some of the evidence detectives had gained may have been derived after the accused’s own lawyer, Nicola Gobbo, had been turned into a secret registered police informer.

Terence Hodson and his wife Christine in 2000. They were murdered in their Kew home in May 2004.Credit:Penny Stephens

Both scandals led to sweeping reforms. Police now must subject a formally registered informer to an exhaustive process of vetting and identity obfuscation, while at the same time disclose extensive information about police activities to accused parties in trials.

Multiple policing sources have confirmed to The Age that the reforms have drastically reduced the force’s ability to quickly recruit and effectively manage human sources. They have also led to “over-disclosure” of police information to defence lawyers, police say.

“It’s killing our ability to investigate serious crime,” says one long-time organised crime investigator.

It appears that because Ofli was not – as he is at pains to repeat to anyone who asks – a registered informer, he was subjected to far fewer “handle with care” precautions when his offender debrief file was first created without his knowledge. Then, some time over the past five years, police disclosed the file to Marrogi’s lawyers during a period in which the accused underworld boss faced three aborted murder trials.

Disgraced barrister Nicola Gobbo.Credit:ABC

‘If that got out …’

Police have refused to explain to The Age why they did not redact Ofli’s name and identifying features from the file, as is commonly done when sensitive documents must be handed over in a court case. Instead, the force released a statement that stressed it “does everything possible to comply with its disclosure obligations to the court” and takes “extremely seriously” the requirement to “carefully assess any public interest considerations and individual safety risks”.

Two senior former police who handled the Hodson affair and a senior official from the Lawyer X Royal Commission all reacted with shock when told of the failure to redact Ofli’s name from the file that was given to Marrogi’s lawyers in court.

One questioned whether the police belief that Ofli is himself part of the underworld may have informed, even subconsciously, their handling of the file. But, “even criminals have rights,” one senior investigator said.

The consequence of this failure is clear. Over the past few years, the police file has circulated in the underworld after being located in Marrogi’s cell. Along the way, it’s been falsified to make it appear that Ofli has given police far more damning information about Marrogi and other organised criminals across the country.

In September 2018, Ofli received the first of many phone calls accusing him of being a dog, and warning that “all of Australia will soon have the paperwork”. The threats, he says, haven’t stopped.

Recently, he received a covert tape recording that captured a detective claiming police had sought to “quarantine” the file and telling an enemy of Ofli: “I know you have copies. But if that got out in the community, Engin would be dead”.

The man responded by telling the policeman “it is already out in the community”.

In response to the threats, Ofli has launched a paper war of attrition against police, writing complaints to Victoria’s information commissioner and to the police watchdog, IBAC. On December 17, 2020, police secretly paid Ofli $50,000 to settle a complaint that their negligence had placed a target on his head.

Ofli was threatening to take them to court, which would have led to public scrutiny. The settlement payment means police do not have to admit liability or wrongdoing and Ofli can’t talk about it.

In response to questions from The Age, a police spokesman said in a statement: “it is clearly not Victoria Police’s intent for court ordered documents to be circulated beyond the intended group, or for materials to be falsified by third parties.”

Multiple police sources say Ofli’s story highlights how police command needs to continue to tweak the reforms of the force’s information-handling processes, with some suggesting the Lawyer X overhauls have led to process overtaking common sense. One take from a detective is that real informers are no longer being recruited, and police are overwhelmed with court disclosure demands.

Ofli isn’t interested in questions of reform. He just wonders if he will ever be able to leave his house again without suffering extreme anxiety.

“It looks like I gave police information when I did not,” he says. “The document now out there is falsified. And it’s not going away.”

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