A new book has shed light on the huge role played by Wagga’s very own police officers in what is widely regarded as one of the biggest manhunts in Australia’s history.
The Stoccos, by journalist and author Nino Bucci, tells the tale of the lengthy and far-reaching search for two of Australia’s most notorious criminals – Gino and Mark Stocco.
Not many people can say they got as caught up in all the chaos surrounding the Stoccos as Wagga’s Detective Inspector Darren Cloake, who suddenly found himself heading up a tri-state search for the highly evasive pair.
The Daily Advertiser sat down with Detective Inspector Cloake to find out more about the manhunt that took over his life for three straight weeks.
IT ALL STARTED WITH THREE LITTLE BEEPS:
Wagga’s run-in with the Stocco duo began on Friday, October 16, 2015.
Detective Inspector Cloake said that, despite all that was to unfold over the following weeks, it was still the officer-in-distress signal that he remembers most clearly.
“The police radio's got a system where, if an urgent job or an officer-in-distress comes over, there's three loud beeps, which generally means someone requires urgent assistance,” Detective Inspector Cloake said.
“That afternoon, hearing those three beeps basically set off a chain of events that would last for almost three weeks.”
Those three beeps were sent out by highway patrol officer Ben Kerslake of Holbrook, who had just finished filling up at the petrol station when he saw a vehicle travelling a little above the speed limit.
“The highway patrol cars are equipped with ANPR – which is automatic number plate recognition – and an alert was sent over his system to say that the plates that were on that silver Nissan were stolen,” Detective Inspector Cloake explained.
“So Ben turned on that vehicle and signalled for it to stop, but the vehicle failed to yield, and hence a pursuit was commenced.”
THE CHASE BEGINS:
Wagga’s police officers never expected a very minor incident of speeding to bring about the chain of events that followed.
Detective Inspector Cloake said that, once the pursuit started, things quickly turned violent.
“It was when they were on a back dirt road that the offender vehicle slowed, turned, and a number of shots were fired towards [Officer Kerslake],” he said.
“One of those shots did impact the front of the highway patrol vehicle, which disabled it, and Ben was quite rightfully in fear of his life and that he himself would be shot at or killed or seriously injured.”
The dash-cam footage from Officer Kerslake’s car, which was later released to the public, showed the Stoccos shooting at the police car, forcing it to reverse backwards at a high speed to avoid any further risk.
It was not until after the incident that Officer Kerslake realised how lucky he had been that afternoon.
“After forensic examination of the vehicle, we realised it was the case that only a small bracket inside the engine bay deflected the projectile,” Detective Inspector Cloake said.
“In hindsight, he was very lucky that day.”
CALLING FOR REINFORCEMENTS:
After Officer Kerslake sent out his distress signal, it did not take long for other police officers to rush to his aid.
“Numerous police cars responded, and two other officers, including Senior Constable Matt Shaw from the Highway Patrol here in Wagga, managed to locate the vehicle,” Detective Inspector Cloake said.
“Again, after some time, the vehicle did a similar thing to the first incident – they slowed, almost did a semi-circle, and then one of the offenders leaned out the window and fired more shots towards Senior Constable Shaw.”
That afternoon, Senior Constable Shaw’s wife Nicole, also a senior constable, was rostered on as the supervising officer for the Wagga Local Area Command.
She was listening over the radio the entire time as Gino and Mark Stocco opened fire on her husband’s patrol car.
“Fortunately, they did miss their intended target, and the offenders continued along,” Detective Inspector Cloake said.
“Matt, in a courageous and brave sense, continued to follow that vehicle until additional resources could be summoned, and the vehicle was followed down to some farmland.”
PLAYING THE LONG GAME:
Over the next 12 days, Detective Inspector Cloake and his team set about following every lead they could find until they tracked down the fugitives.
“This wasn't a typical investigation, and the fact that these two males had been boastfully refining their trade craft or skill over the previous seven to eight years,” he said.
“They were living off the grid, so to speak, because they had no significant ties to any sort of community or family members, they would intentionally not open bank accounts or use mobile phones, and they really stayed under the radar, which made it somewhat difficult .”
For Detective Inspector Cloake, the 12 days leading up to when the Stoccos’ arrest and the weeks following that were some of the busiest in his working life.
“For me, it was three weeks of straight work, working long hours, working day to day, and the biggest challenge I found was building that larger picture of the crimes they had committed,” he said.
“I think that, in the initial stages, we identified at least 15 offences, including three counts of attempted murder, upon Mark and Gino.”
Finally, after 12 straight days of non-stop investigative work, an official NSW Police statement confirmed that Gino and Mark had been arrested at midday on Wednesday, October 28.
VINDICTIVE BY NATURE:
Now, looking back on those long days and nights, Detective Inspector Cloake took a chance to reflect just how much devastation the Stoccos were able to cause.
“They were certainly vindictive by nature,” he said.
“They were stealing firearms, they were stealing cars – nothing was left untouched with these two.”
Detective Inspector Cloake said, for the large part, the burden of their crimes was borne by those in regional Australia.
“On top of that, you’ve got all the crimes committed against hardworking rural folk – farmers – who would employ these two to work on their farms and then would be subjected in a callous and vindictive way to their retribution,” he said.
“In one case, they burnt down a farmer's shed containing all his equipment and stock, resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage.”
IT ALL CAME DOWN TO TEAMWORK:
Despite all the craziness of those few weeks, Detective Inspector Cloake said he felt incredibly lucky to have the backing of Wagga’s police officers along the way.
“I’ve been very fortunate – I think I’ve actually been blessed – to work with so many quality, quality police officers here at the Wagga Local Area Command,” he said.
“Here we are with a perfect example, where an intended traffic stop turned into what would become an investigation that drew the national interest.
“The police here showed the utmost courage in continuing to pursue these offenders on the day, throughout the following days, and then in subsequent weeks.”
AS IT HAPPENED:
Want to know more about how the hunt for Gino and Mark Stocco unfolded? Take a look back at The Daily Advertiser’s rolling coverage as the chaos unfolded.
OCTOBER 19, 2015: Farmer furious as father-and-son fugitives steal ute in getaway
Paul Rogers left his unlocked, fully-fuelled ute with keys in it, in his shed. “I’m annoyed I’ve lost my ute. To make it worse, it had two full tanks of fuel. It was the perfect getaway car.” Read about Mr Rogers’ 2015 run-in with the Stoccos as they attempted to evade police just a little longer.
OCTOBER 22, 2015: Stocco search draws blanks
The usually quiet town of Lake Rowan became the focus of the manhunt after a police highway patrol car was rammed on St James Road at about 1.45pm. Everything changed in an instant.
OCTOBER 27, 2015: Social media goes nuts as the Stocco manhunt continues
The nation has watched engrossed as father-and-son fugitives - Gino and Mark Stocco - have led police from two states on a not-so-merry chase. And yes, none-too-surprisingly, social media joined in the commentary …
OCTOBER 28, 2015: Gino and Mark Stocco are finally arrested in Dunedoo
After an intense 12-day search, the Gino and Mark Stocco were caught by police in Dunedoo, which is just north-east of Dubbo. The duo were arrested by way of “covert operation” involving officers from multiple local area commands …
JUNE 16, 2016: ‘My partner heard every single bullet’
Senior Constable Shaw, a highway patrol veteran of 25 years, had just finished eating lunch on an ordinary day in October 2015 when he received an alarming call from Albury Local Area Command. Mark and Gino Stocco were heading straight towards Wagga. In court he recounted the day unfolding ...
MARCH 31, 2017: Stoccos sentenced to 40 years’ jail
About 18 months after they were arrested, Gino and Mark Stocco were sentenced to a whopping 40 years’ jail for a raft of offences, including murdering a farm caretaker.The duo did not appear to react when the sentence was delivered in the NSW Supreme Court…
APRIL 30, 2018: The Stoccos have their appeal refused
After just over a year behind bars, Gino and Mark Stocco failed their attempt to have their 40-year jail terms overturned. The NSW Court of Criminal Appeal dismissed the appeals on all grounds, finding that their criminality was separate, distinct, and serious...