30 years ago, he was deep undercover. Now he helps women find safety

Stephen Wilson might have been one of Australia’s first deep undercover cops more than 30 years ago, but today even I can pick him. It’s 10 to noon, already sweltering outside and the pub isn’t open yet. Yet here comes Wilson, looking as if he’s just walked off the set of The Bill, straight-backed and silver-haired and slipping around to the back entrance.

Moments later, we’re in. There in the cool of the Ascot Vale Hotel (turns out Wilson knows the owners), he grins as I compliment his “resting cop face”.

“I can’t even walk onto a construction site,” he says. “They say, ‘oh no, the jacks are coming’.”

Resting cop face: Stephen Wilson, a decorated ex-cop who infiltrated some of Melbourne’s most notorious gangs, now runs a security firm for domestic abuse victims.Credit:Joe Armao

But 30-odd years ago, Wilson was undercover. Deep undercover “like Donnie Brasco”, he says. “One of the bosses had actually read about what the FBI did then [infiltrating the New York mafia] and wondered if they could do the same here.”

Wilson was 28 with a young family back in Melbourne at the time. Suddenly, he had a new identity in Mildura running an antiques shop, “wearing gold chains” and cruising nightclubs looking to set up drug deals – feeling his way closer to the centre of the Italian mafia growing cannabis out there.

Wilson hadn’t even planned to be a cop. He joined the force at 16 after tagging along to a police open day, living above a hotel in Spencer Street in the old police cadet dorms, “getting up to mischief” and shadowing officers in his crisp cadet uniform: “Looking back, I think I was like a scout really.” And despite graduating dux from the academy and rocketing up the ranks as a detective, he never planned to stick around either.

Wilson says staying calm and respectful helped him infiltrate the Mildura mafia.Credit:Joe Armao

Until that ambitious 14-month sting in Mildura, his only undercover gig had involved waltzing into a notorious sauna, usually in just a towel and thongs, looking for signs of underage prostitution and human trafficking for the vice squad. “They must have seen the blond hair and earrings and thought: ‘we’ll just use him’,” Wilson chuckles. “But no one had really done infiltration then.”

The Mildura sting, which was later recognised by Victoria Police as Australia’s first long-term undercover operation, was as much about proof of concept – gathering intelligence – as it was about busting crooks.

This was before the internet, and local cops didn’t know him. Wilson was constantly being pulled over and hassled by his unknowing colleagues who thought he was “shady as anything”.

“I’d tell them to f— off,” he says. “I had to act tough.”

He recalls the spine-tingling moment he locked eyes with one cop in town, “a bloke I knew from years back”. “I looked at him and he looked at me but out of context, he couldn’t place me, and I just thought: be cool.”

Fourteen months is a long time to keep your cool. Wilson had guns drawn on him, his car was torched and the house he shared with his fellow undercover detective was burgled (including a certain grandfather clock with a trick bottom for stashing cash). How did Wilson do it? He shrugs. “I’m not an angry person.”

The lamb backstrap at the Ascot Vale Hotel.Credit:Joe Armao

Indeed, he’s disarmingly friendly. Lunch is on The Age today but as we order (steak for me and the lamb for Wilson, plus the pub’s famous dim sims to share), Wilson repeatedly offers to buy photographer Joe Armao lunch on his own dime “to keep your receipts in order, Sherryn”. The lunch offer is a first, Armao tells me, in all his years on the job.

As easy as it is to imagine Wilson getting hardened crooks to divulge their secrets, I can also see him sitting down for a cuppa with domestic violence victims in his current job: running security sweeps for vulnerable people. Protective Group, which Wilson started with another ex-detective, Steve Schultze, over a decade ago, is Australia’s only security firm specialising in helping domestic violence victims escape abuse.

Stephen Wilson receiving a police commendation for the Mildura undercover operation with his son Tristan.

While their work is not directly funded by governments, the two Steves (and a staff of mostly ex-cops) work with charities across the country supporting victims. “Whether that’s dashing out to Bunnings and installing locks, or doing a sweep of her car, her phone for trackers and bugs before she goes to the refuge, or her house,” Wilson explains. “We get so many calls for help, but we can usually find the funding somewhere. We look after probably 80 to 120 women a week now.”

As the food arrives, Wilson admits he didn’t have to completely fake it undercover: “I really do love antiques.”

But the job took a toll. He rarely saw his family. His marriage fell apart. He lost touch with friends like Schultze, whom he knew when Schultze worked in homicide downstairs and lived at the end of his street. “It wasn’t like I could go to the police pub on a Friday night.”

After he left the force, Wilson owned and ran a pub himself. Then, 15 years ago, he reunited with Schultze, and decided to go back to investigation. Both men had a brood of kids at home. “And both of us … well, we hate bullies.”

When the Salvation Army was given funding under the Turnbull government to help keep women at risk of violence safe in their homes, the charity turned to the two Steves. And soon refuges and other support services did, too, as well as private clients.

Then chief commissioner Mick Miller with Stephen Wilson (right) at Wilson’s graduation in 1980.

Wilson describes men climbing through roof tiles at night to photograph their ex-partners sleeping; trackers sewn into teddy bears and children’s backpacks, hidden in glove boxes or under cars; and eerie arrays of cameras discovered in ceiling vents.

“Some of these men are lawyers, doctors, they’ll go to jail, get out and do it all over again,” he says. “COVID drove a lot of the technology abuse [as more of life moved online]. It’s really skyrocketed.”

Wilson’s voice shakes as he recalls the vicious assault of a woman outside a supermarket – her ex had tracked her down via her rewards card points.

His team has to be careful, too. The other Steve has been chased off a property with a machete. “I’ve gone to houses and the bloke’s still there hiding under the bed or in the cupboard,” Wilson says. “Perpetrators do not like us.”

At the pub when he tells people what he does now, he inevitably gets an earful from “blokes saying, ‘oh but domestic violence happens to men, too’. I know it does, but you look at the numbers. You’d have to be blind to say it’s not mostly women. And kids. You see terrible things. I can’t make any excuses for my gender any more. I think a lot of blokes have grown up without empathy.”

Not so for Wilson. The eldest of four kids, he grins as he mentions his “square” parents. “Mum’s never had a drink. Dad’s the sort of bloke, he goes to his [favourite] fish and chip shop one night and they wouldn’t give him a receipt. And he thought: ‘Ah, you’re dodging tax.’ So he never went back.”

At home, “there was never an angry word”, but on the job aged 18, Wilson was being called to dozens of domestic violence incidents a day. “And back then, no cops wanted to go to them. The old attitude was ‘she’ll just go back to him’. Victims didn’t have the support they do now. I think it’s changed. I hope it’s changed.”

Today, Wilson rarely tells clients he used to be a cop. He wears polo shirts, not suits. “Sometimes, they’ll say, ‘you’re the first fella who’s ever listened to me. My ex didn’t, and I don’t feel like his family did or the police or the magistrate did’.”

He’s particularly passionate about helping Indigenous communities. The only women’s refuge in Alice Springs recently called in the two Steves as unrest in the community hit headlines.

“We’re not Batman and Robin flying in to fix it,” Wilson says. “It’s very complicated, but we’ll see what we can do. I’d love to train up some local Indigenous workers in what we do.”

The new owners of the Ascot Vale Hotel have kept dim sims on the menu as a nod to the pub’s past.Credit:Joe Armao

Billions of dollars have been poured into stopping domestic violence since Rosie Batty’s direct appeal for change following the murder of her son nearly a decade ago. “Some things are better, but there’s a lot of talkfests, too,” sighs Wilson. “We wanted to do something practical, even if it’s a Band-Aid.”

He taps his watch. Speaking of practical, Protective Group have also developed an app that turns smartwatches into safety alarms. If a client is in danger and activates the alarm, live audio and video from their watch will be streamed to a 24/7 monitoring centre, which can then call police “with a special alpha code” and brief officers on the perpetrator’s history while they’re en route. “And those recordings have stood up in court as evidence before,” Wilson says.

The bill at the Ascot Vale Hotel.Credit:

There’s other evidence he sees on the job, too: holes in plaster where a son has put his elderly mother’s head through a wall. Or blood and scratch marks in the bathroom of a young mum. Forget the high-stakes world of uncover work – how does he keep his cool now, in the face of so much cruelty and fear? Does that idyllic upbringing – church on Sunday and loud family dinners –make Wilson feel more responsibility to protect others?

He puts down his fork, his hand shaking a little. “Yeah, maybe. I got lucky, the home I was born into.

“You go to houses and you look at kids holding onto mum’s arm, and you think … well, it’s just not fair is it?”

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