CRIME CULTURE: When Rod Mason was recruited to stop suspected drug trafficking from Hong Kong to Australia, he got a lot more than he bargained for. Operation Clinker, Rod Mason’s debut book, tells the story of one of the biggest potential heroin imports in Australia’s history, writes April Shepherd.
In 1988 Rod Mason was a detective in the narcotics bureau at the Royal Hong Kong Police. A Scot at heart, Rod had lived in Hong Kong as a child – returning once he was made redundant from Shell Tankers (UK) where he had served on the SS Aulica.
Those who work for the Hong Kong government are required to retire at 55 years of age, with some lucky enough to receive a pension to live out their retirement, “I am rather fortunate,” says Rod.
After 32 years of service, Rod retired in 2016 and now resides in Scotland, living a relatively tame life compared to his drug-busting-undercover days.
Rod is a warm, friendly character and conversation flows easily. He tells me about his dog, his four children and the incredible snow that has been falling over his home in the past few days. There is a substantial amount of Rod’s personality peppered throughout Operation Clinker, his warmth emanating throughout the true crime narrative.
Rod began working on his debut book once retired, which tells the tales of his time in the Royal Hong Kong Police and his involvement in Operation Clinker – the operation that halted one of the largest imports of heroin into Australia.
Rod’s work in Hong Kong began way before Operation Clinker, starting his journey as a police officer in 1983 and attending detective training school in 1985.
Rod transferred to the criminal investigation department in 1986 and then to the Narcotics Bureau of Police Headquarters in 1988 and was posted to ‘C Section’ – which focused on exports of narcotics from Hong Kong to Europe.
It was in 1988 that Operation Clinker began, when the Australian Federal Police were contacted by a young Canadian man named John.
John was a qualified skipper living and working in Manilla, when he was approached by a Filipino man named Roberto at the Manila Yacht Club, who offered John some work.
Roberto was looking for someone to find, purchase and skipper a yacht from the Philippines to Australia, stopping off in Hong Kong to pick up some cargo.
John took the job and quickly realised that the voyage was most likely masking illegal activity, especially since Roberto, when asked about the shipment – was cagey and evasive.
John contacted the Australian Consulate in Manilla, who then briefed Detective Chief Inspector Mike Howard, Rod’s boss – assigning Rod the task of going undercover and infiltrating the voyage.
A tale worthy of a Netflix thriller ensued, following Rod and three fellow police officers going undercover, imitating travellers who were sick of Hong Kong and looking for an adventure.
Rod and fellow officers Bill, Debbie and Nick convinced Roberto they were the right fit for the voyage and eventually the yacht, called Oui, set sail, with it’s unidentified cargo in tow.
Never suspecting a thing, Roberto was shocked when the yacht was intercepted by police and the crew ‘mutinied’ to take control, just as it was about to leave Hong Kong waters.
The amount of heroin seized was more than Rod had ever imagined.
Rod and his counterparts seized 43.5kg of heroin that day, enough for three years of supply, according to the Australian Federal Police (reports state that 16kg was the average import per annum at the time).
The heroin was worth over HK$20 million wholesale and HK$280 million, or £21 million on the street.
The drugs were replaced with ‘fake’ heroin so the import could be traced back to Sydney and the Australian distribution contacts, eventually leading to the entire syndicate being arrested.
Operation Clinker gives a truly astoundingly detailed retelling of the events surrounding the operation. A credit to Rod and his detailed planning of the book and his meticulous note taking through his time in the force, “I was fortunate I still had my operational diary,” says Rod.
The majority of the names in the book are factual, with even the “bad guys”, as Rod refers to them as, relatively unchanged.
Rod and his officers used their own names whilst undercover for numerous reasons – it was easier to remember and if they happened to run into anybody they knew it wasn’t suspicious.
Rod’s undercover persona was a young merchant navy navigator on leave between trips, a young traveller looking for some fun. A cover that he had tactically designed to have a love of partying and chasing women – leaving him with his evenings free and giving him a much needed break from the stress of undercover work.
“I tried from the beginning to sell them a story of how I was visiting Hong Kong, seeing friends and out trying to find girlfriends every night – basically I created a scenario where they didn’t object to me knocking off at 5 or 6 o’clock and disappearing.
I was able to go home, have dinner and relax and that helped reduce the stress because I wasn’t doing it twenty four hours a day.”
Rod Mason aboard the Oui, undercover, in 1988. (Image: Courtesy of Rod Mason)
Rod was especially glad he made the choice to go by his name when he ran into a friend at the pub, yelling out to say hello – whilst in the company of Roberto.
“I thought, ‘Oh fuck!’ We’re about to set sail tomorrow and I’m going to blow the whole case tonight,” says Rod.
Forced to think on his feet, Rod thought of the best excuse he could come up with to fit into his cover of a young, party animal.
“I said to Roberto that it was someone I’d met in a bar the other day and I thought I owed him money, so could we please move on,” says Rod.
Ignoring his friend, a fellow police officer, and saving his cover.
As for John, without whom there would have been no Operation Clinker, his identity as informant was withheld from his criminal accomplices up until they were sentenced, giving him not only immunity, but a cash reward.
“There was a set scale of reward for seizures and it was paid by the gram … so for 43 kilograms he was paid a fairly handsome reward,” says Rod.
Rod says that even though it was thirty years ago, his informant would be foolish to ever return to Hong Kong.
“He cost these people nearly £20 million pounds, in terms of the financial loss of it. I was in contact with him and he was glad I changed his last name for the book.”
After all his adventures Rod is decidedly humble, when asked if he thinks the book would make a great Netflix special or movie he agrees, “Hong Kong as a scenic backdrop would work and Sydney – I think there’s potential for it.”
Rod has had a surge of positive feedback from his friends still in the police force, former officers, friends, family and strangers. But Netflix series aside, Rod’s real motivation behind writing Operation Clinker is his family.
“To be honest I wrote it for my kids, I get on well with all of them. I thought it would be nice to write it down and give it to them and say, ‘Right, here’s something your dad did’. Getting the feedback from them has been so rewarding.
“Without getting big headed I think I achieved my goal of letting the kids have a taste of what I did.”
Operation Clinker is available in all good bookstores, or online here. ISBN: 9781528980920