By Kirra Grimes
TWO Phillip Island brothers allegedly stole over $650,000 from local small business owners and spent it on cocaine, cars, and jet skis, the Wonthaggi Magistrates Court heard last week, following a major bust by the Bass Coast Crime Investigation Unit (CIU).
Joshua Savage, 28, and Taylor Savage, 27, were arrested and charged following an early morning raid in Cowes last Thursday, August 13, the culmination of an exhaustive investigation into a spate of burglaries targeting Bass Coast and South Gippsland businesses over a six-month period.
Search warrants executed on nine properties in the Bass Coast area on Thursday saw the CIU locate and seize approximately $55,000 in cash, and $150,000 in assets including four cars, a jet ski, two motorbikes, a quad bike, and a camper trailer.
Additional search warrants on Friday, August 14, led to the recovery of a further $100,000 in cash.
The Savage brothers’ application for bail was denied by Magistrate Russell Kelly at Wonthaggi on Friday afternoon, and they will remain in police custody until their next court appearance: a committal mention at the Latrobe Valley Magistrates’ Court on November 12, 2020.
Magistrate Kelly deemed the pair an “unacceptable risk” to the community.
Followed their victims
Police alleged in court that between January 8 and July 8 this year, the Savage brothers targeted small business owners predominantly on Phillip Island including in Cowes, Surf Beach and Sunderland Bay, as well as one in Wonthaggi, one in Inverloch, and two in Leongatha.
Detective Senior Constable Liza Burrows told the court the brothers stuck to a similar plan for all of the burglaries, following small business owners home from work, and identifying a method of entry that would “reduce their chance of detection”.
They would return when the occupants weren’t home, and steal safes containing cash, and in some cases, jewellery.
They would take the safes away to other locations and open them using angle grinders and other tools.
After pocketing the contents, they’d dump the safes at sea or in the bush.
Most of the burglaries occurred during the day or early evening.
One of them involved the theft of $300,000 cash.
The younger brother Taylor is facing charges over his alleged involvement in 17 burglaries with a total value in excess of $650,000.
With prior burglary offences in 2018 and 2019, plus the 17 from this year, Joshua is alleged to have stolen approximately $815,000 in total.
Det Burrows said the brothers had been assisted in one of the burglaries by a local painter, was charged on Thursday, August 13 over his alleged involvement, but did not appear as a co-accused in court on Friday.
It’s alleged the brothers paid the man $5000 cash for his assistance in a burglary at Inverloch, and when this cash was seized by police, created a falsified document in an attempt to disguise it as payment he’d received for a painting job on Phillip Island.
Police are awaiting authorisation from the Office of Public Prosecutions to press charges relating to the falsified document, including conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, which is an indictable offence.
Det Burrows explained the large disparity between the total estimated value of the stolen property and the amount recovered by police last week was simply due to the fact that the brothers had spent much of the proceeds of their alleged crimes.
Det Burrows told the court the stolen jewellery had been on-sold to a friend, for below its original value, while much of the stolen cash had been spent on “a large amount of cocaine use”, the purchase of seven cars including a $50,000 ute, a $20,000 boat, a $10,000 jet ski, a dirt bike, “online gambling issues”, travel, clothing and living expenses including rent payments.
“Just the life they’ve been living, they’ve spent a lot of that money,” Det Burrows said.
The brothers had kept some of the cash hidden at their rental properties, she said, such as $50,000 found in a wardrobe wall in a child’s bedroom in Joshua’s home, and $50,000 found in an external cavity at the rear of Taylor’s home, during police searches on Friday, August 14.
They also gave cash to other family members, Det Burrows said.
Building the case
The court heard that the CIU used a variety of techniques, both during and after the alleged crime spree, to build their case against the Savage brothers; a case Magistrate Kelly described as strong.
Det Burrows said police had their suspicions about Joshua due to a “large amount of unexplained wealth”.
He hadn’t worked consistently since 2019 and had been receiving the Newstart allowance, she explained, but in early 2020, began making significant purchases in cash, including each of the seven cars.
On July 28, 2020, he opened a new bank account, with an initial deposit of $40,000.
Over several months of monitoring telecommunications between the Savage brothers, police allegedly witnessed Joshua and Taylor discussing their involvement in a number of the burglaries under investigation, as well as the manufacturing of the document “justifying” the cash found on the painter.
Call charge records revealed that the brothers’ mobile phones had been used near the locations and at the times of the burglaries, “on almost every occasion,” Det Burrows said.
Other evidence included a hooded jumper left behind in one of the victims’ homes, next to where a safe had been removed, a crowbar and pliers located at another victim’s home, and a safe located in bushland at Ventnor.
Alongside that safe was a receipt for two baseball caps, purchased from a Cowes surf shop on May 8, 2020, and when police obtained CCTV footage from the shop, they were able to identify Joshua making the purchase, Det Burrows said.
They also obtained CCTV footage of a white Mazda BT50 ute, similar to a vehicle owned by Joshua, driving in the vicinity of a burglary in Wonthaggi on July 8.
Evidence from a “covert police operative” revealed the methods used to plan and commit the burglaries as well as what became of the stolen property.
Not long after the pair were arrested at their homes on Thursday, August 13, Taylor admitted to his involvement in three of the burglaries, Det Burrows told the court.
As of Friday, August 14, Joshua had denied all allegations, but police had been able to locate further evidence that morning thanks to the brothers being “forthcoming with information” during questioning, police prosecutor Angela Wilken-Eilers said.
They hadn’t been able to use fingerprints or DNA to place the brothers at the crime scenes during their initial investigations, as neither of the men had a forensic profile in the database at the time, but using samples taken during the arrests last week, “a comparison will be conducted,” Det Burrows said.
According to Det Burrows, the brothers were well known on Phillip Island, and locals had voiced their suspicions that they might be behind the spate of burglaries.
“We didn’t have to name any names,” she said of discussions with victims after the arrests last week.
Magistrate Kelly indicated from the outset of Friday’s hearing that he would take a lot of convincing to release the brothers from police custody, given the severity of their alleged offending, and Joshua’s “criminal history,” which included burglary, theft, and family violence offences.
“Your clients have an enormous job in front of them to get bail today,” he told their lawyer early on, and later even went so far as to adjourn proceedings to give them a chance to reconsider their options.
They insisted on going ahead with the bail application, arguing that multiple factors – including the confiscation of their mobile phones and cars, the current climate of COVID-19 restrictions, and the potential impacts on Joshua’s two young children – made the likelihood of reoffending remote.
Police did not oppose the application, emphasising that any concerns they’d initially had about the potential destruction of evidence had been mitigated through the brothers’ cooperation in the interview process, which led to the recovery of outstanding evidence on Friday.
Magistrate Kelly acknowledged that the prosecution’s “surprising” stance carried a lot of weight.
He also accepted that the brothers’ lawyer had established compelling reasons for releasing them from police custody, with Joshua’s two young children facing the possibility of being “condemned” to foster care in the absence of a suitable alternative caregiver within the family, and Taylor being responsible for the 24 hour care of a pet dog that had recently suffered a broken leg.
He maintained, however, that the pair presented an unacceptable risk under the provisions of the Bail Act.
“Both gentlemen were charged with what can only be described as a series of high level criminal commercial burglaries and thefts,” Magistrate Kelly said.
“I am satisfied that compelling reasons are made out, however, I am satisfied, easily satisfied, in relation to both gentlemen, if they were released on bail, in light of the offending, in light of the circumstances of the alleged offending, in light of the amount of property that’s been seized from them, in light of the planning that’s gone into this offending – and it is serious criminal offending – that they are an unacceptable risk; they will commit further offences.”
In handing down his decision, Magistrate Kelly said the brothers’ prospects of getting off lightly were slim.
“With what I have before me at the moment, the only possible sentence would be a substantial term of imprisonment,” he said.
As well as refusing bail, Magistrate Kelly denied a request from the prosecution to reschedule the next court date from November 12, 2020, to February 1, 2021, to give them more time to compile the substantial amount of forensic evidence into a brief.
“I accept that the brief may not be ready to go… but I’m not going to delay at this embryonic stage what can be addressed at a later stage,” he said.
“That’s not done in more serious matters… The court has to keep an eye on things.”