The Great Mint Swindle.
The wrongly convicted Mickelberg brothers (from left). Brian (Josh Quong Tart), Ray (Grant Bowler) and Peter (Todd Lasance).
Show of the week: The Great Mint Swindle, Channel Nine, Sunday, 8.30pm
LINDY Chamberlain, Gordon Wood, Gabe Watson … to measure the way television has changed our perception of crime, look no further than the way coverage of high-profile trials fuels backyard barbecue debates over people's innocence or guilt.
In 1982, however, a television trial was a very new thing. And the arrest and conviction of three brothers - Ray, Peter and Brian Mickelberg - for robbing the Perth Mint was one of the first crimes catapulted by television from the crime pages of the newspaper into living rooms.
''The police allowed, for the first time, television cameras into the raid and they filmed the police ripping up floorboards, so it brought the crime into people's homes,'' says Paul Bennett, producer of The Great Mint Swindle, which airs on Channel Nine this week.
The crime was the theft of 49 gold bars and the enduring TV image was the discovery of gold under the Mickelbergs' floorboards. The gold was legal and the Mickelbergs had receipts to prove it but, Bennett says, ''those television images are powerful. People see it on television and they ask, 'Why would you have gold under the floorboards?'''
Ray, Peter and Brian Mickelberg were found guilty and sentenced to 20, 16 and 12 years jail, respectively. What makes the case so compelling is that in 2004 all three convictions were quashed, a twist given particular resonance given the recent acquittals for Gordon Wood and Gabe Watson and the fourth inquest into the death of Azaria Chamberlain.
The Ten Network produced a telemovie in 1984, The Great Gold Swindle. It presumed the brothers' guilt and was caught up in the first of seven appeals by the brothers, not airing until 1986.
The genesis of Nine's telemovie, however, was an earlier Cordell Jigsaw biographical series, The Two of UsThe Great Mint Swindle co-producer Russell Vines suggested Ray and Peter Mickelberg as subjects and then, he says, ''immediately regretted it'' because it was hard to cover a 20-year saga in half an hour of television. But it did lead to ''the big drama that we have now done''.
Written by Perth playwright Reg Cribb, the $3 million telemovie tells the story from the perspective of the youngest brother, Peter (Todd Lasance). It stars Grant Bowler as oldest brother Ray, Josh Quong Tart as Brian and Shane Bourne as Detective Don Hancock, who framed the brothers for the theft. It was filmed in seven weeks last year at Fremantle Prison, the Perth Mint and other locations.
Bowler describes the story as a great mystery. ''To this day nobody knows where that gold is,'' he says. ''But it's also a human story because the family are so tight.''
Bowler was also struck by what he felt were distinctly Australian qualities in the story. ''It's one of those great Australian stories about getting shafted, which, all the way from Breaker Morant, is something we pay attention to,'' he says. ''Ned Kelly, who is considered an icon, was also a lunatic who tried to blow up a train, Chopper [Read] becomes a star here. Criminals [in Australia] tend to be either very, very quiet, or there is something quality in them we use to redeem them.''
In the case of the Mickelbergs, the only crime they were ultimately guilty of was the so-called Yellow Rose of Texas case, in which a manufactured gold nugget was sold to Alan Bond for more than twice its value in 1980. ''My Australian DNA goes, that's awesome,'' Bowler says. ''We all love that - that's the little guy getting the big guy.''
Vines agrees. ''What people love about the Mickelbergs is that they took on the establishment, and in particular an establishment that couldn't admit its mistakes.''
Quong Tart adds that the case has particular resonance in Perth, which has an uneasy relationship with its judiciary. ''It starts before the Mickelbergs, with people like Beamish and Button [both wrongly convicted of murders in Western Australia in 1961 and 1963, exonerated 44 and 39 years later], all the way through to more recent cases.''
These include the cases of teenager Patrick Wearing, accused of rape and jailed in 2006 for almost a year before being proved innocent, and Andrew Mallard, wrongfully convicted of murder in 1995 but not exonerated until 2007. ''There is significant concern in this state about judiciary. If you can't trust the system, what can you trust?'' he says.
And that, Bennett says, is the pivot on which the story sits. ''This could happen to you,'' he says. ''Ultimately, people want to believe the system is strong and works and is on your side but stories like this make you doubt the system and when you do that the fabric of everything starts to fall apart.''