Graham Potter is Australia's most wanted crook – or is he?

Potter in Tasmanian police custody in 2008. Picture: Launceston Examiner
Potter in Tasmanian police custody in 2008. Picture: Launceston Examiner

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The art of remaining unnoticed is to hide in plain sight - to blend in and become the human equivalent of elevator music. And Australia’s most wanted man - Graham Gene Potter - has excelled at being average.

Which is why he has been on the run for seven years, with police admitting they are no closer to catching him than when he jumped bail in February 2010. (There is an alternative theory, but more of that later.)

Just think about how difficult it would be to avoid leaving an electronic footprint. To never use a credit card, a toll road, a mobile phone, contact a relative or appear on social media. And to find a job where they pay cash or construct a false identity that could withstand official scrutiny.

Not bad for a sadistic killer who failed spectacularly to become a paid hitman for the Mob - so badly, in fact, he is not only on the run from the police but the mafia bosses who once recruited him.

Mafia boss Pasquale Barbaro met Potter in a NSW prison and was taken by his CV. After all, the would-be hitman was serving time for killing Wollongong teenager Kim Barry on his 1980 buck's night. He cut off his victim's head and fingers, dumping the remains in nearby bushland.

He was released in 1996 after serving 16 years and quickly teamed up with Barbaro, helping with small jobs and running drugs between Victoria and Tasmania.

Meanwhile Barbaro had become one of the biggest drug dealers not only in Australia but in the world, specialising in massive importations of ecstasy and cocaine. These drugs were usually sourced through the Italian organised crime syndicate – the Calabrian Honoured Society.

When a shipment of cocaine went missing, Barbaro blamed a flashy associate, claiming he either stole the lot or leaked the shipment details to police. The situation reached flashpoint when a second shipment of 15 million ecstasy tablets disappeared.

Mafia boss Pasquale Barbaro met Potter in a NSW prison and was taken by his CV. After all, the would-be hitman was serving time for killing Wollongong teenager Kim Barry on his 1980 buck's night. He cut off his victim's head and fingers, dumping the remains in nearby bushland.

He was released in 1996 after serving 16 years and quickly teamed up with Barbaro, helping with small jobs and running drugs between Victoria and Tasmania.

At a city meeting, Flash Harry was told he was under suspicion and well and truly under the pump. He was justifiably terrified but it may have been the luckiest day of his life.

That was because in June 2007 the syndicate's massive 4.4-tonne ecstasy importation had been discovered on Melbourne docks and the Australian Federal Police had launched one of its biggest-ever drug investigations.

The Feds spent more than a year building their case against about 30 targets, including Barbaro and fellow mafia boss Francesco Madafferi. But not Flash Harry. Having fallen out with the syndicate he was not implicated in what was the world's biggest ecstasy bust - 15 million pills hidden in 3000 tomato tins.

While Flash Harry wasn't a prime target for the police he was for the mafia, who saw him as either a thief or a leak – both deadly offences for serious Italian organised crime participants.

Barbaro flew to Italy to talk with his Honoured Society colleagues, who wanted to fly in a hitman to kill Flash Harry, but Barbaro said he would handle it on a local level.

That is when he turned to his old prison buddy Graham Potter, offering him $100,000 for the job. Later he was offered the same amount for a second contract.

To be a successful contract killer you need several key components. A cashed-up client (check), a target (check), psychotic ruthlessness (check), a weapon (in this case a gun - check), a plan (check) and a getaway car - and that is where Potter stuffed up.

He sourced a nondescript Magna through a mafia contact that included dodgy ownership papers. The trouble is he didn't get it roadworthied (does the RACV have a deal for hitmen?) which meant it broke down, not once but twice, when Potter was on his way to kill.  A third attempt was also aborted. (One of the hits was supposed to be carried out at Mick Gatto's son's wedding - which means the inevitable Underbelly remake would have been Two Funerals and a Wedding.)

To make it worse the Magna must not have had a functioning rearview mirror, for at no point did Potter or his Wise Guy mates realise they were under surveillance, including when Potter was sitting off Flash Harry's St Kilda Road apartment building. 

And here is the twist. When Potter was scooped up with the others over the tomato job, some in the mafia feared he might talk and the failed hitman was added to the death list.

He was charged over the drugs in August 2008 and eight months later with three counts of conspiracy to murder.

On February 1, 2010 he jumped bail, and despite an Australia-wide search simply disappeared. After all, he had a fair incentive - if police found him he was off to prison for the rest of his life and if the mafia found him he was off to sleep with the fishes.

There were no confirmed sightings, that is until he turned up 2800 kilometres from Melbourne at Tully, in far north Queensland.

It was a routine car check on August 28, 2010. Three drifters camping at a nearby caravan park teamed up that night to go to a concert. When police stopped the car they ran - one was grabbed at the scene, a second was arrested a short time later but the middle-aged man dressed only in a pair of jeans escaped into the tropical scrub. That was Potter.

Now there have been a swag of sightings since, but here is the problem. Potter is such an average-looking guy that he blends in. And this means dozens of grey nomads and outback bushies have been reported to police as Potter suspects.

In fact police aren't all that keen on media reports on Potter because it tends to result in well-meaning tips from the public that have to be chased down – invariably leading to an accountant in a caravan enjoying his long-service leave rather than a fugitive would-be mafia killer.

Potter's fugitive file says he is a "ladies' man" who may have found a partner and could be living a quiet life away from any attention. (He married the Wollongong girl who was waiting for him when he murdered Kim Barry back in 1980.)

An alternative theory is that he is working on an outback station for board, food and enough cash to survive. But what happens when he gets sick? Without a Medicare card and now aged 59, surely he has needed some medical intervention in the last seven years?

And so how does a man last seen wearing only a pair of jeans, with no criminal support network and precious little money, hide from every copper and every criminal in the country for seven years?

The best fugitive in living memory was Russell Cox, who escaped from Long Bay prison in NSW in 1977 and stayed on the run for 11 years. He used many aliases but his favourite was Mr Walker, the name used by his favourite comic hero, the Phantom. Even his Labrador dog Devil had an alias and answered to Butch when on the run (or more accurately, on the trot). 

A master of disguise, he organised armed robberies, was shot and recovered and is said to have killed at least two other crooks before he was arrested at the Doncaster Shoppingtown about to pull another job.

When he was grabbed he refused to give police his name, but added: "You blokes will jump through hoops when you know who I am."

Later he posed with members of the Armed Robbery Squad for a trophy photo before returning to prison to become a model prisoner.

He studied at Grafton TAFE, passed courses in computer studies, numeracy, literacy and youth work, first aid and became a qualified fitness trainer and boxing coach. He was released in 2004 to live a quiet life in Queensland.

One thing is certain -  Potter is no Cox, which is why there is another theory. Perhaps while he managed to avoid police and the mafia he fell to another ruthless - and cold-blooded - predator.

Local Tully police told Victoria detectives When Potter ran off into the bush there was a chance he was taken by a crocodile. Just recently Tully farmers have complained of crocs taking cattle and farm dogs. And if they can take a full-grown cow, one half-naked bail jumper with a pot belly wouldn't create a problem.

Actually it would. Crocs that eat people often suffer gastric issues.

When in 1986 Gus, a giant saltwater croc, ate a swimmer in the Northern Territory, his pursuers just needed to follow the smell to find the offender. According to Inspector Maurie Burke, writing in the Australian Police Journal:  "Whenever they were in close proximity, whether they could see him or not, [they] were aware of his presence by the stench of his breath.

"Even submerged, the bubbles expelled were putrid enough to cause near vomiting if they were caught unaware leaning from the boat and catching a bubble."

So the question remains, is Potter still a burr under law enforcement's saddle or just a bad burp in a billabong?

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