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Mr Big: the covert technique that solved the Morcombe case

The Mr Big technique that caught Daniel Morcombe’s killer, and ultimately led to his conviction, deserves credit for solving the long-running investigation. AAP/Supplied

The 2003 disappearance of 13-year-old Daniel Morcombe in Queensland highlighted the difficulties police face when investigating a potential murder with no body and no crime scene. Ultimately, it was the application of a relatively new covert policing methodology that would lead to the arrest in 2011 and the conviction yesterday of Brett Cowan for Morcombe’s murder.

While not all missing-person homicides require the use of sophisticated undercover operations, it was ultimately necessary to catch Cowan. And although police have made no direct public reference to the technique in the Morcombe case, the covert methodology used is known as the Mr Big (or Canadian) technique.

The Mr Big covert methodology

The Mr Big technique essentially involves creating a fictitious crime group comprised of covert police operatives and luring the suspect into the confidence of this group. It has been used on a number of occasions in Victoria, where police unsuccessfully attempted to obtain court orders to suppress details of the methodology.

This technique is relatively new and unusual. Most covert police operations involve identifying a criminal group or enterprise and then inserting a covert police operative into this environment.

In Mr Big operations, law enforcement personnel essentially do the reverse of a normal covert operation: they create the criminal group or enterprise and insert the target into the group. The group members form social bonds with the target and gain their confidence through the inclusion of the target in a criminal enterprise relationship.

The use of Mr Big is typically reserved for the most serious of crimes. It is usually used in cold case murders where traditional investigative techniques have reached an impasse. The basic premise of using the methodology is that suspects are likely to incriminate themselves if there is a perceived benefit for them and they feel safe doing so.

The technique has been used with much claimed success both overseas in Canada and locally in Victoria. The Royal Canadian Police claims to have used the Mr Big technique in at least 350 cases across Canada, obtaining a 75% success rate and a 95% conviction rate.

Operational difficulties

Cowan was always on the suspect radar in the Morcombe case. This would have been due to his proximity to the initial crime scene and his propensity for this type of offence, as illustrated by his extensive criminal record. He received special attention during the coronial inquest into Morcombe’s disappearance.

Just how far police had planned ahead is indicated by the use of the coroner’s inquest as a pretext to introduce a covert operative to Cowan. This was the beginning of a complex and long-term operation. The sting was both elaborate and convincing.

The difficulty of this operation was not only its timing but also the logistical challenges, covert resource demand and cross-jurisdictional legal concerns. In one Canadian example:

Over 50 undercover police officers were involved in [an] operation which included strippers, lap dances, two undercover police officers naked in a bed together, and a trip to British Columbia to meet ‘Mr Big’.

The covert operation used in the Morcombe case spanned all of Australia. Its achievement of a positive outcome is no small testament to the competent operational management and tenacious detectives working on the investigation.

Criticisms of the technique

Despite its success, the Mr Big methodology has had its critics. In particular, the issue of false confessions has been raised as a potential flaw of the technique. Critics claim that people will readily admit to criminal conduct in reward for potential financial gain.

The interviews conducted as a result of evidence gained via Mr Big operations are seen as being high risk, as suspects may only have incriminated themselves in conditions that may be open to legal challenge.

In many cases of Mr Big operations, suspects are offered financial benefit but also have to admit to guilt of crime to obtain it. In Canada, Robert Bonisteel, who was ultimately convicted of killing two 14-year-old girls, admitted to the killings after being told that if he did not he stood to lose $80,000 for a “big job” by the fictitious crime boss.

In the Morcombe case, the difference was that not only did Cowan make a confession, he also led the covert operatives to the site of Morcombe’s remains.

Cowan’s criminal responsibility for the abduction and murder of Morcombe will ultimately be determined in a court of law. He is expected to be sentenced today. But the Mr Big technique deserves credit for allowing the investigation of the disappearance of Morcombe to reach this stage in the criminal justice process.

Even more than this, it provided some closure for his parents, Bruce and Denise, with both the return of his remains and the conviction of his killer.

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