Retired Detective Superintendent Deborah Wallace was one of the most formidable – and glamorous – officers in the history of the New South Wales Police Force.
The 60-year-old, known to cops and crooks as ‘The Gangbuster’, was equally famous within the force for her trademark high heels and colourful sense of style.
In the 1990s, Wallace took on major Asian heroin dealers at Cabramatta in Sydney’s south-west before running the Middle Eastern Organised Crime Squad.
As commander of the Criminal Groups Squad and Strike Force Raptor, she led the dismantling of the state’s biggest and most violent bikie gangs.
But before all those senior roles Wallace was a young constable who played a small but significant part in bringing to justice five of the most despised killers in Australian history.
Detective Superintend Deborah Wallace took on major Asian heroin dealers at Cabramatta in Sydney’s south-west in the 1990s before running the Middle Eastern Organised Crime Squad. As commander of Strike Force Raptor, she led the dismantling of the state’s bikie gangs
Deborah Wallace joined the New South Wales Police Force in 1983 and expected to spend her career in uniform. She rose to the rank of detective superintendent and commanded some of the state’s major crime squads. She is pictured at the Redfern Police Academy in 1983
As a young constable working general duties at her first station Wallace was asked by detectives to dress as murdered nurse Anita Cobby and re-enact her final train ride from Central station to Blacktown in February 1986. She is pictured on the train
While working in general duties at Blacktown in Sydney’s west in 1986, Wallace was called upon to re-enact the last known movements of 26-year-old nurse Anita Cobby.
Like the onetime beauty queen whose abduction, rape and murder shocked Australia, Wallace was in her mid-20s and lived with her parents not far from Blacktown.
Wallace’s involvement in the Cobby investigation would shape her outlook on crime and policing and lead to a distinguished 36-year career that ended last December with her retirement.
She has now told her story to veteran crime reporter Mark Morri in a biography subtitled ‘The True Story of Deborah Wallace, The Cop Known as The Gangbuster’.
‘A woman of force, her inner strength and empathy meant that she was a constant go-to for some of the state’s toughest cases,’ the publisher states.
‘Her poise and compassion earned her a special place in the lives and hearts of her colleagues – and the grudging respect of her criminal foes.’
Anita Cobby was a 26-year-old nurse when she was abducted, raped and murdered in western Sydney in a crime that shocked the nation. Her killers were sentenced to life behind bars
The following is an exclusive edited extract of A Woman of Force by Mark Morri, published by Pan Macmillan and available now:
Deborah Wallace was stationed at Blacktown after her graduation from the Redfern Police Academy. She is pictured third from left at her passing out parade in 1983
Deb loved the rough and tumble of being out on the streets, and the camaraderie that went with it. In her mind she was going to work general duties for the rest of her career.
But then a beautiful young nurse from Blacktown called Anita Cobby was murdered. The case, which outraged a nation, also changed the life and career of Constable Deborah Wallace.
On 3 February 1986, a Monday afternoon, a man named Garry Lynch walked into Blacktown Police Station and reported his daughter missing. Her name was Anita Cobby, and she was just 26 years old. Anita had gone out for dinner with friends after work the night before. Her father was supposed to collect her from the train station afterwards, but she never called him to say she was on her way, and she never returned home.
Deb went out searching that Monday night, but the report wasn’t treated as anything other than routine.
The next day police connected a report of a woman screaming to the missing persons report. Around midday on 4 February, that missing persons report turned into a murder investigation after Anita’s naked, bloodied body was found in a paddock on Reen Road at Prospect. The location was known to most general duty officers; it was a well-known spot for local lovers and dumped stolen cars.
Deborah Wallace was 25 when asked to re-enact the last known movements of murdered nurse Anita Cobby. She lived with her parents not far from where Anita lived with her mum and dad at Blacktown. Wallace is pictured third from left with fellow Blacktown officers on a cruise
Anita had been severely beaten, raped and tortured before having her throat viciously slashed, almost decapitating her. Her injuries were so severe that, even to this day, the detectives working on the case are haunted by what they saw in the paddock. Anita’s fingers had been broken as she obviously fought for her life. The look in her eyes, frozen in death, was sheer terror.
Parts of the autopsy were leaked to the press and also read out on radio. The gruesome details sickened the entire nation.
The city, and particularly Blacktown, erupted in a hotbed of emotion: anger, disbelief, sadness and fear turned into a driving need to find the perpetrator of this heinous crime.
Deb observed the detectives ‘upstairs’ working around the clock, looking for Anita’s killers. As a uniform officer of just three years, her role was minimal. She took some phone tips that came in, but otherwise life, and petty crime, moved on.
But no one was unaffected by the case. Deb could see the detectives, some of whom she knew well, pushing themselves relentlessly.
The 1986 murder of onetime beauty queen Anita Cobby (pictured) led to calls for the reintroduction of the death penalty after her naked, broken body was found in a paddock at Prospect in western Sydney
Many young cops saw detectives as gods. They were the top rung of police work, especially Homicide. But being a detective wasn’t on Deb’s radar; she was content with her role. The work she was doing was interesting and rewarding, and she took satisfaction from helping the community.
Two days into the investigation, Deb was working the switchboard when one of the lead investigators, a man named Graham Rosetta, walked past her, did a double take, and then stopped.
‘Hey Wallace, how old are you? How tall?’ he asked in his gruff way. Deb was 25 years old at the time, a year younger than Anita and of similar height and body shape. When she answered Rosetta’s questions, he paused, looking thoughtful, then said, ‘I think I have an idea. Come with me.’
Gary Murphy points out to detectives Graham Rosetta (left with hands on hips) and Tony Waters (right) the direction in which he and his four accomplices dragged Anita Cobby through the western Sydney paddock where they raped and killed her in February 1986
Rosetta, or ‘Rosy’, as he was called (why, nobody knew – nothing about him resembled a flower) explained to Deb that they wanted to do a re-enactment of Anita’s last movements. Leads were drying up and the media coverage was starting to drop off.
He wanted to keep the public engaged. There were also some discrepancies about what time Anita may have caught the train. Rosy hoped that broadcasting a re-enactment might jog someone’s memory. He knew the information was out there somewhere.
A Woman of Force by Mark Morri is published by Pan Macmillan and available now
Deb’s head was spinning. Here was Detective Sergeant Graham Rosetta, an iconic officer in the Blacktown region, asking her, a freshly minted young constable, to become involved in the biggest murder case in recent Australian history. Until then she had very little to do with the detectives apart from nodding hello or passing on statements.
She quickly agreed. Whether or not she wanted to, you didn’t say no to Rosy.
The re-enactment was quickly organised. The friends Anita had caught up with for dinner on the night of her disappearance, Lyn Bradshaw and Elaine Bray, were brought to the Blacktown Police Station to meet Deb. They had been among the last to see Anita alive, and were asked to provide a detailed description of what she had been wearing that evening.
The trio went to Westfield at Parramatta, trying to get the exact clothes Anita had been wearing: ski pants and flat ballets. Deb found the experience quite strange, and knew it was hard on Anita’s friends, trying to remember every detail while consumed with grief, and struggling to come to terms with their friend’s bloody murder.
Deb dressed in Anita’s clothing at Blacktown Police Station and then caught the train to Central station with one of the lead detectives on the case, Kevin Raue.
In her naivety, Deb thought there would be only a small media contingent – maybe a couple of cameramen and the odd photographer. She couldn’t have been more wrong. It was a true media scrum, even for 1986.
Deborah Wallace was handpicked to dress as Anita Cobby and re-enact her last train ride from Central station to Blacktown. Wallace thought there would be only a small media contingent – maybe a couple of cameramen and the odd photographer
The press were allowed to film Deb getting onto the train, but were kicked off a station later. The scene was carefully managed to ensure the re-enactment didn’t include 50 journos on a train carriage that would have been deserted.
Likewise at the other end, the cameras were allowed to film Deb getting off the train, but that was it. While the cops wanted publicity, keeping the media on the train was a risk. If by chance someone got on the train who did see Anita they would be swamped by journalists, or worse still, be frightened off from talking to the cops.
As Deb travelled to Blacktown with the cameras behind her, it really sunk in just how deeply the community was invested in solving this murder.
When Deb started the walk that would be Anita’s last, with night falling all around her, she couldn’t help wondering what had been going through Anita’s head at that moment.
John Raymond Travers was 18 and considered the ringleader of the gang who kidnapped, raped and murdered Anita Cobby in February 1986. All five killers were sentenced to die in jail
At first she was focused on the job she had to do, asking herself, Am I doing it right? Am I walking at the right speed? Then she reached a point where she thought to herself, This is the fine line between life and death. Anita had probably been thinking about seeing her parents, planning for the next day.
At the time Deb was also living at home with her parents. They didn’t live that far from Blacktown. Putting herself in Anita’s shoes at that exact moment was all too easy, and it made the walk all the more difficult.
Anita would have been oblivious to what was about to happen to her. Deb couldn’t stop thinking of the terror she must have endured, the awful violence she’d suffered.
After the re-enactment, mentally drained, Deb went back to Blacktown Police Station with the detectives. As they stood in the car park, Rosetta came over and told Deb that a journalist would like a quick chat. He gave her the okay to speak to the journo, saying not much harm would come of it, and every little bit of extra publicity helped.
Les Murphy (left) was 22 when he took part in Anita Cobby’s murder and was known as having the worst temperament of the Murphy brothers. Gary Murphy (right) was 28 and also known to have a particularly violent temper
Michael Murphy (left) was 33 at the time of Anita Cobby’s murder and the oldest of nine Murphy brothers. Michael Murdoch (right) was 19 and a longtime friend of John Travers
It was Deb’s first contact with the media. The questions were fairly routine – the journalist asked Deb how the reenactment had gone, and how she’d felt while doing it. As he put away his notepad he muttered conversationally that it was a horrendous murder, and he hoped they would catch the killers.
Deb agreed, and the journalist commented that he believed in an eye for an eye.
‘I can understand people wanting that,’ Deb replied, not thinking much of it.
That night after everything had died down, Graham Rosetta turned to the young cop.
‘How would you like to stay with the team?’ he asked.
Dumbfounded, she said, ‘I’m not a detective.’
He shrugged and said, ‘You’ll be fine.’
Wallace went on to have a distinguished career in the New South Police Force, receiving the Australian Police Medal and retiring in December last year. She is pictured with sword on parade
Deb went home exhausted, but also proud that she had been asked to join the team. She knew it would be menial work, but she didn’t care – she had a chance to help catch the men who had killed Anita Cobby. Having relived Anita’s last moments, Deb was now even more invested in catching the men responsible for her death.
Deb’s first day on the task force didn’t start in quite the way she’d have liked. The station boss called her up to the office and announced, ‘I don’t want you to panic, but Detective there’s a bit of a furore about what you said to that reporter last night.’
Deb was baffled. Her boss explained that the police hierarchy had been approached by the top-rating Ray Martin variety show Midday. At that time, two young Australians, Kevin Barlow and Brian Chambers, were facing execution in Malaysia for drug smuggling.
Gary Murphy (far right) is taken by police to the spot where Anita Cobby’s naked, broken body was found in a paddock in western Sydney. The killer is pictured with marks on his face caused during his capture the previous night
‘They want you to discuss the merits of capital punishment, which you are not doing!’
Deb remembered the journo’s ‘eye for an eye’ comment, and what she’d thought was her neutral response. Another lesson learnt: be very careful of the media.
For the next two weeks Deb divided her time between helping the detectives on the Cobby case and doing her other regular duties. She was officially on what was called the ‘A’ list, which is when young cops are given a chance at detective work before being asked to take the detectives course, a sort of ‘try before you buy’.
Two weeks later the Cobby killers were caught. Sydney went wild. As word spread a massive crowd built up around Blacktown Police Station. They made makeshift nooses and hung them from nearby buildings with ‘Hang the bastards’ written on them.
An angry crowd congregates outside the Blacktown police station as news breaks of the arrest of the five men who raped and murdered Anita Cobby. This images was taken on 24 February 1986, almost three weeks after the nurse was killed at Prospect in far western Sydney
The hatred for the men was palpable. As police drove the accused killers into the station, the cop cars were rocked as the crowd tried to get their hands on the murderers.
Later, one of the lead detectives Ian ‘Speed’ Kennedy said, ‘We had to call in extra cops to stop the crowd from breaking into the police station to lynch them.’
Sydney had never witnessed such mass hysteria over a killing and inside the station was Deb Wallace, bewildered at what was happening outside.
While she hadn’t done the heavy lifting on the case, her involvement had given her a taste of another sort of police work – a type that she would excel at as her career progressed.
Until Rosy had asked her to be on the task force, Deb was welded to the truck and thought she would be a uniform copper until she retired.
Deborah Wallace believed she would spend her police career in uniform until asked to join the task force investigating Anita Cobby’s murder. She is pictured in one of her colourful suits
But now she could see all around her the enormous satisfaction in the team that had helped bring the Cobby killers to account and something stirred inside her. Deb knew that locking up drunks and car thieves was important police work, but the adrenaline and warm feeling surging through the team that day made her rethink her career path. Maybe, just maybe I want to be a detective and catch big time crooks. Just being a small part of helping catch the Cobby killers was life-changing.
Several years later, in 2002, Deb met Anita’s parents at – bizarrely – an art exhibition centred on Anita’s murder, held at the Penrith Regional Gallery.
Deb thought it was odd too, but she’d received an invite, so decided to go along with others who had worked on the case.
Wallace met Anita’s parents Garry and Grace Lynch in 2002 at an art exhibition and she formed a bond with Grace that last until her death in 2013. The Lynches are pictured at Anita’s grave
Garry Lynch walked over, put his arm around Deb and sat her down next to Anita’s mum, Grace.
It was an emotional meeting. Deb knew that Grace had been upset by the re-enactment, saying that Anita would never have worn ski pants as tight as those Deb wore that night, so she wasn’t sure what to expect. But she was lovely, and the two connected right away.
That meeting forged a unique relationship between Grace Lynch and Deborah Wallace that would last until the day Grace died, in 2013. It also led to Deb’s involvement in the Victims of Homicide Support Group, which was founded by the Lynches and the parents of another murder victim, a young girl by the name of Ebony Simpson.
Gary Murphy was pictured in public for the first time in 33 years in July 2019 when he was taken from Prince of Wales Hospital at Randwick back to Long Bay jail where he had been bashed by at least six other inmates in a shower block
Grace was an amazing woman with enormous strength, and her compassion was inspiring. Even as Grace was dying, whenever Deb visited her all she would ask about was others. Meeting her and being involved in her work was an honour, and one of the highlights of Deb’s career.
On 10 September 1989 Constable Deb Wallace became a designated detective. Her days of working the truck were over. She came in the top ten in her class, which was topped by a female officer called Catherine Burn, who went on to be the deputy police commissioner.
Deb’s career was about to soar.
A Woman of Force by Mark Morri is published by Pan Macmillan and available from here now for $34.99.
Five men – John Travers, Michael Murdoch and Gary, Les and Michael Murphy – were convicted of Anita’s rape and murder and sentenced to life in jail. Michael Murphy died in prison in February last year aged 65.
Wallace is pictured at NSW Government House after being presented with the Australian Police Medal by then Governor Marie Bashir in 2012