Not many people can say they got Mark 'Chopper' Read naked on their first day of work - but former prison officer Steve Bergervoet is one of them.

An easygoing country bloke, Bergervoet arrived for his first training shift at Melbourne's Pentridge Prison in 1985.

Built in the 1850s, the towering bluestone walls of Pentridge impose an ominous feeling on all who walk their grounds.

By the time new recruit Bergervoet wandered through the gates, the prison was already home to a number of Australia's most evil prisoners including hit man 'Mr Rent-a-Kill', Christopher Dale Flannery, serial killer Peter Dupas, and of course, the notorious Chopper Read.

Former prison officer Steve Bergervoet opens up on the On Guard podcast about his days working with sex offenders and murderers. Picture: Nicole Cleary
Former prison officer Steve Bergervoet opens up on the On Guard podcast about his days working with sex offenders and murderers. Picture: Nicole Cleary

A career criminal who claimed to have spent just 13 months outside prison between the ages of 20 and 38, Read became a best-selling author by sharing his tales of gang-warfare, theft and thuggish violence.

On Bergervoet's first day, Read was serving 13 years for attempting to abduct a judge with a shotgun, in an attempt to get one of his mate's freed from prison.

But being greener than fresh-cut grass, Bergervoet didn't recognise him when his senior officer told him to perform his first search on the prison heavyweight.

Eager to impress, Bergervoet got to work.

Mark ‘Chopper’ Read.
Mark ‘Chopper’ Read.

"The prisoner knew the routine - as soon as we got in there he started taking his clothes off," Bergervoet, 69, told the On Guard podcast.

Once Read was completely naked, Bergervoet diligently ran through the steps he had memorised in training.

He asked Read to bend his ears forward and run his fingers through his hair.

Then, he got him to open his mouth and lift up his scrotum, so he could make sure there was nothing taped beneath. Next, he asked Read to raise his feet and wriggle his toes.

All was going well.

 

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A seasoned inmate, Read knew the drill and was extremely compliant.

"Then comes the good part," Bergervoet, jokingly recalled.

"They actually have to bend over and spread their cheeks so you can look up to make sure there's nothing in there. You're looking for a little bit of string coming out of his orifice, because it's that little bit of string he's going to use pull out whatever he's got stuck up there."

When Bergervoet was satisfied no smuggled contraband had escaped his detection, he enthusiastically turned to his supervisor.

"Right," he asked. "How did I go?"

"Yeah, you did it fine, no problems at all," his supervisor said.

"And now, you'll be able to tell your grandkids that on your first day in prison, the first strip search you did, was Chopper Read."

"It was then I realised I'd really gotten myself into a job unlike no other," recalled Bergervoet.

The incident was just the first of many bizarre occurrences during his 32-year career, spent mostly in minimum security at Victoria's Won Wron and Langi Kal Kal prisons.

Both prison farms, Won Wron and Langi Kal Kal are usually the last stop before prisoners are released at the end of their sentences - which meant everyone from murderers to pretty crims came across Bergervoet's path … including feared Underbelly hit man Andrew 'Benji' Veniamin, right-hand man to the late drug Kingpin, Carl Williams.

 

Serial rapist Harry Barkas who was dubbed the 'The hot chocolate rapist'.
Serial rapist Harry Barkas who was dubbed the 'The hot chocolate rapist'.

By the time Veniamin's death in 2004 at Melbourne's La Porcella Italian restaurant, he had been linked to seven underworld killings.

Underworld figure Mick Gatto admitted to shooting Veniamin at the restaurant but was acquitted of his murder, claiming he acted in self-defence after Veniamin pulled a gun on him.

Most often, Veniamin pulled the trigger on behalf of Williams, and was so close to the family, Carl's wife Roberta once referred to him as her "soulmate".

Yet for a man revered as Melbourne's most dangerous hit man, Veniamin was intriguingly meek in prison.

"He was quiet as a mouse. We wouldn't get a peep out of him," muses Bergervoet.

Then, there was serial rapist, Harry Barkas, better known as the 'Hot Chocolate Rapist'.

In 2010, Barkas was jailed for nine years for a series of sickening rapes in which victims were picked up from Melbourne nightclubs and drugged - with what was presumed to be Rohypnol diluted in a drink - before they were sexually assaulted.

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He earned his moniker because in at least two attacks he asked his victims whether they wanted a hot chocolate from the service station on the way home.

So, when Barkas applied to do an education course while doing time, Bergervoet was pleased - perhaps he could turn his hand to more worthy pursuits upon release?

That was, until he reviewed the course Barkas had applied for.

"No, Harry, I can't let you do that," Bergervoet said when Barkas fronted the review committee.

"Why not? You're supposed to be helping me rehabilitate and learn new skills!" baulked Barkas. "Why won't you let me do it?"

The rapist was becoming noticeably ruffled, tears welling in his eyes.

"Harry," interjected Bergervoet, calmly. "What does the media know you as?"

"The Hot Chocolate Rapist," Barkas sobbed. "I don't like it, but that's just the name they gave me!"

Bergervoet looked back at him.

"Yeah, Harry. Choose any programme you want - but not this one.

"Oh, you won't let me do it!" Barkas pleaded.

"Harry. Think about the media …" Bergervoet said.

"What do you mean?!" Barkas wailed.

"Harry, what would the media do if they found out this committee had approved the 'Hot Chocolate Rapist' to do a barista course while he was in jail?"

 

 

 

Originally published as How I got 'Chopper' Read nude behind bars

Andrew Veniamin.
Andrew Veniamin.


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