Johnnie Sbrugnera says he has a job and is ready to turn his life around. Picture: Supplied
Johnnie Sbrugnera says he has a job and is ready to turn his life around. Picture: Supplied

‘I regret everything — except the home invasion’

Johnnie Sbrugnera was enjoying a much-needed snooze on his mum's couch.

He'd had a busy morning - the then 23-year-old had already burnt out a stolen car used in an armed robbery and found a hiding place for his gun in his mum's laundry.

 

Johnnie Sbrugnera will enjoy his first Christmas in years with his family after a life of crime that saw him in and out of detention. Picture: Supplied
Johnnie Sbrugnera will enjoy his first Christmas in years with his family after a life of crime that saw him in and out of detention. Picture: Supplied

 

"Johnnie," said his eight-year-old brother standing in beside the couch.

"Johnnie. Wake up. The army's out the front."

Police in riot gear surrounded the suburban house on the NSW Central Coast.

An officer was coaxing Sbrugnera out through a megaphone, his voice reverberating through the neighbourhood.

They suspected he was armed and they wanted him out, without any bloodshed, hands in the air.

Sbrugnera had to act fast.

Sprinting to the laundry he took his gun from the bag it was hidden in and shoved it down the front of the washing machine.

Time to face the music.

Opening the front door, he slowly made his way down the front steps, arms raised.

He'd only taken a couple of steps before police pounced.

"I came out the front, down the steps. They tackled me, took my shoes off, stripped me off 'cos they thought I was armed, so I was just in my shorts. It was 16 June, 2015," says Sbrugnera, who last Monday was released from Cessnock Correctional Centre in the Hunter Valley, NSW.

FOLLOW: True Crime Australia on Facebook and Twitter

This will be the first year in many that Sbrugnera will be home, enjoying Christmas with his family after spending almost half his young life behind bars, since his first home invasion at 14.

In an even rarer instance his elder brother Jesse, who has been incarcerated for the last 12 years for various offences, will also be home enjoying the family festivities.

"I'm done with jail. I'm over it," Sbrugnera tells True Crime Australia, sipping on a can of Pepsi as he talks.

"I've already got a job, as a concreter."

 

Sbrugnera says he’s “done with jail”. “I never want to go back.” Picture: Sam Ruttyn.
Sbrugnera says he’s “done with jail”. “I never want to go back.” Picture: Sam Ruttyn.

 

Despite owning the lengthy rap sheet of a violent criminal, Sbrugnera is boyish, almost shy in manner. Family is important to him.

He makes sure he calls his younger sister Shaarni every couple of days and his brow furrows in concern when he speaks of his grandparents' health.

The thought of seeing his girlfriend of seven years, Jess, and of one day starting a family of his own is enough to make his eyes light up.

"She'll leave me if I do anything else," he says.

But to put jail behind him, he recognises it means putting the drug ice behind him, too.

He credits the highly addictive substance for the mindset that leads nowhere fast but back to a cell.

There was a period of almost three years where he lived with relatively few complications as a free man, until ice got its claws in, again.

 

Sbrugnera, seen here in a Facebook photo, first got into trouble at age 14. Picture: Supplied
Sbrugnera, seen here in a Facebook photo, first got into trouble at age 14. Picture: Supplied

 

"I started getting back on it. Then one thing leads to another and you think things are worse than what they are, so you think you're going back to jail anyway. So you keep going and going, and you probably wouldn't have gone to jail in the first place.

"I had 17 charges against me. Armed robbery, possession of a firearm, two high-speed chases, five counts of supply," he says, recalling his most recent stint in court.

But according to Sbrugnera, he was stitched up.

"My mate did it but I got done," he says.

"They (police) said they found the gun at my house and they said it was the same gun that was used in the robbery. And the day before I was talking and said I was going to do a robbery."

It sounds like incriminating evidence but Sbrugnera maintains he was sleeping when his mates borrowed the stolen car in his possession and did the holdup.

"I fell asleep. When I woke up there was a note beside me from my mate telling me to get rid of the car. So I burnt it out. I drove it round to his place and set it on fire. I filled the backseat up with petrol first."

On his way back to his mum's place, Sbrugnera got the tip-off the police weren't far behind.

"The guys rang and said the cops are here looking for you."

Sbrugnera recalls saying, "If they try to stop me I'll shoot," but says he made the comment "as a joke".

It was an unfortunate remark, given his phone was already being bugged - and with a healthy record behind him police weren't taking any chances.

 

Detainees return to their cell block at the Frank Baxter Juvenile Justice Centre. Sbrugnera says his first stint in juvie only prepared him for more crime. Picture: Tim Hunter
Detainees return to their cell block at the Frank Baxter Juvenile Justice Centre. Sbrugnera says his first stint in juvie only prepared him for more crime. Picture: Tim Hunter

 

The trouble first started for Sbrugnera when he was just 14.

It began, as his story goes, when two car loads of gate-crashers stormed his cousin's engagement party in Gwandalan, NSW, in 2007.

A fight broke out and his grandparents got caught in the crossfire, suffering serious injuries.

"One knocked my Nan out. When Pop tried to help then they attacked him," says Sbrugnera, noticeably upset by the memory.

Sbrugnera wasn't at his cousin's party but he wanted revenge.

A month later, he was at a social gathering when a youth pulled out a video of Sbrugnera's grandparents getting attacked on his mobile phone, boasting about the carnage him and his mates had caused.

Sbrugnera forced the teenager to take him to the house of the person responsible for the attack, understood to be a member of the Rebels motorcycle gang.

"He got bashed pretty bad, so he showed me where it was," says Sbrugnera.

Later Sbrugnera returned with a group of mates to commit a violent home invasion.

"There was five of us. We went there, bashed him pretty bad," says Sbrugnera.

"Did you want to kill him?" asks True Crime Australia.

"Yeah," says Sbrugnera.

"Why didn't you?"

"I was pretty drunk," he shrugs. "We bashed him up pretty bad."

 

An image from Sbrugnera’s Facebook. He now says he is turning his back on a life of crime. Picture: Supplied
An image from Sbrugnera’s Facebook. He now says he is turning his back on a life of crime. Picture: Supplied

 

Unfortunately for the teenager, he left some of his blood behind at the house - now police forensics had proof of his guilt.

The offence landed him in juvenile detention. Once you're in the system it's tough to get out.

"When you're in juvie you meet people," he explains.

Now he had the criminal contacts to teach him how to make big money fast. There wasn't much choice with minimal education.

Released at 18, Sbrugnera spent just six months outside, during which he began a relationship with a corrections officer approximately 20 years his senior, who cared for him in juvenile detention. Although the affair was technically legal, the woman's recent position of authority over the teenager and the fact she had sons the same age, raised eyebrows among her colleagues.

However it wasn't long before an armed robbery of a local Central Coast wood-fired pizza restaurant landed him back behind bars.

The court threw him a lifeline, ordering he partake in a drug rehabilitation program.

 

Sbrugnera has hopes of his own family and says his girlfriend will leave him if he doesn’t change his ways. Picture: Supplied
Sbrugnera has hopes of his own family and says his girlfriend will leave him if he doesn’t change his ways. Picture: Supplied

 

The only problem was two days in, when Sbrugnera realised he could escape through the back bushland, so escorted himself out.

What ensued was a year on the run, moving from house to house, sleeping on people's couches - a stressful time made possible by Centrelink, who kept up his payments during his year as a fugitive.

At almost 30, Sbrugnera has lived a life of which he's not particularly proud.

Does he have regrets?

"Yeah. Everything - all the stupid stuff," he says.

"Apart from the home invasion," he adds … someone had to stand up for his grandparents.

But from now on, he says he'll play by the rules.

He's done with having time-limited collect calls as the only contact with his loved ones.

He's ready to leave behind the 6am wake-up buzzer, the cell doors that release electronically at 6.15am, and the long nights in confinement, picking up his aluminium dinner box en route to his cell at 2pm, as is par for the course in maximum security.

From now on he wants to live his days, not just negotiate his way through the bikie gangs and the violence, to survive them.

He's sick of rubbing shoulders with "putrid scum" like the Murphy brothers, who barbarically raped and murdered nurse Anita Cobby in 1986, and the Skaf brothers, who perpetrated a series of gang rapes across Sydney in 2000.

And he never wants to watch another man stabbed 50 times beside him in the prison yard.

"It's the worst thing I've seen," says Sbrugnera.

"I want to turn my back on all of this s---. I'm done with jail. I never want to go back."