“It was clear Barbara McCulkin knew enough about each of the pair’s (Dempsey & Dubois) roles in night club bombings at the time for them to want to silence her.” – Justice Peter Applegarth at coronial inquest into the Whiskey Au Go Go fire, 2 June 2017. The fire where 15 people were murdered occurred in 1973, 44 years prior to his judgement.
The mass murder and firebombing at the Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub was not subject to scrutiny by the Fitzgerald Inquiry into police corruption. Nor were related murders. Police involvement in these crimes made such investigation imperative. Yet none of the protagonists even get a mention in the 630-page Fitzgerald report to the parliament in July 1989. This was despite the ABC’s Moonlight State pointing the finger at police corruption in Fortitude Valley and the inquiry’s scrutiny of illegal gambling and prostitution in the Valley. Often claimed as a watershed of reform the Commission of Inquiry into Possible Illegal Activities and Associated Police Misconduct (the Fitzgerald Inquiry) showed that not all, fall down.
Queensland was a dangerous place in the 1970s. The firebombing of the Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub in Fortitude Valley demonstrates how the most active police in criminal investigations were also involved in political repression in Queensland.
On 30 Oct 1978, during the government ban on street marches of 1977-79, I was arrested and placed in a cell on the top left of this wing of Boggo Road Jail (pictured) and forced to listen to 4BH radio day and night. I had no trial, it was on the whim of corrupt police and magistrate William Joseph McKay.
Prison authorities put me in the worst yard with murderers and rapists.
However one of the policemen who arrested me on that day, Constable Michael Egan, did resign from the police force the following year, at an International Women’s Day rally on 10th March 1978, when his girlfriend was assaulted by Special Branch.
Senator George Georges was also arrested at the 30th October demonstration along with federal MP Tom Uren. Georges arresting officer was Detective *** ***** who had earlier arrested me on 30th march 1978. I was verballed and put in jail on that occasion as well. At least two sources allege Detective ***** was involved in the Whiskey Au Go Go fire.
Two petty crims, Stuart and Finch, were charged with firebombing the Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub in Fortitude Valley in 1973. They claimed to have been verballed by police and the firebombing was an attempt at extortion with police involved. Fifteen patrons and workers at the club were killed in the fire. Two musicians from a band called Trinity were died in the fire. Many people escaped by jumping from broken windows onto an awning and dropping 15 feet to the ground.
Det. *** ***** was one of the police who arrested and verballed petty crims, Stuart and Finch, leading to their conviction for murder.
Police like ***** were often the ones most involved in political arrests during the ban on street marches.
The Sydeny Morning Herald front page photo shows Qld senator George Georges arrested by Det. *** ***** 30 October 1978. Federal MP Tom Uren was held by Qld police behind Senator Georges. Det *** ***** was on Georges right.
Tony Reeves’ account is supported by a signed statement by William Stokes (former editor of Port News) which I have posted in the comments section below.
By way of introduction, I found this reference to the Clockwork Orange Gang in Crime and Mayhem … published by that beacon of light and liberty, the Brisbane Courier Mail:
“Billy Stokes, editor of the Port News, christened them this, after the name of the novel by Anthony Burgess; they wore bowler hats, carried canes and rode Harley-Davidsons. They had evolved from the Mongrel Mob, some of whose early members were convicted in 1966 of the bashing and sexual assault of a young man and his girlfriend. They had shoved a bottle into his anus and beaten her very badly. They were given lenient sentences, in part due to the fact that the corrupt Queensland detective Tony Murphy had spoken up for them. When they got out of jail, he took some of them under his wing.”
The cross-over of criminal and political is blurred in most accounts I have read in the mainstream media. I do not know the veracity or otherwise of claims made in the stories about police involvement in the Whiskey Au Go Go fire but they are serious allegations that need to be brought to light. Make up your own mind about their accuracy. – WBT Editor.
The stories included below are:
- Remembering the ‘Whiskey Au Go Go’ Massacre by Ciaron O’Reilly.
- Waitress Donna Phillips remembers Brisbane’s Whiskey Au Go Go fireball by Tony Moore
- Whiskey Murders — Dangerous Truths by Tony Reeves [Comments]
- Statement by William Stokes [Comments]
Remembering the ‘Whiskey Au Go Go’ Massacre
Today my brother Sean and I joined survivors and others in gathering at Whiskey Au Go Go site in Brisbane on the 42nd. anniversary of the massacre of 15 people. That it has taken 42 years for a memorial stone to be laid is reflective on the depth of cover-up of these killings. The largest massacre (non indigenous) in Australia at that time was quickly hushed up by a corrupt Queensland Police Force.
We were surprised to discover one of the Whiskey Au Go Go survivors is Donna, the daughter of Joyce Phillips who accompanied us on many protests in Brisbane over the last 40 years. This is a recent interview with Donna, well worth reading. Donna has never been formally interviewed by police.
The Whiskey Au Go Go massacre was an expression of the police corruption and the authoritarian Queensland state we grew up in is encapsulated in the iconic song Pig City :
“The poor tell us who we are, The prophets tell us who we could be, So we hide the poor, And kill the prophets.” – Phil Berrigan
Waitress Donna Phillips remembers
Brisbane’s Whiskey Au Go Go fireball
Donna Phillips was the drinks waitress and cashier at Brisbane’s Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub on March 8, 1973 when 15 people were murdered in a fire-bombing attack that rocked Australia.
She was working the front desk. About 10 minutes before the fire bombing, she went back to her usual waitressing work.
If she was still at the front desk, Donna would also have died.
At the time the Whiskey Au Go Go fire bombing was Australia’s worst mass murder.
Yet only this week – 42 years after the 15 murders – has any form of identification or memorial been placed at the Fortitude Valley site.
A circular plaque, ringed with the names of the 15 dead, now sits outside the Amelia Street doorway in Fortitude Valley.
It reads “Site of the Whiskey Au Go Go. At 2.10am on March 8, 1973 the Whiskey Au Go Go was fire bombed. The popular first-floor nightclub was located on the corner of Amelia Street and St Pauls Terrace. Fifteen people were unable to escape the fire and lost their lives.”
The victims went upstairs to the club to dance, have a few drinks, to listen to big sixties’ stars The Delltones – and later – Trinity, which was playing for the first time.
The victims were:
- Colin William Folster, 19, Red Hill, musician with Trinity
- Darcy Thomas Day, 22, Holland Park., musician with Trinity
- William David Nolan, 22, military police, Indooroopilly
- Ernest John Peters, 50, Rockhampton, farmer
- Desmond John Peters, 31, Rockhampton, farmer
- Carol Ann Green, 27, Camp Hill
- Wendy Leonne Drew, 24, Norman Park
- Brian William Watson, 32, Goodna
- Peter Marcus, 23, Petrie Terrace
- Fay Ellen Will, 19, Nundah
- Jennifer Denise Davie, 17, New Farm
- Desmae Selma Carroll, 29, of New Farm
- Leslie Gordon Palethorpe, 20, Lance Corporal, Indooroopilly
- David John Western Green, 19, Norman Park
- Paul Zoller, kitchen hand, National Hotel, Queen Street
On Sunday at 1pm, friends and family of these 15 people will gather at a small service in Amelia Street to talk and remember.
At the time of the fire bombing, Donna was a 22-year-old young mum and the wife of successful professional photographer and advertising man, Dennis Porter. She had worked at the Whiskey for several months.
Weeks before the fire, in January 1973, the couple had led a successful promotion at the Whiskey Au Go for Radio 4BK for their campaign, “Reaching Out, Touching You“. Donna was the model.
Donna, now living at Sandgate about 17km north of the Brisbane CBD, clearly remembers working that night, seeing the flames come up the stairs and seeing all the windows in the Whiskey Au Go Go explode.
“On that particular night, the Delltones played,” she said.
“And then after midnight – at some time – the owner of the nightclub, Brian Little, approached me and asked to come and take over the front desk.”
She said that was unusual because her experience was that the club’s owners never spoke to the club’s floor staff.
“The interesting part of it was that Brian Little’s partner – and I don’t remember at the time if she was his wife or his girlfriend – went away from the front desk. It was her position,” she said.
“And then Brian Little went away as well.
“And then while I was there I received a phone call from a man with a rather terse voice, asking to speak to Brian Little.
“And in my best business voice I said ‘Mr Little is not here at the moment, whom shall I say is calling?‘.”
“And he was very rough, and just rang off.
“And I told Brian Little when he came back to the front desk, he looked agitated and when his female partner came back, he said – words to this effect – ‘We’re leaving now‘.”
Donna says she remembers Mr Little’s partner arguing that she did not want to leave.
“I can’t remember exactly what her words were, but it was like ‘Why, I don’t want to go.’
“But he insisted and then they left of course.”
She remembers four people leaving; the two Little brothers, Brian Little’s partner and another man.
Newspaper reports in 1973 contain stories of warnings to the club and tell of other arson attacks on Brisbane nightclubs; Torino’s nightclub and Chequers nightclub; before the Whiskey Au Go Go fire.
Donna says she was moved off the front desk and back to waitressing by Johnny Bell, the Whiskey Au Go Go’s manager.
She went back towards the bar and asked Desmae to get a glass of water.
“I had walked from the front door to the drinks bar near the stage,” she said.
“I turned to Desmae – the lady from New Farm who died, the lady with three children – and she gave me a glass of water.
“And then the fireball erupted through the door.
“So technically if I had still been at the front door I would have died of course.”
She still remembers the inside of the club as the Whiskey Au Go Go fire began.
“There was a fire ball, a large burst of fire and it blew through the top floor entrance to the club,” she said.
“It did erupt through the door, Johnny Bell was sitting there with people and I do remember seeing him run, although I don’t know what he did,” she said.
“I saw the fireball erupt, I saw John Bell run this way and Peter, a young drinks waiter, who was behind the bar, began running.
“As Peter was running, the curtains started to catch fire and it spread very quickly.
“As he was running, his hair and the clothes on his back caught fire.
“And I watched him run to the end of the bar – to the furthest end from the fire – and I imagined that he bent under the bar and tried to get the money from the till.
“While he was bending over, that is where he collapsed and died.”
Donna said she now realised she was in shock at the time.
“I just stood there …,” she said.
“My eyes were on him.
“The lights then began to flicker at the top end of the room and go out.”
“They started to go out in succession, from the door end.
Donna says she escaped through another door, helped by two men, went down the front stairs, towards a rear door and scrambled outside.
“Two men came to the door, I don’t know if it was open, or closed, but then we exited down the steps, out the back door and then over the security gate and onto the footpath onto the Amelia Street side,” she said.
“And we sat on the footpath across the road and watched the whole affair.
“We watched the bodies bought down. In my grief at that time I believed I saw the body of Desmae Carroll, the lady who was over my shoulder behind the drinks bar near the stage.”
Donna says she still believes Desmae paused for a few minutes to save the takings from the till.
“She was a very ethical person – and she was overcome and she was to die,” she said.
Donna says the shock lasted long after the nightclub blaze was doused.
She was affected by scenes in The Towering Inferno, the 1974 film which depicts people escaping from a burning glass tower in San Francisco. It was released in Australia in 1975.
“It wasn’t until I went to see the film, The Towering Inferno, that I reacted to a scene in the film and had to leave the cinema,” she said.
“And obviously I took note that I was internally suppressing the event.”
After this she studied psychology and did sessions with counsellors.
She said she her “tough exterior” stayed until she spoke to a person who was writing a book on the Whiskey Au Go Go.
“It wasn’t until I spoke with Tony Reeves [in 2013] that I started to get incredibly upset about it,” she said.
Reeves, a former investigative reporter, was researching a book on the Whiskey Au Go Go fire bombings with Danny Stuart, the nephew of one man convicted of the murders. Reeves died in December 2013, aged 70.
Donna said she was never formally interviewed by police, but was called to the court before the trial of John Andrew Stuart, 32 and James Richard Finch, 29 in 1973.
Both men were found guilty, despite a controversial trial and a thread of alternative back stories.
“I had not been interviewed by the police formally at all, except when I was called to the court before the trial,” she said.
“And I don’t know exactly who I spoke to, but there was a policeman in attendance and there was a solicitor or a barrister who spoke with me – part of their legal team, I believe – and I signed a document at that time.
“But I was never interviewed by the police before that.”
Donna said she learned about moves to place a plaque at the Whiskey Au Go Go site when reading a story in Fairfax Media and decided to help.
“That is why I’m doing my bit to launch the plaque on Sunday, March 8,” she said.
Helen Palethorpe’s big brother, Leslie, also died the Whiskey Au Go Go fire that night.
Leslie, then 20, was in the Army based at Lavarack Barracks, and had gone out with some friends for a few drinks that night.
She also believes it is essential the plaque to the Whiskey Au Go Go victims and their families is finally there.
“I mean 15 people lost their lives there that night,” Helen said.
“It is something that if my Mum was alive she would be so happy to know that that has happened.”
“Because that is somewhere that where should have gone.
“It is somewhere where I – when I am in Brisbane – will be going to have a look.
“There are shrines in places where other people lost their lives, so it is about time that this one happened.”
“Whiskey Au Go Go was so long ago, that people just forget that it happened.”
The Whiskey Au Go Go plaque has been suggested by several people closely linked to the event, but put into action by Brisbane councillor Vicki Howard and former State MP Rob Cavallucci since 2013.
Cr Howard agrees it is time victims were given some recognition.
“Along with many residents, I well remember that nightclub and the tragic event that occurred in 1973,” Cr Howard said.
“This was the largest mass-murder in Australia, until the sad incident at Port Arthur, and my purpose was to ensure that those 15 victims would receive a proper memorial near to the space where their lives were so tragically cut short,” she said.
“I am very much hoping that the local community will embrace the spirit of the plaque as they move through the area.
“I hope that the families of victims will take some comfort from the fact that we have recognised the site in this way, and that the service at the new plaque will provide a focus for them, and the general public to show their deep respect.”
A small group of family and friends will gather on Amelia Street, Fortitude Valley on Sunday at 1pm and honour the victims of the Whiskey Au Go Go fire bombing.
Tony Moore is a senior reporter at the Brisbane Times
Whiskey Murders — Dangerous Truths
We publish this story by Tony Reeves in the hope that there will be a re-opening the Whiskey A Go Go and the National Hotel murders. WBT does not post crime stories. However I post this account by Tony Reeves of the firebombing of the Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub in Fortitude Valley to demonstrate how the cross-over of criminal and political is blurred in most accounts of Queensland in the 1970s.
For example, one of the police who arrested and verballed petty crims, Stuart and Finch, that led to their conviction was Det. *** ****** . This was the same police officer who later arrested Senator George Georges at a democratic rights rally on the 30 October 1978 with hundreds arrested.
Corrupt police like ****** were often the ones most involved in political arrests. Det. ****** also arrested me on 31st March 1978 in a street march for democratic rights, but that is another story.
Qld senator George Georges arrested by Det *** ****** on 30 October 1978. Federal MP Tom Uren is is held by Qld police behind Senator Georges.
Tony Reeves account is supported by a signed statement by William Stokes which I have posted below.The cross-over of criminal and political is blurred in most accounts I have read in the mainstream media.
Whiskey Murders — Dangerous Truths
Tony Reeves account begins below and includes statement by William Stokes, the former editor of Port News.
Many of you will no doubt be familiar with some of the history of the firebombing of the Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub in Fortitude Valley at eight minutes past two on the morning of Thursday, the 8th of March, 1973.
A quick update may help fill in the most important details. About seventy or eighty people were winding down from a night of drinking, dancing and enjoying live music when two four-gallon drums of petrol were rolled into the ground floor foyer and ignited. Within moments dense black smoke, made more toxic by burned plastic, engulfed the club at the top of the stairs. Most of the fifteen victims died not of burns, but suffocation.
By the end of the weekend two criminals, John Andrew Stuart and James Richard Finch were arrested, charged with having perpetrated what was then Australia’s biggest mass murder since the wholesale slaughter of the nation’s original inhabitants after the white men’s invasion. They were later convicted and sentenced to life terms in jail. Both protested their innocence.
Finch was deported to the UK after serving fifteen years; Stuart died in Boggo Road jail on New Year’s Day, 1979.
Their conviction relied entirely upon a “confession” police claimed was made willingly by Finch at the CIB after his arrest. Finch had refused to sign this document and always claimed it was concocted by police, what is known in the jargon as a “verbal”.
Now for some lesser-known information. I have been working on this story for more than two years with Danny Stuart, nephew of John Andrew Stuart. Danny over time was gifted with a great mass of documents collected by John Andrew’s mother, Edna Watts, who fought tirelessly to prove her son’s innocence, even after his death.
Additional research has come up with some dramatic information which, among other things, proves beyond doubt that Stuart and Finch most certainly did NOT play any part in planning or executing the Whiskey crime. They were indeed set up by corrupt police, and Finch was indeed “verballed” by them to provide the only basis for their prosecution.
A bit of digging provided a sketch of an elaborate plot to rid the criminal milieu of Stuart, who was seen of a troublesome, independent-minded interloper who had learned much of his craft as a youngster at the notorious Westbrook Boys Home. Stuart had gone to Sydney in the 1960’s and within a few years had sufficiently upset that city’s “Mister Big”, Lennie McPherson and his copper mates that he was “dealt with”: he was accused of shooting another gangster, “Iron Man” Jacky Steele.
From my own earlier research I know that it was McPherson himself who shot Steele, and was able — as he often did — to have a trouble-maker take the rap for him. That was basic to McPherson’s modus operandi.
Stuart copped an eight-year sentence, but at Long Bay jail began to protest his innocence a little too loudly. After a while, fellow inmate Billy Harrison, a loyal foot-soldier to McPherson, stabbed Stuart in the stomach while he was showering. Doctors took a long time to get to him, but he survived.
He was shifted to Grafton prison, later described by Justice Nagle as a place where [quote] “…the arduous duties required of officers largely consisted of inflicting brutal, savage and sometimes sadistic physical violence on the hapless group of intractables who were sent to there…” [end quote]. Indeed, they nearly killed Stuart after his arrival there. Again, he managed to survive.
Paroled in mid-1972, Stuart was met at the prison gates by corrupt Consorting Squad detective Frank Charlton, a close ally of Lennie McPherson. Charlton produced a hand-gun and told Stuart it would be “found” on him and he’d be back in jail for a long spell. The only other option, he was told, was to “get back to Brisbane where you belong”. He did so.
Within a few months he decided to return to Sydney to — rather rashly — try to clear his name in the Jacky Steele matter. To pay for the trip he did a spot of break-enter-steal on the way south, was arrested by police at Taree and was soon back inside in Sydney pending a court hearing.
Suddenly, however, he was bailed out. A local crim, “Mad Dog” Lou Miller meet him outside the prison to drive him to the airport. We have dug a bit into this event and learned that Lennie McPherson’s pet lawyer, Parramatta-based David Baker, put up the $500 bail money. Interesting, we thought.
At the domestic terminal, Stuart says he was met by three young crims he vaguely knew from prison days. They told him that in return for being bailed, he had to go to Brisbane and warn nightclubs that Sydney criminals were planning to come north and start an extortion racket.
Stuart did do a bit of warning the clubs. There was no evidence offered that he ever asked for protection money himself. Then the Italian club, Torino’s, was firebombed. It was closed at the time so there were no casualties. Stuart had been warning journalist pal Brian Bolton and another old mate of his, Basil Hicks, who was now a policeman, that threats from Sydney were becoming serious.
With Torino’s in flames, the two recipients of the Stuart tale were convinced the threats to other clubs he spoke to them about were real. It mattered not to them whether or not Stuart was involved: it was time for police to take some action to prevent a real tragedy.
Police Commissioner Whitrod, when asked by a reporter about the Torino fire, said: “Stuart is the main suspect.” Remarkable for a police commissioner to show such ill-informed bias: Stuart had been arrested on a minor offence some ten hours before Torino’s was torched and was in a police watchhouse cell until late the following morning.
Our digging had turned up an interesting spin on the Torino fire. Venally corrupt cop Anthony Murphy, had wanted to buy the club, but the owners were resisting. He could run all the illegal grog trading hours, illegal gambling and a spot of prostitution at a club with one great advantage over all the others in a similar line of business: Murphy would never have to pay the standover money the others had regularly paid him and his close copper mates who formed, under his leadership, the notorious Rat Pack. And we now know that Tony Murphy had an ominous presence as a sort of “overseer” to the Whiskey affair, ensuring that the dangerous truths of this story never got to see light of day.
We have established that the crooked cops in Sydney had relayed to their close companions at the Brisbane CIB that Stuart was a “marked man”; that Lennie McPherson wanted him “out of the way” and that he had to be fitted with an appropriate crime.
Stuart extended his warnings after Torino to specifically include, among others, the Whiskey Au Go Go as being in line for a “hand grenade or similar attack while busy with patrons” as the southern crims upped the ante on their moves to take over the existing nightclub extortion rackets.
There were warnings to top police that Whiskey was in danger of an attack. One of them came from a senior Federal policeman in Brisbane to a senior detective, Jim Voigt, at the CIB. Whitrod and other police later denied they had been warned about the Whiskey. Brian Bolton told Whitrod and CIB chief Don Buchanan of the threats. As with prior warnings about Torino’s, nothing was done to avert the Whiskey disaster. The key difference, of course, was the fifteen deaths.
I could go on at length about the superficial cover the local cops put on their investigation, but they had John Andrew Stuart clearly in the frame for it.
I have interviewed the three surviving cops of the six who were at the CIB for the Finch so-called confession. One of them made it clear they had “verballed” Finch. He told me: “We knew we couldn’t touch Stuart, ’cos he didn’t do it. Stuart had an alibi … .”
In 1988 another of the six gave a lengthy interview to Bulletin magazine journalist Bruce Stannard. The cop was not identified in the story, but gave rhyme-and-verse detail how they had “verballed” Finch, who had refused point-blank to talk to them, despite the beatings they gave him. This cop admitted — though “boasted” would be a more appropriate term — that they had all committed perjury at the trial. The basis of the cop’s claim was that they “knew” Stuart and Finch were guilty, but had no clear proof, so they invented it. He said the pair were [quote] “dangerous animals who had to be taken off the streets for public safety” [unquote]. The police did not believe (he was quoted as saying) that they were committing any crime. “Quite the contrary,” he said, “their belief was that they were rendering a public service, using a system which has become a commonplace feature of police evidence throughout Australia.”
We rest our case about proving the miscarriage of justice against Stuart and Finch.
In addition to the police verballing of James Finch, another line of police activity helped them build a case against Stuart. None less than Stuart’s elder brother, Daniel, was leaned upon by crooked cops to allege Stuart was responsible. Daniel had little choice than to play the treacherous role police fashioned for him. For Daniel Stuart had been under the care and attention of none other than Detective Tony Murphy from more than a decade when he’s been nabbed for possession of stolen goods. Murphy continued to provide protection for Daniel Stuart as he moved into drugs and eventually became a major dealer in south-east Queensland.
So when police wanted Daniel and his wife to perjure themselves and make dishonest statements about John Andrew Stuart, they had plenty of leverage to use.
Remarkably, after Stuart had been arrested, these police persuaded Commissioner Whitrod to post a “Commissioner’s discretionary reward” of $50,000 for the arrest and conviction in the Whiskey affair.
Police spent a great deal of time at Daniel Stuart’s Jindalee home, preparing the statements he and his wife would give in court, mixed with threats of years in jail on drugs charges if the pair didn’t go along with it, and constantly dangling the lure of reward money if they did.
Daniel finally received $49,000 of the reward, but then didn’t get to keep it all: two of the senior police involved persuaded him to buy them each a brand new, large Ford vehicle. And years later, Tony Murphy visited Daniel a number of times to warn him, under threat of death, that he must never, ever speak to anyone about the dangerous truths of the Whiskey Au Go Go firebombing.
Daniel’s treachery to his brother actually didn’t help the police case a great deal. In all the manipulated statements he and his wife gave at the trial, there was absolutely not a shred of hard evidence that his brother and his mate James Finch HAD been responsible.
But the obvious question is: if not them, who DID the firebombing?
The short answer is that at the end of 1972 the Whiskey was broke. Liquidators had taken over and joint owner Brian Little conned them into handing management of the club back to him. The contents of the club were insured for around $25,000, (worth around $210,000 in today’s values). Brian Little arranged with a group of crim misfits who called themselves The Clockwork Orange (!!) to organise a real arsonist to torch the club. And it could not be done when it was closed, because the insurance would baulk at that.
There was in Brisbane at the time a man named Reginald John Lyttle (the surname spelled with a “Y”), who, we have learned, had been lighting fires from the age of nine and by 1973 had a long history of arson. Lyttle was heard after the Whiskey fire saying, over and over: “It wasn’t me, I couldn’t have done it, The Whiskey fire, I didn’t do it”, and then giving a detailed description of exactly how the foul deed had been carried out. Lyttle was never questioned by Queensland police who did not want anyone other than John Andrew Stuart in the frame for this crime, as they had agreed to do with their Sydney counterparts.
In 1975 Reg Lyttle was in Sydney. On Christmas eve his male lover had spurned him after earlier agreeing to a night in Lyttle’s room at the cheap Kings Cross private hotel, the Savoy. Lyttle set fire to the place. Another fifteen people died. Lyttle spent thirty-five years in jail for that crime.
A horrible twist to this story is that when he got to the work release stage of his sentence, he was given work in the Hunter Bush Fire Brigade.
We have not yet traced Reg Lyttle, but if our political push for a re-opening of the inquest into the Whiskey deaths ever happens, we would certainly be pressing — if he is still alive — for him to appear as a key witness.
This is a tragic story and there have been no winners: the victims, their families and the traumatised survivors, the firies and honest cops and ambulance staff who attended the fire, and not to forget John Andrew Stuart, who, we claim, was murdered in his cell at Boggo Road with dosings of 1080 dingo bait poison.
Our only hope now is that a publisher will soon accept that this is a story from the dark side of Queensland’s history that certainly deserves to be put into the public arena.
That summarises our grim discoveries about the Whiskey story, and I’ll welcome any questions on it all.
It wasn’t mentioned at the meeting at Dan’s, but after the Savoy Hotel fire Lyttle was not immediately identified as the arsonist. He went to live in another rooming-house in Barncleuth Square and after another tiff with a man, he set fire to that place. He suffered some burns, and as he was being carried out on a stretcher, he kept repeating: “Savoy fire. Savoy fire. It wasn’t me. I couldn’t have done it.” We are able to identify this as eerily similar to his denials of involvement in the Whiskey fire. He subsequently confessed to police about the two Sydney fires, and gave great detail about how (and why) he had lit them (as he had to at least three people in Brisbane in 1973).
Talk given at 17 Group, Wednesday, August 7, 2013.
Statement of William Stokes
We publish the full statement of William Stokes below. There are a number of typos and grammatical errors in the text below which we have left unchanged. Ed.
To whom it may concern
I William Stokes, hereby state. In 1973 nightclub entrepreneur and known homosexual John Hannay, after embezzling the funds from the Whiskey Au-Go-Go and having the financial records burnt in a fire at Alice’s Restaurant and then passing the liquor licence and liabilities on to others, bribed detectives – probably Basil Hicks/Ron Redmond/*** ******, to organize the burning of the nightclub for insurance purposes to compensate those left holding the bankruptcy tag.
From there the detectives instructed Vince O’Dempsy and Billy McCulkin to find someone to commit the offence. Consequently they instructed Tom Hamilton, Gary Dubois, Peter Hall and Keith Meredith to firstly firebomb the Torino nightclub ll days before the Whiskey Au-Go-Go . To divert any suspicion away from nightclub management, and to create a false trail away from the gang recruited by McCulkin and O’Dempsy, known criminal John Stuart supplied Basil Hicks and reporter Brian Bolton with false statements alleging that unknown Sydney criminals wanted to start up an extortion racket in Brisbane by firebombing the Torino and Whiskey Au-Go-Go nightclubs.
John Andrew Stuart (right) in custody of Qld unnamed police officer (probably at Boggo Road Jail).
Jim Finch joined in on this enterprise for the Whiskey firebombing.
At about the same time that Finch was preparing to fly to Brisbane, the Commonwealth Police (today’s Australian Federal Police) notified the Queensland State Police that they had information to advise that the Whiskey Au-Go-Go was going to be firebombed whilst patrons were inside. The Queensland State Police ignored this official police correspondence.
Once the Whiskey firebombing resulted in 15 people being killed, a different situation took place. To avert the Coroner’s Inquiry, Stuart and Finch were quickly arrested and convicted under an avalanche of perjured testimony from other detectives, a prison superintendent and a prisoner.
Mrs McCulkin, who was concerned by what she knew about her husband and his associates’ involvement in these crimes, was then abducted with her two young daughters and murdered by O’Dempsy and Dubois. These murders were covered up by the newly appointed Police Inspector, Basil Hicks, and possibly detective ****** who was a known acquaintance of Billy McCulkin.
In 1978, a few months before he was found dead, face down on a pillow in a caged prison cell, Stuart advised reporter Brian Bolton that in 1973 detectives Basil Hicks and Ron Redmond had recruited him to work undercover using the codename ‘Emu’. Stuart said that for payment Hicks and Redmond directed him to take a job as an orderly at the hospital, feign a slight injury, and then they would arrange for him to receive workers’ compensation payments from the State Government Insurance Office under the name of Trauts money that Stuart used to pay for the airline flight of Finch from London a week before the Whiskey firebombing. Stuart also used this money to rent a flat for himself and Finch under the name of Trauts, (Stuart spelled backwards).
Redmond, incidentally, was the detective who picked up a coded message said to be written by Stuart and smuggled out of jail two weeks after his arrest on the firebombing.
At the 1980 Coroner’s Court Inquiry into the McCulkin family, with Inspector Basil Hicks in charge of the investigation, O’Dempsy refused to answer any questions while Dubois sat in Boggo Road jail safely away from being quizzed or identified in a courtroom. Queensland Newspapers wrongly reported that Dubois’ absence from the courtroom was due to him having absconded on $10,000 bail over an earlier marijuana offence. Nevertheless at the conclusion of the 1980 Inquiry the coroner issued warrants for O’Dempsy and Dubois to be charged with murdering the McCulkin family – a finding that was overruled by the Public Prosecutor, Anglo Vasta, who was elevated to the bench before being removed following the evidence later admitted at the Fitzgerald Inquiry that revealed he had maintained an ‘unhealthy relationship’ with senior detectives.
Decades later it was reported on the Internet, and recently verified by homicide detective, Peter Roddick, that the coroner had also stated that *** ****** should also be charged with murdering the McCulkin family, but he too, like O’Dempsy and Dubois, was never made to stand trial.
An open and shut case
As recorded in police and court documents, on 18/1/74 a devastated Billy McCulkin, not long after amicably separating from his wife, Barbara, reported to Detective Sergeant Basil Hicks that his wlfe and two young daughters, Vicki and Barbara, had been abducted and murdered by Vince O’Dempsy and Gary Dubois. Clearly perverting the course of justice,·it was not until the 212174 (sic) <strong>[Ed Note: Does he mean 21/1/74?] that Basil Hicks reported the murders to Homicide Police and the media.
O’Dempsy and Dubois were well known to the police at that time. Dubois had served seven years for rape, while O’Dempsy had not only been in prison, but, according to earlier police reports and investigations, was believed responsible for the murder of 22-year-old Vincent Allen in 1964, as well of the murder of 18-year-old Margaret Ward in 1972. In both cases no bodies were found. (Allen had given detectives a statement critical to convict O’Dempsy on a break and enter offence. Ward had given detectives a statement critical to convict O’Dempsy’s girlfriend, Diane Pritchard, on a prostitution charge.
Under normal circumstances, on the 18/1/74, police would have swooped on O’Dempsy and Dubois.
The identification of O’Dempsy and Dubois is clear cut The neighbouring schoolgirls from across the road, 13-year-old Janet Gayton and her younger sisters had been good friends of the McCulkin’s. The schoolgirls all saw and were told the names of the two men visiting the house on 16/1/74; it was a birthday party date for the schoolgirls. At the birthday party, Janet Gayton made arrangements to meet the McCulkin sisters on 17/1/74, but, when she called at their house on the next day, the house was deserted. No one answered her knock on the door. When then interviewed by the police five days later, Janet Gayton and her sisters identified from a selection of photographs the two photos of O’Dempsy and Dubois. They expressed no doubts.
Why there is an open and shut case against Basil Hicks, is in the police reports showing that from the 19/1/74 to 20/1/74, Mrs McCulkin’s next door neighbour for three years, Peter Nisbet, and her co-worker from a city snack bar, also for three years, Mrs Ellen Gilbert, came forward and told the investigating detectives that ever since the Whiskey Au-Go-Go firebombing, Mrs McCulkin had repeatedly expressed fears and a concern for her safety because she knew about her estranged husband and his associates involvement in the crime. Ellen Gilbert stated that on the day after the Whiskey firebombing, Mrs Barbara McCulkin and her daughters had fled their Highgate Hill house to reside with her for a few days; staying up until when Stuart and Finch were arrested.
For months thereafter Mrs McCulkin had further repeatedly told both her next door neighbour Nisbet and co-worker Gilbert that she was worried by what she knew about her husband and his associates involvement in both the Torino and Whiskey firebombings. Nisbet identified seeing O’Dempsy and Dubois in the kitchen talking with Barbara McCulkin at around 2 am one morning when he knocked on her door. Nisbet knew O’Dempsy and Dubois from previous visits when Billy McCulkin had resided at the Highgate Hill house.
Records show that Billy McCulkin and John Stuart were once arrested together as teenagers; and weeks prior to the Whiskey firebombing Stuart was a visitor at Billy McCulkin’s Highgate Hill house when he resided there with his wife and daughters.
Billy McCulkin discovered his wife and daughters missing when he called on the 18/1/74 and found the house locked and deserted, mail containing cheques were in the letterbox. When he spoke to the neighbouring schoolgirl Janet Gayton, and learned of O’Dempsy and Dubois visiting the house, he became extremely concerned and broke into the house. Inside he found a light on, sewing was half-completed on the sewing machine. The pet kittens were locked in the bathroom. Nothing was disturbed or missing, except his wife and kids.
Also in the 19/1/74 to 20/1/74 police reports are the accounts of Billy McCulkin telephoning O’Dempsy at his New Farm residence, as well as driving to Chermside to try and locate Dubois, only to find Tom Hamilton driving Dubois’ car. However, there is no attempt by the police at this stage to interview O’Dempsy and Dubois.
Then, after O’Dempsy and Dubois had sold their cars for cash and went into hiding with their girlfriends, Diane Pritchard and Jan Stubs, on 2/2/74 Hicks advised the media about the crime and claimed that rape was the motive for these murders. No mention was made about the Torino and Whiskey Au-Go-Go statements from Barbara McCulkin’s close friends, Peter Nisbet and Ellen Gilbert. When 17-year-old Jan Stubs’ identity and association with Dubois became known to Courier Mail reporters, and they interviewed Jan Stubs’ mother, she told the reporters she was not worried about her daughter’s safety while being on the run with Dubois, even though he was said to be involved with raping and murdering the McCulkin family. Basil Hicks was the detective who had earlier been supplied with false statements from John Stuart claiming that Sydney criminals. wanted to start an extortion racket in Brisbane by firebombing nightclubs – statements that ensured the insurance would be paid and suspicion would be diverted away from club management.
For months following 2/2/74, the Courier Mail reported police raids on premises where O’Dempsy and Dubois were thought to be hiding, only for police to discover that O’Dempsy and Dubois had fled shortly before the pursuing constables raided the premises. Eventually, the case lost front-page attention when detectives advised the media that they were investigating reports Mrs Barbara McCulkin had simply taken her daughters and had gone to live in New Zealand.
Later, in 1980, when heading investigations by the then newly appointed Police Inspector Basil
Hicks, the Coroners Court Inquiry into all these missing people, even though both O’Dempsy and Dubois were then in Boggo Road jail on other matters, only O’Dempsy was escorted into the courtroom, where he refused to answer any questions. Dubois, held in jail, was not brought before the court while the newspapers wrongly reported that his whereabouts was unknown.
The court hearing did nevertheless reveal some very important facts, along with a few false trails, surrounding the murdered McCulkin family.
The Fitzgerald Inquiry led ****** to being a regular visitor at the McCulkin family residence before the murderous abduction. When I was subpoenaed into the Coroners Court heating for questioning, I told the magistrate that I did not think it was a fair dinkum inquiry and therefore refused to answer any questions. (Earlier in the prison I had spoken to O’Dempsy and Dubois about the McCulkin family murders and when I criticized Dubois for killing kids he snapped, “That was Vince! He just went off.” Then when I spoke with O’Dempsy and mentioned that it had been rumoured that the girls were sexually slain, O’Dempsy held up his hand in a stop sign and said, <em>”We only did what … “</em> He never finished the sentence. During the Coroners Court Inquiry, Dubois told me that the matter would be committed for trial and then <em>No Billed</em>, which was more or less what eventually happened.
In more recent times, the detective currently in charge of the investigation into the McCulkin family murders, Detective Peter Roddick, has stated that at the Coroners Court Inquiry, the coroner recommended that Vince O’Dempsy, Gary Dubois and Detective *** ****** be charged in relation to these three murders – a recommendation that was overruled by Public Prosecutor, Anglo Vasta, before he was removed from the bench following the later Fitzgerald Inquiry findings that revealed that Anglo Vasta had maintained an unhealthy relationship with detectives.
Curiously, back in 1973 Billy McCulkin initially introduced me to Detective *** ****** as ‘Mr Fix-It.’ McCulkin said in ******’s presence that if ever I was arrested,. then I should see ****** and for a price he would be able to fix the matter. In recent times former detective, *** ******, has told journalist, Matthew Condon, that on the day after the Whiskey firebombing he met up with gangster, John Regan, who had flown up from Sydney and together they drove around Brisbane searching for John Stuart’s hideout address . However, what actually enticed Regan to make such a voluntary trip has never been revealed. On that day Regan could not of known about his old adversity, Jim Finch, having returned to Australia unless told so by detectives, and detectives could have only know of Finch’s presence that day unless dobbed in by McCulkin and/or O’Dempsy.
In 2013, on Channels 7s Flashback Report, Jim Finch openly admitted that Mrs McCulkin was murdered because of what she knew about the Whiskey firebombing.
Dear Commissioner Stewart
With regard to the rumoured hearsay case that police only have on the 1974 McCulkin family murders, may I suggest that you please investigate this list of people who do have admissible evidence about this matter. However, because this case is linked to the 1973 Whiskey Au-Go-Go firebombing, it would be necessary for the State Government to grant immunity from prosecution to some of these people in exchange for a truthful statement.
John Hannay: Paid detectives to arrange the Whiskey firebombing. For almost 40 years Hannay has been howling about the outcome, not only because 15 people were killed, some he knew, but because he had asked for the fire to be lit close to closing time when there would not be many patrons in the club. Hannay is now at an age when he knows he is not immortal and may like to clean the slate. It is also thought that he may have already detailed an affidavit to be made public upon his death in which he names the detectives involved .
Jim Finch: In recent years Finch has reportedly admitted to a London journalist that he had accompanied Tom Hamilton, Gary Dubois, Peter Hall and Keith Meredith on the night to firebomb the Whiskey nightclub.
Billy McCulkin: Husband and father of the murdered family. A known associate of detective *** ******, along with Vince O’Dempsy, McCulkin recruited Hamilton, Dubois, Hall and Meredith to firebomb the Torino nightclub 11 days before the Whiskey massacre.
Keith Meredith: Took part in the Torino and Whiskey firebombings but split from the gang before the McCulkin murders.
Doug Meredith: A close associate of O’Dempsy, Hamilton, Dubois and Hall who has some knowledge/involvement about these offences.
Jan Stubbs: Dubois’ teenage girlfriend who went on the run with him, O’Dempsy and Diane Pritchard (now deceased) immediately following the McCulkin family murders. Has knowledge about the fire-bombings and motive for the McCulkin murders but has never been questioned by police. Alleged to have married Dubois so as she could not be made to testify against him.
Mrs Ellen Gilbert: Co-worker of Mrs McCulkin at a city snack bar for three years. Gave the initial statement to detectives immediately after the McCulkin murders; then at the 1980 Coroner’s Court Inquiry testified that Mrs McCulkin had fled from her Highgate Hill address shortly after the Whiskey firebombing to reside with her and only returned to the Highgate Hill address following the arrest of Stuart and Finch. Mrs Gilbert further testified that Mis McCulkin was frightened and concerned for her safety as well as the safety of her two children because she knew of her husband and his associates involvement in the Whiskey firebombing.
Peter Nisbet: A friend and neighbour of Mrs McCulkin for three years. Gave the initial statement to detectives immediately after the McCulkin murders; then at the 1980 Coroner’s Court Inquiry testified that he and Mrs McCulkin had a number of conversations about the Torino and Whiskey firebombings and she had stated that she had enough information about her husband on these matters to put him away for five years but she was too frightened to do so.
Janet Gayton: 13 year-old friend and neighbour of the McCulkin family. Shortly after the McCulkin murders, along with her younger sister, Janet Gayton readily identified O’Dempsy and Dubois by name and assorted mug-shot photos as being the last people seen with the McCulkins on the day they disappeared. At the 1980 Coroner’s Court Inquiry, Janet Gayton further identified O’Dempsy in the courtroom but was not given the opportunity to further identify Dubois because he was shielded from the Coroner’s obligatory questions and identification by being held in custody at Boggo Road jail while O’Dempsy in court answered, ”No comment" to every single question asked of him.
Throughout these courtroom proceedings detectives falsely told newspaper reporters that Dubois’ absence was because he had absconded on bail on an earlier marijuana charge and that he had been placed on Queensland’s 10 most wanted list However, as if to show what a farce the court proceedings were, every time that Dubois was escorted to another court on the marijuana charge, he quietly smuggled back into the jail a small bag of marijuana.
Carolyn Scully: Tom Hamilton’s sister who in recent years has reportedly admitted to a journalist that following the Torino firebombing, she and her brother celebrated by drinking the alcohol he had stolen from the nightclub before setting it alight.
* Copies of this correspondence have been sent to both sides of Parliament and Queensland Newspapers in the hope that such a spread should keep everybody honest.