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Whiskey Au Go Go fire

The Whiskey Au Go Go fire was a fire that occurred at 2.08 am on Thursday 8 March 1973, in the Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub in Fortitude Valley, Brisbane, Australia that killed 15 people.[1][2]

Whiskey Au Go Go fire
Date8 March 1973; 45 years ago (1973-03-08)
VenueWhiskey Au Go Go
LocationFortitude Valley, Brisbane, Australia
Coordinates27°27′20″S 153°01′55″E / 27.4555°S 153.0319°E / -27.4555; 153.0319Coordinates: 27°27′20″S 153°01′55″E / 27.4555°S 153.0319°E / -27.4555; 153.0319
TypeFire
CauseFirebomb
Death(s)15
Convicted
  • James Richard Finch
  • John Andrew Stuart

Contents

The buildingEdit

The Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub occupied the first floor of a building which still exists on the corner of Amelia Street and St Paul's Terrace. The space was previously occupied by another club called the Celebrity Cabaret which closed due to financial pressures.[3] Seeing an opportunity, band manager John Hannay approached the Little brothers (Brian and Ken) and suggested they rent the vacant space for a new nightclub. They did so in March 1972 and named the new cabaret the Whiskey Au Go Go.[3]

John Andrew Stuart and the extortion threatsEdit

John Andrew Stuart, a career criminal, was sent to jail in 1966 for the attempted murder of fellow criminal Robert Steele.[4] After his release from prison in New South Wales in July 1972, he returned to his hometown of Brisbane and immediately started vague rumors of criminals from Sydney wanting to extort nightclubs in Brisbane. He told this both to reporter Brian Bolton and Detective Basil Hicks.[5] At the end of 1972 he gave specific intelligence to Brian Bolton stating an empty club would be firebombed first and then a second, the Whiskey Au Go Go, would firebombed when it was full of people.[6] Bolton wrote numerous newspaper articles and personally notified the police commissioner and police minister of the threat.[7]

Building fireEdit

John Stuart's warning was verified when an empty club, Torinos, was destroyed by arson on 25 February 1973.[8] The Whiskey Au Go Go was firebombed in the early hours of 8 March 1973, resulting in the deaths of 15 patrons.[9]

The fire began with the ignition of two drums (four and five gallons) of AMOCO petrol in the building's foyer.[10] When ignited the burning petrol sent carbon monoxide up to the club's main room on the first floor. The only escape route was the rear stairs which were poorly signposted and cluttered with crates of bottles.[11] The club has been described as a deathtrap.[12]

Patrons had difficulty escaping due to the large quantities of grease that covered the escape path and six foot high fence which blocked the side alley. The persistent rumors that the escape was deliberately greased by the arsonist(s) are untrue. The practice at the club was to place used cooking oil containers against the wall of the escape route. These were upended in the stampede and the fats spread by foot as the patrons fled.[13]

About 50 patrons, bar staff and entertainers had been in the club at the time of ignition.[14] Some escaped by jumping from broken windows onto an awning and dropping 15 feet to the ground.[15][16] Others escaped via the windows in the men's and women's changing rooms.[17]

The fifteen people killed had died of carbon monoxide poisoning. They were dead before the firefighters arrived.[18] Of the six person band Trinity, two musicians were killed.[19] Three staff members and ten patrons were also killed.[20] Jennifer Denise Davie, a drinks waitress employed in the bar, was one of the deceased.[21]

After the fireEdit

ArrestEdit

On the Saturday after the fire the Queensland Government had offered a $50,000 reward for information on the bombing. Based on John Stuart's foreknowledge of the fire he was the number one suspect. As the police had insufficient evidence to arrest him, as he had an alibi at the time of the fire, the police fabricated evidence that he threatened someone with a knife.[22] He was duly arrested. James Richard Finch was subsequently arrested at the suburban Jindalee shopping centre.

In 1966 Finch had been sentenced to 14 years prison after being found guilty of malicious wounding with a firearm and carrying an unlicensed pistol. Finch had fired two shots during an altercation near a petrol station in Oxford Street, Paddington, Sydney, injuring two men. Finch gave Stuart the offending firearm post shooting and the two career criminals had known each other for at least seven years before.[23] At the trial Finch was described by police as "an active young criminal and associate of the most violent criminals in Sydney."[24] Finch had been paroled after serving seven years of that sentence.

Immediately after their arrest, both loudly protested their innocence at their first court appearance. It was reported that there was commotion in the dock when the men were brought before the Brisbane Magistrates court after their arrest for arson and 15 counts of murder. Stuart was restrained by six detectives while Finch was relatively quiet and restrained by one detective. During this hearing Finch claimed he was innocent, that on his arrest police had presented him with a prepared written confession, and had beaten him.[25]

The committal hearing heard that Finch, previously resident of Australia, had been imported by Stuart from his native England for the extortion scheme and had returned to Australia 12 days prior to the bombing. Police claimed Finch had privately confessed to them and had implicated Stuart. The police reported that Finch had willfully set the fire while Stuart had plotted to establish a false lead that "southern criminals" were planning an extortion racket in Brisbane.[26]

Trial and imprisonmentEdit

During the supreme court trial Finch and Stuart loudly protested their innocence, claiming they had been "verballed" and convicted based on false confessions. They both pleaded not guilty.[27]

Similar to the committal hearing, the start of the full court trial had been delayed. On 20 August, Stuart told the Government Medical Officer that he had swallowed some pieces of metal.[28] He would repeat the exercise and be absent for most of the trial. Through his incarcerations Stuart underwent a total of five operations to remove foreign objects from his stomach.[29] During the committal trial Finch had amputated one of his fingers.[30]

On 23 October 1973 both were convicted of the murder of Jennifer Denise Davie.[31] The jury found that the fire was lit as part of an extortion-terror campaign aimed at Brisbane nightclub operators, and they were sentenced to life in prison.[32] Stuart made Australian legal history: he was sentenced despite not being in court. At the time he was in hospital recovering from his third stomach operation as a result of him swallowing wire.[33]

During their imprisonment in Boggo Road Gaol they continued to protest their innocence, fighting a protracted legal battle for release and continuing their self-harm to draw attention to their protest.[34] In one incident Stuart sewed his lips together using wire paperclips. This occurred during a strike by warders when police had taken charge of the prison; Stuart had previously warned warders he would do this to prevent police from questioning him. During this period Finch kept up a tirade of abuse against police in the prison, once emptying his sanitary bucket over them.[35]

Finch's appealsEdit

Finch took his appeals to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. In February 1984 the High Court of Australia granted a permanent injunction restraining Finch from proceeding with the petition he had lodged with the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council seeking leave to appeal a decision of the High Court.[36]

Finch appealed this decision in order to appeal the decisions of the Queensland Court of Criminal appeal made in 1974 and 1978. Those decisions had dismissed Finch's original appeal and his later application for special leave to appeal.[37]

The Australian Government, with the support of the Queensland Government, sought an injunction to prevent Finch proceeding in London. On 28 June the High Court of Australia refused this injunction, and the appeal reached the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London on 6 July 1984. The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council took less than thirty minutes to dismiss the application. The five member bench decided that the matter brought before it by Finch was not a matter that should be heard by the Council.[38]

Release from prisonEdit

Stuart was found dead on 2 January 1979 in his cell of Boggo Road Gaol after a six-day hunger strike.[39] The cause of death was recorded as an acute heart infection, possibly the result of a virus. Although some believe he was murdered, his self mutilation practices and poor mental health explains his demise.[40] At the time it was reported that many police regarded him as Australia's most violent criminal.[41]

In 1986, Finch married Cheryl Cole, a wheelchair-using woman with a terminal illness.[42] Finch won his battle for release in 1988, after almost 15 years in prison.[43] As part of his parole conditions he was deported back to his birth country, England. There, in October 1988, he confessed to the crime.[44] He told The Sun newspaper in a videotaped interview that he had tipped two drums of fuel into the doorway of the nightclub building before the firebombing. He also repeated claims that he had been "verballed" by the original police investigators (i.e. that they lied about words Finch had purportedly said, and that those lies were used as evidence). He also claimed that a policeman named at the enquiry had ordered the bombing. He later recanted the confession.[45]

Jana Wendt interviewed Finch on A Current Affair by satellite to further discuss that admission. Wendt says that "When I suggested to him that his admission might mean that he could also be extradited to Australia to face other murder charges, his behaviour suddenly changed dramatically. He said he was now confused and could not recall murdering anybody. He claimed he had been brainwashed."[46] Finch was unaware he has been only charged for one murder and fourteen other charges were outstanding.[47]

Coronial inquest reopenedEdit

On 2 June 2017, following the conviction and sentencing of Vincent O'Dempsey and Garry DuBois for the McCulkin murders case, Queensland Attorney-General Yvette D'Ath announced that the government would re-open the coronial inquest into the fire. Recently, Vincent O'Dempsey has been charged with the murder of a woman and her two daughters.[48]

Book release - The Whiskey Au Go Go MassacreEdit

A controversial new book, written by the historian Geoff Plunkett and released in 2018, asserts the police may have fabricated evidence to convict John Stuart and James Finch. The author's conclusion are based on the original police murder investigative files which he had exclusive access to.[49][50] The evidence for the fabrication includes;

  1. Eyewitness accounts make Finch's confession (unsigned record of interview) logistically implausible. His confession states he rolled the two drums from the north west corner into the foyer. However, one of the patrons was at this spot when the fire was ignited. He did not see Finch or anyone here.[51]
  2. Regarding his refusal to sign his confession (as stated on his unsigned confession), Finch supposedly said, ‘That is always the code that I have followed in the past and that is my desire in this case.’ This was patently false. On seven previous occasions when Finch had confessed to a crime, he had always signed his own handwritten confession.[52]
  3. According to the lead detectives Finch supposedly made a confession in the watch-house. The watch-house staff made internal statements which were never made public. These eyewitness accounts are in conflict with the lead detectives. They carry none of the incriminating verbal exchanges between Finch and Stuart where they admit their guilt.[53]
  4. Finch, after having admitted to police that he was guilty, firstly at the Jindalee shopping centre, then at the Criminal Investigation Branch in his unsigned record of interview interview (less than three hours earlier), and then at the watch-house, seconds after saying to a room of a least 11 police officers that he was guilty, had his first opportunity to put his true thoughts down in his own handwriting. He did so on the charge sheet, writing ‘This property sheet is signed under protest as I have no knowledge whatsoever of record of interview. This is a police fabrication.’[54] In jail Stuart and Finch immediately wrote letters to detectives stating they had made no confessions. The letters are reproduced in Plunkett's book.[55]
  5. The detectives prepared Stuart’s 16 charge sheets before he was charged and before there was any evidence against him.[56]
  6. Roger Rogerson had told a Bulletin reporter that he and the other lead detectives fabricated evidence. They did so because, although they 'knew' Stuart and Finch were involved, they had insufficient evidence to convict them. The police confirmed Rogerson was the 'mole' during an early 1990s secret investigation called 'Operation Graveyard'.[57] The journalist has refused to discuss the matter.[58]

In 2018 the only two surviving lead detectives, Roger Rogerson and Evan Griffiths, both deny any wrongdoing or false evidence.[59][60]

Although agreeing with Stuart's and Finch's guilt the author argues other masterminds were involved including Billy McCulkin and Vincent O'Dempsey. Furthermore O'Dempsey killed McCulkin's wife to eliminate a witness, something he had done in the past. The result of the alleged police fakery was a series of further murders and the deaths of innocents.[61] Stuart told reporter Bolton that the same group were behind both the Torino and Whiskey arsons.[62] O'Dempsey role in the Torino fire was confirmed during his trial for the murder of Mrs McCulkin and her two daughters.[63]

Plunkett dismisses the extortion threats as a smoke screen and concludes the arson was more likely related to the Whiskey's financial affairs. This is based on the following;

  1. The Whiskey was the sole club targeted for the stand over. However it was bankrupt and this was known by Stuart. A worthless club is not a plausible target of extortionists.[64] It owed more than one million dollars in today's terms.
  2. Stuart's interviews with his police handler were recorded. The variations in Stuart's narrative were irreconcilable and nonsensical.[65]
  3. Criminal extortionists both before and after the Whiskey have never tried announced their extortion plans through the press for the obvious reason that they are raising their hands to be instantly clamped in handcuffs.[64]
  4. Sydney criminals were doing nicely in their home town and would not have bothered with a backwater like Brisbane. Rogerson confirmed this point to the Bulletin reporter.
  5. The missing tens of thousands of dollars of Whiskey funds, allegedly stolen, were never investigated or accounted for.[66]

Plunkett has also highlighted the accuracy of the claims made by William Stokes.[67] He did so in 1975 in the Port News, a bi-monthly publication of the Waterside Workers Federation’s Brisbane Branch which he edited. Stokes claimed;[68]

  1. "McCulkin through O’Dempsey, conscripted the so called Clockwork Orange gang to torch the Torino club for $500 as an insurance job. Mrs McCulkin had admitted to her husband’s role, and O’Dempsey’s role was confirmed at the rape/murder trials".[69]
  2. "Dubois and O’Dempsey abducted, raped and killed the McCulkin females. Both were convicted for murder, and Dubois for rape".[69]
  3. "McCulkin, through O’Dempsey, conscripted elements of the Clockwork Orange gang to torch the Whiskey. Police records and eyewitness testimony indicate that this is a conclusion that requires consideration."
  4. Hannay ‘masterminded the entire plan.’ Stokes did not provide any direct evidence for this accusation. Stokes initially made the claim about Hannay in the April 1975 edition of the Port News stating he was the only person to benefit financially from the fire. The claim was reiterated in 2015.[70]

Stokes has been described an essential witness at the upcoming coronial inquest.[71]

BibliographyEdit

Plunkett, Geoff (2018). The Whiskey Au Go Go Massacre: Murder, Arson and the Crime of the Century. Big Sky Publishing. ISBN 9781925675443.

External LinksEdit

ReferencesEdit

  1. ^ Australian Nightclub Fire Kills 15. The Bryan Times: 8 March 1973, p.3. The fire started at 2.08 and not 2.10 as often reported in the press and on the Whiskey Au Go Go plaque which was laid on the footpath in front of the building. This was confirmed in the fire department dispatches (see Plunkett 2018, p. 29).
  2. ^ Plunkett 2018, p. 29.
  3. ^ a b Plunkett 2018, p. 10.
  4. ^ Plunkett 2018, p. 69.
  5. ^ Plunkett 2018, p. 88.
  6. ^ Plunkett 2018, p. 111.
  7. ^ Plunkett 2018, p. 113.
  8. ^ Plunkett 2018, p. 125.
  9. ^ Emergency Management Australia, Disasters Database
  10. ^ Plunkett 2018, p. 25.
  11. ^ Plunkett 2018, p. 315.
  12. ^ Plunkett 2018, p. 27.
  13. ^ Plunkett 2018, p. 177.
  14. ^ Plunkett 2018, p. 16.
  15. ^ Australian Nightclub Fire Kills 15. The Bryan Times: 8 March 1973, p.3.
  16. ^ Plunkett 2018, p. 37.
  17. ^ Plunkett 2018, p. 35.
  18. ^ Plunkett 2018, p. 45.
  19. ^ Gawenda, Michael. 'Mad bomber' planned club deaths: police. The Age: 9 March 1973, p.4.
  20. ^ Geoff,, Plunkett,. The Whiskey Au Go Go massacre : murder, arson and the crime of the century. Newport, NSW. ISBN 9781925675443. OCLC 1041112112.
  21. ^ Dead girl homesick. The Age: 9 March 1973, p.4.
  22. ^ Plunkett 2018, p. 193.
  23. ^ Plunkett 2018, p. 201.
  24. ^ Gunman gaoled 14 years. The Sydney Morning Herald: 14 October 1966, p.10.
  25. ^ Charged pair fight police, shout their innocence. The Age: 13 March 1973, p.3.
  26. ^ Charged pair fight police, shout their innocence. The Age: 13 March 1973, p.3.
  27. ^ Privy Council will not act on appeal. The Age: 7 July 1984, p.4.
  28. ^ Plunkett 2018, p. 221.
  29. ^ Brisbane jail prisoner sews lips with wire. The Sydney Morning Herald: 9 May 1974, p.3.
  30. ^ Plunkett 2018, p. 258.
  31. ^ Prison probe urged. The Age: 7 January 1974, p.3.
  32. ^ Privy Council will not act on appeal. The Age: 7 July 1984, p.4.
  33. ^ 'Whiskey' murderer dead in cell. The Age: 2 January 1979, p.1.
  34. ^ "Nightclub terror" by Russell Grenning as quoted in the Brisbane Courier Mail
  35. ^ Brisbane jail prisoner sews lips with wire. The Sydney Morning Herald: 9 May 1974, p.3.
  36. ^ Appeal to Privy Council approved. The Sydney Morning Herald: 10 February 1984, p.9.
  37. ^ Baker, Jill. Government seeks to stop Privy Council Appeal. The Age: 6 June 1984, p.18.
  38. ^ Privy Council will not act on appeal. The Age: 7 July 1984, p.4.
  39. ^ GNT on ABC Television, Broadcast 6.30pm on 13th Sept 2004
  40. ^ Plunkett 2018, p. 234.
  41. ^ 'Whiskey' murderer dead in cell. The Age: 2 January 1979, p.1.
  42. ^ Prisoner to wed. The Age: 19 February 1986, p.4.
  43. ^ Finch released. The Age: 17 February 1987, p.3.
  44. ^ One year ago. The Age: 30 October 1989, p.2.
  45. ^ Finch facing possible extradition and further charges. The Sydney Morning Herald: 24 November 1988, p.4.
  46. ^ Steve Dow (7 October 2005). "Interviewing the interviewers". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 4 July 2009.
  47. ^ Plunkett 2018, p. 239.
  48. ^ Statement from Attorney General Yvette D'Ath on Whiskey Au Go Go Inquest
  49. ^ "The Whiskey AU Go Go Massacre - Big Sky Publishing". Big Sky Publishing. Retrieved 2018-06-10.
  50. ^ "The Whiskey Au Go Go Massacre". whiskeyfire.info. Retrieved 2018-10-17.
  51. ^ Plunkett 2018, p. 246.
  52. ^ Plunkett 2018, p. 243.
  53. ^ Plunkett 2018, p. 248.
  54. ^ Plunkett 2018, p. 251.
  55. ^ Plunkett 2018, p. 252.
  56. ^ Plunkett 2018, p. 244.
  57. ^ Plunkett 2018, p. 253.
  58. ^ "Secret files detail 'fake report' on Whiskey Au Go Go blaze". The Australian, 1 September 2018.
  59. ^ "False Confession Claims on Club Bombing 'Untrue' – The Australian (6 November 2018) – The Whiskey Au Go Go Massacre". Retrieved 2018-12-12.
  60. ^ McCutcheon, Peter (2018-09-24). "Victim's sister hopes new inquest sheds fresh light on Whiskey Au Go Go firebombing". ABC News. Retrieved 2018-12-12.
  61. ^ Plunkett 2018, p. 310.
  62. ^ Plunkett 2018, p. 307.
  63. ^ Motherwell, Sarah (2017-05-26). "O'Dempsey found guilty of 1974 McCulkin murders". Brisbane Times. Retrieved 2018-12-12.
  64. ^ a b Plunkett 2018, p. 313.
  65. ^ Plunkett 2018, p. 260.
  66. ^ Plunkett 2018, p. 266.
  67. ^ Plunkett 2018, p. 232.
  68. ^ Plunkett 2018, p. 314.
  69. ^ a b Moody, Sherele. "McCulkin tragedy: A summer evening's drive becomes murder". News Mail. Retrieved 2018-12-12.
  70. ^ "Not All, Fall Down". Workers BushTelegraph. 2015-03-08. Retrieved 2018-12-12.
  71. ^ "Killer-editor William Stokes prepares to spill on Whiskey – The Australian (13 October 2018) – The Whiskey Au Go Go Massacre". Retrieved 2018-12-12.