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.
The Whiskey Au Go Go ablaze – 15 corpses lie inside
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.
The men convicted of setting the Whiskey ablaze – Stuart (L) and Finch
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.
Mr Big of Sydney Crime – Lenny McPherson
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.
Corrupt cop Tony Murphy – the head Joker in the Rat’s Pack
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 Little (some say the surname was 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.
Little 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. Little 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 Little had returned to Sydney. On Christmas eve his male lover had spurned him after earlier agreeing to a night in Little’s room at the cheap Kings Cross private hotel, the Savoy. Little set fire to the place. Another fifteen people died. Little 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 traced Reg Little, and if the Whiskey Au Go Go investigation was ever reopened would publicly campaign for him to appear as a key witness. But it won’t be, because the key documents that prove the conspiracy have been seized by the Queensland Government, and laws have been passed to embargo them for the next 60 years, by which time anyone who remembers anything about the horrific events of 1973 in Fortitude Valley will long be dead.
What is it that we have to hide?
Edited text of a speech given by my friend and now deceased colleague, the award winning journalist Tony Reeves, in 2013