Hunter was at the Whiskey Au Go Go the night it went up in flames. Hunter was inside the nightclub, amongst the smoke and the screams of other patrons. (Photo: The Australian)
Donna heard a woman screaming and glass shattering the night the Whiskey Au Go Go was firebombed. Donna worked in the nightclub, and saw a workmate with his shirt on fire, the image still haunts Donna to this day. (Photo: The Australian)
Kath was at the Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub in Brisbane on the night of March 8, 1973, when it was firebombed. Kath along with her friend saw the Whiskey go up in the flames from outside the venue.
Brian "The Eagle" Bolton was a Brisbane crime reporter, who worked tirelessly for the Sunday Sun newspaper. Bolton rubbed shoulders with criminals and cops, had battle scars, tattoos and the legendary nickname...The Eagle.
Journalist Brian Bolton warned Commissioner R. Whitrod (right) of the plans to firebomb the Whiskey Au Go Go, but Queensland Police didn't listen.
John Andrew Stuart was known locally as a "psychopath" and "maniac". He worked closely with journalist Brian Bolton, and gave Bolton some hot tips about firebombings in Brisbane.
James Finch was one of John Andrew Stuart's most trusted associates. Finch was in the UK, and just before the Whiskey blew, Stuart suspiciously flew Finch to Brisbane.
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Whooshkaa Studios: “Listeners are advised this podcast contains coarse language and adult themes, and is not suitable for younger ears.”
The voice you just heard is that of Kath Potter.
She was at the Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub in Brisbane on the night of March 8, 1973, when it was firebombed. Fifteen people lost their lives.
All were dead within minutes from carbon monoxide poisoning. None were burned. As the smoke first billowed into the club, the lights flickered then failed, throwing the club into blackness.
Another patron in the club, Hunter Nichol, was convinced he was about to meet his maker.
And staff member Donna Phillips remembers that night with terrifying clarity.
In the club there were windows along the wall facing St Paul’s Terrace, but all were covered in decorative curtains. It didn’t matter. An inquest would find that the winding mechanisms on all those windows had previously been removed, and the windows riveted shut. A fire-resistant exit door had closed and was unable to be opened from the inside. Most bodies were found in an alcove next to that door.
It was a mixed crowd that evening. Of the 50 revellers, three girls were out on a hen’s night, and amongst the drinkers and dancers was a truck driver, the manager of a local suburban public pool, a pub owner from country Queensland, telephonists, a woman who worked in the canteen at the nearby Roma Street railway station, two members of the Military Police and two Queensland police constables.
The club itself had a reputation as a “last chance saloon”. Rumours lingered that prostitutes worked out of the Whiskey, and that hoods and crims held up the bar there. It had an air of danger about it.
It didn’t have the fancy atmosphere of Chequers, for example, at the top end of town in Elizabeth Street. The decor was chintzy. It strove for class, but was a hood’s idea of posh. As the old saying goes - you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. This was Fortitude Valley, after all. Yet it still attracted popular musical acts.
Kath believes she saw the killers lighting the fire at the front entrance. Hunter had friends perish and only made it out alive by seconds.
Donna saw a workmate with his shirt on fire, but she escaped, and has been haunted by that moment all her life.
Before Port Arthur, the Whiskey Au Go Go stood as Australia’s worst mass murder.
But what does all this have to do with Vince?
He claimed he was in Sydney at the time of the fire, but there is evidence that shows he was in fact Brisbane. One criminal told police that witnesses saw Vince “skulking” outside the club before the fire. Notorious NSW detective Roger Rogerson, who flew up from Sydney to help investigate the Whiskey in 1973, told a journalist decades later that a man named “Vince” threw a molotov cocktail into the club that night.
So what was true? What was fact and what was myth?
How could a mass murder occur in sleepy old Brisbane?
And most importantly, who was behind this infamous crime?
Logic tells us, it had to be someone who enjoyed the rush of fire, explosives and weapons. Someone who didn’t think twice about setting alight a club full of people, knowing many would die. Someone who knew that business was just business, no matter what the collateral damage.
That someone would have to have been a psychopath.
From Whooshkaa Studios, I’m Matthew Condon and this is Ghost Gate Road. In this episode, we will take you to the heart of one of Australia’s most horrific mass killings, and explain how the inferno led to the slaughter of an innocent mother and her children.
Audio footage from people close to O’Dempsey’s crimes, with Ghost Gate Road theme music throughout.
NEWS READER: People tried frantically to escape, Smashing through windows
Recent news report: what Barbara McCulkin knew about WAGG probably cost her life and her daughters
BRIAN BOLTON: now look you stupid bastard, whether you’re commissioner or not you’ll bloody well listen to me because people are going to die pal.
WITNESS: I could hear people screaming and you know, glass was breaking
FIRE FIGHTER: for me it was certainly more death than i’d seen in my career in the fire service
BRIAN BOLTON: after all they’re all mass bloody murders we all know that
NEWS REPORTER: until Port Arthur, Australia’s worst mass murder
Archival audio of news reader
“The man who was tragically right was Brian Bolton. One of the old brigade of crime reporters in this country. A battered band of brothers who, see all evil, hear all evil and know all evil. Bolton is as colourful as some of the characters he writes about, he’s got battle scars, a tattoo and a nickname that’s becoming a legend…up here they call him The Eagle.”
Brian Bolton was a legend in the newspaper game.
The sort of hard-drinking, hard-working, chain-smoking reporter you might find in the pages of a potboiler detective novel.
They called him The Eagle because of the large tattoo of the apex predator he had on his arm. Inked by none other than the dodgy tattooist Billy Phillips, the drug dealer and stolen goods fence we met earlier in this story.
As for The Eagle, he wrote about crime. And he had a lot of informants. One was the Brisbane-born criminal psychopath John Andrew Stewart. We’ve talked about him earlier - the lunatic with the movie-star good looks who built his reputation on stabbing a man when he was a teenager. And, like Vince he was extremely violent and had been in and out of mental wards.
He was also a graduate of Westbrook.
It’s where he met The Eagle. The two - journalist and criminal - began a long association. Stuart tipped off Bolton about the underworld. Bolton mythologised Stuart in print as some sort of crazed young modern-day Ned Kelly.
Bolton’s son, Mark, had been eyewitness to his father’s rollercoaster life as a journo, filled as it was with dodgy characters and crooks and bent cops, much of it awash with grog.
With The Eagle, there was never a dull moment.
Mark, who still lives in Brisbane, told me about the beginning of The Eagle’s friendship with Stuart.
So the Westbrook Farm Home for Boys - that nursery for future gangsters - rears its ugly head again.
The Eagle would move to Brisbane and soon become the top crime reporter for the Sunday Sun newspaper. Its office was in the heart of Fortitude Valley, embedded in the suburb’s grubby bars and greasy spoon restaurants and illegal brothels and casinos.
When you stepped out of the Sunday Sun Building, you were in the heart of Brisbane’s Sin City.
Bolton was every inch the shambolic tabloid crime journalist, belting out stories on his typewriter in an atmosphere of booze and hard news.
This is Bolton describing his job. It comes from a documentary made years ago about his life:
Archive Documentary with Brian Bolton
BRIAN BOLTON: You’ve got to be prepared to be rung at any minute of the day and leap out of bed and go anywhere…to meet possibly the scum of the earth, the shit that knocks around this country, the drug pushers, the peddlers, the murderers, the rapists…you’ve got to be prepared to meet these people and deal with them in their own ground…alternatively you’ve got to be prepared at any stage to rip down to a quiet pub somewhere and deal with a bloody rough copper who mightn’t like you personally but he might like your style and he’ll ring you up and say, ‘Look, pal, I’ve got something for you, meet me at such and such a place at such and such a time’, and it might be bloody four o’clock in the morning but you get there, because what you’re doing is producing something for a few cents that is going to tell the people of this country what the hell is going on around them and they deserve to know this.
In early 1973 Brisbane was a city of fires.
There was the blaze at Alice’s restaurant in Fortitude Valley. Then Chequers nightclub. And then Torino’s.
It is worth asking the question - did the perpetrators of Torino’s go on to firebomb the Whiskey?
We know Clockwork Orange gang member Peter Hall confessed to the Torino’s arson attack, as you heard in the last episode.
Peter told me he and the gang had nothing to do with the Whiskey, but they were worried enough about being implicated after Torino’s to get out of town.
Then in early 1973, The Eagle got a hot tip from his old mate John Andrew Stuart. Sydney gangsters wanted to muscle in on Brisbane’s restaurant and nightclub scene. They were prepared to use deadly force.
It was a big story. Bolton trusted Stuart, despite his friend’s criminal background and mental instability.
And Stuart was connected. He was friends with some of the Clockwork Orange boys. He knew Billy McCulkin, and was a frequent visitor to Dorchester Street. Some nights he stayed over.
Was his tale of a Sydney gang takeover true? Well there’d been a small fire at a nightclub called Chequers in February, followed by the blast at Torino’s. We now know Torino’s was organised by Vince and Billy McCulkin.
But Stuart was warning of a nightclub full of people being bombed. There was going to be loss of life.
Why did nobody take Stuart, and Bolton’s wild stories of Sydney gangsters set to storm the Brisbane club scene, seriously?
BRIAN BOLTON: “… this mass murder - the worst in Australia and as I understand from research the 4th worst in the world - should vever have been allowed to happen. REPORTER: and Why do you say that BRIAN BOLTON: Because there were so many warnings given by myself and other people by senior police.”
Especially the Queensland police.
And in another interview Bolton gave in the 70’s he said…
Remember, Stuart’s insane criminal life had been well-documented, particularly his psychological issues. He was branded both in the press and in the criminal underworld as a psychopath. He had been in and out of mental wards.
And Bolton? For all his talents as a magnet for seedy stories, he was a known alcoholic, and his newspaper, the Sunday Sun, did not shirk at sensationalism.
Could the pair be believed?
Just hours before the Whiskey firebombing, The Eagle had agreed to meet Stuart at his office at the Sunday Sun in Fortitude Valley. Stuart wanted to go to the nightclubs with Bolton and declare that if any of them were attacked, he had nothing to do with any extortion scheme. It reeked of Stuart setting up an elaborate alibi.
But Bolton didn’t make it to their meeting.
Mark remembers that night:
Stuart went ahead with his plan.
He dropped into the Whiskey for a moment at around 11pm and had a look around.
Then he went over to the nearby Flamingo Club, where he kept checking the time as it ticked towards early morning.
About 50 people were dancing and drinking inside the Whiskey Au Go Go on that Wednesday night, not busy by weekend standards.
Many had come to see one of Australia’s most popular live acts, the Delltones, who played a late set that evening.
The Delltones were a vocal group, formed in the late 1950s and fronted by the lanky Ian “Peewee” Wilson. Into the 1970s, they were still an extremely popular live act. They’d had a top five hit with their song Get A Little Dirt On Your Hands.
One of the band members was Brian Perkins. By fate, I met Brian just a few years ago in far northern NSW. He is now a real estate agent and works with his wife Janice selling properties in the Byron Bay region.
I had gone to inspect a property and Brian and I got talking. I told him I was writing about the Whiskey Au Go Go massacre in Brisbane in 1973. And he simply said to me: I was in a band called the Delltones and I was in the Whiskey that night.
As Brian tells the story.
Outside the Whiskey, as the Delltones were leaving, a young woman called Kath Potter was making a desperate phone call in a nearby phone box. She’d been in the Whiskey with a friend a minute earlier, waiting to meet her new boyfriend. He didn’t show up.
So just after 2am she telephoned Checquers nightclub, also run by the Whiskey owners, Ken and Brian Little, and tried to find her boyfriend, without luck.
Then while she was on the phone, she says she was looking towards the entrance to the Whiskey and saw something strange through the phone box glass.
Kath says she saw a large, long, black American-style sedan cruise up to the front of the entrance to the Whiskey, and three men get out. They were dressed in all-black, like terrorists. Two were of average height, and one was tall and thin.
Inside the club, Queensland police constable Hunter Nichol was enjoying a drink with his mates. One of them was military police officer Les Palethorpe. They’d heard the Delltones were playing at the Whiskey and wanted to see them live.
Les got up to dance with his childhood friend, Fay Will. The band playing after the Delltones was a local outfit called Trinity. Hunter, the designated driver that night, sat on a single bourbon and coke.
Meanwhile, it was just another ordinary shift for staffer Donna Phillips.
Donna was 22, attractive and a part-time model. That night she started work at about seven o’clock.
Prior to 2am, management asked Donna to work the front counter of the club.
Then the telephone rang.
Not long after that, Donna went to the servery where her friend Decima Carroll gave her a drink of water.
It was about 2:08am.
Then all hell broke.
Hunter Nichol’s recollection was different. The first thing that caught his attention was the sound of the fire.
Donna froze with fear. By fate, she was near the club’s only emergency exit, near the kitchen. Two men asked her if she was coming, and she followed. She believes she was the third person out of the club after the fire struck.
Once Donna got out, something happened to the exit door. It got stuck. Bodies were piling up against it.
As for Hunter, he’d lost contact with his friends in the thick smoke, but managed to drag a screaming young woman towards what he thought was the exit.
Hunter found himself in the band changing rooms. He thought he saw people piling out of a small window.
HUNTER NICHOL: Yeah, Everything had gone. Everything had gone. I couldn’t see any fire escape sign, I couldn’t see nothing. We’re completely, totally enveloped in smoke. And couldn’t breathe.
Anyway, we got to this. And people were climbing through this hopper window. And I pushed a few people out. And then I pushed this girl I’d dragged with me out. Eventually I … I stood there getting a few puffs of fresh air coming in. That sort of revived me. Because at that stage, I honestly, to this day, completely and utterly believed I was going to die. I was on the point of collapse when this fresh air hit me. And don’t tell me that there’s no taste in air. It’s a very sweet taste. I could taste the air and it was sweet. And I got a few lungs full of air from what I could, enough to revive me. And I pushed her out and got out myself.
Hunter couldn’t know that he would never see Les, Bill or Fay alive again. Donna’s workmate Decima Carroll, a loving mother of three children, also didn’t make it out. Darcy Day, in the band Trinity, went back to fetch a saxophone, and died. As did ten others.
Emergency vehicles and police were quick on the scene.
The fire, largely at the front of the club, was extinguished within half an hour. And the bodies, near the back and untouched by fire, were soon removed. They were lined up and covered in white sheets on the footpath outside the Whiskey Au Go Go.
Firemen, ambulance officers and police at the scene had never seen anything like it. And they never would again in their careers.
Meanwhile, there was a banging on the door over at journalist Brian Bolton’s house in Ascot in Brisbane’s inner-north.
Bolton’s son Mark remembers the moment like it was yesterday.
Later that morning, over in Dorchester Street, Barbara McCulkin, as was her habit, went a few doors down to the corner store to buy her morning newspaper.
The headlines screamed about the massacre at the Whiskey.
And Barbara was heard to say: “Oh my god, they actually did it.”
What did she mean? Who were they?
This was a tragedy on a scale that impacted dozens of families, hundreds of relatives, thousands of friends and acquaintances, and continues to have a painful ripple effect today.
I have met with the children of Whiskey victims and the agony of their loss is still just below the surface. They are quick to tears. The Whiskey is a horrific part of their everyday lives.
Kath, Donna and Hunter still agonise over it as if it happened yesterday. But so do many, many others. And all of them, bar none, still want answers.
They are all a part of a very unique, and sadly unimaginable, club. The survivors of the Whiskey Au Go Go.
So let’s take a look at what we know about this horrendous event so far.
The Whiskey massacre was a moment of absolute madness, a confusing and deadly collision of red herrings, false alibis, muddled memories, blatant lies, fate, police corruption, underworld greed, power and political manipulation.
The picture is as unclear today as it was at the dawn of March 8, 1973, when Australia woke to news of its worst mass murder.
A Brisbane journalist had been publishing stories claiming Sydney gangs were set to take over the Brisbane nightclub scene.
A well-known local gangster, John Andrew Stuart, warned authorities that a club, likely the Whiskey, was going to be torched as part of this extortion racket.
Just days before the Whiskey blew, Stuart had flown his best mate and fellow gangster James Finch out from the UK to Brisbane. Born in London, Finch was sent to Sydney as a child in the early 1950s with the Bernado’s charity for neglected and abused kids.
He crossed paths with Stuart in Long Bay Jail in Sydney in the early 1960s, and later in Grafton Jail in northern NSW. They became fast friends. So much so that Finch took the rap for the attempted murder of gunman Stewart John Regan.
Finch was later deported back to the UK, but when his mate John Andrew beckoned for his help with the Whiskey firebombing, and paid for his airfare, Finch came running.
In the lead up to the Whiskey, a couple of bars and clubs had been damaged by fires, and another, Torino’s, had been blown up. We now know Vince and Billy McCulkin had been behind that crime for insurance fraud.
In the week before the Whiskey fire, Sydney gangsters Lennie McPherson and Vince’s former employer, Paddles Anderson, are seen in the club. Did Stuart’s warnings about a Sydney takeover carry a grain of truth?
Just hours before the fire, Stuart, who went to painstaking lengths to establish an alibi for himself that night, appears briefly in the club then vanishes.
Whiskey employee Donna Phillips receives a phone call in the club just minutes before the fire, and owner Brian Little and his girlfriend swiftly depart.
Then a black car is seen cruising up to the club’s entrance, and three men get out and ignite two drums of petrol.
Within two to three minutes, 15 people are dead from asphyxiation.
Who masterminded this horrible crime? Was it planned down to the second, or was it a threat that accidentally got out of control and turned lethal?
After a decade going through files, and many hundreds of interviews with criminals, police, politicians, the victims’ children, firefighters who were there that night, eyewitnesses and members of the public, I still have no definitive answer to the riddle that is the Whiskey.
But I can make an educated guess.
The firebombing of the Whiskey was planned in advance as an insurance scam. Given Vince and McCulkin had planned a smaller-scale arson attack just eleven days earlier, it’s odds on they were also, at some level, a part of the torching of the Whiskey. Stuart and Finch were without doubt intrinsically involved. Some argue that the killing of fifteen people was unintended. That the job got out of control. I don’t believe this. Whoever set fire to those two fuel drums knew without doubt that there were people upstairs and that there would be loss of life.
As for the cover-up that followed involving Sydney gangsters, crooked Queensland police and politicians and a myriad of others, that is a complex story that may never be unpicked.
Not even Peter Hall, who took part in the burning of Torino’s, has any clear idea of what happened and who was behind the Whiskey after all these decades, though he too has his ideas.
As for Barbara, she was terrified.
She fled Dorchester Street and farmed out her daughters, Vicki and Leanne, to separate friends.
Ellen Gilbert, Barbara’s friend who worked with her at the Milky Way Snack Bar in the city, would later tell police what happened:
Just hours after the fire, police conducted a city-wide search and rounded up known criminals.
One of those was Billy McCulkin. He would later claim that he was questioned for hours before being released without charge.
But where was Vince?
Decades after the event a friend of Vince’s told me that he was in Sydney when the Whiskey went up. He heard the terrible news on the radio, she said.
But that’s a lie, because a trusted police source of mine only recently confirmed that Vince was nowhere near Sydney on the morning of the fire. He was in fact in Brisbane, and, like his mate McCulkin, he was caught up in the police sweep for likely suspects and brought into Fortitude Valley police station for questioning. He too was released without charge.
In the meantime, police were firmly focussing on John Andrew Stuart and his mate Finch as the prime suspects.
As for The Eagle, he was in shock. Had he predicted the tragic Whiskey story in his newspaper stories? Or had he provided Stuart with an alibi?
Mark Bolton remembers the impact on his father
In the last couple of years, though, a few things have seriously troubled me about that night at the Whiskey Au Go Go.
There is Kath Potter’s sighting of three men dressed in black outside the club, sticking a wick into a drum full of fuel and lighting it, while police insisted there were only two suspects.
Kath gave a statement to police hours after the fire and told them what she saw. The black car. And three men.
They told her she was seeing things. There were only two men.
Five days later, Kath got home from work and had some visitors waiting for her.
Why did police insist she change her statement?
Alarming, too, is an interview disgraced Sydney detective Roger Rogerson gave to a journalist just months before he was arrested for the murder of drug dealer Jamie Gao in 2014.
Rogerson was bragging about his role as an investigator in the Whiskey case. He was the big shot from Sydney, hand-picked and flown up to Brisbane to help crack the crime that shocked the nation.
Describing how he thought the fire was actually lit, he told the journalist:
Let’s stop right there. Did he say Vince? That Vince O’Dempsey threw a molotov cocktail in?
Who was Vince?
Was this yet another case of Rogerson telling a tall tale to the media, as he had done so often and so effectively throughout his career?
Given he was 73 when he gave the interview, was this just an understandable senior’s moment?
But why would he pluck the name Vince out of thin air?
I needed to find out if he was referring to Vincent O’Dempsey, so I wrote to Rogerson in Sydney’s Long Bay Jail, where he is serving life.
I asked Rogerson about the quote in the newspaper story where he mentioned Vince.
“Dear Roger,” …I wrote… “there is no mention of Vince anywhere else in the story, not before or after this quote. And the story does not clarify who “Vince” is in your quote.
Roger, can you tell me who is the Vince you are referring to? The man who threw the Molotov cocktail in. Who is Vince?
If you could help with this”… I wrote… “you would be assisting in a correction of history that is way overdue, especially for the families of the Whiskey victims.”
Several weeks later, Rogerson replied.
ROGER ROGERSON Letter from Roger Rogerson voiced by an actor:
“To start with, none of that is my verbage, and to be quite truthful, it doesn’t make sense and does not fit in at all as to how the fire started. I have never heard of anyone called Vince having anything to do with either Stuart or Finch. I believe it was really a simple case. I think it gets down to this. When one psychopath gets with another psychopath you end up with mayhem. I think you are barking up the wrong tree.”
Roger then said he would enter no further correspondence on this subject.
Stuart and Finch were arrested and charged with the firebombing and murders.
Did Vince have a hand in the Whiskey?
Years later, a professional criminal and police informant, Robert John Griffiths, who had a reputation for being an habitual liar, signed a statutory declaration swearing that Vince was seen quote “skulking” outside the Whiskey on the night of the fire.
There is no doubt the Whiskey inspired Vince to embark on a murderous rampage the likes of which has never been seen in Australian criminal history.
But could he count those 15 Whiskey victims as notches on his belt?
Maybe we can finally answer that question.
Over in Dorchester Street, Barbara McCulkin and her two daughters, Vicki and Leanne, had just 10 months left to live.
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