Episode • 05
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John Andrew Stuart was known locally as a "psychopath" and "maniac". But, was he a guilty man, or was he wrongfully imprisoned and a victim of police corruption?
James Finch and John Andrew Stuart's were close associates. Finch was imprisoned and later extradited to the UK...but, was he an innocent man?
Detective Glendon Patrick Hallahan was a feared officer, and was said to be extremely violent and corrupt to the core. Could Hallahan have played a part in the Whiskey firebombing?
Detective Tony Murphy was said to be a violent and curropt officer, and some have described him as "pure evil". Was he involved in the Whiskey Au Go Go crime and coverup?
The Aftermath of the Whiskey Au Go Go following the devastating firebombing in 8th March 1973
John Andrew Stuart protesting his innocence whilst locked away in Boggo Road Gaol, convicted of firebombing the Whiskey
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Episode • 05 • In The Ashes • Transcript
In The Ashes
Whooshkaa Studios: Listeners are advised that this podcast contains coarse language and adult themes, and is not suitable for younger ears.
Is this it? Have we found Vince’s private graveyard?
I hop into Barry’s old four-wheel-drive and we head to the outskirts of Warwick, up a pot-holed track and then into a thickly forested nature reserve.
AS horrible as murder is, the families of victims, such as those who perished in the Whiskey, usually have one saving grace, if you could call it that. Those left behind have to live with their loss. But usually they lay their loved ones to rest.
That grace was never afforded the family of the McCulkins. Only two people in this world know where the bodies are. Vince O’Dempsey. And Garry “Shorty” Dubois.
The search for Barbara, Vicki and Leanne has never ended.
At the start of this podcast, the whereabouts of the McCulkins remained a mystery, but we vowed to continue looking for what we described as that most gruesome of Holy Grails - Vince’s private graveyard where he buried his victims.
Then just a few weeks ago, I got a call from an old farmer called Barry, out at Warwick.
He had been fossicking through bushland outside of town and had stumbled upon something that sent absolute chills up my spine.
That was how I found myself looking down into a rectangular sunken piece of earth in bush thick with hardwood trees and clusters of prickly pears.
I had to catch my breath at that moment.
I felt both incredibly excited, and profoundly moved.
Had we found it?
After all this time, was I standing in Vince’s infamous private graveyard, staring at the last resting place of the McCulkin girls?
A few years ago Barry came across what looked like a series of old graves, but only since Vince O’Dempsey’s arrest and imprisonment in 2017 has he found the courage to come forward and declare what he thinks he might have found.
Vince’s private graveyard.
After 46 years, had we found Barbara, Vicki and Leanne?
From Whooshkaa Studios, I’m Matthew Condon and this is Ghost Gate Road. In this episode we will explore the chaotic aftermath of the Whiskey Au Go Go massacre, expose startling new facts about the origins of that crime and who was behind it, and, as we had hoped all along, take you to an untouched stretch of bushland that just may be Vince’s mythical private graveyard.
News and Archival footage with people close to O’Dempsey’s crimes, with tense music throughout.
NEWS REPORTER: “she knew something about the Whiskey Au Go Go and O’Dempsey and Dubois had a motive to silence her”
WITNESS: “A fellow named Vince O’Dempsey”
WAZZA: “He was capable of murdering anything that had a heartbeat.”
WITNESS: “just a complete ball of smoke and flames, very vyer black smoke”
NEWS REPORTER: “the name Whiskey Au Go Go is now synonymous with the fire attack which gutted a nightclub that killed 15 staff and patrons…”
NEWS REPORTER: “QLD Police believe they’ve made a major breakthrough in Australia’s oldest court case, charging an elderly man with murder…”
FIRESERVICE: “The thing I remember the most about that is the 15 bodies layed out in white sheets….that memory has never left me.”
I came away from that excursion into the bush with Barry with an old honey jar filled with soil and what look like bone fragments. Stone-sized white objects and ivory-coloured slivers embedded in clay.
In the meantime, more information about Vince and the Whiskey Au Go Go firebombing continued to materialise.
IT’S difficult today to sense the community shock and outrage over the Whiskey massacre, not just in Brisbane but across Australia, at the time. A crime of this dimension would have been alarming in New York City or London.
Perhaps it was a place where precisely this sort of thing was bound to happen. A sleepy, dreary, conservative country town, where men wore short pants and long socks to work and almost everyone went to church on Sunday. A place that still suffered a hangover from the 1950s.
The exact sort of unexpected environment that harboured psychopaths and degenerates and would-be gangsters in its shadows, wanna-be’s and preening amateurs who got the mix of threat and muscle wrong, and just happened to kill fifteen innocent people in the process.
Had the Whiskey firebombing been an elaborate extortion attempt by a gang of opportunist criminals that had simply gotten out of hand?
Or was it something so calculated and intricately organised, from senior corrupt police down, that, even by today’s standards, it would stop you in your tracks?
While the ash from the Whiskey has inexplicably yet to fully settle after 50 years, over time some secrets do work their way to the surface.
And this is one of those secrets. Thanks to information from multiple sources, and the evidence of eyewitnesses, we can now reveal a shocking truth.
The Whiskey Au Go Go firebombing was a highly planned extortion operation.
Two days before the tragedy, in a secret location in Brisbane, several people met to discuss and organise the upcoming attack.
I spoke to one source on the strict condition of anonymity.
He said he had, by chance, met a member of the legal fraternity who had received a confession from his boss about an extraordinary meeting in Brisbane on Tuesday, March 6 1973.
He still feared for his life.
Let’s stop right there and try and comprehend that.
We’ve just heard my source say that 48 hours before the Whiskey atrocity, a clandestine meeting of lawyers, bankers, insurance agents, the club owners and corrupt police was held to discuss the impending attack.
I went on to ask my source : was the purpose of the meeting to organise the mechanics of the Whiskey firebombing?
He said yes.
I asked him: who was the solicitor?
He named him, but we have chosen not to reveal that at the moment.
I asked him again who was at the meeting?
Glenn Hallahan, I said. The subject of former Brisbane journalist Steve Bishop’s book, The Most Dangerous Detective: The Outrageous Glen Patrick Hallahan - a damning portrait of Hallahan as a possible killer and a detective rotten to the core from the earliest years of his disgraced career.
I asked him twice if Hallahan was the former police officer present at the Whiskey meeting.
That was Hallahan, friend to the Clockwork Orange Gang, who had resigned from the Queensland police force in late 1972, just months before the Whiskey attack, under a cloud of corruption allegations. He would later go on to work as an investigator for the State Government Insurance Office.
Could it be true? That these disparate people had secretly met to cover all bases on the upcoming mass murder?
It is a theory given even greater credence thanks to Kath Potter.
She had left the Whiskey just minutes before the fatal blaze to make a call from a phone box outside the club. And while she was on the phone, she saw a large black car glide up to the entrance, three men dressed in black get out, and roll two fuel drums into the lower front door. They then set fire to the drums.
Kath was sickened by the deaths at the Whiskey. But on the Saturday night, just two nights after the blaze, she and a girlfriend got back on the horse and headed to Chequers Nightclub, also owned and run by the Little Brothers, who had the Whiskey.
And that night, something peculiar happened.
What did Chequers and Whiskey manager John Bell have to get straight with Kath Potter? Could it have been that she’d given a statement that she saw three men outside the club just before the Whiskey went up? And that police had pressured her to change that statement?
Kath was nervous.
Her new boyfriend James came over and grabbed her hand and said: “Come on, come on Bubbles, we’re going in.”
He led her into the office.
What the men were most interested in was the person she spoke to on the phone when she rang Chequers in the early hours of Thursday looking for her boyfriend James. The man who told her she better get out of the club fast.
And they were very interested in the black car and the three men dressed in black, like terrorists, who rolled out and lit the fuel drums.
Stuart John Regan. You will remember him from an earlier episode. He was Vince’s Sydney doppleganger, a psychopath, killer, gangster, and nephew to mob boss Paddles Anderson, who ran a number of prostitutes in Kings Cross and was dubbed “The Magician”, for his ability to make people disappear. Reagan and Vince were good friends. And it was Regan who hastily flew up from Sydney on the day of the Whiskey tragedy. Why?
The men continued to question Kath.
I asked Kath if the meeting was really all about finding out exactly what she saw that night, and whether she could positively identify anybody.
So two meetings, two days before and two days after the Whiskey atrocity. One seemingly to make sure the firebombing was going ahead and that all the tees had been crossed and the I’s dotted. The second, after the event, to assess who had seen what on the night of the fire, and to get some sort of story straight about who was responsible for this simple extortion attempt that had gotten horribly out of hand. It was no mass murder. Fifteen innocent people were in the morgue. And the public clamour for heads to roll and justice to be served was monumental.
At some point in those 48 hours after the fire, a narrative had been decided - by whom we don’t know - that two scapegoats would take the rap for the tragedy, and the rest would be kept in the shadows.
For the fiction to succeed, everybody had to be on board. Especially the police.
So it transpired that by the Saturday night, detectives had zeroed in on just two primary suspects - John Andrew Stuart and James Finch. And both were still on the run.
With Barbara McCulkin and the children in hiding after the Whiskey went up, police were on the hunt from Stuart and Finch.
Hadn’t Stuart been blabbing about town for weeks that Sydney mobsters were about to torch a Brisbane nightclub as part of an extortion racket?
How come Stuart knew so much about the mass murder in advance?
Stuart, on the run, contacted his police mate Detective Basil Hicks, pleading his innocence.
He also told Hicks of one of the more unusual motives for the firebombing.
The audio you are about to hear is part of the transcript of a conversation Hicks had with Stuart a couple of days after the fire.
Stuart told Hicks the newspapers were going to give it a shocking cook the next day.
It’s political. Police Commissioner Ray Whitrod and Police Minister Max Hodges were to be cooked, to be brought undone.
The timing of this comment is significant.
What was going on within the Queensland police force at the time that might have seen the commissioner dragged into the Whiskey fiasco as a possible motive?
Ray Whitrod had been commissioner since 1970 and from the outset had tried to rid the force of corruption, especially the fabled Rat Pack - Glenn Hallahan, Tony Murphy and Terry Lewis. Since the 1950s, the trio were rumoured throughout the city as being the corrupt apprentices to former commissioner Frank Bischof.
The word was they controlled crime and corruption in Queensland, and oversaw a kickback system from illegal prostitution, casinos and SP betting known as The Joke. Hallahan had resigned after corruption allegations before the Whiskey. Around the same time Murphy had been transferred out to distant Longreach in north-western Queensland. So to Lewis, who was exiled out west to Charleville.
It was Whitrod’s ambition to smash the Rat Pack. To divide and conquer.
And there was no officer who despised Whitrod more than the powerful Tony Murphy.
Murphy, the top cop, had as his informant in top criminal, Vince.
Was part of the motive for the Whiskey to remove Whitrod? How could a commissioner continue when fifteen people had died on his watch?
And did Murphy use the skills of his informant, Vince, to make that a reality?
That Sunday night, three days after the fire, Finch and Stuart were arrested in Brisbane’s western suburbs.
They were brought into headquarters and interviewed separately by detectives.
The records of interview remain controversial and a subject of debate to this day. Both Finch and Stuart would later claim they were verballed, or were the victims of false testimony authored by the police to secure arrest and conviction.
The detectives present for the interviews included Syd Atkinson, Brain Hayes, Ron Redmond, and Sydney detectives Roger Rogerson and Noel Morey.
Years later Rogerson told a journalist:
Both Finch and Stuart loudly protested their innocence. Both were committed for trial, but it was a fractured and bloody road to their court date. Finch tried to amputate his finger. Stuart swallowed wire crosses.
In Boggo Road, Stuart was largely kept in a cage away from other inmates. He regularly doused guards with buckets of his own effluent. At one point he escaped onto the roof of the jail and spelt out, in broken bricks that he had retrieved, that he and Finch were innocent and had been verballed.
It was rumoured in jail that Stuart had a secret black notebook, and in it were codes for all the corrupt police and other figures who had been behind the Whiskey firebombing.
At the trial in September 1973, a number of dangerous underworld figures were called briefly into the witness box. There was Sydney gangster Lenny “Mr Big” McPherson, who denied meeting Stuart on the Gold Coast in late 1972. He admitted he knew a man named Stewart John Regan. Next up was Frederick “Paddles” Anderson, for a time Vince’s gangster boss in the 60s and early 70s. He had little to offer the court, except that he had been called “Paddles” since he was a child because of his big feet.
Then there was psychopath Regan himself. He listed his employment as company director, and said he had no interest in Brisbane nightclubs.
Butter wouldn’t have melted in their mouths.
In the end, Finch and Stuart were found guilty, and sentenced to life in prison. They were off to Boggo Road for good.
And that was seemingly the end of the Whiskey saga.
Two men, Finch and Stuart, were the mass murderers. Just the two. Billy McCulkin did not drive the car that night, as rumours suggested. Vince O’Dempsey was nowhere near the Whiskey. There was no grand conspiracy. Just two malicious grubs who were now where they belonged.
And that was the accepted narrative.
Except it wasn’t true.
Fifteen years later, when Finch was taken from Boggo Road and extradited back to the UK, he made a full confession to Brisbane journalist Denis Watt. And not just about his own involvement. He fingered a cast of other characters who were supposedly integral to the Whiskey job.
He said a top Queensland detective was the mastermind behind the planning of the extortion attempt, along with Vince O’Dempsey.
Finch said he lit the fuel with a match. Billy McCulkin drove the getaway car. Tommy Hamilton was also there. Though this has always been denied by the Clockwork Orange Gang. He said they were dressed in all black, like Black September terrorists, and had stolen a black car for the job. This is the precise description eyewitness Kath Potter gave police at the time. She was ignored.
Finch went on:
Should we take the word of a semi-literate career criminal like Finch?
Well, we don’t even have to. Because Vince blatantly confessed his involvement in the Whiskey to his apprentice, Warren “Wazza” McDonald.
In the late 1990s, Vince was informed that Jim Finch was coming back to Australia from the UK to implicate him in the Whiskey mass murder.
And Vince panicked.
Later, Vince told Wazza he wanted to speak to his father about the Finch matter, and they drove together down to Woolli, a seaside village north of Coffs Harbor on the NSW North Coast.
The Whiskey Girls. Barbara, Vicki and Leanne McCulkin.
Back in September 1973, Stuart and Finch are found guilty of the Whiskey mass murder, and are tucked away in prison.
Nobody else is charged with anything over the Whiskey. Not Vince. Billy McCulkin. Tommy Hamilton. Or the myriad of other players in that tragic drama.
Over in Dorchester Street, Barbara’s marriage to Billy is falling apart.
She knows he had a hand in the Torino’s fire in February 1973. And she has a pretty good idea he was part of the Whiskey, too.
He is drinking, philandering, occasionally beating her, and there is a suggestion he has been sexually interfering with his daughters. On top of that, Barbara believes he may also have contributed to the death of fifteen innocent people.
She’s had enough.
How can she live with a mass murderer? Barbara is in mental turmoil.
But she didn’t know who to turn to.
Sometimes, she unloaded her thoughts on a young man called Peter Nisbet, who lived next door at number 4 Dorchester Street. They’d yarn over the back fence.
He would go on to tell a coronial inquiry and police about his conversations with Barbara.
So what was so critical about what Barbara knew?
She was convinced her husband Billy had a role in one of the Australia’s worst mass murders. She was ready to give him up to police.
But if she gave up Billy she would also, inadvertently, be giving up others involved. Like Vince.
And as we’ve seen, Vince, when threatened, did not leave behind any witnesses.
While Barbara’s life is deteriorating, Vince is suddenly on top of the world.
He opens his own massage parlour - Polonia’s - at the back of an arcade in Lutwyche Road, Lutwyche, in Brisbane’s inner-north. His partner Diane Pritchard was the chief madam.
This was something of a miracle in corrupt Brisbane in the early 1970s. Crooks, even one as serious as Vince, didn’t just put out a shingle and start raking in money off the back of prostitution.
He might have been the muscle for the vice scene, but owning your own parlour was a huge step-up. It had to be sanctioned by crooked Licensing Branch officers. Arrangements for monthly kick-backs had to be made.
I have stood in front of what used to be Polonia’s, a small, narrow rectangular space down a side alley off a larger office building. In its day it had an entrance vestibule, a massage room, and a kitchenette out the back.
But my question is - how did Vince, just weeks after the conclusion of the Stuart and Finch trial, and having evaded attention for the Whiskey by the skin of his teeth, manage to enter that rarified air of being a massage parlour owner, virtually giving him a license to print money? How, after the bitched Whiskey job that could have brought down elements of the Australian underworld and sent several men away for the rest of their lives, did Vince manage not just to get through the disaster unscathed but emerge as a criminal high-flier?
His criminal mates at the time have their suspicions.
One associate, who declined to be named, said:
Kingsley Fancourt was a young undercover operative in the Queensland Police Licensing Branch at the time Vince set up Polonias, and was warned by a senior officer to steer clear of O’Dempsey. He was told Vince was wanted for two murders in northern NSW and was suspected of burying a body in the wall of a dam outside Warwick.
Kingsley started quietly investigating the alleged killer and hitman, and soon uncovered the link between Vince and Detective Tony Murphy.
By November 1973, as Vince was counting his cash over in Lutwyche, Barbara McCulkin booted Billy out of the cottage in Dorchester Street.
The marriage was over.
And a flood was coming. Literally.
Tropical Cyclone Wanda was pushing monsoonal troughs from North Queensland down towards Brisbane.
Through Christmas and the New Year, Barbara was alone with the girls. She had little money and seemingly no future. She maintained a semblance of order for her daughters. She bought their books for the new school year. She prepared their uniforms.
Then one afternoon in January 1974 her husband Billy’s friend, Vince O’Dempsey, popped by Dorchester Street with his mate Shorty Dubois.
In the next episode we will explore the full horror of the McCulkin murders. It will not be easy to listen to.
This is a prelude. A warning about what is to come.
I need you to imagine this.
You’re walking deep into the Australian bush, not far from Ghost Gate Road.
It is pitch black and starless. It’s been raining all night and water drips off the leaves of the trees. Somewhere, you can hear the murderous cry of a stone curlew, and it sends a shiver up the nape of your neck.
Ahead of you in the gloom is Vince O’Dempsey and Shorty Dubois, and with them is Barbara McCulkin and her daughters, Vicki and Leanne, the women bound and stumbling through the undergrowth.
It doesn’t matter if they scream. Nobody will hear them out here, in the folds of the hills around Ghost Gate Road.
It’s the early hours of Thursday, January 17, 1974. Vince has driven the women here from Brisbane in his orange Valiant Charger. He is walking them to his private graveyard.
The party crosses a shallow creek, past some willow trees, then makes its way up a low rise.
We are close, now, to this story’s heart of darkness.
We are close to the commission of a crime so hideous that later, even in a court of law, the universe would forbid the full details of how the children met their deaths being revealed.
But Peter Hall of the Clockwork Orange Gang knows exactly what happened in the bush outside Warwick that night. Because his mate Shorty, in shock, told him all about it the next day.
And Peter Hall told me, the horrific images as fresh in his mind today as they were almost fifty years ago.
There really are no words in the English language to describe the depth of horror at what happened to the McCulkin women at Vince’s private graveyard. Extreme disgust and outrage don’t even come close.
Vince strangled Barbara with his bare hands. Then Vince motioned to the children, asking Shorty: which one are you going to fuck?
But there was one detail that Peter has never forgotten. A detail that nobody has ever heard beyond Vince and Shorty and Peter and this small band of men who all peered into the abyss of this horrendous crime.
Vince, Peter confided in me, asked Shorty to kill one of the girls, but he couldn’t. Then Vince killed both of them.
And Vicki, the oldest, and just 13, uttered her last words on earth.
“Vince, please”, she said, “not the knife”.
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