Episode • 05

In The Ashes

In the aftermath of the Whiskey tragedy, to that point Australia’s worst mass murder, two men are arrested and charged, but did police get all of the perpetrators? Shocking new details emerge about the planning behind the Whiskey attack, and the possible involvement of corrupt police and organised crime. And one of the country’s most notorious police officers lets slip a tantalising clue about Vince and the firebombing.

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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.

John Andrew Stuart

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 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...

James Finch

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.

Detective Glendon Patrick Hallahan

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 corrupt officer, and some have described him as "pure evil".

Detective Tony Murphy

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?

Moments from this episode

The Aftermath of the Whiskey Au Go Go following the devastating firebombing in 8th March 1973

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

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.

Audio Clip
MATTHEW CONDON: G’day Barry. Matthew Condon. BARRY: Oh, Matthew. MATTHEW CONDON: How are you, mate? BARRY: You’re here, too? MATTHEW CONDON: Yeah mate, I am. WAZZA: We need to sit down and have a yarn with you. BARRY: That is…. Him. There’s definitely bone in there. MATTHEW CONDON: Yep. WAZZA: Wow. Wow. MATTHEW CONDON: How far did you have to dig? BARRY: About this far. MATTHEW CONDON: Yeah. BARRY: And after that, I bought a gold detector and I went looking for that. Right through the bush. MATTHEW CONDON: The graves aren’t on your property. They’re on what used to be, the old army land. BARRY: No, it’s Morgan Park. MATTHEW CONDON: Oh, wow. BARRY: And I reckon it was a grave then, and over the years, I went back a couple of times. MATTHEW CONDON: Six, that was six years ago, you went first? BARRY: Yep. Yep. WAZZA: Back there, them days, back like 40 years ago, it could be just some scrub. BARRY: Well, it still is. WAZZA: Yeah. BARRY: You reckon that’s bone? WAZZA: I think it is… BARRY: If you get it in the sun it sort of seems to have white though it. And where this grave is, there was the dirt out on the side of it that hadn’t been filled in. MATTHEW CONDON: How old do you think the disturbed earth is? BARRY: 40 or 50 years old, the clay has gone hard there now. WAZZA: Yes ok. BARRY: And I just dug that out straight away and thought that’s bone. MATTHEW CONDON: Are we looking at the white material there? Yeah? It’s so different from rock isn’t it? BARRY: Where this main grave was a tried to put the gold detector and it squeals there. MATTHEW CONDON: At the three graves? At each one you’re getting a noise? BARRY: And between you and me I really think there’s more than that there. MATTHEW CONDON: Why do you say that? BARRY: Well down a bit further where I was getting down about 100 yards, it looked like another grave down there. WAZZA: Mate if this is McCulkins, you’ve found Vince’s graveyard, he’s got a graveyard. MATTHEW CONDON: So there’s at least 3 graves there possibly 4. WAZZA: There’s 2 other women missing too. Fuck me, if you’ve found his graveyard…Cause, one bloke said to him in jail “Did you know Vince O’Dempsey’s here” and Vince said “No who’s he” and he said “fucking fuck him, he said, he’s got his own graveyard, he’s got to bury them standing up because he’s running out of room.” Next day they had to get the bloke out for his own safety. Yeah, got to bury them standing up.

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.

Sound Design
Walking through the bush
Audio Clip
MATTHEW CONDON: Quite eerie out here. BARRY: Eerie. MATTHEW CONDON: Yeah.

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?

Sound Design
Audio Clip
BARRY: There’s bits of white through all that. MATTHEW CONDON: Yep. BARRY: I’ve been fencing and digging holes and clay and things and I’ve never, ever seen that before. MATTHEW CONDON: As in those flecks of white through the clay. BARRY: Yep. Even that. MATTHEW CONDON: Yeah, that’s right. Look at that in the sun. There’s even a little piece, glimmering there. BARRY: After all that time I think that’s all you’d expect to find. Little bits like that. MATTHEW CONDON: Yeah, given that they were completely unprotected. BARRY: Yep.

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.

Audio Clip
MATTHEW CONDON: What is that? What do you think that looks like? BARRY: It looks like a tooth. MATTHEW CONDON: It does.

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.

Audio Clip

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.

Sound Design
Fire trucks, smashing glass, screaming and mayhem

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.

But Brisbane?

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.

Audio Clip
CONFIDENTIAL SOURCE (voiced by an actor): You know, if I’m in danger, I don’t know. A couple of years ago, I mentioned to you that I’d had a conversation with somebody in the street and they said that they’d worked with a solicitor. The solicitor was their boss at the time. The person was a young solicitor, and that was around the time of the Fitzgerald inquiry, and the boss had told the junior that he, the boss, and a number of people had met on Tuesday night before the Whiskey Au Go go fire to organize the business behind it all, insurance, banking, police, and the club owner.

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?

Audio Clip
CONFIDENTIAL SOURCE (voiced by an actor): Well, the person at that time said the club owner, so he was talking singular. The accountants. The names weren’t given in the first contact, just the areas that these people had come from. Then I met that person another couple of times, and each time I asked a little bit more, I was able to ask a little bit more after the initial shock, and so it turns out that also present was a former policeman who was the source of that book, The Most Dangerous Detective.

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.

Audio Clip
CONFIDENTIAL SOURCE (voiced by an actor): Oh, Hallahan, okay. Oh, all right. I’m sorry. Definitely Hallahan. This person identified Hallahan by saying, “This is the man. This is the book that was written on him,” which was The Most Dangerous Detective.

I asked him twice if Hallahan was the former police officer present at the Whiskey meeting.

Audio Clip
CONFIDENTIAL SOURCE (voiced by an actor): When I asked that about the police officer I was told that that person had already left the police force and was working in insurance.

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.

Audio Clip
KATH: So we got in there, and as soon as I walked through Chequer’s door, I just felt sick. I thought I can’t play this game anymore. I can’t do this anymore. But even though i felt comfortable, i just didn’t feel good being there So the next thing I’m sitting there with Liz and we’re just tapping our feet around, bopping to the music on the chair and John Bell come along and he said, “Good day love, how you going?” And he put his hand on my arm. He said, “How are you?” And I said, not good. He said, “No, I wouldn’t imagine you would be.” He said, “How do you think I felt yesterday morning having to identify bodies?” So then I’m sitting there and we’re still bopping away having a couple drinks. So then John come out of the office, into Checkers, walked over to the bar, put his arm onto BLEEP. They cuddled. They hugged, they slapped each other’s back. They both had drinks, and they were talking. Kathy: Then the next thing John come back, he said, “Everything you want tonight’s on the house.” I said, okay, thank you very much. He said, “Here’s a drink for you and your girlfriend.” He said, “And there’s a coffee waiting for you when you’re ready.” And he said, “And we’ll give you whatever you want to eat.” He said, “It’s on the house.” I said, okay, thank you. He said, “But in a few minutes,” he said, “BLEEP and I are going to have a talk to you.” And I said, oh, okay. I said, is everything all right? He said, “Yeah.” He said, “We just want to get a few things straight with you.” I said, all right.

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.

Audio Clip
KATH: So in I go to the office and then it was just behind the actual counter. And when I walked in there, it was only a small office so there was Brian and Kenny Little, John Bell was sitting there. MATTHEW CONDON: James. John Bell. James. KATH: Yes. MATTHEW CONDON: James was there. KATH: Sorry. Yes. And me. And he was sitting next to me with his arm around me and had his hand on this arm and he kept patting it. MATTHEW CONDON: So the Little Brothers were in there? __KATH:__Yeah. MATTHEW CONDON: And you knew them by sight. KATH: I knew them, and even then I never got introduced to them. No one said, “Well, this is Kenny and Brian Little.” No one said that. I knew they were the Little brothers. MATTHEW CONDON: Okay, so this is the Saturday night? KATH: Yes. MATTHEW CONDON: What time roughly was it? KATH: Oh, probably about 10 o’clock. Nine or 10 o’clock at night. MATTHEW CONDON: So you were called in, the door was closed? KATH: No, the door was open. MATTHEW CONDON: Okay. KATH: And they just said, “Come in, we want to have a chat.” There was no meeting, no nothing. It was just a sort of off the cuff chat, I suppose, for want of a better word.

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.

Audio Clip
KATH: Yeah, Thursday morning. He said, “Sorry about that, darling.” He said, “That was inevitable.” He said, “Sorry.” And he said, “I do believe you rang here looking for James.” I said, yes, I did. He said, “Do you know who you spoke to?” I said, no, I don’t. He said, " You can’t remember?" I said, it was a male. I know that much, but don’t know who it was. He said, “That’s interesting,” he said, “Because the office was supposed to be shut.” And I said, well it wasn’t because when I rang, they answered within two rings. And he said, “So what did you say to him?” I told him exactly what I said over the phone. And in the end I said, well I’ve just been up to whiskey. And I said, BLEEP… James, it’s not in there. He asked if I’d seen you. I said, no, it was too dark. He asked if I’d seen these two guys and I said, no, it was too dark. And he said, “Well, then get the hell out of there.” And that’s when one of them, one of the Little brothers said “It would have been Reagan.” I thought, I know who Reagan is. And then John said, “No, wouldn’t have been because he’s in Sydney. Wouldn’t have been.” And James said, “It would have been so and so.” And I can’t remember that name. And he said, “No, not him either. He’s down there with him, he’s in Sydney with them.” I don’t know who that was.

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.

Audio Clip
KATH: And then they said, “Tell us exactly what you saw.” So I did. And he said, “There weren’t two jerry cans, were there?” I said, no, it was a drum. I’m telling you now, it was a drum. He said, “All right.” He said, “How many men were there?” And I told him that there were two, medium, normal sized men and a tall streak of misery. And once again, I said, it reminded me of Peewee Wilson. And because James was laughing, he said, “It wasn’t Peewee.” I said, I know that darling, I’m not stupid. And then the other brother said, “I’ve had a gut full of this shit.” And they walked out. And John said, “Well, I’m terribly sorry you had to go through that and witness that.” And he said, “We couldn’t be more sorry that you had to experience that.” He said, “But we will look after you.” He said, “we will both look after you from now on because clearly you’re the key witness.” Well that meant squat to me. So I walk back out. Liz was just sitting there [inaudible], and she said, “You know what? I want to go.” She said, “I’m not happy here tonight.” I said, I totally agree with you. You couldn’t be further from the truth. I said, I don’t want to be here anymore either. Let’s go. So we went home.

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.

Audio Clip
KATH: I would say that John Bell was really concerned about me and just pleased that no harm had come to me. As for the little brothers, I never felt comfortable with them. And I wouldn’t put anything past them. And I wouldn’t mind betting that they were doing that. MATTHEW CONDON: They were sussing you out. KATH: They were sussing me out as to whether I saw them or not.

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.

Audio Clip
BASIL HICKS: Who’s going to get the cook? STUART: Not youse, not youse. Not the CIU. It’s Whitrod and Hodges. They’re going to give them a shocking cook. They’re out to get them. They want to bring them undone. BASIL HICKS: Why Whitrod and Hodges? STUART: It’s political, Basil.

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:

Audio Clip
ROGER ROGERSON: Stuart was like a bloody wild animal when they brought him into the Watchhouse. He was a pretty fit little bastard. I remember all the muscles on his chest and stomach rippling like a bloody weightlifter. So when they lumbered Finch, we said, right, this bastard is going to talk. He was handcuffed to a chair and we knocked the shit out of him. Siddy Atkinson was pretty fit then and he was given a terrible hiding. We all laid into him with our fists. The blokes were yelling at him. “You fucking cunt, Finch. You fucking murderer; you killed 15 fucking people, you mongrel.” I admire the way he kept his trap shut. He was as guilty as sin but he didn’t want to give us the satisfaction of hearing it from his own lips. The bastard didn’t utter one bloody word. He just sat there and copped an almighty hiding.
Sound Design
Punching and beating

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.

Audio Clip
JAMES FINCH: John Stuart was the prime manipulator but he wasn’t the champion. The bombing was supposed to have thrown a scare not just into nightclubs but all of Brisbane - restaurants, shops, SP bookies - the lot. O’Dempsey had to be working in with the copper selling people out. Those blokes don’t survive unless they’re doing that. It was always funny how me and Stuart got pinched but nothing happened to the other pair or 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:

Audio Clip
JAMES FINCH: O’Dempsey and his sick crony Dubois were allowed to get away with murder to hide the truth of the Whiskey Au Go Go. They grabbed Stuart and myself but they didn’t get Hamilton and McCulkin and the people behind it. If we had been O’Dempsey’s men I’m certain something would have been done to help us. As it was, we were left there to rot.

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.

Audio Clip
WAZZA: What happened is, I was down at Wooli with my dad and Mum, and Dad pulled me aside and said one of his Federal copper mates told him that they’re extraditing Finch back to Australia to give evidence against Vince at the Whiskey Au Go Go. When I got back and I told Vince, Vince went off his fucking head and said get fucking back down there and find out exactly where it come from and find out, I need to work with the facts. I said okay, righto, so I had to drive all the way back down, he gave me a handful of money to pay for fucking fuel, so all the way back down I went and, um, and I said to Dad…dad said I thought you might be back, and I said don’t tell me half the fucking story, tell me the whole lot so I can tell him. And he said it was a Federal copper mate of his that told him, and he said, take it fucking serious. So I went back and I said to him, mate, take it fucking serious it comes from one of Dad’s Federal copper mates. Oh he walked off…and all the voices in his head coming out, he said to me, he said listen…that under and over shotgun, don’t saw it off yet, he said…one in the mouth and one in the chest. He said aim for the biggest part of the body first then out the next one in the mouth. MATTHEW CONDON: Oh god. Did you go out on a boat at some point? WAZZA: Yes we did, yes, that was later. MATTHEW CONDON: So Vince said to you, if Finch comes back, you’re going to kill him, and this is how you’re going to kill him. WAZZA: Yes. We come up with a plan. I said listen mate, I’m pretty good on a motorbike, I said, we’ll just weave through the traffic and pull up at the traffic lights, and let him have it straight through the window. I’ve got a mate with an under/over shotgun. I could put a solid in one, and an SG in the other one. MATTHEW CONDON: And what are they mate? What’s the difference? What are they? WAZZA: Okay…a shotgun shoots pellets out. MATTHEW CONDON: Yep. WAZZA: Okay, like if you’re shooting ducks, but a solid is a solid piece of lead, like a bullet, but a big fucking chunk, and it’ll go straight through the windscreen of the car and straight through your head. So that’s what I said to him, I’ve got some solids and I’ve got some SG’s, so what I’ll do is I’ll hit him in the chest through the window with the bloody solid and I’ll put one in the mouth. I was asked by the detectives, would you have done it? And I said I was young and silly, I probably would have.

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.

Audio Clip
WAZZA: So Vince’s girlfriend, and Vince and myself, away we went in her red car. And then we went down to the beach and dad said, come on, we’ll get out of here, so we can have a talk, and Vince is really on fucking tenterhooks talking around cars and houses and all sorts of things, so off we went. We took the boat out and off we went. MATTHEW CONDON: It was a lake, was it? WAZZA: No, no, out to sea. MATTHEW CONDON: Out to sea, okay. WAZZA: Out to sea. We went through the bar and that…we went in close, we didn’t go out too far, there’s a nice little spot down south of Wooli a little bit, so we anchored up and we were fishing there. And that’s when Vince said, righto Wally, what’s fucking going on, you know? Robyn’s alright we can talk in front of Robyn, she’s one of us. So Dad said it was one of his copper mates, you know, and he said well righto, if he comes back I’m fucked, I’m screwed, because he can finger me for it, for the Whiskey Au Go Go…he didn’t say the Whiskey Au Go Go, he said the Whiskey. He said he can finger me for the Whiskey. He said if he comes back, I’m screwed. And Dad said is there anything we can do to help? And he said well the young fella’s going to help me, he’s got his under and over shotgun and we’ve got him all tuned up. MATTHEW CONDON: Had you ever heard Vince talk about the Whiskey before? WAZZA: Yes. MATTHEW CONDON: What did he say? WAZZA: Oh, he said about all the people getting killed and, you know, there was a lot of standover and things there…he told the cook on the crop all about it…when we go past the Leslie Dam, apparently I said, there’s a sacred site. And Vince and the sheila were in the car with us, and she said, what sacred site? And I said that’s where the Whiskey Au Go Go girls are.

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.

Audio Clip
PETER NISBET: On occasions Mrs McCulkin spoke about John Andrew Stuart and the Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub fire as well as the Torino nightclub fire. She stated that she was in a position to put her husband away in jail for offences which he had committed of which she knew about.the context in which Bill is mentioned in it…is that, you know, that he’d given her a hard time at certain stages and, you know, she wanted to get away and and if she could, you know, it’d be a way out, by putting him up the creek. I can recall one conversation with Barbara where we spoke for an hour to an hour and a half. Barbara told me that her husband was associated with criminals and she had enough on Billy to put him away for years with what she knew. In the same conversation Barbara told me that her husband, Billy McCulkin, had something to do with the Whiskey Au Go Go fire and that if the cops had asked him the right questions they would have found out more people were involved in the Whiskey Au Go Go fire.

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.

Audio Clip
WAZZA: It was just women, kids, the lot. No witnesses. MATTHEW CONDON: But you didn’t think, this guy is actually capable of murdering women and children? WAZZA: He was capable of murdering anything that had a heartbeat.

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:

Audio Clip
CRIMINAL ASSOCIATE: The way I saw it, it was Vince’s reward from the corrupt coppers. The Whiskey is wrapped up. Finch and Stuart do down and that’s the end of the story. The whole thing is contained. There is no way in the world Vince could have done what he did without being protected by police. He just couldn’t have. He was close to Murphy. The question is, what did Vince have on Murphy that allowed him to do pretty much what he pleased?

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.

Audio Clip
MATTHEW CONDON: So if Murphy was the top cop, the top tough cop, it would make sense that Vince was his informant. KINGSLEY FANCOURT: Absolutely. Vince was doing his dirty work. Once the penny drops it all runs back to Murphy. MATTHEW CONDON: I was saying earlier Vince must have had something himself on Murphy for that relationship to work. KINGSLEY FANCOURT: Of course. Murphy would have issued certain instructions over the years for Vince to do this and do that, all the dirty work to make the system work without interruption. So O’Dempsey, with that knowledge, had the goods on Murphy. So it had to have been a happy relationship otherwise all hell would have broken loose. MATTHEW CONDON: That’s the thing isn’t it, it’s like this tenuous dance where, if someone breaks from the dance, then it’s chaos. KINGSLEY FANCOURT: That’s right. O’Dempsey was Murphy’s tool. MATTHEW CONDON: Do you think as a tool, knowing what we know about Vince, that that could have extended to murder? KINGSLEY FANCOURT: Absolutely. Absolutely.

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.

Sound Design
Walking in the bush and bush sounds

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?

Audio Clip
PETER HALL: When they finished and then he said that you’ve got to kill one of them now and he said he couldn’t do it.

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.

Until now.

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”.


Ghost Gate Road deals with serious and sometimes distressing issues. If this episode has raised any issues for you, please seek support.


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