Warren “Wazza” McDonald, was known as Vince’s “apprentice”. Vince opened up to Wazza about the 'science' of disposing bodies. Vince was confident the McCulkin bodies would never be found. (Photo: Nine 60 Minutes)
The word was that Shorty had been offered immunity if he’d rat on Vince about the McCulkins. He decided to stay staunch. He wouldn’t break the code.
In his later years, Vince had an alpaca farm, which doubled as a cannibis farm. Vince farmed alpaca wool and cannibis - his "bush weed" had an excellent reputation.
As a result of continuing investigations into the cold case homicide of the McCulkin family, police executed a search warrant on Vince's farm and other properties and found more than they bargained for...
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Whooshkaa Studios: Ghost Gate Road contains graphic details of sexual assault and violence and it not intended for all audiences. Listener discretion is advised.
JEREMY: Hello, Jeremy speaking.
MATTHEW CONDON: Hello Jeremy, it’s Matt Condon calling, how are you?
JEREMY: Yeah good thanks.
MATTHEW CONDON: Thanks very much for calling me back.
JEREMY: That’s alright.
MATTHEW CONDON: I might be on a wild goose chase and I’ve been bothering you for no reason…but you’ve been referred to me as THE expert I need to talk to first.
MATTHEW CONDON: No pressure.
JEREMY: Somebody’s been talking me up.
MATTHEW CONDON: … I’ve been investigating this particular individual for many, many years. He was convicted in 2017 of a triple murder of a woman called Barbara McCulkin and her two daughters in January 1974, and he had this alleged private graveyard that has been a rumour since the 1950s, to bury his victims…so, just courtesy of an old farmer in the region…he was prospecting in this particular forest and he came across what appeared to him to be a sequence of graves…
I’ve telephoned Associate Professor Jeremy Austin of the University of Adelaide.
Jeremy is one of Australia’s foremost experts in the study of ancient or degraded human DNA, and his interest extends to murder victims.
I need to know from him if the samples we have gathered from the possible gravesite at Morgan Park, just outside Warwick, might indicate human remains. And if so, could science identify those victims?
Could we finally find the McCulkin girls?
MATTHEW CONDON: It’s all supposition of course, but the objective, if it’s possible, is to get the fragments and the soil samples tested. Is that just a high-falutin’ theory on my part?
JEREMY: Umm, yeah, I guess, you know, if one or more bodies have been buried in soil you’d expect to find intact bones, not lots of tiny fragments…
MATTHEW CONDON: Even after 50 years?
JEREMY: Yeah. Even after 50 years, particularly if as you say it’s clay-like soil, you’d expect to be finding even more things like intact skeletons or intact bones, not tiny, tiny fragments.
MATTHEW CONDON: Okay. There was one object that Barry the farmer found that, to my naked eye, looks like a portion of a tooth, but…what if we go by the hypothesis, and it’s entirely realistic, in fact it’s probably probable, that he had buried the victims and then removed them. Would there be any trace of anything?
JEREMY: Yeah, there could be. I mean after 50 years you’d be clutching at straws but that there’d be human DNA surviving from these bodies buried 50 years ago, and that DNA survived in the soil, it’s not outside the realms of possibility, but you’d be very, very lucky I think to be able to find evidence of human DNA there that you could match to a particular individual.
Talking to Jeremy, one phrase kept echoing in my mind.
It’s something that both Vince O’Dempsey and Shorty Dubois mentioned occasionally over the years, and with the utmost confidence.
They will never find the bodies.
They will never find the bodies.
I studied that little jar of samples taken from the Morgan Park site so often that the clods of earth and pale, porous, lightweight fragments of whatever substance began to blur.
Jeremy said that after 50 years you’d expect to find intact bones. Another forensic expert I spoke with said the bones would most likely be in fragments.
I was confused.
And that remained the case until I had a casual conversation over the phone with Vince’s former apprentice, Warren “Wazza” McDonald.
Wazza recalled Vince being obsessed with the Australian movie Snowtown, about the bodies-in-the-barrel murders outside Adelaide in the 1990s. In that horrific case, more than ten corpses were recovered, many of them in acid in barrels stored in an old bank vault.
According to Wazza, Vince keenly discussed how the Snowtown murderers tried to dispose of the bodies, and pointed out the scientific flaws in their methods.
Particularly when it came to their use of acid. The Snowtown killers, Vince reckoned, got it all wrong by using the wrong type of acid necessary to fully break down a human corpse.
But that phrase: they will never find the bodies.
Is that what Vince did to Barbara, Vicki and Leanne? Did he use acid on their remains?
Would nobody ever find the bodies because there were no bodies?
From Whooshkaa Studios, I’m Matthew Condon, and this is Ghost Gate Road. In this episode, Vince is finally captured by two relentless cold case homicide squad detectives for the McCulkin killings, tries to eliminate witnesses against him even from behind bars, and unwittingly triggers a new inquest that may finally answer whether or not he was behind the notorious Whiskey Au Go Go firebombing.
As we’ve learned in this podcast, Vince was intensely investigated by police in the late 1970s and then in 1980, following a coronial inquest, he and his accomplice, Shorty Dubois, were charged with the murder of the McCulkins.
To the intense frustration of the victims’ families, those charges were later dropped.
In 1985 Vince was convicted of heroin offences in NSW and sentenced to 10 years in prison. During his incarceration, his relationship with his long-suffering partner Dianne Pritchard evaporated.
Di settled in Far Northern NSW and hooked up with another partner. According to witnesses, she even cut down on the grog and tried to make a decent home for her son and a new daughter.
As for Vince, he was released from jail in 1991, and he went back to his old hometown of Warwick, where he played the role of local farmer.
It was the noble profession of his forebears who had farmed the area since the 1850s. But forget cattle and grain. Vince was interested in breeding alpacas. He had some crazy theory that he could genetically produce alpacas out of camels.
And there was more than meets the eye when it came to Vince the man of the land.
It just so happened that he was an expert in more than just alpaca wool. He in fact grew bush marijuana, or cannabis grown outside rather than indoor or hydroponically.
It was generally accepted by those in the know that bush dope was weaker than other varieties.
But Vince’s bush weed had an excellent reputation.
And make no mistake - his operation was highly sophisticated.
To the extent that he had buried a full-sized shipping container, with its own custom-made trap door and air vents, on a property outside Warwick. In it he stored his shrink-wrapped cannabis, money and sometimes weapons. Vince often referred to the container as his “dungeon”.
As for his dope, Vince was, as always, meticulous in his farming methods, installing elaborate water reticulation systems and using choice fertiliser.
Following the seasonal cycle of planting and harvesting, Vince and the men and women he employed on the illegal crops would, after a hard day’s work, sit around a campfire and drink rum and beer and tell tall stories.
Vince reminisced about the past. His Bodgie period in the 1950s. Boggo Road in the 1960s. Working in Sydney for the big gangsters and being the enforcer overseeing the Brisbane brothel scene in the 1970s.
One New Year’s Eve on the crop, a young woman - we’ll call her Alice - who was there with Wazza McDonald, was yarning with Vince. A few days earlier, Vince, Wazza and Alice had been heading for the town of Ingleburn south-west of Warwick and Vince had pointed to the left off the highway and said - that’s the dead centre of Warwick.
Alice didn’t know what he was talking about. But this dead centre, this sacred site, was brought up again at the crop party.
Alice later told police:
The crops were high-security affairs.
During the three month period when the cannabis was harvested and dried, crop workers were not allowed to leave the property. All mobile phones had to be surrendered. Everyone from pickers to the senior hierarchy, which included BLEEP, Wazza, and of course Vince, had to use false names.
Vince called himself Tom.
But he had a new nickname amongst the pickers. He was known as Swami. The man who could make people disappear.
How many of the crops, apart from the captains, knew of Vince’s murderous past? Some - like Alice - had never even heard of the Whiskey Au Go Go massacre, let alone the McCulkins, Simone Vogel, the Clockwork Orange Gang.
But there was one constant and unchanged through-line that stretched across the decades - psychopath Vince was, and remained, a sexual predator, even aged in his 70s. How can we forget the young woman Vince raped in the bushes followed by his Shakesperian performance standing on the tree stump in the early 1960’s.
On one crop, Vince had hired a cook. Let’s call her Marion.
Vince knew Marion well. She’d fallen on hard times, and he gave her the job.
One day, he drove Marion over to his Alpaca farm on the outskirts of Warwick. He wanted to show her a new office he’d built at the back of the shed. He told her that he had a pet mouse he wanted her to see.
They went into the office.
She later told police what happened next:
And around the campfire, Vince didn’t hold back on his enemies.
I had no idea, until years later, that I was actually one of them and that I’d featured in one of Vince’s fireside chats.
Way back in 2011 I had published yet another newspaper story on the murder of Barbara, Vicki and Leanne McCulkin in 1974, this infuriating cold case that had never been solved. I couldn’t let the girls be forgotten.
And Vince hit the roof.
I was on a serial killer’s hit list.
Warren “Wazza” McDonald, Vince’s apprentice - from the early 1990s to about 2006 - witnessed the diatribe.
MATTHEW CONDON: Do you remember, you told me a story that I had published a story about the McCulkins, I think in about 2011.
WAZZA: Yes. In The Courier-Mail.
MATTHEW CONDON: In The Courier-Mail. And it was talked about around the campfire and Vince went off his nut.
WAZZA: Yes, that’s correct.
MATTHEW CONDON: What happened?
WAZZA: You’re article fucking come up in the paper about the McCulkins.
MATTHEW CONDON: Yep.
WAZZA: …if I get my hands on that fucking cunt. Meaning you.
MATTHEW CONDON: Mate can you just repeat that because you broke up…that’s the most hair-raising bit that I need.
WAZZA: Well he said if I could get my hands on that cunt, you know? That meaning you. He just won’t leave it alone that cunt.
MATTHEW CONDON: Oh my god. And so did he read the story or did someone mention my name? How did he know it was me?
WAZZA: Well it was in the paper, we had copies of the paper, the newspaper.
MATTHEW CONDON: And he had a look at it?
MATTHEW CONDON: Wow. And he was upset.
WAZZA: Yes. And the reason I remember it so clearly is because it changed my tack of what I was doing. Vince wanted me to throw some money in to buy this block of land. It was a great deal. I was going to go in halves with him. And because of that conversation and because of that article in the paper and because of all that horseshit, I backed out and said no, I don’t want to do it. Because if he gets pinched and goes to jail for murder well I’m going to lose my money, I’m going to lose my land, so I thought, fuck it, I don’t need that shit.
MATTHEW CONDON: Wow.
WAZZA: And Dad said, smart move.
MATTHEW CONDON: Smart move.
WAZZA: Yeah, smart move, and get away from him. So yeah, that’s why I remember it so clearly, because it was a massive point in my life and I made a massive decision.
MATTHEW CONDON: Mate, I’m glad I could have a helping hand there.
WAZZA: No worries at all, thanks for that.
MATTHEW CONDON: Just repeat to me what he said again about me, which is what I’m most concerned about.
WAZZA: Okay, If I get my hands on that cunt, I wish the cunt would shut up and stop writing shit.
MATTHEW CONDON: I don’t think I should be laughing at this.
Vince also railed against the crooks who’d betrayed him. The disloyal women. Not to mention the squiggly tails. The bloody coppers.
As it turned out, Vince had good reason to still be wary of the police.
In early 2014, two determined Brisbane cold case detectives - Mick Dowie and Virginia Gray - began to pursue Vince. Two officers committed to making that one final push to try and solve the McCulkin mystery.
And unbeknown to Vince, some of his underworld associates and a former lover were set to risk their lives, break the criminal code of silence, and turn against him in a court of law.
That former lover was Kerri-Anne Scully, in her early 30s when she went to live with Vince in Warwick for about six months in late 2011. Kerrie-Ann was the daughter of Caroline Scully, who had also had a relationship with Vince as well as Shorty Dubois. It was an incestuous group. Caroline’s brother was Tommy Hamilton of the Clockwork Orange Gang.
Kerri-Anne was a chronic drug addict at the time she hooked up with Vince, and she would later tell police that he was a “serial killer” and that his nickname was the “angel of death”. She said Vince told her he was “good” for the McCulkin killings, and thirty-three murders in total.
She told police:
The great killer, Vince O’Dempsey, the old school gangster, the most feared man in the Australian underworld, the child rapist and murderer, was about to go down.
The official renewed police hunt for Vince was codenamed Operation Avow.
And Detective Dowie made the police objectives clear in a press conference in early 2014:
It’s worth speculating what the Warwick locals made of the return of their troubled son - Vince - to his hometown, virtually unchanged since he roamed the streets wreaking havoc as a young Bodgie in the 1950s and 60s.
What did they think when they saw him wandering through Rose City Shopping World off Palmerin Street? Or buying supplies for his alpaca farm with its treeless paddocks and sheds just off the main road into town?
What did they make of him paying for everything with cash?
They couldn’t know that he had been growing marijuana year after year and was never once troubled by the attention of police. They couldn’t know he had a full-sized shipping container buried on his property where he stored dope, money and guns. They couldn’t know that on one of his properties he had buried a sealed 44-gallon drum, and that in that drum was the full 2,000-page transcript of the 1980 inquest into the disappearances of the McCulkins, Tommy Allan and Margaret Grace Ward, for which Vince was the number one person of interest.
One thing they did know was to keep their mouths shut about anything to do with Vince. They were aware of all the rumours that had been hovering over Warwick for decades. And now The Bogeyman was back home.
And absolutely nobody could have suspected that with the onset of middle age, Vince would start reminiscing a bit too much about the past.
In some ways his language was stuck in the Australia of the 1940s and 50s, riddled with rhyming slang. When he went to pick up the mail, he always said - I’m off to get the ginger ale.
But some of his memories from the past were suddenly not so quaint and sepia-tinged.
Back in the late 1990s he made a remarkable admission to his young apprentice Wazza McDonald.
After some trouble on one of the drug crops, Wazza was driving Vince back into Warwick when they started talking about his life as a gangster.
MATTHEW CONDON: And you’re in the ute just with him?
WAZZA: Yeah, me and him were in the ute coming back from the crop, we were going to Warwick, and we were talking about Jack. And BLEEP with the big fat mouth. He used to call him the big fat mouth. And he said, “You need a notch on your gun.” And I said, what do you mean? He said you need a kill. He said when I was your age I had several notches on my gun. Fuck. Wow.
MATTHEW CONDON: Did you believe him?
WAZZA: Oh shit yes. And then when it came up about the McCulkins he said he killed them and Shorty raped them. Shorty was nothing but a pedophile. Nothing but a rapist.
Wazza later believed Vince was trying to groom him, to shape him as a killer. The master’s apprentice.
He said Vince was matter-of-fact when he confessed to murdering the McCulkins.
MATTHEW CONDON: But in the ute he had no qualms in making a confession to the murders.
WAZZA: No, none whatsoever.
MATTHEW CONDON: Why do you think he felt so comfortable that he could do that? Obviously he trusted you.
WAZZA: Mate he had me under his wing, and then he gave me some great advice after it. Real cool. Wasn’t upset. Real cool. He just said, if you want to live a long and healthy life, never repeat a word. And I said, well that’s easy. And we just got on ever since. We never…mate, we didn’t sit down every five minutes and fucking talk about it.
It was a confession to a triple murder.
And it would come back to haunt Vince in a very big way.
In early 2014, Operation Avow swung into action.
And it didn’t take long for Vince to appreciate what was coming for him.
Sensing danger, he bolted.
The official police affidavit in the case states:
Operation Avow officers also approached Shorty Dubois. He declined to be interviewed, telling them they should know he would never talk to police.
The word was that Shorty had been offered immunity if he’d rat on Vince about the McCulkins. He decided to stay staunch. He wouldn’t break the code.
Vince, on the other hand, headed into the bush. Into the country he knew so well in and around Ghost Gate Road, Upper Freestone and the little town of Yangan - the fields and forests and creeks and caves that surrounded the flat-topped buttress that was Mount Sturt.
He grew a beard. Lived off the land. He had expert bush skills and had had an intimate knowledge of the landscape since he was a boy.
Vince later told associates that his time on the run was valuable - he was more dangerous to police and the citizens of Warwick if nobody knew where he was. The killer lurking in the shadows. The angel of death who could come for you in the night and snatch you away. He had a fearsome reputation and he used it to his advantage.
There was a sighting of Vince in the village of Yangan, not far outside Warwick and close to the original O’Dempsey farm at Upper Freestone. Someone thought they’d seen him skulking about town like a ghost before vanishing again.
It was predictable of Vince. He always relied on what he knew. He was a creature of habit.
The police were close. He needed time to think.
But winter flushed him out, and by July of that year he was back in Warwick. He reasoned to himself that the heat was off. He stayed with friends and associates throughout the Darling Downs region, watching over his shoulder. He took note of the number plates of suspicious vehicles. He never drove or walked near CCTV cameras. He never talked to anyone in built-up areas in case there were bugs.
However, the juggernaut that was Operation Avow could not be stopped.
Then in the first two weeks of August, the noose tightened.
A series of property raids by police began, including one on Vince’s Alpaca farm.
Another raid followed within hours.
NEWS CHANNEL 7: Good evening. Cold case homicide detectives have widened their investigation into the abduction of a Brisbane family 40 years ago. Late today they raided another property near Warwick.
REPORTER: Lexie Hamilton Smith is at police headquarters. Lexie, what’s the link?
LEXI HAMILTON SMITH: Well Sharon, detectives who are looking at the murder of Barbara McCulkin and her two daughters today raided the property of an associate of one of the person of interest in the case. His name is Vince O’Dempsey. His property was searched yesterday. Now police discovered more than $300,000 in cash, as well as barrels of cannabis and a caravan full of the drug.
With Operation Avow, Vince would grow to learn he wasn’t just facing a platoon of adversaries, but a full-blown regiment. He had made an error of judgement. The heat was not off. It had only increased during his stint in the bush. Now he was in a mad scramble in and around Warwick, trying to find out who had given police witness statements against him.
During much of the first half of 2014, Queensland’s Crime and Corruption Commission - the powerful anti-corruption watchdog - had been bringing friends and associates of O’Dempsey into its so-called Star Chamber.
This is a secret room inside the commission’s headquarters in Brisbane. It is much like a small, windowless courtroom but without a public gallery, where witnesses are interrogated by lawyers and Crime and Corruption Commission staff.
Potential witnesses who refuse to attend the coercive hearings can be jailed.
One lie to the Star Chamber and it’s straight to jail on perjury charges. Witnesses are forbidden to even mention that they’ve been in there.
Vince’s trusted inner-circle, and his criminal friendships going back to the 1960s, began to crack.
Then Warren “Wazza” McDonald, who hadn’t worked for Vince for years, was summoned by Vince to a clandestine meeting in Dead Horse Lane, a stone’s throw from Morgan Park and the old cricket ground outside Warwick. Not far from what may just be Vince’s private graveyard. The place where I collected a jar full of material from a grave-shaped depression in the earth that might ultimately be human bone fragments.
Vince was starting to panic. And he’d run out of people he thought he could trust.
MATTHEW CONDON: I wanted to ask you about that final meeting at Dead Horse Lane. You’d been out of business with Vince for a while then.
MATTHEW CONDON: What happened, why did he arrange it, why did he go to that specific location?
WAZZA: We had meetings…And he run around making sure all the witnesses were keeping their mouths shut…and slowly the leaks were coming, hard and fast, and my job was to find…do you know where the witnesses are…
MATTHEW CONDON: So he called on you, and your old friendship or relationship, and he called you to a meeting at night?
MATTHEW CONDON: What time of night was it?
WAZZA: Mate, most of them were early in the morning, about 4 o’clock in the morning, and then the last one was at night. At Dead Horse Lane.
MATTHEW CONDON: And had you heard of Dead Horse Lane, or knew of it in relation to Vince before that?
WAZZA: Yes, Dead Horse Lane. I’d been there a couple of times.
MATTHEW CONDON: Why do you think he chose that spot? I mean I know it’s remote.
WAZZA: Yeah, remote, there’s nobody about there mate. It’s bushland there. You could pull up and nobody would even know you were there.
MATTHEW CONDON: And as we know now it’s not far from Morgan Park, is it?
WAZZA: That is correct. And Morgan Park backs onto Leslie Dam.
MATTHEW CONDON: …he was comfortable meeting you there in Dead Horse Lane.
WAZZA: Very comfortable.
MATTHEW CONDON: Did you fear for your life going to that meeting?
WAZZA: I had a knife in my boot.
MATTHEW CONDON: Really.
MATTHEW CONDON: What sort of knife was it?
WAZZA: Just a real sharp one. Like a little red dagger sort of thing….with everything I knew then, I thought to myself, well, I’m wondering if he’s going to start tidying witnesses up. If I go, I’m a chance of getting tidied up or if I don’t go then he’s going to think I rolled on him.
MATTHEW CONDON: That’s right.
WAZZA: So I went.
MATTHEW CONDON: So do you remember how he seemed, his demeanour, at that meeting because it was the last meeting you guys ever had wasn’t it?
WAZZA: That’s correct. No, he was worried. He said he was going to have to hit the toe, he said they’re not that far off me now, he said the coppers aren’t far off me now. And I said well look, mate, let’s get out of here, let’s go, I said for God’s sake, we’ve got to get outta here. He said if I go, everybody will shut their mouths up and that’ll stop them fucking talking.
A week after that secret meeting in Dead Horse Lane, time had run out for Vince and Shorty.
WIN NEWS: Good evening, Warwick man Vince O’Dempsey is tonight behind bars, remanded in custody after facing Brisbane Magistrates Court today charged over a 40-year cold case murder. An extensive police investigation resulted in his arrest on Saturday, charged with the murder of Barbara McCulkin and her two daughters in 1974.
REPORTER: Forty years after Barbara McCulkin and her two daughters, Leanne and Vicki went missing from their Brisbane home, two men are now in custody charged with their murders. 76 year old Vincent O’Dempsey from Warwick is one of them. He and Gary Dubois from Torbanlea faced Brisbane Magistrates Court today. Both are charged with three counts of murder, deprivation of liberty, and other serious offences. Their arrests were the result of an extensive investigation. A full review of the McCulkin case started in January.
It had been such a long road. A road that stretched back four decades to a tiny, rundown wood and tin workers cottage in Dorchester Street, South Brisbane. Before colour television. Before mobile phones. Before CCTV and DNA.
So many good detectives had travelled that road and come up with nothing. More accurately, what they did find never got any traction. Nothing stuck to Vince.
Many had asked the same puzzling question for years. How could this man literally get away with murder?
Alan Marshall was one of those detectives.
MATTHEW CONDON: Yeah. So tell me then about your reaction to the news when O’Dempsey and Dubois were arrested in 2014 for the murder of Barbara and the girls?
ALAN MARSHALL: Well, how did I feel about that? I was ecstatic.
MATTHEW CONDON: How did you hear the news?
ALAN MARSHALL: Okay, I got a telephone call from somebody saying that it was going to happen, and I don’t even recall who it was. But my first reaction was I just about jumped for joy, and at that time I had a motor home, I was traveling around Australia on a big, what do you call it, Winnebago, Long Reach, 32 foot long, with all the bells and whistles on the back. I promptly went down and bought a bottle of whiskey.
MATTHEW CONDON: Fantastic.
ALAN MARSHALL: The best bottle I could buy.
MATTHEW CONDON: You remember where you were?
ALAN MARSHALL: Yeah, it was here.
MATTHEW CONDON: It was here?
ALAN MARSHALL: Yeah, mm-hmm (affirmative). I was parked at the back of Seagull’s I think, from memory.
MATTHEW CONDON: And did you have a toast to Trevor?
ALAN MARSHALL: Trevor’s not far from them, with all this. As I say, it was sad that he lived through the rest of his life and never, ever knew that there was going to be a finale about everything.
And while Vince and Shorty were in custody, there was still a long way to go for police. First there was the committal hearing, then the actual murder trials.
The odds of successful convictions were slim at best.
Look at what cold case police had to overcome.
For starters, the case was forty years old.
There were no bodies.
There was no definitive crime scene.
Many potentially important witnesses were long dead.
And the alleged murderers were saying nothing.
A full-blown inquest on the back of detectives Marshall and Menary’s exhaustive investigation saw murder charges against Vince and Shorty dropped thirty-four years earlier.
But this time around, police had some brand new shiny weapons at their disposal.
This time, they had three vital witnesses - Peter Hall, Wazza McDonald and Vince’s former lover Kerrie-Ann Scully - who made the decision to break the criminal code of silence. To tell the court what they knew about Vince and the fate of the McCulkins.
Three courageous people, three genuine, modern day heroes, who chose to finally break this cycle of death and put Vince away for good.
Former Clockwork Orange gangster Peter Hall had effectively severed ties with Queensland when he headed south after the Whiskey firebombing in 1974 and settled in NSW.
He did not escape the attention of the law.
In the 80s he shot a man he said had raped a female friend of his. The victim survived, and Peter did some serious lag time.
But after that, his days as a criminal were over.
He married. Had children. He established a successful business for himself, conducting wine tours through the beautiful Hunter Valley wine region north-west of Newcastle.
Then the past literally turned up on Peter Hall’s doorstep.
MATTHEW CONDON: Yes. Now if we fast forward to 2014, Peter. Mick Dowie approaches you and you say initially you know nothing that can help them. But then you have a change of heart. I’m interested in what made you change your mind?
PETER HALL: A couple of things, which I realized, staying true to the code no matter what. You don’t give anyone up no matter what. Shorty, I’d be giving him up, which at the time I thought, he was a friend, but I’d been married for a while, I had two kids and that changes you. I hadn’t committed a crime since I’d got married.
As for Wazza McDonald, he was looking down the barrel of a lengthy prison sentence for his involvement with Vince in the bush marijuana crops. But he too was a changed man.
Wazza is intelligent, he has drive and is not afraid of hard work. And most importantly, he has a conscience.
He had a lot of information to offer police.
But above all, and as a father himself, he wanted justice for the McCulkin children.
MATTHEW CONDON: Mate what I wanted to ask you, which is really important, because I’ve asked Peter Hall this as well, the decision to become a witness against Vince.
MATTHEW CONDON: I know you were facing your own potential difficulties in jail, but was it more…run me through if you can your rationale behind your decision to do that because it’s a very big decision.
WAZZA: Look, I think at the end of the day, being a parent myself, and what those poor little kids went through, enough is enough. You have to draw a line in the sand and, you know, what they did to those poor little kids, mate, that’s why I crumbled.
MATTHEW CONDON: Had you heard that others were turning on him as well?
WAZZA: No, not that they were turning on him, but I heard from him himself…the Crime Commission is conducting …they’re rounding everybody up, and he said there’d been hundreds of witnesses that’d been in there. Hundreds. So he knew all about the crime commission and the secret hearings.
MATTHEW CONDON: I mean you were so close to him for a long time, you knew a hell of a lot, he would have assessed your value as a witness, I mean I know you once said he said to you, you’d make a good witness.
MATTHEW CONDON: Which was prophetic.
WAZZA: Well, you can look at that both ways now. You could think, geez, what was going through his head? That was a scary one. At that time we were all over the place. He could have got me anywhere he wanted.
MATTHEW CONDON: I mean Peter Hall said that he felt for years that you don’t break the code of silence…but there did come a saturation point where enough is enough.
WAZZA: Yeah, well…see I pulled out of the whole crew when he raped that woman at the alpaca shed then dropped her off and she was supposed to be the cook. That turned me right off. And knowing her, he could have asked her nicely and she would have agreed. That really turned me off me. Wow. That will bring us all undone.
WAZZA: Becoming a parent myself, something just clicks inside of you and you think, well, you know, I don’t want to do this anymore.
Back in Episode One I described sitting in court for Vince’s committal hearing in late 2015 following his arrest.
It was a surreal experience. It was the first time I had ever seen O’Dempsey in person, and it was a shock to be in the same room as him after so many years researching his life.
At one point our eyes briefly locked, and I wondered in that moment if he recognised me as the journalist who kept writing about the McCulkin disappearances, and whether or not he linked me to the 2011 feature story that had been debated so fiercely around the drug crop campfire, and set Vince off.
In crime investigations, it’s possible to get so embedded in the story of a criminal’s life that you can get swept away by tall tales and end up caught in their myth, a myth often of their own making.
O’Dempsey was like that.
I remember interviewing one person who knew him in Warwick in the 1950s and 60s, and he said to me: “You’d ask yourself - is he human? It was like he stepped out of a fairytale.”
Seeing him in the flesh poured iced water over that fairytale. He looked dangerous, hard, evil, and very, very real. During the committal hearing, a taped interview between Kerri-Anne Scully and a detective was played to the court. She said: “He’s a hitman. He’s a serial killer. I’ve known that since I was a child. Back in those days there were real gangsters, and he was at the top of the top…he takes you in the middle of the night, like an angel, and you’re gone for good.”
It would be another 18 months - into the late autumn of 2017 - before Vince was put into a prison van at the Wacol Correctional Centre south-west of Brisbane and driven daily into the CBD along Milton Road and down into Roma Street and the Supreme Court, for one of the biggest murder trials of the last half-century.
We have heard throughout this podcast about one of psychopath Vince’s most enduring, and terrifying, habits. Since the early 1960s, when he first got a taste of jail for nearly bashing a police officer to death on the streets of Warwick, his survival has relied on leaving no witnesses to any of his crimes.
Why would that change in the 21st Century?
Unbelievably, while awaiting trial on the McCulkin murders, Vince arranged to have his apprentice, Wazza McDonald, knocked, or murdered, before he could stand up in court and give evidence against him.
You heard that correctly. Vince, then in his late 70s, organised a hit, from jail, on his former trusted lieutenant, Wazza.
MATTHEW CONDON: He put a contract out on you, didn’t he?
WAZZA: Eventually. God bless him.
MATTHEW CONDON: Was that…when do you think he organised that?
WAZZA: Oh mate, it was after the committal and before the trial.
MATTHEW CONDON: Wow. So he did it from jail.
WAZZA: He did it from jail, god yeah, absolutely.
MATTHEW CONDON: And it was dead serious, it wasn’t a joke, was it?
WAZZA: No fear. No. No fear. The police took it extremely serious.
MATTHEW CONDON: And what was the arrangement as you understood it?
WAZZA: They’d get me where I had my coffee in the morning, I had my breakfast at the Caltex in the morning, and there’s a back lane there, and that’s where they were to get me, and have me knocked.
MATTHEW CONDON: Do you think you came close?
WAZZA: No. The police were too quick for them.
Despite all of this frantic police work, the hunt for and capture of Vince, the turning of witnesses, the secret Star Chamber interrogations, and the scrupulous gathering of evidence, there is still a vacuum in this story.
And that vacuum is the physical whereabouts of Barbara, Vicki and Leanne McCulkin’s bodies.
Let’s ask the same question that we did at the beginning of this episode: would nobody ever find the bodies because there were no bodies?
I was initially sceptical that O’Dempsey, or somebody on his instructions, had removed the McCulkin bodies from their original grave.
Then Wazza McDonald told me about Vince’s obsession with, and seeming expertise in, the use of acid.
MATTHEW CONDON: Now mate there was one other minor thing I wanted to talk to you about. This is Vince’s discussion with you about acid.
WAZZA: Acid, yes.
MATTHEW CONDON: Because in that 1975 letter he sent to Peter Hall asking him to blow up the Gayton sisters’ house in Dorchester Street, he also made a recommendation to Shorty or whoever to exhume the McCulkins and break them down in acid. And he instructed them on how to do it.
MATTHEW CONDON: So what was your conversation with Vince about the use of acid?
WAZZA: Okay. It got brought up about the Snowtown murders. He was carrying on about…they’ve used the wrong acid. They used hydrochloric acid instead of sulphuric acid. We had a couple of conversations about acid. He told me that you needed a steel bathtub and it had to have a steel plug. You can’t have a rubber plug because the acid eats it away.
MATTHEW CONDON: Hmm.
WAZZA: And that sludge , when the bodies turn to sludge you’ve got to get rid of it in tidal waters, don’t throw it in a dam.
MATTHEW CONDON: Yep.
WAZZA: And you’ve got to cut up the bathtub and get rid of it. So there’s no evidence.
MATTHEW CONDON: And what about the teeth?
WAZZA: Yes. You had to grind the teeth. You had to grind the teeth to get them away because the acid didn’t eat all the teeth…there’s always something left.
MATTHEW CONDON: Do you think he was speaking from the point of view of having watched a movie or read a book, or that he knew how to do this?
WAZZA: No, that’s an easy one to answer. He’s done it. Odds on, mate.
MATTHEW CONDON: So he was talking from the point of view of someone who has done this to a human body.
MATTHEW CONDON: Yep. And why did you get that feeling as opposed to someone who was like showing off.
WAZZA: Because Vince never talked shit, mate. He never talked shit. He was always very firm, staunch…tough guy.
MATTHEW CONDON: Yep. So nothing was theoretical or airy fairy.
WAZZA: Oh fucking hell no. No way in the wide world. No way in the wide world.But I do believe…the acid, that’s what he’s done.
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