By Peter McCutcheon with Photos from Geoff Plunkett’s ‘The Whiskey Au Go Go Massacre’.
The sister of a man killed in the 1973 firebombing of Brisbane nightclub Whiskey Au Go Go says she hopes a new inquest will finally discover the truth of what really happened.
“I’d like to know who gave that order to go and do such an evil act,” Helen Palethorpe told 7.30.
Her brother Leslie was one of 15 who were killed in the fire. He was only 20.
Speaking out for the first time since the Queensland Government ordered the inquest last June, Ms Palethorpe said the tragedy had affected many peoples’ lives.
“Let’s have the truth, let’s have the reason why my beautiful brother had to die that night,” she said.
WERE POLICE PROTECTING SOMEONE?
The Whisky Au Go Go in Fortitude Valley went up in flames after two drums of diesel fuel were set alight in the building foyer.
Police quickly arrested two men — James Finch and John Stuart — who were subsequently convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
But there is evidence others were also involved in the crime.
The new inquest is expected to examine why police at the time didn’t investigate further, and why corrupt NSW detective Roger Rogerson was involved in the original investigation.
Rogerson, who is currently serving a life sentence for a 2014 murder, reportedly told a newspaper he has no “new or secret evidence”.
But Queensland crime author Matt Condon, who is writing a book on the Whiskey Au Go Go tragedy, says one possible theory is that police were protecting someone.
“From my understanding and research, police didn’t proceed because one of the unnamed individuals associated with the Whiskey Au Go Go firebombing was an informant to a very senior corrupt police officer,” he said.
After being deported to the UK in 1988, Finch admitted at least two other men were involved in the crime.
LET’S HAVE THE TRUTH
One of the men he named, Vincent O’Dempsey, was convicted last year for the 1974 murders of Barbara McCulkin and her two daughters.
The prosecution argued his motive was to keep Barbara McCulkin quiet about his involvement in the Whiskey Au Go Go fire.
“That coming to light sort of sparked it up again,” Ms Palethorpe said.
“I’ve had indications of police corrupt, government corrupt, I’ve been told it could be because of an insurance claim — let’s have the truth.”
Retired police officer Hunter Nicol, who was in the nightclub at the time of the firebombing, was more reluctant to speculate about the reasons for attack.
“It’s like anything, people have theories on the JFK assassination or the moon landing,” he told 7.30.
“They could be right, they could be wrong, so I’ll leave it to the coroner.”
Nonetheless, he welcomed the new inquest, expected to get underway in the new year.
“There are questions people want answered, undoubtedly,” he said.
“Whether they’ll get the answers they’re looking for is another matter.”
Get ready for an extraordinary read with this in-depth account of the 1973 fire know as the Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub massacre where 15 people were murdered.
This horrific event happened in Brisbane, Australia and has remained one of the country’s most talked about and shocking crimes.
For many years Queensland was a corrupt police state. There was fraud, organised crime and injustices on a large scale.
What was always known and reported was that two men were arrested and convicted for that arson attack and mass murder.
(What’s interesting is that the trial happened in September 1972, six months after the incident. Quick justice so to speak.)
Author Geoff Plunkett is the first person to view the files created by the lead detectives in this extraordinary case. Plunkett is a noted researcher and historian for Australia’s Department of Defence.
This book details never-before-revealed aspects of the investigation and transcripts of interviews. There’s also details about that innocent 15 people who died at the nightclub, building the picture of the absolute tragedy and outrage of this crime.
The inquest into this crime could still be reopened.
Published by Big Sky Publishing.
Previously unseen police files have shed new light on the Whiskey Au Go Go firebombing, suggesting former detective Roger Rogerson admitted fabricating a crucial confession that led to two men being convicted of the crime.
Investigative files on the torching of the Brisbane nightclub 45 years ago, which resulted in 15 deaths in what was then Australia’s worst massacre, have been sealed for decades at Queensland’s State Archives under an order preventing their release for 100 years.
But historian and author Geoff Plunkett was granted permission to sift through the eight boxes of evidence, before the Queensland government last year ordered a new inquest into the firebombing.
He says the documents add to longstanding claims that police fabricated evidence and prematurely closed the inquiry, leaving some culprits to remain free.
“The result of the perjury was not innocent — there were a series of murders as a result,” Plunkett says.
The fresh inquest was ordered after Vincent O’Dempsey and Garry Dubois were last year given life sentences over the murder of Barbara McCulkin and her daughters Vicki and Leanne in 1974.
O’Dempsey’s trial was told he murdered McCulkin because of fears she could have implicated him in the Whiskey atrocity.
The only two men charged and convicted over the blaze, James Finch and John Stuart, protested their innocence from the outset.
After being released on parole and sent back to Britain, Finch admitted in a 1988 newspaper interview that he lit the blaze and named the others he said were involved: his co-accused Stuart, O’Dempsey, Barbara McCulkin’s husband Billy McCulkin, petty criminal Thomas Hamilton and a senior Brisbane detective. Finch maintained police fabricated an unsigned record of interview containing his “confession”, in which he was said to have claimed only he and Stuart were involved.
In response, one of the six detectives who witnessed the confession gave an anonymous interview to The Bulletin in 1988, admitting police verballed Finch.
“He was as guilty as sin. He got what he deserved,” the detective said. “He was given a terrible hiding. He was handcuffed to a chair and we knocked the s..t out of him.
“We all laid into him with our fists. The bastard didn’t utter one bloody word. He just sat there and copped an almighty hiding. In the end, we said, ‘Right, f..k you, smart-arse, we’ll do it our way’.
“Fabrication of evidence was something we all took for granted. You know when it’s right.”
The sealed police files include a confidential report dated March 8, 1992, that concluded Rogerson was the source for the article.
The report followed a four-year internal investigation, codenamed Operation Graveyard, into the firebombing and murders. Ironically, the investigation was ordered by then acting police commissioner Ron Redmond, who had typed Finch’s allegedly fabricated record of interview before rising up the ranks. Rogerson was by then dismissed from the NSW police and declined to be interviewed for the investigation.
“An examination of the unsigned Record of Interview reveals the initials R.C.R. on each page,” the 1992 police report states. “These are the initials of then Detective Sergeant Rogerson. In this event, if the allegations are true, then Rogerson himself is liable to possible criminal prosecution.
“The fact remains that this record of interview has been witnessed by five other police officers, tested in every area of appeal, and has remained intact, until spurious allegations have now been made by a totally discredited, ex-police officer.”
The report, compiled by the head of the homicide squad, Detective Inspector Warren Smithers, concludes: “There is insufficient evidence available to charge any police member with official misconduct or breach of duty as the situation currently stands.”
Plunkett has based a new book, The Whiskey Au Go Go Massacre, on the sealed police files. He said the upcoming inquest should ensure key witnesses “are made to appear and give testimony”.
Rogerson is serving a life sentence after being convicted in 2016 of the drug-deal murder of Sydney student Jamie Gao.
The author of the 1988 article in The Bulletin, Bruce Stannard, declined to tell police his source at the time. He said he had no comment, when contacted by The Weekend Australian this week.