Finch takes Whiskey secrets to the grave – AAP (2 May 2021)

More often than not it was denial. He claimed to be a victim of corrupt police who drafted a false confession and framed him with it.

But on a few occasions, Finch also told journalists he was as guilty as sin and that he and two accomplices had worked together to torch the place.

In 1988, he let reporter Dennis Watt video tape one such confession, admitting he carried two drums of fuel from a getaway car into the foyer of the club.

One rolled under the stairs, the other ended up against a wall in the foyer. As fuel soaked the carpet, Finch said the late Thomas Hamilton lit a match and dropped it.

The whole thing took 10 to 12 seconds and within 30, the foyer was in flames. Of the 100 or so people inside that night, 15 would perish.

They included 17-year-old Jennifer Davie. She’d only just left Melbourne and waitressing at The Whiskey was her first job.

She died within three to five minutes from the carbon monoxide in the air. Before that there was terror as she and the others fled to the back of the club in a vain bid to escape.

Many of those who did get out jumped from broken windows onto an awning before jumping again, another four and half metres down, to reach the ground.

Finch and fellow Brisbane gangster John Andrew Stuart were the only ones ever convicted of the Whiskey attack.

But for decades rumours have swirled that many others had a hand in the atrocity and that they may have included senior police in on a protection racket.

Stuart died in Brisbane’s Boggo Road jail years ago, apparently from natural causes.

Finch, who was deported to his British homeland after 15 years behind bars, was due to testify at a new coronial inquest into the firebombing later this year.

But a pre-inquest hearing in Brisbane on Thursday was sensationally told he recently died.

It must now proceed without a key witness who might finally – in a court of law – have pointed the finger at others he long claimed were linked to the crime including late former Queensland Police assistant commissioner Tony Murphy.

Junior counsel assisting, Avelina Tarrago, told Thursday’s hearing there were grounds for the inquest to look at Mr Murphy’s possible involvement in the fire and there was evidence to link him to Brisbane underworld figure Vincent O’Dempsey.

When Finch and Stuart were convicted of arson and murder, a jury found the motive for the Whiskey attack was the extortion of local nightclub operators.

Finch’s version, as told to Watt, was that Stuart planned the firebombing to set up a protection racket. He said Stuart received his orders from O’Dempsey, who was in cahoots with Mr Murphy.

With Finch now dead – along with Stuart, Murphy, and so many others – the video tapes Watt made back in 1988 are likely to form crucial evidence of the possible involvement of police.

Author Geoff Plunkett, who painstakingly analysed a mountain of documents before writing The Whiskey Au Go Go Massacre, says the evidence points to Finch being both a mass murderer and a victim of corrupt police.

He says officers seemed hell bent on ensuring only Finch and Stuart were blamed, and points out their arrests forced an end to the initial inquest just four days after the fire.

Plunkett says police never properly looked at Finch’s claims in the videos but he understands they will be presented at the inquest, and Watt is listed as a witness.

He hopes the fresh probe will expose why police wanted only Finch and Stuart on trial: Was it because they didn’t want to be exposed for verballing suspects to secure convictions or was it something more sinister?

Also on the witness list is O’Dempsey, the man Finch said was in cahoots with Murphy.

He is serving a life term for the murders of Barbara McCulkin and her two daughters, who vanished from their Brisbane home 10 months after the Whiskey attack.

Barbara was married to the late Billy McCulkin, the man Finch claimed drove him to and from the Whiskey on the night it was torched.

O’Dempsey’s 2017 trial – alongside co-accused Garry Dubois – heard suggestions Finch and Stuart were not the only crooks behind the firebombing and that O’Dempsey might have killed Barbara to prevent her implicating him.

It was on the back of those imputations Queensland’s attorney-general ordered a fresh inquest.

Plunkett knows many of the Whiskey survivors and relatives and hopes they’ll take some solace from the fresh inquest but with so many suspects now dead, he’s not sure it will be a sense of justice.

“What are we seeking then? To get closer to the truth.”