Coroners bill to lift lid on old mysteries – The Australian (19 May 2020)

By David Murray

Queensland’s toughest cold cases, including the 1973 Whiskey Au Go Go firebombing, have a fresh chance of being solved under new laws allowing coroners to compel witnesses to talk.

The state’s coroners currently only have the power to order witnesses to give evidence that could incriminate them in deaths reported after2003.

Legislation due to be debated in state parliament this week will extend this modem regime to all cases, no matter when a death occurred.

Historian Geoff Plunkett said it would increase the likelihood of finally getting to the truth behind the inferno that tore through the Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley, killing 15 people.

A new inquest into the Fire was ordered three years ago next month by the state’s Attorney-General, Yvette D’Ath. It is awaiting the completion of police investigations and passage of the new laws.

“After almost half a century, I believe it will be difficult to find justice, as many of the major conspirators are dead,” Mr Plunkett told The Australian.

“As full justice is an impossibility, the aim of the inquest should be to attain, if not the absolute truth, at least a closer understanding of the whos and whys of the Whiskey Au Go Go murders.

“This goal is made more achievable with the new proposed legislation allowing the coroner to compel witnesses to give evidence.”

Two men—James Finch and John Stuart — were convicted over the blaze but there have long been suspicions that others were involved.

Mr Plunkett author of a book on the firebombing, said that at a 1980 inquest into the fire, suspect Vincent O’Dempsey answered “no comment” to 47 questions.

“This will not be permissible at the upcoming inquiry and that is a large positive,” he said.

Ms D’Ath ordered the new inquest in July 2017 after O’Dempsey and Garry Dubois were convicted and jailed for the 1974 murders of Barbara McCulkin and daughters Vicki and Leanne.

State Coroner Terry Ryan will set a date for the Whiskey Au Go Go inquest when police complete investigations, a spokesman said.

“There is legislation currently before the Queensland parliament that will permit the inquest to be conducted under the Coroners Act 2003 instead of the Coroners Act 1958,” he said “It would be preferable to await passage of that legislation before the inquest is commenced.”

Coroner David O’Connell recommended the legal overhaul in his December 2018 findings on the unsolved 1987 murder of Bryan Hodgkinson.

Mr O’Connell had been unable to compel a key witness to give evidence due to the age of the case. “Such a change may well assist to resolve some of the most lingering mysterious cases which still exist in Queensland,” he said in his findings.

He cited the Whiskey Au Go Go investigation as another case that could benefit. “I wonder aloud whether anything meaningful will be achieved unless persons are compelled to give evidence,” Mr O’Connell said of the Whiskey Au Go Go inquest

“By now, most next-of-kin are well past the position of prosecution as their goal, they merely wish to ascertain the truth, as does the public.”

The bill will allow cases heard under old laws to be reopened.