Revealed: 23 pages a top detective didn’t want made public – Brisbane Times (24 January 2022)

By Toby Crockford

Twenty-three pages containing criticisms of police investigations into a fatal Brisbane nightclub firebombing have been made public for the first time.

The pages were removed in 2020 by a Queensland police officer under orders from her superior, Detective Inspector Damien Hansen.

The pages relate to police knowledge and actions in relation to the Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub firebombing in Fortitude Valley on March 8, 1973.

Fifteen people died in the fire. Two men, James Richard Finch and John Andrew Stuart, were convicted over the attack, but they were only charged with one count each of murder.

An inquest before State Coroner Terry Ryan has examined theories that others were involved in the firebombing but never held accountable.

It has also heard the murder of Barbara McCulkin and her two daughters may have been linked to the firebombing, because of what Mrs McCulkin could have told police. Her estranged husband, Billy McCulkin, was accused of being involved in the firebombing but never charged.

Ahead of the inquest, Detective Sergeant Virginia Gray prepared a formal report for the coroner, but was told by Inspector Hansen, her superior officer, to remove a section.

Inspector Hansen has headed various high-profile cold case investigations including the alleged murder of Peter John Enright, and the disappearance and suspected murder of Sharron Phillips.

Sergeant Gray said Inspector Hanson told her “that sort of material should not be included in a report from the police … and that we would leave that to the journalists and police haters”.

The inquest obtained the full report with the 23 pages, and the shorter report – which was initially kept secret.

After a legal application by media outlets, a redacted version of the 23 pages was released by the Coroners Court on Monday.

It is highly critical of the original investigation into the firebombing, one of Queensland’s most infamous crimes.

“The manner in which the early investigation evolved, meant that three days after the fire, the door was effectively closed on the possibility that other parties would be identified and prosecuted for this offence,” states the removed section of Sergeant Gray’s report.

“It has also been alleged that these [other] parties were effectively protected from prosecution for their role in the arson murders and in the subsequent related murder of Barbara McCulkin and her two daughters.

“This protection being in the form of either deliberate decisions to protect these other offenders or as an unintentional result of the investigative approach used to ensure the timely arrest and conviction of Finch and Stuart.

“A review of the 1973 investigative file confirms there was information available to investigators at the time implicating others as suspects in the WAGG [Whiskey Au Go Go] arson murders, as well as significant evidence supporting a noteworthy Sydney criminal presence in Brisbane at the time.

“However, there is little or no reference to the investigation addressing these lines of inquiry other than to obtain statements from these parties who claim no interest in Brisbane clubs or knowledge of or involvement in Stuart’s extortion claims.

“Questions around the effectiveness and credibility of the original investigation remain.”

The inquest has been told Inspector Hansen specified to Sergeant Gray he particularly did not want to refer to Finch’s claims that his confession was fabricated.

“Finch stated those police officers verballed him and he did not ever confess to the crime at any stage,” states the removed section of Sergeant Gray’s report.

Verballing is a slang term used to describe police officers implicating someone in a crime by fabricating an alleged admission of guilt from the suspect, either verbally or in writing.

The inquest continues.