by VANESSA MARSH
AFTER 50 years, two coronial inquests, two murder trials, and several parliamentary probes, the mystery of why 15 people were killed in the Whiskey Au Go Go inferno is murkier than ever.
The case is a relic of policing and of the criminal justice system, relying almost exclusively on witness statements recorded on typewriters. There is no CCTV evidence, no body worn camera vision, no cell tower records, no videotaped interviews, no dashcam footage and no DNA – all the makings of a criminal case in modern day Queensland.
The timeline of the inquest and subsequent murder trial for the defendants is mindboggling by today’s standards.
The inquest began just one day after the fire, which was lit in the ground floor foyer of the building on the corner of Amelia St and St Paul’s Terrace after 2am on March 8, 1973.
James Richard Finch and John Andrew Stuart had been charged, tried, convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison just seven months after the deadly inferno. The 1973 inquest was discontinued after
hearing three days of evidence when they were arrested.
A quiet push for it be reopened became a roar in 2017 when evidence emerged at the trial of Vincent O’Dempsey and Garry Dubois, alleging they killed Barbara McCulkin and her two daughters in 1974 to stop the mother from revealing what she knew about the Whiskey blaze.
A fresh inquest held over three tranches beginning in June 2021 heard evidence from at least 65 witnesses. More than 2000 exhibits were tendered across the 30 sitting days.
State Coroner Terry Ryan is still awaiting submissions from the dozens of parties involved before he can begin the monumental task of attempting to find answers to one of the state’s biggest murder mysteries.
The inquest delved into credible evidence that Finch and Stuart did not act alone, with a number of others identified as potential suspects.
Several theories about the motive for the attack have emerged over the years, including an extortion plot by southern criminals and an elaborate insurance scam.
Geoff Plunkett knows more than most about the fire and the many opinions about who orchestrated it and why.
In 2018 he authored nonfiction novel The Whiskey Au Go Go Massacre after gaining access to the original police files. “It immediately became obvious to me that this was a cold case rather than a finalised case,” Mr Plunkett said.
He sat through every day of the modern-day inquest during 2021 and 2022, hearing new evidence and theories not contained within the original police files. He will release an updated version of his book
once tbe findings are released.
Mr Plunkett said he was sure people besides Finch and Stuart were involved, but the deaths of potential suspects and witnesses would make it difficult for anyone to face justice.
“l think it’s going to be an enigma that’s never absolutely solved,” he said. “We’ll be closer but we won’t know.”
Brisbane criminal lawyer Calvin Gnech said he had followed the story of the Whiskey fire since he was a child. He still remembers watching Finch’s infamous interviews after his extradition to England in which he confessed to the crime, only to backflip and protest his innocence a day later.
Mr Gnech, a former police officer, acted for a number of people at the recent inquest and said it would likely be one of the last major legal cases in Queensland that relied only upon verbal evidence without
the support of material such as taped interviews and CCTV. “It’s really significant,” he said. “It’s extraordinary looking back into those times the way that justice occurred, how quickly the inquest and trial were held.”
The counsel assisting the coroner is due to deliver submissions to the inquiry this month. It is hoped the findings may be released this year.