Whiskey Au Go Go Massacre:
At 2am on March 8, 1973 the worst case of mass killing in Australian history – until the Port Arthur massacre decades later – took place in a nightclub in Fortitude Valley, Brisbane. 15 victims were killed when two 23-litre barrels of petrol were ignited in the foyer of a top-floor club ‘Whiskey Au Go Go’.
Photo: Shows the fire damage out the front of the buildings. The windows were all covered by black curtains which concealed the potential escape route for patrons.
Reports emerged that large quantities of grease had been smeared over the stairs of the building’s rear fire escape, as well as over the door of the exit, in an attempt to trap the victims inside. Due to the ignited fuel the club was quickly filled with carbon monoxide and the patrons were overwhelmed by the smoke before dying of asphyxiation.
Despite the club having no sprinklers, no fire alarm, no staff training, no evacuation procedure, no fire exit sign and inadequate fire escapes covered by thick black curtains there were a number of survivors. The few that have publicly spoke of that night described a huge ‘fireball’ bursting into the room, engulfing everything in sight, before thick black clouds of smoke filled the room.
Photo: The interior damage left by the 2x 23 litre gallons of fuel that were set alight in the foyer.
The crime occurred amid a turf war among criminal gangs fighting for control of the valley’s illegal gambling and prostitution dens, and it was believed it may been part of an extortion-terror campaign aimed at the Brisbane nightclub operators as there were several other arsonist attacks on clubs in the area.
Photo: The site of the ‘Whiskey Au Go Go’ nightclub as it is now.
Investigations and Convictions:
In seemingly one of the quickest police investigations in Australian history a coroner’s inquest was opened the day after the fire, and was adjourned just two days later with the convictions of two men – John Stuart and James Finch – despite a controversial trial and a thread of alternative back stories.
Photo: James Finch (left) and John Stuart (right).
The police reported that Finch had wilfully set the fire while Stuart had plotted to establish a false lead that “southern criminals” were planning an extortion racket in Brisbane. They had a written confession for the crimes, as well as verbal confessions from the pair. Since both men were known as ‘career-criminals’ it was not difficult for them to secure the conviction. A jury took just two hours to convict the pair – they were charged for the murder of one of the fifteen victims, however the case was closed and no further investigations continued.
Through-out the trial both men had protested their innocence, and Stuart frequently interrupted proceedings by swallowing wire crosses and even bitting off one of his fingers. Stuart made Australian history by being sentenced in court without being present as he had to undergo several surgeries to remove the foreign items from his stomach and was deemed ‘unfit to appear’. Stuart’s protests continued after his incarceration where he once sewed his lips together using wire paperclips and in one desperate attempt had locked himself on the roof of the jail and spelt out the word ‘innocent’. Stuart eventually committed suicide in Boggo Road jail on January 1, 1979.
Finch was kept in jail for 15 years where he too maintained his innocence, but eventually he was deported back to London, England in 1988. While in England Finch admitted to a newspaper that he had lit the blaze, and named others that were involved with the crime: his co-accused Stuart, Vincent O’Dempsey, Billy McCulkin, petty criminal Thomas Hamilton and one senior Brisbane detective. Once Finch was reminded that he could be extradited back to Australia for the other 14 murders he quickly changed his story and went quiet.
Fabricated Confessions, Ignored Warnings, Insurance Claims and Police Misconduct:
Photo: Stuart protested his innocence until he ended his life in 1979.
Stuart maintained that the fires were the result of an insurance job in a fear climate manipulated by crooked police officers in Queensland and New South Wales at the time. Back in 1973 Stuart has caught wind of this plan through his criminal activity, and he had begun issuing warnings to the nightclubs in Brisbane – which were well reported by the media at the time. These warnings, coupled with the ongoing attacks seemingly went ignored, and were not mentioned during the trial to convict Stuart for the crime that he had apparently been trying to stop. Stuart and Finch also stated that police had fabricated unsigned records of the interviews containing their ‘confessions’, which stated that only the pair were involved.
Photo: Stuart had told the police about the string of arson attacks that would hit Brisbane.
Unfortunately, Stuart was right, and there wasn’t just one arson at Brisbane nightclubs around that time – there was an attack at the Torino’s Nightclub in Ann Street on February 23, 1973, Alice’s Cafe in Brunswick Street in December 1972, and two at Chequers Nightclub in Elizabeth Street in early 1973.
Photo: Newspaper article showing that Stuart had feared being implicated of crimes and had tried to warn the police.
As these crimes took place in the height of gang rivalry this was assumed to have been the motive, but financial records may indicate another motive for the sinister crimes. In 1972, the Whiskey Au Go Go night club had gone bankrupt. Before the fires liquidators had been appointed to both Whiskey Au Go Go and Chequers, which had combined debts of over $120,000, and both clubs were to be sold cheaply.
A waitress at the club was approached by the owner and asked to run the front desk for a while on the night of the fire – which was unusual behaviour for him. He and his partner, who would normally have ran the front desk disappeared for a while. She had received a call while posted here asking for the owner, however when told that he wasn’t around the caller seemed annoyed and hung up. When she had told the owner about this call he had quickly left the club with his brother, his partner, and another man. The waitress was sent back upstairs by the manager – which had ultimately saved her life as she would have been killed instantly if she had remained in the foyer when the barrels exploded just moments later.
While researching for a book about the fire one author was able to access unseen police files regarding the Whiskey Au Go Go firebombing, These files had been sealed for decades at Queensland’s State Archives under an order which was to prevent their release for 100 years. The author stated that these files add to longstanding claims that police fabricated evidence and prematurely closed the inquiry, leaving some culprits to remain free. He said there is also information showing a link between a senior Queensland police officer – who died in 2010 – and the fire-bombing of Torino’s on February 23, 1973.
This crime writer managed to track down an individual that has twice spoken the a man that confessed to the arson. The businesses-man claims that he was hired to set fire to the venue during the series of arson attacks on Brisbane nightclubs in later 1972 and early 1973. The man claimed to have recruited a group of ‘idiot criminals’ to set fire to Chequers Nightclub in 1973, and another one two weeks later. They were not aiming to burn the place down, but they just wanted to cause fear.
In response to the claims one of the six detectives that had witnessed the confession by Finch gave an anonymous interview in which he admitted to the police ‘verballing’ the man:
“He was as guilty as sin. He got what he deserved… He was given a terrible hiding. He was handcuffed to a chair and we knocked the shit 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, fuck 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.”
Triple Homicide, New Convictions and Inquest:
Photo: Barbara McCulkin and her two daughters were never seen again.
On January 16, 1974 Barbara McCulkin and her two daughters disappeared from their home in Highgate Hill in Brisbane. Their bodies were never found, and the case ran cold for over 40 years, but in 2017 two men were finally sentenced for the deaths – the previously mentioned Vincent O’Dempsey and Garry Dubois.
The judge ruled that it was clear that Barbara McCulkin had known enough about each of the pair’s roles in the nightclub bombings at the time for them to want to silence her. Barbara had been married to Billy McCulkin, who was involved in criminal activity in Brisbane during the time of the bombings. Billy McCulkin is now deceased, but his statements against the pair were used to secure the conviction. Seemingly this is not the first time that O’Dempsey had killed to eliminate a witness, however there is not much information made public about this claim.
The convictions of O’Dempsey and Dubois give investigators new hope that witnesses that may have been too scared to come forward before may speak up. One witness, who can’t be mentioned for legal reasons, says that she was with O’Dempsey when he showed her a rifle and stated ‘this gun has killed 15 people’, before explaining that he had been sat in this car when he fired the gun at the barrels inside the club – which would explain the ‘fireball’ that erupted up the stairs and into the club.
Photo: A memorial has finally been placed at the site of the tragedy to remember the fifteen victims of the fire.
There has been a new inquest announced that may uncover far more than the original two day facade. It seems clear at this point that the two men initially charged may have been innocent – which ultimately led to one man ending his own life in prison after his warnings went ignored. The inquest will also explore the evidence of police corruption with fabricated confessions, and buried investigations. Hopefully the inquest will help get justice for the 15 victims from the Whiskey Au Go Go arson, and however many more have been murdered to keep them quiet.