Whiskey Au Go Go | The controversy continues

CRIME | The Whiskey Au Go Go massacre on 8 March 1973 exposed the rampant violence and culture of organised crime that existed just below Brisbane’s sunny veneer. PAUL BLEAKLEY looks back on this crucial moment in Australian criminal history, and its little known connection to the UK.


Whiskey au go go.

IT WAS a scene of abject horror. In the early hours of 8 March, 1973, two drums of diesel fuel were thrown into the foyer of the Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley. The drums were set alight, sparking a blaze that would cause the deaths of fifteen people in one of the biggest massacres in Australian history.

The fifteen people that died had little chance of escaping through the club’s fire exit: the door and stairs had been coated in grease to prevent them from leaving. The Whiskey Au Go Go fire was a calculated act of murder that shined a light on the culture of organised crime, corruption and rampant violence that simmered just beneath the surface of Brisbane’s sunny veneer.

Former private detective and security consultant John Wayne Ryan witnessed the endemic corruption and organised crime that existed in Brisbane throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Growing up in Brisbane he had worked as a doorman and bodyguard at a time when organised crime in the city was beginning to develop, and returned to Brisbane in 1971 to establish his own security and investigation business.

Ryan told Australian Times: “Sydney and Melbourne’s organised crime grew because of Queensland’s endemic and protected corruption. In fact, if Queensland hadn’t been so organised, Sydney and Melbourne would have been slower getting organised. Vietnam was a godsend for the lot of them for drug contacts, but some of the annual (criminal) meetings were in Brisbane on the way to Manilla.”

When the Whiskey Au Go Go went into liquidation in 1972, Ryan was employed to provide security services for the ailing business. On 4 March, 1973, Ryan was told by the club’s owners Brian and Ken Little that they would no longer require his services. Ryan told Australian Times that after the Little’s regained control of the Whiskey Au Go Go he knew it would not be long before the club suffered an arson attack.

Ryan said: “I informed Commonwealth and State Police that it would definitely now be bombed as I had been pulled out. In fact a couple of employees were not there the night of the fire because I was no longer there. I had passed along prior to this that once I finish there it will go ‘up’. It was no coincidence: it was a total set up and all about buying the other club ‘Chequers’ — the jewel of the clubs, for a song at auction and with no carry over debt problems from Whiskey.”

Two men, James Richard Finch and John Andrew Stuart, were arrested for the Whiskey Au Go Go arson attack in the days after the fire. Local criminal Stuart had drawn attention to himself by telling anyone who would listen that the incident at the Whiskey Au Go Go was linked to a fire at another Brisbane nightclub Torino’s a fortnight before. He claimed that both attacks were the work of Sydney criminals attempting to muscle in on Brisbane’s burgeoning organised crime scene.

His partner Finch, arrested twelve hours later, was an English national that had been relocated to Australia in 1954 after living in one of Dr Barnado’s homes for children in care. He had met Stuart while the pair were serving time in New South Wales, and the two reunited in Queensland shortly before the Whiskey Au Go Go fire. Finch had been deported to the United Kingdom after serving time for shooting criminal John Regan in 1966.

Finch and Stuart’s trial was marred by a string of bizarre incidents: Finch swallowed razor wire and amputated the tip of his finger, while Stuart made history by being the first person in the Australian legal system to be convicted without being present in court. He was in hospital at the time recovering from surgery to remove foreign objects from his stomach.

Ryan claims that Finch and Stuart were “rightfully convicted” for the Whiskey Au Go Go fire, however he believes that they were “patsies” — scapegoats for a larger conspiracy by a group of career criminals and corrupt officials to take control of the Brisbane nightclub scene. In sentencing Finch and Stuart to life imprisonment the court in the Whiskey Au Go Go trial also found that the fire was part of an elaborate campaign of extortion and terror against club owners.

Ryan told Australian Times that police had originally intended to link Stuart and Finch to the earlier firebombing of Torino’s Nightclub, however were forced to change their approach after realising that Finch had still been in the United Kingdom at the time of the fire. He says that continuing to assert that the fires were linked “would have upset the scenario they had built around Stuart.”

Many names were linked with the Whiskey Au Go Go fire in the years following the blaze including Brisbane drug dealer Vince O’Dempsey, his associate Billy McCulkin and the ‘Clockwork Orange Gang’ led by boxer Thomas Hamilton and Garry ‘The Fly’ Dubois. The disappearance of McCulkin’s estranged wife Barbara and their two daughters in 1974 was linked with the Whiskey Au Go Go fire at an inquest 1980.

Ryan said: “Barbara was on the phone to me twenty-four hours before her disappearance arranging for me to get her and the girls out of Brisbane into a safe house and she would corroborate everything we had. It was gigantic and included Torino’s, Whisky and several other fires. She was present when arrangements were made for many events. In fact her phone at Highgate Hill was used for a lot of arrangements.”

Stuart died in Boggo Road Gaol in 1979 after a six-day hunger strike, still considered one of Australia’s most dangerous criminals. Finch was eventually released in 1988, under the condition that he returned to his birth-country: the United Kingdom. Later that same year Finch told The Sun that he was guilty of the Whiskey Au Go Go fire despite having claimed innocence for fifteen years. He also claimed that a Queensland police officer had ordered the bombing, a statement supported by Ryan.

It has been forty years since the Whiskey Au Go Go fire put Brisbane’s underworld under the microscope, giving the first indications of the large-scale corruption and organised crime that would be exposed in 1987. What is clear is that the Whiskey Au Go Go massacre was a crucial moment in Australian criminal history, pulling back the veil of innocence to expose the horror that laid beneath.

John Wayne Ryan’s book I Survived was published in 2012 and is available for purchase online via a range of websites including Amazon.com.