The 1973 Whiskey Au Go Go Fire might not be a case you’re particularly familiar with, but it is one that has shaped the criminal history of Australia in a big way. The incident saw 15 people lose their lives in a tragic firebombing at a nightclub in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley. Up until the Port Arthur massacre in 1996, this case was one of the worst mass murders in modern Australian history.
It was 2.10am when two 23-litre drums of diesel fuel were ignited in the building foyer. The drums were thrown through the open door and lit by torch, sending carbon monoxide up into the club’s main room on the first floor. Grease had been smeared over the stairs of the building’s rear fire escape, as had the door, making it incredibly difficult (if not impossible) to open. The fifteen people who lost their lives died of asphyxiation after not being able to open the door. There was estimated to be around 100 patrons, staff and entertainers in the club at the time. Many escaped by jumping through broken windows onto an awning, bracing for impact on a 15 feet drop to the ground.
John Andrew Stuart (then 33) and James Richard Finch (then 29) were found guilty of the fire bombing attack. The two underworld thugs protested their innocence profusely, claiming they had been convicted on false confessions. They pleaded not guilty, but were convicted for the murder of Jennifer Denise Davie (a drinks waitress at the club). The jury found the pair had lit the fire as part of an extortion-terror campaign aimed at Brisbane nightclub operators. They were sentenced to life in prison, but Stuart was found dead in his cell six years later after a six-day hunger strike. Finch battled for release and won in 1988 after serving 15 years, as part of his release conditions he was deported back to his birth country, England.
While it might sound like an open-and-shut case, a new inquest is investigating whether more people could have been involved. Avelina Tarrago, counsel assisting the coroner, says the investigation will hear evidence that a “considerable number of people other than Stuart and Finch were responsible for the fire.”
One of the people in question is convicted murderer Vincent O’Dempsey. Sources say there is a significant collection of evidence mounting which ties him to the arson – one of them being his connection to his victims Barbara McCulkin and her two daughters (who allegedly knew too much about the fires). It is believed their murder may have been motivated by a desire to silence them, and prevent them from giving evidence against O’Dempsey.
O’Dempsey’s lawyer has made a request for disgraced former NSW Detective Roger Rogerson to give evidence. Rogerson was part of the original police investigation into the nightclub attack, and the inquiry heard he didn’t believe O’Dempsey was involved. Rogerson, however, is currently serving a life sentence for the murder of Jamie Gao, so how he will give evidence remains unclear.
Devastatingly, the victims’ families still do not feel they have closure, despite the passing of several decades. It is hoped that this new inquest will shed further light on the matter, bringing those involved to justice.
Speaking to 9News last month, Sonya Caroll, daughter of nightclub victim Desmae Selma Caroll, said:
“We want closure, we deserve closure, and so does everyone else who is involved in this. I need answers for my brothers, my mother; I just need answers.”
The inquest continues today.