Killer-editor prepares to spill beans on Whiskey firebombing
More than 40 years after publishing sensational allegations about who was behind the Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub firebombing and associated murders, William Stokes is ready to give evidence at an upcoming inquest that will probe one of the darkest chapters in Queensland’s criminal history.
Mr Stokes, the former Port News magazine editor and convicted murderer, lives alone on a pension in a high-rise apartment beside the Brisbane River, with no phone, intercom or internet.
But he opened his door to The Weekend Australian after being relayed a handwritten letter requesting an interview this week.
Decades after the Whiskey fire in Brisbane that killed 15 people, some of his claims have been spectacularly proven true and he looms as an important witness for a new inquest into the atrocity.
“The ghosts won’t allow it to settle,” he said. “It’s the biggest untold scandal in Australia’s criminal history, the Whiskey. I’ve been up to my neck in it since day one, more or less. It’s ruined my life.”
Four years ago, Mr Stokes was hauled into a star chamber hearing by Queensland’s crime and corruption watchdog and questioned for five hours about his knowledge of the crimes.
Asked this week if he would be called to the inquest, Mr Stokes replied: “Well, I should be. I’d have no option.”
The new inquest was ordered after Vincent O’Dempsey and Garry Dubois were handed life sentences last year over the 1974 murders of Barbara McCulkin and her daughters Vicki, 13, and Leanne, 11. O’Dempsey’s trial was told he murdered Barbara McCulkin because of fears she could have implicated him in the Whiskey firebombing.
Only two men, James Finch and John Stuart, were charged and convicted over the 1973 Whiskey fire. The pair loudly protested their innocence.
Mr Stokes, now 75, was sent to the notorious Westbrook boys home as a 14-year-old because of his juvenile offending.
He went on to become editor of the Port News, a bi-monthly publication associated with the Waterside Workers Federation.
He says his own connection to the firebombing started when an associate, boxer Thomas Hamilton, boasted to him of burning down another Brisbane nightclub, Torino’s. Mr Stokes says Hamilton later implied to him that he also lit the Whiskey fire.
In the Port News, Mr Stokes shifted his focus from shipping to crime. “Whiskey Au Go Go fire. How it really happened!” one February 1975 article was headlined.
He linked the fire to a man he dubbed “The Loner” and connec- ted The Loner and another man, “Shorty”, to the McCulkin murders. Barbara knew too much, he wrote.
In a later edition he named the Loner as O’Dempsey, and Shorty as Dubois. O’Dempsey has denied any involvement in the Whiskey fire.
Mr Stokes now says the gang was “toying with the idea of putting me in the ground”.
“I knew of their involvement in the Whiskey firebombing and the McCulkin murders. I was just hitting back. I was just defending myself,” he said.
After being sent back to Britain on parole, Finch admitted in 1988 that he lit the blaze. He also named others he said were involved: Stuart, O’Dempsey, Barbara McCulkin’s husband Billy McCulkin, Hamilton and a senior Brisbane detective.
Hamilton, whom Finch accused of igniting the blaze with him, was abducted from a Brisbane house by a masked gunman in January 1975 and never seen again.
Mr Stokes was convicted of Hamilton’s murder and served 16 years before being released in 1992. He maintains he was innocent.
“They made me do longer than Finch. He did 15 years. I get framed over a murder, of the bloke who actually lit the fire, and the rotten parole board make me do 16.”
Mr Stokes said he had to cut his union ties because of the Whiskey articles and advertisers deserted him. “That would now be a national publication. I’d be wealthy and employing staff,” he says of what would have happened without the fire.
He said he had asked O’Dempsey and Dubois about the McCulkin murders in prison.
“Dubois snapped at me: ‘That was Vince, he just went off.’ Then he turned his back and walked away,” he said.
O’Dempsey responded only when Mr Stokes mentioned rumours the murders were sexually motivated, he said.
“As soon as I said that, he held up his hand like a stop sign, and slowly said, ‘We only did what …’, and never finished the sentence.”
Police knew of these allegations but Mr Stokes was not called to give evidence at the O’Dempsey and Dubois trials.
Officers and a prominent local man were involved in the Whiskey fire, he claims.
Finch was this week tracked down in Essex, where he insisted police fabricated his confession.
Notably, he did not deny lighting the fire.
A copy of the newspaper report lay on the carpet in Mr Stokes’s apartment, next to the book The Whiskey Au Go Go Massacre.
The book’s author, Geoff Plunkett, said yesterday Mr Stokes was an “essential” witness for the inquest. “He named names and got a lot of it right,” he said.
William Stokes hopes to appear at the inquest into the Whiskey Au Go Go firebombing, right