Killer-ed­i­tor pre­pares to spill beans on Whiskey fire­bomb­ing

The Weekend Australian - - THE NATION - DAVID MUR­RAY

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.

LYN­DON MECHIELSEN

Wil­liam Stokes hopes to ap­pear at the in­quest into the Whiskey Au Go Go fire­bomb­ing, right

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