Friday 8 March marks the fortieth anniversary of the firebombing of the Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub in Fortitude Valley. One of the worst crimes ever committed in Australia, the two men found guilty of the crime, James Richard Finch and John Andrew Stuart, became household names in Queensland. From within the walls of Boggo Road Gaol they run one of the most powerful and controversial campaigns ever seen inside a gaol anywhere. They divided the community – into those who believed in their innocence – and those who knew they were guilty.
The strength of Stuarts conviction, reinforced by his dramatic actions – such as sewing his lips together with wire, swallowing wire crosses, and climbing onto the roof of A Wing cellblock and spelling out messages in bricks – “innocent’ – buzzed by media helicopters – led many to believe his story of being “verballed” by police.
This was a shadowy era as later shown by the Fitzgerald Inquiry into corruption, leading many at the time to wonder whether the career criminals may have been scapegoats. The truth behind the torching of the popular nite spot was never revealed. Stuart’s story that a group of ‘Sydney criminals’ had approached him to join them in extorting money from local nightclubs, never quite gelled. His denial of involvement was strenuous; Stuart shared his inside information with police and reporters in what he claimed was an attempt to save lives. Others regarded it as a twisted attempt to create an alibi for himself.
Whether he did the crime or not, Stuart took the truth to his grave. He was found dead in his cell at Boggo Road Gaol on New Years Day 1979.
James Finch eclipsed his friend in the media stakes ultimately. He became known as the “Birdman of Boggo Road” for his avian hobby, found love and married in prison, and found support for his claim of innocence through “the Friends of Finch” an eclectic mix of learned and ordinary citizens thoroughly convinced the man was wrongly imprisoned. Soon after his release in 1988, via a live cross to England, his native country, to which he had been deported, Finch confessed to the murders. He admitted the involvement of himself and his friend Stuart. When it was pointed out that he had only been convicted on one indictment, and that he could still be charged for the other murders, Finch retracted his admissions.
In 1973 while being locked in Number 2 Division at Boggo Road Gaol, James Finch allegedly confessed to committing the crime to a well-known prisoner while the two were working in the sanitation yard. The prisoner was called to give evidence at the trial and did so; Finch denied ever saying such a thing.
Jack Sim will be on-air on Crime Corner on radio 4BC at 1pm on Friday with Moyd and Loretta to talk about this diabolical crime.
Visit Boggo Road Gaol – see the Sanitation yard. Book a tour at www.boggoroadgaol.com