Although reported at the time in the sensational style of the city’s tabloids, Sydney’s gang wars of 1967-8 have since been almost completely ignored by various Royal Commissions and Parliamentary committees established during the 1970s to analyze organized crime in New South Wales. Characteristic of the police and government view that ‘organized crime’ does not exist in New South Wales, the significance of these executions for the growth of syndicate influence in Sydney has largely been ignored.
Looking back on the underworld killings of the mid-1960s, it appears that they constitute a major turning point in the history of organized crime in Australia. During the 1950s and 1960s, Sydney’s illicit economy was not controlled by one or even a few groups of close associates and remained largely unstructured. Entrepreneurs like Joe Borg and Richard Reilly did not even dominate their respective specialties and were by no means friends or allies. A decade later, however, the situation had changed markedly and the consolidation of a wide variety of illicit activities was well advanced.
Both the Moffitt Royal Commission into Organized Crime in 1974 and the N.S.W. Drugs Royal Commission in 1978-9 repeatedly identified the same small circle of leading criminal personalities — primarily McPherson, Smith and Freeman. While the number of leading criminal figures had declined, the scope and range of their activities expanded enormously during the 1970s. Organized crime activity expanded to embrace abortion, open casino gambling, SP bookmaking, massage parlours, poker machine and private club fraud, and narcotics. By the late 1970s organized crime had evolved — in little more than a decade — from a colourful bit of vice concentrated about Kings Cross to a major industry delivering a wide range of illicit goods and services to the whole of Sydney. Organized crime emerged as the largest single industry in the state of New South Wales.
It is not possible to explain away the executions of the mid-1960s as routine violence. Surveying the milieu murders from 1944 to 1979 reveals a pattern of isolated underworld killings every two or three years during the 1950s, a sudden crescendo of violence in the mid-1960s and relative peace during the 1970s. While some N.S.W. police choose to cite the calm of the 1970s as evidence that organized crime has faded, it would seem more exact to interpret the lack of violence as a manifestation of the high degree of control exercised by several dominant syndicates. The calm is a sign of organized crime’s strength, not its weakness. The exceptional underworld violence of the mid-1960s was the product of struggle for power among a number of cliques. By the time the violence subsided in 1969 some of Sydney’s leading vice entrepreneurs were dead and the basis for the transformation of organized crime had been laid.
Over an eighteen year period from 1944 to 1963, there were only eight identifiable murders of any significance: an average of one killing every two years. Unlike the killings of the 1960s which involved a struggle for control of the vice enterprises, the killings of these earlier decades were less serious matters springing largely from ego conflicts within the macho mystique of the milieu.
The character of milieu violence during the 1950s was best revealed in the spectacular murder trials of Sydney strongman Frederick ‘Chow’ Hayes. A standover merchant with a long record of related offences, Hayes was charged with the murder of William ‘Bobby’ Lee in 1951. After his nephew was gunned down by an unknown assailant, Hayes shot Bobby Lee outside the Ziegfield Nightclub, apparently deciding to administer his own justice when police failed to find the killer. The crucial evidence was provided by the renowned Detective Sergeant Ray Kelly, CIB who testified that, shortly after the arrest, Hayes had admitted the shooting in a ‘verbal confession’. Hayes had explained that he had been compelled to shoot first since he thought Bobby Lee was armed, saying: ‘The ______’s been running around with Martin Goode, Len McPherson, and “The Black Orphan”, and I thought he might have a gun’. Kelly stated that he had said to Hayes in this interview: ‘You told me and the other detectives that Martin Goode, Len McPherson, Jack Riley, and a man named Griffiths shot [your nephew] Danny Simmons in mistake for you, as you had been standing over Len Wright for money and assaulting him’. Hayes allegedly replied: ‘The police didn’t catch anyone for shooting Simmons, so I decided to do things my own way’.
Although Hayes’ attorney S. Isaacs, KC won several re-trials by controverting Detective Sergeant Kelly’s testimony with the allegation that he was known as ‘Verbal Kelly’ for his habit of inventing ‘verbal confessions’, the court sentenced Hayes to life imprisonment. Removed from the court room shouting that he hoped Kelly would die of ‘cancer of the tongue’, Hayes admitted his guilt eighteen year later. Of greater significance were Kelly’s references to Len McPherson as one of several minor criminals subordinate to the gambler Len ‘The Black Orphan’ Wright. Clearly, Leonard Arthur McPherson was still years away from the title ‘Mr Big’.
While ‘Chow’ Hayes spent most of the next two decades in prison, other hard men of the 1950s remained on the street as reminders of the culture of violence which once characterized the Sydney underworld. Charged with several murders in the 1950s and 1960s, standover merchant Charles ‘Chicka’ Reeves was wounded in a 1974 Brisbane Painters and Dockers war and was finally executed by a shotgun blast as he was driving in the Wollongong area in early 1979. Like Reeves himself, his brother, brother-in-law and many of his friends were murdered in petty battles with other milieu identities.
Another prime example of underworld violence during the 1950s was the murder of George J. Hackett, a known criminal with forty charges on his record, who was shot thirteen times behind a Leich-hardt hotel in July 1959 by two gunmen. From among the many possible suspects, the police charged Leonard McPherson and his constant companion William ‘Snowy’ Rayner. According to the court testimony of Detective Sergeant Fred Krahe, McPherson said at the time of arrest: ‘I suppose it is over the Hackett shooting last night. It’s a funny thing that when anyone is shot in Sydney, the first thing they do is run to me.’ In September the prosecution’s case against the two collapsed when an unco-operative eye witness was escorted into the dock in handcuffs and testified that it was not McPherson or Rayner who shot Hackett.
The almost-quaint folk quality of ritualized violence during the 1950s gave way to a wave of highly professional underworld executions in the mid-1960s. Instead of machismo, a struggle for dominion over Sydney’s illicit economy lay at the base of the later violence. While the murders of the 1950s often involved face-to-face combat, the killings of the 1960s were carefully calculated ‘liquidations’ involving high explosives and automatic weapons. Between July 1963 and May 1968 there were nine underworld executions in some way related to the continuing struggle for control within the milieu. Of particular significance, five of these nine killings took place between January and June 1967, an incidence of underworld violence with few equals in France, America or Hong Kong.
The first of these high-technology liquidations occurred on the evening of 8 July 1963 when Robert “Pretty Boy” Walker, a twenty-six-year-old ex-seaman, was gunned down as he was walking along Alison Road, Randwick. According to a police reconstruction, two men riding in a stolen car carrying false number plates drove past Walker at a slow speed, and one fired a burst of eleven shots from an Owen sub-machine gun, six of which struck Walker in the chest and abdomen. The car sped off and was later found abandoned about a mile away.
The Sun Herald’s police roundsman reported that this was the first time in Australia that a sub-machine gun had been used for an execution ‘in the Chicago manner’. In his analysis of the killing some months later, the City Coroner, Mr J.J. Loomes, SM, concurred: ‘This killing leaves a feeling of abhorrence at the thought that this is the first of its type in this State. It will, I am sure, engender in the minds of sober-minded citizens a feeling of revulsion and a hope for ruthless measures to combat this type of crime’.
Despite months of investigation by teams of police led by Detective Sergeant Ray Kelly, the Walker murder was never solved. Initially, police pursued the theory that the violence may have sprung from competition over control of prostitutes or from Walker’s involvement with rival gangs of shoplifters, safe breakers and burglars. At the Coroner’s inquest in December 1963, however, police explained the general circumstances which led up to the killings in terms of personality conflicts within the milieu springing from a shooting outside Walker’s Paddington residence on 6 May. According to the testimony of Detective Sergeant Jack McNeil, the shooting occurred after Stanley John Smith, whom he described as an ‘associate of some of the most vicious criminals in this state’, entered the hallway of Walker’s house with several companions. Walker had opened fire with a .303 rifle and one shot struck Smith in the chest. Smith was seriously wounded and spent some weeks in hospital. Police charged Walker with the shooting and, released on bail, he moved to Randwick in an attempt to conceal his whereabouts.
The main target of police inquiries was a young Sydney stand-over merchant, Raymond Patrick ‘Ducky’ O’Connor, twenty-five. In February 1964, O’Connor entered the witness box, but refused to answer most questions, pleading either self-incrimination or a bad memory. Several months later police raided O’Connor’s residence at Double Bay and discovered an unlicensed and loaded .45 automatic pistol. Testifying at Central Court Detective Sergeant W.A. Rait alleged that at the time of his arrest O’Connor had made a verbal statement: ‘Who put me in? I’ll bet that bloody McPherson and Stan Smith gave you the drum about me.’
Although police failed to bring charges in connection with the Walker murder, they did charge one of the inquest witnesses, Anthony J. Williams, with perjury in July 1965. Williams had made several statements about Stanley Smith’s activities on the night of the Paddington shooting of 6 May. According to the testimony of Detective Day of the CIB, Williams had ‘verbally admitted’ that the evidence he had given about Smith’s wounding had been false: ‘I would have come to the police sooner only Stan and Lennie and them might have heard about it and they might have done me over’. When asked what he meant, Williams allegedly responded: ‘Stan Smith, Lennie McPherson, Ray O’Connor and them. If you don’t believe me you don’t know them blokes. They would shoot at you as soon as look at you.’
A similar execution occurred shortly after midnight on 10 February 1964. Returning from a visit to his clients at several Kings Cross baccarat schools, Charles Bourke, fifty-four, greyhound trainer and standover merchant, was entering his home at Norton Street, Randwick when a gunman fired a semi-automatic .22 calibre rifle ten times from behind the shrubs. Pausing to reload, the gunman approached to within a few feet of Bourke and emptied another magazine into his body.
Carrying the scars of sixteen bullet wounds as a testimony to his career in violence dating back to the 1920s, Charles Bourke was still active as a standover collector from the city’s Greek clubs in the 1960s. In fact he left so many enemies police were not able to select one as a suspect. At the Coroner’s inquest in July Richard Reilly testified that on the evening of the slaying Bourke had called at the Kellett Club to discuss the handling of a greyhound and bookmaker Bruce W.J. Galea stated that Bourke had later called at the Victoria Club to discuss another greyhound. Police inquiries produced little and the investigation was allowed to lapse without an indictment.
A prelude to the period of intense gang warfare was sounded in March 1966 when hire-killer Graham L. Moffitt, thirty, blew himself up in an industrial accident while experimenting with the installation of an ignition-contact detonation device on a stolen 1964 Holden. He turned on the head lights for a better view and accidentally detonated the bomb.
The first in Sydney’s wave of underworld executions of 1967 came in mid-January when ‘Big’ Barry L. Flock, twenty-eight, was shot dead in Paddington. Weighing some 108 kilograms (17 stone) and standing 185 centimetres (6 feet 2 inches) tall, ‘Big Barry’ was powerfully built and began his criminal career as a bouncer at clubs and baccarat schools during the 1950s. Hired as the manager of two Eastern Suburbs ‘health clinics’ in 1966, Flock became involved in a feud over the control of the parlours and was lured to a remote section of the grounds of Scottish Hospital in Paddington by his friend, standover man John Stuart Regan. There Regan fired four shots into Flock’s head at close range, one round passing through the victim’s right index finger when he tried to cover his head with his hands.
Startled by the number of ‘top criminals’ connected with the parlours, police eventually discovered that the proprietor of the Bondi Junction health studio where Flock had been employed, Thelma I. Coyes, had some knowledge of the crime. Testifying at the Coroner’s inquest, she made a statement alleging that one Ross T. Christie, Regan’s partner in a Bondi Junction dress shop, had admitted to her that he and several other men had killed Flock, saying: ‘Barry had a big mouth, he had to go’. When she suggested to Christie that he might be arrested he had answered: ‘They’ve got to find the weapon first, and that’s at Lennie McPherson’s place’. Brought into the Coroner’s hearing from Long Bay prison, Regan was questioned about the crime but answered ‘I don’t remember’ to most queries. Again, police were unable to gather sufficient evidence for an indictment.
While the lack of witnesses at the Walker and Flock executions presented enormous problems for police, their failure to file an indictment for the murder of Raymond Patrick ‘Ducky’ O’Connor represented either indifference or incompetence. Known as a ‘psycho’ who enjoyed excessive violence, O’Connor, twenty-nine, was believed by police to have been implicated in both the Walker and Bourke executions. He was evidently on something of a stand-over rampage in Sydney during the latter days of May collecting at random from prostitutes and club owners. At about 3.10 a.m. on 28 May, O’Connor entered the Latin Quarter nightclub on Pitt Street and lingered in the vicinity of the table where Leonard McPherson and two friends were seated. Drinking at a nearby table were Detective Sergeant M. J. Wild of the CIB and another detective. As the crowd began leaving at 3.25 a.m., blocking the police view of the McPherson table, a shot rang out. At the City Coroner’s hearing Wild stated: ‘I drew my gun and pushed my way through the crowd to the table’. O’Connor was lying on the ground with a bullet wound to the head and lying beside him were a .25 and a .32 calibre pistol — wiped clean of any fingerprints by what the Daily Mirror called the ‘city’s fastest hankie’. Wild told McPherson and his two companions to sit down and put their hands on the table. McPherson stated that O’Connor had approached his table, pulled a gun and said: ‘Here’s yours’. One of McPherson’s companions grabbed O’Connor’s arm, and in the struggle for the gun O’Connor ‘sort of shot himself. Wild found the .25 calibre pistol 30 centimetres from O’Connor’s right hand and the .32 calibre with a bullet jammed in the breach about 120 centimetres away. Contradicting McPherson’s story, a woman sitting at a nearby table claimed that she saw McPherson drop a ‘small pistol’ on the floor just before the shooting and said to him: ‘That’s a funny thing to drop’. But police seemed convinced that O’Connor had died by ‘his own hand’ and no charges were filed.
During the months of violence in 1967 there were a number of minor murders and disappearances supplementing the highly publicized executions. On 7 February, for example, Melbourne gunman James ‘Mad Dog’ Sheridan was shot through the head and dumped in a laneway in the Darling Harbour area. But by far the most important killings of the entire period involved a concerted campaign by the burly gunman and baccarat operator John James Warren ‘to take over Sydney’. A middle-level milieu figure, Warren had been involved in poker machine fraud at South Sydney Junior Rugby League Club and had operated a successful baccarat school in William Street near Kings Cross. Forced out of the Kings Cross area by the ‘baccarat king’ Richard Reilly, Warren, allegedly financed by a wealthy backer, concocted a scheme for murdering the city’s leading syndicate operators and taking over the underworld. On 22 April a gunman, allegedly Warren, ambushed a Kings Cross gambling entrepreneur named Claude H. Eldridge and shot him fatally.
John Warren’s most ambitious coup came on the night of 26 June 1967 when he executed Richard Reilly. According to a co-conspirator turned Crown’s evidence, anonymous mystery witness ‘Joe Smith’, Warren planned the execution for over a month and made ‘dozens’ of practice runs to perfect his timing. Then at 2.30 p.m., 25 June, Warren and ‘Joe Smith’ arrived at the home of Warren’s mistress Glory McGlinn and assembled their equipment — three two-way radios, a Parker-Hale rifle, a double-barrel shotgun, and three hooded tunics. Changing into the tunics en route in a stolen car, the trio drove to an apartment building just off New South Head Road in Double Bay where Reilly, as was his daily habit, was visiting his mistress. Seeing Reilly’s blue Maserati sports car parked in the drive, the trio unpacked the weapons.
As Reilly emerged from the building at about 7.30 p.m. and approached the Maserati, Warren fired twice with the shotgun. But Reilly, a man of massive build and in perfect physical condition, simply stared at Warren, got into his car and drove away. The trio fled the scene in their stolen car, and Warren, in something of a panic, said: ‘You don’t know what this man is like; he just kept coming like a bloody tank. I fired the shotgun and I know I hit him. I aimed at the centre of his guts because the man was so huge I couldn’t miss a target like that.’ After some reflection, Warren, growing more nervous, added: ‘This man will go into a mad shooting orgy tonight and Sydney will be literally strewn with bodies’. Strong but no superman, Reilly had in fact driven only a few hundred metres before he passed out and his Maserati crashed through the front of a shop in Double Bay.
Nervous about possible retribution, Warren and his friends stopped at South Sydney Leagues Club to establish an alibi. Later that night as they were driving home, news of Reilly’s death came over the radio, and Glory and Warren ‘squealed and threw their arms around each other’. At a victory celebration over coffee and doughnuts in a Woodville Road cafe, Warren counted out $500 as ‘Joe Smith’s’ payment and said ‘when if ever we get Lennie McPherson I will pay you $1,500 in one lump sum’. When ‘Joe’ said he was not interested, Warren answered: ‘Don’t be silly, the first killing is the worst one. After that it’s like falling off a bloody log.’
In a later conversation, Warren revealed his plans for further executions: ‘I have to get Lennie McPherson, Stan Smith, Johnny Regan and a copper by the name of James’. In a later statement to the police, ‘Joe Smith’ said: ‘I thought it had something to do with taking over Sydney and I thought it was his idea of getting rid of all his opposition’. At the court hearing, the prosecutor asked ‘Joe’ if ‘by Sydney, did you mean Sydney gangsterism?’ and ‘Joe’ answered in the affirmative. Interviewed by the Daily Mirror, the ‘copper by the name of James’, Detective Sergeant Dave James, confirmed the existence of Warren’s ‘hit list’ and said that he had been seriously worried about his safety.
John Warren killed himself in January 1968, before he could be brought to trial. Concerned over the fidelity of his mistress, Warren kicked in the door to a flat in Brighton-Le-Sands, shot Gloria McGlinn, thirty-six, her suspected lover and Gloria’s mother. Warren then shot himself in the head with his .38 Smith and Wesson revolver. All four eventually died. With Warren and his mistress dead, the Attorney-General decided that the evidence against Warren’s two alleged financial backers was not sufficient and decided not to bill the case against them.
The last and most spectacular of the underworld executions occurred little more than a year later. At 11 a.m. on 28 May 1968, Joseph Borg, thirty-five, walked out of his house in Brighton Boulevard in North Bondi and climbed into his 1961 Holden utility van. As he turned on the ignition, a canister bomb placed under the driver’s seat and containing 3 to 5 pounds of gelignite exploded, destroying the lower half of his body and severing his right leg. Although police arrived almost immediately from the Bondi Police Station only four hundred metres away, Borg died en route to St Vincents Hospital.
Investigators soon learned of intense conflicts among the three major groups that controlled prostitution in the Darlinghurst area. Responding to a police crackdown in the Palmer Street brothel zone in 1966, prostitutes had shifted into massage parlours or solicited from cars. When pressure on Palmer Street relaxed, women began to return to the area in September and October 1967. As the leading brothel owner in the area, Joe Borg had prospered.He had purchased six of the area’s narrow-fronted terrace houses between July 1963 and February 1965, and as the prostitutes returned to the area in late 1967 Borg quickly obtained title to another eight. By merely renting the rooms to working prostitutes at $20 per eight-hour shift Borg began to enjoy an income of $8,000 to $10,000 per week.
After interviewing a number of Borg’s associates and thirty of his prostitute clientele, police learned that these profits had sparked a continuing struggle for control of The Doors among the three major prostitution syndicates in the Darlinghurst area. Borg was under considerable pressure from one group and an associate had recalled Borg saying ‘I’d rather close down than let them move in’.
Pursuing the theory that Borg had been murdered by business rivals, police eventually charged three suspects in August: Keith Kellior, a waiter at the Commodore Hotel; and two Maltese, Paul Mifsud, twenty-nine, waiter and Paul Attard, twenty-four, a painter and docker. At the court hearing Detective Sergeant L.W. Bates of the CIB testified that the two Maltese had planted the bomb, while Kellior, an ‘habitual criminal known about Kings Cross as the “Jitterbug Kid”, had instructed them in how to make it’. Testifying at their trial, Detective Sergeant F. Charlton of the CIB claimed to have interviewed the accused Maltese waiter Mifsud who said: ‘All the Maltese men very angry with Joe. He rob all the boys’ girls that work in “The Doors”. He king Joe. I said to Paul [Attard] maybe we shoot him, but that too dangerous. You know he carry a gun all the time. Mr Charlton, I say to Jitterbug how make a bomb.’ Kellior claimed that the prostitute-standover man Robert Laurence ‘Jacky’ Steele, known as ‘Iron Man’ after surviving a 1965 shooting and later assault with bicycle chains, was involved in planning Borg’s execution. Unconvinced by these arguments, the court sentenced Kellior to seven years and the two Maltese to life imprisonment. Despite the convictions, there remained considerable doubt concerning the killers’ employer. Kellior’s role, for example, was particularly problematic. Declared an habitual criminal in 1962, Kellior was in police custody on an unrelated stabbing charge at the time of the bombing and was later released by Detective Sergeant L.W. Bates to work as a ‘police spy’ in the Borg investigation. To procure bail for Kellior’s release, Bates telephoned Leonard McPherson and asked him to post $200 bond which McPherson then did. After thanking McPherson personally, Kellior investigated the case and informed Bates that Mifsud and Steele were responsible. Ironically, several months later Kellior himself was then charged as an accessory to Borg’s murder.
Borg’s death and the conviction of his supposed killers did nothing to slow the battle for control over The Doors. Several days after the bombing police reported that death threats had been made against a woman known as ‘Sydney’s Vice Queen’. Several months later Tilly Devine vacated her Palmer Street terrace, and vandals systematically smashed its contents and set fire to her furnishings. A month after the bombing a gunman fired a shotgun blast into the window of a house in Stanley Street, East Sydney occupied by Charles Borg (a Maltese migrant but no relation to Joe Borg) who was then on remand from vice charges. Between September and December 1968 violence flared anew and seven terraces in The Doors area were burned out by arsonists — all of them brothel houses set on fire with petrol. A senior police officer explained the incidents to a Sun reporter: ‘We have received certain information as to what is going on at East Sydney. Well-known and dangerous criminals have been named.’
While fires continued to blaze in East Sydney’s brothels, halfway around the world in Valletta, Malta, Emanuel Micallef, thirty-one, a former associate of Joe Borg, was blown up by a bomb planted in his car. Stabbed a dozen times during the brothel battles, Micallef had fled Sydney only two weeks earlier and was believed, by both his common-law wife and N.S.W. police, to have been murdered by another Maltese-Australian who had also left Sydney recently.
The combination of violence, arson and a shortage of accommodation after the closure of Borg’s houses led to a gradual decline in custom in The Doors area and dispersal of business activity to other parts of Sydney. Within three days of Borg’s execution, his competition had taken advantage of the accommodation situation to more than double their room fees. But the ironic end to this chapter in the history of organized crime in Sydney was written by Joe Borg himself. In his final will Borg left all of his assets to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) on condition that the society care for his Alsatian and his four cats. While the RSPCA’s Victorian chapter refused any share from the sale of the fourteen brothels, the New South Wales chapter accepted the bequest and eventually realized some $50,000. The largest of the twenty-three floral tributes at Borg’s graveside was sent by the State RSPCA and bore the inscription: ‘In Gratitude from all the Homeless Animals’.
Following Borg’s 1968 execution, there was a period of unprecedented calm that has lasted — with the exception of a brief interlude of violence in 1974 — for over a decade.
from Drug Traffic by Alfred McCoy