Roger Rogerson quizzed over fatal 1973 nightclub fire

KILLER cop Roger Rogerson insists there's nothing more to tell about the deadly Whiskey Au Go Go firebombing and says reopening the investigation into the 1973 tragedy is useless to the victims' families.

The Daily Telegraph can today reveal that Queensland homicide detectives questioned Rogerson in prison this month about the Brisbane nightclub fire that killed 15 people.

The Brisbane club burnt quickly after a molotov cocktail was thrown inside. Fifteen people who were upstairs all died.
The Brisbane club burnt quickly after a molotov cocktail was thrown inside. Fifteen people who were upstairs all died.

And Rogerson - who took part in the original police investigation into the fire - has claimed in letters written from behind bars there is no conspiracy and no more killers to be found.

"I can't help you with any new or secret evidence. There is none," Rogerson wrote in a letter to The Telegraph dated December 7 last year. It was one of two letters Rogerson sent in response to questions posed in preparation for a new book on the Whiskey fire.

"How is what you are attempting to do going to help the families of the Whiskey victims?" he said.

Inspector LJ Bardwell of CIB Scientific Section inspects the damage at the Brisbane club.
Inspector LJ Bardwell of CIB Scientific Section inspects the damage at the Brisbane club.

Rogerson, a corrupt cop and central figure of Sydney's underworld in the 1980s, is currently serving a life sentence for the 2014 murder of drug dealer Jamie Gao.

The Whiskey Au Go Go blaze is one of Australia's most notorious crimes.

Fifteen people died when two drums of fuel were poured into the foyer of the Fortitude Valley nightspot around 2am on March 8, 1973, and set alight, sending poisonous smoke and flames ripping through the building.

Rogerson was a detective sergeant with a reputation for cracking big cases. He is pictured here in 1981.
Rogerson was a detective sergeant with a reputation for cracking big cases. He is pictured here in 1981.

John Andrew Stuart and James Finch were found guilty of the crime in 1973, but there has always been speculation they did not act alone.

Police have been reinvestigating the tragedy for the past twelve months after Queensland Attorney-General Yvette D'Ath ordered a new inquest.

The Telegraph understands two Queensland detectives travelled to NSW to interview Rogerson on September 1 about the Whiskey fire.

John Andrew Stuart was jailed for murder after the nightclub firebombing.
John Andrew Stuart was jailed for murder after the nightclub firebombing.

Rogerson, 77, was taken from Sydney's Long Bay jail to Silverwater Correctional Complex in the city's west for the interview. Sources said Silverwater had better facilities for questioning inmates.

In 1973, Rogerson was a NSW detective with a reputation for cracking big cases.

He was sent from Sydney to Brisbane to help police investigate the Whiskey fire.

Three days after the blaze, Finch and Stuart were arrested and interrogated for hours by six officers, including Rogerson.

Finch later claimed he had been bashed by police and "verballed". His typed confession was unsigned.

Stuart died in prison and in 1988 Finch was deported to the UK.

Rogerson during the trial for the murder of Jamie Gao. Picture: Adam Yip
Rogerson during the trial for the murder of Jamie Gao. Picture: Adam Yip

In a newspaper interview there, Finch confessed to the crime and named Brisbane criminals Bill McCulkin and Vincent O'Dempsey, from Warwick, as among his co-conspirators.

The new inquest was ordered in June last year after O'Dempsey was convicted of murdering McCulkin's wife, Barbara, and her two daughters, aged 13 and 11, in 1974.

Vince O’Dempsey in 1983.
Vince O’Dempsey in 1983.

The trial heard the reason O'Dempsey murdered Barbara McCulkin was to stop her implicating him in the Whiskey fire. O'Dempsey denied any involvement in the Whiskey fire.

Rogerson has bragged about his involvement in the fire ­investigation.

In 2014, he boasted to Sydney journalist James Phelps about flying to Brisbane in a Learjet to join the hunt for the killers.

 

Barbara McCulkin with youngest daughter Leanne.
Barbara McCulkin with youngest daughter Leanne.

 

Barbara McCulkin was 34 when she was murdered.
Barbara McCulkin was 34 when she was murdered.

 

Vicki Maree, 13, was murdered with her mother and sister.
Vicki Maree, 13, was murdered with her mother and sister.

 

Rogerson said Stuart had been "walking around Fortitude Valley standing over places", telling clubs he'd been sent by Sydney gangsters like Lenny McPherson and George Freeman.

Rogerson said he was among the police who arrested and interrogated Finch and Stuart.

"Finch was the one that did the job," he said. "The nightclub had a mezzanine. Vince went to the stairs at the back of the kitchen and threw a molotov cocktail in.

"Because it was downstairs the draft took it in and set the explosion rushing up into the club."

 

Rogerson says John Stuart had been claiming he’d been sent to Brisbane by Sydney gangsters like George Freeman (above left) and Lenny McPherson (right).
Rogerson says John Stuart had been claiming he’d been sent to Brisbane by Sydney gangsters like George Freeman (above left) and Lenny McPherson (right).

 

In his letters to The Telegraph, Rogerson could not identify the "Vince" he mentioned to Phelps.

"To start with, none of that is my verbage and, to be quite truthful, it doesn't make sense and does not fit in at all as to how the fire started," Rogerson wrote.

"I have never heard of anyone called Vince having anything to do with either Stuart or Finch."

Rogerson added: "If an inquest takes place there is no doubt I will be contacted. It did occur a long time ago and I can't imagine too many of the Brisbane cops who were involved in the investigation would be willing and able to give evidence."

 

Rogerson is serving a life sentence for the murder of Jamie Gao.
Rogerson is serving a life sentence for the murder of Jamie Gao.

 

Rogerson was adamant that Stuart and Finch were the only culprits.

"I believe it was really a simple case," he wrote. "I think it gets down to this. When one psychopath gets with another psychopath you end up with mayhem.

"I think you are barking up the wrong tree."

Excerpts from Roger Rogerson's letters.
Excerpts from Roger Rogerson's letters.

For months Queensland detectives have been conducting interviews as part of their reinvestigation of the fire.

They are understood to have also gathered information on corrupt police of the era.

In 1988, Finch claimed a senior police officer was involved in planning the fire.

After 45 years, the motive is still debated. Theories range from an insurance job to a plot to discredit corruption-fighting then-Queensland police commissioner Ray Whitrod.

No date has been set for the new Whiskey inquest.

TIMELINE OF A TRAGEDY

 

March 8, 1973: Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub in Brisbane's Fortitude Valley set ablaze at 2.10am, killing 15 people inside.

March: Roger Rogerson flies to Brisbane to help in the investigation.

March 10: James Richard Finch and John Andrew Stuart arrested and charged with 15 counts of murder.

October 23: Finch and Stuart found guilty and sentenced to life in jail.

January 16, 1974: Barbara McCulkin and her two daughters murdered after she boasted about knowing more about those responsible for the fire.

January 1, 1979: Stuart found dead in his cell.

February 1, 1988: Finch released from prison and deported to the UK.

1988: Finch admits he lit the blaze and named Stuart, Barbara McCulkin's husband Billy, Vincent O'Dempsey and two others as involved.

June 1, 2017: O'Dempsey convicted of McCulkin murders. Trial told the motive may have been to stop Barbara McCulkin implicating him in the fire.

June 2, 2017: Government reopens fire inquest saying witnesses may finally come forward after O'Dempsey's jailing.

September 1, 2018: Queensland homicide detectives interview Rogerson at Silverwater Jail, where he is serving a life sentence for murder.

 

One of the drums of petrol used to ignite the blaze at the Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub.
One of the drums of petrol used to ignite the blaze at the Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub.
Finch later confessed to the crime in a newspaper interview in the UK.
Finch later confessed to the crime in a newspaper interview in the UK.
O’Dempsey before his arrest and conviction. Picture: Ch 9
O’Dempsey before his arrest and conviction. Picture: Ch 9
The two four gallon drums used to set the club on fire.
The two four gallon drums used to set the club on fire.
James Finch was deported to the UK after serving 15 years.
James Finch was deported to the UK after serving 15 years.