13 December 2013

The Day They Smashed a Truck Through the Gates of Boggo Road

Many of the escape attempts from Boggo Road prison were subtle affairs, requiring discrete planning, construction of tools such as ropes, grappling hooks, fake weapons, or smuggling of saw blades and files. There was one attempt, however, in which a more direct approach was taken. Sure, there was a lot of planning involved, but instead of going over the wall or making a break for it while out at the hospital, these men actually smashed through the main gates of No.1 Division in a garbage compactor truck.

In March 1991 an internal prison intelligence report warned that three prisoners had been paying ‘considerable attention’ to the comings and goings of vehicles at the main gate, including the laundry truck, the garbage truck and even the bread truck. Although the gate officer was alerted, there wasn’t much that he could about what happened during the next afternoon.

A recent cut in prison staff numbers meant that only one officer was guarding the garbage truck inside the prison that day, and he was at the rear of the vehicle. He did not see when four prisoners overpowered the two drivers at the front of the truck and took control of it.

Once inside the truck, the fleeing prisoners hit the accelerator and drove into the heavy steel-barred gates at high speed. An officer working in the kitchen at that time recalled what happened next:
‘...we’re cooking the breakfast and the next thing you know, couple of gunshots go off, pow, pow, anyway we’re locked in the kitchen so I was happy to be there, so I thought ‘I won’t go outside to find out what’s going on’, and the next thing, Christ Almighty, ‘crash’, it was the truck hitting the gates, and the prison half shook, you know, ‘I’m in here, I’m not going outside!’ Anyway, more shooting going on because the bloke down the boom gate he had his little gun, he bloody shot six into the truck, it’s pretty scary. By that time, they used to call them hooters but they’re like sirens, the hooters are all going off, whoo whoo whoo, like air raid sirens... Got the prisoners, put them all back in [the cells], went over to the gate, they give me this big shotgun, by that stage the whole front doors been smashed off, and the gates been smashed, a hole through it, you could see the end of the road.’
The truck broke through both the inner and outer gates with such force that this is what they looked like afterwards:

Looking out (S. Gage)
Looking in (S. Gage)

As the truck headed for Annerley Road, prison officers in the towers opened fire, hitting the driver. The vehicle stopped in nearby Nelson Street, and the men jumped out and ran. One tried to steal a car, but was headed off by an officer. Another was caught a couple of hours later.

The truck on Nelson Street - right next to my old house! (S. Gage)

A third escapee, who had also been involved in an escape attempt a few months earlier, was recaptured four weeks later at the Pineapple Hotel at Kangaroo Point. The last man, Harold McSweeney, proved to be a lot harder to bring in. He re-emerged in May, suspected of committing two armed robberies to steal a total of $25,000 and shooting a security guard in the process. Four days later he was spotted in a car in Toowoomba. Police chased him through the city centre at noon and collided with him on a street corner. He jumped out of the car and in the shootout that followed he shot a police officer in the hip. Running from the scene he hijacked a car and later transferred to a motorbike.

Police roadblocks were quickly set up, but McSweeney rode straight through them, again exchanging fire with officers. Police sealed off some bushland after they found he had abandoned his motorbike, and a Channel Seven news crew, including newsreader Frank Warwick, who were following the action in a helicopter landed nearby. To their surprise McSweeney emerged from the bush and surrendered to them. The footage of this surprising event, along with scenes from the day of the escape itself, can be viewed below.

 (Channel 7 News)

One year later McSweeney was involved in an even more spectacular but ultimately tragic escape attempt, but I’ll save that story for another day.

(The No.1 Division of Boggo Road was closed in 1992 and demolished in 1996.)

08 December 2013

Campbell Newman Ignored Recommendation for Boggo Management Change

The controversial interim reopening of Boggo Road took yet another unwelcome turn in 212 when an independent recommendation to install new interim management at the old prison was ignored by the L-NP state government.

The recommendation was one of a number made to the government by a community consultant who had been engaged by the site developers. He met with a wide range of stakeholders for a few months during that year, after an incredibly messy trial reopening of Boggo Road that saw community stakeholders denied fair access to this public asset by the small businessman that had been installed there after a secret deal with premier Campbell Newman.

Back in April 2012 I stated my opinion that the interim opening had been a failure. The small business in question, 'Brisbane Ghost Tours', had a long history of attacking heritage groups and individuals that supposedly 'posed a threat' to their business interests. These attacks had even resulted in police and court involvement. The Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society (BRGHS) had received extraordinary legal threats over their web address. It was inevitable that Ghost Tours would use control of access to squeeze out other stakeholders, and that is exactly what happened. High prices and restricted access saw community activities fail to happen at Boggo. Historic and creative communities and the Queensland public had lost out in the name of personal profit.

Promises from Public Works minister Tim Mander that not-for-profit organisations would get 'fair access' proved meaningless.

A subsequent community campaign attracted thousands of supporters and unwanted publicity for Boggo Road. Investigating journalists were denied access to basic official information. Questions on the reopening process were asked in parliament.

The consultation process was no doubt intended designed to alleviate the situation. A large number of meetings were held over two months with a number of stakeholders, including local schools and arts organisations.

The BRGHS agreed to suspend the petition campaign. They withdrew 'Boycott' calls from their online material. The campaign was obviously hurting but in the interests of a compromise solution they played nice. This was, after all, supposed to lead to peace, with something for everyone. Even when the consultant eventually came up with a range of recommendations that fell well short of what the BRGHS wanted, the BRGHS was quite prepared to work within the new framework.

So there can be no doubting the commitment of the BRGHS to the process.

The most significant recommendation was that control of access to Boggo Road be taken away from the private business and vested in a new committee for the remainder of the interim opening. This change of management was to take place without an Expressions of Interest phase.

The findings were clear. Despite the marketing spin, privatised access to Boggo Road had failed.

After all, as the saying goes, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it'.

The final decision on the recommendations rested with Public Works, who were expected to make a decision within weeks. That decision eventually came after three months of silence when, completely out of the blue, they called a snap 'Expressions of Interest' phase - just two weeks long. The report had been ignored and hidden. Why? What was the point, after three months of silence, of having this sudden and unnecessarily rushed process? The workable solution that had been crafted during the consultation process could have been finalised during that time.

It's a bit like getting one day's notice to do a university assignment. Sure, you could do it, but you would produce a better result with a month's notice. It was all the more galling as it had taken three whole months to come up with this announcement.

The public will never know the reasoning behind this decision.

So another two months of our lives had been wasted in participating in the consultation. With most of the BRGHS committee either overseas or interstate on family holidays when the EOI was called, they were in no position to put together a submission (for something we never wanted to do anyway). They were in a position to do so in late 2012, when calls for a tender process were ignored, but after months of being kept in the dark and having goalposts shifted, a lot of people had simply lost faith that this interim opening process was ever going to be coherently managed.

The snap timing of the EOI, and the fact that the BRGHS were denied access to basic data that the incumbent was privy to, meant that the EOI process could never be equitable. Instead of a workable solution, it only created further controversy.

As it was, only Ghost Tours and one former prisoner even put a submission in. This was the same Ghost Tours who had utterly failed to meet their promises in managing Boggo Road that they would have been sacked if they were public servants. Still, with practically no competition, the result was inevitable.

The outcome was that the failed privatised system was still in place while taxpayers paid for maintenance. We in the community turned our focus to the real reopening in the future and putting together a carefully crafted plan that makes sure the public get full value from this public asset.

Boggo Road Gaol was supposed to form part of a community-integrated development. When you install an anti-community businessman in there, it's just not going to work. The shelved report should be ringing some loud alarm bells in Public Works. The BRGHS will never support failed projects that work against community interests.

04 December 2013

Arrividerci Roma, a Guardian Spirit of South Brisbane Cemetery

Read about Roma Waldron, a founder of the Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery and passionate defender of heritage.

This story can be found at 'South Brisbane Cemetery'.

The first headstone in the cemetery, dated 1870. An appropriate to leave some flowers for Roma. Red flowers, to match her fiery personality.
The first headstone in the cemetery, dated 1870. An appropriate to leave some
flowers for Roma. Red flowers, to match her fiery personality. (C. Dawson)