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.)

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