It was 1974 and Barbara McCulkin was looking forward to a fresh start.
She’d just undergone surgery to remove the stretch marks from her stomach and breasts. Her husband Billy McCulkin – a violent drunk who regularly associated with criminals – was moving in with another woman and Barbara and her two daughters were finally free.
Free from the trope of criminals that had been flowing in and out of their Queensland home, muttering about fire bombings and vandalism attacks. Free from the speculation – the fact she knew her husband, a small time gangster, had played a role in the tragic fire at the nightclub Whisky au Go Go in Brisbane a year earlier.
The arson had claimed the lives of 15 innocent people and two of Billy’s mates – John Andrew Stuart and James Finch – had been found guilty for the murders.
It had been the trigger to make her leave – only 36 hours after the nightclub bombings and Barbara had moved out of her home and into a friend’s house. She had told her neighbour Peter Nisbet that her husband “had something to do with the Whiskey Au Go Go fire”.
“Barbara indicated that Finch and Stuart were not the primary movers of the Whiskey and that they were just collateral damage or an easy get for the cops,” Nisbet told police. “She seemed to think Stuart was set up for the Whiskey Au Go Go fire.”
Nisbet wasn’t the only person Barbara confided in and, months later, they were all dead. Barbara and her daughters, 13-year-old Vicki McCulkin and 11-year-old Leanne, disappeared without a trace on January 16, 1974.
Why? She knew too much.
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She had been present when Billy’s gang – called ‘Clockwork Orange’ that involved himself, as well as break-and-enter criminal Vincent O’Dempsey and rapist Garry Dubois – had been planning the Whiskey au Go Go bombings in her kitchen.
“The flames burst through the front door and lit the curtains all the way up to the ceiling” Donna Phillips, whiskey waitress, told Channel Seven’s Sunday Night this evening. “I watched [another bartender] catch alight, I watched him run around the bar with his shirt burning and then fall to the ground. I watched him die.”
Fifteen dead bodies were laid out in the nightclub’s car park the following morning and, soon enough, Barbara knew the wrong men had been put away.
“She could actually absolve Stuart and Finch of their responsibility,” security guard John Ryan told Sunday Night. He said Barbara’s plan had been to tell her story, put her husband behind bars – where he could no longer hurt her – and run away.