true crime

50 years ago, the Whiskey Au Go Go firebombing killed 15 people. We still don't know the full truth.

It was the crime that shocked Australia and changed Queensland's nightlife scene completely.

On March 8, 1973, the Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub in Fortitude Valley Brisbane was firebombed, resulting in the deaths of 15 patrons and staff.

It had been a busy night in the venue, and the assortment of patrons was widespread - a father and son celebrating the purchase of their first race horse, military personnel enjoying a night off, musicians, locals, young women, and more. All now scarred by what they endured.

At the time, it was Australia's worst mass killing, later that grim statistic assigned to the Port Arthur massacre.

Police would start a major investigation that would drag in some of Brisbane's most well-known criminals, gangsters, bosses and violent offenders. But the investigation would also expose police and political corruption, with a group of officers potentially using this fire to help some club owners cash in.

Watch: one witness recounts what she saw and her interactions with police. Post continues below.

Video via ABC.

Back in the '70s, Fortitude Valley was Brisbane's answer to Sydney's King Cross. Its reputation was seedy and there were plenty of nightclubs.

In the lead-up to the fire at Whiskey Au Go Go, there had been other firebombing incidences throughout Fortitude Valley restaurants and clubs, fires which were believed to be gang-related. 

Then it happened to Whiskey Au Go Go.

The fire began with the ignition of two 23-litre drums of diesel fuel in the building's foyer. The drums were thrown into the foyer, then ignited by a lit torch thrown through the open door. The burning diesel sent carbon monoxide up to the club's main room on the first floor. The only escape route was the rear stairs which were poorly signposted and cluttered with crates of bottles.

Fifteen people died of asphyxiation from carbon monoxide poisoning, as they struggled to open the escape doors.

There are reports of around 50 to 100 patrons, bar staff and entertainers in the club at the time of the ignition. Many escaped by jumping from broken windows onto an awning and dropping 15 feet to the ground.

Matthew Condon is an Australian author and journalist, and also the host of the Ghost Gate Road podcast, which delves into this very case. 

He tells Mamamia's True Crime Conversations there was a witness, Katherine Potter, who was outside the venue when the attack occurred.


"She alleges she looked over to the entrance of the Whiskey Au Go Go, and Kath claims that she saw a black vehicle pull up, three men got out, two of the men retrieved drums of fuel. And suddenly she saw flames."

Potter later told an inquest that she reported what she saw to police the next day. But around a week later, officers came to her home and asked her to "rectify" how many men she reportedly saw. She claimed they called her a liar and tried to make her change her statement. 

The claims of police corruption only grew from there.

Listen to this case be unpacked in detail on Mamamia's True Crime Conversations. Post continues after audio. 

Within 72 hours of the attack, two known criminals - John Stuart and James Finch - were charged.

Both were convicted of murder but claimed they were innocent, saying they were "verballed" by police and convicted based on false convictions allegedly beaten out of them.

The jury found that the fire was lit as part of an extortion-terror campaign aimed at Brisbane nightclub operators. 

Stuart died in jail in 1979. Finch was released from prison in 1988, and deported back to his home country of England. Back in the UK, he confessed to the crime, telling The Sun newspaper that he had tipped two drums of fuel into the doorway of the nightclub building before the firebombing. Finch was supposed to give evidence at a recent inquiry, but died in 2021.


Although these two men were charged and convicted of the firebombing, rumours remained that there were more people behind the deadly attack. 

"Recently, [a new generation of] police found that the actual transcript of the trial was missing a critical bunch of papers. The section that involved the prosecution questioning police over that initial investigation have gone missing. They've just vanished," Condon tells True Crime Conversations

"That points to an attempt by someone at some point to try and break the breadcrumb trail and make it more complicated for people at a later dater to actually work out what happened. There's hundred of those sorts of situations flying around the issue of the Whiskey Au Go Go."

A fire at the Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub in Brisbane, Australia, kills 15 people. The fire is caused by arsonists who lit the building on fire with diesel fuel.

— 1973 Live (@50YearsAgoLive) March 8, 2023

In 2017, Queensland gangsters Vince O'Dempsey and Garry "Shorty" Dubois were convicted of the murders of another gangster's wife and two daughters in 1974.

During the court proceedings, the judge said there was available evidence that suggested the wife knew who had taken part/organised the Whiskey fire. The judge believes this was reason why she and her daughters were murdered by the two gangsters, to keep them silenced. O'Dempsey has said he had nothing to do with the Whiskey firebombing. 

Both O'Dempsey and Dubois were sentenced to jail for life over the three murders. The next day after the convictions, the Queensland attorney-general announced a fresh inquest into the Whiskey tragedy. 


For many, they believe there were others higher in the criminal pecking order who organised the firebombing, including corrupt police.  

For the survivors of the firebombing, and the loved ones of those who lost their lives - they've been looking for clearer answers for decades now. 


In 2021 and 2022, we saw the inquest take place into the Whiskey Au Go Go fire, trying to garner further answers as to what exactly when down and why it did. The findings from this inquest are yet to be handed down. 

Although interestingly, the counsel assisting the coroner told the inquest there would be evidence suggesting "a considerable number of people other than John Stuart and James Finch were responsible for the fire". 

As Condon tells Mamamia, "something was wrong with this story from the start".

Was it meant to escalate as it did? Were those 15 people meant to be victims or were they just in the wrong place at the wrong time with an arson attack that went far more successfully than the perpetrators planned?

These are the questions that at least for now, remain unanswered.

"Why do the victim's families have to relive the horror of this decade after decade? Because something was wrong with the police investigation," Condon says.

"There were cover-ups. There were some heavy players that may have been behind this that were protected. There were a string of murders that followed the fire, of people linked and associated with this story. It was to maintain that the truth never emerge. Files have vanished. We don't know the full story, and we might never know it."

Feature Image: Queensland Police Museum.