Fallout from an explosion

Issue 

By Joan Coxsedge and Gerry Harant

On February 20, the ABC screened a docu-drama dealing with an explosion which took place outside a Sydney hotel in the early hours of Monday, February 13, 1978. The Hilton, main venue for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Regional Meeting (CHOGRM), was supposed to be under heavy security because delegates and their retinues had already arrived and taken up residence.

One week before the meeting, nine households in Melbourne and Sydney, of people supposedly related to the Ananda Marga religious sect, were raided at dawn. The raiders found nothing.

The Hilton explosion was not caused by a bomb, as portrayed in the film and elsewhere, but by a rubbish bin containing sticks of gelignite being caught in the confining mechanism of a Sydney City Council compactor truck, turning the gelignite into a lethal device. The explosion scattered pieces of the truck for 30 to 40 metres. Two council garbage men were killed instantly, a policeman died later from his injuries, and there were eight other casualties. Three young men were sacrificed in one of Australia's worst miscarriages of justice to deflect suspicion away from the real culprits.

No detonators ever turned up. A year later, Detective-Sergeant Gibson from the NSW Police told an audience of international forensic experts that police had not determined the type of explosive used in the "bomb" nor how it was detonated.

"While expert opinion is that some form of explosive residue should have been detected, all tests were unsuccessful", he said. "Can any of the other chemists or other experts here help?" No-one at the Sixth National Symposium on the Forensic Sciences could suggest an answer.

"It's an odd one. I can't see an answer ... it's as if some gnomes and elves had removed the evidence", said Colonel Mackenzie-Orr, an Australian Army officer and former chief bomb disposal expert with the British Army in Northern Ireland. The only gnomes and elves who would have been allowed anywhere within cooee of the crime would have been members of the security force.

There was, indeed, not a single shred of evidence to show that the Hilton explosion was a "terrorist bomb". Detective-Sergeant Jim Black, head of the police investigation team, was quoted as saying that in his opinion "the explosives were not meant to go off".

This was backed up by the two phone calls to the media just prior to the explosion. One to the Sydney Morning Herald said, "You'll be interested in what the police are going to be doing down at the Hilton soon ...", followed by a garbled reference to a bomb. At 12.40am an anonymous male rang the Sydney CIB: "Listen carefully. There is a bomb in a rubbish bin outside the Hilton Hotel in George Street". The duty sergeant then heard a mighty blast.

None of the calls identified with any group, ruling out political terrorism, which we know from all overseas experience is invariably aimed at advertising and achieving a cause.

As usual, the media didn't allow facts to get in the way of a colourful story. They uniformly screamed for tougher security measures to combat the advent of "terrorism", ignoring the fact that if it had been a genuine attack, it would have exposed the complete failure of the security forces to deal with it. An editorial in one of the dailies brayed, "... the shock waves from the Sydney bomb must jolt Australians — particularly those who ridicule and bait security services [a dig at our work in CAPP, the Committee for the Abolition of Political Police] — into a new mood of realism".

For a better understanding, it is worth looking at all the events surrounding the Hilton affair and even further back. At the 1971 ALP National Conference in Launceston, the party came within one vote of supporting a motion for the abolition of ASIO, only "saved" by the casting vote of Lionel Murphy.

From 1973 onwards, CAPP ran a vigorous campaign both inside and outside the Labor Party calling for ASIO's complete demise, pointing out the absurdity of reforming a secret and therefore unaccountable body. We used large slabs of humour and ridicule, especially in publicly identifying ASIO personnel and their workplaces, and had quite an impact.

In those days, the media often covered our actions. The Victorian ALP was sufficiently persuaded to adopt resolutions supporting the abolition, not only of ASIO and Special Branch, but of the other spying outfits as well.

The Hope Reports, resulting from the Whitlam government's Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security, were published in 1977 and, although generally supportive of our snoops, nevertheless contained many references to their shortcomings and breaches of the law.

Going much further, South Australia's White Report, released on January 18, 1978, was scathing in its criticism of ASIO and SA's Special Branch. These reports set up a chain reaction around Australia, countering the "terrorist threat" climate being pushed by the Fraser government, in line with an edict from the greatest confidence tricksters of the 20th century, the CIA and its assorted spycatcher buddies.

Fraser was on the verge of introducing the draconian ASIO Act, substantially increasing its powers and providing harsh new laws to deal with critics, which must rank as one of the most dangerous pieces of legislation ever written in Australia. At best, Labor's opposition to the bill was disgracefully muted. Fear of being identified with "terrorists" and "subversives" post-Hilton provided a handy excuse for their shabby performance.

Naturally, the "bomb" proved a bonanza for the spy industry, not only vindicating their existence, but giving them more money and more clout. It was also used to justify the formation of paramilitary groups in each state police force, although in Victoria their timing was badly synchronised because we found out, by persistent questioning in parliament, that the Special Operations Group was actually established in 1977.

These factors formed the backdrop to the whole affair. It is therefore unfortunate that little of this atmosphere surfaced in the rather melodramatic TV presentation. The film treated the event more like a whodunit with false trails leading nowhere, omitting evidence that was readily available. There was even a failure to interview some of the main players. Other leads, which might have introduced new material, didn't materialise.

No mention was made of the vigorous public campaign that erupted with the frame-up and jailing of the three young men — Tim Anderson, Paul Alister and Ross Dunn — beginning with their arrest in Sydney for conspiracy to murder the former leader of the National Front, Robert Cameron, and the attempted murder of arresting police, a campaign that lasted for more than a decade. In August 1979, the three were sentenced to 16 years for a crime that was not committed, after a first trial was aborted because of a hung jury.

Almost the only "evidence" given at these trials was supplied by a seedy, mentally unstable, ex-drug addict, Richard Seary, who had "offered" his services to police. He kept adding to his story as he went along. At the first trial, Seary was shabbily dressed, contradictory and almost incoherent, but by the second, he was expensively dressed despite being on a pension, and his memory had undergone a transformation. An appeal by Anderson, Alister and Dunn was rejected in October 1980. The governor-general, Sir Zelman Cowen, presented bravery awards to four of the arresting police.

For viewers "not in the know", the film was scrappy and confusing. It was not helped by sensationalist techniques such as repetitious, slow motion re-enactments of the explosion, reinforcing the misleading belief that it was a bomb. Even the title Conspiracy, with the camera lovingly zooming in on parts of the "o", immediately conjured up visions of paranoia, a charge popular with right-wing commentators keen to shoot down anyone daring to suggest that there are actually groups of people in high places engaged in secret nefarious activities.

Footage was devoted to the Ananda Marga, scapegoated by ASIO and Co. almost from the beginning, but without making it clear where they slotted in. You could also argue that this was a diversion because the three young men had nothing whatever to do with the Hilton explosion. One of them — Paul Alister — was not even in Sydney at the time, evidence not allowed to be presented at the inquest and not mentioned in the film.

If you were seriously looking for the real culprits, surely you wouldn't focus on those three who, after spending more than seven years of a 16-year sentence in NSW prisons, were released from Long Bay Jail in 1985 after a special government inquiry. The inquiry was told that Seary had repeatedly lied and been involved in a previous bombing "plot", and that Special Branch officers had lied, concealed evidence and been engaged in criminal actions. In 1987, Tim, Paul and Ross were unconditionally pardoned and each given $100,000 in compensation.

Ross and Paul moved away, but Tim stayed put and became an outspoken critic of the NSW police and prison system, publishing two books on his experiences. At an international legal seminar in Sydney, he publicly accused one of the police present — involved in the original frame-up — of being a perjurer.

A close associate of the embarrassed policeman was Detective Sergeant Aarne Tees, notorious former member of Special Branch and stalwart of the corrupt Sydney CIB. Tees was also a friend of disgraced NSW cop Roger Rogerson, who had earlier "verballed" and bashed Tim in the initial frame-up, and was subsequently kicked out of the force. A few months later, on May 30, 1989, Tim was rearrested by Tees on the word of prisoner Raymond Denning.

Far too little was said in the film about Denning's role or of the other crown witness, Evan Pederick, both of whom appeared out of the blue to put Tim in the "Hilton frame". Supergrass Denning — in jail for 18 years apart from his three escapes — had a sudden flash of memory about a conversation supposedly held with Tim in prison in 1984, when Tim told him that he had placed the bomb with "some others".

Denning had been visited in jail no less than 31 times by Tees. His evidence was completely discredited in court, most notably when the defence proved by using prison records that Anderson and Denning were never in the same prison together after 1979, but a dirty deal had obviously been struck.

Denning was given an early release and new identity under the Witness Protection Program. After outlining all the help Denning had given police in recent years, NSW Supreme Court Judge Wood described him as a "genuinely reformed man". Denning was later taken off the program and died from a drug overdose.

The day after Denning's memory surge, Evan Pederick contacted Queensland Police after "confessing" to a priest that he had planted the bomb, but that Tim had made him do it. During the trial, Pederick's evidence — mainly from tapes of interviews with Queensland police and Aarne Tees — was shot to ribbons and he was proved to have lied on at least six occasions. But in four short days Pederick was convicted on three counts of murder and sentenced to 20 years' jail with a non-parole period of 13 years, leaving him with an actual sentence of about eight years.

In his sentencing, the judge referred to Anderson as the "mastermind behind the bombing". Tim, absent and unrepresented, was given no opportunity to contest any of Pederick's allegations or to assert his innocence. He was then retried, found guilty on three counts of murder and sentenced to 15 years, with a minimum of 11, which caused profound shock waves throughout the movement and in the legal fraternity.

But one item of evidence from Pederick, which he supposedly told Brisbane police after turning himself in, could provide us with a clue to the identity of the real Hilton bomber. Pederick claimed to have stored leftover gelignite in a battered brown suitcase at Macquarie University immediately after planting the sticks in the rubbish bin outside the Hilton Hotel. But after his interview with Tees, Pederick changed his story, saying it was the University of NSW, not Macquarie, the container was a black zipper bag not a brown suitcase, and Tim had given him the key to the locker.

Anderson's defence homed in on these inconsistencies, especially the point that when the locker was hired out on July 11, 1978, Anderson had been in custody for more than three weeks on the earlier charges and couldn't possibly have been involved. The lawyers tried to enlarge on the mystery during Tim's own trial, but their arguments were rejected by Justice Grove.

The trial judge heard that on April 28, 1981 — three years after the Hilton tragedy — a black bag was indeed found in a locker room in the Roundhouse (the main student union) at the University of NSW. The bag contained 52 sticks of gelignite — enough to demolish a building — a coil of safety fuse, a glass cutter, batteries, detonators and, oddly, newspaper clippings from the Sydney Morning Herald of February 11, 1978, two days before the bombing.

Police immediately linked the accidental discovery — the bag had actually been moved from men's-room locker number two by a handyman the previous year — with the Hilton bombing because of the clippings, but they kept it to themselves until Pederick's trial, shortly before Tim's case came to court. Even more strange — or is it? — it seems this vital piece of evidence was "destroyed" by police or some other government agency.

The court was told that the locker was let out to an M.J. Melton on July 11, 1978, but there was no student of that name. There was, however, a John Jeffrey Melton, midshipman. When interviewed by police about the bag on May 8, 1981, Melton was unable to explain how his father's name — M.J. Melton — came to be on it.

He claimed not to know where the Roundhouse was or where the lockers were, despite studying chemistry, oceanography, mathematics and Japanese for a Batchelor of Arts degree at HMAS Creswell, an associate body of the University of NSW, which would have involved attendance there, suggesting that he would have been very well aware of the Roundhouse, the hub of student activities.

The bag also contained articles belonging to a student, Patricia Collinson, who had a purse containing these items stolen during a square dance in May 1980, indicating someone was still using the locker up to that time. But who?

John Jeffrey Melton's history is revealing. In 1986, he left the navy and teamed up with Richard Snell, a taxi driver, to run a courier service in Cairns. Snell made a written statement, which Tim's defence counsel tried unsuccessfully to present during his trial, detailing how Melton had told Snell in June 1989 that he was worried about an impending police investigation into the contents of the locker.

They discussed his experiences as a weapons officer in the Navy and his plans to join either Naval Intelligence or the "secret service". The Navy confirmed that Melton was a "submariner" but denied any special training in weapons or intelligence. A Navy friend later told Snell that Melton was seeing Navy doctors about an "ongoing psychiatric problem", despite leaving the service two years earlier.

If there are answers to this conundrum, we're not likely to hear them, especially from John Jeffrey Melton. He hanged himself in Cairns three months after Evan Pederick "confessed" to Brisbane police.

It is important that the Hilton affair should be given another public airing, but it is equally important that it should be dealt with in a way that advances our understanding. Perhaps it is revealing that, in response to an attack on the film by Gerard Henderson, the film maker stated, "We deliberately avoided pointing the finger at any person or specific organisation".

When you look at everything we know, at the suppression and disappearance of important evidence, at the frame-up of three innocent young men involving corruption in very high places, the blatant lies that were allowed to go unchallenged, the political climate of the day, a tame-cat media and then ask the question, who gained from the Hilton debacle, you can draw only one conclusion: that the clear-cut winner has been the security apparatus of this country, which has a long history of destroying the democracy it claims to uphold.

The worry is that this dangerous bunch of secretive, corrupt, self-serving lunatics have got away with their crimes and are still around. Despite the end of the Cold War and despite being exposed as a group that engages in deception and violence, they have an amazing capacity to survive. The more they are threatened the more likely they are to flood our compliant media with colourful stories about the menace of terrorism and anything else they can dream up to justify their existence.
[Post Script. "We exist to counter those who question our existence": A recent ASIO recruiting document was spotted by a CAPP counterspy, which listed "threats to our security". The first three could be described as "normal" — the traditional foreign agents, terrorism and politically motivated violence — but the fourth was pure Maxwell Smart. Threats, it states, are people who "believe there is no threat to security"!]

Become a Green Left supporter today and get the first month free!

Green Left aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. We rely on regular support and donations from readers like you.

Any reader who becomes a $5, $10 or $20 per month supporter between August 3 and 11 will get the first month free.