A police office is killed as a car bomb explodes outside Russell Street Police HQ in Melbourne, Australia.
We make an estimated 35,000 decisions a day, from what socks to wear to the contents of our lunchtime sandwich. Most are inconsequential but there are those that only in hindsight can be seen as life changing.
Thirty years ago there was that sliding door moment. It was 47 seconds past 1pm, March 27, 1986 – the moment the bomb went off outside the Russell Street Police Station.
Crime writer John Silvester takes a look back at the infamous 1986 bombing of the Russell St police headquarters.
It was a terrorist act, not one motivated by a mutated religious mindset or a twisted ideology but – as they all are – by blinding hatred.
In the moments before the massive blast hundreds of people in Russell Street made mundane decisions that would decide their futures.
A total of 21 people were injured and police Constable Angela Taylor was killed after she was engulfed in the fireball – the first Australian policewoman murdered on duty.
The bombers were disappointed – they expected the toll would be greater. Call it fate or the roll of the dice but those unrelated decisions moments before conspired to save many.
Such as Wayne “Teddy” Taylor, a policeman stationed at Prahran. He and his crew had locked the keys inside their police car outside the Melbourne Magistrates Court.
They were unaware that parked across the road was a stolen Commodore packed with 60 sticks of gelignite with the clock ticking.
Rather than wait for replacement keys Taylor went into the court to find a car thief he knew was appearing that day.
The crook produced his zip tool and opened the police car in seconds allowing Taylor and his team to drive away.
It was 12.55pm – five minutes before the bomb detonated.
“If we hadn’t driven off, we would have been blown to smithereens,” he recalled.
Almost at the exact moment Taylor left the danger zone a car with false number plates pulled up behind the explosive-laden Commodore.
It was driven by Charlie Bezzina who would become a long-serving homicide investigator. Then he worked in the anti-corruption surveillance unit, which is why he was driving a car with fake plates.
Just five minutes before the bomb detonated he parked and ran down Russell Street to buy camping gear for the Easter holidays. If he had drunk a second cup of coffee that morning or been sidetracked by an office conversation he may not have survived the massive explosion.
If the crooks had picked a different day the toll would have been so different, according to a key investigator into this act of terrorism.
It was the Thursday before Easter and there were no school tours scheduled for D24. On a normal day around 40 students and teachers would have been leaving the building to board a bus parked next to the bomb car.
“Luckily the bombers picked the wrong day,” taskforce investigator Gary Ayres says.
Even if the bomb had gone off five minutes later the toll would have been worse as many more police and court staff would have been in the street heading for lunch.
But for Angela Taylor, 21, there would be no reprieve. Taylor was a rising star, having graduated as Police Academy Dux, but, like all newbies, she started at the bottom and was working at the watchhouse connected to the court complex.
On that day she lost the toss on the lunch run, which meant she was walking to the police canteen and was a metre away when the bomb car exploded.
She died 24 days later.
There were immediately plenty of theories and a key suspect. The man squarely in the frame was Phillip Grant Wilson, a neo-Nazi and suspected murderer, with an interest in explosives who was appearing in court that day.
The first theory was Wilson, who had planned to abduct and kill a Special Operations Group policeman by throwing him from a light plane, planted the bomb car in the hope of killing the police who charged him.
Wilson knew he was the main suspect and feared he would be killed before he could establish his innocence. He contacted me that afternoon and we met that night.
“I am not a terrorist. I’ll take a lie detector test or truth serum to prove I am not involved,” he said.
He was right but it only delayed the inevitable. He was shot dead outside outside a South Yarra chiropractic clinic 17 months later.
Next on the list was Claudio Crupi, an armed robber with a hatred of detectives and an interest in bomb-making.
The Russell Street bomb taskforce found Crupi had built a device on his kitchen table just before the bombing with the intention of attacking a police station.
He said it was a fake that he wanted to plant at the Flemington police station but when interviewed he admitted he had a hatred for detectives who worked at Russell Street.
The real breakthrough came not through a network of informers or the dark art of interrogation but from meticulous forensic work.
The bomb car was slowly rebuilt – a massive task considering the size of the explosion. Debris was found on the Queen Victoria Hospital roof three blocks away.
Eventually Stolen Car Squad Sergeant Arthur Adams realised that the bomb car and a second stolen car used in a Donvale bank raid the same day had chassis numbers removed by a method favoured by car thief Peter Reed.
At first police thought Reed may have stolen the Commodore for Crupi and it was decided to bring in the suspected car thief for questioning.
What was not known was that Reed was connected to Stan Taylor, a career criminal who turned a group of willing apprentices into a vicious armed robbery gang.
Armed Robbery Squad Detective Sergeant Mark Wylie was to lead the arrest team into Reed’s Kallista home on Anzac Day 1986.
Wylie was uncomfortable as the raiding party was selected from different groups and had not trained together. But this was not a request, it was an order.
It seems hard to believe today but the 10-strong arrest team had only three ballistic vests between them.
Then another sliding door moment. Wylie was shotgun trained but when the team met pre-dawn at the Nunawading police station he found the gun was a make and model he had never used. His last minute training was to stand alone in the police station car park and pump the weapon three times.
As Wylie was to be one of the last through the door he was not wearing a vest.
When the team fanned out in the darkened house Wylie was the first to see the wanted man. “He’s on his haunches … and he’s pointing a .45 revolver straight at me,” Wylie recalled.
Reed fired two shots and Wylie returned fire with two rounds until his shotgun jammed. Unfamiliar with the weapon he was helpless as he tried to clear the gun. “He fired off his third and fourth, and basically I walked into the fourth and it went straight through me,” he told me on the ABC documentary Trigger Point.
Wylie nearly died while Reed was shot and wounded by another policeman.
Wylie said, “What I sense is that death, even in violent circumstances, is an extremely peaceful event. A couple of times I was pegging down; I was getting almost peaceful, surreal, elevated. You just drift, you drift peacefully, even in violent circumstances as a result of a gunshot wound; you drift into the big sleep.”
While Wylie recovered physically he battled many mental demons in the years that followed. In 2014 he took his own life – another victim of the bombing.
The arrest of Reed led to the rest of the gang, brothers Craig and Rodney Minogue and the leader, Stan Taylor.
Taylor, a cunning career crook, tried to cut a deal by dobbing in his followers but there is no prize for running second in the race to inform. Another member of the group, Paul Hetzel, had already made a statement and Taylor would ultimately be sentenced to life with no minimum.
In what was one of the most cold-blooded crimes in Australia’s history, one of the bombers organised the murder of Prue Bird, the 13-year-old granddaughter of Hetzel’s partner Julie, as a payback for him giving evidence. Prue was abducted from her Glenroy home in February 1992 and never seen again.
In 2013, the despicable Les Camilleri was sentenced to a minimum of 28 years after pleading guilty to the murder.
Camilleri, who was already serving life with no minimum for the murder of two schoolgirls in Bega, said he acted alone and grabbed Prue off the street in a random attack.
He also claimed he couldn’t remember where he left the body.
In sentencing Camilleri, Justice Elizabeth Curtain rejected his story. He is a killer and a liar with no redeeming features.
Police say Craig Minogue threatened that if anyone spoke to police he would kill them and their families, telling Julie Hetzel, “It would be a shame if anything happened to your sweet little Prue, wouldn’t it?”
Minogue, who admits to his involvement in Russell Street and has apologised to his victims, maintains he was not involved in Prue’s murder.
Taylor is now gravely ill and appears likely to die in jail. Both Reed and Taylor were brutalised, generations apart, when they were sent into care as kids.
Which proves what the Royal Commission into the Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has already found. If you can’t protect kids in care then you may pay the price later.
Taylor, it turned out, transformed the younger men from mere car thieves into a ruthless gang of armed robbers – and we paid him for the privilege.
Taylor had been released after serving 17 years for earlier armed robberies. In a deadly version of poacher turned gamekeeper, he was employed as project officer for the Commonwealth Youth Support Scheme in Mooroolbark. This put him in direct contact with the younger crooks.
He and Craig Minogue produced a version of Robin Hood as bush theatre for kids. Naturally Taylor starred as Robin Hood and the chubby Minogue as Friar Tuck.
Why they set the bomb has never been established but it was designed to kill as many police as possible.
Minogue was sentenced to a minimum of 30 years. There is a perception that courts have become softer but there is no doubt if he was sentenced today he would be given no minimum term.
In July 1988, two weeks after his July 12, 1988, conviction, he killed multiple murderer Alex Tsakmakis inside Pentridge Prison by repeatedly smashing a pillowcase filled with gym weights into his head.
And yet when he was convicted and given another life sentence not one extra day was added to his minimum, which means he has never been punished for the killing.
It was, frankly, outrageous, but since then Minogue has been close to a model prisoner, devoting himself to education.
An early teacher remains unimpressed.
“He’s turned himself from an uneducated thug to an educated one. He could be a smart arse. He was a very organised and literate man who liked to portray himself as dumb but he was anything but.”
That was some years ago. Since then he has completed a PhD and likes to be referred to as Doctor.
On his website he says, “The sentence of imprisonment is my punishment and I have accepted it and I am serving it; and I have admitted my guilt and expressed my remorse. I am also meeting my obligations to rehabilitate myself and to prepare myself in such a way so as to lesson the risk of re-offending upon release.”
While there is real anger at his possible release the Parole Board is not an appeal court and cannot re-sentence Minogue. We know what he did but the question remains, what will he do?