Introduction To The Great Bookie Robbery
It may have been motivated by a desire for revenge, or perhaps it was a case of karma being balanced, but it's likely more than one punter felt justice served when six men forced their way into the second-floor settlement room of Melbourne's Queen St, Victoria Club on 21st April 1976 and lightened the tote of over 100 bookmakers by millions of dollars.
Background and Participants
What became known as The Great Bookie Robbery is credited as being the largest robbery in Australian history. Although the perpetrator's identities were eventually uncovered, none was ever convicted or sentenced to any jail time. The money was never recovered. It is quite doubtful that the complete truth of the event will ever be conclusively known, since all those involved in the planning and execution of the audacious highest are no longer numbered amongst the living.
The fact that the crime remains technically unsolved, even though many salient details eventually emerged.
This could be due to any number of factors, but whether public investigators were paid off, or there was a lack of sympathy toward the victims, or even that the robbers attained a sort of modern day, southern hemisphere Robin Hood stature are all matters of pure speculation.
Not even the true amount of the haul has ever been verified. The bookies, either from a sense of embarrassment or a highly motivated desire to minimize their turnover tax liability could conceivably have been motivated to under report the amount taken.
Estimates range from a rather paltry $1.4 million to as high as $15 million.
It is reasonably certain that the take was considerably higher than what would have been possible on a typical settlement day, since the thieves had the wherewithal to pull the job right subsequent to the Easter long weekend, meaning the settlement would have encompassed the take from three meetings rather than one.
What is entirely certain is that the heist was accomplished by six men. Mastermind of the plot was Raymond "Chuck" Bennet. He was accompanied by Ian Carrol, Laurence Pendergrast, brothers Brian and Leslie Kane and Norman Lee.
Details and Execution
Three months prior to the robbery, Bennet and his men rented an office on the fourth floor of the building that housed the Victoria Club, so they were intimately familiar with the scene of the crime. They used the office for planning purposes and are said to have gone to the effort of conducting a dress rehearsal of the event while the club rooms were unoccupied during the Easter holiday. Whether the members were at church atoning for their transgressions from the previous day's meeting or were engaged in further acts of sin is not germane, but the empty club was certainly available for the criminals' use.
On the day of the robbery, the money was delivered to the Victoria Club by Mayne Nickess Armoured Car.
Bennet and his compatriots arrived in two vehicles, a sedan and a white van that had deliberately been chosen to be loud and conspicuous.
Five of the gang, armed with handguns and automatic assault weapons, made preparations, which included masks and coveralls to conceal their identities, while the sixth boldly entered the ground floor lobby of the club posing as repair man called to attend to a faulty refrigerator in the club.
This sixth man, at 12:07 PM, let his accomplices into the club once it had been determined that the money was on the premises.
The gang made short work of the job. They captured and terrified 31 hostages in the process. Two men kept the hostages occupied while the remaining four used bolt cutters to disable the padlocks on the cash boxes. They then transferred the money to bags to lighten the load before making an apparent clean getaway with the money.
To the thieves' credit, no one was shot. The only injury was a security guard who made an ill-advised attempt to recover his revolver and thwart the robbery.
Credit is also due to the hostages for managing to avoid any ill-advised heroics.
From beginning to end, the entire caper took around 10 minutes to complete.
None of the money was ever recovered. Norman Lee was the only individual ever charged in the case. He was acquitted. He was later killed by police during a shootout in the course of another multimillion dollar robbery attempt staged at the Melbourne airport. Prior to this, he participated as a consultant to the producers of a television miniseries depicting The Great Bookie Robbery.
The other members of the gang met with similar fates.
Raymond Bennet, after being accused and acquitted of killing Leslie Kane, was himself killed by Brian Kane.
Brian Kane was shot and killed in true gangland fashion at the Quarry Hotel in 1982.
Ian Carrol were shot to death in 1982 and Laurence Pendergrast went missing in 1985 and has never been found.
Norman Lee's solicitor, Phillip Dunn, more than 20 years after the fact, allowing that since Lee was dead, attorney client confidentiality was no longer an issue, confirmed the identities of the thieves and exposed one particularly intriguing twist.
Dunn revealed that the crooks, rather than escape with the money, had hidden it in their rented office on the fourth floor, in this case right over the noses of the police and the bookies. They then waited several weeks before recovering the money at their leisure.
It is highly unlikely that the absolute truth regarding The Great Bookie Robbery will ever emerge. The last living connection to the gang, underworld figure Dennis William "Greedy" "Fatty" Smith, an alleged confederate of the gang who allegedly laundered the take for them, died in late August of 2010. He remained uncooperative and closemouthed regarding details to the day he died.
Is it possible that a conspiracy amongst the bookies to avoid turnover tax on their huge holiday take led to a sham robbery? It is certainly not beyond the realm of possibility despite any evidence to support the theory.
Given the amount of money involved, whether under $2 million or as high as the $15 million figure, security measures at the club were appallingly inadequate.
Whatever the reality, The Great Bookie Robbery lives on. A Melbourne touring company that specializes in crime scenes conducts tourists through a re-creation of the event more than 30 years after the fact.