A 2018 review of suspicious deaths in Sydney found that 27 of the 88 were probable gay hate crimes. QNews looks back at the unsolved 1968 murder of Brisbane gay man Gary Venamore. Despite a $250,000 reward for information, that crime remains unsolved.
At the age of 35, Gary Venamore still lived at home with his mother in Kangaroo Point. His father died earlier in the year. Gary worked as a travel agent for Dalgetys. The multinational agricultural giant operated wool stores and wharves at Teneriffe.
On Tuesday 5th November 1968, Venamore went out drinking after work. He met friends and work colleagues in some of the better city bars from 5 pm until 8.30 pm. At 8.30 pm he declared he should head home, but at least one friend suspected he would not.
Richard Billington noticed Gary Venamore paid for his drinks from a large roll of notes. He also knew that once Venamore started drinking he usually continued. It seems Venamore’s sexuality was an open secret.
In his book Three Crooked Kings, Matthew Condon quotes Detective Ross Beer, “[Venamore] was sort of a Jekyll and Hyde… He was a ladies man when he was sober, a playboy and very dapper. He’d mix with the social set. But when he got on the drink he was a raving homosexual.” Departing the genteel inner city, Venamore headed for racier Petrie Bight.
Petrie Bight red light district
Australia saw Queensland as the wowser state. But the far end of Queen St defied that reputation. A modest red light district offered, on the surface, a risque night out. At Tony Robinson’s Playboy Club, the cabaret included both drag and strip acts. Bernard King, later a national television personality and celebrity chef, sometimes performed there. An up and coming performer named Judi Connelli sang in his show.
Across the road was Willie’s Bazaar. Willie, often mistaken for a drag queen, was an eccentric older woman with big hair – blonde, of course. Hippies, homosexuals and other alternative types frequented her unlicenced cafe.
The neighbouring National Hotel featured Warren’s Bar, named for its head barman. Warren’s blue eyeshadow painted fingernails, and high-camp persona made him famous. He was a Brisbane institution, much loved and often featured in the newspapers.
Perversely, the same society which persecuted homosexuals adored him. Warren’s campness was acceptable because he was ‘straight.’ Of course, so were Liberace and Danny La Rue at the time. But unlike Liberace and Danny La Rue, Warren had a wife and kids at home. You can’t get much straighter than that!
Cow-cockeys from regional Queensland reminisce to this day about meeting Warren. It was a highlight of their trip to the Big Smoke. Of course, many include the ‘he had a wife and kids’ disclaimer. As recently as three years ago a gentleman defended his admiration of Warren on Facebook.
“If you know me… you’d know you have nothing to worry about ol mate… as far as I know, Warren wasn’t a shirt lifter, it was all an act… an act that made him the highest-paid barman in Qld.”
Because Warren only played at gay for pay, he was a champion. Actual gays – unspeakable! After work each night, Warren went home to the wife and kids at… cough… Camp Hill.
The risque reputation of Petrie Bight camouflaged a seedy underbelly. Tony Robinson of the Playboy Club was the son of a Brisbane illegal gambling kingpin.
In his interestingly titled book Time for the Truth, Tony Bellino suggests Robinson Jr was also involved in gambling and drugs. With no liquor licence, his advertising included the ambiguous phrase ‘Liquor Service Available’.
At the cafe across the road, Willie never sold alcohol. However, she also never noticed when her customers added alcohol to the soft drinks she did sell. That increased the popularity of her venue, especially with young adults. The minimum drinking age at the time was 21.
Alcohol was not the only tolerated BYO in the cafe. Decades later, regulars remembered Willie’s whenever they smelt potpourri. The old girl scattered mountains of the stuff to disguise the odour of cannabis. The federal and state police once joined forces to raid the venue. They found only a trifling amount of cannabis and business boomed from the publicity. Willie loved it.
Whatever money the cops missed at Willie’s, they made up for at the National Hotel. Brothels were not tolerated in Queensland. However, the police allowed working women to solicit for customers in some hotel bars.
Hotels profited from the rooms the sex workers hired and the extra drink sales. The women made a living without recourse to walking the street. The police profited from bribes and enjoyed the added bonus of free sexual services.
And so on that Tuesday night in 1968, Gary Venamore made his way to Petrie Bight. There is no confirmed sighting of him until he showed up at the door of the Playboy Club at 10.30 pm. He may have stopped at the National on the way there. Or perhaps at the Fig Tree. For decades, men met at the public toilets under the Fig Tree on a traffic island in Eagle Street.
Wherever he spent those two hours, when he arrived at the Playboy, he no longer had the wad of cash. The doorman agreed to cash a $5 cheque for him. Gary spent the next four hours in the Playboy.
He sat talking for a while to Dorothy Knight, a sex worker who knew him from about town and enjoyed his company. Dorothy knew Gary was gay. She believed everyone knew he was gay.
After a while, Dorothy left on a job and at 2.25 am Venamore himself left the club in company with two men. They caught a taxi from the Playboy to a block of flats in Maxwell St, New Farm. Sometime between 2 am and 3 am a neighbour heard a man scream.
A ferry master noticed the body bobbing on the incoming tide under the Story Bridge. It was 6.10 am Wednesday. John Tonge, for whom Brisbane’s Forensic Laboratory is named, examined the corpse.
It bore multiple injuries including a ruptured liver and haemorrhage. Gary suffered terrible violence.
The killer or killers bashed him with a blunt instrument, perhaps a fence paling, and kicked him in the head. Bruises on his wrists and ankles led Tonge to believe two men had thrown the unconscious man into the river. Tonge estimated that Gary drowned about 4 am.
Detectives Ross Beer and Glen Hallahan investigated the murder. They interviewed the crews of 21 ships berthed in the river that night.
They also questioned members of the homosexual community. The men interviewed told them of a number of gay bashings. They also said fear of the police stopped victims making complaints.
Hallahan flew to Sydney to follow up on some of the sailors and to interview two people who were in the Playboy Club. While there he caught up with Shirley Brifman. Brifman, now a successful Sydney madam knew Hallahan from her time as a Brisbane sex worker.
She paid him bribes and they were lovers. In Sydney, Hallahan told Shirley about Venamore’s murder. He showed her photos of Gary’s battered body.
The detective told Shirley about his big new idea. The murder inspired him to embark on a new money-making scheme. Hallahan intended blackmailing homosexuals. After all, he now knew they were reluctant to lay complaints, even against criminals. What could they do against the police themselves?
The investigation into Venamore’s death went nowhere. Shirley Brifman died of a suspected drug overdose in 1972. She died in a police safe house in Bonney Avenue, Clayfield. In eighteen days time, she was due to give evidence against Detective Tony Murphy in a perjury trial.
Murphy along with Terry Lewis and Hallahan made up the so-called Ratpack. They were the ringleaders and chief beneficiaries of Queensland police corruption. Murphy went on to become an assistant commissioner. Lewis became Commissioner and a knight of the realm, before disgrace and imprisonment.
Years later author Matthew Condon interviewed Dorothy Knight about the murder. She suggested that Gary overheard a conversation on the night of his death at the National. The person he overheard was Detective Glen Hallahan.
In 2014, the Queensland Police offered a reward of $250,000 for information on Gary’s death. Of course, to claim the reward the information must lead to a conviction. It was fifty years last month since the murder.
In 2017, Attorney-General Yvette D’Ath announced an inquiry into Shirley Brifman’s death. There is hope something might come of that.
Attempted robbery or gay hate crime?
After drinking with a sex-worker friend, Gary Venamore left the Playboy Club at 2.25 am on the morning of 6th November 1968, taking a cab to New Farm with two men.
Someone heard a scream between 2 and 3 am and just after 6 am a ferry master noticed a body floating under the Story Bridge.
According to forensic scientist Dr John Tonge, someone – Dr Tonge presumed two men – threw the battered and unconscious man into the river to drown around 4 am.
Initially, Inspector Kunst of the C.I.B. assigned 30 detectives to the Venamore case. They checked on known criminals and the crews of ships in the vicinity of the murder.
Gary was socially prominent as a committee member of the annual Bushwhacker’s Ball, a highlight of the Brisbane ball season (and distinct from the Bushwhacker’s Balls run by Dame Sybil Von Thorndyke in later years). A criminal might assume Gary carried a lot of cash. He did not.
Hints of homosexuality
Kunst hinted at Gary’s homosexuality when he told the media, “The detective check on ships in port is based on crime histories in other ports throughout the world where seamen selected victims… where they thought the offence might not be reported to the police.”
Was Gary bashed to death in an attempted robbery? Was it a poofter bashing? Did his gaydar fail him that night and he ended up dead because of an unappreciated advance?
After a few drinks, he would, according to Detective Ross Beer, “make approaches to people,” people meaning men.
Peter Cotterell, who knew Gary, said of him, “An amiable drunk, but all too fond of doing the beats pissed.”
But did more sinister forces play a role in Gary Venamore’s death?
The ‘most dangerous’ detective
One of the investigating officers was Detective Glen Hallahan. As documented by Steve Bishop in The Most Dangerous Detective: The Outrageous Glen Patrick Hallahan, Hallahan’s police career entailed more crime than crime-fighting.
He took bribes, pimped women, passed counterfeit notes, imported and trafficked drugs and had suspicious proximity to far too many murders. Bishop also mounts a convincing case that Hallahan framed an innocent Raymond Bailey for South Australia’s Sundown murders.
Circumstantial evidence and a confession inconsistent with the physical evidence – a confession obtained by Hallahan – sent Bailey to the gallows.
During the investigation into Venamore’s death, Hallahan flew to Sydney to interview crews of ships moored in the Brisbane River the night of the murder. While in Sydney he visited the town’s leading madam, Shirley Brifman, formerly a Brisbane sex-worker who both paid bribes to Hallahan and slept with him.
Showing Shirley photos of Gary’s battered body, he explained his conclusions to the investigation thus far.
A peculiar perspective
In a normal homicide investigation, an investigating detective reaches a conclusion as to potential suspects and motives. But this was no ordinary homicide investigation and Detective Glen Hallahan examined evidence from a somewhat peculiar perspective. He came to an unorthodox conclusion. Hallahan concluded, from information gathered during the murder investigation, that homosexuals were ideal blackmail victims.
The detective had no suspects. He had no eyewitnesses. He could suggest no substantive motive. But what he did have, was a business plan.
Discovering that members of Brisbane’s gay community suffered frequent violent assaults in silence, as afraid of the authorities as of their assailants, Hallahan formulated a financial strategy. At that time, the penalty for homosexual sex acts in Queensland was 14 years in jail with hard labour.
Hallahan’s corrupt crony, Terry Lewis, sent at least one man to jail for three years on the strength of no evidence other than the man’s own ‘confession.’
According to Shirley, Hallahan placed hidden cameras at the Figtree toilets and recorded the comings and goings. “The businessmen who are homosexuals, you would not believe it,” he boasted. He and his cronies blackmailed those businessmen. The idea was not original.
An internet search for “1962 police video homosexuals in toilets” brings up numerous links to the footage of men having sex in an Ohio beat which led to American men spending a total of 68 years in prison, broken marriages, broken lives and at least one suicide. Who knows what carnage Hallahan’s scheme caused in gay men’s lives in 1968 Brisbane?
Furthermore, a QNews investigation exposes as disingenuous Hallahan’s claim that he stumbled across the idea of blackmailing homosexual habitués of the Figtree beat while investigating Gary Venamore’s death. Such a scheme was already in operation.
In 1967 Inspector J G Strophair investigated an extortion racket operated by Detective Senior-Constable Lawrence Weldon and Plainclothes Constable John Fulton. Strophair had other detectives observe the pair collecting payments from victims in hotel bars. In November 1967, he brought charges against them after they collected $200 (the equivalent of $2,500 today) from a married New Zealand man.
Hamilton William Nation Leslie
Subsequent to those charges, Strophair seized their police notebooks and inquired after men whose names he found listed there. One name was that of Hamilton William Nation Leslie. On the night of 6th September 1967, the “happily married” former Church of England Grammar School master drove into town from Coorparoo, enjoyed a couple of scotches and then went window shopping.
Obeying a call of nature, he stopped at the Figtree toilets before wandering up to St Stephen’s Cathedral to see if it was still open. Probably not coincidentally, this is exactly the routine described by Merv who Robert Reynolds and Shirleene Robinson interviewed for their book Gay and Lesbian, Then and Now: Australian Stories from a Social Revolution. Couples who met at the Figtree often retired to the former parson’s cottage at the Cathedral for privacy. However, Mr Leslie claimed to be unaware of the Figtree’s notoriety as a homosexual haunt.
Detective John Fulton approached Leslie near the Figtree, offering to buy him a drink. Declining, Leslie asked if Fulton had a cigarette. Echoes again of stories told by gay men of the era to researchers about how they approached other men at Brisbane’s inner-city beats. Fulton said he had cigarettes in his car, but once they were in the car, Weldon pounced and accused Leslie of soliciting his mate for unnatural purposes.
Threatening to charge him, they drove toward the watch-house, but stopped at Creek Street and offered to forget everything in return for the $7 he had on him and a further payment of $100 the following Monday. As he told the court, Leslie acquiesced, believing himself the victim of an elaborate set-up.
With no witnesses, it was his word against that of two police officers, and a court case would cause a terrible scandal.
Outraged at the attack on a respectable citizen of unblemished reputation, Judge Nicholson sentenced the two bent coppers to five years jail. The case made headlines in Brisbane and around the country. Policemen did not often go to jail and Hallahan undoubtedly knew of the case.
But how did Strophair learn of Weldon and Fulton’s little swindle? What did the Ratpack think of other police officers conducting a corrupt enterprise independent of themselves? Is it possible Murphy, Hallahan and Lewis set up Weldon and Fulton to take over the operation themselves?
Notably, Hamilton William Nation Leslie, the frightened former schoolmaster, so apprehensive of a scandal that he paid a $107 bribe, was a new man in court the following June – confident and even cocky. When a defence lawyer suggested he concocted the event, he answered, “I must be a very good fairytale teller.”
And… in 2002 Hamilton William Nation Leslie, the happily married citizen of unblemished reputation, pleaded guilty to multiple counts of child molestation during his time as a Churchie master.
Fantastic as it seems to speculate that the Ratpack orchestrated the court case, they had form. Evidence exists to show they rigged the outcome of an NSW Royal Commission into Drugs.
And then there is the evidence of Dorothy Knight, the sex worker Gary drank with at the Playboy Club on the night of his death. Years later she told Matthew Condon, as reported in his book Little Fish Are Sweet, that Venamore overheard a conversation of Hallahan’s at the National Hotel on the night of his death, and that caused Hallahan to kill him.
Ironic that a purported murderer should investigate possibly his own crime, but in the case of Hallahan, not an exceptional circumstance. He investigated the murder of Jack Cooper, a manager of the National Hotel, a crime for which he was a stated suspect.
He and Tony Murphy also investigated the deaths of a number of sex workers, whose deaths were remarkably convenient for themselves. Moreover, Hallahan was not a Homicide Detective. He worked in the consorting squad. The excuse for his appointment was his knowledge of local petty crims who conducted ‘bash and robs’.
Hallahan left the police force after a sting operation conducted by honest police who fitted none other than Dorothy Knight with a concealed listening device – the first-ever use of an electronic bug by the Queensland police – and recorded him collecting a stand-over payment from her.
Who killed Gary Venamore?
Who killed Gary Venamore? We will probably never know. The $250,000 will remain in government coffers.
What killed Gary Venamore? Plain and simple – prejudice killed Gary Venamore. Anyone who knew any facts of his death, could not come forward in 1968 for fear of their lives.
Gay men suffered violence and blackmail, had their lives ruined, went to jail, faced social and familial ostracism – all over who they chose to love, fuck, or both.
Parasites like Terry Lewis, Tony Murphy and Glen Hallahan never hesitated to use that unjust bastardry as leverage to make a buck.
Even if he was indeed unaware of who killed Gary Venamore, Glen Hallahan pursued the investigation into the crime with no interest in solving the brutal crime, solely interested in the potential for enriching himself at the expense of other people’s misery.
At the age of 90, Terry Lewis bemoans his lost misbegotten fortune, his lost mansion, his forfeited knighthood, the decade spent behind bars for proven crimes while Gary Venamore never lived beyond the age of 35, thrown battered and unconscious into the Brisbane River to drown.
For the latest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) news in Australia, visit qnews.com.au. Check out our latest magazines or find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.