A journalist was “crushed” by the betrayal of a convicted murderer who confessed to firebombing Brisbane’s Whiskey Au Go Go after years of claiming his innocence.
The Sun newspaper journalist Dennis Watt first had contact with James Richard Finch in 1984 when he was behind bars, but denied any involvement in the 1973 attack that killed 15 people.
Finch was supported by a group campaigning for him to be retried or released.
He “always maintained he was incorrectly convicted”, Mr Watt on Wednesday told the inquest into the Whiskey Au Go Go murders.
Mr Watt – now chairman of the Gold Coast Titans – said he became very interested in Finch’s case.
“I guess at that time in Queensland history it was an open secret that police did verbal suspects who they suspected of being guilty,” he added.
“Finch was convicted on the basis of an unsigned confession.”
Mr Watt confirmed that at the “height of (Finch’s) campaign to establish his innocence and get out of jail” Finch was writing up to 40 letters a week, some to Mr Watt, but also to the journalist’s children.
“It wasn’t just me who became caught up in this, but also my family and also my friends,” he said.
Mr Watt helped organise Finch’s jailhouse wedding and provided a written contribution towards his parole application.
Finch’s contact increased after he was deported to England in February 1988 after serving 15 years behind bars for the firebombing.
Mr Watt said they “had a close relationship” discussing a potential story about his time in the Boggo Road jail.
The journalist said the story could have had the headline “Jailhouse Dictator” because of the “onerous rules (Finch) imposed on fellow prisoners to maintain the good order of his yard”.
“He saw himself as a hard man and was happy for that image to be continued,” Mr Watt told the Coroners Court in Brisbane.
But he said he was shocked when Finch admitted having been involved in the attack on the Whiskey Au Go Go.
“It was in my mind an extraordinary betrayal not just of myself and my family and my friends, but all those good people who had made extraordinary sacrifices to support him … to establish his innocence,” he told the inquest.
Mr Watt said it was “quite devastating, crushing quite frankly” that Finch told one story for 15 years, and then another.
In a recorded interview with Mr Watt in England in October 1988 Finch placed himself at the scene, saying he put two drums of fuel, which were lit by a co-offender, in the club.
He claimed he was pressured by his friend John Andrew Stuart, who was also convicted over the attack.
Mr Watt said much of what Finch told him had come from Stuart, but “his description of his involvement on the night and self-incrimination is fairly powerful testimony”.
The journalist accepted Finch “would do whatever it took to survive”, but said Finch’s allegations about the murders of Barbara McCulkin and her daughters were corroborated by the subsequent conviction of Vincent O’Dempsey and Garry Dubois for those killings.
This elevated Finch’s claims to “an entirely different level”, Mr Watt added.
The inquest into the Whiskey Au Go Go deaths was first held in 1973, but re-opened after O’Dempsey and Dubois’s trial heard the killings may have been motivated over fears Ms McCulkin would try to implicate O’Dempsey in the firebombing.
Finch later backflipped after mention was made of him potentially facing further charges in Australia because he had only been convicted of the murder of one Whiskey Au go Go victim.
He also claimed Mr Watt had put him up to concocting the versions of events that included the confession.
“That’s just sheer nonsense,” Mr Watt told the inquest.
“Why would I humiliate myself having supported his push for innocence over all those years?” he asked.
The inquest continues before State Coroner Terry Ryan.