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Did police give the green light to a murder?

This Monday – the first weekday after the Spring Carnival – will be 39 years to the day (November 12) since a man in a dark blue suit, a beard and gold-rimmed glasses stepped forward brandishing a snub-nosed revolver and said “Cop this you motherf—er” before firing at point-blank range.

His target was Ray Chuck, also known as Raymond Patrick Bennett and Chuck Bennett, the mastermind behind the 1976 Great Bookie Robbery and one of three men who, on October 19, 1978, burst into Leslie Herbert Kane’s Wantirna home and shot him dead. Les Kane’s body was never found.

Raymond Chuck, also known as Ray Bennett, Chuck Bennett and The General.

Raymond Chuck, also known as Ray Bennett, Chuck Bennett and The General.Credit:Victoria Police

Within hours of the hit at the magistrates’ court, the whisper was that a group of police not only green-lighted the Chuck murder but also helped Kane set up his getaway.

Now, for the first time, we can reveal an insider’s account from one of the detectives who worked in the Russell Street crime squads at the time and knew the players on both sides of the law.

First the back story. While serving a jail sentence in England, Chuck learnt military-style armed robbery tactics from a prolific gang known as the Wembley Mob.

In April 1976 he used those techniques to raid the Victoria Club. Chuck’s team of six hit the club on settlement day for Melbourne bookies, who were carrying massive cash holdings inflated by the Easter races. The official haul was declared as $1.4 million, although it is believed the real figure was three times that due to bets that remained undeclared to avoid turnover tax.

Usually members of the hard-nosed and armed Consorting Squad would have been at the club to add a layer of security, but mysteriously they were called away on the day of the raid.

Leslie Kane, who was killed at his Wantirna home in October 1978. His body has never been found.

Leslie Kane, who was killed at his Wantirna home in October 1978. His body has never been found.

In the days, weeks and months that followed, not only were the police looking for the bandits but so were the Kanes. As the established standover team they wanted a slice of the new boys’ profit, but Chuck (known as The General) hadn’t planned a masterful stickup only to give it away to the first wolves prepared to huff and puff outside his door.

It came to a head when one of Chuck’s crew, Vinnie Mikkelsen, refused a drink from Brian Kane in a Richmond hotel. To add injury to insult, Mikkelsen won the subsequent fight.

The Crown would later allege Chuck, Mikkelsen and Laurie Prendergast thought the Kanes would strike back and decided to get in first by murdering Leslie Kane. The three were acquitted – Prendergast was in 1985 abducted and murdered and his body has never been found. Mikkelsen moved to Western Australia for many years, while Chuck remained in custody as he was still facing armed robbery charges. For Kane, if Chuck was convicted he would be hard to reach inside prison – hence the plan to shoot him in the court complex.

Laurie Prendergast: Went missing in 1985.

Laurie Prendergast: Went missing in 1985.Credit:Victoria Police

Remarkably our insider admits police took sides, backing the Kanes against Chuck’s team: “We decided to stick with the Kanes, not because of the Kanes themselves but because they were more predictable, because they had rules, they caught and killed their own and looked after their own. People [connected to the underworld] were challenged in nightclubs to take sides and there was going to be a war.

“Brian Kane kept to himself and trusted no one. He was only concerned about staying alive and avenging the murder of his brother. He would never make an appointment because he didn’t want anyone to predict his movements.”

In those days, interstate detectives came to Melbourne during racing season, ostensibly to look for professional pickpocket gangs but really to party with the racing crowd.

“It was on the Monday after the Cup Carnival had finished,” the insider recalls. “On the Saturday and Sunday there had been barbecues and farewells after a month of solid entertaining. We were happy it was over so we could give our livers a rest and get back to our marriages and work. Everyone worked day shift that day.”

A rabbit's warren: The Russell Street complex which housed the magistrates' court in 1979.

A rabbit’s warren: The Russell Street complex which housed the magistrates’ court in 1979.Credit:Heath Missen

That morning some of the Consorting Squad went to the police canteen for milkshakes – the first non-alcoholic drinks to pass their lips in weeks.

Armed Robbery Squad detectives requested help to escort Chuck upstairs to Court 11 to face a committal hearing for a $69,000 armed robbery.

“They [two Consorting Squad detectives] grabbed him – there was no conversation. They were to take him up the stairs but he said, ‘I’m not going up there. There are witnesses up there and I don’t want to be seen by them.’ He was kicking up a stink.”

A detective went ahead to clear witnesses. He apparently didn’t notice the man in the dark blue suit or thought he was an on-duty solicitor.

‘‘Then someone opened a door and fired three shots. What happened then was a real panic. No one actually believed he had been shot. Later we found he had been shot through the heart and twice through the hands as he put them up to protect himself.

The courtyard of the Russell Street complex, with the staircase to courts 10 and 11 on the left through the glass doors. It was here that the death of Ray Chuck unfolded.

The courtyard of the Russell Street complex, with the staircase to courts 10 and 11 on the left through the glass doors. It was here that the death of Ray Chuck unfolded.Credit:Viki Yemettas

“He managed to run back down the steps and then collapsed. People thought he was trying to escape – it was so unexpected people weren’t thinking straight.

“People came from everywhere, jumping over blood and running through the crime scene. The police were unarmed and someone grabbed the gun that was the exhibit in the court case [that Chuck was supposed to have had in the armed robbery]. The funny thing is not all the bullets fitted the gun, which meant Chuck probably would have beaten the charge.

A detective checks vehicles leaving the RMIT car park behind the Russell Street courts after Ray Chuck was gunned down.

A detective checks vehicles leaving the RMIT car park behind the Russell Street courts after Ray Chuck was gunned down.Credit:Michael Rayner

“About two in the afternoon an informer told Angus [Detective Senior Sergeant Angus Ritchie, chief of the Consorting Squad] ‘it was an inside job from your office’.

‘‘That night at the Police Club we couldn’t buy a drink. At first that was fantastic, until the sobering reality hit us that 50 per cent of the police force thought we had done it.’’

He said illegal phone taps much earlier picked up a senior Crime Department officer talking to Chuck. The insider said $10,000 was found under the front seat of the officer’s police car. ‘‘He was a give up.’’

Kane made his escape through the rabbit warren of the court building, running out the back where two corrugated tin fence sheets had been prised apart to allow him to run into RMIT and catch a tram out of the city to his car parked in a suburban street. It was a pre-prepared escape route.

Brian Murphy was then a colourful detective whose name was mentioned in connection with the Chuck murder. ‘‘Yes it was Brian, but not this one,” Murphy said. “It was Brian Kane.’’

Asked if it was an inside job, he replied without hesitation: ‘‘100 per cent.’’

‘‘Brian Kane came to me after the three were acquitted of murdering his brother. He wanted me to get him police records and photos. I knocked him back.”

Murphy said he saw Kane in Lygon Street days before the killing: “He had grown a beard.”

The rumour, never confirmed, was that the day before the murder Kane was smuggled into the court complex hidden in the boot of a cleaner’s car by two detectives for a dry run.

Brian Kane, who was gunned down at the Quarry Hotel, Brunswick, in 1982.

Brian Kane, who was gunned down at the Quarry Hotel, Brunswick, in 1982.Credit:Fairfax Media

The events of those turbulent years still echo through the underworld today.

Brian Kane was shot dead in Brunswick’s Quarry Hotel in November 1982. The prime suspects were underworld heavies Russell Cox and Rod Collins.

In the death notices there was one to “Uncle Brian” from “Your little mate, Jason’’. This was Jason Moran, who married Les Kane’s daughter. Moran would be murdered at the Essendon North Auskick in June 2003.

A prominent mourner at Moran’s funeral was Graham “The Munster” Kinniburgh, also a great mate of Brian Kane’s.

Kinniburgh was the victim of a paid hit carried out by Stephen Asling and Terrence Blewitt on the orders of Carl Williams.

Normie Lee was the only one charged over the Bookie Robbery and after he was acquitted seemingly dropped out of the underworld, resurfacing in 1992 when he was shot dead by police during a $1 million armed robbery at Melbourne airport.

Stephen Asling is arrested by the Special Operations Group, 1992.

Stephen Asling is arrested by the Special Operations Group, 1992.

The getaway driver in the failed armed robbery was Stephen Asling, who 25 years later was convicted of the Kinniburgh murder.

Stephen Asling, right, is led into court during a 2004 kidnapping trial.

Stephen Asling, right, is led into court during a 2004 kidnapping trial. Credit:Paul Harris

Williams was the middleman who in 2004 employed Rod Collins to kill police informer Terence Hodson and his wife Christine in their Kew home.

When Williams became a prosecution witness in the Hodson murder case, he was bashed to death inside Barwon Prison.

Just like Ray Chuck, he was killed while in custody – and just like Chuck, those complicit have never been called to account.

John Silvester is a Walkley-award winning crime writer and columnist. A co-author of the best-selling books that formed the basis of the hit Australian TV series Underbelly, Silvester is also a regular guest on 3AW with his “Sly of the Underworld” segment.

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