April 24, 2024

The Russell Street Bombing

The Russell Street Bombing is one of Melbourne's most notorious crimes. Today the location is an upmarket apartment building.

Old Melbourne Gaol, Russell Street
Old Melbourne Gaol, Russell Street

The top part of Russell Street, in central Melbourne, used to be the city’s justice precinct.

On the west side is the bluestone exterior of the former Melbourne gaol; until Pentridge opened this was the city's main prison. Ned Kelly was hung here, among others; it is now a tourist attraction.

Next door is the stylish façade of the former city law courts, now occupied by RMIT.

And across the road is one of the city’s most striking buildings: a bright orange brick, Art Deco construction. For fifty years, this was Melbourne’s police headquarters.

The Russell Street Bombing: targeting police headquarters
Russell Street Police HQ, shortly after construction

Built between 1940-43, the Russell Street Police building was intended to be imposing.

Its designers took inspiration from the Empire State Building in New York, then perhaps the world's most famous building. The central, rectangular tower still dominates the streetscape, and its two wings, symmetrical in shape, add to the building’s presence.

The art deco stylings were unusual for a police building, and the tall radio mast on the roof gave it a modern feel.

Opening credits for TV show 'Homicide'
From the 'Homicide' opening credits. The show ran for 13 years.

From its completion, it was instantly one of Melbourne’s most recognisable landmarks.

Its place in local popular culture was cemented when it featured in the opening credits of the show ‘Homicide’, one of the early hits of Australian TV.

The Russell Street building came to symbolise policing in Melbourne; its prominence would make it a target.

Scene of the Russell Street Bombing, present day
Same building, present day

March 27, 1986, was a quieter day than usual at Police Headquarters.

It was Easter Thursday, and the building had fewer staff than usual, as many administrative personnel had already taken off for the long weekend. The building was also without a school tour group, which was an almost daily occurrence throughout the year.

Though quiet, the office was still staffed, the workers present going about their usual tasks. A number of police cars were parked on the street out the front.

No one noticed a nondescript, 1979 Holden Commodore that was parked opposite, unattended.

Constable Angela Taylor, victim of the Russell Street bombing
Constable Angela Taylor

Working in the Russell Street building that morning was Constable Angela Taylor, 21, a dedicated policewoman who had been the dux of the academy in her year. Constable Taylor was on duty in the watch house.

Just before 1pm, she and her colleagues tossed a coin to see which of them would go out and collect lunch for the rest. Taylor lost, and headed for a nearby sandwich shop.

Rookie policeman Carl Donadio, 19, was also going to lunch at the same time. Only six months on the force, he was waiting to cross Russell Street.

Across the road was defence attorney Bernie Balmer, working that morning in the magistrate’s court. Balmer was also on his way out for a break.

The Russell Street bombing, aftermath

The Russell Street bombing, aftermath

Exactly at 1pm, an enormous explosion erupted from the front of the Police building.

A fireball instantly engulfed the street, which was showered in debris. Clouds of black smoke reduced visibility to zero.

Everyone nearby was thrown to the ground.

Balmer staggered groggily up and rushed to see what had happened. He found Constable Taylor, who had been seriously wounded.

She was badly burned, though still conscious.

‘I grabbed her by the arm. There was skin and stuff coming off her, she was horrifically injured. As I helped her back into the court she was muttering "The bastards, the bastards".’

- Bernie Balmer

Donadio was hit by a wave of shrapnel, which inflicted multiple injuries.

He was thrown 15 metres by the shockwave, and crashed into the courtroom wall, where he crumpled to the ground. His leg was broken, but he managed to pull himself off the street, and crawl into an adjacent café.

The scene on Russell Street was like something from a warzone. The explosion was so powerful it shattered windows in buildings blocks away, and was heard all over the city.

The Russell Street bombing, aftermath

Barrie Pullen was a Channel 10 cameraman, working in the station’s office on nearby MacKenzie Street.

‘The windows blew in, in the office. The G-force! You could feel the impact of the explosion. It was horrific.’

- Barrie Pullen

Unsure of what had happened, Pullen grabbed his camera and raced down to Russell Street. He was shocked by what he found.

One of the first civilians on the scene, Pullen was able to capture several minutes of raw footage, before police cordoned off the area (you can watch this coverage, here).

In an instant, Russell Street had been transformed.

Local press report the Russell Street bombing
The local press report the story

Wreckage of several cars littered the street, one of them burning fiercely. The front of the police building was also on fire, with dark smoke coming from many of the shattered windows.

A huge black mark had been burnt into the asphalt opposite the police building; an early clue as to what had happened. Debris and rubble were scattered along the street, and would later be found on the roofs of nearby buildings.

21 people were seriously injured in the explosion. Constable Taylor would not survive her injuries; she died later in hospital, the first Australia policewoman killed in the line of duty.

Explosive device used in the Russell Street bombing
The homemade explosive device

Once the initial chaos of the explosion was brought under control, police then turned their attention to the investigation.

Painstakingly sifting through the debris on Russell Street, forensic experts were able to ascertain the cause of the explosion. One of the wrecked cars, the nondescript ’79 Commodore, had been stuffed with sticks of gelignite, and then wired with a timer.

But while this confirmed that police headquarters had been deliberately bombed, it presented a new problem; there was no obvious motive, and no one had come forward to claim responsibility.

Phillip Grant Wilson on his way to court
Phillip Grant Wilson on his way to court

Suspicion initially rested on Phillip Grant Wilson, a convicted armed robber with neo-Nazi sympathies, and some expertise with explosives.

Wilson was on trial when the bomb detonated, and police suspected that some of his criminal associates may have set off the explosion as part of an attempt to break him out. But Wilson protested his innocence, and no tangible evidence connecting him to the crime could be found.

Other leads also went nowhere.

In the first week of April, police began receiving anonymous phone calls from a male caller, saying he had witnessed the bombing and would identify the perpetrators in exchange for $50 000. While Premier John Cain publicly offered this money as a reward, the caller was later found by police and exposed as a fake.

A real eyewitness then identified Claudio Crupi, a convicted armed robber, as having parked across the street from police headquarters an hour before the explosion. Crupi was arrested on April 15, but denied any involvement: it was later determined he was in Sydney at the time of the explosion.

Phillip Reed
Phillip Reed

Police continued to sift through their evidence, looking for clues.

While analysing the wreckage of the bombed car, armed robbery detectives noticed that the chassis number had been removed by drilling through it. This unusual method matched the MO of a known car thief: Peter Reed, who was then at large after a recent car theft and pursuit.

Detectives tracked Reed to a house in Kallista, which they raided on April 25. The raid ended in a shootout; although there were no fatalities, both Reed and Detective Mark Wylie were shot.

Mugshots of the Minogue brothers
Mugshots of the Minogue brothers

Under interrogation, Reed confessed his involvement.

Although he stated he had only stolen the car used in the bombing, and had not otherwise participated. The perpetrators were friends of his: Craig and Rodney Minogue, and Stan Taylor, a notorious underworld figure.

With Reed's information the police launched a massive manhunt.

Stan Taylor
Stan Taylor

Born in 1937, Stan Taylor had endured a particularly tough upbringing.

Mistreated and beaten by his parents, by age 12 he had already turned to criminal activity, stealing motorcycles and committing petty theft. Sent to juvenile detention as a teenager, Taylor was sexually abused while incarcerated, and left jail an angry and ruthless young man.

He progressed to bank robbery, and was subsequently sent to Pentridge Prison, where he forged a fierce reputation in Victoria’s toughest jail. He refused his work details, instigated a riot, and escaped twice (being recaptured both times).

In a foreshadowing of future events, in one incident he even detonated a homemade bomb.

The police punished Taylor's intransigence brutally. His hatred of authority, the police especially, became entrenched.

Stan Taylor in custody
Stan Taylor in custody

After his release in 1978, Taylor appeared to have turned over a new leaf.

Having performed in some stage plays while in prison, he took up acting, scoring a bit part in one episode of ‘Prisoner’. He then landed a job as a Commonwealth Youth Support officer, at a reform school in Mooroolbark. There he was meant to mentor other young people who had endured a tough start, and give them the benefit of his experience.

Instead, he used his position to groom young criminals, who he moulded into his own personal gang. One of these young men was Craig Minogue.

Over the next seven years Taylor’s gang, dubbed ‘The Animals’, successfully staged several bank robberies, while Taylor maintained his day job and clean-cut façade.

Craig Minogue: Russell Street Bombing
Craig Minogue

Based on Reed's evidence, Taylor was arrested at his home on May 30.

He initially denied any involvement in the bombing, and claimed he only knew the Minogues through his social work. But he readily pointed the finger at them, as the likely culprit's behind the attack.

The Minogues were arrested at a hotel several hours later. Craig confessed, and stated that Taylor was the mastermind behind the plan.

According to Minogue, Taylor had stolen gelignite from a mine that he then used to create a home made explosive device. Reed had provided a stolen car, which Taylor and Minogue had packed with metal pieces, to act as shrapnel.

Minogue had then driven the car into the city, and parked it across the road from Police Headquarters. A homemade timer was linked to the bomb, in the boot.

He stated his brother Rodney, had not been involved.

Commemorative plaque for the Russell Street bombing
Commemorative plaque at the bombing site

Taylor and Craig Minogue were convicted of the bombing in July 1988, both receiving a life sentence. Reed and Rodney Minogue were both acquitted, although Reed would receive a 12 year sentence for other offences.

Taylor's conviction came with a rider that he was never to be released from prison, the first Victorian to have this condition applied to their sentence. He died in gaol in 2016, aged 79.

That same year, Minogue became eligible for parole, although his application for a hearing was immediately denied. He successfully appealed this decision in the Victorian High Court.

The State Government then rushed through new laws, barring convicts involved in the death of police from parole eligibility. Victorian State Corrections Minister Gayle Tierney said, ‘We will ensure this man stays behind bars.’

He remains in prison

The police vacated the Russell Street building in 1995, moving to a larger and more modern office tower at the other end of the city. The building sat vacant for several years, before being converted into apartments.

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