Around the corner from the office I work in, is the site of one of Melbourne’s most notorious crimes. This is the Russell Street bombing.
The top end of Russell Street, in central Melbourne, was for a long time the city’s police and justice precinct.
On the west side of the street you will find the bluestone exterior of the former Melbourne gaol, where Ned Kelly was hung, and which 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, on the east side of the street, is one of the city’s most striking buildings; a bright orange brick, Art Deco apartment block, which was once the city’s police headquarters.
Built across the years 1940-43, the Russell Street Police building was designed to be imposing.
As well as a classic Art Deco look, the city planners who designed it also took inspiration from the Empire State Building in New York. The central, rectangular tower still dominates the streetscape, and its two flanking wings, symmetrical, add to the building’s presence.
From its completion, it was instantly one of Melbourne’s most recognisable landmarks.
It’s place in local popular culture was further cemented when it featured in the opening credits of the long running TV show ‘Homicide’, one of the early hits of Australian TV.
The Russell Street Police Headquarters came to symbolise policing in our city, and its symbolic importance would make it a target.
The 27th of March, 1986, was a quieter day than usual at Police HQ.
It was Easter Thursday, and the building had fewer staff than usual, as many administrative personnel had taken a long weekend. The building was also without a school tour group, which was an almost daily occurrence throughout the year.
Nevertheless, there was the regular hubbub of activity that accompanies a modern workplace. Russell Street itself was also busy, with a number of police cars parked out the front of the building, and the usual through traffic on one of Melbourne’s main streets.
In this bustling scene, no one noticed a nondescript, 1979 Holden Commodore that had been parked opposite the police headquarters, and left unattended.
Working in the Russell Street building that morning was Constable Angela Taylor, 21, a dedicated policewoman who had been the dux of the academy, on duty in the watch house.
Just before 1pm, she and her colleagues tossed a coin to see which of them would have to go out and collect lunch for the rest.
Taylor lost, and headed out for a nearby sandwich shop.
Rookie policeman Carl Donadio, 19, was also heading out for lunch about the same time. Only six months on the force, he was waiting to cross Russell Street, right on 1pm.
Across the road was defence attorney Bernie Balmer, who was working in the magistrate’s court. After appearing in court in the morning, Balmer was also on his way out for a break.
Exactly at 1pm, an enormous explosion erupted from the front of the Police headquarters, and a huge fireball engulfed the building.
‘There was an almighty explosion and everything went dark black. There was a whole lot of dust so I took off along Russell Street.’
- Bernie Balmer
Balmer almost immediately found Constable Taylor, who had been seriously wounded in the explosion. 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 explosion’s 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 a café adjacent.
The explosion was so powerful, it shattered windows in buildings blocks away, and was heard all over the city.
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 saw.
One of the first civilians on the scene, Pullen was able to capture several minutes of raw footage, capturing the aftermath, before police cordoned off the area.
In an instant, Russell Street had been transformed into something out of a war zone.
Wreckage of several cars littered the street, one of them burning fiercely. The front of the Russell Street police building was also on fire, with dark smoke coming from many of the shattered windows.
Russell Street itself was scorched; 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 across the street, and would later be found on the roofs of nearby buildings.
21 people were seriously injured in the explosion, and one, Constable Angela Taylor, died. She was the first policewoman to die in the line of duty, in Australia.
After the shock subsided, 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.
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 accomplices of his 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.
Then, a classic piece of detective work lead to the key break.
While analysing the wreckage of the bomb car, armed robbery detectives noticed that the chassis number had been removed in a very specific way. This method matched the MO of a known car thief, Peter Reed, who was then at large.
Detectives tracked Reed to a house in Kallista, which they raided on Anzac Day, approximately one month after the bombing.
The raid ended in a bloody shootout; although there were no fatalities, both Reed and detective Mark Wylie were shot.
Under interrogation, Reed soon spilled the full story.
He had stolen the car used in the bombing, but had not participated. The perpetrators were his criminal associates; brothers Craig and Rodney Minogue and Stan Taylor, a notorious, and especially vicious, underworld figure.
Subject of a massive manhunt, the three suspects were quickly tracked down and arrested.
Born in 1937 in Birchup, Stan Taylor had endured a particularly tough upbringing.
Mistreated, and beaten, by his parents, by age 12 he was already off the rails; 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, escaped twice (recaptured both times), and even detonated a homemade bomb.
Brutally punished for this behaviour, Taylor’s hatred of authority, the police especially, became entrenched.
But on his release in 1978, he claimed to have turned over a new leaf.
Taylor took up acting for a time, scoring a bit part in one episode of ‘Prisoner’, and 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.
It is not known when Taylor hatched the plan to bomb the Russell Street Police Headquarters, and to this day, he has never made his motives clear.
It is just assumed that his ingrained hatred of the police was behind the attack. Taylor is thought to have built the explosive device himself, he has never confessed to this either, using household parts for the timer, and gelignite stolen from a mine site.
Taylor, and Craig Minogue, were convicted of the bombing in July 1988, both receiving a life sentence. Taylor died in jail in 2016, a frail and sickly old man, aged 79.
Prisoners subject to a life sentence normally become eligible for parole after 30 years. This means that Minogue, still alive and healthy, and in recent decades a model prisoner, should have become eligible for release.
But his request for a parole hearing was denied by the Victorian State Government.
Minogue challenged this in the High Court, and was successful. The 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.’