The Waiter’s Club Siege
The Waiter’s Club is an old school pasta joint at the east end of Melbourne. In 1978, it was the scene of a dramatic hostage standoff with police.
Mark Brandon 'Chopper' Read is one of the most notorious figures in Melbourne’s history.
Born in 1954, his upbringing was beyond tough.
Beaten by his Army veteran father, he spent his youth in and out of state care, and passed around among his extended family. Quick to anger, and anti social, he found trouble in school, and was sent to a mental health facility as a teenager.
He also showed a flare for crime.
By the time he was 15, Read was the head of his own gang, the Surrey Road gang, who targeted petty criminals around the Prahran area. They attacked local drug dealers and pimps, shaking them down for a share of their profits.
By his late teens he had graduated to armed robbery, extortion, and kidnapping.
His street reputation was that if a vicious, cold blooded psychotic; when he later wrote about his criminal exploits, Read would boast about using bolt cutters and blowtorches to extract money from his targets. He also claimed to have killed several people, members of rival gangs, although this was largely unproven.
In 1974 he was captured by police and charged with a wide variety of relatively minor offences; including robbery, assault, and firearms violations. Convicted, Read was sent to Melbourne’s toughest jail; Pentridge Prison, in the city’s northern suburbs.
There he met Jimmy Loughnan, another lifetime criminal from a rough background. The two became firm friends.
Read was released from prison in 1977.
Before he left, he made a promise to Loughnan, who still had six years to serve; he would find some way to get him out of jail as well.
To this end, Read came up with a far fetched scheme; he would take a local magistrate hostage, and trade his life for Loughnan's freedom. His target would be the County Court, in Melbourne’s CBD.
In 1978, Australia Day was not yet a national public holiday.
So, on January 26, the courts in Melbourne were in session, although it was a quiet day, without many cases scheduled.
Taking advantage of the lax atmosphere, Read put a sawn off shotgun under his trenchcoat, and simply walked into the first County Court hearing that was in session. Judge Bill Martin was presiding.
In an interview with the The Age years later, Chopper recalled the moment:
'I marched in, climbed on the judge's bench, put the gun to his forehead, and demanded Jimmy's release. I knew it would never work, but I had given my word to try.'
- Mark Read
Momentarily stunned, the judge's chief clerk, a former military officer named Ernie Trotter, recovered himself, tackled Read and grabbed the gun. They wrestled until reinforcements arrived.
Judge Martin, according to some accounts, kicked the would be hostage taker 'in the balls.'
Read was quickly overwhelmed by a dozen policeman. Due to his bulk they lay him face first on the court room floor and sat on him, tying his arms with their belts as none of the officer's present was carrying handcuffs. He would eventually receive 13 years for his efforts.
Facing a much longer stretch in Pentridge, Read now moved to solidify his position in the prison hierarchy.
He founded a gang of inmates known as 'The Overcoat Gang', due to the heavy coats they used to conceal makeshift weapons, and wore at all times. This group quickly became the scourge of Pentridge; running scams, extorting money from other prisoners, and dishing out violent retribution to anyone who stood up to them.
Read himself became a friend and mentor to a number of younger offenders that he initiated into the group, and took under his wing.
One of these was Amos Atkinson.
Atkinson was only 18 when he was incarcerated at Pentridge for armed robbery.
Quick tempered, violent and unpredictable, he was just the sort Read attracted to him, and he was soon inducted into the Overcoats. Young and impressionable, Atkinson found in Read a role model, and father figure.
Mirroring Read’s desire to help Loughnan, when Atkinson was released from jail, he was determined to get his mentor out.
The Italian Waiter's Club was a well known restaurant on Myer's Place, in the east end of Melbourne's CBD.
Founded in 1947 as an actual hangout for off duty waiter's - who would unwind there after work with a glass of cheap wine - by the 1970's it had become one of the city’s best known Italian eateries.
On the evening of March 31, 1978, Atkinson and his friend Robert Williams stormed the restaurant armed with shotguns. They had just had a run in with police and had fled with the cops in pursuit. Panicked, they had taken refuge in the restaurant while they figured out what to do.
Meanwhile, police blocked both ends of Meyer's Place and laid siege.
Roger Meyers, then manager of the Princes Theatre, was dining with friends in the Waiter's Club when Atkinson and Williams burst in:
'We'd finished our meal and were having a quiet chat when two men ran up the stairs brandishing sawn off shotguns. ONe of them shot into the door frame, but after that it became a waiting game.
They pushed me to the floor behind the serving area, and poured wine and bolognaise sauce all over me.
Both men were upset and angry, and had no idea how to get out of the situation.'
But Atkinson soon came up with a plan.
He enlisted a doctor from among his hostages to talk to police and issued a demand; Mark Read had to be released within 24 hours or he would start killing hostages.
Unwilling to comply with this, the police stalled. Nervous, as time passed and nothing happened, Atkinson then sent another hostage, Wendy McNamara, out with his second demand. Now he wanted his mother.
The police were happy to acquiesce to this. Mrs Atkinson was sent for and duly arrived in her dressing gown in the early hours of the morning. Entering the restaurant on her own, the elderly lady reportedly hit Atkinson over the head with her handbag, before instructing her son to give himself up. She left shortly afterward.
Atkinson agreed to start releasing hostages. But it would be several more hours before he agreed to surrender himself. The siege lasted all note, through to sunrise the next day.
When he did go, he went quietly. He was arrested in the lane outside the restaurant, and was later sentenced to five years, reuniting with Read back in Pentridge.
Shortly after this, Read would add considerably to his notoriety by having his ears cut off, in an effort to avoid an upcoming rival gang attack by being sent to hospital. Afterwards he was given a new nickname, 'Chopper'.
Atkinson subsequently had his own his ears cut off, as a final effort to emulate his hero.
Chopper Read was released from jail for the last time in 1998, having spent most the previous 25 years incarcerated.
He found fame in later life as an author; first, books about his own criminal exploits, later, surprisingly, books for children. His biographical books were adapted into a critically acclaimed film, 'Chopper', starring local comedian Eric Bana.
He married former teenage girlfriend Margaret Cassar in 2003, and the couple retreated to a rural property in Tasmania. Considerably calmed down, and now financially successful, Read spoke of his criminal years as a 'waste.'
Chopper Read died of liver cancer in October, 2013.