In March 1978, armed gunmen took over a Melbourne restaurant demanding Chopper Read be freed from jail. This is the Waiter's Club Siege.
Mark Brandon 'Chopper' Read is one of the most notorious figures in Melbourne’s history. An enforcer in the criminal underworld, he would later turn his exploits into a series of popular true crime books, and even get his own big budget movie, with Eric Bana playing him on screen.
Born in 1954, Read's 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.
In his teens, he also turned to crime.
By the time he was 15, Read was the head of 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.
Later in his teens he graduated to armed robbery, extortion, and kidnapping.
Read cultivated his reputation as a vicious, cold blooded psychotic. In his books he would boast about using bolt cutters and blowtorches on his victims, torturing them to get them to pay up. He also claimed to have killed several people, members of rival gangs, although this remains unproven.
In 1974, Read was captured by police and charged with a variety of 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 his first stint in 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 on William Street, in Melbourne’s CBD.
Read chose Australia Day, January 26, for his operation.
In 1978, Australia Day was not yet a national public holiday, so the Melbourne courts were in session. Read picked the date as the day was expected to be quiet; not many cases were scheduled, he was hoping security would be lax.
He put a sawn off shotgun under his trench coat, and simply walked into the first County Court hearing that was in session. Judge Bill Martin was presiding.
'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.'
- Chopper Read, interview 'The Age'
Momentarily stunned, the judge's chief clerk, former military officer 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 officers present was carrying handcuffs.
Read would eventually receive 13 years for the failed kidnap-ransom. Facing a much longer stretch in Pentridge, he now moved to solidify his position in the prison hierarchy.
Read founded a gang of inmates known as 'The Overcoat Gang', due to the heavy coats they used to conceal makeshift weapons.
This group quickly became the scourge of Pentridge; running scams, extorting money from other prisoners, dishing out violent retribution to anyone who stood up to them. Read mentored younger offenders so that they could be initiated into the gang. He showed them the ropes, and offered protection, becoming a makeshift father figure to some.
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.
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 is a well known restaurant on Myer's Place, at the east end of Melbourne's CBD.
It was founded in 1947 as a private club for off duty waiters, who would unwind there after work with a cheap glass of wine. It eventually opened to the public, and by the 1970's had established itself as a simple, classical, Italian eatery.
Myer's Place is these days home to a string of restaurants and bars, part of Melbourne's renowned laneway culture.
On the evening of March 31, 1978, Atkinson and his friend Robert Williams were stopped by police, while they were driving around the city. The pair were armed, and they quickly fled, abandoning their car with the police in pursuit.
On the run, they took refuge in the Waiter's Club while they figured out what to do. The police cordoned off both ends of Meyer's Place. The Waiter's Club siege had begun.
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.'
- Roger Meyers
But Atkinson soon came up with a plan.
He enlisted a doctor from among his hostages to talk to police and issued a demand; Chopper Read had to be released within 24 hours, or he would start killing hostages.
Unwilling to comply, the police stalled. Growing more anxious as time passed and nothing happened, Atkinson then sent another hostage, Wendy McNamara, out with his second demand.
Now he wanted his mother.
This time, the police were happy to acquiesce.
Mrs Atkinson was sent for and 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 him to give himself up.
Atkinson agreed to start releasing hostages. But it would be several more hours before he could be convinced to surrender himself. The siege eventually lasted all night, the sun was coming up as Atkinson left the restaurant.
When he did go, he went quietly. Atkinson was arrested in Myer's Place, and was later sentenced to five years in prison.
He would be reunited with Chopper, back in Pentridge.
Shortly after this, Read would add to his notoriety by having his ears cut off. Some of his former allies had turned on him, Read had become aware of a plot to kill him.
In an effort to avoid the upcoming attack, he coerced a fellow inmate to hack his ears off with a homemade blade, so he would be sent to hospital. This was successful, and Read lived to fight another day.
Afterwards he was given a new nickname, the one he would be come to be known by: 'Chopper'.
Amos Atkinson subsequently had his own his ears cut off, as a final effort to emulate his hero.
Read was released from jail for the last time in 1998, having spent most of the previous 25 years incarcerated. His writing career had begun while he was inside, the success of his books now offered the possibility of a different life.
Read married his former teenage girlfriend, Margaret Cassar, in 2003, and the couple retreated to a rural property in Tasmania. Older, calmer, and now financially successful, Read spoke of his criminal years as a 'waste.'
He still enjoyed his image as Australia's most famous criminal, though. The movie based on his books, 'Chopper', was released in 2000, and would add considerably to his legend, including tall tales alongside true crime stories, and playing his life like an absurd, extreme, black comedy. Read was very happy with the results.
Chopper Read died of liver cancer in October, 2013.