True Crime

Face to face with Australia’s MOST NOTORIOUS armed robbers

'This is a stick up!

Mark Dapin, 57, got up close and personal with criminals. Here, Mark from Sydney, NSW, tells the story in his own words.

Driving around the car park, we couldn’t work out how to pay.

But I wasn’t trapped in the car with just anyone.

Behind the wheel was John Killick, 78 – one of Australia’s most notorious bank robbers – whose girlfriend had hijacked a helicopter at gunpoint and busted him out of jail.

The other passenger was Bernie Matthews, 71, a convicted bank robber and prison escapee, turned journo.

John Killick
John Killick (Credit: Courtesy of John Killick)

Debating, we decided to make a break for it.

Rolling through the open barriers, the former career crims had struck again!

‘We’ve still got it,’ Bernie yelled. ‘I robbed that bank,’ he added, casually, as we cruised past an ANZ.

A journalist, I’d befriended the pair, who were helping me with the book I was writing, Public Enemies.

In the glory days of armed robbery in Australia during the ’70s and ’80s, two handsome outlaws became infamous – Russell ‘Mad Dog’ Cox and Raymond John Denning.

Mark's book Public Enemies.
Mark’s book Public Enemies. Ray Denning (top left), Russel ‘Mad Dog’ Cox (top right). (Credit: Supplied)

Planning heists, they stormed banks, firing into the air.

‘Everybody get down and nobody gets hurt,’ they’d threaten.

To boot, they were both prison escapees.

While Denning had died in 1993, Cox, now 71, was a free man, reportedly living somewhere in sunny Queensland.

He won’t talk to me, I thought.

I’d have to rely on what other people remembered of the bandits and that era, so that’s why I’d got in touch with Bernie and John.

They were clever, complicated men with a hard, dry sense of humour.

And they understood the damage they had done to their victims.

‘I didn’t like robbing banks,’ John told me. ‘I’d get in trouble gambling… and rob a bank.’

On the other hand, Bernie had loved the thrill. Once, he’d even told a reporter it was better than sex!

‘The adrenalin was pumping,’ he told me.

‘But there’s collateral damage – that’s called jail.’

A cell at Long Bay.
A cell at Long Bay. (Credit: Courtesy Bernie Matthews)

Like the blokes I was researching, Bernie had survived Sydney’s maximum security ‘escape-proof’ prison, Katingal.

A complex system of interlocking electronic doors meant the inmates didn’t stand a chance of breaking free.

But that didn’t stop Cox in 1977, after spending just four months inside.

Taking advantage of a blind spot in the exercise yard, he cut through a bar with a smuggled hacksaw blade.

Then he pulled himself onto the roof of the jail.

Facing a seven-metre drop onto concrete, Cox dived, landing on a ledge just a few metres from the ground.

Zigzagging to avoid a guard’s bullet, he sprinted towards two five-metre fences, scaled them both, and the jail’s 2.5m outer wall and leapt to freedom!

‘Mate, we were rapt!’ Bernie remembered. ‘Your escape-proof jail’s not escape proof anymore! It was like winning the Grand Final.’

The view upwards from the yard at Grafton.
The view upwards from the yard at Grafton. (Credit: Courtesy of Bernie Matthews)

Soon after, Cox tried to break back in. Arriving in the dead of night with a bag of loaded guns, Cox cut through the roof bars with a red-hot welding torch.

The plan was to rescue his mates, including Denning.

‘I looked out, and all I saw was this shower of sparks!’ Bernie told me.

But the plan came undone when a woman living opposite the jail called the cops. Hearing the sirens, Cox made a run for it.

Two years on, Denning, who’d been transferred to another prison, escaped in a cardboard box on a garbage trolley.

A year on, Denning did what the police couldn’t – he hunted down Cox.

Soon after, the pair walked into the Railway Centre on Edward Street, in Brisbane, unmasked.

Then, they waited in the foyer with the morning crowd until an armoured truck delivered the payroll.

The guards climbed out of the truck and stacked onto a trolley four metal boxes containing a total of $327,000.

Denning and Cox drew their guns and warned, ‘This is a stick-up.’

Ray Denning.
Ray Denning. (Credit: Courtesy of Bernie Matthews)
Ray Denning and a friend at Parklea prison in the 1980s.
Ray Denning and a friend at Parklea prison in the 1980s. (Credit: Courtesy of Bernie Matthews)

One grabbed the money and the guards’ guns and radio, while the other pointed a pistol at a guard and ordered everyone to lie on the floor.

Fleeing to a nearby getaway vehicle, they made it out of the city centre before the 10 police cars in pursuit could catch up with them.

It was the biggest payroll robbery – and the second-biggest robbery – in Queensland’s history.

After the raid, Denning blew $110,000 at the races.

A couple of months later, he was recaptured, while Cox remained on the run.

Denning broke out of jail for the last time on July 15, 1988.

Again, Denning found Cox, and the two men were captured together by the Victorian Armed Robbery Squad at a shopping centre a week later.

Back behind bars, in return for his cooperation, police promised Denning a new identity and he let rip – dobbing in more than 100 crims, including his friend Cox.

‘I’ve put my life in danger,’ Denning said.

Eight weeks after being released in ‘93, Denning died of a heroin overdose.

But many suspect it was murder…

A model prisoner, Cox was released in 2004.

The author, Mark Dapin.
The author, Mark Dapin. (Credit: Supplied)

‘He won’t even run a red light. He won’t fart in public,’ a former inmate who’d known him, told the papers. And he was right.

Cox disappeared into the world of normal people.

The golden age of armed robbery was well and truly over.

Public Enemies: Russell ‘Mad Dog’ Cox, Ray Denning and the Golden Age of Armed Robbery’, by Mark Dapin, is available to
buy now.

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