Australia’s most violent robber breaks his old habits
ON the last Friday of every September, a card lands in the rough-hewed hands of Bernie Matthews.
"Hey you know what day it is don't ya?" the letter writer 'Little Pommy' asks.
Bernie knows what day it is, he had years in jail to think about that day on which he and his British accomplice comically held up a National Australia Bank in Brisbane not realising that it was National Police Remembrance Day and officers were lining up along the roads outside his heist.
"But that's me - I'm a successful failure, 28 years in the nick doesn't make you a success but by the same token I've learnt a lot," Matthews told True Crime Australia after being released from his latest 11-year jail stretch, mostly behind the walls of Sydney's Long Bay Goal which already knew him well.
Matthews' gait was perhaps a little slower, but his blue-eyed gaze just as sharp as when he was described as one of Australia's most violent men, a notorious and fearsome bank robber and prison escapee in and out of the country's jails since 1969.
On release from his last bank robbery jail stint for the failed NAB raid in 2000, he became a celebrated best-selling author, an award-winning journalist, a justice commentator and inspirational University of Western Sydney guest lecturer for police students.
But then he made headlines again in 2008 when he was stunningly arrested, charged and convicted for trafficking weapons and drugs from his Wollongong home; crimes for which he would spend the next 11 years behind bars.
Speaking now as he again rejoins society, the 70-year-old reveals for the first time how it was he so spectacularly fell from grace with that last conviction and how he is now ready to write his next chapter, literally and metaphorically.
He says he has now called a truce and made peace with society and the NSW and Queensland police forces that pursued him, rightly and wrongly, for much of his life.
But authorities are not 100 per cent sure and just days after his latest release have already stopped him on the main street of his new hometown in country NSW to warn him they are watching.
"But we had a laugh, I'm old," Matthews said yesterday.
"I've done enough time not to have any regrets, they got it out of me in blood and bruises, they got it out of me in a psychological environment, they got their pound of flesh. To be quite frank I think the board is clean, it's a clean slate now on both sides. Whatever they (police) wanted, retribution or whatever, they got it, I've paid for it and I have just got to blend in now."
Matthews' wit is as sharp as his gaze as he laments the old days of a career of crime, the bank hold ups including the "blunder of all blunders" at the Brisbane NAB job, armoured van heists and the false arrests and jailing for crimes he did not commit, at least two of which unrelated people would later confess to and or be convicted of and he was immediately released but not before spending years in jail.
He was set up for a murder of a police officer's wife (which the police officer himself was later convicted for), the rape of a woman, and a large bank hold up - all of which police and the courts later found were mistakes.
His last jailing - which stunned his friends and fans of his writing, including books and features for major media groups including News Corp Australia and Fairfax - was for a crime he admits he did commit but he says was just to silence him.
Matthews, who had won two Queensland awards for journalism, was researching for a story on unsolved murders of prisoners in the then Sir David Longland Correctional Centre in Queensland when he rang a few former cell mates to ask questions.
One crim was being tapped by Queensland police for unrelated issues and detectives were seen listening in to Matthews asking about cell block murders. They rang NSW counterparts who identified him as an old moustachioed nemesis. Then out of the blue a former prisoner from Matthews' days in Katingal - the extreme experimental maximum security jail that was closed after two years for human rights abuses - rang and asked him about getting hold of a weapon for a mate. Matthews said he'd see what he could do but thought nothing more until another man rang and said he was the Gold Coast mate. Matthews met him at Woonona RSL in northern Wollongong and he looked like a bikie with tatts and shaved head but it was an undercover police officer. He handed over an old gun he had before the man asked him about finding more guns and drugs.
"I'd never had anything to do with drugs, I was always armed hold ups never drugs but I said I would ask about … that's why people couldn't understand when I was later arrested for drugs and guns," he said.
"People wanted me off the streets. Police created a crime for me to commit then put me in jail for a crime they had created but there is no such thing as entrapment here. Did I commit the crime? Yes of course I did that's the black and white of it and I can sit and scream and bellow all I want, but they pulled a trick out of the woodwork that I hadn't heard of before."
Sometime during his jailing Matthews had his article published and Queensland authorities would identify the cold case killing of two prisoners at Longland prison, including one that had been deemed a suicide.
'NOT A BAD BLOKE'
Veteran former NSW Police detective Mick Kennedy, who served with the major crime squad and bureau of criminal intelligence and is now head of the University of Western Sydney bachelor of policing program, once described Matthews as one of the toughest men he had ever met.
"Bernie Matthews was a very violent and a very serious criminal, he wasn't someone that could be toyed with … he wasn't dumb at all. He was … I suppose in academic terms, you'd call him an organic intellectual," he said, adding that he was also not a bad bloke.
Matthews laughs at that.
He doesn't see himself as violent but agrees standing on a counter yelling at people to "get on the f---ing ground" while waving a gun about, by default, would suggest violence. But that was then and this is now.
"I'm not out to make waves or come out and play a hard bastard, those days are gone," he says now.
"I'm a dinosaur, I've had my day and created my drama. I won't have any more trouble."
He speaks openly about his time in Katingal, a corrective services' psychological experiment of caging escapee prisoners 24/7 in a windowless bunker to break their mind; it was closed by the NSW Government for being inhumane.
But it was in the bunker he discovered his talent for writing. His novel Intractable became a big hit and he wrote for major newspapers and ran a number of investigative pieces, notably on Bagassossis, a lung disease caused by the inhalation of dust from sugar cane. While in jail he started a journalism and then mass media degree and received a BA and in 2004 he won three Queensland journalism awards.
One of the first things he did when released from jail was get his MEAA journalists' press card. He also now is learning to use a mobile, which have come along since he was in jail for the past 11 years, and a laptop to start writing again.
He is filled with stories and speaks easily about those he did time with, a veritable who's who of criminals including killers Ray Denning and Russell 'Mad Dog' Cox, armed robber Jockey Smith, James Finch and John Stuart who bombed the Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub in Brisbane in 1973 killing 15 people, disgraced copper Roger Rogerson and Archie McCafferty, Australia's first "thrill'' killer.
But he is not likely to name names, he is proud to never have been a "dog" (informer).
His last jailing saw the end of his third relationship and there are children and step children and grandchildren, but he says he is old school and will only see them if they want.
"I'm just taking little steps with everything and looking around, I'm having to learn a lot, technology mainly, since I was inside and just people. I've been through the mill and I still find it hard to get into the swing of things. I was on the main street the other day and an old bloke came up and said, 'how are ya?' and I was like, 'yeah, okay, g'day, you know that sort of thing' and I was not used to that. Random people being nice, you don't see that in Sydney and if someone says that to you reach into your backpocket to check if your wallet is still there."
He said he will go straight.
"I'm getting too old for this shit," he said. "Not in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would be coming back to jail after my last episode, after 2000 I had had enough. It's easy for me to say and people will say, 'ah yeah, he's making excuses', but I'm not. I thought I was doing a bloke a favour that didn't deserve a favour done. I've learnt from that, no regrets, go forward."