The bank building has been standing squarely on the corner of the main street for 133 years. Quietly doing its business as the generations strolled past. Unassuming and solid with its thick brick walls and flat roof. Its unassailable strongroom was once considered the most secure place to stash the cash of the region. But it was not, as it famously turned out, impregnable.
In the sweltering summer of 1978 hippies still roamed the hills around the Tweed valley. What is now suburban sprawl around the New South Wales northern rivers town of Murwillumbah was dairy farms and wooden farm houses. There were large agricultural and farm supplies stores; it was a subtropical, rural place of cows, cane and banana plantations. No one locked their doors. Across town the plume of white steam rose from the sugar mill. In the shadow of the great mass of the extinct volcano that is Wollumbin Mount Warning, it was, says former mayor Max Boyd, “a quiet little country town”.
A place of not much note except to those who lived there – until the night of 23 November 1978 when a major crime was committed and Murwillumbah became the surprised scene of the biggest bank heist in Australia’s history. It was audacious, meticulous, consummately professional, old school. It has gone down in history as the perfect crime in which no one was physically hurt. In 43 years it has never been solved; an enduring mystery that has achieved folklore status in the small northern rivers town.
The Transecurity armoured truck which did a run of the banks between the Queensland border and Sydney was a familiar sight in Murwillumbah, sometimes stopping the traffic as armed guards unloaded it into the overnight holding bank. Every second Wednesday there would be a big payroll from the federal government on board to meet pension cheques and wages.
Sometime on the Wednesday night of the 23 November the locks at the back door of the bank were picked; there was no alarm. Using an electro-magnetic diamond-tipped drill which clamped on to the safe and allowed them to drill 18cm holes within 5mm of the crucial point in the locking mechanism they then fed through a medical cystoscope with wires to manipulate the tumblers in the safe’s locking mechanism. A fraction of a millimetre either way and they couldn’t have pulled it off.
They left no clues, no mess, no trace. But it was a while before anyone knew this. Because, ingeniously, they jammed the safe, removing the two combination lock dials and the safe handles before slamming the door shut.
Ample time for a clean getaway.
Even these days the main street of Murwillumbah is almost deserted by 10pm on a weeknight, but Allan Mitchell was in the Imperial hotel on that night in 1978.
“We were literally looking straight at the bank from the Imperial front bar and I walked across to my car which was parked right in front of the bank and didn’t see or hear anything at all. I’m a boilermaker by trade so I know what was required to do what they did and to do it so stealthily was incredible.”
The police station 100 metres away, within sight of the bank, was staffed all night.
The late Mervyn Gordon was working on the telecommunication system in the post office on the other corner that night. Says his widow Edna, “he didn’t hear or see a thing. No one heard or saw anything.”
At 7.30 the next morning an MSS security guard noticed the back door of the bank was open. Local locksmiths and four Chubb safe experts flown by charter from Brisbane worked on the safe door for more than five hours before admitting defeat. Finally, Tweed Shire council workmen blasted their way in via the external wall of the bank and the thick reinforced concrete wall of the strongroom, using jackhammers, chisels, oxyacetylene cutting equipment and sledgehammers.
Outside, waiting in the heat, a journalist described the suspense as “electrifying”. It was 4.30pm before the hole was big enough for NSW police Ch Insp Frank Charleton to put his head in, look around and utter the immortal words, “they got the lot”. The haul was $1.7m, which today would be about $10m. The money was untraceable. And by then, according to a career criminal now taking credit for the heist, the robbers and the money were already back in Sydney and having a nap.
Suddenly the amazed town of Murwillumbah was overrun with police. “I never saw so many police in my life,” said local shop owner Peter Moore, “they were crawling over the rooftop of the bank and the street. We did not know there was that much money in the bank in such a little town. It’s the biggest thing to happen in the town since the flood of 1954.”
The news was flashed around the world. Peter and his father, Herb, were not slow to capitalise on the town’s sudden infamy. They soon had a lucrative side hustle selling “Got the Lot” T-shirts, tea towels, caps and beer glasses from their menswear store in the main street.
Gordon Smith, a contract cleaner, came in at midnight to clean up the mess made by the council workmen. “It was a hot, hot night. There was just a complete mess in the bank. We removed a lot of rubble and bricks. And they made the mistake of turning the fans on and there’s just all the dust everywhere, it was hazy. We were there for seven hours.”
While the police turned the nearby Gold Coast “upside down” looking for clues, checking hotels and motels for suspicious guests, in Murwillumbah there was wild speculation. Had the criminals been among them casing the joint? Could they have been sitting on a bar stool beside them in the Imperial hotel? There had to have been an insider who knew that amount of Reserve Bank money was coming in to be held overnight on that particular night. The robbers had known the layout of the bank. Who told them?
Twenty-five detectives from three states were brought in to fail to catch the criminals. All leads ran dry. No one claimed the $250,000 reward. The money and the robbers vanished. But, according to reports at the time, it had the Magnetic Drill Gang written all over it: they had used the same method 14 times in the previous 19 months.
For decades the finger has been firmly pointed at Graham “The Munster” Kinniburgh, a one-time master safe-cracker and the brains behind the gang. The Munster was shot dead in his driveway in December 2003, a victim of the Melbourne gangland killings.
But now a notorious career criminal has come forward to say The Munster had nothing to do with it. Bertie Kidd is taking the credit.
Robert Bertram “Bertie” Kidd is 88 and has Parkinson’s disease. He has spent 27 years in prison and has been described by police as a “nasty, vicious, and violent criminal”. Last year he released two volumes of his memoirs with the author Simon Griffin, and he has made plans for a third to be released after his death.
“I have read misleading accounts of my career for decades,” he writes.
In his memoirs he takes credit for the infamous Fine Cotton horse racing scandal, and claims to have smuggled himself inside the luggage hold of a Sydney-Melbourne flight to steal $2m from a drug cartel mid-flight.
He also claims he masterminded the Murwillumbah bank robbery.
It was never about Murwillumbah or the bank, Kidd says, it was about the armoured truck and the money in it. Kidd and his cohorts had been following it up and down the coast for months working out “where to hit it along the route”. The reason Murwillumbah came into the frame was pragmatic. After all the “detailed” reconnaissance he decided the best option was to rob the bank instead of the armoured van.
“My rationale was that hitting the van could be messy and replied with guns. Someone could end up getting killed and we could get charged with armed robbery or murder. If we hit the bank there would be less risk of anyone getting hurt and at worse [sic] we would face break and enter.”
Kidd is adamant that his “exceptionally reliable” informant about the lucrative job on the night of the 23 November was not a Murwillumbah cop, security guard or bank employee. “I feel sorry for those who were accused, in a small town the suspicion would have been difficult to endure.”
Kidd was going to do the job himself – “a number of people were involved and a lot of work had been done to set it up” – but he had been unexpectedly detained in prison after a botched job on the Maroubra Bay hotel.
But he already had a team set up. They planned it with precision for three months before the heist went down, he says. In prison on the night of the robbery Kidd went over and over it in his head. They followed the armoured truck on the last leg of its journey to be sure they wouldn’t be opening an empty vault. After the job was done, the team went for a “light dinner in beautiful Byron Bay”.
The reason no one saw or heard anything in Murwillumbah was because they arrived close to the early hours. It was a pitch black night. A lookout stood outside; there was no one around. Kidd had insisted they had to jam the vault door before they left. But if they couldn’t do that they were to lie low for three or four days at a shack he had on the Gold Coast.
There is nothing from Kidd’s account of the robbery and its aftermath that was not in the public domain at the time. “The whole thing,” he writes, was broadcast live on all channels. “We watched in the prison common room with delight. It was a fantastic result.”
He claims the haul was a lot more than the $1.7m that was reported. It was well over $2m.
And the robbers, he says, will never be caught. “That is because they are almost all now dead after living rich lives on the proceeds of this job.”
He says he is the only one left standing and that the money was distributed to families who had someone in prison.
The police are officially still investigating this crime; the file is still open. Detective chief inspector Brendon Cullen says he is is dubious about Kidd’s claims “but having said that, if he has got information relevant to that inquiry I would be happy to talk to him”.
If Bertie Kidd – infamous gangster and standover man – is to be believed, the great mystery of Australia’s biggest bank heist has been confessed and solved. The mythology is no more.
According to Bertie, they got the lot, and they got away with it. Still the perfect crime.