From the Inside: Chopper 1
Sample of From the Inside: Chopper 1
Digging my own grave
‘I’d lived with murder contracts over my head for years.’
I HAVE been shot once, stabbed seven times, had a claw hammer stuck in my skull, been run over, beaten unconscious and left for dead.
Any one of those incidents could have killed me. But the time I came closest to dying didn’t leave me with any scars at all. Except, maybe, on my soul. I still dream about it sometimes.
It is something I have never told anyone. It happened one night in 1977, when I went for a walk to the shops in South Yarra.
I’d lived with murder contracts over my head for years. Most of the best crooks in Australia have wanted me dead, so I should have known better than to drop my guard and wander around the suburbs like a tourist.
I was taken by total surprise. I was walking along the street when a man jumped out of his car and began to look at a road map on the bonnet. He had a torch on the map and looked puzzled. He called me over and asked if I knew where a certain street was. Not suspecting a thing, I looked at the map . . .
He had a gun under the map. In the split-second that I saw the barrel shining in the torchlight as he swung it up, I knew it was too late. He had it under my neck. Seconds later, I was in the boot of his Monaro, handcuffed.
It is a matter of shame and embarrassment that I could have been so stupid to get captured so easily. I’d been put in the boot with an old trick.
The abductor was a Melbourne criminal who I will not name. It’s funny what you remember. He had the car cassette player on and was listening to Dean Martin’s greatest hits. That music still makes me feel sombre now.
You can’t imagine the terror. I can still almost taste the petrol and exhaust fumes I smelt on that ride. I could hear the tyres spread as we went over tram tracks, presumably the ones in Toorak Road.
I hadn’t suspected for a moment that it could have been a set-up, even though he was parked and waiting for me to get near the car before he jumped out to look at the map. It was my fault. But I didn’t give up hope. I vowed that would be my only mistake that night.
After all, the enemy had already made one mistake, too — not finishing me when he had the chance. I was willing the car to stop so that I could get back on my feet. I didn’t know whether he planned to torture me or whether it would be straight-out murder. I thought I had smelt alcohol on his breath when I was trying to read the road map so I hoped he was a little pissed. Anything which would slow his reflexes down to give me an outside chance.
My mind was racing at a 1000 miles an hour and I decided that the first half chance I had, I would go for it. I knew that without a bit of luck there would be no tomorrow. While I was thinking and trying to plan, all I could hear was Dean Martin blasting out ‘Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime.’ I couldn’t help laughing a little at the song, considering my circumstances. I would have loved a few friends, all armed to the teeth.
I was full of terror at the thought of what was going to happen. But I kept thinking; ‘He’s made one mistake already by not killing me; if he makes another I might have a chance.’
He had handcuffed me with my hands at the front. I thought about trying to kick my way out of the boot, but it would have made too much noise. One bullet through the back seat would have finished me.
He pulled me out of the boot. As soon as he hit me with the pistol butt, I knew it wasn’t going to be a straight shooting: I was in for the flogging first. I was beaten, kicked, pistol whipped and punched. It was the first time and only time I’d ever lost control of my bowels through fear. But the pain was nothing . . . at least I was still alive.
The bashing over, it was stage two. He marched me through the dark about 30 feet in front of the car and handed me a garden spade.
I had to dig my own grave.
I think he was surprised I didn’t argue, but started digging straightaway.
After a while I complained I couldn’t dig properly with handcuffs on, and he unlocked them.
That was his second mistake.
I dug as hard as I could, and all the time I was talking to him, laughing and making stupid jokes. I was digging like a mad Welsh coal miner. I know my vigour in digging put him off guard.
All the time this was happening I didn’t allow my face to reflect the terror I felt. I laughed and joked about the predicament I was in while digging the hole. The bloke said: ‘You’re a tough bastard, Chopper. I’ll give you that’.
That compliment — and the word ‘No!’ — were the last words he spoke.
When I was about hip deep in the grave, I could sense he felt it was deep enough. I had to do something — anything to buy a bit more time. I pretended I had hit a hard spot. I took a fresh grip on the handle of the spade with my left hand as if I was going to dig even harder.
I am right handed but he was standing on my left side above me. I gripped the shovel like a baseball bat — and let go at his left knee cap.
I knew he would get a shot off. But it was the only card I had left, and I had to play it. A wounded man, a man with the blade of a spade through his knee cap, wouldn’t be taking correct aim.
I also know my guns. He had a Spanish-made, very heavy, cheap .45 calibre automatic, and after banging me about the head with it, who knows? It might jam on him.
So I took the chance and swung. He screamed in pain and fired. The flash of the gun was right beside my head. I was going to die anyway, so I had nothing to lose. I nearly severed his leg with that first blow.
Next second, I was out of the grave. That’s when he screamed ‘No!’.
For him, it was too late. The spade was in his brain.
Let’s say, for me it was a bit of a character builder.
That night still chills me to the bone. I don’t feel as though I defeated a worthy opponent. I simply cheated death.
I got into the car. It was more comfortable to be in the driver’s seat than the boot. I drove along the track and found a main road. It was only then, when I found a sign, that I realised my last resting place was to have been Mount Donna Buang, up past Warburton. I drove the car home. The other bloke didn’t need it. He was in the ground.
While I had been putting him in the grave, I kept thinking I could hear a man walking through the bush. It was probably a wild pig, but it sounded spooky. Let me tell you that if it was a man, he did himself a big favour by not coming over to say hello. There was plenty of room for two in that hole.
Being ordered to dig my own grave is something I try to forget, and I have never talked about it. I got out alive because of the other chap’s lack of concentration and because I kept cool. I was looking at my own death that night; it still comes back in my dreams sometimes.
I remember standing over his body that night and saying ‘Thankyou God’. I believe that God must have protected me that night.
He was good. He had got me and beaten me fair and square, and full credit to him. He may have been a bit pissed but he taught me a lot that night, about what to do and what not to do. Nevertheless, he got me and the fact that I lived and he died doesn’t count.
I was a dead man. He had me cold, so why he went through the drama of getting me to dig the grave I wouldn’t know. I have heard that quite a few fellows in the 1970s had to dig their own graves but none of them got a second chance. The bloke who got me was as stupid as he was clever.
I’ve dug a few graves in my time. But I have never made a man dig his own. There’s no need to go that far — it would be plain bad manners.
I was walking to the shops when the would-be hitman got me. The moral is simple: never go to the shops without your gun.
When you have killed a man the brain sometimes fuzzes over the details. The mind numbs itself, otherwise anyone who has ever killed would end up in a mental hospital.
I remember waking up the next morning and thinking for a moment ‘did that really happen?’ Then I looked in the mirror and saw all the lumps and cuts on my head from the pistol whipping, and I knew it was for real.
People now think I am mad because I don’t show physical fear, but after that night what is there to frighten me? How can the police, the prisons, the screws, courts, judges or criminal world frighten anyone who has stood in his own grave — and lived?
There may be some who doubt the story. Well, I am quite prepared to do a full re-enactment for them, providing they ride in the boot. I’ll even bring the Dean Martin tape.
There were other times when I should have died. Plenty of them. In 1977 I was attacked and beaten nearly to death by two Melbourne criminals armed with baseball bats outside a pub in Port Melbourne. They only left when they thought I was dead. The two criminals, who I will not name, are no longer with us.
I was hit by a car in a hit-and-run in 1974 and left lying unconscious in a South Yarra street, I never found out who was behind that attempt.
I was beaten half to death in the toilets of the old Dover Hotel in the city by a group of criminals. I’m still not 100 per cent sure who was behind that, although I have been trying to find out for years.
I hate talking about defeats and near-defeats. But, oh well, what the hell.
I think I should say that I have shot, wounded and crippled 11 men altogether. One chap lost an arm, one wears a colostomy bag, one lost his leg, one has a badly-crippled leg, one has a pin in his hip, another a pin in his shoulder, one lost an eye and has brain damage. And the rest have life-time gut aches.
But they are at least alive, if not well.
I think I was 17 or 18 when I shot my first man. I used to shoot people in the feet and legs when I was younger but I don’t count them. Who counts a little .22 slug?
As for killing, I can’t be charged for simply saying that I’ve killed more than one man. I don’t know if anyone will believe me but I will tell the truth about the past.
If you combine the deaths I have carried out personally, those I’ve been involved in with helpers and partners, and the deaths I have helped plan but not taken any personal part in, the figure is quite large. I have no worries about acting as a ‘consultant’, then leaving others to carry out the dirty work. If you can make a monkey dance then grind the organ, I say. The upshot is that, either personally, in company, or at a distance, I have been involved in 19 deaths inside and outside jail since 1971. Okay, it’s no world record, but it’s not bad for the little kid in the schoolyard who always got bashed.
All those who died had it coming. There wasn’t a ‘civilian’ in the bunch, and I don’t regret one. It’s not that many when you think of all the criminal violence there has been in Victoria over the years.
Strange as it may seem, I have never considered myself a murderer, because they all had it coming. Most of them came under the heading of tactical necessities. All of them were killers and violent crims, so big deal.
I have never felt that I murdered, or helped out in anyone’s murder. I always believed that the ‘Dear Departed’ had it coming in the eyes of God. One drug dealer I killed — as a matter of fact, he died of shock half-way through a kneecapping — had bragged of overdosing about 50 prostitutes and junkies over a ten-year period in the western suburbs. How could his death be classed as murder?
Consider that. Fifty people. God, I’m just a babe in arms. One out of every three drug overdoses is a hotshot. Some of the chaps I’ve grabbed were mass murderers in the drug world. Compared with them, I’m no murderer . . . I’m a garbage disposal expert.
What Julian Knight did at Hoddle Street, that was murder. I have never killed an innocent member of the community.
Just as a point of interest, every man that I have shot or stabbed, who lived, looked up at me like a beaten puppy and asked ‘Why?’. Before a man dies, his last word always seems to be ‘No’.
Men from certain ethnic groups cry and scream and go to their deaths like screaming females, crying ‘No, No, No’.
The hardest man of all, without a shadow of a doubt, was an old Scot from Glasgow. He was an old crook and as hard as nails. Even after two burnt feet from a blowtorch he didn’t let out a scream or a tear; he just abused and spat blood on us. He was tied up and secured, but feared nothing. He knew he was going to die, but struggled and fought, yelled abuse and spat.
In the end, he gave nothing. We shot him to shut him up. He was a tough fearless bastard, and we had to admire him. Reluctantly, I have to admit the mad Scot came from Sydney to Melbourne. He would be the only tough man to come out of Sydney, in my opinion.
The smell when you put a blowtorch to someone’s feet is hard to describe. It is a cross between burnt hair and roast pork. A sweet, sickly smell that hangs heavily in the air and gets right into your hair and clothing.
I still have a few mixed feelings about some of the things that I have written. Telling normal people some of the things I have done makes me feel ill at ease. Violence, death, guns and torture has been my whole life for so long now, it seems normal to me, inside and outside jail.
That is all I seem to talk about and think about, or involve myself in. How many people that a person has killed in his life is a question that is never asked in the criminal world and would never be answered at any rate. I don’t think I can get into trouble, I’ve named no-one: no name, no murder. But it still leaves me with mixed feelings. I’ve done enough jail.
None of the people I’ve killed were innocent, normal or average nine to five working types: they were all drug dealers, hoons, pimps, crime figures and killers. I doubt whether any one of them was a virgin as far as death and murder were concerned. Some of them had killed plenty in the drug world with a needle.
I have a clear heart and clear mind over it all, but I’ve never come out and put a number on it before. I know this sounds quite odd, but I still suffer from confused religious beliefs as a result of my upbringing. I suffer no real guilt but I know that in the eyes of God even killing scum is wrong. But then again He’s let me live and let them die.
However, writing about these things gives me a nagging inner discomfort. I can’t put a finger on it. I guess my strict Seventh Day Adventist upbringing is coming back to haunt me.
Every now and again I suffer bouts of bad conscience, a type of guilt left over from my upbringing. I am by no means a religious man, but the teachings of childhood are hard to shake off. It may come as a shock to those who know me but I do feel spooky at times about some of the things that I have done. I justify it all to myself by saying that I’ve never killed or hurt anybody who didn’t have it coming to them in the eyes of God. But sometimes I get spooked as none of us knows what awaits us in the hereafter. Personally, I think I am owed an apology.
Anyone who has killed will confess in private that the faces of his victims come back in his dreams. I have spoken to multiple murderers like Robert Wright and Julian Knight about this. In Knight’s case it is not the faces but the whole Hoddle Street massacre that comes back.
Quite a few fellows who have taken human life have confessed to me in private that I am not the only one who has this happen to them. Every now and again the buggers come back to you in your dreams and talk to you. In my case, it has been quite disturbing over the years.
Anyone who has killed and claims the face or the event does not come back to them in a dream, is lying.
It is no secret that mental health and myself have enjoyed a shaky friendship at times, but at the risk of being called a nut case, I will admit that I believe in God. It may sound silly, but I used to pray before going into battle. I used to have a silent prayer, ‘Lord, if you are with me, no man can stand against me.’
Having escaped death so many times has only strengthened my belief. I believed that The Lord saw my enemies as foul sinners and me as his messenger sent to punish them. I no longer believe that. But if there is no God then I am the luckiest man to have survived all the battles. It is something I often think about.
Perhaps I am alive because as bad as I am, The Lord saw me as the lesser of two warring evils and allowed my enemies to die or be defeated.
Who knows what is the truth? I have lived through too many attempts to kill me for it to be simply good fortune or my own quick thinking.
At my murder trial, I prayed to God to make the jury find me not guilty. You figure it out. I can’t.
They say there are no atheists in foxholes, and I have stood at the edge of the grave for most of my life. It is hard for me not to wonder, at times, why I am still alive. How have I continued to escape death in every life and death situation?
I don’t ever talk about this stuff inside jail. People in here think I am mad enough already without adding to it. But I can’t help thinking, if God was not with me, why am I alive? No-one has that much luck on his own.
Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read is the son of a strict Seventh Day Adventist mother and a shell-shocked soldier who slept with a loaded gun at his side. Bullied at school, he grew up dreaming of revenge, determined to be the toughest in any company. He became a crime commando who terrorised drug dealers, pimps, thieves and armed robbers on the streets and in jail but boasts he never hurt an innocent member of the public.
This first volume of Chopper’s memoirs tells the story of his early life of crime and incarceration and is peppered with anecdotes and reflections on Australian politics, society and justice.
From streetfighter to standover man, gunman to underworld executioner, he has been earmarked for death a dozen times but has lived to tell the tale. This is it.