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Missing petty criminal Robert Donnelly’s family waited 48 years to be told he was likely killed

Robert Donnelly was mixing with some very dangerous criminals when he disappeared from Sydney's eastern suburbs in May 1972

Robert Donnelly was mixing with some very dangerous criminals when he disappeared from Sydney's eastern suburbs in May 1972

Robert Donnelly was mixing with some very dangerous criminals when he disappeared from Sydney’s eastern suburbs in May 1972

Viv Donnelly was watching the fights at Souths Leagues Club in Sydney’s inner-city Redfern the night he heard his big brother Robert had been murdered.

‘A bloke I knew came up to me and tapped me on the shoulder,’ Mr Donnelly recalled. ‘He said, “Viv, I’ve got some bad news for you – Robert’s been knocked”.’

That was in May 1972 and it would be almost 50 years before a coroner tried to determine what happened to Robert Donnelly, whose body has never been found. 

Robert, a small-time thief who was mixing with some of Sydney’s worst organised criminals before his disappearance, was not formally reported as missing until 2012. 

And it was not until last month that Deputy State Coroner Carmel Forbes declared he was dead, still unable to determine exactly who killed him or why. 

A brief inquest heard Robert had been running with some very dangerous men before he went missing, chief among them Johnny Regan, known as ‘The Magician’ for his ability to make people disappear.

He had also been associating with another nasty piece of work by the name of Kevin Victor Gore, head of a gang called the ‘Toe Cutters’ who preyed on fellow crooks.

Robert Frederick Charles Donnelly fell in with the wrong crowd then got into the wrong car, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

Viv Donnelly was at Souths Leagues Club in Sydney's inner-city Redfern in May 1972 when a man  tapped him on the shoulder. 'He said, "Viv, I've got some bad news for you - Robert's been knocked".' Mr Donnelly is pictured outside Lidcombe Coroner's Court on September 30

Viv Donnelly was at Souths Leagues Club in Sydney's inner-city Redfern in May 1972 when a man  tapped him on the shoulder. 'He said, "Viv, I've got some bad news for you - Robert's been knocked".' Mr Donnelly is pictured outside Lidcombe Coroner's Court on September 30

Viv Donnelly was at Souths Leagues Club in Sydney’s inner-city Redfern in May 1972 when a man  tapped him on the shoulder. ‘He said, “Viv, I’ve got some bad news for you – Robert’s been knocked”.’ Mr Donnelly is pictured outside Lidcombe Coroner’s Court on September 30

At the time of Robert Donnelly's disappearance he was running with some very dangerous men including Johnny Regan, known as 'The Magician' for his ability to make people disappear. Regan (pictured) was one of the most fearsome criminals Australia has ever produced

At the time of Robert Donnelly's disappearance he was running with some very dangerous men including Johnny Regan, known as 'The Magician' for his ability to make people disappear. Regan (pictured) was one of the most fearsome criminals Australia has ever produced

At the time of Robert Donnelly’s disappearance he was running with some very dangerous men including Johnny Regan, known as ‘The Magician’ for his ability to make people disappear. Regan (pictured) was one of the most fearsome criminals Australia has ever produced

While Ms Forbes could not rule Donnelly was killed by the psychopathic Regan, his involvement would surprise no one familiar with Sydney’s crime scene at the time.

Stewart John Regan was a vicious pimp and standover man who murdered his way to infamy in the late 1960s and early 1970s. 

He is strongly believed to have dispatched at least half a dozen other criminals as well as killing a three-year-old boy he was supposed to be minding.   

Arthur Stanley ‘Neddy’ Smith knew both Donnelly and Regan; one he considered a dear mate, the other an uncontrollable animal. 

Smith, who is serving life for two murders, met Regan when they were both in Gosford Boys’ Home in the late 1950s and in 1968 the pair reunited in Long Bay jail.

‘Regan was a very strange person – not exactly ugly, but with a sort of hair-lip and the coldest eyes I have ever seen in any man,’ he wrote in his 1995 book about unsolved underworld murders, Catch And Kill Your Own.   

‘I don’t know of anybody who was as feared in the underworld as he was. He struck fear into the hearts of everyone he met and even those who had only heard about him shrank at the mention of his name.’ 

Almost as notorious during the era were the Toe Cutters, who along with Gore included brothers William Andrew ‘Billy’ Maloney and John Patrick ‘Jake’ Maloney and Linus Patrick ‘The Pom’ Driscoll – perhaps the worst of them all. 

Stewart John Regan, or John Stewart Regan was supposedly known as 'The Magician' for his ability to make enemies - and sometimes friends - disappear. Regan is pictured aged just 19 being escorted by detectives after being charged with rape in June 1965

Stewart John Regan, or John Stewart Regan was supposedly known as 'The Magician' for his ability to make enemies - and sometimes friends - disappear. Regan is pictured aged just 19 being escorted by detectives after being charged with rape in June 1965

Stewart John Regan, or John Stewart Regan was supposedly known as ‘The Magician’ for his ability to make enemies – and sometimes friends – disappear. Regan is pictured aged just 19 being escorted by detectives after being charged with rape in June 1965

Billy Maloney was a member of the notorious Toe Cutters gang who tortured fellow criminals until they handed over their ill-gotten gains

Billy Maloney was a member of the notorious Toe Cutters gang who tortured fellow criminals until they handed over their ill-gotten gains

Kevin Gore was a former merchant seaman and leader of the Toe Cutters. He disappeared in 1972, possibly murdered by Johnny Regan

Kevin Gore was a former merchant seaman and leader of the Toe Cutters. He disappeared in 1972, possibly murdered by Johnny Regan

Billy Maloney (left) was a member of the notorious Toe Cutters gang who tortured fellow criminals until they handed over their ill-gotten gains. Kevin Gore (right) was a former merchant seaman and leader of the Toe Cutters. He disappeared in  May 1972

The gang got its name by their method of torturing victims from whom they were trying to extract stolen or otherwise ill-gotten money.

The Toe Cutters’ most infamous targets were three Melbourne criminals with links to the notorious Painters and Dockers union who pulled off what was then the greatest armed robbery in Australia, on March 4, 1970.

That day Francis George ‘Baldy’ Blair, Stephen Nittes and Alan Laurie Albert Jones snatched $587,890 from a Mayne Nickless van at Guildford in western Sydney. 

The trio had pulled off the first successful attack on an armoured van in the nation’s criminal history and their feat would have awful repercussions for years to come.   

Blair, Nittes and Jones split $270,000 of the Mayne Nickless robbery, with the rest going to mastermind Leslie ‘The Torch’ Woon. 

Soon the Toe Cutters came hunting for their share of the proceeds and Robert Donnelly might have become an unintended casualty. 

Nittes gave up his cut of the money and possibly helped steer the gang towards Blair, who was kidnapped from the Oceanic Hotel at Coogee and never seen again. 

Viv Donnelly (pictured) was in no doubt what fate had befallen Robert, and some of his associates. 'I believe they're all under the second runway out at Botany,' he said. 'If you muck around with them sort of people that's how you finish up'

Viv Donnelly (pictured) was in no doubt what fate had befallen Robert, and some of his associates. 'I believe they're all under the second runway out at Botany,' he said. 'If you muck around with them sort of people that's how you finish up'

Viv Donnelly (pictured) was in no doubt what fate had befallen Robert, and some of his associates. ‘I believe they’re all under the second runway out at Botany,’ he said. ‘If you muck around with them sort of people that’s how you finish up’

Underworld rumour has it that his captors cut off several of Blair’s toes and put a blowtorch to his testicles before he disclosed the location of his booty and died of his wounds. 

Enter The Magician – born Stewart John Regan – who seems to have used the unfortunate Robert Donnelly to get close to Gore and the Mayne Nickless money. 

Regan had been running prostitutes in Kings Cross since he was a teenager and become an independent force in a Sydney underworld controlled largely by the trio of Lennie McPherson, Stan Smith and George Freeman.    

Arthur Stanley 'Neddy' Smith (pictured) knew Donnelly and Regan; one he considered a dear mate, the other an uncontrollable animal

Arthur Stanley 'Neddy' Smith (pictured) knew Donnelly and Regan; one he considered a dear mate, the other an uncontrollable animal

Arthur Stanley ‘Neddy’ Smith (pictured) knew Donnelly and Regan; one he considered a dear mate, the other an uncontrollable animal

Donnelly, who grew up in Waterloo with one older and two younger brothers, had worked as a french polisher with his father Michael after he left school.

From 1963 to 1971 he had also amassed a long criminal record, mostly for property offences, and served a stint in Long Bay jail. He was a much-loved friend, brother and son.

Neddy Smith had knocked around the streets of Redfern with Donnelly when they were children and did not see him as a real criminal, as he recounted in Catch And Kill Your Own. 

‘Robert Donnelly was a very close friend of mine and had been since early childhood,’ Smith wrote. ‘We started kindergarten together and went through what little school we did together. 

‘Robert was not really a thief in the proper sense of the word. Sure, he would steal little things and later, just before he was murdered, he started working with a team of professional shoplifters. But he was not the normal criminal or thief.

‘He didn’t know how to do the wrong thing and would rather cut his hand off than do anyone a bad turn. That’s just the way he was and he never changed.’ 

Smith, who would become one of Australia’s leading gangsters in the 1980s, was horrified when he learnt in early 1972 that Donnelly had begun associating with Regan and Gore.

Donnelly wrote to Smith shortly before his disappearance to tell him about his new friends while his old school mate was serving a sentence for rape at Grafton jail.

‘I put pen to paper and wrote to him straightaway to try to warn him of the danger he was in by being in the company of these two low-lifes,’ Smith wrote.  

A young detective Roger Rogerson looked at the disappearances of Robert Donnelly and Kevin Gore in 1972. In 2014 he was charged with the murder of student drug dealer Jamie Gao and later sentenced to life in jail. Rogerson is pictured being arrested at his Padstow home

A young detective Roger Rogerson looked at the disappearances of Robert Donnelly and Kevin Gore in 1972. In 2014 he was charged with the murder of student drug dealer Jamie Gao and later sentenced to life in jail. Rogerson is pictured being arrested at his Padstow home

A young detective Roger Rogerson looked at the disappearances of Robert Donnelly and Kevin Gore in 1972. In 2014 he was charged with the murder of student drug dealer Jamie Gao and later sentenced to life in jail. Rogerson is pictured being arrested at his Padstow home 

Donnelly had said he would be visiting Smith in the next two weeks but never made it to Grafton and did not reply to Smith’s note.

After the Toe Cutters got rid of Blair and extorted Nittes, heavies from the Painters and Dockers wanted vengeance and set out to recoup the Mayne Nickless loot. 

Who kidnapped and killed Robert Donnelly?

Robert Donnelly borrowed Kevin Gore’s car from his house at Rose Bay in Sydney’s eastern suburbs on May 1, 1972. He was never seen again.

Gore was the leader of a gang called the Toe Cutters, who had been hunting the three Melbourne robbers who snatched $587,890 from a Mayne Nickless van in Sydney in 1970.

The Toe Cutters had tortured and killed robber Frank ‘Baldy’ Blair for his share of the Mayne Nickless money.   

Donnelly might have been murdered by Melbourne hitmen who mistook him for Gore.

Gangster Neddy Smith believes the psychopathic criminal Johnny Regan killed Donnelly to get closer to Gore, who disappeared two days later. Gore was last seen with Regan and his body has never been found. 

Police suspected Regan was either hired by Melbourne criminals to murder Gore, or was acting on his own to steal back from the Toe Cutters. 

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Police at the time suspected Regan was either hired by Melbourne Dockers to catch and kill Gore, or was acting on his own to steal back from the Toe Cutters.

Donnelly, who was working with Gore in a shoplifting gang separate from the Toe Cutters, might have been used by Regan to get close to their leader so he could kill him.

But the 28-year-old Donnelly, who was living alone at Bondi at the time of his disappearance, might also have been the victim of a simple case of mistaken identity.

Donnelly had borrowed Gore’s 1970 Ford Fairlane from his house in Rose Bay on the evening of May 1, 1972, with the intention of returning it the following morning.

The crew of Melbourne hitmen who were targeting Gore may have spotted the Fairlane and assumed the man behind the wheel was Gore, when it was actually Donnelly.

He was never seen alive again.

Smith was told Regan flagged down Donnelly for a lift, killed him and dumped the body in the sea.

Two days later Regan and Gore met at an office criminal Neville Biber kept at Paddington. The pair left together with Gore telling Biber he would be back in half an hour. 

Gore was never seen alive again. Like Donnelly, his body has never been found.

On May 7 the Ford Fairlane was located burnt out in Osroy Avenue, Earlwood with a .38 rimless cartridge case inside the vehicle. 

Four days after that police received an anonymous tip-off that William Gordon ‘The Stockman’ Johnston had torched the car. 

Johnston was not seen again after May 20 and his disappearance has never been solved. 

Lidcombe Coroner’s Court heard on September 30 that police had investigated the presumed murders of Gore and Donnelly but no one was ever charged.

‘The conclusion of the investigation was that the disappearance of Kevin Gore was one of a number of reprisal attacks carried out by figures from the Melbourne underworld on the Toe Cutters,’ Ms Forbes found.

‘The consensus was that Mr Donnelly was murdered in mistake of Kevin Gore when he was driving Kevin Gore’s car.’ 

Detective Senior Constable Stephen McNamara (pictured) was the officer in charge of the investigation into Robert Donnelly's disappearance. Donnelly's family is grateful for his work

Detective Senior Constable Stephen McNamara (pictured) was the officer in charge of the investigation into Robert Donnelly's disappearance. Donnelly's family is grateful for his work

Detective Senior Constable Stephen McNamara (pictured) was the officer in charge of the investigation into Robert Donnelly’s disappearance. Donnelly’s family is grateful for his work 

When Jake Maloney was shot dead at Revesby on November 24, 1972 a young detective Roger Rogerson investigated and found no link to the disappearances of Gore or Donnelly.  

Driscoll was subsequently found guilty of Maloney’s murder but that conviction was later overturned. Driscoll died on November 18, 1994.

No further police interest was shown in Donnelly’s disappearance until 2012 when his younger brother John read that bones had been found in sand dunes at Kurnell five years earlier. 

John Donnelly told police he suspected the remains could be those of Robert and provided a DNA sample but no match was found. 

Coincidentally, some of the bones found at Kurnell were formally identified this year as belonging to missing model and drug dealer Mark Arthur Johnston.

Neddy Smith (left) is serving life in jail for the 1987 murder of tow truck driver Ronald Flavell at Coogee and the 1983 murder of brothel keeper Harvey Jones (right) at Botany. Smiths's ex-wife Debra is pictured centre

Neddy Smith (left) is serving life in jail for the 1987 murder of tow truck driver Ronald Flavell at Coogee and the 1983 murder of brothel keeper Harvey Jones (right) at Botany. Smiths's ex-wife Debra is pictured centre

Neddy Smith (left) is serving life in jail for the 1987 murder of tow truck driver Ronald Flavell at Coogee and the 1983 murder of brothel keeper Harvey Jones (right) at Botany. Smiths’s ex-wife Debra is pictured centre 

Police believe Johnston, who was last seen leaving the Bellevue Hotel at Paddington about 7pm on September 1, 1986, was killed by Neddy Smith at the behest of the late solicitor Val Bellamy.

Detective Senior Constable Stephen McNamara re-investigated Robert Donnelly’s fate while stationed at Redfern and the case finally made it to the Coroner’s Court.  

John Donnelly wrote a statement which was read to the court on September 30 by advocate assisting the coroner, Sergeant Brooke Notley.

The now 64-year-old said he had found out his brother was likely dead in May 1972 when police came to his door and since then his family had suffered in silence.

‘I was very close to my brother Robert and idolised him as a teenager,’ John wrote. 

Robert had told him to look after his teeth which was why he still had no fillings.

‘I miss my brother and have missed him for almost 50 years. My family and I have never stopped wondering what happened to Robert.’

Johnny Regan is pictured outside Darlinghurst police station in 1974 with the mother of three-year-old Karlos Scott-Huie who police believe Regan murdered

Johnny Regan is pictured outside Darlinghurst police station in 1974 with the mother of three-year-old Karlos Scott-Huie who police believe Regan murdered

Johnny Regan is pictured outside Darlinghurst police station in 1974 with the mother of three-year-old Karlos Scott-Huie who police believe Regan murdered

John wrote that until Detective Senior Constable McNamara took on the case it seemed no one outside his family cared if Robert had ever lived, let alone died.

Viv Donnelly, who came to court with his wife Josefina, got into the witness box to give brief evidence about his brother’s disappearance.

‘I’ll make it short and sweet,’ the 72-year-old told the court. ‘I just want to thank everybody involved in trying to find out what happened to my brother. 

‘The only thing I’m a bit dirty on is we don’t have a body to bury.’

Ms Forbes was unable to make findings in relation to the place, cause or manner of Robert Donnelly’s death – only that he had died.

‘There is undisputed evidence that Mr Donnelly was closely associated with unlawful activities and criminal figures at the time of his disappearance,’ she found.

‘Both the police and Mr Donnelly’s brothers believe that he was killed on 1 May, 1972. I am also satisfied that he died at this time in suspicious circumstances.

‘I acknowledge the painful and persistent uncertainty felt by his family in not knowing what happened to Mr Donnelly and the anguish at not being able to give him a proper burial.’ 

Ms Forbes recommended Donnelly’s death be referred to the NSW Police Unsolved Homicide Unit for ongoing investigation. 

Outside court, Viv Donnelly spoke of happy times spent with Robert, who was two years older. The pair would often play snooker or just sit and talk. 

‘We were very close,’ he said.

Viv had been in no doubt since that night at Souths Leagues Club almost half a century ago what fate had befallen Robert, and some of his associates. 

‘I believe they’re all under the second runway out at Botany,’ he said. ‘If you muck around with them sort of people that’s how you finish up.’ 

How Johnny Regan ‘The Magician’ made his criminal rivals disappear  

Stewart John Regan is said to have killed a live possum with a pitchfork when he was a child

Stewart John Regan is said to have killed a live possum with a pitchfork when he was a child

Stewart John Regan is said to have killed a live possum with a pitchfork when he was a child

Stewart John Regan, or John Stewart Regan, was supposedly known as ‘The Magician’ for his ability to make enemies – and friends – disappear.

Underworld lore has it that as a child Regan drove a pitchfork through a live possum. He was a parasite who profited off the work of others by employing extreme and indiscriminate violence.

Regan emerged in the 1960s as a major player in Sydney organised crime, involving himself in everything from prostitution rackets and illegal gambling to dodgy real estate deals. 

He was a pimp – or ‘hoon’ in the day’s parlance – while still at teenager at Kings Cross in the early 1960s and was soon controlling a string of prostitutes.

By his early 20s Regan had been charged with robbery, assault, rape and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice but had managed to largely stay out of jail.

In 1967 one of Regan’s associates, Barry Leonard ‘Big Barry’ Flock, was found dead in the grounds of the Scottish Hospital at Paddington. He had been shot four times in the head. 

Regan was named at a coronial inquest into Flock’s murder but there was not enough evidence to charge him with any offence. Another associate, Ross Thomas Christie, with whom Regan owned a dress shop, also soon vanished. 

Regan told police he had gone to a newspaper stand at Taylor's Square (pictured) and left his girlfriend's three-year-old son in his car. Police believed Regan killed him

Regan told police he had gone to a newspaper stand at Taylor's Square (pictured) and left his girlfriend's three-year-old son in his car. Police believed Regan killed him

Regan told police he had gone to a newspaper stand at Taylor’s Square (pictured) and left his girlfriend’s three-year-old son in his car. Police believed Regan killed him

Regan is also believed to have arranged the murder of Eric ‘The Monkey’ Williams, whose wife had taken control of the brothels run by her murdered first husband Joe Borg. 

Gangster Neddy Smith wrote that Regan was not a flash criminal. He bought clothes from second-hand shops, drove old slammers and never drank alcohol or smoked.

‘No one can say for certain exactly how many people Regan murdered during his short career, but they would have to run into the double figures at least,’ he wrote in Catch And Kill Your Own. 

Johnny Regan is believed to have murdered 'Big Barry' Flock (pictured) in 1967

Johnny Regan is believed to have murdered 'Big Barry' Flock (pictured) in 1967

Johnny Regan is believed to have murdered ‘Big Barry’ Flock (pictured) in 1967 

‘Murder was an obsession with him and he used it to get everything wanted out of life. Everyone was fair game to him, and if he decided to kill you, you were as good as dead.’ 

Regan is a main suspect in the May 1972 disappearance of petty criminal Robert Donnelly and the presumed murder of Toe Cutters gang leader Kevin Gore two days later.  

Gore was last seen in the company of Regan and like Donnelly his body has never been found.

Regan had so far been killing fellow criminals but in mid-1974 he crossed a line. While he was babysitting for his girlfriend Helen Scott-Huie her three-year-old son Karlos disappeared.

Regan told police he had driven to Taylor Square at Darlinghurst about 4am on May 22 to buy a newspaper and left his car parked in Flinders Street with Karlos inside.

When he returned to the vehicle the toddler was gone. Cops and crooks believed that Regan had killed Karlos but had no evidence to prove it. 

Regan pushed his luck to its absolute limits on August 23, 1974 when he shot dead SP bookie, brothel keeper and gunman John Edward ‘Ratty’ Jack Clarke, who had called him a child murderer.

Regan should have considered 'Ratty Jack' Clarke had the protection of gangsters including Lennie McPherson (pictured) before killing him

Regan should have considered 'Ratty Jack' Clarke had the protection of gangsters including Lennie McPherson (pictured) before killing him

Regan should have considered ‘Ratty Jack’ Clarke had the protection of gangsters including Lennie McPherson (pictured) before killing him 

Clarke was drinking after hours in the Newington Inn at Stanmore when Regan shot him once in the head through a window from the beer garden.  

Regan should have known Clarke had the protection of gangsters Lennie McPherson, Stan Smith and George Freeman and it would be his turn to die.

On September 22 Regan was summoned to a meeting at Marrickville and went without his usual bullet-proof vest and armed minders. 

He was repeatedly shot in the head and body with rounds fired from three different .38 revolvers. He was 29 years old.

Several priests are said to have refused to conduct Regan’s funeral before a service was arranged at St Brigid’s Catholic Church at Coogee. 

News of Regan’s death was reportedly greeted with cheers among Long Bay inmates. Neddy Smith wrote that death was too good for the homicidal maniac.

‘Whoever it was that killed Johnny Regan deserves a medal in my book,’ he wrote. 

‘He got his right whack for what he did to that little boy – not to mention all the other people he murdered in cold blood, especially my mate Robert Donnelly.’ 

Several priests are said to have refused to conduct Johnny Regan's funeral before a service was arranged at St Brigid's Catholic Church at Coogee (pictured)

Several priests are said to have refused to conduct Johnny Regan's funeral before a service was arranged at St Brigid's Catholic Church at Coogee (pictured)

Several priests are said to have refused to conduct Johnny Regan’s funeral before a service was arranged at St Brigid’s Catholic Church at Coogee (pictured)

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Source: Daily Mail | BBC News & Gossip

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