Ms Finn was a well-connected socialite, a nightclub owner, and the madam of a brothel. She hosted lavish parties in her Riverview Street mansion, one of which Elton John attended. Of course, her line of work meant she also dealt with many nefarious people, many of whom were members of the Western Australian Police Force.
In particular she had close dealings with two high level members of the law — chief of Western Australia’s Vice Squad, Bernie Johnson, and politician Ray O’Connor, who was the Minister For Police.
Mr O’Connor was Ms Finn’s not-so-secret lover, a powerful, well-connected man who later became WA Premier between 1983-88. Mr O’Connor was described at Ms Finn’s inquest as a “sexaholic” who paid for prostitutes.
“He’d tell stories about Miss Australia’s girlfriends and well-known people,” the court heard.
Mr Johnson was also a powerful man: a corrupt cop, who took kickbacks from illegal bookies and brothel owners in exchange for police protection.
Both these men allegedly wanted Shirley Finn dead.
In 1975, the year Ms Finn was murdered, Perth was overrun with illegal activity that sat very close to the surface of society. The levels of corruption in the police force, political realm and business world were extreme by today’s standards — and Mr Johnson was among the most feared people in the state. He took payments from those involved in crime, used standover tactics to intimidate witnesses, and ran Perth according to his own laws.
“Everyone was scared of Bernie,” explained his former driver, ex-policeman Michael Regan. “I had sleepless nights just being in his company.”
If someone became a problem, Mr Johnson would make sure it was solved.
“If he said something, it was done,” Mr Regan said.
Ms Finn became a problem to many corrupt officials when she ran into tax problems. She was hit with a $100,000 tax debt, and a hearing was scheduled two days after she died. She threatened that if this hearing and debt didn’t go away, she would blow the whistle on the corruption. This gave many high-up members of Perth society reason to be concerned, including Bernie Johnson.
When a threat to Mr O’Connor to expose their affair unless he made her tax problems disappear didn’t end in a result, Mr Johnson told Ms Finn he would organise for someone to travel across from Sydney to deal with the debt. And so, the problem went away.
SHIRLEY’S FINAL NIGHT
The night she was killed, Ms Finn asked her 12-year-old daughter Bridget to have an early night, while she dealt with her tax problems. Her live-in girlfriend Rose Black found her crying while she was getting ready.
“She was nervous and didn’t feel good about the whole thing. The taxation bill was huge … and it put her under a lot of pressure and stress,” Ms Black told an inquest last year.
“I think at the last moment she wanted to back out.”
Sensing this, Ms Black offered to come along with her, even suggesting she could hide in the boot in case something bad happened. This wouldn’t have been possible, as the boot was occupied with two garbage bags filled with money, meant as part of the trade-off with Mr Johnson.
Ms Finn assured her it wasn’t necessary for her to come along, and that she should instead go to a friend’s apartment where she would call her. She left around 8pm.
“She said, ‘Hold tight and I’ll come and get you when it’s over’,” Mr Black told the court.
It was the final time they spoke.
At 9.40pm, Ms Finn’s neighbour Loretta Jackson saw her leaving the house in the ball gown she was killed in. She told the inquest she was walking down her driveway, going through her purse. Ms Jackson claimed that when she spoke to police following the murder, they pressured her to remove the sighting of the purse from her official statement. She complied at the time. Ms Finn’s purse was house inside her home the next morning.
There have been conflicting stories placing Ms Finn in various places around Perth throughout the night, so her movements between 9.40pm and midnight, the time she is estimated to have been killed, remain muddy.
A REVIEW EXPOSES NEW LEADS
In 2014, Sergeant Brent Fletcher was tasked with reviewing the murder, the second cold case review of Ms Finn’s death. A 2005 attempt to revisit the case concluded that finding the killer would be “doubtful”.
Mr Fletcher had higher hopes, due to new evidence, new witnesses, and the dismantling of the corruption that was rampant among police during the ‘70s, but he is nonetheless realistic about how tangled this case has become, telling the inquest that of the 110 suspects fingered between 1975 and 2004, only a handful have completely cleared their names.
“There may have been the odd person of interest that we could say was in jail at the time or could prove were overseas, but of the 110 there wasn’t many where that was the case.,” he said.
Even in 2014, Mr Fletcher met resistance from within the force. He was denied access to documents relating to Ms Finn’s case by the superintendent in charge of the internal affairs unit, and stated that he referred one report of “direct corruption” to the same unit.
Mr Fletcher describes the original investigation as “pretty dreadful” but notes the police culture in 1975 was “completely different to what we have now.”
It turned out that Ray O’Connor wasn’t the only ex-WA Premier connected to this case. Brian Burke, who was Premier at the time of Finn’s death, made explosive claims in his memoirs, A Tumultuous Life, that then Police Commissioner Brian Bull told him in 1985 that a very senior officer was being investigated over allegations he had committed murder. Mr Bull didn’t elaborate on which specific case it related to, but Mr Burke joined the dots.
“He said the police officer was so senior that he couldn’t use internal investigations from WA and so he called investigators in from NSW,” Mr Burke wrote.
“I didn’t hear any more but I told some of my ministers. We didn’t know what we could do other than to support the commissioner in whatever action he took.”
These claims certainly support the evidence Mr Fletcher uncovered during his review.
As he unravelled all the leads, the witness statements not initially taken seriously, the calls to Crime Stoppers over the years that were ignored, one person kept coming up: the ex-Chief of the Vice Squad, Bernie Johnson.
COPS, CRIMS AND WITNESSES TALK ON THE STAND
Mr Johnson’s involvement in Shirley Finn’s death seems almost certain. At the inquest, which has been marred by two long adjournments, mostly due to the sheer amount of evidence to unravel, Mr Johnson was linked to the murder by a large array of figures, from retired policeman to convicted fraudsters.
Many people who were afraid to talk up until this point were freer to give information at this juncture due to Mr Johnson’s late-stage dementia. The dementia meant Mr Johnson was unable to give evidence, but also meant others were now finally willing to.
More information linking Mr Johnson to the murder flooded in. The court heard that retired cop Brian Eddy saw Ms Finn in the police canteen with Mr Johnson just prior to her murder, and that Mr Eddy was later knocked off his motorcycle and warned to keep quiet by four men he believed to be detectives. Ms Finn’s lover Rose Black told the court Shirley was going to meet a man known as “The Bear”; the court also heard this was Mr Johnson’s nickname. A witness saw Mr Johnson and Ms Finn’s car at the murder scene, and shortly after heard gunshots.
Bob Meyers, who did jail time for fixing horse races, referred to Mr Johnson as “a crim with a badge” and spoke of a conversation with the head of the fraud squad, who told him Mr Johnson shot Ms Finn with a gun stolen from the police armoury. This stolen gun story was backed up by convicted criminal Maxwell Healy who told the court he saw Ms Finn at the golf club the night she died, and witnessed Ms Finn slap Mr Johnson across the face at the Zanzibar nightclub in Perth a few weeks prior.
Healy also claimed Ray O’Connor told him Mr Johnson had stolen a .22 rifle from the police armoury. According to retired cop Michael Regan, who drove Johnson around at the time of the murder, Mr O’Connor also “wanted her killed.”
Mr Regan was the most damning of Johnson, although he admitted to the WA Coroner’s Court that he didn’t have first-hand evidence. Like so many of the others giving testimonies, he “knew” but didn’t actually know.
Unlike others, who claim Mr Johnson pulled the trigger himself, he believes he ordered the killing, suggesting a man named Pat Crawford murdered Ms Finn, and was in turn silenced the following day in a Sydney pub, after flying back from Perth. This would match Black’s claim that Mr Johnson had organised for someone from Sydney to see Ms Finn. Nobody was ever charged with Mr Crawford’s murder.
Mr Regan also claims that corrupt former detectives Brian Murphy, and Roger Rogerson would have been told about the killing, and suggested Rogerson be made to testify.
“Roger is the only one who’d give you the full truth. Bernie confided in him.”
“They stuck together like shit to a blanket,” Regan said of this circle of corrupt criminal cops, who he dubbed “half-mad”.
“They crossed the line every second day. You wouldn’t want to cross them, put it that way.”
While some of this evidence is hearsay, it all made for a damning picture.
The inquest was adjourned for six months while this wealth of new evidence could be properly considered. Then, in April, three months before the inquest was set to reconvene, Mr Johnson died.
FURTHER DELAYS IN JUSTICE
The inquest had only resumed for a week in late July, when it was again adjourned for another six months. With new leads flooding in, including two which require dense scientific investigation, and many more people willing to talk after the death of Mr Johnson, there was really no other option. This maddening time frame means that a minimum of 17 months will have passed from the start of this inquest to when a verdict is reached. And this is an optimistic time frame.
Still, Ms Finn’s family has waited over four decades now, and Coroner Barry King seems confident that the case will be solved. During this recess, he is hoping anyone with information will come forward.
“We haven’t given up hope, we do continue to see what we can do, but there are limitations, as you can expect,” Mr King said as he adjourned the inquest.
“Until we do meet again I would encourage anyone who has information who has not yet come forward with that information to do so.”
With Bernie Johnson no longer casting a climate of fear over those with knowledge of the crime, it seems more and more likely that we will finally get the complete story of who murdered Shirley Finn. Unfortunately, with many of the major players now dead, we may find answers, but it’s increasingly unlikely those responsible will ever face justice.