Great Maleny Safe Robbery

By Christopher Lee

IN the early hours of 1st December 1937, the night air of the small town of Maleny was shattered by a thunderous explosion. As the smoke cleared, down in the bed of Obi Obi creek, two men rifled through a shattered safe. From the nearby streets the two men could hear shouts and see torches flashing as a crowd ran down towards the creek. Grabbing what they could from the safe the two men sprinted into the darkness.

 Maleny was a quiet little town above what would later become the Sunshine Coast. The main street wound uphill from the bridge over Obi Obi Creek, not far from which sat Victor Magee’s drapery shop, Magee & Co. General Drapers.

On Wednesday night, 1st December 1937, Cyril McKillop, noticed a light on in Magee & Co and immediately phoned Magee. Upon hearing the news Magee promptly called the nearest police station in Landsborough, before heading towards his shop.

Before he was able to investigate there was a loud explosion. As Magee and other townspeople rushed to the site, they found the safe blown apart beneath the bridge and the cash draw missing. Two men were seen running away from the creek but, despite an extensive search of the area, they were not found.

Despite their efforts, all the thieves managed to make off with were two leather overcoats and £3 worth in cash. Though the haul was meagre, the spectacular way in which they had carried out the robbery ensured the two men were the subject of an intensive manhunt. A search was made of the area around Maleny, but no trace of the men was found.

As news of the robbery spread, the police in Brisbane were told to be on the lookout for any suspicious characters. At 3.45am on Thursday, a freight train pulled into Zillmere station, plainclothed constables Moses Murphy and William Brown along with the stationmaster searched the train as it waited. Approaching an open truck, they spotted a young man crouched in the corner wearing a leather overcoat. As they neared, a struggle ensued as the man struggled to get past them before managing to break free and sprint away. Another man wearing a similar overcoat appeared from a nearby carriage and ran off, leaving behind the leather overcoat as he went. PC Murphy pursued the first man while PC Brown ran after the second.

Realising the man was getting away, PC Murphy drew his gun and, calling the man to stop, fired two warning shots. However, the man did not stop, jumping a fence and fleeing though backyards and onto Murphy Road. Another warning shot was fired to which the fleeing man complied. When asked why he had run, the man replied, “It’s pretty rough a man getting pinched for train jumping.”

PC Murphy stated that he believed the man he had just caught was Ronald Stokes and the other man had been Jacob Russell. The man confirmed that he was Ronald Stokes but refused to admit his accomplice’s identity. Upon being questioned, the man admitted to the Magee safe robbery along with ‘his mate’. Stokes stated, “I suppose I’d better make a clean breast of it. I suppose I’ll get a good stretch for it…”

In the meantime, an extensive manhunt was mounted for the second man who had fled Zillmere railway station. Despite being pursued for some distance in the direction of Geebung by PC Brown the man managed to escape by fleeing into dense scrub. The suspect was later spotted on Robinson Road, Geebung. Around 100 police officers and cadets were brought in to search the area but there was no sign of the fugitive. Convinced that the man who had escaped was Jacob Russell, the police issued an arrest warrant in his name.

On Saturday December 1, a man fitting Russell’s description was seen near a picture theatre in Fortitude Valley. However, by the time the police were able to throw a cordon around the area, he was nowhere to be found.

There was no sign of the wanted man until a few days later when Toowoomba police were made aware that a man fitting Russell’s description had been spotted nearby. On Tuesday December 7, Detective Sergeant Elford and Detective Constable Nesbitt were driving along Campbell Street when they spotted the wanted man. As the police car approached, the man fled into a narrow lane connecting Campbell and Norwood Street. A chase ensued on foot as the suspect fled from police, ending when he was overtaken after running back onto Campbell Street.

 The police were able to confirm that the man they had arrested was Jacob Russell. However, when informed about the warrant, Russell denied any involvement or knowledge of the robbery, claiming he had been in Toowoomba at the time.

Both men possessed extensive criminal records, each with a long string of robbery-related convictions and were well-known to police. Russell was regarded as highly dangerous, “a daring and desperate criminal; of a violent disposition; is invariably armed when operating and will not hesitate to shoot when cornered”. Russell was also known to have considerable experience in using explosives to blow safes. It is quite likely Stokes and Russell had become acquainted with each other while they were in prison, serving their sentences at the same time.

Stokes pleaded guilty during his trial in mid-December 1937. He explained that they had ‘jumped’ a train from Bowen Hills railway yard to Landsborough before making their way to Maleny. He stated that they had to break through the fibro wall after failing to kick the front door in. Upon opening the safe and running away, the cash draw was quickly discarded as it rattled too much. After fleeing the scene, they hid in bushes on the side of the road as cars searching for them passed by. They walked some distance and hitched a ride on the back of a northbound mail truck to Gympie, before taking the southbound freight train to Zillmere, where their journey ended abruptly.

Despite hoping for leniency due to his early guilty plea, Stokes was given a three-year sentence. When pressed about the identity of the other man Stokes only stated that it had not been Russell. As such, Russell pleaded not guilty to the charge, claiming he had nothing to do with it. Regardless, due to his long history of similar crimes and his recent prison release, the police were convinced that Russell was guilty.

However, when the trial commenced in June 1938, the prosecution’s case quickly ran into trouble. When their witness, PC Murphy, took the stand he was questioned about his surety of Russell’s identity as the second man. As there was no clear identification of the second man, nor evidence linking Russell to the crime and Stokes’ assertion that he had not been involved, the case against Russell collapsed and was withdrawn.

The robbery of Magee’s had been no well-planned heist but instead was a rather shambolic affair. Despite the effort taken to enact the crime, the thieves only got away with a small amount of cash, which was quickly tossed, and two leather overcoats, of which one was discarded and the other lead to a prison sentence.

Image Source: Queensland Police Gazette