All For Nothing: The Death of Constable McGrath


tags: Homicide, Victoria Police,

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By Noel Johnson

From the September 2015 issue of the APJ.

A cloudy sky shrouded the city of Melbourne as Senior Constable Warren walked his beat. He halted at the corner of Victoria and Lygon Streets, reached into his pocket and withdrew his silver fob watch to check on the time, his eyes straining under the dimly lit street lamp. His timepiece showed him that it was a quarter to two in the morning, which meant that he was almost half way through his shift. When about to continue his patrol, he became aware of a faint tapping sound. Looking around, his eyes fixed on the two-storey Trades Union building which was in complete darkness.

As fate would have it, the Duty Officer that night, Sub-Inspector C. J. McKenna, was just concluding his area inspection when he noticed Constable Warren waving at him. Warren was holding his index finger to his lips and with his other hand he was pointing towards the Trades Union building. McKenna made his way to where the Constable was standing. Without a word passing between them, the two police officers looked up at the Trades Hall. The noise of tapping clearly appeared to be coming from somewhere inside. As this building had been broken into a few weeks earlier and a large sum of money stolen, the Sub Inspector instructed Warrento stay in the shadows and keep watch while he headed to the nearby Russell Street Police Barracks, to call for armed back-up.  

Into Darkness

Within minutes McKenna had returned from the barracks with Constable David McGrath, Constable James O'Reilly and Senior Constable John Dent. The officers were all armed with regulation Webley revolvers.

Constable McGrath climbed an iron fence and entered the grounds. A quick examination revealed that a window just to the right of the main entrance in Victoria Street had been forced. He pushed the window open and climbed through. The three other armed officers silently followed. Constable Warren being un-armed was told to wait for back-up to arrive and when it did he was to have them surround the building.

Once the officers were inside, they searched the ground floor using the light of a match (torches in those days were heavy and cumbersome and did not hold light for any length of time and so matchlight was preferred). Inside the main vestibule was a circular stairwell. This was surrounded on the second floor by a guardrail.

Sub-Inspector McKenna discovered a small light box in the rear courtyard of the main building, which contained two switches. He turned them on. The courtyard lit up as did the staircase inside the building. With some light now available, Constables McGrath and Dent went back inside to continue their search. Constable O'Reilly began going through the rooms on the ground floor. 

Acting on a hunch,the Sub-Inspectorwent back through to the old Lygon Street entrance and found that these doors had been unbarred and reclosed. His hunch had proved correct. This was the intended escape route for the thieves, just as it had been for the previous robberies.

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