The Finding is One of Murder

From the April 1970 issue of the APJ

E Kirk

Each police department has deep within its filing cabinets the records of officers commended for bravery, or perhaps censured for cowardice. In the annals of the South Australian Police Department is the record of a constable who was arrested by his companions, to face a charge of murder in the Adelaide Supreme Court, perhaps a case unique to this State. 

In 1930 the wholesale meat factory of Foggitt Jones Limited stood in Grote Street, Adelaide, where on Sunday, 31st October, the premises was broken into, entry being effected by the felon smashing his way through a roofing skylight. The apparent object of this criminal act was to rob the company safe, which at the time of the offence contained mainly cheques to the value of £229, cash to some £60, together with some foreign coins. 

Investigating detectives, aided by a thorough knowledge of Adelaide's criminals, both active and inactive, and guided by the modus operandi of this new offence quickly placed a well­founded suspicion upon one Kevin James Fitzgerald, a young criminal who had just recently turned 21 years of age. This suspect had commenced his nefarious activities at the tender age of 14 years, and was now well known in police circles as being one who had extremely small regard for law and order itself, and one who considered the property of others as fair game for the taking. Fitzgerald had been released from a prison sentence 3 weeks before this particular crime, a fact which was paramount in making him the principal suspect in the Foggitt Jones Case. 

So the search was on. Two of Adelaide's top-ranking detectives, Walters and Miller located the suspect in Hutt Street, very close to the General Havelock Hotel where Fitzgerald had just completed a session of drinking. After a brief exchange of words an arrest was effected, with Fitzgerald maintaining that he would only agree to his person being searched at the hotel which he had just quit. The mind of the cunning criminal was working at full capacity for a breakaway, as any subterfuge which might be conjured from the active brain might suffice to put the police off their guard. The return to the hotel was farcical, as once on the premises Fitzgerald appealed to the detectives not to search him in front of his mates, further requesting that he now be taken to the City Watch House. 

As the trio left the hotel the cunning Fitzgerald quickly broke away from his escorts to double back into the hotel, hotly pursued by Detective Miller, who probably gave no thought to any impending danger at the hands of the pursued. It came quickly in the form of a full bottle of beer. Flung with great force at the pursuing detective, it narrowly missed its target to break with a resounding crash on the hotel wall, splattering the officer with beer and broken glass. It was so sufficient a cowardly deed that the detective was thrown off balance, giving time to the criminal to make his hurried escape, besides adding to the list of charges which would probably be preferred against him at the earliest court action. 

The scene of investigations was next switched to Parkside, an inner Adelaide suburb not far removed from the General Havelock Hotel. Fitzgerald had domicile in a sleepout at the back of an old house which served as a block of flats in Young Street. The quarry was at home when Detectives Walters and Miller called, this time accompanied by Plainclothes Constable William Delderfield, a young and virile officer.

In his briefing, Bill Delderfield had been warned that Fitzgerald was a slippery customer, so he had prepared himself well for any apprehension which might take place. The criminal's room was searched in his absence, for he was then secreted in another portion of the building in his desire to escape detection. Some Indian money, part of the stolen property, was located in the sleepout, thus giving firm fact to suspicion. At the same time the officers thumbed quickly through many newspaper clippings all of which referred to breaks from the Latala Labour Prison, or to court cases, confirming that Fitzgerald was indeed a person who had little respect for anyone or anything but his own abilities.

A period photograph of SA Police at the Port Lincoln Court House. Image: South Australian Police Historical Society

Then the search of the premises for the malefactor began. Young Delderfield went into the backyard just as Fitzgerald dashed across the area from another room in the house. The officer called upon his man to stop, or be fired upon, but this warning went unheeded as Fitzgerald progressed further away from arrest. Down through the yard he raced, to leap with great agility the paling fence at the rear and bordering a laneway which gave access to a side street.

The constable was as good as his word, for a shot rang out as a bullet plunged through. the paling fence about 2 feet up from the ground. By now P.C.C. Delderfield had reached the fence which had a maximum height of 5 feet from the ground. A hurried glance left and right along the lane revealed to the officer no sight of the fleeing man but a point from directly beneath drew attention directly below, where, with horrified gaze, Bill Delderfield beheld Fitzgerald lying mortally wounded. 

It was very apparent that the planned escape put into operation by Fitzgerald had gone very much awry. His plan was good up to a point. The portion of it played at the fence was cunning in that having scaled the palings, the escapee would flee no more, but crouch down to hide right under the very nose of his pursuer. Fitzgerald's plan had almost been carried out to perfection and might have succeeded had not the constable's whirring bullet cut through the palings. 

In the process and application of British justice the law must grind on as surely as night must follow day. The City Coroner Mr H. E. Whittle held an inquest into the death of one Kevin James Fitzgerald, killed by a police bullet. The inquiry ended on 13th November, 1930, with this finding: 

I find that Fitzgerald was arrested on 1st November by Detectives Walters and Miller for the felony committed on the premises of Foggitt Jones Limited, Grote Street, Adelaide, on the night of 31st October; that he ran away from the detectives; that he threw a dangerous missile at Detective Miller and made his escape: that later Detectives Walters and Miller. accompanied by Plainclothes Constable Delderfield went to a house in Young Street, Parkside, and that Fitzgerald was seen by Delderfield who called on him to stop. He failed to do so. Delderfield fired a bullet from his revolver which struck Fitzgerald and from which he died that day. The finding is one of murder against William James Delderfield.

How ominous could these few words be. "The finding is one of murder against William James Delderfield." An up-and-coming young police officer, he had only done what he had been trained to do; he was lawfully armed for his own protection; he was dealing with an escaped criminal, one who had first been arrested for an offence which rightfully gave an officer the sanction to use his firearm – a felony; he had a career at stake, while at home awaited a loving and anxious wife with their young son. What would the future hold? 

Conjecture might have it that the future was exceedingly insecure. The finding of the coroner was immediately binding upon the young constable for as there was no power for the coroner to grant bail, P.C.C. Delderfield left the court that day in custody, the first policeman in South Australia to be arrested for murder. Truly a lamentable situation. 

However, all avenues for his early release had not been closed, for his counsel, Mr W. A. Rollison without loss of time, applied for the constable's bail to the Chief Justice of South Australia, Sir George Murray, in chambers. Mercifully bail was granted immediately on a personal surety of £100 with one surety of a similar amount.

Yet the anxious days had not reached their fill, but at a later sitting of the Supreme Court, P.C.C. Delderfield was acquitted of the capital charge, to leave the court as a free man. This story may have reached its conclusion, but its record would not be complete without these closing words. 

Undaunted by this harrowing experience, and by dint of personal application, young Delderfield forged ahead with his career, taking promotions as he earned them until he achieved the rank of Inspector in the South Australian Police Force. "Finis" was written to his police career as with the effluxion of time, W. J. Delderfield retired as Commissioner of the Tasmanian Police Force in 1965.

When it introduced radio communications, SA Police initially used morse code. This post-war photo shows then Inspector Bill Delderfield (second left) watching as operators send and receive transmissions. Image: South Australian Police Historical Society

2021 Addendum 

Through the wonderful trove.nla.gov.au website, we have been able to source some contemporaneous media reporting of the event.

Adelaide’s Observer newspaper reported in its 11 December 1930 edition, the announcement by the SA Government that the charge of murder against Constable Delderfield would be dropped:

The announcement was made by the Attorney-General (Mr Denny) last week after he had received recommendations from the Crown Prosecutor (Mr R.R. Chamberlain) and the Crown Solicitor (Mr A.J. Hannan) that there were no grounds on which prosecution could be justified.

‘Delderfield has been charged with murder for having done no other than his duty, and I can only think that the Coroner was under a misapprehension when he committed him for trial’ stated Mr Chamberlain. 

Both Mr Chamberlain and Mr Hannan said that if called upon to prosecute in the Supreme Court, they would both be obliged to say they could not urge anything against Constable Delderfield in support of the charge.

‘I see no reason’ added Mr Chamberlain ‘for thinking that the statement that the shot was fired to frighten was other than true, but even assuming that he fired to hit, the position appears to me to admit of no argument.’

‘Fitzgerald had been lawfully arrested for a felony. He had made his escape from custody, and Delderfield was an officer of the law endeavouring to recapture him.’

‘He was called on to surrender and failed to do so. Delderfield was justified as a matter of law in shooting him.’

‘It seems to me high time that the constable was relieved of the strain and anxiety of a capital charge, and because it seems to me that if there has been any impression created by these proceedings that a police officer is not to be allowed to make reasonable use of the firearm with which he is equipped, the sooner it is dispelled the better.’

Over 20 years later, upon the Tasmania Government’s announcement in December 1952 that the now Tasmania Police Deputy Commissioner William Delderfield would be appointed Police Commissioner, Launceston’s Examiner newspaper (4 December 1952) provided a brief overview of the man’s background:

The Commissioner-elect joined the police force in South Australia as a constable in 1922, after serving in the merchant marine and the Royal Flying Corps in World War I. He rose to the post of officer in charge of the motor traffic branch in South Australia, and during the latter part of World War II, was responsible for the training of 1700 special constables. Soon after Mr Delderfield came to Tasmania in December, 1949, he instituted the police radio system, traffic patrols and the police training school scheme.

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