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Sly of the Underworld: Trotter v Chopper, day of judgment
It should have been the quietest session on the judicial calendar - a sleepy Thursday in January, just before the courts returned from the long summer break.
Judge Bill Martin had drawn the short straw - so while his colleagues were using theirs to drink Mai Tais down the coast, he had to report for duty on Australia Day (before it was a public holiday).
Even so, it was expected to be an easy gig. It was jail day, when inmates came to appeal against sentences handed down by hang-'em-high magistrates.
The standard joke was the on-duty judge would increase the sentence of the first bloke through the door so the rest would withdraw their appeals, allowing court staff to slip down to a leafy beer garden for a pleasant out-of-sessions session.
Judge Martin's tipstaff, Ernie Trotter, hoped that on such a quiet morning he would be able to catch up on some paperwork. He hardly noticed a denim-clad figure slipping into court.
He soon would. It was Mark ''Chopper'' Read, who from behind his sunglasses had eyes only for the judge.
He was about to embark on a plan that even for the pathological standover man was dipped in madness.
This was the culmination of a hasty promise he made a year earlier in the exercise yard of Pentridge's notorious H-Division to his best mate, Jimmy Loughnan.
''He had just escaped from jail and broke both his ankles when he jumped the fence,'' Read wrote once. ''He was in the yard there, it was raining, he was crying, his feet were blue and he thought he was going to lose them both. He had four, five or six years to go. I said, 'Listen Jim, when I get out, give me six months, then write to me, and then I'll come and get you'.'' The off-the-cuff remark resulted in Read entering the court with a shotgun down his trousers. He planned to hold a judge hostage until Loughnan was released from the insane division of Ararat Prison.
Read walked into the old County Court (a building so rancid that even self-respecting rats left it to cockroaches and legal aid lawyers) and asked the nearest policeman which courts were in session.
There were only two, so: ''I walked into the first one I saw. Judge Martin was the first cab off the rank.
''I climbed onto the judge's bench, put the gun to his head and demanded Jimmy's release. I knew it would never work but I had given my word to try.''
Trotter had spent 25 years in the army, retiring as a sergeant-major. Raised in a Salvation Army family, he joined the services after a romance with a Ballarat girl went sour.
An accomplished drummer, he joined the army band, which meant he was not expected to confront armed opponents. This was about to change. Not that band work was for the Devonshire tea set. Trotter was stationed in Malaya for two years, where musicians doubled as stretcher bearers and as porters ferrying rations to troops on patrol.
Now 82, he recalls that when he saw the man in court dressed in what was described as a ''denim suit'' (Read should have got five years for that alone) he remained unconcerned, as he knew there were at least 12 police just metres away in the corridor.
Head down over his paperwork he did not notice Read moving towards the bar table until: ''He rushed past me and sprang up the steps to the bench. He then produced a single-barrel sawn-off shotgun from under his jacket and knelt to the left of the judge, pressing the barrel against his throat.
''Ashamed that I had been unable to prevent this incident, I stood on the bottom step and indicated to the judge I would follow his lead. Judge Martin bravely pushed the gun aside, stood and went through the bench door with 'Denim' in hot pursuit. At this point, the judge turned to face the assailant and gave him a hefty kick in the knackers.''
A novel version, it would seem, of a hanging judge.
For a man well over 100 kilos, Trotter was quick on his feet. He leapt up to the door, pushing Read against the frame and grabbing the shotgun barrel.
Here, the most remarkable Trotter is able to dispel a piece of underworld folklore. It has long been held that Judge Martin broke the stunned silence after he was grabbed by yelling: ''Will someone get this bastard off me?'' (Bastard has been used to replace a word not fit for a family newspaper.)
Not according to Trotter: ''The judge didn't utter a word.'' But someone did. While wrestling Read for the gun, the former military man yelled: ''Give me the f-----g thing.''
Read recalls some swearing, but was unsure who uttered the expletives. ''I was shocked to hear such foul language in a hallowed hall of justice, as I have never been a big swearer myself.''
Chopper believed he had rendered the round in the barrel harmless by removing the shot from the cartridge. At his later trial he was shocked to learn the ''blank'' would have killed the judge if discharged at close range.
''I remember the judge opened his mouth, and the barrel slipped in. I'm glad I didn't pull the trigger, it would have killed him.
''Old Ernest was a military fellow with a big English moustache. It took quite a bit of bravery to attack me. I was 18½ stone (117 kilos) of muscle, I was bench-pressing 330 pounds (150 kilos) and I had a gun.''
As Trotter continued to wrestle the gunman, police raced in to help, grabbing Read by the legs and pulling his feet from under him.
''Six of the coppers carried him to the side of the court, laid him face down on a row of seats and sat on him,'' says Trotter.
''Would you believe, there wasn't a set of handcuffs between the lot of them, so a couple of rozzers removed their waist belts to secure his arms and feet.''
After Read was taken to the cells: ''I went down to the judge's chambers and made him a cup of tea.
''The judge was the real hero. If it wasn't for his leadership I wouldn't have done anything.''
A deeply religious man, Judge Martin attended church every morning and was known to slip down to St Francis' to seek advice from a higher authority when a jury went out to deliberate. ''We would have to go and get him when the jury came back,'' Trotter remembers.
About 18 months later, the tipstaff was presented with the Queen's Gallantry Medal by the then governor, Sir Henry Winneke.
Read, who was sentenced to 13 years for the attempted abduction, said: ''I'm glad he got a medal. He deserved it.''
Once convicted, Read wrote to Judge Martin to apologise, and the judge wrote back to say he knew it wasn't personal.
''He was a real gentleman,'' according to the retired standover man.
Trotter also holds no grudges. ''I bear him no ill-will, and regret his state of health.'' (Read has cancer.)
But not everyone is so forgiving. To add salt to a life-threatening wound, Loughnan repaid Read for his efforts by stabbing him in a premeditated jail attack. ''I should have broken his neck, the treacherous bastard,'' Read says. (Much later Loughnan was one of five prisoners to die in a deliberately lit fire.)
Now you would think Read and his boys (the feared Overcoat Gang in Pentridge) would have worked out that hostage plots usually end badly. But criminals are not usually renowned for their judgment on such matters.
Later that year, Amos Atkinson, armed with two shotguns, fired at police before climbing the stairs to the Italian Waiters' Club to hold 30 people hostage.
He said if Read was not released within 24 hours he would start killing his captives.
But Amos lost interest after four hours when his mother (a regular diner there) arrived to act as a go-between. She walked up the stairs in her dressing gown, ending the tense standoff by hitting her son on the head with her handbag while telling him to stop being stupid. He then released his captives and surrendered. The siege was a heinous crime on many levels.
Shots were fired and victims terrorised - that much is certain.
But worse, the Waiters' was a Melbourne institution where reporters, politicians, detectives and the occasional Italian waiter could get a decent feed and a passable claret well after legal closing.
The hostage drama brought publicity and with it stricter policing of the establishment's liberal interpretation of the licensing laws.
Atkinson did his jail time and was released, although he still had problems when dining out.
We understand that during a robust race-related discussion with a South African gentleman in a peninsula fish-and-chip shop, Amos threw a large container of pickled onions at him.
Sly of the Underworld collaborated with Read on his original books, proving neither could spell.
LISTEN: Sly of the Underworld on 3AW Breakfast with tipstaff Ernest Trotter and Paul Martin, son of Judge Bill Martin: