The 1997 Melbourne Cup witnessed Sydney jockey, Jim Cassidy, make the biggest come-back since Lazarus when he rode 6/1 winner Might and Power to victory on his first ride since his controversial disqualification over the Jockey Tapes Affair involving Sydney drug trafficker Victor Spinks. Cassidy celebrated the win and partied into the night with Might and Power’s owner, Sydney fruit wholesaler, Nick Moratis, and the laconic Rosehill trainer, Jack Denham, who had taken Cassidy back on board after his disqualification from riding.
While the winning syndicate partied into the early hours of the morning at Maxim’s restaurant in the Como Hotel at South Melbourne then at the Grand Hyatt before finally stopping at the Crown Casino, another event was unfolding at the other end of the Australia that would capture the media’s attention and take the gloss off Cassidy’s winning ride.
Inside Queensland’s top maximum security prison, the Sir David Longland Correctional Centre, at Wacol outside Brisbane, five high security prisoners in the B4 cell-block were cutting their way to freedom with angel wire that had been smuggled into the prison during a visit.
While other prisoners kept watch the five stealthily cut their way to one of the most sensational escapes in Australian prison history. Brenden Abbott, 35, the West Australian bank robber dubbed “The Postcard Bandit”, led the escape, Jason “Waxy” Nixon, 25, serving life for a prison murder, Andrew “Stix” Jeffery, 20, serving life, Oliver “Olly” Alincic, 30, serving life, and Peter “Sterlo” Stirling, 32, serving time for rape, completed the escape crew. A clandestine audio tape recorded every minute of the escape for posterity.
The escape had been originally scheduled for the previous Monday night but a last minute glitch had stalled plans when the getaway car was not available. The light drizzling rain that brought Melbourne Cup Day 1997 to a close was an added bonus because it obscured all cutting noises as the five escapers prised open the bars on their cell windows and climbed out of their cells between the B4 and B6 cell-blocks.
Plastic chairs were passed out of the cell-blocks and used to climb the razor wire that circled the perimeter of B Block. The five escapers then made their way to the perimeter fences of the Sir David Longland Correctional Centre. The eyes that followed their progress from the cell windows of B4 and B6 wished them success.
Muzzle flashes and the staccato sound of automatic rifle fire confirmed the success of Abbott, Nixon, Jeffries, Alincic and Sterling as they scrambled to freedom through holes cut in the perimeter fences and disappeared with the fading tail lights of a stolen car.
The ramifications of the escape resulted in punitive sanctions and collective punishments that seemed never-ending but were focused on trying to elicit information from a prison sub-culture that had closed ranks to protect the five escapees. The political knee-jerk reaction compounded the situation with the installation of cladding that minimised sunlight and fresh air in the cells and exercise yards of B Block but only primed a festering boil of anger and frustration.
The day Jim Cassidy returned to racing prominence on a horse called Might and Power in the Melbourne Cup was the same day the might and power of the Queensland prison system was brought to its knees by the ingenuity of five men. It is a Melbourne Cup Day that Queensland prisoners fondly remember.
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