It was 40 years ago at 8am on Friday February 3, 1967 when Ronald Ryan walked five steps from cell 63, the condemned cell in D Division at Pentridge Prison, and was hanged from the same gallows bar where Ned Kelly had been hanged a century before.
Ryan’s body was buried in an unmarked grave filled with quicklime. Outside the prison over 3,000 demonstrators staged a silent vigil in protest at the execution.
A decade of social revolution had swept Australia during the 1960s and came to a grinding halt when Ronald Joseph Ryan became the last man hanged in Australia. Ryan’s fate was sealed by an egotistical Victorian Premier, Sir Henry Bolte, who brushed aside all appeals and petitions for clemency by saying at the time, “a hanging is 10 per cent of the vote”. A state election was looming and Ryan became an expendable pawn in Bolte’s rise to power.
Ronald Ryan, a small-time burglar with no record of violence, began his journey to the gallows in 1964 after he was sentenced to 13 years jail for shop-breaking while armed with a gun. A Christmas party for Pentridge prison guards on Sunday, December 19, 1965 left a skeleton staff on duty. At 2pm Ryan and Peter John Walker scaled the wall of B Division and dropped into no-man’s land underneath Guard Tower 1.
A makeshift broom-hook attached to a rope of bedspreads enabled Ryan and Walker to climb onto the tower catwalk where they surprised prison guard Helmut Lange. Ryan snatched an M1carbine from the gun rack but mistakenly ejected a live round from the weapon. He leveled the gun at Lange and forced him to open the door leading onto the street. The pair ran out into a busy stream of traffic on Sydney Road looking for a prearranged getaway car that was not there.
The alarm prompted other prison guards into action and they began firing from the guard towers while Ryan was trying to commandeer a vehicle. Prison guard George Henry Hodson ran out the main gate and tried to grab Walker. Ryan leveled the rifle at Hodson. A shot rang out and Hodson fell dead onto the tram tracks as Walker and Ryan leaped into a blue Vanguard and drove away.
Ryan always claimed he pointed the gun at Hodson during the escape but never fired the weapon. There was no forensic evidence to indicate Ryan’s weapon had been fired but if it was the weapon that killed Hodson it would have required two missing rounds, one ejected in Guard Tower 1 and one on Sydney Road. Only one cartridge was unaccounted for when the weapon was eventually examined. That evidence coupled with the trajectory of the entry bullet wound indicated that the fatal shot had been fired from a prison guard tower while Ryan was on the ground.
After the escape Ryan and Walker robbed the Ormond ANZ bank and holed-up in the home of Christine Aitkin at Elwood. A young tow-truck driver, James "Boofhead" Henderson, recognised Ryan and confided to Walker that Aitkin’s friend looked like the prison escapee Ronald Ryan. He suggested they claim the reward. Walker shot Henderson and left his body in a public toilet at Albert Park.
The pair fled to Sydney after the Henderson shooting where Walker looked up an old girlfriend, Simone Hurley, a nurse at the Concord Repatriation Hospital, and asked her to organise a double-date for him and Ryan. Hurley tipped off police and the notorious Detective Inspector Ray “Gunner” Kelly recruited Sergeant Adelle Fricker to act as Ryan’s date in an elaborate trap.
Hurley and Fricker waited at the hospital gates for their “dates” while plainclothes police disguised as couples, hospital staff and passers-by surrounded the area. Snipers were also positioned on top of nearby buildings and in trees. When Ryan and Walker arrived waiting police rushed the car and the 17-day manhunt was over.
After their return to Melbourne the pair went on trial for Hodson’s murder. Despite inconsistencies of evidence and the mysterious disappearance of several key pieces of evidence, including the bullet that actually killed Hodson, Ryan was found guilty of murder on March 30, 1966 and Justice John Starke pronounced the mandatory death sentence. Walker was sentenced to 12 years for manslaughter and was later sentenced to another 12 years for the manslaughter of Henderson. (Walker eventually served 17 years in prison and was released in 1983).
Still distressed over Ryan’s execution, Helmut Lange, the prison guard on duty in Guard Tower 1 during the escape, committed suicide at Pentridge in April 1969.
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