1979 Luna Park fire: NSW Police resist fresh inquiry despite new evidence

The iconic modern face of Sydney's Luna Park. On 9 June 1979, the Ghost Train caught fire, killing six children and an adult. Photo: Alec Smart.

By ALEC SMART

NSW Police have resisted calls to open a fresh inquiry into the tragic 1979 Luna Park Ghost Train fire, despite new revelations in an ABC-TV investigation and an allegation that the senior officer in charge of the original investigation – Detective Inspector Douglas Knight – was “criminally negligent” and probably corrupt.

The ABC’s three-part documentary about the Saturday, 9 June, 1979 Luna Park tragedy, Exposed: The Ghost Train Fire, broadcast on 16, 23 and 30 March, 2021, unveiled both new and previously hidden evidence around the 42-year-old tragedy.

The Exposed program was guided by investigative journalist Caro Meldrum-Hanna, who presided over an 18-month re-examination of the Ghost Train fire prior to the ABC-TV broadcast. It alleged that the fire was deliberately lit by a small group of ‘bikers’ under orders of Sydney crime kingpin Abe Saffron, in order that he might take control of the lucrative foreshore real estate.

The intense blaze at the Sydney harbourside amusement park killed seven: four Waverley College year 8 school chums – Jonathan Billings, Richard Carroll, Michael Johnson and Seamus Rahilly – and father John Godson with his young sons Damien, 6, and Craig, 4.

The 1979 Ghost Train fire forced the immediate closure of Sydney’s Luna Park, which remained shuttered until 1982, when it reopened under new management – via a corrupt tender process – to a company called Australian Amusements Associates, conveniently controlled by Saffron’s nephew, Sam Cowper, and two cousins, Hal & Col Goldstein.

This process was aided by then NSW Premier Neville Wran. Wran was later investigated, albeit ‘exonerated’, for alleged connections to Saffron and multiple underworld crime figures.

Wran later ordered the destruction of tape-recorded evidence detailing Saffron’s involvement in the Luna Park property negotiations, which ultimately shielded Saffron from further police investigation.

Sydney artist the late Martin Sharp, who always believed the Ghost Train fire was deliberately lit. Screenshot from ABC-TV’s Exposed: The Ghost Train Fire.

NSW Police accountability

The Moffit Royal Commission (1973-74) into Organised Crime in Clubs heard in 1974 that then Detective Sargeant Knight accepted a job with Bally Poker Machines from organised crime figure Jack Rooklyn, a close associate of Abe Saffron.

Prior to this, on 23 and 24 October, 1973, DS Knight, along with DS Jack McNeill and Constable Brian Ballard, interviewed, and later cleared, Rooklyn of association with the USA Mafia, which was reputed to be expanding their influence in Australia via the introduction of poker machines into clubs and bars.

The detectives wrote: “Mr Rooklyn concluded by saying he felt it must be most obvious to any sane, clear-thinking person that the net result of this investigation could only prove that all the allegations concerning his company were baseless … We are inclined to agree with him.”

On 7 November, 1973, Knight’s solicitor registered a new ‘dummy’ company called Metropolitan Club Services with himself and Bally’s Jack Rooklyn as proprietors. DS Knight was observed visiting Sydney clubs in the company of a Bally employee to discuss the operations of the new company.

In the Royal Commission, NSW Supreme Court Judge Athol Moffitt said DS Knight and DS McNeill were involved in a ‘deliberate or corrupt’ attempt to cover-up Bally’s links to organized crime.

Justice Moffitt condemned Knight for his “dishonesty” in testimony about the matter before the Royal Commission, and concluded that it raised “grave suspicion against Knight”.

“It is difficult to imagine conduct more calculated to undermine confidence in the police investigation than Knight’s,” Justice Moffitt recorded in his summary.

And yet, four-and-a-half years later, now Detective Inspector Doug Knight of North Sydney Police was appointed by NSW Police as the lead investigator into the Luna Park fire in the early hours of Sunday, 10 January, 1979, shortly after the inferno claimed seven lives.

Two other NSW Police officers who worked with DI Knight in 1979 in the aftermath of the tragic fire were also later tarnished with corruption allegations: Assistant Commissioner Jim Black, who also oversaw the Luna Park inquiry, and Deputy Police Commissioner Bill Allen, then a chief superintendent with oversight of the arson squad. Allen was photographed alongside Knight at Luna Park the day after the fire, amidst the rubble.

In 1981, two years after the fire, all three officers were publicly accused of receiving bribes from Abe Saffron and his business associate Jack Rooklyn.

Rooklyn, coincidentally, was the father of a girl who was among a group of school friends due to go to Luna Park on the night of the fateful fire. She was also close friends with four of the young male victims. The girl was strongly advised by Rooklyn to stay home instead, with a warning something untoward was about to happen to the amusement park – something she withheld for decades until the Exposed program.

ABC investigative journalist Caro Meldrum-Hanna summarised the Exposed program’s focus on NSW Police and, in particular, their senior officer’s (mis)management of the inquiry into the deathly inferno thus: “Detective Inspector Knight is the architect of all of this. He is the guy in charge. The buck stops with him.

“He is the one who oversaw the hasty clearance of the site. And Detective Knight is the one who fronts the cameras and tells the world the fire was caused as a result of an electrical fault in the building. And he’s the one who also released this official written statement claiming that the police have found witnesses to prove it.”

But in fact there were no witnesses to an electrical fault.

Instead, multiple eyewitnesses interviewed by the Exposed program described scenes and actions that contradicted this theory. Several gave corroborating accounts of a group of five men in distinctive ‘biker’ clothes seen loitering beside the Ghost Train (one claimed they had ridden it) just prior to it going up in flames. The five made a hasty exit from Luna Park as the fire took hold and were never caught or pursued.

None of these eyewitnesses were invited to address the subsequent coronial inquiry, despite giving statements to NSW Police at the time.

Detective Inspector Doug Knight, whom NSW Police put in charge of the coronial inquiry. He ordered the Ghost Train fire debris cleared away, thus destroying forensic evidence, and announced the cause of the blaze was an ‘electrical fault’, overruling fire specialists, forensics investigators and multiple witnesses. Screenshot from ABC TV Exposed: The Ghost Train Fire Tragedy.

No new inquiry at this stage

On Wednesday, 31 March, 2021, NSW Opposition Leader Jodi McKay called for a Special Commission of Inquiry to launch a new investigation into the Luna Park Ghost Train fire. Ms McKay revealed she was “deeply disturbed” by the revelations in the ABC-TV program and “backed the families” of the victims also calling for a new Inquiry.

Ms McKay said: “I think the evidence that has been put forward certainly calls for an investigation, an open investigation, independent investigation into what actually happened.”

However, NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman has not committed to taking any action; instead he released a statement on 31 March claiming he had “asked the Department of Communities and Justice for advice on any appropriate action”.

The Sydney Sentinel independently contacted NSW Police to enquire whether they will undertake a fresh investigation of the Luna Park fire, considering the new evidence and allegations of criminality that came to light in the Exposed documentary.

We also asked whether other cases involving Detective Inspector Douglas Knight should be re-examined, due to the possibility he was less than attentive to his duties, or had other motives.

A NSW Police spokeswoman provided the following statement: “The NSW Police Force is aware of the program and has engaged with the ABC. We will continue to monitor the content and any fresh and compelling evidentiary material presented throughout the series will be assessed and reviewed by specialist investigators.

“As recently as 2019, investigators from the Arson Unit conducted various inquiries after receiving information in relation to the matter.”

They added: “We have no further information to provide at this stage.”

Film footage of the 9 June, 1979 Ghost Train fire. Screenshot from ABC-TV’s Exposed: The Ghost Train Fire Tragedy.

Justice and closure

Although NSW Police seem reluctant to organise another inquest into the Luna Park fire, according to both senior detectives involved in the original investigation and senior law figures, a new Coronial Inquiry or a Royal Commission should be ordered.

As former police prosecutor Sergeant Colin Wedderburn insists, “there is sufficient evidence to show that it was done deliberately”.

Former NSW Chief Magistrate Clarrie Briese is demanding a Royal Commission.

“There is no question about it, what this new evidence establishes is that these young boys lost their lives as a result of a fire, which was deliberately lit and apparently deliberately lit at the request of Saffron,” he told the ABC.

A new Inquiry could focus on Abe Saffron’s involvement and NSW Police’s historic links to organised crime – and why they covered up the horrific murder of six young boys and a man.

The hope is it will give the families of the victims some sense of justice and, perhaps, closure.