A dear friend passed away this week in Benalla.
Francis William Waghorn has been described as “a bareknuckle bash artist,” a member of the feared Pentridge crew of the 1970s, the Overcoat Gang. But Frankie was far away from all that, living in the bush with his partner Rebecca. He kept in touch with a few old lags like Mark “Chopper” Read and a few select others, but had managed to stay on the straight and narrow. After spending nearly three decades in prison he wasn’t going back. At 59, his health had been failing recently and he told Rebecca he knew the end was near. His elderly mother had passed away last December. “Mum’s coming to get me,” he said. Here is a piece I wrote for The Bulletin back when Frankie got out of jail, hoping it was for the last time. RIP Frankie, one of the last of the hard men.
They let Frankie out of Beechworth jail in north-east Victoria on a frosty morning last August, after a 15-year stretch for murder. For three decades, the name Francis William Waghorn had meant something in the ganglands, even if he had spent nearly all of that time – 26 years – in jail. He never had a trade to speak of. He used to joke that he had done some concreting, until “toes started sticking out of my work”. In 1990, he had hidden the body of one Johnny Turner in a barbecue he was building.
Among his few belongings, Frankie had 11 certificates for baking and dessert preparation. As he and his partner Rebecca went home, they drove past the bakery where he was hoping for a start. The morning air and the smell of fresh bread gave him hope. Rebecca, a bipolar sufferer, had fallen in love with Frankie. She had been a penpal first, then a prison visitor. He was repaying her love by looking after her and staying off crime.
For the first three days, he stayed at home relaxing and acclimatising. Then he went down to Centrelink and registered for Job Search, and later on to Medicare to register, then he went to open a bank account. He even saw a bloke about pre-paying his funeral. It was like creating a whole new identity. By the second week, some old heads heard Frankie was out and they came around to offer him a bunk-up, a rort or two to get him back on his feet, but Frankie was only thinking of his interview at the bakery. He got the job but immediately the talk began that the bakery had taken on a killer. He never started the job; too much drama, too soon. He was legally bound to tell his new bosses he had a criminal record. If he didn’t, he’d hand back the four years’ parole.
Temptation was everywhere though. One day in the local hardware store he noticed an armoured car. Two old security guards were hauling eight bags of cash out of the store. He gave himself a neck strain trying to stop looking at them. Be a simple thing to come back next week, this time tooled up. The money would be his, good as gold.
Frankie drifted back into Melbourne and some of the old haunts, but always with a lemon squash in hand. A nightclub owner offered Frankie work looking after the showgirls. All he had to do was take them on and off the stage. But what if some punk recognised him and decided to take a crack. What was he going to do? Ignore it? No, instinct said he would shoot them in the face.
Frankie wanted to go straight, but at 51 it was hard to rewire himself. And he wasn’t going back into jail again, not into Victoria’s new privatised jails. He had spent a little time in a couple, surviving the deadly politics by working up to 12 hours a day in the kitchen. For all the new rules and technology, jail was more dangerous than ever. He had seen Asian gangs and druggies pilfer forks by the dozen. They strapped them to their forearms with the tynes sharpened and bent out at right angles. A team of four men so armed could kill in seconds, an unpaid drug debt was usually enough. Yet in the midst of this violence, you couldn’t swear at the warder or risk losing your privileges. Each day of mayhem began with the sound of a tinny speaker: “Ding dong, This is your wake-up call,” said a cheery female voice.
The notorious H Division in Melbourne’s Pentridge prison had been home to Frankie and mates like Mark “Chopper” Read back in the 1970s. It was the toughest prison in Australia but even in solitary you found a way for simple pleasures. A group of four adjacent cells, two up, two down, shared the same plumbing. If you scooped out the water from your toilet bowl, you could conduct a four-way conference call for hours each night. Communication was four blokes with their heads down the toilet. No wonder life outside seemed so strange.
Frankie reckons he’s found work now, a friend of a friend has agreed to take him on, but it’s one day at a time. Chopper and his wife Margaret gave Frankie a bunk-up, $5000 to tide him over. They get together for a drink every week, it helps to keep Frankie’s mind right. Frankie drove us both home from the pub one night. He leant over to me in the back, his eyes glittering like sapphire. “Imagine if we got pulled over now – Chopper Read, Frankie Waghorn with a crime writer in the back. We might have some problems.”
“Only if we were heading towards the bush,” deadpanned Read.