The rise and fall of Mr Death
The day mass murderer Dennis Allen dropped in on the Truth newsroom, strutting around bare-chested, displaying the gunshot wounds scattered across his torso, was an experience none of us present would ever forget.
The year was 1978, and Allen was still nearly a decade away from a killing spree that saw as many as 13 victims meet violent and often grisly deaths at his hands, earning him a reputation as Victoria's most ruthless and sadistic murderer.
Mr Death, as Allen became known, used a chainsaw to remove the legs of one of these victims; and he organised the bombing of the Melbourne Coroner's Court, the night before an inquest into the death of another.
He had drowned this particular victim in a bucket of Yarra River water.
The inquest was likely to uncover a few inconvenient truths about his modus operandi, so the bomb became solution of choice.
But it wasn't Dennis handling the explosives.
With a characteristically callous disregard for the lives of others, even close relatives, he ordered his young brother Jamie, then aged 21, to do his dirty work.
The Truth newsroom was no place for the faint-hearted in the 1970s - a parade of garishly dressed prostitutes would tramp daily through the building, bearing brown paper bags full of cash to pay for their massage parlour adverts.
And visits from violent members of the Melbourne underworld, such as Painter and Docker John Joseph Power, a convicted rapist and suspect murderer, were commonplace.
But there was something deeply unsettling about Allen's visit.
For a start he insisted on stripping off his shirt, all the better to display the wounds pitted across his chest.
They were scars from a recent shooting with a pellet gun during a bar-room brawl.
"Look what they done to me," he exclaimed.
"And not one of the f---ers charged. I'm the poor bastard who's got to front court."
And front court he did, receiving a six-month sentence for his part in the brawl.
Later both conviction and sentence were quashed by Judge Spence in the County Court.
But this was after Allen described how he had been shot and clubbed around the head with the rifle.
More than ample justification, as far as he was concerned, to use the lead pipe he had carried into the bar to break a few retaliatory bones.
Mr Death became used to walking out of court a free man.
At the height of his reign as a $70,000-a-week drug lord in the 1980s, he faced a total of more than 60 charges, including murder, trafficking in heroin, and possession of firearms and explosives.
ALLEN RULES RICHMOND'S UNDERWORLD
Yet during the five years he ruled the backstreets of inner suburban Richmond, like some vengeful feudal overlord, he spent less than two months in jail.
Even a cleanskin (a first-time offender) would have been remanded in custody for the type of charges Allen faced.
Yet he was a career criminal appearing for fresh offences, while already on bail on other serious charges.
The disturbing truth behind this seemingly inexplicable state of affairs had more to do with the corruption rife within the ranks of Victoria Police at the time, than with any recurrent miscarriages of justice.
It was a common occurrence, during Allen's regular remands, for police officers to support his applications for bail.
Sometimes the reason for this was an envelope bulging with cash.
Other times it was the defendant's burgeoning career as a "grass" - a police informer.
It was felt, among members of the police force in constant contact with Allen, that he was more useful as an ally in their war on crime, than if he were languishing inside a prison cell.
He was providing them with detailed information on crimes already under investigation.
And sometimes he even tipped them off about bank raids still in the planning stage and yet to occur.
Allen's habit of repeatedly informing on prominent members of his underworld peer group led to his mother, crime matriarch Kathy Pettingill, seriously considering murdering him herself. But Dennis beat her to it - dying in 1987 from drug-induced heart failure.
For Kathy, and the rest of the criminal fraternity of the '70s and '80s, the concept of honour among thieves was sacrosanct.
But not for Dennis. Such was the extent of his megalomania that his own survival was always paramount, even at the cost of a mate's freedom.
Today's drug culture, and the instant fortunes to be made from dealing, has changed the underworld forever.
Anything goes, including the murder of rivals in front of their children.
But this was far from the case in Mr Death's heyday.
So perhaps Dennis was, in the vilest sense of the term, ahead of his time, a pioneer of degradation.
Kathy was an unwitting catalyst in his evil evolution.
An amateur psychiatrist would have had a field day analysing an epiphany of tragic proportions, which she inflicted on Dennis while he was still an impressionable teenager, sitting alone in a prison cell.
Kathy had given birth to him in 1951, on November 7, the same date that Captain James Cook, Leon Trotsky and Billy Graham came into the world.
She was 16 at the time, and pathetically incapable of rearing a child unsupported.
So her mother Gladys, a serial bigamist and brutally violent disciplinarian, took over maternal responsibility for baby Dennis.
One photograph of him taken at the time shows an innocent babe, barely out of swaddling clothes.
MAKING OF A MASS MURDERER
But ludicrous as the question may sound, was there a prescient glint of something unthinkable in that innocent eye?
A hint, perhaps, that Dennis was born bad, that the next 36 years of his life would witness a flowering of pure evil.
Certainly the night he pumped 12 bullets at point-blank range into the head of low-life Wayne Stanhope, and then slit his throat with a carving knife, in front of a room full of vomiting, screaming partygoers, would indicate his appetite for depravity knew no boundaries.
It was no coincidence that this most horrific of all his murders was committed in his own sitting room at the height of a party.
Dennis liked an audience when his blood lust was up and a victim was at hand.
But what of that prison cell epiphany?
Partly because of Kathy's guilt over her abdication of control of baby Dennis to her mother, she had taken to telling him, as he grew into a little boy, that she was his sister.
This lie was perpetrated throughout his teenage years until, at the age of 18, Dennis sat inside his cell in Pentridge Prison, opening a letter from Kathy.
It began with a hint of guilt, and a declaration of her love for him.
Then came the words that sent his emotions spiralling off into disbelief and a sense of betrayal: "Dennis, I'm not your sister. I'm your mother and I love you."
Was this the catalyst that saw his criminal career escalate from minor offences such as wilful damage, indecent language, and drunk driving, into the underworld's darkest stratosphere of torture and murder?
I met Allen three or four times during this criminal evolution, and witnessed the easy charm of which he was capable.
But I was also made aware of the gut-churning fear evoked by his uncontrolled rage and manic outbursts.
But perhaps more telling than these necessarily brief, sporadic encounters were the meetings I had with key figures in his life - Kathy, his mother, whose best-selling biography, The Matriarch, I wrote in the mid-1990s, his stepfather Harry Allen, his brothers Peter, Trevor and Lex, and his bodyguard, The Enforcer.
Kathy and I have known one another well for the past four and a half decades.
She has been a guest in my home, and I in hers.
Our relationship is based on a form of friendship that many have warned me against.
Despite these warnings I cherish a side of her of which few people are aware, a side involving warmth, loyalty and humour.
Peter, Lex and Trevor all grew up profoundly and variously influenced by an older brother who set them an example of uncompromising hatred and contempt for any concept of law and order.
Lex, mild-mannered and approachable, once told me how Dennis looked down on him, "as if I didn't matter".
This was because Lex was the "white sheep" of the family; his underworld credentials never rising above petty crime.
FAMILY NOT IMMUNE TO ALLEN'S WRATH
Trevor was something else. He told me he hadn't read The Matriarch, and wouldn't be doing so.
I asked him why, and he growled: "Because if there was something in it I didn't like, I'd have to come and see you, and me Mum wouldn't like that."
Later, after he'd been acquitted of the Walsh St police shootings, along with three others, including his bank robber brother Victor Peirce, Trevor became more amenable.
He even invited me into his home one night to meet his wife Debbie and two young sons.
I interviewed Peter for half an hour on the phone in March 1976 when he was on the run from jail, described by police as "the most dangerous man in Victoria."
Twenty-six years later in 2002 I met him in person outside the church where his murdered brother Victor's funeral was being held.
I had driven Kathy to the South Melbourne church, and the last person I expected to see there was Peter.
He remembered our phone conversation almost word for word, even the date it took place.
Peter, more than any of his nine siblings, fell victim to the most perverse and barbaric side of Dennis. (Dog lovers should skip this part.)
In February, 1986, Peter was enjoying one of his rare spells outside jail, and had bought himself a mansion in Lower Templestowe with profits from high-level drug dealing. No-one was home, apart from his two pet Alsatian dogs, playing in the garden, the afternoon Dennis came calling.
Dennis was angry with his brother over his decision to set up in competition against his own drug empire.
He knew the dogs well enough to approach them, and at first they didn't react when he injected them both in their necks with carefully calculated doses of high-quality methamphetamine.
Next he lowered them gently one by one into the shallow end of the waterless, in-ground swimming pool in the garden. And then he slipped away as quietly as he had come.
What followed in the inescapable confines of the pool probably began with no more than an excess of canine energy.
But it soon developed into a savage battle to the death.
When Peter arrived home he discovered their torn and bloody corpses lying on the cold concrete bottom of the pool. Just as Dennis intended.
The Enforcer, Dennis's principal bodyguard, was paid $2000 a week to protect Allen, not so much from outsiders, but more from himself.
Mr Death's massive appetite for his own product made him his own worst enemy.
I met The Enforcer at Kathy's home in the sleepy seaside resort of Venus Bay while researching The Matriach in the mid 1990s.
The first thing I noticed about him was his clothing.
Although his former boss had been dead for close to a decade, The Enforcer was still aping the blue singlet and overalls Mr Death habitually affected.
The only difference was that Allen always wore close to a quarter of a million dollars worth of Thai gold around his neck.
The Enforcer didn't run to such extravagances. Nor was he overly friendly.
'LES SAYS TO SAY HELLO'
At one stage in our conversation he mentioned The Hell's Angels biker gang.
It was disgraced, former full-patch member Anton Kenny, whose legs Allen had removed on November 8, 1985, after pumping several bullets into his chest at close range.
He needed to fit the corpse into a 40-gallon drum, but rigor mortis had set in, and Kenny's legs were sticking out.
So Mr Death, ever resourcefully cold-blooded, chainsawed them off, jammed them into the drum, sealed the lid and rolled it into the Yarra River,
But it didn't sink, and for months of the ensuing hot summer, until its grisly contents were discovered by police, local kids used it unknowingly as a diving off point for their aquatic antics.
The Enforcer was halfway through telling me this chilling tale when I mentioned I had met Kenny while making the movie Thunderground with The Hell's Angels in the late '70s and early '80s.
"Oh, yeah," he sneered. I responded by telling him I also got to know The Angels' then President, Les Phillips, at the time. "Like f--- you did," he snarled.
Next time I met The Enforcer down at Kathy's place he stuck out his hand and said: "Les says to say hello."
In the underworld it seems it's not what you know, but who you know.
At any rate The Enforcer was much friendlier this time around, and provided me with priceless insights into Allen's capacity for self destruction.
Like the time in the early hours of the morning in the mid '80s when a police helicopter and its floodlight hovered over his house in Cubitt St, Richmond, one of eight properties he owned in the suburb.
Mr Death, foaming at the mouth with rage, and screaming obscenities, fired six bullets from a Browning .25 automatic at the helicopter, stopping only when The Enforcer tackled him to the ground.
And when police set up surveillance cameras, behind a one-way mirror in the nearby Rosella factory overlooking Allen's drug house, his response was similarly uncompromising - he shot out the mirror with no thought for anybody who might be behind it.
Many of The Enforcer's tales emphasised Dennis's dual personality - his capacity for extreme cruelty was occasionally countered by acts of extravagant generosity.
Like the time he gave $100 to a paperboy for a Herald, glanced at the front page and gave it back to him, telling him to keep the two $50 bills.
This happened in The Cherry Tree Hotel, close by Allen's row of houses.
It was in the Cherry Tree that he used a chain to suspend a drug debtor from the ceiling above the bar.
"Every time he went up to buy a drink he belted this bloke with a baseball bat," The Enforcer recalled.
CROCS, HOME LOANS AND HEROIN
And then there was the sinister threat to a financier who refused Mr Death a loan to buy one of his many properties.
Allen collected The Enforcer and a garden spade and marched down to the reluctant lender's premises in central Richmond.
"We go barging into his office past the receptionist, and he's got a customer in there with him. Dennis doesn't say a word, just stands up against the wall next to this bloke's desk, leaning on the spade," The Enforcer tells me.
"The bloke looks up terrified. 'What do you want, Mr Allen?' he says. 'Nuffin,' says Dennis. 'We've come to bury you.' And then he just stares at him."
Allen bought eight houses in Richmond from his drug earnings, and his mother another two.
He went out one morning to buy a can of dog food and returned empty-handed an hour later.
When Kathy asked him where he'd been, he remarked casually: "Forgot the dog food, I bought another house instead."
Another of The Enforcer's duties was to clean up after Allen's dysfunctional attempts at DIY house maintenance.
Sick of answering the door to endless queues of drug customers, Dennis installed a two-way radio operating from the sitting room to the front door.
Only problem was, he installed it the wrong way round, and anybody passing by in the street could hear the often highly incriminating conversation going on inside the house.
It wasn't long after this that Mr Death flew up to Darwin on an abortive errand to buy a crocodile to guard his back yard.
It had never occurred to him that he wouldn't be able to bring it back with him on the aircraft:
"I wasn't after a big one," he told Kathy when she queried his naive behaviour.
It wasn't just crocodiles that took Mr Death interstate.
He enjoyed a brief relationship with notorious NSW policeman Roger Rogerson, and a much more profitable one with high-level drug dealer Alan Williams.
For years Williams supplied Mr Death with bulk quantities of drugs, until he ended up with a 14-year jail sentence for conspiring to murder NSW policeman Michael Drury.
Rogerson, currently serving a jail sentence for murder, once contacted me and asked me to write his biography.
He had read The Matriarch and wanted something similar from me, detailing the highs and lows of his spectacular career.
We met for a couple of hours in the Seibel Townhouse in Sydney to discuss terms, but the deal never came to fruition.
Rogerson was convicted of conspiring with Dennis to supply a quantity of heroin between March and May 1985. But the conviction was overturned on appeal.
The alleged offence involved Dennis sending an accomplice, known as Miss X, to Sydney airport with $100,000 in a black travel bag.
ROGUE COP RUN-INS
Miss X told the court she met Rogerson at the airport as Mr Death had instructed, and exchanged her travel bag for another containing a large quantity of heroin, handed to her by Rogerson.
The rogue policemen gave evidence at his appeal that at the time of the alleged handover he was on an errand of mercy, comforting the sons of Mr Rentakill, Christopher Dale Flannery, who had just disappeared, never to be seen again.