Escape attempts from Fremantle Prison were numerous, frequent and often successful.
The Convict Establishment was first designed as a barracks to quarter convicts overnight. During the day convicts toiled outside the prison walls in work parties. Comptroller-General Henderson was unconcerned about security – he believed the Australian bush was a ‘vast, natural gaol’ that would discourage convicts dreaming of escape. Regardless, hundreds of convicts made the attempt. In later years the prison was modified to increase security - gun towers were built and perimeter walls were heightened and reinforced with razor wire. Despite all efforts to make the prison escape-proof, breakouts continued. Escape attempts from Fremantle Prison were numerous, frequent and often successful.
The Prank Call
One of the most audacious escapes occurred in 1972. It took almost 12 months to plan and involved three prisoners: Owen Hooper, William Cabalt and Stanley Stone. Hooper was a talented electronics technician whose skills were employed by the Prison authorities. Cabalt was his assistant. Known as the ‘luxury man’, Stone looked after the Prison Canteen and shared a cell with Cabalt. Hooper and Cabalt were put in charge of the Prison radio studio located in a Division Four cell. From here they broadcast programs and music that prisoners could listen to in their cells. They also had a cell next door equipped as a workshop in which they carried out electronic repair work for Prison staff and charitable organisations.
In 1971 Hooper and his assistant were required to do some work in the Prison Hospital relocating several telephones. Hooper used his skills to tap into the Hospital’s telephone system, running a line to the radio cell in Division Four. He then constructed a telephone from spare parts in the electronics workshop. Hooper and Cabalt used the device connected to the line from the Hospital to make phone calls. They telephoned radio stations and made music requests. They contacted a social worker and had a number of lengthy conversations.
Hooper gained permission from the Prison authorities to join a French Government weather balloon tracking project. He then constructed a receiving set that could monitor signals from the weather balloons. Hooper claimed that interference from the radio studio made monitoring difficult and convinced the Prison administration to let him have another cell on the top floor of New Division. He then moved their secret telephone line from the Main Cell Block to New Division.
At this stage Stanley Stone joined the other two in their plot to escape. On a dark rainy morning in July 1972, the trio broke a hole in the ceiling of the top floor cell in New Division went into action. They clambered through the ceiling to the end of New Division and broke a hole through the asbestos roof on the western side. The prisoners, now out in the open, were in view of the armed guard on the perimeter wall in No. 2 Gun Post - less than 50 metres away. Using his homemade telephone Hooper rang the guard, saying: “Gate Officer here. Some suspicious activity has been observed down near the back of the Carpenter’s Shop. Keep an eye on it for the next few minutes.”
This was enough to distract the officer so that the trio could get their ladder, made from plaited telephone cable with hooks of metal conduit, from New Division roof to the perimeter wall. Crossing the bridge, they then descended down the opposite side of the wall into Knutsford Street and the waiting getaway car organised previously using their illegal telephone. They were caught three months later and returned to the Prison in October 1972. It is believed they hid out with the assistance of the social worker Hooper had made contact with the previous year.
The Rubbish Truck Heist Story
On March 24 1989, two prisoners, Stephen Burnett and Peter Boyd who were in Fremantle Prison for armed robbery, were on sick parade at the Prison Hospital. At around 10 am a garbage truck paid its weekly visit to collect rubbish from the Hospital kitchen. The prisoners used a knife to overpower the driver and commandeered the truck. They drove the truck across the East Bank and rammed the metal gates in the south wall. On the fourth attempt they managed to break through by taking the gates partly off their hinges. The guard in No. 3 gun tower fired on the truck, shooting out the front tires as the truck was reversing into the street. The prisoners drove the truck south along Hampton Road less than a kilometre to Wray Avenue where they abandoned it in the middle of the road. They then dragged a taxi driver from a cab outside the Beaconsfield Hotel and continued south along Hampton Road where a chase began involving several police cars and three police helicopters.
At 10.45 am they abandoned the cab in Yangebup taking to bushland near the railway line. Police caught Boyd, but Burnett, who was armed with a carving knife, evaded them. Burnett ran into a nearby residence and menaced two male occupants with the 30cm knife. Both men were ordered outside to their car where one of them escaped and raised the alarm. Burnett drove away with the other man as hostage in the stolen car.
Police lost track of the vehicle for more than an hour but at 12.40 pm it was seen in Kelmscott. Detectives chased and stopped the stolen car in a side street off Albany Highway. Abandoning the car and his hostage, Burnett ran into the nearby bush but was captured within minutes. Boyd and Burnett were eventually returned to Fremantle Prison and later charged with a series of offences relating to the events of their escape. Alterations were made as a result of the escape including the addition of bollards and steel ropes both inside and outside the gates and a Cyclone mesh fence closing off part of the area.
Some prisoners led contradictory lives inside and outside of prison. Archie Butterly had an extensive criminal record including convictions for manslaughter and armed robbery. In 1974 he robbed a Perth department store and three years later while on work release he robbed a bank and injured two customers. A violent and controlling personality he had killed a man while a teenager in Victoria. However, while in Fremantle Prison he was described as intelligent and charming. He wrote reams of prose and poetry and attended Murdoch University as an external student.
In 1980 he and his cell mate Stephen Booth attempted to escape cell E35 by digging a hole in the wall of their cell. They entered the adjacent cell E36 then dug their way through to the Catholic Chapel. They removed a metal-framed window and dislodged a bar from the opening. Butterly climbed through and shimmied down a drainpipe to the roof of a walkway two floors below. Unfortunately for him, he fell from the roof to the Parade Ground and broke his foot. Meanwhile his companion panicked and returned to his cell.
Realising he would be unable to escape on a broken foot, Butterly hobbled to the Stick Officer’s Hut in the Parade Ground and turned himself in. When later questioned by the parole board as to whether he was reformed, Butterly answered: “I am a professional criminal and will never get let out.” Regardless he was later released and soon arrested again in the eastern states trying to rob another bank.
In 1993 Butterly escaped from Melbourne Remand Centre with fellow prisoner Peter Gibb with the help of Gibb’s lover, prison guard Heather Parker. The three were found after a massive manhunt and Butterly was shot dead in a shootout with police. Who actually shot Butterly remains a mystery. At the Inquest into his death the Coroner reported, “Whether Butterly took his own life after firing a limited number of rounds at police or he was shot by Gibb or Parker essentially will remain unanswered.”
The Postcard Bandit
Brenden Abbott, one of Fremantle Prison’s most notorious prisoners, was arrested and found guilty for armed robbery offences in 1987.
Two years later Abbott and two companions escaped from the Tailor’s Shop in the West Workshops. Dressed in self-made prison officer uniforms they climbed into an air conditioner duct and through the ceiling to the roof. They leapt from the Armoury to the perimeter wall at the rear of the Superintendent’s residence. Abbott and Aaron Reynolds jumped successfully. The third prisoner fell and broke his leg. He was quickly recaptured.
In the next five years Abbot committed numerous armed robberies across Australia. Australia’s most wanted criminal was recaptured in Queensland in 1994. He escaped from Brisbane Gaol three years later and remained on the run until a major police operation caught him in Darwin in 1998.
During their pursuit police found photographs of Abbott and Reynolds relaxing in holiday mode at tourist locations and outside the Dwellingup Police Station. The tag postcard bandit was a media invention following false reports that Abbott sent teasing postcards and photos to the police while on the run.
Abbott is presently serving a long-term sentence in a Queensland maximum-security prison.