From Brothel to Barittos

The Tiki Coffee Lounge Murder, Wollongong 1971

Introduction

The Illawarra region during the 1960s and 1970s was not generally known as a centre of criminal activity. Such a tag was usually associated with the dark alleys of Kings Cross, Darlinghurst, The Rocks, and the nearby dockyards of Sydney. However the brutal, cold-blooded murder of Charles Berry at the Tiki Coffee Lounge, Keira Street, Wollongong, early in January 1971 by 'Big John' McHannigan brought local criminal activity to public attention like never before.

The Tiki Coffee Lounge murder story was both sensational and tragic, with the media revelling in its more salacious details as they were slowly made public. In association with the subsequent murder trial, banner headlines such as Woman Tells of Body Under Tree and Man Jumped on Corpse, Dancer Claims appeared within the local Illawarra Mercury during May and June 1971, pointing to the sad fate of victim Charles Berry. Adding to the scandal was the fact that a prominent local businessman was involved and initially charged with complicity in the murder. Allegations of police corruption were also raised, and a local police sergeant subsequently resigned over the matter.

The Tiki case had all the elements of a Hollywood gangster movie: murder, payoffs, police corruption, prostitution, illegal gambling and standover tactics. McHannigan the murderer - if we are to believe reports in the media - was a brutal and callous man. Though he was only 22 at the time, the crime was cold-blooded and premeditated. The subsequent placement of the victim Charles Berry's body in a ceiling cavity of the Tiki Coffee Lounge by 'Big John' and his accomplis Peter Soffee was the most bizarre aspect of the whole affair, bringing to it widespread notoriety.

Perhaps it should be asked - was this incident a mere aberration in the history of Wollongong, an industrial town located to the south of Sydney, or a sign of deep-seated corruption and vice in this third largest city of New South Wales? Brothels, gambling, and even payoffs to police have long existed in Illawarra, however in 1971 brutal murder was a rare event. In the annals of Illawarra's recent history only two other local slayings have had such an impact on the collective consciousness of the region, these being the Kim Barry murder and the Picadilly Lane murder. Only the last event remains unsolved, whilst the Graham Potter, the perpetrator of the brutal murder of Kim Barry, remains at large.

The Tiki Coffee Lounge is no more, though brothels continue to operate in the Wollongong district. Today the site of the old lounge is occupied by Amigos Mexican Restaurant and a barbershop, whilst the upstairs rooms - once decorated in leopard-skin wallpaper and a gaudy colour scheme meant to enhance the wanton passions of Illawarra clients - are now devoid of such going-ons and accommodate tables and chairs where families can savour Mexican fare. The smell of cheap perfume and sweaty bodies once filled the air. All is now still apart from the hum of the restaurant patrons and the aromas of hot cheese and chili. But what of the ghost of Charlie Berry? Does it still haunt the ceiling space where it was so callously placed after the murder, and subsequently extricated with much difficulty? Despite some murmurings in upstairs rooms from time to time, it appears that Charlie's ghost has moved on and is now hopefully resting in peace, with him murderer in jail for life. A brief summary account of the Tiki Coffee Lounge murder case is given below, taken from newspaper accounts and published legal records.

The Players

Within this account of the murder of Charles Berry the following individuals are referred to:

The Tiki Coffee Lounge

During 1970 Charles "Charlie" Berry was the manager of the Tiki Coffee Lounge, located in a 2-storey terrace building at 118 Keira Street, Wollongong. The coffee lounge was located on the ground floor, with associated brothel rooms and living quarters on the first floor and three doors down to the south. Berry lived at the Tiki with his son Phillip (8), though he also had other premises.

The business was part-owned by Anthony Malouf (39), who also operated a gaming house in Wollongong. Tony Abizard had been the manager of the Tiki prior to Berry. The Tiki was both a gaming house (cards would be played there) and a front for a brothel. The transactions would be arranged in the coffee lounge and men would be taken to the upstairs rooms via the rear courtyard and entrance to the building. Each girl would charge $10, of which she would receive $5 at the end of her shift. Berry would take the remainder and later given a percentage to Malouf, who would then pass on a further cut to the local policeman, Sergeant Posser.

Of the card games held at the Tiki, one of the regular participants  was Ian Williamson (24), a soldier resident at Cliff Road, Wollongong. Williamson appears to have been a gambler, and his quest for money would later be used by the murderer to implicate him in the crime.

In October of 1970 Michael Francis McHannigan (22) began working at the Tiki as an assistant to Berry and to provide protection for the prostitutes. McHannigan had previously worked in Sydney. He was known as 'Big John' and was apparently an intimidating man.

Late in December 1970 Anthony Malouf, part-owner of the operation, asked McHannigan if he would like to take over Charlie Berry's job as manager of the Tiki. McHannigan was anxious to do so, though Malouf suggested it would be up to him to arrange for Berry's removal. Around this time Peter Soffe, a New Zealander, also began working at the Tiki as a doorman and general assistant. Of the prostitutes at the Tiki, a Bridgette Tolson was employed from 21 December 1970. Two other girls were also there at the time, one named Vicki and also Beverley Eames. Following his discussion with Malouf, McHannigan decided that the murder of Berry was the quickest and easiest way for him to assume control of the Tiki. 

The Murder

On the evening of Tuesday, 5 January 1971, Charles Berry was driven home by local policeman Laurie Vickery, an acquaintance. Vickery was beginning his holidays that evening, and upon his return would play a part in the discovery of his friend's fate. On the following evening Berry was asleep in his bed above the Tiki Coffee Lounge. Downstairs a group of men were playing cards, including McHannigan, Soffe, Williamson, and two others. According to Williamson, McHannigan was very drunk at the time. During the game McHannigan and Soffe got up and left the premises for a period. McHannigan headed towards Berry's bedroom, armed with a Browning pistol and a hammer. Upon entering the room he hit Berry on the jaw with the hammer to wake him; Berry sat up in bed and McHannigan then shot him in the head twice. Berry died almost immediately.

McHannigan and Soffe subsequently wrapped Berry's body up in blankets and placed it in the ceiling of the Tiki prior to arranging disposal. They left the room and Williamson remembers hearing them arguing prior to returning to the Tiki. McHannigan later called Williamson out to the back of the Tiki and, throwing him up against a wall, told him that he and Soffe had killed Berry, and threatened that he would do the same to Williamson if he did not help them dispose of the body. McHannigan then took Williamson up to the scene of the crime where he saw blood dripping from the ceiling. Williamson was loathe to assist in the disposal of the body and tried to stay away from McHannigan and Soffe over the next couple of days. However this proved difficult as he lived and worked in Wollongong.

During the following Thursday and Friday (7 and 8 January) the body remained in the ceiling and began to quickly deteriorate due to the stifling heat of the time, it being the middle of summer. As a result, the prostitutes were forced to use perfumes to mask the smell as they conducted their business in the rooms just below the ceiling cavity. During this period McHannigan and Soffe travelled to the Blue Mountains in Berry's red Ford Falcon GT, looking for a disposal site. By Saturday 9 January the removal of the body was becoming imperative. On that day McHannigan, Soffe, and Williamson travelled to Primbee to arrange disposal of the body, possibly in a furnace. However they were unsuccessful and later travelled to Seven Mile Beach at Gerringong to search for a suitable site among the sandhills there.

On the morning of Sunday, 10 January, Berry's body was, with much difficulty, removed from the ceiling of the Tiki Coffee Lounge by McHannigan and Soffe, and placed in the boot of Williamson's grey Holden, which was then parked in the small alleyway running off Keira Street besides the terrace buildings. Williamson later drove to Bendalong, where he had spent his holidays over the years, and buried the body there besides a tree. By this time the decomposing body was swelling and black, causing Williamson to be sick as he undertook the burial. Upon returning to Wollongong he had much difficulty in removing the smell of decomposing flesh from his car.

Following the murder and disposal of the body by Williamson on 10 January, all remained quiet at the Tiki Cofee Lounge. McHannigan was the new manager and business continued as usual. Some questions were asked amongst the staff as to what had happened to Charlie, and his friends and family began to get suspicious. When policeman Laurie Vickery returned from holidays in February he also began to inquire of the whereabouts of Charlie Berry, unsuspecting at first, but later becoming suspicious. Events moved slowly throughout March and April, however by early May 1971 the police had gathered enough information to suspect McHannigan of Berry's murder, and on 11 May they raided the Tiki Coffee Lounge and arrested McHannigan. On 12 May McHannigan was charged at Wollongong Court with murdering Charlie Berry, running a brothel, and carrying an unlicensed pistol. He was held in custody. Also on that day Anthony Malouf, a local businessman, was interviewed by Sgt. Day at Wollongong Police Station in connection with the murder.

On Thursday, 13 May, police from Wollongong and Sydney raided local brothels and the Illawarra Mercury ran the headlines 'Manager faces murder charge - Sleeping Man Shot in Head, Police Claim.' The following day police found a sawn-off shotgun and rifle in a sewerage pit at Bellambi Point, possibly belonging to McHannigan, and once again a sallacous headline appeared in the Illawarra Mercury. It read 'City Brothel Blitz Order' and informed the local public that corruption and vice had broken out in their fair city.

On Monday, 17 May, Anthony Malouf was also charged at Wollongong Police Station with Berry's murder, though he was immediately released on bail. The following day he appeared in Wollongong Court and was formally charged with Charlie Berry's murder, operating the Tiki Coffee Lounge brothel, and living off the earnings of prostitution. Continuing bail was refused. Malouf's lawyers appealed the discontinuance of bail, and on 20 May he was released on bail of $7500. Also on that date Peter Soffe was charged in New Zealand with harboring McHannigan. Up until this point the police still did not have a body, and it was not until Ian Williamson was interviewed by police on 24 May and later charged in Sydney court with harboring McHannigan on 10 January, that a resolution to this matter was set in train.

On 25 May Wollongong Court set the Charlie Berry murder hearing for 19 July. Michael McHannigan, Peter Soffe, and Anthony Malouf were all remanded on the murder, prostitution, and harboring charges. In the interim, the police continued to seek information on the final resting place of Charles Berry, and on 16 June interviewed Williamson a second time, during which he admitted burying Berry on the South Coast. On that day he accompanied police to Bendalong and the body was exhumed

The Trial

The Charles Berry murder trial began at Wollongong Court on 19 July 1971. Bridgette Tolson was the first to give evidence, and her story was descriptive to say the least. The Illawarra Mercury report of the first day's evidence lead with: 'Woman Tells of Body Under Tree.' The second witness, Beverley Eames, gave a detailed description of the swollen body in the ceiling of the brothel, and how the girls were forced to use cologne to minimise the smell of decomposing flesh. On 21 July the Illawarra Mercury reported further details, under the headline: 'Man Jumped on Corpse, Dancer Claims.' On 5 November 1971 the trial ended, with McHannigan and Williamson, who had pleaded not guilty, both found guilty. Soffe had pleaded guilty from the outset. On 8 November Williamson was sentenced to 8 years in jail (3 years non-parole). He immediately appealed the severity of his sentence, but the Court of Criminal Appeals rejects his appeal. In June of 1972 he appealed to the Supreme Court on the grounds of acting under duress. This time he was successful, and a new trial was called.

References

Forgotten Illawarra - the dark history of Wollongong & its surrounding suburbs [blog], available URL: https://forgottenillawarra.wordpress.com/tag/murder/. Accessed 20 October 2015.

Illawarra Mercury [various editions], 1971-2.

The New South Wales Law Reports, Sydney, 1972, volume 2, pp281-301.


Michael Organ home page. Any comments, corrections, or additions to the content of this site are most welcome. Please e-mail the author at: Michael Organ [morgan@uow.edu.au]. Site last updated: 20  October 2015.