The Matriarch: The Kathy Pettingill Story by Adrian Tame Part II

The other day I urged someone to watch the film, Animal Kingdom. He was concerned that the film might be too violent. Actually, given the subject matter, the film doesn’t show a great deal of violence, but there’s a sense of menace pulsing throughout the film. Anyway, the point I want to make is that whatever you see happen in the film, isn’t a tenth of what really went on in Dennis Allen’s Richmond, Melbourne empire.

To recap: In my last post (part I), I noted that the Pettingill family seemed more like a tribe. They had their own rules of conduct, their own belief system, and definite dos and don’ts, and none of these things had anything to do with societal expectations, societal norms, or legality. Another point I made was that the book, The Matriarch: The Kathy Pettingill Story, presents an incredible picture of crime running amok in Melbourne, and as I read the book, I was astounded (no exaggeration here) at the tales of drug-use, rampant crime, and police corruption. This is a story in which the excesses of De Palma’s  Scarface mesh with the deeply embedded police corruption of Scorsese’s The Departed. But the shocking thing here is that truth is not only stranger than fiction: it’s also much worse.

The book charts Dennis Allen’s criminal career, and I obviously can’t detail his life in its entirety, but here’s a few significant markers: In 1973,  22-year-old Dennis Allen along with his younger brother, Peter and two accomplices were involved in a murder-for-hire scheme. They’d been paid $500 to kill the operator of a massage parlour. When the target didn’t show up as expected at a flat, violence exploded instead on the flat occupants. Dennis was later convicted of rape with a 10 year sentence. Peter received 14 years for his role in the crime and a two-day rampage which included shooting several people and attempting to shoot police officers.

Dennis Allan was released in 1977 and he moved to Richmond. According to the author, the years 1977-1982 “were marked by a further decline into violence and lawlessness.”   He was involved in a number of fights and confrontations which resulted in short jail sentences.  In 1981, he was sent to Pentridge Gaol.

Dennis Allan’s peak crime period appears to have extended from 1982-1987– years which, according to the author, were “the period [that] marked the flowering of pure evil within Dennis Bruce Allen.” In 1982, Dennis was released from prison, and he joined his mother who owned and operated the Gaslight Massage Parlour at 108 Stephenson Street. Dennis and Kathy began buying properties in the neighbouring streets–several others on Stephenson Street  while Dennis also owned 41, 43, 45, 47, and 49 Cubitt Street and another house on Chestnut Street. In all, Dennis owned 8 houses while Kathy owned two. Dennis lived in 37 Stephenson Street. His enforcers lived in some of the other houses, and one house was given over for the use of Dennis’s builder (who later was a witness against Dennis in a murder).

Dennis was addicted to speed. With limitless money and connections, Dennis was able to indulge his habit to excess. He “used seven grams of pure speed a day.” Tame states:

His usual method was to inject the drug into his arm, tying a dressing-gown sash around it, as often as every half hour. Sometimes he didn’t bother to remove the sash between hits.

The speed increased Dennis’s paranoia and also resulted in days without sleep. Kathy remembers the longest period without sleep was 14 days, but states that 10 days wasn’t “uncommon.” The book indicates that these periods were extremely difficult for those who lived around Dennis. It seems as though they just waited for the tension to erupt into violence:

In this condition Dennis was every bit as volatile and dangerous as unstable gelignite–primed and ready to explode. You didn’t cross Dennis at times like this. You didn’t go near him if you could possibly avoid it.

Several murders are recalled, including the various versions of the murder of former Hell’s Angel (he’d been “kicked out”),  Anton Kenny. On another occasion Kathy recalls deciding to “drop in” on Dennis one night after working at the Gaslight Massage parlour only to find a wounded youth with a meat cleaver in his head. On another occasion, she was dragged out of bed in the middle of the night to clean up after the murder of Wayne Stanhope.  All of this is quite gruesome reading, so be prepared:

He was going to kill Stanhope right from the start. But I didn’t think he’d shoot him in the house in front of all those people. But that’s Dennis. He shot everybody in front of people. He always wanted an audience. Anyway there was a load of shit written about the clean-up, about dragging the body onto the tile floor. He died in one small square of carpet which the police took up later for forensic reasons. But he’d had my vacuum cleaner which had a tin base. And that’s what he used to vacuum up his brains and that. And then he burnt my bloody vacuum cleaner, which he didn’t have to do because it was tin.

 Kathy asserts that she could not control or influence Dennis & that he was simply too far gone into drugs. Tame describes Kathy’s relationship with her eldest son like this:

 Their relationship had had many aspects–mother and son, brother and sister, partners in crime–but it was always intense and almost claustrophobically close.

As I read the book and the incredible story unfolded, one question repeatedly came to mind. Here’s this volatile career criminal under almost constant police surveillance, and yet nothing happened to him. He seemed untouchable.  Why? Herein lies the crux of the matter.

The police used an abandoned factory for some of their surveillance, and Dennis would, according to Tame, “occasionally pepper the building with gunshots.” Kathy relates an incident that took place the day after Dennis used a machine gun on the factory. She states that the police visited her and told her: “you’ll have to stop him taking pot shots.” An enforcer relates a similar incident in which Dennis “blew out all the [factory] windows” with a .22 automatic and a Colt .45. This resulted in another visit to Kathy by the police with yet another request that she make Dennis stop shooting at the factory they used for surveillance. On another occasion, a police helicopter was circling above, and Dennis ran out and started firing at the helicopter trying to bring it down until the enforcer nervously pointed out that if Dennis succeeded, the helicopter would crash on their heads!

If something about this sounds terribly wrong to you, well it’s all part of the murky relationship which existed between Dennis Allan and the police. Kathy states he was an informer, and that at one point he bragged that he paid $25,000 for the documents pertaining to the so-called Operation Cyclops (the surveillance mounted beginning in 1984). The seven-month long operation did net arrests and drugs, but how did Dennis continue to operate?

To call Dennis an informer is, I think, putting it mildly. Kathy describes an occasion when Dennis arranged to meet a drug courier who flew in from Asia with a stomach full of smack-stuffed condoms. When Dennis met the courier, the police swooped in and arrested both men. Dennis was let go with the smack and the police got the money. On another occasion, the police “supplied their prize informant with an official-issue bullet-proof vest.”

Kathy argues that police are nothing but “gangsters with badges,” and the book certainly paints a murky picture of crime and crime-fighting in Melbourne. Yes, those two things go hand in hand, but the book paints a portrait of a deadly partnership. With the drugs combined with his special status, it’s probably no wonder that Dennis appears to have felt invulnerable and untouchable–so much so that he even arranged to bomb the inquest concerning a death of a prostitute. As Dennis spiralled out of control, it became inevitable he’d burn out, but a lot of people suffered and died along the way. The details here are nothing short of mind-blowing, and when Kathy gives her side of police intimidation and interrogations, by this point the actions of some of the Melbourne police appear to have little credibility. To sum it up, as Tame states, this case &  this book offer  “rare insight into the murky business of what can happen when police are obliged to weigh the merits of an informer against the gravity of the offences he may be committing.” That’s a great line that does indeed raise a lot of questions, but I  think the use of the term informer is wildly understating what took place in Melbourne.


Filed under Non Fiction, Tame Adrian

37 responses to “The Matriarch: The Kathy Pettingill Story by Adrian Tame Part II

  1. Fascinating stuff Guy … can you see likenesses to similar crime families in the US or is there something fundamentally different in this one? Police corruption has been a big issue in Melbourne and Sydney (chronicled in the various Underbelly series that have been made now) and you can’t help thinking that that’s partly how families like this manage to keep on going in their really rather open criminal intent ways.

    • This is a vast, sprawling family with decades as living as they pleased. I mentioned in part I that Kathy’s mother was a bigamist. I don’t think there is an absolute final count on how many men she married (for their pensions) but she was never prosecuted.

      The partnership with corrupt police reminded me of gangster USA, and then again Kathy’s relationship with her sons reminded me of the Krays & their mother–very, very tight.

  2. Oh, and I have met one of the award-winning scriptwriters on Underbelly. She is a mother and creative writing teacher, and talks about how bizarre it was to meet some of the criminals during research for the series. (BTW, Have you read this: )

  3. Two fascinating reviews, Guy — I don’t think I want to read the book but I certainly enjoyed the extensive summary. My observation would be that this is a version of “frontier crime” rather than the conventional urban mob scene.

    I would not compare the Melbourne corruption to the American experience for that reason — indeed part of what is interesting in your summary is how unique the corruption there is. Unlike Sicily or Naples or New York, where the Mafia have found their “niche”, this portrayal seems to be a much more random abuse of power.

    On that same subject, while googling around I found another Italian Mafia series on DVD — The Octupus. Have you run across it anywhere? We’ve finished all 18 episodes of Inspector Montalbano (it is in contention with Foyle’s War for greatest DVD series of all time) and will be starting a second viewing of the set soon, but I thought I’d ask about La Piovra first.

    • I see Octopus is available on Amazon US. I haven’t watched it but I have an Italian friend (well Sicilian) who says it’s very good, so I intended to get to it sooner or later.

      The Fabio Montale series is entertaining (not superb, but not bad either). Fabio Montale is a three-part made for French television crime drama based on the Marseilles Trilogy by Jean-Claude Izzo.

      Do you have an all-region player?

      • I don’t have an all-region player. That has meant missing one or two things but, since I only speak English anyway, it is hardly a hardship. It seems that anything that I want eventually gets sub-titled and released in NA.

        • If you have an all-region you can buy directly from the UK which is handy for us impatient souls.

          I expect you’ve seen the Helen Mirren series Painted Lady?

          • I have. She was fine, but the mini-series was a disappointment.

            • I always find it difficult to move on to reading/watching the next thing when I’ve finished something really wonderful. I’m having a Douglas Sirk film festival here at the moment. Tonight: Tarnished Angels. Sunday was Magnificent Obsession. Saturday: Written on the Wind.

              • I found a copy of the Fabio series (used) and have ordered it. We indulged in the end of Season 13 of Midsomer Murders last night (yes, it is sentimental but it is good fun) and, for that kind of light-hearted thing, will probably go back to Pie in the Sky for a re-visit soon — I’m not too entranced with the stories, but I love the food part.

                • I tried the Midsomer series, well the first one and wasn’t thrilled by it. I suppose it was too light for me.

                  There are some Scandanavian series coming out:
                  Irene Huss (based on novels by Helene Tursten) and
                  Varg Veum (based on novels by Gunnar Staalesen.

                  I’m waiting to rent them.

                • Have you seen the British State of Play? Now that’s one to sink your teeth into.

                  • Ah yes, saw that last year. Great viewing.

                    We are desultory Midsomer Murders viewers … enjoyed Pie in the Sky more, mainly as Kevin says for the food and restaurant stories rather than the crime.

                    Have you seen the 2 Criminal Justice seasons, the first one with Ben Whishaw? Riveting viewing that kept you thinking from beginning to end.

  4. Really fascinating.
    The relationship between Kathy and her unbalanced son reminded me of Ma Grisson and Slim in No Orchids for Miss Blandish except that this is true life. It’s terrible and ugly to think it really happened.

    You point at the real question: there seemed to be no end to the lenght the police was ready to go for information. And this makes me think of Stieg Larson. Also fiction, I know, but given what he was doing besides writing crime fiction, there must be some truth in the material he used for his novels.

    • There are some sections that describe how the police coerced witnesses. It’s all from Kathy’s viewpoint, of course, but then those witnesses got up to the witness box and subsequently refused to testify or changed their stories. It ended up a huge mess on all sides.

      Larson had to more-or-less hide his address, didn’t he?

  5. To respond to Whispering Gums comment, I’m not sure you can compare the Pettingills story with US crime families. From what I can see, the Pettingills aren’t organised or intelligent enough to be concerned with vast money-making enterprises aka the Mafia. This is about petty squabbles and rivalries that have a deadly element to them.

    Also, while I watched the first season of Underbelly and thought it very good in a Sopranos-like way, I’ve not seen the remaining series. From the adverts and articles I’ve read about them, the direction seems to have changed from one of exposing the criminals as vile ‘people’ to one of glorifying and celebrating their crimes. If that’s the case, I’m not really interested in watching them.

    Which reminds me: Guy, have you ever seen the movie Chopper? That’s another Melbourne criminal who seems to have gained international notoriety. He’s written dozens of books about his life of crime, although I refuse to buy/read them on the basis I don’t think he should be profiting from his criminality in this way.

    • One comparison that comes to mind is the British television series The Take based on a Martina Cole novel. That series focuses on a close-knit crime family and their inner squabbles.

      Funny thing, I saw Chopper last week. I didn’t think the film was that great, but I did laugh when he became upset at the thought that his girlfriend, a hooker, cheated on him when he was in prison.

    • Good points kimbofo. Chopper … the less said the better really.

      Re Underbelly, I’m not sure that any of them glorified crime … but the third one in particular became pretty prurient. Sex is part of the scene but I think a little more time than necessary was spent on showing us the act in all its various glories. Anyhow the second was fascinating because it started with the Donald Mackay murder in Griffith … and covered the Mr Asia drug ring.

  6. leroyhunter

    Sounds like Allan was just totally out of control, and the cops weren’t far behind. It seems to be a common trait among newer drug gangs, where the crime is almost an adjunct to the mayhem. It’s like they embrace the fact that they won’t survive long once they get to a certain level of power or influence. Certainly the old-style mafia (a ruthless and malign organisation, no question) looks almost quaint compared to the junkie-nihilists that are driving the type of stuff described here.

    The movie got a great write-up in the Guardian at the weekend Guy, I’m keeping an eye out for its release date.

    • I would have expected to be released in the UK first. I’d take bets that you’ll love this.

      • leroyhunter

        You’d have won your bet, Guy. I decided to forego Fyodor last night and take a look at this instead: it’s a fine piece of work. Not particularly violent as you state (certainly not by the standards of Scorsese, whom I’ve seen it compared to) but filled with an immense, brooding tension. Jacki Weaver and Ben Mendelsohn in particular are great.

  7. Sorry about this, but the reply thread was running out so I have to open a new one.

    Mrs. KfC and I did like State of Play and have it set aside for a revisit — I’d compare it to the House of Cards trilogy which we quite like. Also Michael Kitchen in Guilty which just got issued in DVD in NA, even though it has been around for a while.

  8. leroyhunter

    Have you come across Aussie serial killer flick Snowtown, Guy?

    • Yes, have you seen it?

      I found it to be a very grim watch–not as good a film as Animal Kingdom, IMO. I’d read about the case before watching the film and that helped me understand what was going on. Another viewer who hadn’t known about the case, didn’t know, for example, what the recordings meant. The film did a fantastic job of the bizarre subculture that bred the environment in which these murders occurred (with various people participating or keeping quiet about it). I think the script showed but didn’t delve into some of the even darker aspects (Bunting making one of the boys dress in women’s clothes). Then there was James who participated in the murders of his step brother and half brother–was envy/hatred part of it? The film took the stance of showing James as another victim, but we never know what motivates people.

      • leroyhunter

        I watched it at the weekend – very grim, as you say, and very disturbing. But a superb film nonetheless. It shares the quality of tension and dread with Animal Kingdom, but they’re different beasts alright. I’d like to see the latter again.

        Henshall is incredible as Bunting, terrifying.

        • Yes extremely disturbing. I think the filmmaker “had” to show one of the murders but was right to leave the rest to the tapes. Very difficult to watch at times (in fact it was two sittings).

          • Hi Guy, if u get a chance have a look at a two-part series called ‘Blue Murder’ chronicling unprecedented corruption in NSW police force in the 80s and the links between cops v criminals. Most of the film is taken from the book ‘Neddy’ set the tone for the first Underbelly

  9. Adrian Tame


    Been fascinated to catch up with your amazingly perceptive comments re my book The Matriarch, even if I did discover your excellent two-part essay two years after you wrote it. I’m still in regular contact with Kathy, and a movie of the book may finally be made. I say “may” because it’s been optioned by various film makers every year without a break since 1998. Sadly none of them has so far been able to proceed beyond script stage. I’m hopeful the current rights holder is going to be the one who finally brings it home.

    Best wishes and thank you for being so perceptive and original in your treatment of The Matriarch.

    Adrian Tame

    • Thanks for the comment Adrian. I’ve recently followed events concerning Whitey Bulger and the Winter Hill Gang and that, of course, meant that your book wasn’t far from my mind. This 2-parter consistently gets a lot of hits, so people are still interested.

      Best of luck with the film. I hope it gets made.

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