Shark regurgitates severed arm sparking murder mystery
Bert Hobson was banking on the tiger shark being a major money maker.
It was 1935 and business had been terrible recently. As the proprietor of Coogee Aquarium and Swimming Baths, now the Coogee Pavilion, Hobson had seen business drop dramatically after the previous year's demolition of The Coogee Pier, with its 1400-seat theatre, large ballroom, restaurant and penny arcade suddenly no longer attracting clientele.
Once a thriving hotspot, by the mid-1930s Coogee Beach was no longer drawing the same steady stream of patrons. So when he and his son Ron caught a 4m, 1 tonne tiger shark just 3km off shore, Hobson quickly organised to have it transported to the baths, deciding to charge people to marvel at the creature.
The plan worked relatively well for a week; then Anzac Day came. The day was a national holiday, so the baths were filled with inquisitive families, keen to see this mighty beast in all its glory. Crowds flooded in and out throughout the day, then at 4.30pm the shark took a turn. It started violently convulsing, vomited up a rat, then a bird, then - as its pièce de résistance - a human arm.
The crowd recoiled. Hobson quickly called the police who fished the limb out of the water, and the magnitude of what had happened began to set in.
It was a left arm, sporting a prominent tattoo on the inside forearm of two boxers sparring. A rope was attached to the wrist, and police soon discovered that the arm had not been bitten off, as presumed, but had been cut off.
This wasn't a shark attack; it was a murder mystery.
TATTOO LEADS TO A VICTIM
The distinctive tattoo quickly led police to the arm's owner: Jimmy Smith, 45, an England-born boxer who lived in Gladesville. Local newspaper Truth characterised him as a "former billiards marker at City Tattersall's Club, a well-known suburban billiards saloon keeper, one-time promising lightweight boxer, and a man with seemingly not an enemy in the world," taking care to stress numerous times that "Jimmy was no coward to take an easy way out" and that "it took little to convince the police that he was not the sort of man who would end his life by suicide," surmising that it must have been murder.
What the paper's purple prose failed to mention was that Smith had began to consort with known criminals while managing his billiards saloon in Rozelle and working at Tattersall's.
He started working as a builder in the early '30s and was employed to construct a block of flats for major crime figure Reginald Holmes. He soon began to work various jobs for Holmes, not all of them on the books.
Reginald Holmes was part of a long lineage of boat builders spanning from 1850. His father and grandfather were both successful boat builders and Reginald had followed suit, operating a thriving business in Lavender Bay building speed boats.
His most lucrative operations, however, were of the less-than-legal kind. He used his speedboats to co-ordinate cocaine drops from passing ships at Sydney Heads, which he would then sell in the city.
He also worked insurance scams, including one where he and a few other consorts bought, over-insured, and sank a pleasure cruiser named Pathfinder. Jimmy Smith was in on all these schemes; he often ran the speedboats out to the Heads for the drug pick-ups and was the caretaker of the Pathfinder.
Soon the pair teamed up with Patrick Brady, an ex-serviceman who had been convicted of forgery. They began to forge cheques from Holmes' wealthy clients for negligent amounts, using both Holmes' and Smith's businesses to cash them.
Smith and Holmes soon fell out over one of these scams and Smith started to blackmail Holmes, knowing his respectable standing in Sydney made him an easy target. Smith knew that Holmes had a lot to lose. What he didn't realise was this very fact put his life in danger.
JIMMY'S FINAL NIGHT OUT
Jimmy Smith spent his final night alive drinking with Patrick Brady. It was a Sunday night, April 7, and the pair were playing a noisy game of cards at the Cecil Hotel in Cronulla. They soon moved onto a small cottage Brady had rented in Tallombi St, less than 2km from the hotel. This is where it is believed Smith was murdered.
Brady was a master forger, but a sloppy murderer. Given the public nature of their evening out, it was quite simple for police to trace Smith's final movements and connect him to Brady. It was revealed that late that same night, Brady caught a taxi from the house on Tallombi St directly to 3 Bay View St, McMahons Point, the home of Holmes.
The taxi driver identified Brady, named the exact two addresses and described the passenger as "dishevelled" and clearly hiding something under his jacket.
"It was clear that he was frightened," he later testified.
Just three weeks after the tiger shark regurgitated Jimmy Smith's arm, Patrick Brady was arrested for his murder. There was only one problem - without a body, a single arm is not proof that a murder has taken place.
But once arrested, it didn't take long for Brady to point the finger. That same day, police turned up at Holmes' boatshed in Lavender Bay and questioned him. Holmes denied that he had ever met Brady, but the murder clearly weighed heavily on his mind.
Four days later, early on a Monday morning, Brady took a brandy bottle and a pistol, and headed out on a speedboat. He got extremely drunk and shot himself in the head.
Miraculously, the bullet hit the bone on his forehead and the force simply blasted him backwards into the water, knocking him out.
As he regained consciousness, he scrambled back into the speedboat and set off towards Sydney Harbour. He drove erratically around Circular Quay, disrupting the morning ferry services and hammering around the Harbour for close to four hours. Two water police boats chased him, and he led them 2km out to sea, stopped the boat and surrendered.
A CONFESSION AND ANOTHER DEATH
To hear Reginald Holmes tell it, he was a victim of extortion.
He told detectives that Patrick Brady turned up at his house late one night holding Smith's severed arm. He threatened to blackmail Holmes if he didn't pay him ₤500. He explained to Holmes how he had killed Smith, dismembered his body and placed the parts in a trunk, which was tossed into Gunnamatta Bay. Such an ocean burial was referred to as a "Sydney send-off" in crime circles in the '20s and '30s, the vast uncharted ocean and its many access points being the best means of disposal for a body. The left arm, with its distinctive boxing tattoo was kept so there was no mistaking the victim.
Holmes gave Brady the money and he left, leaving the arm in Reginald's living room. Panicked, Holmes drove to Maroubra and, under the cloak of darkness, tossed the arm into the ocean.
A small shark then ate the arm, and was in turn eaten by a tiger shark. Nine days after the murder, Bert and Ron Hobson plucked this shark from the ocean, put it on display, and the perfect crime began to unravel.
After explaining all this to police, Holmes agreed to be a witness at the inquest into Jimmy Smith's death, to be held on June 12.
But the morning the inquest was to began, Reginald Holmes was found dead in his car, three bullets in his chest. He was parked on Hickson Rd, under the Harbour Bridge, and it has been speculated that Holmes himself ordered a hitman to take him out, a bizarre and violent suicidal tact.
It's more likely that Brady ordered the murder, although other business associates were also accused of the murder over the coming months. Nevertheless, without Holmes as the star witness the case against Brady soon fell apart and no conviction was recorded.
Brady walked free.
Nobody was ever charged with the murders of Holmes or Brown. Until his death in 1965, aged 76, Patrick Brady denied he had anything to do with either.
Jimmy Smith was later discovered to have been a police informant. His body has never been found.