On the scariest day of Bruce Smith’s existence he stood face to face with one of Sydney’s worst killers.
Reputed to have murdered a dozen people – including the toddler son of a prostitute – Stewart John Regan was standing in front of the fledgling court registrar exploding with violence and rage.
“That was probably the most scared I had been in the 40-odd years I was in the job,” Mr Smith said.
“Regan came in and was yelling and screaming at me, and I was only 19 or 20 at the time. I looked around and the rest of the staff ran and Regan was getting so aggro. I almost expected him to pull a gun on me or something.”
Mr Smith survived, but in 1974 Regan was shot dead in Marrickville. No one was ever arrested.
“I keep saying I should write a book, I’ve certainly seen a bit in my time.”
After 41 years, five months and 14 days on the job, the Rutherford man decided to pull the pin on a career that has seen him meet hardened criminals and exposed him to some of the country’s most notorious underworld figures.
And to think he nearly became a teacher.
“I was already to go and they changed the course from two to three years and I just didn’t want to do it,” Mr Smith, now 60, said.
“Then the local clerk came and asked me if I wanted a job in the courthouse. So on February 2, 1971, I started and it’s the only job I’ve ever had.”
A country boy through and through, Mr Smith spent a decade relieving court clerks at places including Moree, Broken Hill, Mudgee, Walgett, Bourke, Lightning Ridge and Coonabarabran.
Then he was sent to the big smoke.
“Here I was this country boy with gum leaves all over me heading off to places like Sydney and I thought what am I going to do? Within four months I’d put on three stone from drinking and not eating mum’s cooking,” he said.
What followed, for Mr Smith, was a list of encounters that reads like the who’s who of Australia’s crime-filled underworld.
At Redfern he encountered Arthur Stanley ‘Neddy’ Smith, an Australian criminal convicted of rape, armed robbery and murder.
Then there was Russell Cox, the man who escaped Katingal Special Security Unit on November 3, 1977, and was recaptured on July 22, 1988.
Cox is the first and only man to escape Katingal and for years has been billed by police as the country’s most wanted man.
“He escaped and was sitting in the back of Redfern Courthouse while we were in court and we didn’t know. We found out the next day. These were the sort of people we were dealing with,” Mr Smith said.
“A few times we’d go out after work and the police would tell us not to talk to certain people otherwise we would get charged with consorting.”
While in Sydney, Mr Smith also frequented one particular club, a common meeting place of former NSW Chief Stipendiary Magistrate Murray Farquhar and organised crime figure George Freeman.
“All of us in the courts knew about Murray Farquhar, what he was up to, that sort of stuff. So we all had a bit of an idea what was going on,” Mr Smith said.
Farquhar was convicted and jailed in 1985 for his corrupt influence in a fraud case brought against the head of the Australian Rugby League. During his trial it became clear he had strong connections with the criminal community.
“Not once did we feel threatened or anything. We were always with the police a fair bit too, so they would let us know what was going on,” Mr Smith said.
Then in the 1980s Mr Smith met Craig William Minogue, also known as the Russell Street bomber.
On March, 27, 1986, a stolen Commodore loaded with gelignite, some detonators and a timing device stopped outside Melbourne’s Russell Street Police Headquarters.
Shortly after 1pm the car exploded injuring 22 people and killing young police officer Angela Taylor, aged just 21.
Minogue was sentenced to life imprisonment with a non-parole period of 30 years.
“I dealt with him at bail court and he was pretty scary. He had a big red beard and it was only a few months before the bombing. He wasn’t very friendly towards me when I said bail refused,” Mr Smith said.
In December 1994, Mr Smith found himself at Walgett when young nurse Sandra Hoare was brutally murdered.
“The night she was murdered we were going home from the RSL club and Vester Fernando (one of Hoare’s killers) walked past with a machete,” Mr Smith said.
Hoare, 21, was alone in the geriatric ward of Walgett Hospital when Fernando, then 24, and his cousin Brendan Fernando, 23, abducted her and held a machete at her throat.
She was viciously raped, had her throat cut and her head buried.
“I was driving out of Walgett when they found her and that was pretty scary because the whole town was on a knife’s edge and you were just waiting for a riot,” Mr Smith said.
In 2000 Mr Smith came to Maitland where – a few years later – he would meet Kathleen Folbigg, a Hunter Valley woman convicted of killing her four infant children during the 1990s.
“I was here in Maitland when Kathleen Folbigg came through and I dealt with her in bail court,” Mr Smith said.
Folbigg is serving a 30-year jail term after a NSW Supreme Court jury (in May 2003) found her guilty of murdering her children Patrick, Sarah and Laura – aged from eight months to 19 months – between 1991 and 1999.
She was also found guilty of the manslaughter of her first child Caleb.
“The funny thing is that the killers are the easy ones to deal with because they always get bail refused and most time they don’t apply for bail so it’s all over and done with within minutes. And with them there is always extra security,” he said.
But finally Mr Smith has had enough.
“There is now a total loss of respect towards authority. You do bail courts and you are called every name under the sun, you get abused and they don’t care,” he said.
“But then again people are quick to criticise others, especially when they don’t know the full story. Some believe everyone who commits a crime should go to jail, but it just doesn’t work that way because in jail you learn from the real crims.”