The mystery of the Sydney Hilton bombing endures

On Monday February 13, 1978 a bomb hidden in a garbage bin exploded as it was emptied into the back of a garbage truck, killing three people outside the Hilton Hotel in Sydney, where inside some of the most powerful world leaders were meeting.

Often described as the first (and, for almost four decades, the only) act of terrorist murder on Australian soil, it is a crime which – despite decades of convoluted trials, inquiries, counter inquiries, commissions, parliamentary declarations and more plot twists than an airport potboiler – remains unsolved.

The scene of the Hilton Hotel bombing on George Street, Sydney. The scene of the Hilton Hotel bombing on George Street, Sydney. Photo: Supplied

Dr Rachel Landers delves into the heart of this mystery in Who Bombed The Hilton

I’m sitting in the Tea Room in Sydney’s Queen Victoria Building across from a man whose name I can’t tell you. Let’s call him Fred. Fred’s a dapper, grey-haired former senior detective in his late sixties who was lionised for his skill in running a series of spectacular covert operations in the 1990s.

Emergency crews at the scene of the Sydney Hilton bombing in 1978. Emergency crews at the scene of the Sydney Hilton bombing in 1978. 

It has been said that he could wire up an operative and send him into the fray – a drug operation, a dirty cop shop – and they could strip the agent naked if need be and never locate the recording device.

Fred is also known for his excessive operational caution. Contact between us was made by a third party and only then were my details forwarded to him. He has asked the waiter to move us to an isolated table and only accepts the third one offered — near an exit, good visibility, away from other diners.

If I wish to continue contact with him I am to buy him a SIM card and forward it through the third party. While he is, shall we say, assisting me with my inquiries, all this would be a lot more gripping if I was confident he actually had inside information about the bombing of the Hilton Hotel in Sydney at 12.40am on 13 February, 1978, that left three dead and nine wounded. 

Why is this one crime so absolutely maddening? Australians by nature are not known for their excessive discretion, yet Fred is simply one in a long line of people circling the investigation who are wedded to communicating in opaque coded sentences.

Commissioner of Police Andrew Scipione and Lord Mayor Clover Moore lay floral wreath on the 30th anniversary of the bombing Commissioner of Police Andrew Scipione and Lord Mayor Clover Moore lay floral wreath on the 30th anniversary of the bombing Photo: Domino Postiglione DPP

Half a dozen leading investigative journalists have sworn only to speak to me off the record, then proceeded to point me towards the same prime suspect – a man who was never questioned by the police. Then they warn me to go no further and recount horror tales of being targeted and harassed.

Federal government ministers deny that they authored top secret reports now made public in the National Library under the 30-year rule, despite these reports bearing their names.

Even those individuals suspected of the crime, then allegedly verballed, charged, accused of another crime altogether, jailed then freed, seem committed to joining the chorus of obfuscators. I approach one who says he doesn’t want to talk but sends me his own highly ambiguous autobiography. 

The truth of this story lies not with the living but with the dead. In bits of papers such as this:

Medical Report upon the examination of the dead body of: Name: UKNOWN MALE believed to be William Favell 36… The body was in bits and pieces brought in plastic bags…There was singed hair at certain areas showing it was the head and brief[s] noted that it was a groin. The parts were badly shattered with hardly any bone left intact. Embedded in the body were large amounts of foreign matter such as cigarette butts, labels etc. There was also shrapnel, glass splinters and paint. Cause of Death: Multiple Injuries. Antecedent Causes: EXPLOSION.

Favell, a garbage collector, was collected from the asphalt on George Street in plastic bags. He had a seven-year-old daughter. 

I was a schoolgirl in Sydney when the bomb went off and I remember exactly where I was when I learnt what had happened. Our teacher, Mrs K, an overly dramatic, skinny woman with a penchant for stiletto heels, recounted the ghastly news and made us bow our heads in a minute’s silence. 

Things seemed very serious and a girl in my class burst into noisy tears, sputtering that her uncle had known one of the deceased. 

Despite the clarity of that memory, I, like most people who remember the actual bombing, couldn’t really explain what had happened in the years that followed or, indeed, who did or didn’t do it. 

It strikes me as odd that such a key moment in Australia’s history is so unexplored. If you’re too young to have any recollection of the bombing it must be intriguing why such a colossal crime remains unsolved and so saturated in conspiracy theories. clear that most of the answers lie in the first 12 months after the bombing.

 After that, the narrative becomes hijacked by a miscarriage of justice story – a story taken up by activists and an emerging new generation of journalists and papers like Nation Review and the National Times. 

This is the story people remember, but it tends to obscure the truth. It’s a story that was very much of its time – a sort of impassioned tale of the late 1970s, following in the wake of the anti-Vietnam War sentiment early in the decade and the rage around the dismissal of the Whitlam Government in 1975. 

It’s a story that lives in the public domain as the goodies – counter-culturists, the free press, anti-authoritarian citizens – versus the baddies – the police, the secret services, politicians, institutions. 

It’s also a narrative arc that Australians adore, that of the underdog fighting for truth and justice and triumphing. The thing is, this story tells you nothing about who might have planted a bomb outside the Hilton Hotel that February night.

An edited extract from Rachel Landers ‘Who Bombed The Hilton’ (NewSouth Publishing)