In 1965 Ryan and fellow inmate Peter John Walker escaped from Pentridge Prison. Prison officer George Hodson was shot and killed in the process.
Ryan was found guilty of murder and hanged in Pentridge in February 1967.
Harding’s old school and footy mate Jim Mulvey was deputy sherriff and along with Sherriff Gerry O’Brien assigned to supervise the execution. “They told me prior to the hanging … that Ryan when asked would he like witnesses to attend on his behalf nominated me amongst others.
“I was tempted just briefly but I am very grateful I refused,” he says.
Those who did attend included the government pathologist, journalists, prison staff and Pentridge priest Father John Brosnan.
“All of these men were adversely affected by the experience. O’Brien and Mulvey [were] destroyed by it,” recalls Harding. Harding was one of the few police in those days who opposed state executions. “Some called me a weak bastard.”
The toll of corruption
“When police do good things we are proud. When they go rogue we suffer and feel a kind of collective shame. To this day I suffer those reactions,” Harding writes.
Corruption in policing is the postscript to unpopular laws where there is a public appetite for something that is illegal. Before abortion was legalised, it was part of the Homicide Squad’s brief to investigate the booming backyard trade.
Some of the squad protected a group of doctors and medical staff performing the operations, rationalising that by turning a blind eye (for a price) they were making sure women avoided backyard butchers.
When Harding, then a suburban detective, charged one of the doctors (after a husband turned up at the station to complain) he had his first dealings with entrenched corruption courtesy of one of the most charismatic men in the force, then Detective Sergeant Jack Ford.
“Ford and I had an interest in thoroughbred racing and we arranged to meet at a Caulfield meeting.
“He had one huge bet with a rails bookmaker. If it was done to impress me, it both succeeded and bothered me.
“He put to me a startling proposition. If I followed to the letter his advice as to any testimony at the committal proceedings of Dr Lewis Leon Phillips, or at any subsequent trial, I would be rewarded with a massive monetary gift. If I further assisted at the trial and Phillips was acquitted, the reward would be doubled. He also wanted a full interpretation of my shorthand notes.
“I thanked him for his interest in my financial future, but no thanks.”
Not one to take no for an answer, Ford rang Harding’s wife Lorna: “He pleaded with her to convince the reluctant bloke that this was the financial opportunity of a lifetime. He got the same response.”
Harding reported the attempted bribe but nothing was done until 12 years later in 1970, when the government reluctantly announced a judicial inquiry into abortion under William Kaye, QC.
Deputy premier and police minister Sir Arthur Rylah initially resisted calls for an inquiry and when his hand was forced ensured it had limited powers.
Rylah felt indebted to the Homicide Squad which, he said, had shown him great compassion when in 1969 his wife, Lady Ann Rylah, died after being found unconscious in the back garden of her sprawling Kew home.
Homicide took control of the case and quickly found no suspicious circumstances. The cremation and funeral were held four days later. Rylah married his long-term mistress within months.
The Homicide head at the time was Detective Inspector Jack Ford.
I once asked a Homicide Squad member of that era about the case. He reflected for some time before saying it was handled by Ford’s best friend: “There was not much paperwork.”
The Kaye inquiry into abortion found a corrupt system of payments to some in the squad. Ford, his boss Superintendent Jack Mathews and former detective constable Martin Jacobson were jailed.
Not that Harding was black and white on every law. Stationed in the country he decided if local cops were to be part of the community they needed to be flexible. Before the days of betting on the phone there were illegal SP bookmakers in every pub and Harding set up his own local “laws”: “No cheating, betting with minors, no advertising, no betting with clients who had financial problems, if police external to the district raided you it was your bad luck, be nice to your clients and pay your taxes.”
Avoiding the avoidable
Harding tried to avoid violence, but this didn’t mean he hid from confrontation.
When in 1972 two men, Edwin John Eastwood and Robert Clyde Boland, kidnapped teacher Mary Gibbs and her six pupils from the tiny Faraday Primary School, Harding kicked down the door to arrest Boland.
In 1985, when burglar Pavel Marinof shot six police, Harding raided his house. The following year, when Marinof was shot and killed by police, Harding delivered the death message.
What he despised was unnecessary confrontations, which once put him at loggerheads with then prime minister Malcolm Fraser.
In 1976 Fraser was invited to Monash University to open the Alexander Theatre. An angry mob of demonstrators overwhelmed the inadequate security and the PM was forced to escape in an unmarked police car. He vowed to return, doing so to make the inaugural Sir Robert Menzies Lecture just as Harding was transferred to the district.
“When I arrived at Oakleigh I was hopeful that sanity would prevail and the Prime Minister would be distracted from his promise to return to Monash,” Harding writes. “That hope was dashed immediately.”
Harding put forward a number of safe exit strategies only to be told: “The Prime Minister does not leave by a back door.”
“At 9.45pm Prime Minister Fraser, and wife, emerged and on cue the waiting crowd surged. Punches and kicks were exchanged; police were pushed and tugged, spattered with mud and constantly abused. Fraser and wife were in the comparative safety of their car.
“Suddenly he emerged from the car, stood to his full height and gave the mob a prime ministerial wave and smile, then escaped back into the car. It was not helpful.”
Angry at the unnecessary provocation, Harding told The Age: “Mr Fraser could have left the university building by any one of a number of exits but chose to walk out the door surrounded by protesters. He failed to avoid the avoidable.
“We are left with the unhappy conclusion that he sought confrontation.”
Vintage Harding. He always cared about the job but didn’t care about ruffling the feathers of the roosters, whether they were pedantic senior officers or preening politicians.