The bombing of the Hilton Hotel in 1978 is claimed to be Sydney’s – and indeed Australia’s – most significant act of terrorism. No-one has ever been found accountable, although speculation and conspiracy theories about who did it are rife.

One man, Evan Pederick, confessed to the bombing eleven years later and was sent to gaol, although he was later released due to doubts about his evidence. Based on Pederick’s confession, and claims by notorious underworld figure Raymond Denning, charges were laid against another man, Tim Anderson. These were later quashed. Both Pederick and Anderson had been members of an Indian religious sect, the Ananda Marga. Others have suggested that it was a ‘frame-up’ and that ASIO and the Special Branch of the NSW Police Force were involved…

The Hilton Hotel bombing took place 32 years ago, at 12.42am of the 13th of February 1978, killing three people. The incident was timed to coincide with a Commonwealth Heads of Government Regional Meeting (CHOGRM) in Sydney, which was to be held the following day. Eleven heads of Government, including the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and his Indian counterpart, Morarji Desai, were staying at the recently completed international hotel on George Street, directly opposite the Queen Victoria Building.

The bomb – which was believed to have been stored in a small metal container and contained between 2-6 kg of gelignite – had been placed in one of the overflowing garbage bins on George Street, near the front entrance to the hotel. The bomb exploded when two City Council-employed rubbish collectors – Alex Carter and William Favell – were emptying the bins into the compressor at the back of the garbage truck. It killed them instantly. Another man, Police Constable Paul Birmistriw, died ten days later from the injuries he sustained. Seven others, including hotel employees and police officers, were seriously hurt in the bombing.

One witness, who arrived to the Hilton soon after the bomb detonated, recalled that it was ‘like something from recent years in my native Northern Ireland’, and that the ‘air was thick with the noise of sirens and the cries of the injured’. The impact of the bomb had shattered the windows of the hotel and surrounding shops, and the foyer and street were littered with broken glass and other debris.

Bomb disposal experts and the Police Rescue Squad were immediately called to the scene, to allay fears about further unexploded bombs in the area. George Street between Market and Park Streets was sealed off, as was Pitt Street to the rear of the hotel. The Lord Mayor suggested that garbage bins be permanently removed from Sydney’s streets, which some thought this injected a ‘note of sheer farce’ into the proceedings. The Prime Minster Malcolm Fraser invoked special emergency powers, calling in the Army and evacuating the Commonwealth heads of Government to a retreat in Bowral.

After the incident, police stationed at the Hilton were required to body-search and frisk ‘every person from the street’, as well as those travelling within the hotel to the reception and conference areas on Levels 7 and 8. A task force of 100 detectives was engaged to work on solving the case.

The Ananda Marga sect was implicated in the bombing within days, with members of the sect interviewed by ASIO and the Special Branch of the NSW Police. The sect had come to their attention a few years earlier, due to suspected violence and threats towards Indian government officials related to the imprisonment of their spiritual leader P R Sarker.

Richard Seary was a police informer ‘whose evidence linked three men with the Sydney Hilton Hotel’.  In July 1978, Seary told the Central Court of Petty Sessions had he had infiltrated the Ananda Marga in the wake of the bombing ‘to see if they were involved in terrorist activities’. He also told the Court that he ‘had contacted the police before joining and on several occasions while he was a member’ of the organisation.

Seary alleged that three members of the Ananda Marga – Tim Anderson, Ross Dunn and Paul Alister – conspired ‘to murder an obscure right-wing extremist’, the leader of the National Front (and earlier the NSW Nazi Party), Robert Cameron. On Seary’s evidence, the three were charged with attempted murder. Each received sentences for 16 years in gaol. Seary also implicated the so-called ‘Yagoona Three’ in the Hilton Hotel bombing in his evidence, claiming they had told him that they had ‘fixed it’.

Four years after the bombing, an inquest was finally held at the Glebe Coroners Court into the deaths of the two Council workers.

In 1984-85, a judicial enquiry was held into the charges that had been brought against the ‘Yagoona Three’. Seary, who had moved to England in the intervening years, was flown back to Sydney to give further evidence. This time he claimed that the three men he had implicated in the Hilton Hotel bombing ‘didn’t do it. And he wants them released from jail.’ Although Seary himself was briefly implicated, he accused other unspecified members of the Ananda Marga of carrying out the terrorist act. Alister, Dunn and Anderson were later pardoned.

But did ASIO and the NSW Police Force know more about the Hilton Hotel bombing than they let on at the time? This is the basis for ongoing conspiracy theories about the bombing of the Hilton Hotel.  

The NSW Premier, Neville Wran, was about to announce an inquiry into the operations of the NSW Police Force’s Special Branch and their links to ASIO – but it was called off after the bombing. More generally, there was growing criticism of ASIO, with calls to reduce their wide-reaching powers.

Three significant factors have inflamed the conspiracies surrounding the Hilton Hotel bombing. The first was that the bins outside the hotel had not been emptied, although they were overflowing. One garbage collector recalled that earlier trucks attempting to pick up the rubbish had been waved on ‘by someone official’. Furthermore, the officer in charge of security forces at CHOGRM, Superintendent Reginald Douglass, ‘had not considered it necessary to search litter bins outside the Hilton Hotel’ prior to the bombing, although this was standard police procedure with such a high security event in town. The third factor was that the sniffer dog quad, which had been specially trained to detect bombs in preparation for CHOGRM, had been called off a few days previously.

After the bombing, the powers of ASIO and the NSW Police Special Branch were increased. Wran’s enquiry into the connections between them was never held. An international expert was appointed to advise the Commonwealth on security and counter-terrorism, which led to the formation of Australian Federal Police.

Hilton Hotel on George Street, Sydney (City of Sydney SRC134)

For the victims and their families, however, there is no resolution: the mystery of who detonated the bomb has never been solved. Despite calls for two Royal Commissions in the 1990s, these were never held. A plaque commemorating the incident and the lives damaged and lost was laid near the George Street entrance to the Hilton Hotel on the 30th anniversary in 2008.

References: Sydney Morning Herald, 13 February 1978, 14 February 1978, 25 July 1978, 7 October 1982 and 17 February 1985; The Age, 14 February 1978.