Lennie McPherson was one of Australia’s most powerful crime bosses and ruled Sydney’s underworld with an iron fist for decades.
He rose to power by systematically murdering his competition without mercy, even ducking out of his own wedding reception to gun down a hated rival.
But to neighbour Theo Michael, who grew up with his sons Danny and Craig, the notorious ‘Mr Big’ was just ‘Uncle Lennie’ who taught him how to swim and took him on ski and surf trips.
‘The Lennie I knew as a kid was nothing like his reputation. He was friendly and soft-spoken, I rarely saw him get angry,’ he told Daily Mail Australia.
Lennie McPherson (pictured outside his house in Sydney in 1978) was one of Australia’s most powerful crime bosses and ruled Sydney’s underworld with an iron fist for decades
However, there were plenty of signs even a young boy could spot that ‘Uncle Lennie’ wasn’t what he seemed – from a drive-by shooting, to huge stashes of guns and cash and dinners with notorious hitmen.
Mr Michael, 58, lived a few doors down from McPherson’s house at 22 Prince Edward Street in Gladesville during the gangster’s heyday in the 1960s-70s.
While McPherson expanded his criminal empire and wiped out numerous rivals during these blood-soaked decades, at home he appeared to be just like any other suburban dad.
Ruling the streets with ‘Little Mr Big’
Danny and Mr Michael were in the same grade at Gladesville Public School and later Hunters Hill High and were best friends through their childhood and teenage years.
The gangster’s son, who as a child reportedly strutted the neighbourhood calling himself ‘Little Mr Big’, was the best man at his wedding in January 1987.
They and Danny’s little brother Craig played in a local soccer team managed by McPherson’s wife Marlene, who Mr Michael called ‘Mrs Mac’.
Theo Michael (left) grew up a few doors down from the notorious Sydney crime boss and was so close to the family McPherson’s son Danny (right) was the best man at his wedding in January 1987
‘Lennie welcomed me into his house nearly every day for more than 10 years. I went to every birthday party and took his dog for walks,’ Mr Michael recalled.
Later he joined McPherson, his sons, and other family on numerous skiing trips to Thredbo and surfing holidays to the Gold Coast, and all fired slug guns together in abandoned parts of Sydney.
Neighbourhood wars with a police officer
The boys were inseparable as they mucked around in the neighbourhood playing soccer or riding billy carts – and McPherson was always their first call when they got into trouble.
In those days there was a patch of grass near Mr Michael’s house where they played soccer that was adjacent to the house of police prosecutor Ray Briddick.
Sergeant Briddick threatened to ‘incinerate’ the boys’ ball if it hit his rose bushes, and one day did just that after an errant kick.
‘Craig ran crying to his dad and Lennie came out with a machine gun and went to the front door of Briddick’s house, knocked on it, and aimed [the gun] at him,’ Mr Michael recalled.
‘A week later he bought us a new ball.’
Mr Michael knew McPherson (pictured in 1960) in his 1960s-70s heyday while he systematically murdered his competition to rise to the top of Australia’s crime hierarchy
McPherson was featured in Underbelly: The Golden Mile where he was played by John McNeil (left) alongside Peter O’Brien as George Freeman (right)
Another run-in with the policeman, one of only two neighbours McPherson didn’t get on with, came on the night of Mr Michael’s 16th birthday party.
He said some of his soccer mates got drunk and threw rocks through his windows, so Sergeant Briddick called the police and got the party shut down and the boys arrested.
‘Lennie went over the next day and said “you can’t prove it was kids from the party, it could have been anyone – everyone hates you because you’re a cop”,’ he said.
‘If you want to take these kids to court, I’ve got the best lawyers in town.’ All allegations against the boys were promptly dropped.
Terrifying hints to the gangster’s criminal life
McPherson didn’t work a normal job and his fear of assassination often kept him at home behind his security, where he kept himself busy with hobbies.
‘Lennie was always painting, he made this huge mural all around the pool and did a lot of DIY around the house while wearing overalls,’ Mr Michael recalled.
‘I used to help him a bit, I’d got get hammers, screwdrivers or paintbrushes out of the shed.’
One day McPherson asked him to fetch a paintbrush from the back of the shed and the inquisitive boy discovered a hidden room about four metres long on each side.
‘I peered through a crack and saw it was chock-full of money, bundles of cash piled wall-to-wall,’ he said.
‘He also counted money on the dining table and sometimes there was a machine gun or bazooka sitting there too.’
McPherson (right) with George Freeman (left) and Darcy Dugan. Freeman, a gangster himself, often had meetings and dinner with McPherson around his dining table
The dining table was the setting for numerous meetings with well-known underworld figures to discuss business or who to bump off next.
Mr Michael said he regularly saw powerful gangster and McPherson associate George Freeman and psychotic hitman Stan ‘The Man’ Smith eating dinner or hanging out with their boss as he walked through the house to Danny’s room.
Lennie counted money on the dining table and sometimes there was a machine gun or bazooka sitting there too
McPherson was a notorious drinker at Sydney’s pubs and brutally bashed his first wife Dawn Joy with the butt of a pistol in October 1960 when he came home drunk and found dinner wasn’t ready.
He threatened to kill her and fired shots into the food cooking on the stove. The episode led to their divorce and almost saw McPherson charged with attempted murder.
However, Mr Michael insists that as far as he saw, by the late 1960s McPherson never drank in his family home.
‘George and Stan would have a drink and so did Marlene, but I never saw Lennie drink, smoke, or gamble,’ he said.
‘All he had at dinner was a glass of red creaming soda – he had a whole fridge full of it.’
McPherson’s house at 22 Prince Edward Street in Gladesville was transformed into a fortress with dozens of security features after the old red-brick cottage was shot up in a drive-by
From the street it didn’t look like much, but the extreme security features were everywhere
Lennie turns his house into a state-of-the-art fortress
The most obvious sign of McPherson’s gangland associations came when his house was shot up in a drive-by in the middle of the night.
Mr Michael, who was about 10 at the time, recalled seeing the damage to what was left of an enclosed veranda at the front the next morning.
‘There were bullet holes all through the veranda and the front of the house,’ he said.
‘Lennie and his sons didn’t talk about it much. Danny said it might have been someone who owed him money and didn’t want to pay. I knew he had a lot of enemies.’
There were bullet holes all through the veranda and the front of the house
The episode prompted McPherson to turn the humble 1930s red-brick cottage into a two-storey fortress that still stands today.
From the street it didn’t look like much, but the extreme security features were everywhere, as detailed in Tony Reeves’ 2005 biography Mr Big.
‘The entire perimeter of the premises was wired to detect any movement within its limits,’ a building union official told the writer.
‘Placing one’s hand across the line of the plain-looking low, white-painted brick fence at the front – or anywhere else over the boundary – set off alarms that could not be heard outside the house.
‘Anyone entering the premises was tracked on video camera linked to monitors in several locations around the house, and was photographed by concealed still cameras.’
McPherson died behind bars a broken man in August 1996 after his power waned over the 1980s and he was jailed for ordering an ex-employee’s beating. His sons Craig (left) and Danny (right), both wearing tartan scarves, carry his coffin at his funeral
The walls were also reinforced to withstand explosives, all the windows were made of bulletproof glass, and a security code was needed for the side gate.
Additionally, the welcome mat covered a one-metre-deep pit that could be activated with the touch of a button.
The garage was opened remotely so he wouldn’t be vulnerable when driving in, and led to a passage into the house loaded up with guns.
‘It was all state-of-the art, unbelievable,’ Mr Michael said, still marvelling almost 50 years later.
The heavy security was a bit much for the young neighbour to navigate and he forgot the side gate’s code one day, much to McPherson’s displeasure.
‘Young Michael, you should know the sequence by now. Don’t do it again,’ his gruff voice came over the PA system. He never forgot the code again.
Lennie the swimming instructor and caring dad
McPherson’s second marriage to Marlene seemed to have fared better, and Mr Michael recalled she saved him from drowning twice.
The first was at a swimming carnival that led to a trip to the hospital, and the second was in McPherson’s expansive pool in his backyard.
‘I was dog paddling in the shallow end of the pool and I swam to the deep end to get a ball but I got tired and sank to the bottom,’ he recalled.
‘Marlene dived in, still in her clothes, and pulled me out.’
After that, McPherson decided his son’s best friend needed to learn to swim and took it upon himself to teach him.
‘He said: “Young Michael, if you’re going to come into my pool every day you need to learn how to swim”, and that was that,’ Mr Michael said.
Lennie McPherson (left) takes Chicago mafia-linked Americans Nick Giordano and Joseph Testa shooting near Bourke on their visit to Australia
Mr Michael said McPherson showed him how to swim freestyle and tied a garden hose around him so he could pull him up if he started sinking.
‘Day after day we did this for weeks on end until I could swim properly,’ he said.
Mr Michael said McPherson was a good father who adored his boys, but treated them somewhat differently.
He taught me day after day for weeks on end until I could swim properly
‘He hugged Craig quite a bit but less so Danny because he was grooming him as his successor,’ he said.
McPherson was fiercely protective of his accident-prone younger son and scolded the older pair for letting him get injured.
‘Craig was a bit of a daredevil, brave but used to hurt himself all the time. He always tried to show off to us older kids,’ Mr Michael said.
‘Lennie once told us “he’s had six bad accidents in the past two years, you two should be looking after him” but we told him we couldn’t stop Craig. Lennie told him to stop showing off but he never did.’
McPherson and notorious hitman Stan ‘The Man’ Smith on a boat to the U.S. in 1968 where they tried to meet with American mafia figures
Another time the three boys also went ‘fishing’ by damming up a creek and hacking the mullet swimming there to death with machetes.
Craig missed and cut his foot badly enough to need stitches. Lennie’s response was ‘you’re smarter than that, son.’
Lennie’s views on life: An eye for an eye
Despite McPherson’s fearsome reputation of ruthlessly murdering dozens of rivals and dobbing the rest in to corrupt police who protected him, Mr Michael said he was fair-minded.
‘It was always an eye for an eye, that’s how he looked at things in life. He was very fair,’ he said.
‘If you did right by Lennie, he’d do you right. But if you did wrong by him, he’d do you wrong. I’ve never seen him get angry at anyone who didn’t deserve it.
‘He was very soft spoken, rarely raised his voice but had a very sharp wit. He doesn’t get angry easily, it has to be something big.’
McPherson’s eye-for-an-eye mentality likely went back to a nasty falling out with Surry Hills gangster Joey Hollibone in 1947.
Hollibone accused McPherson of dobbing in one of his associates to the police and in retaliation had his henchmen brutally gang rape McPherson’s pregnant mistress.
Freeman (pictured as a young man) was McPherson’s contemporary and they became associates early in their criminal careers
Freeman (pictured) also met Testa in 1968 on his own visit to the U.S. soon after he was released from Fremantle Prison
Lennie’s son Danny joins the family business
By the late 1970s, McPherson had killed most of his competition and had police, judges, and politicians on his payroll or scared into submission.
Meanwhile, Danny was by the early 1980s beginning to work in his father’s businesses and carving out a reputation of his own.
‘I remember going to a nightclub in Dummoyne with Daniel and a bunch of people were waiting outside to have a fight with him and he threw about six of them into a shop window all by himself,’ Mr Michael said.
‘I tried to help him but he didn’t need the help.’
He said Danny had boxing training at Glebe Boys Club from famous Aboriginal boxer Trevor Christian, as well as a black belt in karate.
Danny a few years later in January 1987 was the best man at Mr Michael’s wedding, though McPherson wasn’t able to attend.
However, not long after that it all came crashing down. Mr Michael said the best friends grew apart not long after the wedding, and had a falling out in the late 1980s as Danny got deeper into the nightclub business.
McPherson (pictured in a police car in 1995) was jailed for four years in December 1994 for ordering the bashing of a businessman and died behind bars a broken man in August 1996
Around the same time, an ageing McPherson’s influence began to wane as many of his corrupt police contacts were purged from police ranks.
He was finally brought down by ordering a simple beating of businessman Darron Burt for jumping ship from Danny’s liquor business and taking a $26 million contract with him.
Mr Burt was viciously beaten at his home in April 1991 and the young detectives who investigated and charged McPherson cared little for his history.
McPherson had been caught on a tapped phone planning the beating and later saying: ‘The boys just done a job for me, a f**king good job… they got this f**king bloke and broke his f**king arm and bashed his head.’
He was jailed for four years after delaying the trial until December 1994 and died aged 75 behind bars a broken man in August 1996.
The blood-soaked life (and deaths) of Lennie ‘Mr Big’ McPherson
May 19, 1921: Lennie McPherson is born in Balmain, Sydney, as the 10th child of metalworker William McPherson and his wife Nellie.
1932/33: McPherson commits his first crime, aged 11, and gets a 12-month good behaviour bond for stealing. He commits a string of similar crimes.
June 18, 1934: McPherson is sent to juvenile detention where he is reportedly frequently bashed and sexually assaulted.
1940: McPherson marries Dawn Joy Allan, 16.
February 15, 1946: McPherson is jailed for 18 months, serving 10, and begins his notorious practice of informing on fellow criminals for better treatment.
Over his career he cultivated corrupt police officers – most prominently Ray Kelly and Fred Krahe – who would protect him from prosecution in exchange for information.
July 27, 1959: Joseph George Hackett is murdered in Leichhardt and McPherson and his bodyguard are charged with murder. McPherson tries to use visiting his mother in hospital after she had her leg amputated as an alibi.
McPherson passes a letter out of prison saying Hackett was murdered ‘because he had a big mouth’ and detailing an elaborate plan to avoid prosecution. An associate was supposed to deliver it to his lawyer but instead kept it.
September 51, 1959: Coronial inquest into Hackett’s death begins but none of the witnesses show up, including two who were bribed to leave the country. Coroner still orders them to trial but NSW Attorney General Reg Downing calls it off and lets them go – allegedly after getting a $10,000 ‘donation’.
October 17, 1960: McPherson comes home drunk and is enraged that his dinner is not yet cooked. He severely beats his wife with the butt of a pistol repeatedly threatens to kill her, and fires shots into the food still cooking on the stove.
Dawn was rescued from the house by her father and decides to press charges for attempted murder, but was coerced by McPherson and Ray Kelly into dropping it and leaving Sydney.
1961: McPherson storms into his mother Nell’s home holding a white rabbit, demanding to know why she didn’t invite him to her 70th birthday party. ‘Well, you know how it is, son, what with the criminal stuff and all…’ she replied.
McPherson responded by ripping the rabbit’s head off with his bare hands and throwing the body parts on her doormat. He would never see her alive again.
May 1962: Two young policemen arrest McPherson for consorting with known criminals but Ray Kelly instructs them to let him go before they even reach the police station
July 9, 1963: McPherson, 42, marries Marlene Gilligan, 22, and receives word at the reception of the location of Robert Walker, who had bashed hitman Stan Smith for beating a prostitute.
He and Smith left the reception, changed their clothes, and waited in a car outside the prostitute’s house and shot Walker six times with an Owen sub-machine gun. They then ditched the stolen car, changed back into their wedding clothes, and went back to the reception just half an hour later.
February 10, 1964: McPherson shoots standover man and greyhound trainer Charles Bourke 10 times after a dispute over protection racket territory
November 26, 1965: McPherson rival Robert Lawrence ‘Jacky’ Steele is shot by four men but survives for a month in hospital where 40 shotgun pellets were removed from his body
Steele believed Lenny had him shot because he made a big deal about McPherson appearing at number two on a list of top underworld figures published by Oz magazine, instead of at the top.
Oz editor Richard Neville later said McPherson visited him at his home complaining about being called a ‘fizz’ (informant) in the list.
December 19, 1965: Ronald Ryan and Peter John Walker escape from jail and approach McPherson for help leaving the country. McPherson instead organised a bogus meeting and tipped off Ray Kelly. They were caught and Ryan became the last man to be hanged in Australia.
May 28, 1967: Longtime McPherson enemy ‘Ducky’ O’Connor is gunned down at The Latin Quarter nightclub at 250 Pitt Street, Sydney, months after he was ‘tried’ at kangaroo courts McPherson set up.
May 28, 1968: McPherson rival Joe Borg is killed by a car bomb in Bondi
July 10, 1968: McPherson and Stan Smith visit the U.S. to meet with low-level associates of the Chicago mafia
February 10-March 2, 1969: Mafia associate Joseph Dan Testa and his bodyguard Nick Giordano visit Australia and McPherson takes them shooting. McPherson was fascinated by the Mafia and modelled himself on Al Capone
1973-74: The Moffitt Royal Commission into organised crime in NSW was convened and McPherson was grilled over several days. He claimed to have only earned about $8,000 in 1973.
May 1984: The National Crime Authority is set up, which eventually brings down McPherson. He is unable to subvert it like the NSW Police
November 8, 1984: The Sydney gang wars erupt with McPherson leading one of the three major groups
1990: Darron Burt resigns from Danny McPherson’s and takes a $26 million exclusive contract to import Jim Beam with him.
April 23, 1991: McPherson has Mr Burt bashed outside his home. He suffers a fracture of his right arm and multiple facial lacerations.
McPherson was charged with assault occasioning actual bodily harm and maliciously inflicting grievous bodily harm with intent after he was caught on NCA phone taps planning the attack and bragging about it.
Later in 1991: McPherson signs over his Gladesville home to longtime ‘maintenance man’ Ronnie Kennedy, who lived on the same street – presumably to prevent any possibility of it being seized. Marlene and Danny continued living there and Mr Kennedy is still the registered owner.
December 16, 1994: McPherson is sentenced to four years jail after repeatedly getting the trial delayed, and claimed to all who would listen that prison would be a death sentence. He struggled in jail as all his connections were gone and he became a depressed and broken man.
August 28, 1996: McPherson dies aged 75 soon after talking to his wife on the phone, just two months before he was eligible for parole.
September 3, 1996: McPherson is buried at the Field of Mars Cemetery in Ryde after a funeral at All Saints Anglican Church in Hunters Hill. His wealth from numerous properties, businesses and other assets was estimated at $10 million but could be more than double that.