"TERRIBLE SCENES OF SLAUGHTER"
These are among the headlines which greeted the public after what could be described as this State's largest multiple murder.
The surprising thing about these horrific murders is the fact that they have receded into history without our current generation being aware of this devastating event.
I worked with some of the officers who played significant roles on that tragic night, and never once was the event mentioned, nor do I recall any publicity or discussion about these bombings.
It was only in 2003, during discussions with retired Superintendent Graham Lee (died in 2003) that I became aware of this, and other events, in the early part of his police career. He had been stationed at Kalgoorlie at the time.
EXPLOSIONS ROCK BOULDER
The events unfolded on the 1st February 1942. That evening 30 men were playing dice in the dining room at 16 Milton Street, Boulder, a boarding house run by the Kunjunzich family. Just after midnight (2nd.February), without warning, an explosive charge (contained in a metal container) was detonated in the room.
Constable Mick Leeder, on duty in the Boulder Police Station, heard the loud explosion and ran into the street looking for its source. He had not gone far when he heard a further two explosions, which he later found to have been detonated at the Launceston Hostel, some distance away.
Constable Leeder was joined by Constable Waghorn, who was just coming on duty. When they arrived at the site of the first explosion they were confronted by a scene of total devastation. By shining their torches into the darkness, they were able to see the magnitude of the disaster. The roof of the premises had been completely blown off, and most of the walls demolished. There were dead and injured entangled in the wreckage, with dreadful cries coming from the wounded and dying. A doctor living nearby, Dr. Hogan, was roused and with Dr. Shanahan, who arrived shortly afterwards, attended to those still alive. Sergeant Carmody, Constables Reilly, Gregory and Gaull were later involved in evacuating the injured and dead from the scene.
Fourteen men died as the result of the bombing, seven instantly, and a further seven within hours of the explosion. Many of the survivors lost limbs in the initial explosion, others suffered fractures, and some the trauma of later amputations. Spinal injuries caused on-going problems, and burns and severe lacerations added to the victims' distress.
The investigation was conducted by Detective Sergeant Lewis and Detective Jones, with Constable Joe Rosich coming from Northam to assist with interpreting.
Inquiries established that, after the initial explosion, the offender had gone to the Launceston Hostel and detonated a further two charges, injuring another four persons, one of them for the second time. Kristo Kosich, 42 years, who lived at the Launceston Hostel, had been in the Milton Street premises and received leg injuries. He had staggered out in a disorientated state, and made his way to the kitchen of the Launceston Hostel. Shortly afterwards he was confronted by the offender, who tossed a further explosive charge into the premises. Kosich received additional serious injuries. A further charge was detonated in the yard of the Hostel.
Another single minor explosion was heard about an hour later, but its cause and location were not ascertained that night.
Meanwhile, police and doctors were occupied in searching the devastated area, and transporting the injured to hospital. The remains of the dead were removed on corrugated iron sheets blown from the premises. A truck that was used to convey the dead broke down en-route to the mortuary, and blood from the victims was seen running onto the roadway, as frantic efforts were made to re-start the make-shift hearse.
MYSTERY SOLVED - OFFENDER REVEALED
The mystery of the fourth explosion was solved at 9.30am the same day. The Rev. W.R. Forbes and a Mr. L. Armstrong were walking in the Boulder Cemetery, 2 miles from the Milton Street premises, when they came upon body parts of a male person, scattered around the cemetery. The largest section they found was part of the trunk from the hips down, with other remnants covering a hundred yard radius, some in the canopy of the trees. Two days later, part of the head was located in the general vicinity, together with the right ear, and a strip from the shoulder on which was a large black wart. The wart proved significant in identifying the body. This, together with the clothing, was identified by witnesses as belonging to Pero Raecivich, 45 years. A local tailor identified the clothing as part of a suit he had made for Raecivich. This was verified by the use of infra-red photography on markings in the pocket.
Evidence was given that, whilst at the Milton Street premises on the night of the bombings, Raecivich had made disparaging remarks about the gambling. Other evidence was tendered regarding written material found in his clothing, and in his room. In his summing-up the Coroner commented on this material: "In all these writings reference is made to a certain subject which had preyed on Raecivich's mind and I am drawn to the conclusion that they explain the reasons for the bombing of the Milton Street house and the deaths of the fourteen people." Graham Lee believed these matters related to the War, and to the German invasion of Raecivich's homeland. No doubt this information was suppressed by the authorities in order to prevent further public disquiet over the progress of the War.
The Coroner, Mr T. Ansell, found that the person responsible for the bombings, and the killing of these fourteen men, as well as the injuries to a further fifteen persons, was one Pero Raecivich, 45 years, born in Bulkovik, Montenegro. He had arrived in Australia in 1928, and lived at the Launceston Hostel, Boulder. The Coroner held that he was of unsound mind at the time. He delivered a lengthy finding on all the circumstances, and part of those findings are quoted here:
"On the night of February 1, 1942, 30 men were playing dice in the dining-room of the house occupied by the Kunjunzich's, known as No 16 Milton Street, Boulder. Without warning, at 12.10am on February 2, an explosion occurred in this room and from injuries received 14 people died, seven being killed outright. Not one of the witnesses saw any explosive substance placed or thrown into the room by any person … From the medical evidence of the injuries, burns and powder marks on the body of Joze Vegar it appears that he was very close to the explosion which obviously took place in the dining-room. Further that the explosive was confined in a metal container as metal was removed from George Basta and also from a stool on which some of the players were sitting …"
He went on to say : "I am satisfied from the evidence that the remains in the Boulder Cemetery were those of Pero Raecivich. It is clear that, from the description given of the finding of the remains, he died as the result of injuries received in an explosion. The writings also referred to show an intention to take his life, and I come to the conclusion that this is a case of suicide, and, as I have already said, while of unsound mind."
WAR TAKES PRECEDENCE
Since hearing of this incident, I have reflected on the reasons why this major crime has faded from the memories of the general public and of the police involved. Perhaps it can be explained by the fact that, at this time, Japan had entered the war with their surprise attack on Pearl Harbour on the 7th. December 1941; the Malayan Campaign was going badly for the Australian troops, who were forced to withdraw to Singapore Island at the end of January, fighting a fierce battle until they were forced to surrender to the Japanese on the 15th February, having experienced heavy casualties and with 20,000 taken prisoner-of-war during the campaign; Port Moresby, Derby, Broome, and Darwin were bombed within the same month, with serious casualties, and there was a definite perception by the public that Australia was likely to be invaded; thirteen were killed when the Japanese shot down a Qantas Empire Airways flying boat flying from Darwin to Timor, with Mr. D.W.McCulloch, 28 years, of Nedlands, being one of the casualties. Even as the inquest was being held in March, 20,000 troops were killed in Russia in just one of the many battles then taking place.
Although newspapers of the times gave details of Raecivich's crime they were unable to shed any light on the reasons behind his actions, other than to publish the Coroner's rather cryptic comments. Although the victims were from an area of Europe known for its ethnic unrest, it cannot be said that ethnicity was the motive for the attack. Gambling was a popular pastime in the mining community, and especially among the migrants. Obviously, Raecivich was disturbed by the war news coming from his homeland, and possibly this was enough to cause his breakdown. It added a poignant note to the whole incident when it was revealed that three of the victims had enlisted in the Australian armed forces, and were due to leave Kalgoorlie within a few days.
COINCIDENCE OR CALCULATED CRIMES?
These were very serious times both within and without the country, and, as well Kalgoorlie had been the focus of earlier bombings. The papers of the day attempted to draw a connection between the Boulder bombings and similar, though less damaging, incidents which had occurred earlier.
The incidents in question began on a hot evening in November 1941. At about 9.30pm the Resident Magistrate, Mr Les Stotter, retired to his bed on the verandah of his quarters, to have a quiet night's sleep before another busy day presiding over the Kalgoorlie Police Court. At this time, the Resident Magistrate's quarters were located at the top of the hill in Hannan's Street, overlooking the railway crossing.
BOMBING OF MAGISTRATE
Mr Stotter was suddenly awakened at 10.43pm by a loud explosion. He immediately jumped out of his bed and saw a glare in his yard, which he took to be an incendiary bomb. (Bear in mind that this was during the 2nd World War, and lectures on "High explosives and Incendiary Bombs" were that week being delivered by the local air raid co-ordinator.) He moved towards the illumination in his yard but then realised it was a burning fuse. Suddenly, a further explosion took place, and in his flight from the detonation point, the Magistrate was fortunate to receive only minor injuries.
The explosion shattered eight windows in the house, and blew out three doors along with internal fanlights. Other damage was caused in the yard of the premises.
Mr Stotter's wife and their two daughters were inside the house at the time, as was his father. Fortunately they were not injured.
Detective Sergeant Lewis and Detective Pat Hagan lived nearby, and were soon at the scene, as were other police, but could find no clue as to the identity of the offender.
This was not to be the last of the Magistrate's problems, for on the 12th. January 1942, at 12.35am, the Magistrate's acute hearing probably prevented the loss of his own and his family's lives.
At this time he heard his front gate close, and being aware that he had secured it, went immediately to the front of the house to investigate. With the aid of a torch he saw a man, on his knees, attempting to place something under the house. On being disturbed this man ran off towards the gate, which had closed, forcing the offender to clamber over it. He then quickly jumped on a bicycle and rode off. In this process he lost one of his shoes, and dropped a bag which was found to contain 27 sticks of gelignite. formed together as a single unit The gelignite had a detonator attached, which was primed with two and a half feet of fuse.
Had this charge been detonated under the house, there is little likelihood that the Magistrate and his family would have survived.
(Correspondent, Peter Skehan's notes: During my discussions with Graham Lee, who was a Constable at Kalgoorlie at the time, he mentioned that, although strong suspicion was attached to a Kalgoorlie resident, no charges were ever laid, and that these events had no connection with the Boulder tragedy. Mr Les Stotter moved to Bunbury, and later he transferred to Perth, where he was a well-known and respected Magistrate for many years. Officers who appeared before him in giving evidence, always found him to be very fair and balanced in his judgements. Little did we appreciate the suffering he had endured during these harrowing incidents.
Newspaper files were used to verify the details in this article.)