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Australia’s Most Notorious Prison Breaker is Heading Back to Jail

After 18 years in solitary confinement, bank robber Brenden Abbott looked set to be released. But WA wants to add another 16 years to his sentence.
April 12, 2016, 6:35am

Today, Brenden Abbott—serial bank robber and jail escaper—looked set to finally get his freedom, after 18 years largely spent in solitary confinement. That was, until Western Australia got its way, winning an extradition order to bring Abbott back to the state for crimes dating back to 1987. He's now facing up to 16 more years behind bars, a place Brenden Abbott has never felt content to be.

It was around 12:30 AM on November 7, 1997 when an alarm sounded in the control room of Brisbane's Sir David Longland jail. Derek Bax looked at the screens, which monitored every corner of the prison. Making their way through the three sets of fences that rimmed the facility, he spotted a group of prisoners mid-escape. "Crims on the oval or tennis court," he shouted into his microphone, alerting the guards.

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Leading the group was Brenden Abbott, at the time one of Australia's most prolific bank robbers. For months, Abbott and his fellow escapees had been squirrelling away supplies for their jailbreak: diamond wire—smuggled in hidden in a stereo—to cut through the bars on their cell windows. Doonas fashioned into ropes. Plastic chairs that could be piled up to help them leap over the barbed wire interior fence. Outside the prison a former inmate, 19-year-old Brendan Berichon was waiting with guns, bolt cutters, and a getaway car.

Abbott and Berichon went on a cross-country crime spree. In WA, they pulled off a $500,000 bank heist before making it as far as Melbourne, where they robbed two Armaguard trucks and Berichon shot two police officers. After six months, police to finally found Abbott—nearly 4,000 kilometres away in Darwin.

But breaking out of David Longland prison wasn't Abbott's first escape, or even his most inventive. Back in 1989, Abbott and a fellow inmate broke out of WA's Fremantle Prison dressed in prison guard uniforms they'd sewed themselves. The pair made it onto the prison's roof, before jumping the fence to freedom.

Abbott spent the next five years on the run, robbing at least seven banks across the country as he went. This included Queensland's biggest ever robbery, the Commonwealth Bank at the Pacific Fair on Christmas Eve 1993. While he was in the wind, Abbott also gained notoriety for allegedly sending postcards to the cops and enclosing photos of himself standing outside of police stations. His lawyers denied this ever happened but it was enough to make Abbott one of Australia's most wanted men.

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It took a national taskforce, looping in police from WA, South Australia, and Queensland to finally find Abbott. He was arrested on the Gold Coast on 26 March 1996, with a .32 calibre automatic weapon, and $76,000 in cash. The more than $5 million he thrifted from Queensland banks has never been found.

Queensland police say Abbott has been a "model prisoner" for nearly two decades. Much of his days are spent painting or writing letters. But WA is adamant he should pay for his crimes, which were often as brutal as they were brilliant. His very first robbery, the Belmont Commonwealth Bank in 1987, saw Abbott drop in from the building's ceiling, taking the staff by complete surprise.

"I turned and I could see this guy coming from the ceiling," bank employee Carmel Kranz told Australian Story. "Brenden Abbott was saying, you know, 'Fuckin' down here, you mob of 'C's,'" fellow employee Nigel Minchin added. "He says, 'Otherwise someone's gonna die today. Who would you like to die today?'"

Then, the gun went off. Nobody was injured, but Abbott's hostages that day are still deeply affected. "I think the name Brenden Abbott will be like nightmare material for me for the rest of my life," Kranz said. "It's terror and it's fear and it's insecurity and it's life and death. For them it was, Let's get money and go. But, you know… they went on and they did the next thing but they left us all there with this feeling of angst and anxiety."

Abbott's lawyer says they will fight the extradition because his client's only wish is to be released and live with his sister in Cairns. Now 53 years old, the serial jail breaker has spent most of his life on the run from police or behind bars. "If I could turn back the clock. I'd love to have been a doctor or a lawyer," Abbott wrote in a letter back in 2003. "Anything other than a criminal who now spends his days in a prison cell."

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