Art by author.

Australia’s Weirdest Unsolved Murder Began With a Shark Coughing Up a Human Arm

Authorities would never recover the rest of career criminal and police informant Jim Smith.

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Nov 9 2017, 9:30am

Art by author.

It wasn’t often that Sydney, Australia’s residents saw a shark up close, so when Coogee Aquarium wrangled in a mammoth tiger shark, many wanted to see the live animal in person. The creature revealed a lot about the nature of sharks—and Sydney’s criminal underbelly—when it vomited a half-digested rat, a bird… and a severed human arm with a boxer tattoo.

Coogee Beach set the scene for one of the most chilling murders in Sydney’s history. The spring of 1935 was a turbulent time for the country: the Great Depression was in full-swing and it was just a year after the horrific Pyjama Girl murder where a young woman’s body was found badly burned. It was clear that Sydney residents needed a little levity. Many had their sights set on the down-on-its-luck Coogee Aquarium which opened in 1887 as an entertainment center for less jaded patrons. On the heels of recession and the shift to modernity catching up to it, it needed a face lift.

So in came one of Sydney’s hottest attraction: the four-meter long tiger shark at Coogee Aquarium that weighed nearly one ton. The proprietor at the time, Bert Hobson, and his son set out in the harbour to find a new star for their 25 by 15 pool. With shark attacks being on the rise that year, giving the public a chance to see one of these maneaters up close presented a good chance of saving their business. They came home with the four-meter long tiger shark and the public quickly took to the attraction. But as spectators ganged around the newly displaced mammoth beast, it became agitated. That’s when it vomited the key piece of evidence in the legendary Shark Arm Case.

When the police were called, they were convinced that the shark arm incident was a prank—either by the staff themselves or by local medical students that had too much time on their hands and access to spare cadaver parts. But no one was laughing as the arm with the boxer tattoo and suspicious rope tied around the wrist was fished from the water and brought to the coroner’s office. Things grew more frantic when the coroner reported that the arm hadn’t been bitten off by the shark at all—but was actually severed by a blunt knife in a suspected act of foul play.

The police had two glaring questions: whose arm was this? And how on earth did it end up in the belly of the beast? Before police could even begin to answer these questions, the press took off with the story, blaming exhibit tamperment or shark attacks. Finding the owner of the arm would be no easy feat seeing as 1930s forensic technology was limited. However, a brand new finger-printing technology was able to link the arm to a name. It was gruelling work, but a match soon came up: the man was Jim Smith, criminal and police informant.

Smith had previous brush-ups with crime and he was an opportunistic police informant. Smith’s brother confirmed the identity of the arm by the boxer tattoo when the image was published in Sydney’s Truth tabloid. Before the criminal life and brush-ups with law, Smith was a boxing hopeful, but was forced to leave his dream to fight behind when it was clear that he just didn’t have a professional-level talent for the sport. So he went from job to job before he landed work in a pub where he started developing connections with the criminal underworld. One of those connections was a wealthy boat-building businessman named Reginald Holmes, one of the last contacts Smith would make.

Reginald Holmes was a man of many titles. In addition to being a well-loved family man and respected member of society who gave back to the community with church donations, he was an active heroin smuggler and insurance and business fraud mastermind. Holmes was also involved in construction where he employed Smith to carry out different tasks like cheating builders of their building supplies and over-insuring property before putting it on the path of destruction through arson. Their operation had Holmes clandestinely wiring money over to Smith after each job. It went on until the ill-fated Pathfinder scandal sunk their relationship faster than the over-insured luxury yacht in Sydney’s harbour. When Holmes filed the fraudulent paperwork to insure the ship and sent Smith to destroy it, he didn’t know that he reported the destruction as “suspicious” to police. The insurance fell through and Holmes found himself out of pocket.

There was the mastermind and the muscle to get these jobs done, but they also required with a master forger. Patrick Brady was a long-time friend of Smith and also played the insurance fraud game. Despite coming from an honest, hard-working family, he strayed away from this lifestyle to mingle with the criminal underworld after discovering he had a talent for forging the signatures of generals in World War I. His talent brought him to Sydney’s harbour where he worked with Smith and Holmes—a perfect criminal trio.

This operation continued, despite Holmes falling behind in his finances as the Depression hit Australia unforgivingly. The pressure starkly worsened under Smith’s threats of blackmail for more and more money from Holmes. It was clear to Holmes that he had to cut off this expensive loose end. One evening, Smith told his wife that he was going fishing. A few restless nights later, his wife grew agitated. One night, she received a mysterious call from a man: “Don’t worry… Jimmy will be home in three days’ time.” Jimmy never made it home.

When the police looked into the case, they had little to work on. Unable to determine the exact cause of death, they had to follow other leads. They knew that Jim Smith was last seen drinking and playing cards with Patrick Brady at the Cecil Hotel, but hangouts like these were fairly commonplace for him. Pursuing Brady as a lead, they found that he had rented a small cottage on Taloombi Street, Cronulla (a scenic beachside locale that continues to be a luxury high-cost destination for real estate nowadays) at the time that Smith was missing. All signs seemed to lead to the cottage being the place where foul play took place. The working theory was that Brady used a boat to dump the body in a trunk in the ocean after the arm was severed.

They began investigating the moves Brady made in the days leading up to the disappearance. They found co-operative taxi drivers who were willing to discuss the trips Brady made a few days prior to the cottage rental. One of the last trips Brady took blindsided investigators with a new shocking lead: the residence of Reginald Holmes. Until now, they had not been aware of any connection between Brady and Holmes. With a few questions to ask, they moved in to get Brady.

When the cops nabbed Brady, they got him on completely unrelated forgery charges. They needed him in the station, but they lacked the physical evidence to detain him for that crime. Brady was under intense interrogation tactics for six hours, but he was steadfast in his refusal to tell them what they didn’t already know. It wasn’t until they questioned his sobbing wife that Brady’s cold demeanor softened. He finally agreed to issue a statement. He asked for a pen and paper—then wrote down everything the cops were already wise to, including his collusion with Holmes.

To get ahead in this case, investigators needed to tackle it from a different angle: it was time to go after Reginald Holmes. In another dramatic twist to this story, Holmes ripped out of his beachfront home into the harbour on his speedboat when it became clear to him that the police were on the approach. Cops were quick to speed out after him, but each time they came near, Holmes would abruptly jolt off again. He attracted a crowd of spectators near Sydney’s harbour who watched the hot pursuit go down.

Finally, Holmes killed the engine and demonstrably stepped up before the crowds, a pistol at hand. Reportedly, he uttered this cryptic phrase: “Jimmy Smith is dead and there is only another left… If you leave me until tonight, I will finish him.” It was clear that he was under the influence. If his behaviour didn’t make it clear, the empty bottle of gin at the bottom of the boat certainly did. The cops braced themselves for a firefight—but then Holmes raised the pistol to his own head, and fired. He fell to the water as the police converged.

But the shot to the head didn’t kill him, just grazed his temple. Defeated, Holmes finally turned himself over to police. Holmes, who was initially thought of as the mastermind to this whole case, pitifully told investigators a different story: he alleged that Brady was the man who killed Smith. He also claimed that Brady brought Smith’s severed arm in a grisly attempt to blackmail him for a sum. Holmes describing details of the cottage on Taloombi Street told them that he knew more than he let on. Police threatened him with an accessory to murder charge to get his inquest in court, to which he agreed. However, Holmes would never make it to court.

On the morning of June 12, 1935, the decisive coroner’s inquest was set to start soon. The police approached Holmes’ residence to bring him to court. Before they even got to the door, they found Holmes slumped over in his car in the driveway with three gunshot wounds to the left side of his chest. It didn’t take long for them to piece together what the insurance mastermind Holmes did: he must have hired hitmen and taken out a contract on himself. Of course, he didn’t put this into play until after he secured a hefty life insurance policy for his own life. The policy wasn’t applicable under suicide and his death would ensure that his wife and children wouldn’t be subjected to the public shame of his conviction. It would be his last successful case of insurance fraud.

The Brady trial went off without him, but on flimsy ground. Those present included Smith’s wife, Holmes’ wife, and a few of the cab drivers willing to testify against Patrick Brady. As the proceedings went on, the most glaring issue was the lack of a physical body. They had the arm, but no one could prove to the judge that Jim Smith was actually dead—or if he was wandering around in armless truancy. When it was decided that there was enough evidence to proceed, the case itself had an even shakier prosecution. Their problem was that Brady was never a violent man: he was charged with lesser crimes like forgery, but never pinned for assault. Standing at 5’4’’ and being a slight man, it was also unfeasible that he would be able to take on Smith by himself. Smith was a much larger man, a boxer, in fact. A day and a half into the trial, the prosecution fell apart and Brady was acquitted of all charges. That day, Brady walked away a free man.

The Shark Arm Case was never officially solved, but there are a few standing theories. A few years after the case, Brady’s wife admitted that she had gone to the cottage that Brady was staying at, suspecting that he was seeing another woman. She claimed that she overheard not two, but a group of men drinking and playing a card game. No one could ever confirm who these men were, but Australian legal historian Alex Castles argued that the murder likely took place at the cottage, but Brady himself was out fishing at the time and returned to find Smith dead. He would allegedly keep silent about this, fearing for his life. If Brady didn’t kill Smith, he would at least have a good idea who did. He would take this secret to the grave in 1965.

Until his death, Brady was sole survivor of the shark arm case. In an interview with Vince Kelly, a leading crime journalist in the 1960s, Brady explained that the case followed him to his death, suspecting that people around him would whisper “That’s Pat Brady.”

One of his last statements proved to be true: “The shark arm case will never be forgotten. It will be remembered after I’m dead.”

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