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McPherson, Leonard Arthur (Lenny) (1921–1996)

by Malcolm Brown

This article was published online in 2020

Leonard Arthur McPherson (1921–1996), criminal, was born on 19 May 1921 in Sydney, ninth child of locally born parents Duncan Monteith McPherson, ironworker’s assistant, and his wife Emily Florence, née Reardon. Lennie grew up in Balmain and attended Birchgrove Public School, leaving at the age of twelve. In 1932 he had been placed on a good behaviour bond for stealing. After further convictions for theft in mid-1934, he served a term at the Gosford Training School, Mount Penang, where he was physically and sexually assaulted.

During World War II McPherson obtained work as a driller at Mort’s Dock, Balmain, thereby avoiding conscription. On 18 December 1940 at the District Registrar’s Office, Rozelle, he married Dawn Joy Allan, aged sixteen. In February 1946 he was convicted of property offences and gaoled. Paroled in December, he drank heavily, womanised, abused his wife, and consorted with other criminals. He also became a police informer. An admirer of Al Capone, in 1951 he travelled on a false passport to the United States of America, seeking contact with the Mafia. Expanding beyond petty crime, during the following years he would become wealthy and an acknowledged leader of Sydney’s underworld, notorious for murder, extortion, bribery, and betrayal.

Back in Australia, in 1953 McPherson was gaoled for three and a half years on more property offences. Paroled in 1956, he formed a close association with the allegedly corrupt police officers Ray ‘Gunner’ Kelly and Fred Krahe. With others, he had also built a ‘motel’ on top of a car park in Balmain, principally for criminals wishing to ‘lie low.’ In 1959 he and William ‘Snowy’ Rayner, were charged with the murder of a criminal, George Hackett, but ultimately the case was no-billed. The following year he and Rayner were charged with attempted murder but the alleged victim, John Unwin, failed to give evidence against them. His first wife having divorced him in June 1963, on 9 July 1963 McPherson married Marlene Carol Gilligan at the Registrar General’s Office. During the wedding reception he allegedly slipped away with a criminal associate, Stan ‘The Man’ Smith, for ‘urgent business’ (Reeves 2005, 78), namely to ambush Robert ‘Pretty Boy’ Walker, who died in a burst of fire from an Owen sub-machine gun. The two are said to have then returned to the reception.

McPherson was present in 1967 when Raymond ‘Ducky’ O’Connor was shot dead in Sydney’s Latin Quarter nightclub. When the United States mafia figure Joseph Testa visited Australia in 1969, McPherson took him kangaroo shooting. That year McPherson pleaded guilty to a consorting charge but received only a nominal $100 fine. In 1970 he visited Testa in Chicago, and they allegedly met again in Sydney in 1971. He attended several infamous ‘crime summits’ in Sydney’s Double Bay in 1972, involving the underworld figures Smith, George Freeman, Frederick ‘Paddles’ Anderson, Karl Bonnette, and Milan Petricevic.

The royal commission into allegations of organised crime in clubs, under Justice Athol Moffitt in 1973 and 1974, as part of its inquiry investigated the relationship between McPherson, Testa, and the Bally Manufacturing Corporation, which produced poker machines. McPherson denied any involvement. He said he received a small fee for managing his motel and made other money by various means, including importing furniture and artefacts, claiming ‘I do the best I can’ (Hickie 1985, 243). Moffitt said ‘it would be wrong to conclude’ McPherson was not involved in the alleged racket but on the evidence ‘no conclusion’ was available. But he added that ‘he must have a substantial source of income to provide his living, both as to his home and the frequent extended overseas trips usually to the Philippines of himself and his family.’ He also said that McPherson’s ‘explanation’ of his income was ‘not credible’ and that there were ‘suspicious money dealings’ by McPherson ‘in relation to women coming from the Philippines’ (New South Wales 1974, 80).

Arrested in the Philippines in 1975, McPherson was deported. According to police he was ‘most concerned’ because ‘he had business interests there.’ Trying to re-enter the country later that year, he was stopped at the airport. New South Wales police were informed that ‘a person’ had travelled to Manila ‘at least once a month’ in 1975 to collect ‘white powder’ for him (New South Wales 1980, 45).

‘A big bloke with cold eyes and a voice you didn’t forget’ (Sydney Morning Herald 1996, 1), McPherson denied he was the ‘Mr Big’ of the Sydney underworld. Referring to allegations that he had been involved in twelve murders, he replied: ‘If these accusations are meant to be against me they are false. I wouldn't even know of twelve people who have been murdered’ (Whitton 1987, 108). During the royal commission into productivity in the building industry in New South Wales, conducted by Roger Gyles from 1990 to 1992, McPherson claimed he was misconstrued and that people were using his name to inspire awe or menace.

Convicted in 1994 of conspiracy to have a Sydney businessman bashed, McPherson was sentenced to four years’ gaol, with two and a half to serve. On 28 August 1996, minutes after speaking to his wife from a telephone at Cessnock Correctional Centre, he collapsed and died of a heart attack; he was buried in the Field of Mars cemetery, Ryde. His survivors included his wife, three sons, and the daughter of his first marriage. In her eulogy at All Saints’ Anglican Church, Hunters Hill, his daughter, Janelle, said that her father ‘chose a path in life that you and I might not have chosen, but at least he could say he was at the top of his profession’ (Fife-Yeomans 1996, 3).

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Fife-Yeomans, Janet. ‘Lennie, Career Path Achiever, Is Laid to Rest.’ Australian, 4 September 1996, 3
  • Hickie, David. The Prince and the Premier: The Story of Perce Galea, Bob Askin and the Others Who Gave Organised Crime Its Start in Australia. North Ryde, NSW, and London: Angus & Robertson Publishers, 1985
  • New South Wales. Royal Commission. Further Report of the Royal Commission into Drug Trafficking. NSW: Government Printer, 1980
  • New South Wales. Royal Commission. Report of the Honourable Mr Justice Moffitt Royal Commissioner Appointed to Inquire in Respect of Certain Matters Relating to Allegations of Organized Crime in Clubs. NSW: Government Printer, 1974
  • Reeves, Tony. Mr Big: Lennie McPherson and His Life of Crime. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2005
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘The Lennie Tapes.’ 16 November 1996, Spectrum 1
  • Whitton, Evan. Can of Worms II: A Citizen’s Reference Book to Crime and the Administration of Justice. Revised and updated 2nd ed. Broadway, NSW: The Fairfax Library, 1987

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Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'McPherson, Leonard Arthur (Lenny) (1921–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcpherson-leonard-arthur-lenny-23076/text32348, published online 2020, accessed online 6 December 2021.

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