On 17 November 1954, Melbourne underworld criminal figure, writer, and actor Chopper Read was born.
Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read was an Australian convicted criminal, gang member and author. Read wrote a series of semi-autobiographical fictional crime novels and children’s books. The 2000 film Chopper is based on his life.
Read was born on 17 November 1954 to a former army and World War II veteran father Keith Read of Irish descent and a mother who was a devout Seventh-day Adventist. He was placed in a children’s home for the first five years of his life.
He grew up in the Melbourne suburbs of Collingwood and Fitzroy. He was bullied at school, saying that by the age of 15 he had been on the “losing end of several hundred fights” and that his father, usually on his mother’s recommendation, beat him often as a child.
Read had been molested as a child. Read was made a ward of the state by the age of 14 and was placed in several mental institutions as a teenager, where he states he underwent electroshock therapy.
When he was still young, Read was already an accomplished street fighter and the leader of the Surrey Road gang, a hardened street gang with a notorious reputation for violence.
He began his criminal career by robbing drug dealers, based in massage parlours in the Prahran area. He later graduated to kidnapping and torturing members of the criminal underworld, often using a blowtorch or bolt cutters to remove the toes of his victims as an incentive for them to produce enough money so that Read would leave them alive.
Read spent only 13 months outside prison between the ages of 20 and 38, having been convicted of crimes including armed robbery, firearm offences, assault, arson, impersonating a police officer and kidnapping.
While in Pentridge Prison’s H division in the late 1970s, Read launched a prison war. His gang, dubbed “The Overcoat Gang” because they wore long coats all year round to conceal their weapons, were involved in several hundred acts of violence against a larger opposing gang during this period.
Around this time, Read had a fellow inmate cut both of his ears off in order to be able to leave H division temporarily. In his biography, Read claimed this was to avoid an ambush by other inmates by being transferred to the mental health wing.
His later works state that he did so to “win a bet”. The nickname “Chopper” was given to him long before this, from a childhood cartoon character.
Read was stabbed by members of his own gang in a sneak attack when they felt that his plan to cripple every other inmate in the entire division and win the gang war in one fell swoop was going too far. Another theory is that James “Jimmy” Loughnan, a longtime friend of Read, with Patrick “Blue” Barnes, wished to benefit from a contract put on Read’s head by the Painters’ and Dockers’ Union.
Read lost several feet of intestine in the attack. At the time Read was serving a 161⁄2-year sentence after attacking a judge in an effort to get Loughnan released from prison. Loughnan later died in the Jika Jika fire at Pentridge in 1987.
In the TV series Tough Nuts, Read also spoke of his mid-1980s to early 1990s rivalry with Alphonse Gangitano. Read explained that he had a disagreement with Gangitano regarding an elderly neighbourhood hero whom Gangitano admired.
It is alleged by Read that Gangitano burst open a toilet cubicle door with a number of associates and began a serious assault on Read, who made his escape, but not before smearing his faeces into Gangitano’s face.
In 1992, Read was convicted of shooting Sidney Michael Edward Collins in the chest. The incident took place in Read’s car, which was in the driveway of Collins’ residence at Evandale, Tasmania. The bullet was recovered from the back seat of the vehicle, and Collins named Read as the shooter.
Pleading not guilty, Read was found guilty of committing an unlawful act intended to cause bodily harm, a downgraded charge from attempted murder, and sentenced as a “dangerous criminal” to indefinite detention.
An appeal against the conviction was rejected by the Court of Criminal Appeal on 24 August 1993.
A second appeal against the sentence was argued on 28 February 1994, with Michael Hodgman, QC, and Anita Betts appearing for Read, and Tasmanian Director of Public Prosecutions, Damian Bugg, QC, and Catherine Geason appearing for the Crown, on the grounds that it was manifestly excessive, and also specifically in respect of the “dangerous criminal” declaration.
The second appeal was rejected on 10 March 1994. In a subsequent review of the “dangerous criminal” declaration on 18 July 1997, Hodgman succeeded in overturning the declaration.
Read was granted parole early in 1998 and regained his freedom. In 2002, Read was again questioned over the disappearance of Sidney Collins, who is still on the Australian Missing Person list after going missing in suspicious circumstances.
Read admitted to having murdered Collins in his last broadcast interview before death on the 60 Minutes program aired on 20 October 2013. Read expressed no remorse for killing Collins, alleging he was “stupid” for allowing Read to shoot on two occasions with his own gun.
In the 60 Minutes interview, he also discussed the 1971 shooting of union boss Desmond Costello, the 1974 ‘suicide’ of paedophile Reginald Isaacs, and the 1987 shooting of Siam Ozerkam (Sammy the Turk). Overall, Read variously claimed to have been involved in the killing of 19 people and the attempted murder of 11 others.
In 1998, he turned up drunk on a live television show hosted by Elle McFeast and, to the outrage of many viewers, “gave a colourful account of feeding a man into a cement mixer”. In an April 2013 interview with the New York Times, Read said “Look, honestly, I haven’t killed that many people, probably about four or seven, depending on how you look at it.”
Read was an author of crime novels, selling more than 500,000 copies of his works. His first book, Chopper: From the Inside, was collected from letters he sent while incarcerated in Melbourne’s Pentridge Prison and published in 1991. It contains tales and anecdotes of his criminal and prison exploits.
Further biographical releases followed in a similar vein. With the advent of Chopper 5: Pulp Faction, Read began writing fictional tales based on his experiences of criminal life. Attempts were made to ban a children’s book written by Read titled Hooky the Cripple.
In later years he made recordings of voice narratives which also sold well.
A fictionalised version of Read was featured in several sketches on The Ronnie Johns Half Hour. In some of these sketches, such as “Harden The Fuck Up!”, Read was portrayed by Heath Franklin. Read said that although the parody was not totally accurate, he found it funny.
Science fiction author William Gibson based a character (Keith Blackwell) in the final two books of his Bridge trilogy on Read. In the second book of the trilogy, Idoru, Gibson wrote in his acknowledgments:
Anything I know about the toecutting business, I owe to the criminal memoirs of Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read (Chopper from the inside, Sly Ink, Australia, 1991). Mr. Read is a great deal scarier than Blackwell, and has even fewer ears.
Jim G. Thirlwell, in his 1995 Foetus release, Gash, wrote and performed a song titled “Steal Your Life Away” which included a somewhat Read-like persona and several quotes from Read’s first book, including “I’m a garbage disposal expert”, “You’ve got to stand at the edge of the grave for the rest of your life”, “Me and my mental health don’t agree most times” and “Why ask why?”.
Chopper features on hip hop songs with artists such as Brad Strut, Bias B and Necro.
The 2000 film Chopper, starring Eric Bana as Read, was based on stories from Read’s books and independent research, leading to events portrayed on screen that somewhat contradicted Read’s version. For instance, Read claimed in early books to be vehemently against drugs, but the film portrays him as a casual drug user. In response, Read stated, “You have to have tried something to be able to say you hate it.”
Read was featured twice in the Australian true-crime series Underbelly. He first appeared in the fifth episode of the show’s second series, Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities, where he was played by Renato Fabretti.
Read later appeared as the lead character in the show’s seventh season, Underbelly Files: Chopper. The two-part miniseries focused on Read’s attempts at going straight after his stint in Pentridge Prison, as well as the beginning of his writing career and his feud with Syd Collins and underworld figure Alphonse Gangitano.
The cast featured Aaron Jeffery as Read, Vince Colosimo as Alphonse Gangitano, Michael Caton as Read’s father Keith, Todd Lasance as Syd Collins, Zoe Ventoura as Read’s first wife Mary-Ann Hodge, and Ella Scott Lynch as Read’s lifelong friend and eventual second-wife Margaret Cassar.
Read married Australian Taxation Office employee Mary-Ann Hodge in 1995 while imprisoned in Risdon Prison in Tasmania for the shooting of Sidney Collins. They had one son, Charlie, and divorced in 2001. On 19 January 2003, he married long-time friend Margaret Cassar, and they had one son, Roy Brandon.
Health issues and death
Read contracted hepatitis C during his time in prison, possibly as a result of using shared razor blades. In March 2008 he revealed he only had two to five years to live and required a liver transplant. However, he refused to agree to the procedure, stating that while a transplant would save him, he did not want one when an organ could be provided to someone else.
In April 2012, he was diagnosed with liver cancer. He underwent surgery in July 2012 to remove tumours from his liver and in late September 2013 he was admitted to Melbourne Private Hospital in failing health. He died of the illness on 9 October 2013, aged 58, in Parkville, Victoria at Royal Melbourne Hospital.