14 May 2021

Six days of freedom: How a village unknowingly sheltered fugitives

| Hannah Sparks
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Police and armed landholders in ute

Police and armed landholders search for Bullock and Foster between 29 May and 2 June, 1959. Photo: Bigga General Store.

On Friday, 29 May, 1959, Brian Thomas Bullock and Anthony James Foster, both aged 19, escaped Berrima Prison in the NSW Southern Highlands by hitting a prison guard on the head and fleeing in the prison superintendent’s car.

Ironically, stealing cars and armed robberies had landed them in jail and here they were using their questionable skills one again – this time to escape.

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Headed for Melbourne, the pair had reached the regional village of Bigga, west of Goulburn, when the tyres blew on the second car they’d stolen during their first day of freedom.

Now prison escapes are generally great stories, but this one gripped the country when journalists learned how the fugitives had dinner with a local family unaware one of the state’s biggest manhunts was on their tail and that after dinner the family’s son, Doug Howard, took part in a shooting contest with Bullock and Foster using a rifle they’d stolen from a nearby farmhouse.

It was a story that became a legend and made the 27-year-old grazier – who had never seen television – famous.

What’s more, Bullock and Foster were often within reach, standing at the rear of Bigga Hotel, listening to conversations between police, journalists and armed landholders who warmed the seats inside for six days.

Police from Orange to Goulburn had established roadblocks and the posse in Bigga after the owner of the raided farmhouse noticed the rifle, plus 20 bullets, food and leather jackets missing.

Posse outside Bigga Police Station

The posse was said to be 80-large but thought to be larger. Photo: Supplied by Bigga General Store.

Bullock and Foster were now “armed and dangerous”, possibly looking for another car as they couldn’t get far on foot and expected to shoot their way free when cornered, police warned.

But it seemed the fugitives weren’t in much of a hurry to leave their new surroundings with police finding the remains of their fire near a local cave on the Monday and locals reporting gunshots on Tuesday as the pair attempted to shoot rabbits, wild pigs and kangaroos for food.

It’s no wonder that by Tuesday night the fugitives risked exposing themselves for food by knocking on the Howard family’s door just outside Bigga, and pretended they were lost.

In true bush tradition, the family welcomed them in for a hearty meal of meat and vegetables, chatted amiably until the news came on the radio and then headed outside for a quick shooting contest.

Jack and Venus Howard

Jack and Venus Howard welcomed the fugitives in for dinner. Photo: Supplied by Carson Howard.

The seven-minute broadcast must have been a tense moment for Bullock and Foster – worried the voice on the radio would reveal their true identities – but it was their lucky day.

By 8 pm, the fugitives said they should be on their way and Doug offered them a lift when he went to collect the family’s mail.

It was only when Doug returned home and read the newspaper in their mail that he learned of the manhunt for the first time.

“We must have been the only people in Bigga who didn’t know about it,” Doug told journalists at the time.

Doug Howard

Doug Howard, 27, gave the fugitives a lift back into town. Photo: Supplied by Carson Howard.

According to the Howard family, the fugitives were fit, well-fed and clean-shaven while those conducting the manhunt were tired, hungry and near exhaustion.

But their capture was imminent and perhaps came down to mistaking all locals as friendly for the next day the pair joined Mr and Mrs Lyn Picker shooting rabbits on a hillside.

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They told the married couple they were on a shooting holiday, but Mr Picker recognised the men from press photographs and ran to raise the alarm as soon as he could.

Bigga’s only police officer, Constable Les Lyons, quickly led a 40-strong posse into the hills.

Soon the fugitives were rustled up on Grabine Road, Bigga, but neither was prepared to heed the calls to surrender. Instead, they dropped a bag and ran. In response, police fired a warning shot, which knocked the hat off one escapee.

Caught by police

Bullock and Foster were caught by Constable Les Lyons (middle) after six days on the run. Photo: Supplied by Bigga General Store.

They ran and ran until they ran into Constable Lyons who had heard the warning shots and sensing the youths would take the easiest course of escape, circled around the front of the valley.

Warwick Picker, 79, of Bigga, was aged 18 at the time and with police when they captured the pair. He said the police dragged Bullock and Foster through a nearby creek – a sign of a different era.

Afterwards, they calmly surrendered into a police car with Bullock smiling at journalists and happily accepting a cigarette from the police.

When asked what they would have done if the radio at the Howard family’s house had revealed them, one said: “I don’t know – I don’t know what we would have done”.

The next day, they were charged with attempted murder and escaping from custody and returned to prison.

Doug on Pick a Box

Doug became famous in Sydney after hosting the fugitives, even appearing on the Australian game show, Pick a Box, with host Bob Dyer, where he won sausages and toilet paper. Photo: Supplied by Carson Howard.

But their escape had more in store for Doug who was flown to Sydney by journalists to buy a new gun and see the sights – mostly bars filled with more attractive women than he’d seen in his life.

He was also invited to appear on Pick a Box, one of Australia’s first game shows hosted by Bob Dyer. It must have been quite the experience for a young man who had never seen television.

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Leesa Dibben7:57 am 16 May 21

Such an interesting story, one I have heard my mum, Norma Picker speak of many times over the years.

My mum is Warwick Pickers sister and I believe the 2 fugitives also took shelter in their family’s wool shed for a night. Uninvited of course lol.

Elizabeth Picker11:50 pm 20 May 21

My dad Joe Picker was driving the truck in the first photo. We lost him aged 74 but he hadnt changed much from that strapping teenager RIP JP

Wow, interesting read.🇦🇺🙂

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