by Robert Curtis as published in Pocket Book Weekly, February 21, 1948.


Thirteen years have passed since the Shark Arm mystery shocked Australia and the world.

The murder of James Smith, fantastic enough in itself, became even more fantastic with the murder of the principal Crown witness on the eve of the Coroner's inquest into the cause of Smith's death.

The Coroner had only a human arm, which had been disgorged by a shark to guide him in; assuming that Smith was really dead.

The mystery began when Smith's tattooed arm was disgorged by a shark at Coogee Aquarium.

Why had Smith been murdered? Several men knew that secret, and one made up his mind to turn King's evidence. But the night before he was to tell the Sydney Coroner the motive behind the Smith killing, he himself was murdered. He was Reg Holmes.

Behind it all, police believed, was a giant Sydney smuggling organization. Smith was murdered because he intended to expose the smuggling ring. Holmes was murdered because he was going to expose the killers of Smith.

For more than 20 years a big Australian smuggling organization had had its headquarters in Sydney. The smugglers' boats cruised up and down the coast north of Sydney and picked up contraband and narcotics dumped from ships.

The Collector of Customs told me at the time: "Even if we had a fast boat capable of overtaking the smugglers, they'd just dump the stuff overboard. We'd never get anything on them."

Connected with the smuggling organization was the wealthy Sydney shipbuilder, Reg Holmes. In 1933 he bought the powerful seagoing yacht Pathfinder.

The pathfinder was immediately put on the smuggling run up and down the coast. Her skipper was James Smith, a young Newton man, who had two boxers, in an attitude of shaping-up, tattooed on his left arm.

Smith was a respectable man from a respectable family. His only conviction was for SP betting. But when he got mixed up in the smuggling ring he soon found himself among desperate men.

Holmes paid 11,000 Pounds Sterling for the Pathfinder. He insured it for more than that amount.

In April, l934, the Pathfinder floundered off the Skillion, at Terrigal, north of Sydney. The only one on board, James Smith saved his life by swimming ashore.

A claim was made for the insurance. The insurance company "knew something" and wouldn't pay.

Smith had risked his life in the sinking of the Pathfinder and he wanted his "cut" whether the insurance was paid or not.

"You're not going to dice me," he said. "I want what I was promised--or else..."

A year went by with Smith getting more and more indignant, and the smugglers becoming really dismayed by his threats.

In the first week in April, 1935, Smith kissed his wife good-bye, and said that he would be home with a haul of fish at the weekend.

Three weeks later,April 25, 1935, Leo Young, a member of the staff of "The Sydney Morning Herald," was leaning over the rail at the Coogee Aquarium watching the huge shark which had been captured a week before, on April 18, 1935.

Suddenly the monster began to thresh the water. The pool was whipped to foam.

When the water cleared, young saw the human arm with about a yard of rope tied to the wrist.

Many fishermen won't accept the theory that the shark disgorged the arm. It must have got into the pool some other way, they say. They believe that, since the shark had been in the pool for a week, the arm would have been digested by then.

But the police accepted the theory. They quickly identified the arm by its fingerprints--from the SP betting charge--and Mrs. Smith identified it by the tattoo

Detective-Sergeant McRae, then considered the finest homicide expert in the Commonwealth, put forward this theory: James Smith had been decoyed on a fishing trip, had been killed, and then his body, tied with rope and weighted, had been dumped at sea. A shark had attacked the body and had bitten off the left arm.

The best brains of the Sydney CIB were assigned to the mystery. It was then that they discovered the background of smuggling and the story of the Pathfinder.

Detectives had many conferences with Reg Holmes. At last he said: "I'm sick of it all. I can't sleep for the worry of it. I'll go into the box at the inquest and tell the whole story of the past. It doesn't matter what happens to me so long as I can get the lot off my conscience."

In May 1939, reports flooded into the Water Police headquarters at Circular Quay, Sydney that a lunatic was careering around the harbor in a speedboat, his face covered in blood.

Police set out in pursuit and after an exciting chase up and down the Harbor overtook and seized the man. Blood was pouring from a wound on his forehead. He said that he had been shot by a man in another boat.

The injured man was Reg Holmes, whom the police were carefully preserving as the witness who would solve the Shark Arm tragedy and reveal the secrets of the smugglers.

I talked with Holmes at Sydney Hospital that night, but little did I know that a month later, June 11, 1935, I would see his dead body carried into the morgue.

He was very hysterical that night. He said that he remembered being shot in the forehead, but could not remember careering about the Harbor in the speedboat.

"I must have been in a trance," he said. "No. I don't know who shot me. I have never seen him before."

Doctors extracted the bullet, and a few days later Holmes went home.

Excitement grew as the date set for the great Shark Arm inquest and the revelations promised by Reg Holmes drew nearer.

The inquest was to open on June 11.

On June 10, Holmes told a friend, Bernard Donaldson Cahill: "I am afraid. I am afraid that either myself, my wife or my kiddies are going to be bumped off."

That night, the eve of the inquest, Homes answered his telephone at his home and, putting back the receiver, said to his wife: "I'm going into town for a little while. I have to see a fellow. It's important."

"I don't think you ought to go out, Reg" said his wife. "You know your own business best, but I think it's risky the way things are."

"I won't be away more than about an hour," Holmes said as he drove his car out of the garage.

As midnight approached and he didn't come home, his wife telephoned the police.

At 1 a.m. on June 11, Constables Bilton and Casey, of the night patrol. pulled their car beside another car parked in the shadows in Hickson Road, Dawes Point, a dark and deserted wharfside road in the shadow of the Sydney Harbor Bridge.

"Wake up, pal!" they said to the man slumped over the wheel.

They shook him. Then they flashed their torches into the car. The man was dead. He was in a pool of his own blood. He had been shot three times in the left side, just below the heart.

It was the body of Reg Holmes.

At 10 o'clock that morning, police told the Coroner that they could not proceed with the Shark Arm murder inquiry. They had another murder on their hands, the murder of their Shark Arm witness.

The Coroner was told that Holmes was very wealthy. His estate, they said was worth 50,000 Pounds Sterling. He carried life insurances totaling 15,800 Pounds Sterling.

Arrests were made in both murder cases, but no conviction was ever obtained. And to this day the mystery of the deaths of James Smith and Reg Holmes is unsolved.

But the reason for their deaths is known. They were both killed because they intended to "blow the gaff" on a big Australian smuggling combine, which had its headquarters in Sydney.

Added April 20001 based on electronic version prepared by Anne Mollet. Back to previous page.

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