A name that seems to have been pushed back somewhat from the public psyche – thanks in no small part to the more headline-grabbing exploits of the violent Carlton Crew/Carl Williams drug war (as detailed in the series of popular Underbelly books and the top-rating television mini-series of the same name) – Dennis Allen was a man fully deserving of his fearsome reputation. While he only spent a few brief years at the top of Melbourne’s criminal hierarchy, it was enough time for Allen to spread fear through even the most hardened of souls who treaded the murky waters of Melbourne’s underworld, leaving behind a trail of dead bodies that helped give credence to his self-appointed (and fully-deserving) moniker of ‘Mr Death’.
Dennis Bruce Allen was born to crime patriarch Kathy Pettingill in Carlton on November 7, 1951, and grew up in a housing estate in Heidelberg (originally built for athletes competing in the 1956 Olympic Games and turned into public housing afterwards). By the time he was 20, Allen – a social misfit - had already amassed a decent rap sheet for fights, thefts and petty crimes, before serving his first significant jail time when he was put away for ten years after raping a young woman in a Sandringham flat in October 1973. He would only serve four of those years, but quickly found himself back inside for harbouring his 14 year-old brother Jamie, who was at the time an escapee from the Turana Youth Detention Centre in Parkville. While on day release to visit his grandparents in October 1981, Allen skipped custody and was later found in a Richmond pub in the company of a prostitute, so drunk that he was vomiting up blood.
It was after his release from incarceration on July 2, 1982, that Allen’s reputation grew, as he quickly established a booming heroin empire from behind the fortified walls of his Richmond base. At the time, Richmond was looked upon as one of Melbourne’s seedier and less-desirable suburbs, and Allen snatched up a number of residential properties in the area, always paying cash for the transactions. By the first half of 1984, Dennis Allen’s drug empire had already become so prosperous he had managed to plunk down $28,000 for 108 Stephenson Street (which Kathy Pettingill ran as a brothel while living next door, dealing heroin to customers through a hole in the wall), 102 Stephenson Street ($37,000), followed by Nos 35 and 37 Stephenson Street ($58,000 total). Not bad for a man who had been unemployed since his release from jail.
It was 37 Stephenson Street that Allen decided to call his home, employing a renovator (whose name has never been released) to live at the property while he installed exposed beams, skylights, additional rooms, and a 3.5 metre fish tank that took up an entire wall. While his dealing was known to the police and came under frequent surveillance, Allen had uncanny luck when it came to avoiding charges, thanks to investigations that often broke down or went nowhere, and the fact that Dennis was not only paying off corrupt cops but was working as a police informer. Coming from a family of criminals also helped him avoid prosecution, as he often called upon his brothers to help him commit his crimes and dispose of evidence.
The Cherry Tree Hotel, just around the corner from Stephenson Street, became Allen’s base away from home, and he was often seen drinking at the bar throughout the day, downing Southern Comfort and Coke’s and chain-smoking Viscounts. Flaunting his success, his heavily tattooed, streetfighter’s body would usually be adorned by up to $250,000 worth of gold necklaces, rings and bracelets, which provided a strange juxtaposition to the bib and brace overalls he would usually favour.
On a winter’s afternoon in 1984, Dennis Allen’s propensity for sudden, swift violence made its presence known when the renovator and his wife (who also has never been named) were having a drink while listening to the Sandown horse races at 37 Stephenson Street. As the afternoon wore on and Allen became increasingly more drunk (and likely stoned – he consumed a prodigious amount of amphetamines), a young blonde-haired man named Wayne Stanhope arrived at the house and began to party with the occupants. According to statements given years later by the renovator and his wife, Allen and Stanhope acted like friends, popping down to the Cherry Tree for a quick drink between races and returning with bottles of Southern Comfort. At one point, the pair went into the kitchen and injected themselves with speed.
As evening came on, the small group continued to drink heavily as they listened to loud music. At one point, Stanhope climbed out of his chair to change the record when Allen suddenly pulled a gun from out of his pants and fired a fusillade of shots into the man’s shoulder, chest and head. As Stanhope slumped down onto the carpet, Dennis went to the bedroom door where his young nephew Jason Ryan was staying and retrieved another handgun, which he emptied point blank into Stanhope’s head. Although the man was clearly deceased, Allen demanded his girlfriend fetch him a kitchen knife, which he used to slit Stanhope’s throat, before ordering a clean-up. The terror stricken witnesses had no choice but to comply – they didn’t want to end up the same way – and before long, three of Allen’s brothers (including Jamie and Trevor Pettingill) arrived to help dispose of the corpse. While the burned out remains of the Ford Escort panel van which he had borrowed from his grandfather was discovered in shrubs in the Brisbane Ranges the following day, Stanhope’s body has never been found, and it remains a mystery to this day where his remains ended up.
Exactly why Allen killed Stanhope has never been firmly established. He may have owed drug money that was unlikely to be paid back, or he may have been suspected of having a big mouth. But just as possible, Allen may have killed Stanhope on nothing but a spur of the moment impulse…maybe he didn’t like the way he looked at him, or disagreed with something he said. Maybe he just didn’t like Stanhope touching his state of the art stereo system. When you choose to live in this world, death can often come violently, suddenly, and without reason.
Helga Wagnegg, a 30 year-old prostitute whose best days were well behind her, was another name that ran head-on into the malevolent face of Dennis Allen and wound up stone cold as a result. Allen believed Wagnegg – a regular visitor to his den – to be the police informant that led to an earlier raid on the property, which yielded drugs, firearms and sticks of gelignite buried in the backyard. Allen’s retribution for this act of betrayal (either real or imagined) was to administer Wagnegg with a ‘hot shot’, a lethal injection of heroin well beyond the addict’s normal level of tolerance. Over a period of two hours on an evening in November 1984, as she sat slumped in his backyard, Allen injected Wagnegg no less than four times, including once in the neck. He then ordered Jason Ryan to fetch a bucket of water from the nearby Yarra River, submerging the unconscious girls’ head in it in an attempt to make it appear as if she had drowned when her body was later retrieved from the river.
But it was the killing of 33 year-old Anton Kenny on November 7, 1985 that became Dennis Allen’s most notorious, and well publicised, crime. Kenny, a former Hells Angel who was kicked out of the club when he gave a statement to police (an unforgivable betrayal in the bikie sub-culture) was shot five times with a .32 calibre pistol during an afternoon of drinking at Allen’s house (it was his 34th birthday). According to a witness, Kenny was murdered because he called Dennis Allen a ‘rat’. Treating it as though it was nothing more than a piece of meat that was in his way, Allen disposed of Kenny’s body by cutting off its legs with a chainsaw and stuffing it inside a 44-gallon drum, where it made local headlines when it was pulled out of the Yarra nearly four months later.
A classic sociopath, Dennis Allen did his own killing for a number of reasons. He enjoyed it, and the rush of power and adrenalin it brought him, and taking care of business himself eliminated the risk of having to look for hired hitmen. But above all, it enhanced his reputation as a man who was not to be crossed or trifled with. Most people who owed Dennis Allen money made sure they paid it back on time and in full.
By 1986, Dennis Allen’s empire – and his life – was already verging on self-destruction and burn-out. Years of massive drug and alcohol consumption finally caught up with his body, leading to a debilitating heart condition that slowly sapped him of his health and strength. With his grip on the heroin trade slipping, people started coming out of the woodwork to provide statements (mostly as a way to barter better deals for themselves) and police eventually put together enough evidence to charge Allen over Wayne Stanhope’s murder.
But as he had done on several occasions throughout his life, Dennis Allen would cheat the judge and avoid his day in court. Confined to a wheelchair, his once imposing frame enfeebled and shrunken by the loss of nearly 20 kilos, Allen died of heart failure in April of 1987. Ironically, his death was soon followed by the rise within the underworld of his clan of brothers, two of whom, Victor Pierce and Trevor Pettingill, were later tried for (and found not guilty of) the brutal 1988 slayings of two young policemen in Walsh Street, South Yarra (Allen’s nephew Jason Ryan also testified to be present when the Walsh Street killings were planned). After Victor Pierce was shot dead in 2002 (purportedly by Andrew Veniamin), his widow Wendy told a reporter for The Age that her husband was guilty of the police killings all along.
In the pantheon of colourful criminals who operated during those increasingly distant and gloomy days of Melbourne in the 1980s, Mark ‘Chopper’ Read may have come away with the glory, the talk shows, the books and the movie, but Dennis Allen took with him something that few people possess, and which still remains intact more than 20 years later: the power to invoke fear and anxiety from beyond the grave.
Copyright John Harrison 2009
(Note: the above is a portion of a much longer planned piece which I am currently working on)