Ex-crim Chopper knows his days are numbered

By Greg Ansley

Career criminal and crime writer "Chopper" Read is in the final stages of terminal liver cancer after contracting hepatitis C in prison. Photo / AP
Career criminal and crime writer "Chopper" Read is in the final stages of terminal liver cancer after contracting hepatitis C in prison. Photo / AP

Mark "Chopper" Read, one of Australia's most colourful and best known criminals, is battling the final stages of terminal liver cancer in a Melbourne Hospital.

Read, 59, was admitted to Royal Melbourne Hospital this week with what manager Andrew Parisi called "an ongoing and serious illness".

But regardless of his underworld reputation, Read was far more successful at self-promotion than crime.

He pursued an out-of-jail career as a highly successful crime writer, stand-up comedian and commentator whose face was used to promote campaigns against drink-driving and domestic violence.

The truth of his criminal life is murky, obscured by contradictions in his own storytelling, police reports, and the larger-than-life imagery of a genial thug equally able to spin a good yarn or cut off the toes of a rival.

In 2000, actor Eric Bana portrayed Read in the movie Chopper: the posters of an armed Bana-Read glaring out with his arms crossed across his torso, became an icon of the genre.

By his own count - not accepted by everyone - Read was involved in 19 murders and 11 attempted killings.

But earlier this year he told the New York Times: "Look, honestly, I haven't killed that many people, probably about four or seven, depending on how you look at it."

He was a kidnapper, standover man, thief and armed robber, spending more than 23 years in jail and all but 13 months of his 20s and 30s behind bars.

Read's path to national notoriety began early, beginning his criminal career as the leader of a local street gang and rolling drug pushers.

Later, Read kidnapped fellow thugs and tortured them for money. He burned them with blowtorches or cut off their toes.

Jail was quick to follow, with a series of convictions keeping him locked away for almost two decades and terrorising fellow inmates as the leader of the "overcoat gang", a following of thugs who wore long coats to conceal weapons to be used on rival inmates.

Eventually the gang turned on him, stabbing him so violently he reportedly lost large amounts of his intestines.

In 1995, while serving time in Tasmania, Read wed Mary-Anne Hodge in a marriage that lasted six years and produced one child. He remarried in 2003 to Margaret Cassar.

Out of jail, Read leveraged his notoriety and powerful personality for cash and fame.

He turned to writing, authoring a score of books that have made him one of Australia's most successful crime writers. He has written magazine columns, commented on underworld affairs, became a regular on television and radio shows and fronted for drink-drive and domestic violence campaigns and had a Victorian beer named after him.

Eight years ago he hit the road as a stand-up comedian, touring the nation with former AFL star Mark "Jacko" Johnson and disgraced former Sydney Detective Roger "The Dodger" Rogerson. His material frequently required a strong stomach.

But the past has caught up. Read contracted hepatitis C in prison, and last year he was diagnosed with liver cancer.

"They say there's no way out of it," he told Melbourne's Herald Sun.

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