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Death of 'Chopper' Read resonates in nation of convicts

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Mark 'Chopper' Read

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Mark 'Chopper' Read

BRISBANE -- Australia was not quite in mourning Thursday as it marked the passing of Mark Read, but a few prayers might have been sent up in the hope "Chop" won't have to spend all eternity in perdition.

Mark "Chopper" Read, who died of liver cancer Wednesday night, was a brutal but inventive criminal -- the type who would (quite literally) serve up a dish of razor blades to an enemy and demand he eat them.

He claimed to have killed more than a dozen men, chopped off his own ears in a jail protest and spent just 13 months outside prison between the ages of 20 and 38.

In one celebrated episode of his own version of civil disobedience, he climbed onto a jailhouse roof and repeatedly smashed himself in the head with a lump of timber studded with nails to highlight poor jail conditions.

Read appears to have treated the criminal code as a smorgasbord, helping himself to almost every offence on offer in his 58 years.

He was convicted for armed robbery, arson, assault and impersonating a police officer and once for attempting to kidnap a judge.

In 1978, Read entered a court and pointed a shotgun at Judge Bill Martin in a doomed attempt to get a friend out of jail.

He got 12 more years prison but, and here's the thing, he wrote a letter of apology to Mr. Martin.

As talented Australian actor Eric Bana captured so beautifully in the 2000 film Chopper, Read was psychotic, but a charming psychotic.

Sydney Morning Herald journalist John Silvester revealed that after he wrote a less than flattering piece on Read following his acquittal for the 1987 killing of Sammy "the Turk'' Ozerkam outside a Melbourne nightclub, Read also sent him a letter.

"My idea of a perfect Christmas would be to own a thousand-room hotel and find a member of the Herald Sun dead in every room. May the Yuletide log fall from your fireplace and burn your house down. Seasons greetings and jingle bells. Chopper Read.''

Charming might not be the word, but given how banal most written attempts at insulting journalists are, here was at least someone to put some creativity and energy into his missive.

And it was that inventive use of language that gave Chopper a second shot at life in the late '80s and '90s.

After a lifetime in prison he began writing about it, and became the most unlikely author ever to sip a chardonnay at a writers' festival.

Television appearances, road shows, a rap song and public service advertisements warning against the danger of drunk driving and domestic violence followed.

Had he not contracted hepatitis C and, subsequently the liver cancer that finally killed him Wednesday, a political career might not have been entirely out of the question.

Australians will accept an ex-convict in parliament provided he or she has mended their ways -- an accommodation perhaps born of necessity.

When the first European arrivals set foot on Australian shores in 1788, a quick head count would have revealed a clear majority were crooks.

And so, as a nation that started life as a confederacy of thieves, we may have had an unhealthy tolerance for "Chop'' already written into our DNA.

He knew he was dying but insisted he didn't worry about it, stoically refusing a possible liver transplant under Australia's generous public health system to lengthen his life.

"I don't deserve it,'' he said.

Whether the boy brought up by a deeply religious mother believed in an ultimate judgment is uncertain.

What is certain is that in the last decade, amid some spoken heartfelt regrets about a life wasted behind prison bars, he had already taken a few faltering steps toward some form of redemption.

Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 11, 2013 A13

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