Steve Nittes, who pulled off what was then Australia's largest armed robbery, has died aged 87. He is pictured as a young boxer

Steve Nittes, who pulled off what was then Australia’s largest armed robbery, has died aged 87.He is pictured as a young boxer

One of Australia’s most audacious gangsters has died more than 50 years after he pulled off what was then the country’s biggest armed robbery. 

Steve Nittes, who died in Victoria aged 87, was 35 when he snatched $587,890 from an armoured van at Guildford in ‘s western suburbs with two other gunmen on March 4, 1970.

The robbery set off a chain of underworld murders as other criminals seeking a share of the loot raced against police to hunt down those responsible.

Nittes escaped the clutches of Sydney’s Toe Cutter Gang, who tortured and killed one his accomplices, then went on to take part in Australia’s largest drug importations of the 1980s.

He served two lengthy prison sentences in New South Wales and remained well regarded within the Sydney and Melbourne underworlds until his death on December 22. 

The onetime drover survived being shot in the chest while still in his 20s and apparently conducted an affair with a jailer’s wife while inside. 

Nittes was also a classy lightweight southpaw boxer who fought regularly at Sydney Stadium and Melbourne’s Festival Hall from the mid 1950s to 1960.  

Stephen John Nittes was born in Queensland in 1934 and first made the news when he fractured his wrist after being thrown from a horse in Brisbane’s Hill End as a 10-year-old.

Eight years later he was described as a drover when found not guilty of indecent dealing with a girl under the age of 17 at Barcaldine in central Queensland.

In the early 1960s Nittes was living in Melbourne where he joined the Painters and Dockers union, taking part in organised criminal activities coordinated from the city’s wharves. 

During that decade Nittes faced trial over a series of bombings, including two in which explosives were detonated at the home of a Melbourne couple he had been paid to standover. 

Steve Nittes escaped the clutches of Sydney's Toe Cutter Gang, who killed one of his accomplices, and went on to take part in Australia's largest drug importation of the 1980s. He is pictured far left with (L-R) fellow conspirators Ross Karp, Grahame Palmer and Nick Paltos

Steve Nittes escaped the clutches of Sydney’s Toe Cutter Gang, who killed one of his accomplices, and went on to take part in Australia’s largest drug importation of the 1980s.He is pictured far left with (L-R) fellow conspirators Ross Karp, Grahame Palmer and Nick Paltos

Steve Nittes was a friend of retired gangster Graham 'Abo' Henry (left) and prison mate of the late armed robber and drug dealer Neddy Smith (right).  Henry posted a tribute to Nittes on Facebook describing Nittes as 'terrific company' and an 'all round scallywag'

Steve Nittes was a friend of retired gangster Graham ‘Abo’ Henry (left) and prison mate of the late armed robber and drug dealer Neddy Smith (right).  Henry posted a tribute to Nittes on Facebook describing Nittes as ‘terrific company’ and an ‘all round scallywag’ 

In September 1962 he was shot near the heart, having told staff at Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital he was the victim of an accident and asking that police not be called.

In August 1967 he was acquitted at his third trial for allegedly bombing Ciro’s night Club in Melbourne’s Exhibition Street the previous year. 

At his various court appearances over the years Nittes was described as a bricklayer, rigger, fisherman, labourer and painter and docker. 

One former criminal associate said Nittes told him of being threatened by a ‘Sydney tough guy’ during one of the Painters and Dockers’ typically violent elections.

‘[The tough guy] wanted to bash Steve so Steve pulled out a gun and shot him seven times and said, “You lose”,’ the associate said.

Nittes was also a classy lightweight southpaw boxer who fought regularly at Sydney Stadium and Melbourne's Festival Hall in the 1950s and early 1960s. Boxing purists still talk about his bout against Solomon Boysaw at Festival Hall in 1960

Nittes was also a classy lightweight southpaw boxer who fought regularly at Sydney Stadium and Melbourne’s Festival Hall in the 1950s and early 1960s.Boxing purists still talk about his bout against Solomon Boysaw at Festival Hall in 1960

Nittes stepped up several rungs on the criminal ladder when he was approached to pull off the interstate Mayne Nickless job, planned by Leslie ‘The Torch’ Woon. 

Woon, also known as Leslie James and sometimes as ‘The Professor’, was described in police reports as ‘one of the most brilliant, cunning and meticulous criminals to have operated in this country’. 

Nittes’ accomplices were Francis George ‘Baldy’ Blair, 34, and Alan Laurie Albert Jones, 29 who like 51-year-old Woon were linked to the Painters and Dockers. 

Their target, carefully chosen by Woon, was a Mayne Nickless van making deliveries and collections of cash to bank branches in Sydney’s western suburbs. 

The van stopped in a car park near the Guildford Commonwealth Bank about 11.40am while its three guards ate their lunch inside the vehicle. 

An hour later when one of the guards opened the back door to dispose of the men’s food wrappings, team leader Nittes, Blair and Jones pounced with pistols drawn. 

The three robbers, wearing dust coats, cloth caps and sunglasses, were crouching behind the van when the door opened. 

Nittes stepped up several rungs on the criminal ladder when he was approached to pull off the interstate Mayne Nickless job, planned by Leslie 'The Torch' Woon (pictured)

Nittes stepped up several rungs on the criminal ladder when he was approached to pull off the interstate Mayne Nickless job, planned by Leslie ‘The Torch’ Woon (pictured)

They ordered the guards to lie down in the van or be shot, then two of them jumped into the vehicle, bound the guards with rope and taped their mouths shut.

No shots were fired during the heist and the gang escaped with 24 green canvas sacks containing $587,890 – about $7million in today’s money. 

The previous record armed robbery had been the $136,400 taken from Mayne Nickless guards wheeling cash from a bank to their van parked at Melbourne’s Chadstone shopping centre a year earlier. 

As police began hunting the brazen bandits, a vicious gang of Sydney criminals was in close pursuit. 

The Toe Cutters got their name by their method of torturing victims to extract stolen or otherwise ill-gotten money.

The gang’s members included Kevin Victor Gore, brothers William Andrew ‘Billy’ Maloney and John Patrick ‘Jake’ Maloney, and Linus Patrick ‘The Pom’ Driscoll.

It has been claimed they were helped in chasing the Mayne Nickless robbers by Sergeant Fred Krahe, said to be one of the most corrupt members of the NSW Police Force.

Neddy Smith was locked up with Steve Nittes in Maitland jail in the 1970s and found him great company. 'I liked him, he had a good sense of humour, something people tell me I lack,' Smith wrote in his memoir Neddy. Maitland jail is pictured

Neddy Smith was locked up with Steve Nittes in Maitland jail in the 1970s and found him great company.’I liked him, he had a good sense of humour, something people tell me I lack,’ Smith wrote in his memoir Neddy. Maitland jail is pictured

Billy Maloney was a member of the notorious Toe Cutters gang who tortured fellow criminals until they handed over their ill-gotten gains

Kevin Gore was a former merchant seaman and leader of the Toe Cutters. He disappeared in May 1972

Billy Maloney (left) was a member of the notorious Toe Cutters gang who tortured fellow criminals until they handed over their ill-gotten gains.Kevin Gore (right) was a former merchant seaman and leader of the Toe Cutters. He disappeared in May 1972

Nittes, Blair and Jones evenly divided $270,000 of the stolen money, with about $40,000 left in a slush fund for ‘ancillary purposes’ and $270,000 going to mastermind Woon.

When the Toe Cutters caught up with Nittes they extorted $20,000 from him and then kidnapped Blair from the Oceanic Hotel at Coogee in Sydney’s east.

Underworld lore has it that Blair’s captors cut off his toes and put a blowtorch to his testicles before he disclosed the location of his booty and died of his wounds.

Another version has Blair being abducted before Gore and his gang approached Nittes, to whom they had sent some of his late partner-in-crime’s toes. 

Jones, who had fled to Melbourne, was the first to be arrested, followed by Nittes, who was nabbed in September in a Randwick motel. 

While Nittes declined to speak to police, Jones revealed that Woon had planned the robbery, the three gunmen had got $90,000 each and Blair had been murdered.  ‘And it was odds on I was going to be next,’ Jones told detectives.

Charles Edward Crane, who had harboured Nittes at Toukley on the NSW Central Coast and been paid $100 a week to be his chauffeur, was expected to give evidence against the two robbers.  

Sydney psychopath Stewart John Regan was among those hunting the men he believed had the proceeds of the Mayne Nickless robbery at Guildford. He was murdered in 1974

Sydney psychopath Stewart John Regan was among those hunting the men he believed had the proceeds of the Mayne Nickless robbery at Guildford.He was murdered in 1974

Two days before their trial began he was attacked by three men who slashed his arm, chest, stomach and thigh with a razor. The next day he was shot in the leg. 

Jones admitted his role in the robbery and Nittes pleaded not guilty.Both were convicted and sentenced to 16 years’ prison. 

NSW District Court judge Aaron Levine found Nittes had secreted $40,000 of his share from the robbery, which he said was carried out with ‘skill and precision’.

As Nittes was led to the cells he said: ‘I am not a bad man, judge, really.’ 

Some of the balance of the Mayne Nickless  cash made its way back to Painters and Dockers heavies including Billy 'The Texan' Longley

Some of the balance of the Mayne Nickless  cash made its way back to Painters and Dockers heavies including Billy ‘The Texan’ Longley

Woon was believed to have fled to Europe with at least his $270,000 and was not heard from again. 

In 1972 the NSW Supreme Court ordered Nittes forfeit property worth about $20,000 to the Reserve Bank, finding it was proceeds of the Mayne Nickless robbery.

Justice Maguire found Nittes had gone ‘on a spending spree in a very big way’ after the armoured van job. 

He spent $1,000 on dental work, bought land worth $10,000 at Gorokan on the Central Coast, a Valiant and a Land Rover.

Authorities also seized two shotguns, two rifles, a Chrysler outboard motor, a Pye stereo system, a Polar deep freeze, two television sets, an electric stove, refrigerator and a quantity of liquor.

Nittes maintained most of the property came from gambling wins and a small loan of $4,000 from a friend of his wife’s aunt. 

Of the alcohol collection he said, ‘sometimes a case would break open and you would get some good bottles out of it’ while working on the wharves. 

Some of the stolen $587,890 seems to have made its way back to Painters and Dockers heavies including Billy ‘The Texan’ Longley, who in 1973 was convicted of murdering union secretary Pat Shannon. 

Nittes served time at Parramatta jail (pictured) in the 1980s and the low-security Milson Island on the Central Coast where one of his friends claimed he was 'rooting a screw's wife'

Nittes served time at Parramatta jail (pictured) in the 1980s and the low-security Milson Island on the Central Coast where one of his friends claimed he was ‘rooting a screw’s wife’

Jones, whose life Judge Levine warned would be in jeopardy if he attempted to re-join the criminal world, did his time and stayed out of the limelight after his release. 

Nittes spent the early part of his minimum eight years at Maitland jail, where he and up and coming armed robber Neddy Smith became close. 

‘I spent a lot of time with Nittes,’ Smith wrote in his memoir Neddy.’He used to tell me stories about when he had been the trump over all the Painters and Dockers in Melbourne. 

‘I believed I could learn a lot from him. The very first – and most important thing I learned was that you could not afford to trust anyone at all.

‘If you want to survive, Nittes used to say, “keep your enemies close to you and your friends at arm’s length”.’

Nittes also served time at Parramatta and the low-security Milson Island on the NSW Central Coast where one of his friends claimed he was ‘rooting a screw’s wife’. 

Stephen John Nittes was born in Queensland in 1934 and first made the news when he fractured his wrist after being thrown from a horse in Brisbane's Hill End as a 10-year-old

Stephen John Nittes was born in Queensland in 1934 and first made the news when he fractured his wrist after being thrown from a horse in Brisbane’s Hill End as a 10-year-old

Nittes next hit the headlines in 1985 when he was arrested as part of the Australian Federal Police’s Operation Lavender which busted the country’s biggest drug importation ring. 

Sydney doctor Nick Paltos, solicitor Ross Ross Karp and illegal gambling operator Grahame George ‘Croc’ Palmer had imported 10 tonnes of hashish worth $40million in March the previous year.

Nittes, the group’s Melbourne distributor, pleaded guilty to his role in the cartel and was sentenced to seven years. 

Late in life he spent time in Perth but had moved back to Melbourne and suffered from dementia in recent years.  

Retired armed robber Graham ‘Abo’ Henry was one of those to mark Nittes’ death on social media.

‘RIP Steve Nitties my friend/Australian light weight champion/gangster/armed robber and Terrific company,’ Henry wrote.’An all round scallywag. A force to be reckoned with in the Melbourne Painter and Docker Wars.’

One of Henry’s friends got it right when he responded: ‘He was lucky to make 87.’              

<div class="art-ins mol-factbox news" data-version="2" id="mol-212dccc0-6d00-11ec-9215-9f9d267abbb2" website Nittes pulled off Australia&apos;s largest armed robbery in 1970

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