Juanita Nielsen Was Murdered for Standing Up to Sydney’s Developers

In 1975, Sydney gangsters kidnapped and murdered the campaigning journalist Juanita Nielsen. Nielsen had been a champion of Sydney’s poor residents against social cleansing, earning herself the hatred of property developers, politicians, and their underworld allies.

Juanita Nielsen pictured at her office in Potts Point in 1974. (Nigel Scot McNeil)

In Australia, the 1970s are remembered as a decade of protest and industrial struggle. Powerful social movements were a cornerstone of political life; unions, women, First Nations people, and the LGBT community fought together to defend human rights and the environment.

The New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) was at the forefront of many of these struggles. Famously, they pioneered the strategy of placing “green bans” on jobs likely to cause severe damage to the heritage or the environment, or ones that would destroy low-cost housing.

The green ban movement flourished in the early 1970s. It brought a predominantly male, blue-collar workforce into joint action with diverse community organizations, often led by women, and sometimes based in middle-class suburbs. Together, they chalked up numerous victories against ruthless vested interests. Many of these battles, however, had to be fought at great personal cost.

In the working-class Sydney suburb of Kings Cross, the BLF joined with residents to save people’s homes from a high-rise development on Victoria Street. In the course of that bitter fight, opponents of the green bans physically intimidated many residents. Many leaders received death threats. Finally, on July 4, 1975, a local journalist called Juanita Nielsen was murdered.

Murder, Kidnapping, and Thuggery

Sydney, in those days, was home to a flourishing, virulent underworld. Dr Alfred McCoy described the scene in his book Drug Traffic: Narcotics and Organized Crime in Australia:

No city in the world could rival Sydney’s tolerance for organised crime . . . During the eleven years from 1965 [to] 76, with the Liberal-Country Party in power, the State endured a period of political and police corruption unparalleled in modern history.

Kings Cross was especially notorious for its webs of corruption linking gangsters, developers, and politicians. When residents of Victoria Street organized to defend their homes, this underworld surfaced. The Victoria Street community faced mounting violence and intimidation, aimed at forcing them out.

For example, two years prior to Juanita’s murder, Arthur King, secretary of the Victoria Street Residents Action Group, was kidnapped. After two days, King’s captors released him. He returned to Victoria Street clearly terrified, packed up his belongings, quit the campaign, and left the area. Thugs had targeted King because he had been the first to approach the BLF, asking them to place a green ban on any demolition works on Victoria Street.

The general secretary of the Water and Sewerage Employees’ Union, John Glebe, was also threatened. Glebe’s union one of the staunchest supporters of the Victoria Street green ban. He was also, at the time, Juanita Nielsen’s partner.

At the time of her death, Juanita worked as the editor and publisher of NOW, a local newspaper covering community and business activities. She was not necessarily the kind of person many would associate with radical journalism or campaigns to protect low-cost housing. Often described as “a wealthy heiress,” Juanita was part of the retail family that owned Mark Foy’s department store, in the center of Sydney.

However, Juanita quit her job at Mark Foy’s in 1968 in order to lead resistance to a plan cooked up by senior Foy family members to sell the department store. She moved a no-confidence motion against the board. When it failed, Juanita left the family retail business.

By the end of 1968, she was working full-time in Kings Cross, having established NOW as a commercially viable paper serving the local community. Under Juanita’s direction, NOW fought to protect low-cost housing — and this experience pushed her to the left. “Laws are based around property, not people,” Juanita wrote, “[and] green bans made people more important.” Before she disappeared, two conservative Sydney councillors warned Juanita that “she was treading on a lot of important toes.”

She also regularly received threatening phone calls at her home. They were so serious that Juanita and her business partner, David Farrell, decided that she would keep him informed of her movements every day as a precaution. Their assessment of the threat was accurate — but tragically, it wasn’t enough. As Juanita herself commented at the time, “there was just too much money around.”

Confronting Capital

Jack Mundey was the secretary of the New South Wales (NSW) BLF and leader of the green bans movement. During the Victoria Street campaign, his family and union comrades also received death threats. To Mundey, this was to be expected — it was “the sort of thing that’s going to happen if we keep confronting capital.”

The BLF’s green ban heavily affected the financial health of the Victoria Street redevelopment project. By early 1974, the union’s ban on demolition cost developer Frank Theeman $16,800 a week in interest payments alone — in today’s money, that would be $140,000.

Just a year previously, in 1973, the NSW Liberal state government sacked Sydney’s Labor-dominated city council. The new council then changed Sydney’s building regulations, allowing developers to knock down homes to make way for high-rise buildings. Theeman’s company, Victoria Point, looked to be sitting on top of a gold mine.

Many of the homes Theeman wanted gone had low rents, and their residents did not want to leave. However, Theeman’s associates, Abe Saffron and James Anderson — two notorious crime figures — employed thugs to strong-arm over three hundred residents, evicting them. Theeman also hired a former police officer, Frederick Krahe. Krahe was an associate of violent Sydney gangs whose name was linked with a number of robberies.

Saffron and Theeman were also closely connected to the police and key players in the NSW government, including Liberal premier Robert Askin and then police commissioner Norman Allan. These relationships emboldened Theeman, convincing him that his $40 million apartment project was unstoppable, despite the green ban imposed on the site.

However, Theeman seriously misjudged the community anger his thugs would generate when they smashed up houses and threw hundreds onto the street. Incensed locals responded with a broad and determined campaign of resistance. Squatters occupied many of the remaining homes. With the help of the BLF’s green ban and Juanita’s newspaper, they won wide public support.

As she reported on the campaign, Juanita’s political understanding grew. As Peter Rees wrote in his book Killing Juanita: “To Juanita, forces were at work to cheapen not only the value of houses in Victoria Street, but also the lives of people who lived in them.”

At the same time, Juanita was losing faith that the authorities could fairly resolve the dispute. Increasingly, she recognized NOW’s leading role and campaigned to ensure that elderly and low-income residents would be rehoused in their own neighborhoods.

Then, in September 1973, the campaign took a tragic turn. Esther Marion Blaszkows, a young Aboriginal woman, died from asphyxiation as the result of a fire in the Victoria Street house where she had been living as a squatter. Questions remain about the fire’s connection to Theeman’s evictions.

However, when the mainstream media reported on Blaszkows’s death, it described her as a derelict. Juanita was disgusted. In the September 11, 1973 edition of NOW, she wrote:

There seems to be a whole new way of looking at life and death here in Victoria Street. If you’re burned to death in Pymble, Redfern or Panania you’re an accident victim. If you’re burned to death in Victoria Street you are a derelict.

Homes for All

Juanita’s killer — or killers — have still not been officially identified. However, two courageous journalists collected evidence on one of Australia’s few political murders. After years of investigation, Barry Ward and Tony Reeves assembled material on those suspected of the crime.

In his book A Requiem for Juanita, Ward quotes Ted Middleton, accountant to underworld figure Abe Saffron. Middleton had no doubt who was to blame for the infamous murder:

Fred Krahe organized it and there were two others in on it, plus Saffron, Anderson, and Trigg, and certain coppers, of course.

Eddie Trigg, another of Theeman’s enforces, already had criminal convictions in several states.

Ward and Reeves also revealed how police officers undermined the investigation. They pointed to discrepancies in the police version of Juanita’s last hours, as well as the inaccurate depiction of Juanita’s clothes and hairstyle that the police used in her missing person’s photo. They also noted Krahe’s influence over a number of serving Sydney police officers.

Some contend that Juanita was killed because of an exposé she was about to publish in NOW, revealing connections and illegal funding networks between Sydney’s big gamblers, high society, senior NSW bureaucrats, MPs, and police. For obvious reasons, Saffron and others wanted to suppress these revelations.

Within twenty-four hours of Juanita’s disappearance, her home and office were ransacked. Many of Juanita’s research papers vanished, as did the copy for the planned edition of NOW bearing her exposé.

In 1976, Labor came to power in NSW. After viewing the evidence complied by Ward and Reeves, then ALP attorney general Frank Walker ordered the crime squad to provide details of the police investigation. Walker wasn’t naive about the challenges he would face in dealing with the police. As he said to Ward and Reeves: “Don’t say too much on the phone, I’m certain the cops are bugging me.”

Partly as a result of Walker’s efforts, a submission calling for a judicial inquiry into the murder, conspiracy, and police collusion was compiled and presented to the then NSW premier, Neville Wran. But Wran denied the request. Ward wrote in 2008 that although he was “sympathetic,” Wran “was also cautious about authorizing a step which could have such wide-ranging political implications.”

In 1983, a coronial jury inquiry found that Nielsen had probably been murdered. She was declared deceased — but there was insufficient evidence to determine those responsible or how she had been murdered. The inquiry noted that police corruption had probably limited the investigation.

Paid With Her Life

Alongside the green ban movement, Juanita Nielsen helped to save Kings Cross from a project that would have seen the area massively overdeveloped. Thanks in part to her courage, residents were successful in protecting some of the original homes. However, a version of the project was still finally approved, ushering in a wave of gentrification that forced many locals out of the area.

While it wasn’t a clear-cut win for the campaign, it was a significant achievement, nonetheless. The impact of Juanita’s work was felt far beyond Victoria Street. She helped to articulate and amplify the collective voices of local people, workers, environmentalists, students, and other radicals who were working toward the common good.

Juanita was never alone. She stood alongside many allies, against state-sanctioned thuggery and a political system closed to scrutiny and hostile to community democracy. Although Juanita paid with her life, her final legacy is her bravery. She stood unflinchingly with a campaign demanding low-cost housing for ordinary people and defending the right to organize and mobilize collectively. Hers was a spirit that could not be silenced or intimidated.

The Juanita Nielsen Memorial Lecture has been held annually since 2001. The 2020 address will be delivered by Lidia Thorpe, Greens senator for Victoria, on Tuesday, December 15.

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Lee Rhiannon initiated the Juanita Nielsen Memorial Lecture series in 2001 when she was a New South Wales state MP. Lee was also a Greens Senator. She has been involved in a range of political campaigns since the 1960s.

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