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'Chopper Read,' larger-than-life Australian underworld figure, loses cancer battle

By Peter Shadbolt, for CNN
updated 5:41 AM EDT, Wed October 9, 2013
Ex-criminal Mark
Ex-criminal Mark "Chopper" Read pictured at the Enmore Theatre in Sydney, Australia back in 2001.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mark "Chopper" Read dies after battle with liver cancer, agent says
  • He was once one of Australia's most colorful and violent underworld figures
  • Read was portrayed by Eric Bana in the 2000 film based on his exploits "Chopper"
  • Despite spending decades in prison, Read cultivated a successful media career

(CNN) -- One of Australia's most colorful underworld figures and author, Mark "Chopper" Read -- whose cavalcade of violent crime put him behind bar for almost 23 years -- has died after a battle with liver cancer.

"I am deeply saddened to confirm the death of Mark Brandon Read, known widely throughout Australia and the world as 'Chopper'," his manager, Andrew Parisi said in a statement carried by Australian media.

The 58 year old was admitted to the Royal Melbourne Hospital recently with an "ongoing and serious illness," Parisi said.

Read was portrayed by Eric Bana in the 2000 film based on his exploits "Chopper," and his autobiographical books have remained among Australia's best-selling true crime titles.

His success in parlaying a life of crime into a lucrative media career -- he often toured with a stage show -- led to calls to extend Australia's Federal Proceeds of Crime Bill (2001), which confiscates the proceeds of drug deals and robberies, to include money from book deals and television appearances.

Life of crime

Born in 1954 in Melbourne's tough northern suburbs, Read began his apprenticeship in crime in the 1970s by robbing massage parlors and taking on contracts to rob and maim rivals, obtaining what he called a "doctorate" as a "stand over" merchant.

He's like this perfect cross between a complete psychopath and the crazy uncle you've got at your barbecue.
Andrew Parisi, manager

"I once told a friend 'Why rob a straight guy of $20 when you can rob a drug dealer of $10,000 and he can't go running to the police'," he said on his website, arguing that an honest man is more likely to put up a fight for a hard-earned $20 than a drug-dealer for thousands in fast cash from the proceeds of crime.

Bullied at school and often on the receiving end in hundreds of fights, Read explained on his website that he learned to brawl on the streets of Melbourne's Prahran district, graduating to kidnapping and torturing underworld figures, sometimes using a blowtorch on their feet or removing their toes with bolt cutters to extort money.

Famed for his peculiar brand of playground sadism, he said the electro-convulsive therapy he received as a teenager in mental institutions may have been responsible for some of his psychopathic tendencies. In prison gang fights, Read said he lost several feet of intestines and even had a fellow inmate cut off his ears so that he could get out of Pentridge Prison's high security H Division, according to his website.

Read claimed to be involved in the killing of 19 people and the attempted murder of 11 others. In an interview with the New York Times in April, Read said "Look, honestly, I haven't killed that many people, probably about four or seven, depending on how you look at it."

"He's like this perfect cross between a complete psychopath and the crazy uncle you've got at your barbecue," his manager, Parisi, said, in quotes carried by the New York Times.

Celebrity criminal

Political cartoonist for The Australian newspaper Bill Leak -- who met Read at a media engagement -- told CNN a long night on the town with the celebrity criminal ended true to the "Chopper" legend.

"I met Chopper for a drink and I skived off to play the pokies (slot machines), I must have put in all of $10 when I won some kind of jackpot and the management of the hotel gave me $1,500 in cash," said Leak, who spent the rest of the evening buying rounds of drinks for friends at the bar.

I once told a friend 'Why rob a straight guy of $20 when you can rob a drug dealer of $10,000 and he can't go running to the police?'
Mark 'Chopper' Read

The next day, somewhat worse for wear and after having offered Read a couch for the night, Leak awoke at 8 a.m. to find Read had already gone.

"He'd left this lovely note thanking me for my hospitality, saying I should contact him if I was ever in Melbourne," he said. "Later that day I met a friend for lunch at a café and when it came to the bill I thought there must be some change left from my winnings the night before but when I opened my wallet there wasn't one cent left -- Chopper had knocked it off!

"Working as I do for the media, everyone wanted to write the story but I didn't want it to get out: I simply thought I'd kept fast company and paid the price and put it down to that."

Weeks later, Leak received a letter from Chopper addressed to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).

"Everyone knew it was from Chopper so a small crowd gathered around me as I opened it up," he said. "When I did 10 crisp $50 notes fell out and there was one of those Hallmark cards with a religious image on it that said 'Congratulations on your Ordination'.

"Inside he'd written 'Congratulations on your ordination into a very select group of people who've been pinched by Chopper Read and lived to tell the tale. I'm sorry Bill but I'm a hopeless kleptomaniac, especially after a few red wines. I'll nick anything if it's not bolted down, and if it is, I'll use a heavy vehicle to rip it off.'

"Of course , everyone standing around me fell about laughing."

'Bull**** artist'

He said while many of Chopper's exploits were well documented, he was well known for embellishing the truth.

"At one stage in the evening I told him I thought he was the biggest bull**** artist I'd ever met," Leak said.

"He suddenly stood up and towered over me and one of my friends thought 'Oh no, there's going to be blood and guts everywhere now.'

"Then he roared with laughter and said 'I'm not just the biggest bull**** artist you've ever met but probably the biggest one in Australia. Half the people I killed in my book are still walking around Melbourne today."

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