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Australia’s brand name for ferocity is softened by time

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MELBOURNE, Australia » Mark Brandon Read sat quietly drinking lemonade in a small garden behind his favorite pub, the back of his chair positioned against an aging red brick wall that afforded him a clear line of sight to all possible escape routes. He looked affable enough, and the silver-plated dentures that long ago replaced his upper front teeth only added to the disarming smile that he occasionally flashes to great effect.

But before any real conversation could get started, the man better known by the nom de guerre Chopper wanted to make something perfectly clear: The number of murders attributed to him — roughly 19 at this point — is grossly exaggerated.

"Look, honestly, I haven’t killed that many people," he said matter-of-factly before finally settling on a number that he said felt more accurate: "probably about four or seven, depending on how you look at it."

In his 58 years, Read has been many things to many people: beloved son, husband and father; perhaps the most feared criminal in Melbourne’s notorious criminal history; an exuberant painter; the king of Australia’s most dangerous prison; and one of the country’s best-selling contemporary authors, including of children’s books.

He has recently added what might be the final entry in a resume that has made him one of the grand pop cultural icons of contemporary Australia: cancer patient. Last April, Read nearly died when three arteries supplying blood to his liver ruptured, causing massive internal bleeding. A network of more than 20 tumors on his liver had been strangling the arteries. He said then that his doctors had given him no more than six months to live.

Surgery removed all but three of the tumors, and he now feels "good as gold," he said, although he declined to discuss his illness further. The signs of the disease are as apparent, however, as the tattoos and scars that cover his body from head to toe. His skin is becoming papery and jaundiced; he tires easily and can become confused if he fails to take medication that helps clear his flagging liver. At one point during an interview at his home in a Melbourne suburb, he drifted in and out of consciousness under what appeared to be the influence of his medicines.

Read lived much of his life in almost unimaginable proximity to death. Has Chopper Read, who is famous for ordering his own ears amputated by a fellow inmate, now softened any with his impending death? Has it made him reconsider the morality of a life lived so fiercely at the expense of others? What does he expect to happen when he meets his maker?

"I think if anything, I’m owed an apology. I don’t think he was very fair with me," he said. "I think if there is a God, he owes a lot of people" an apology. "There’s no one I owe an apology to."

Sydney and Melbourne have a healthy rivalry, but there is very little question that Melbourne has always ruled the underworld roost. In Australia, where too much is often made of the psychological impact of its convict past, the title of toughest city is still important. In the history of criminal Melbourne, no single word has ever imparted as much fear as Chopper.

For the bulk of his career, Read was what is known as a headhunter, robbing and extorting fellow criminals. He says he lived by a moral code that precluded abusing or stealing from civilians. As he sees it, if drug dealers or pimps preyed on addicts and prostitutes, self-employed headhunters like Read would prey on them right back. Among his specialties, he said, were walking into illegal casinos with explosives in his mouth — "There’s no sense carrying it in your pocket, is there?" he noted — and torturing drug dealers with blowtorches.

Read said that his father, a World War II combat veteran who slept with a gun in his bed and regularly provided weapons to the budding young criminal, had also given him his moral code and a love of brutality.

"‘Remember, son,"’ Read recalled his father’s telling him, "‘just because you’re going to kill a man is no reason for discourtesy."’

But eventually Read decided to leave the criminal world and make his mark not with his gargantuan frame but with his surprisingly — to others, at least — nimble mind.

In 1991, while still a prisoner, he began collaborating with a pair of journalists on what would become his first book: "Chopper: From the Inside." Stamped with his inimitably unapologetic style, it would sell more than 200,000 copies and be adapted into the film "Chopper," which catapulted a young Australian comedian named Eric Bana to international fame in the leading role.

On Feb. 11, 1998, Read walked out of Risdon Prison in Tasmania and never looked back. He was 43 and had spent 23 years and nine months in prison. Since then, the Chopper brand has only grown — there is a Chopper beer, about a dozen books to his name and even a pair of ill-conceived rap albums. In 2003, he married his long-term partner, with whom he has a young son, in addition to a grown son from his first marriage. Melbourne’s most feared criminal had become one of Australia’s biggest stars.

But behind that facade of success lurk questions that are not getting any easier as he seems to near the end. How do the people in his life, let alone the Australian public, justify publicly embracing an unrepentant and admittedly sadistic killer?

"He’s like this perfect cross between a complete psychopath and the crazy uncle you’ve got at your barbecue," his manager, Andrew Parisi, said in an interview.

That might explain why, at the height of his criminal career, many local people loved him while his enemies ran for their lives when they heard he was coming for them. On a personal level, it becomes even more complicated.

His wife, Margaret, said of his violent past: "He’s my husband. He’s my friend. I don’t see him like that."

She was making tea in the kitchen, speaking softly so as not to wake him as he dozed on the living room sofa.

"He’s very loyal to his mates. His loyalty is what got him into strife."

About 40 minutes outside Melbourne sits the bluestone hulk of Pentridge Prison, which Read ruled like his own personal fief for almost 20 years. He lived there longer than at any other home in his life. He went to war there, became a writer there and still holds forth on the prison as though it was the only place he felt he had ever truly belonged. And maybe it was.

"It’s a weird, sort of strange feeling coming up now," he said, looking perplexed as he stood outside the prison gates later that day.

Suddenly, as if a light had gone on inside his head, he said: "That could be it. That could be the emotion I’m feeling: homesickness. That could be it."

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