Pell Mell Straight to Hell


As far as I can tell, Cardinal George Pell in his evidence to the Royal Commission into Child Abuse has confirmed that his fellow priests were acting as pimps for the abusers, providing fresh victims by moving them from parish to parish. It was a criminal culture of cover-up and deception, he said. By raising his hand weakly in protest at some latter stage he suggests that he was some kind of Saint? Wrong- in my opinion he should answer a charge of criminal conspiracy or obstruction of justice along with the rest of those revolting purple vipers.

Funny how no one is mentioning the Tim Minchin song any more. It seems to me Pell giving evidence via video link was quite sufficient after all. It has demonstrated that justice can be seen to be done, without having to give into the baying mob?

I would argue that by having it in Rome, his appearance has become a worldwide news event that has brought much greater focus on the suffering of the victims and will force Pope Francis’ hand. In fact, as the Ballarat Courier noted that “the Cardinal fronted a global media frenzy” after his appearance.  Would that have been the case if he fronted in Sydney? I doubt it very much. I found the cries from the mob that Pell’s medical condition be ignored and that he be dragged back to Sydney quite troubling. The rule of law is a tricky thing, either you believe in it absolutely or you don’t believe in it at all. You can’t pick and choose when you extend procedural fairness, you either believe in it as a universal right or you don’t. Many people have shown an equivocal attitude, suggesting that it was right and proper to hold Pell to a higher standard than anybody else. I find this so repugnant and make the point convictions based on such an approach would lack integrity.

Having heard Pell’s carefully crafted evidence, what happens next? I wonder whether there is an investigator who will take up this brief and actually try to lock up the priests, like Pell, who either actively supported the abusers or stood back and failed to report. In my opinion, this was a conspiracy- either a conspiracy of silence or an active conspiracy to protect these evil doers. However, proving a conspiracy is a very difficult thing, unless that is, you can encourage a conspirator to assist. To that end, my suggestion is to throw a rope around the lot of them and keep tightening until their eyes bulge. It won’t be long before clergymen faced with the prospect of jail will start opening up like watermelons falling off a truck. Even if the prosecutions fail, we owe it to the victims, and those who want to clean up this mess, to have a red hot go.




Trouble Doubled in Paradise

wedding cake rain

I love reading the letters page of the local newspaper, it’s truly the home of the first world problem. A lady trips on a piece of broken pavement and hurts herself, she goes to complain only to find council has fixed the problem before she gets to have her whinge. She still manages a bleat, why does it take someone to hurt themselves before action is taken? A man goes for a browse at the local tip shop, (yes what we throw away is so good it can be resold) and finds a tin of toxic paint that he complains he can’t open thereby denying himself the life threatening injuries that were promised on the tin. Another complains that people living in expensive apartments are having to put up with “the blight” of people selling drugs in the street below. And Fremantle has a crisis, says another, too few charging points for electric cars, the sea will no doubt rush up High St this afternoon. And finally a lament as to why politicians keep giving money to Africa the “I can’t help myself can’t feed myself” continent. And meanwhile in the real world….

We are so used to everything working and having someone to blame when it doesn’t we have become utterly useless and non-resilient. Or maybe we are so used to living with anxiety that we search for stuff that justifies it. Thoughts?

Shaming Belle

Great piece by John Elder on Belle Gibson

Yes, Belle is copping loads of abuse and many are calling for her to be prosecuted for the fraud she committed on cancer sufferers who believed her alternative therapies could cure them. And yes it’s unlikely she will be pinged for deceit, even though she made a substantial amount of money from The Whole Pantry cookbook and App. But why? She seems clearly to have gained a financial advantage by deception. The problem is, law enforcement seems disinterested in most fraud cases, even when the deception is egregious. Perhaps shaming is the best we can hope for, but the feeling that she may have killed other people with her narcissism lingers on.

This Morning on Monument Hill

IMG_0077As the streaky glow of dawn lit Monument Hill in Fremantle this morning, I looked around at the sea of faces gathered to commemorate the centenary of Gallipoli. They were Australians of all descriptions: young men in high viz jackets straight from iron ore mines, fathers with children hoisted upon their shoulders, old women who had lost husbands to war decades ago, motorcycling Vietnam veterans in leather vests seeking fraternity in paramilitary dress, brawny sailors from ships in the port, girlfriends, wives and families of military men serving in Iraq.

They had all come to pray at the altar of nationalism. Gallipoli was the moment the newly federated colonies of Australia became one people, it’s generally understood. The young men who came ashore at Gallipoli on April 25 1915 all bore the curved text on their battle tunics “AUSTRALIA”, said one speaker today. So the ANZAC legend has been drawn since Banjo Paterson wrote his ode to Gallipoli “We’re All Australians Now.”

The mettle that a race can show

Is proved with shot and steel,

And now we know what nations know

And feel what nations feel.

Paterson’s words ring down the years. Only in war can a nation be born, only when the blood of young men stains foreign shores can we be taken seriously as a nation, he wrote.

Our six-starred flag that used to fly

Half-shyly to the breeze,

Unknown where older nations ply

Their trade on foreign seas.

Flies out to meet the morning blue

With Vict’ry at the prow;

For that’s the flag the Sydney flew,

The wide seas know it now!

I’ve been a lifelong fan of Paterson but I find these lines disturbingly anachronistic. They have not stood the test of time. With a century of hindsight, it’s clear that it was the curse of nationalism that sent 8000 ANZACs to their deaths in the Dardanelles. Yet, still, we justify their sacrifice through a prism of nationalism.

Above all, Gallipoli should be remembered for the horror and futility of war. Instead, this centenary celebration has sought to elevate pointless slaughter to a moment where national character was defined. Our troops went to war with pride for King and country but as the body count grew at Anzac Cove, they fought not for some abstract notion of national glory, but for the men alongside them in the trenches.

I hope that one day we can move beyond this narrow jingoistic view of ANZAC Day. This day should underscore the senselessness of war, it should recognise and commemorate the losses of all nations in battle.

I was disappointed that this morning on Monument Hill there was no mention of the Turkish and Arab soldiers who died at Gallipoli, defending the fading and despotic Ottoman empire. The Ottoman losses of 250 000 killed or wounded were nearly ten times that of Australia, but who remembers that? The enemy remains fixed in time as simply “Johnny Turk.”

The tragedy of war is young men sent to fight and die for unjust and spurious causes. I do not seek to diminish in any way the sacrifice of those who served at Gallipoli. What greater courage is there than to march into battle with nothing more solid than a sense of duty? What should be remembered is the cowardice of leaders, whose poorly  defined notions of courage prevented them from stepping back from the precipice of war, who instead sent millions to their deaths.  Lest we forget this, or we are bound to repeat the bloody folly over and over.


Dear people,

Apologies, it’s been a while since we last spoke as I have been settling in to Perth and my new life as the Drive host on 6PR. But now  that every day is no longer the white knuckle plunge into uncertainty, I will be back on the blog, as it were, more often.

Just taking a break from writing since the release of The Real Chopper last September.  I am sure that something will grip my attention sufficiently to commit to my next project but for the meantime I am enjoying not waking up with 1000 words to write before breakfast. Six books in seven years is probably enough for the moment. I look back and think: “How the hell?” When I come back for another project, it may or may not be a crime book. I’d be keen to explore some other genres and ideas. Maybe fiction in Africa…look out Wilbur Smith.

I still have the “King of Thieves” screenplay to satisfy my felonious urges. Co-writer Andrew Knight and I will be resuming the task of peeling the onion towards a final draft later in the year and I can’t wait to finish that. I visited our co-producer in the UK in December and was amazed that people really like the screenplay. He called it “our film” which is a bit startling (not to mention pleasing) after 5 years of dreaming and wishing a screenplay into reality. So many people have said that I should have gone the easier route to a telemovie or a series but the advice of my agent Richard Walsh to go for the highest ambition (a feature film) and work our way downwards was right. Learning patience has been the greatest by-product of writing (and waiting) for film.

So, for the moment, I will be focussing exclusively on my radio program which is really an unfolding delight. I especially love talking to the listeners with their views and stories. It’s been wonderful how they have accepted me, despite all my mispronunciations of local suburbs etc and my tendency to cut in when I get excited. Sorry.

Esconced in a lovely little studio in Fremantle, things are settling down after a tumultous few months of change, ending with the death of my father on Easter Saturday. RIP JWS. Got a double bunger that week, with news that my pooch Buddy lost a battle with a puff adder in our garden in Zimbabwe. Got back and sent for Teddy the Bichon from Melbourne. It’s a time for keeping things I love close, I’d get the kids over from Melbourne but prising barnacles off a rock would be easier. I’m not offended, they are busy with their lives and I am proud to watch them developing their skills and personalities without Dad looking over their shoulders and constantly passing judgement etc.   Anyway, another sapphire blue sky beckons me to work. Talk soon.


Going Berko on the Burqa: A Police Perspective

Exploding Undies

The Ban the Burqa lobby has been battered into abeyance in recent times. The attempt by the Speaker of Parliament Bronwyn Bishop to make Muslim visitors to the House wearing the burqa (full facial covering) or the niqab (just eyes exposed) sit in a glassed off area in the public gallery was ill-considered and divisive. It failed and it cost Bishop a plum retirement job and whatever credibility she had left.

In the wake of this, security chiefs, the Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police and the Prime Minister have all rushed to reject the notion that facial coverings represent a security risk in Australia.

I should make the rider here that I default to the principle that people should be able to wear whatever they choose in a democracy. The quaint idea that styles of dress can “outrage public decency” depends on whether one accepts that such decency still exists, or has any useful value.

Like most moralising twaddle, this is an attempt to impose one’s views on the wider society. It begins with shrill condemnation and inevitably progresses to some form of legal coercion. The campaigns are often nothing more than an attempt by the high-minded to manifest “hostility to lifestyles they personally dislike,” according to AC Grayling in The Meaning of Things. Many of the opponents of the burqa fall into this category.

On that simplistic level, I reject much of the anti-burqa argument. However, when you talk to police practical considerations arise.

A former very senior policeman argues that the security risks of the burqa (and all facial coverings) are being underestimated. I should hasten to add that he is not a racist or anti-Muslim, far from it, but he prefers to remain anonymous.

He says garments that cover the face are able to defeat facial recognition technology (FRT) which is being used to combat terrorists and criminals.

The biometrically based FRT camera takes measurements between facial features and makes comparisons against previously taken photographs.

Such tools have been employed widely overseas with great success by law enforcement but so far are only in limited use in Australia.

There is talk of the creation of a national database of faces so it’s on its way here. Our Customs and Border Protection Service is set to introduce an FRT system for passport checks.

Few would argue against the need for biometric identification systems to thwart the use of false passports by terrorists such as Khaled Sharrouf.

Sharrouf left Australia on his brother’s passport to join Islamic State’s blood orgy in Syria and Iraq. He made headlines when pictures of his seven-year son were published holding the severed head of a Syrian soldier.

Who would argue that new measures at airports would make Australia a safer place by preventing the free movement of degenerates like Sharrouf?

Obviously, a person wearing a burqa or the niqab will simply have to show their face at immigration points to officers and there would be little conflict.

But with Australia’s terrorism alert recently raised, the security arsenal will be greatly enhanced. We have been warned by authorities to expect greater intrusion and control. It’s likely that FRT cameras will be used to conduct security sweeps on crowds in public venues. A whole new set of problems then arise, my retired cop says.

Imagine if Samantha Louise Lewthwaite, the world’s most wanted female terrorist, were to be in the crowd at a sporting venue in Australia, he says.

Lewthwaite, who was raised as a Christian but converted to Islam at the age of 17, is rumoured to have been behind last the September 2013 Westgate shopping mall massacre in Nairobi. She is said to employ disguises to conceal her identity, according to media reports.

If she was in a crowd wearing either a burqa or a niqab, FRT would not identify her. What’s to stop a male terrorist also disguising his identity and gender by wearing such garb, the cop argues.

It’s not surprising that police are unabashed fans of FRT.

A system used by Victoria Police has achieved a flawless track record in the identification of suspects, SC Magazine reports.

The home-grown iFace biometric system was so accurate that it reportedly outed an identical twin who tried to evade prosecution by using his brother’s name.

iFace was introduced in 2010 across hundreds of police stations to help identify persons of interest with criminal histories.

Yet iFace is useless if the face is covered. Of course, this applies to anyone wearing full face covering, including a motor cycle helmet, balaclava or joke mask – anything that effectively hides their primary facial features and their placement.

There are limits to personal freedom already. Walk into a bank wearing any of these items and see what happens. There is a public interest in forbidding or discouraging the wearing of what in effect can be a ‘disguise’ in the dictionary meaning of the word, my cop argues. To FRT cameras, any facial covering is in effect a disguise, he says.

For those who must cover themselves for religious or cultural reasons, the hijab (head scarf) with long robes would be acceptable from both perspectives, the retired cop argues.

Whether we like it or not, we are now in a “heightened security environment,” we are told. How much freedom we have to give up to maintain our security is the burning question. As soon as Australia joined the fight against Islamic State, we effectively declared war on a section of our own community. It’s inevitable that there will be the home grown terror attacks that we have thus far been spared. In that scenario, political correctness will not save us. If we accept that FRT is a legitimate tool in the fight against terror, this will become the next field in the battle for and against the burqa.

The Real Chopper’s Mail Bag

Courtesy of Mark "The Hammer" Dixon

Courtesy of Mark “The Hammer” Dixon

With my new book The Real Chopper hitting the shelves this week, I received my first piece of fan mail last night. It was from one of the libertarians who believe that authors need permission to write about their subjects.
“Does Chopper Read give you permission to write a book about him? Why would you wait till the mans dead to write a book about him?
You my friend are a…”
And that’s as far as my fan got. I am sure he was about to write “jolly good fellow” before he was tragically struck down by an aneurism, or a falling asteroid. RIP. It’s a bit of a silly thing to say given Chopper was the greatest posthumous re-writer of history since the authors of the Bible. His books are full of his views on, and experiences with, dead gangsters. Many of them were transformed into blood enemies or bosom buddies under his pen. In reality few had anything to do with him. I took the time to research those stories on behalf of the people who, being dead, didn’t get the right of reply. Almost all of it was puffery and fantasy.

For the record, Chopper did give me his permission to write the book. That discussion forms chapter one of the book. Read knew what powered his celebrity. He knew that his books would keep selling after his death if people kept talking about him. I have no doubt that The Real Chopper will send readers back to Chopper’s books, if only as a basis for condemning my efforts. And Chopper will continue to provide for his family, which was really his most worthwhile achievement. After 23 years nine months in jail, Chopper became a successful author and artist, an extraordinary turnaround. I explore and applaud that in my book.

For those who missed it, here are the extracts from the book which ran in News Ltd mastheads and websites on the weekend.

And keep the nasty letters flowing people, it’s what Chopper would have wanted.

Scotland The Brave

The strongest argument against Scottish independence is that the rich and powerful in England don’t seem to like it, which is the best reason for cutting the three-hundred year old bonds with Britain.

There are dire predictions that if the “Yes” vote succeeds this week, the Royal Bank of Scotland will move its headquarters to England and GBP17 billion will leave the UK economy. If they go it alone, Scots won’t be able to use the British pound any more and the British and Irish Lions rugby team will have to become the British, Irish and Scots Lions.

So does it matter, especially to colonials with distant ties to the old country? I was moved to consider this after a London-based friend Paola Totaro asked on Facebook last night how much interest/coverage there was in Australia in the Scottish referendum. Very little seemed to be the answer. Most of us seem to take our connections for granted.

I didn’t feel the slightest bit Scottish until five years ago when I began to research our family history, tracing my paternal roots to a little village in Morayshire called Mosstodloch. In 2009, I headed up there for a few days during a trip to London while writing my book “King of Thieves.” I googled bed and breakfast accommodation and found the two options available were both run by members of the Shand family. “I am home!” I announced to my reluctant relatives as I arrived at Castle Cottage. They seemed eager to put even greater distance between me and their family tree. “Oh, we’re actually not from round here. We’re from Keith,” they said. Keith was all of 10 miles away. I got the impression that I wasn’t the first from the Scottish diaspora to turn up like a prodigal son. At least, I wasn’t wearing the family tartan.

Over three days, I learnt more about our Scots heritage than I had in my entire life. Arriving in 1852, our original pioneer John Shand and Mary Barclay were Scottish through and through. All of their offspring were born into the Presbyterian Church and received the maternal Barclay as a second name. However, the next generation tried to erase the family heritage. As I have written before, my great-grandfather Alexander Barclay Shand decided his son Jack would get “Wentworth” as a middle name. It has survived right down to the present generation. It was a fraud. AB Shand, then a leading member of Sydney’s (very English) Bar, decided to appropriate the colonial prestige of the Wentworth family. At some stage, (or at least in death) AB also decided he was an Anglican, eschewing the family burial plot in Rookwood’s Presbyterian section for a niche in a wall at a dreary crematorium in the northern suburbs. It seemed an awfully drab thing to do, though I’m sure it was important in getting ahead in colonial Sydney. It was an advantage to be English.

We had begun our journey in Normandy France, joining the invasion of England by William the Conqueror in 1066. After a short stay in Bath, the family was given land in Scotland and there we stayed for 700 years until the English took over Scotland in the 18th century. By this stage, all the continental airs and graces were gone, we had become hoary, whiskery Scots. Even the men too. We lost our lands to the English aristocracy, the new power in town.

By the early 19th century, John Shand’s family members were poor tenant farmers and travelling merchants. However, they caught a break when the absentee landlord, the Duke of Gordon, awarded them the concession to run the toll bridge over the River Spey. They made enough cash in two generations to get the hell out of town. In Australia, they could be anything they wanted to be.

Once I learnt all this, I could only ever support Scottish nationalism. The story of the Scots is one of subjugation and dispossession. Even if the economic future for Scotland looks bleak, roll on independence. This is not just a question of money, how revenue from North Sea oil reserves will be divided or who will shoulder the burden of outstanding public debts. It’s about shared identity and purpose. It’s that, more than money alone, which determines national progress.

“We come here with no peaceful intent, but ready for battle, determined to avenge our wrongs and set our country free. Let your masters come and attack us: we are ready to meet them beard to beard.” William Wallace’s statement before the Battle of Stirling Bridge 11 September 1297.

Death Cult in the Homeland

Australia is riding into another conflict in the Arab world but the real fight will be at home.

Two hundred elite special forces soldiers are headed for Iraq within days after the PM Tony Abbott agreed to provide planes and 600 personnel to the US-led multinational strike force against Islamic terrorists running amok in Iraq and Syria.

The decision follows US President Barack Obama’s declaration last week that a coalition of nations would degrade and ultimately destroy the group that calls itself Islamic State.

This operation does not present a daunting strategic challenge. At best, IS has about 30 000 fighters and is no match for US airpower.  There is nowhere to hide from the drones and fighter aircraft raining down destruction from above. It must be a welcome change for Obama’s military commanders to face an insurgent force that is prepared to fight like a conventional army seeking to take territory and towns.

But even as they kill the militants, new recruits and converts to the struggle will take their place. They won’t be fighting in the deserts of the Middle East but in the streets of Sydney and Melbourne and other western cities. The Federal Government and ASIO are right to raise the terror alert. There is a sense that a local terror attack is now inevitable. Sending troops to fight our own kids who have joined IS as foreign fighters has guaranteed that.

The thread of resentment and radicalisation has a long history in Sydney’s south-west. In 1999, a street gang called “DK’s Boys” gang carried out a drive-by shooting on the Lakemba police station.

Five officers ducked for cover as 16 bullets from semi-automatic pistols passed through the station’s foyer windows. It was an incident without precedent in Australia, an open declaration of war from Muslim youth. This has followed years of claimed harassment and racial profiling of Middle Eastern youth in the area.

Then NSW police commissioner Peter Ryan pledged to track down those responsible and to make the streets of Sydney safe. This was never achieved. The police response was heavy-handed and poorly thought through. Ryan’s forces descended on south-west Sydney like an invading army.  Soon the Middle Eastern crime squad was kicking down doors as if the only sources of local crime were Middle Eastern youth. The alienation of young Muslims in Sydney was profound. Within a few years, the Cronulla race riots underlined the gulf between young Muslims  and their “Aussie” counterparts.

Ryan’s march into south-west Sydney failed dismally and divided the community. People who had previously co-operated with police now avoided being seen talking to cops. Police lost valuable resources in the Muslim community. Without intelligence from insiders, policing this diverse ethnic community was impossible.  Fifteen years later NSW Police are still trying to recover lost ground.

A number of Sydney Muslims who grew up in this period have joined IS. They see no place for themselves in mainstream Australia. So instead, they seek fellowship and purpose in Tony Abbott’s “death cult.”  If we don’t address the root cause of IS’ popularity among disaffected Muslim youth, no amount of success in the Iraq or Syria will have any value. There will be no peace in our streets.

We need to respond with passion in our own community to support the idea that decency and compassion can survive. Instead, our media has sent the message that we have something to fear from Muslims in our community.

We fear those in our society that yesterday we were unaware of. The harrowing vision of the killing of innocents in Iraq creates outrage in the media. The anger that follows further alienates Australian Muslims.

I have watched disaffected young men of Middle Eastern origin queue up to join 1% motorcycle clubs in Australia over the past decade because they achieve a sense of belonging and fraternity they feel they cannot get in Australian society. Ironically, they are less likely to commit crime while a member of a club than in the religious or criminal milieus they otherwise fall in with. The future looks bleak unless we resist IS’ dismal message getting into our kids. I find myself reluctantly but inexorably drawn to vague ideas of censorship, even if it’s self-control. To maintain the value of our existence and the real weight of our opinions, perhaps we need to be slightly less informed, slightly less connected. We might be more resilient in our belief in the concept of human grace when not faced 24/7 with this foul tide of savagery. These killers who behead innocent journos and aid workers for the camera are winning the propaganda war. But we disarm them when we stop clicking on the links to their depraved videos.


Dan Saunders

I was driving to Sydney last November when Daniel Saunders called me. He had first contacted me in March 2013 via this website saying that he wanted to talk to me.

“I have a story, I would love to know your opinion and also if you think it would make a good book. I’ve always been a bit of a party guy and that’s the only reason I came across this, I’m not a computer whiz, I’m just an everyday bloke. Until of course, this happened….”
“This” was the story that finally appeared in the Good Weekend Magazine today.
He had taken the National Australia Bank for about $500 000 in four and a half months and now he wanted to come clean, he said.
For a long time I was sceptical, it’s taken 15 months to get this extraordinary tale in print. At first, I told him I wasn’t interested. I didn’t want to be responsible for Dan going to jail. We kept talking over months and I could tell he had been serious in his first message when he said:”I’m not looking for a moral compass here, I know what I did was wrong.”
Still, every instinct told me this was not a story that was in Dan’s best interests. If the bank had decided not to chase him, he should bless his luck and slink off into the night. A lawyer was more blunt after hearing the story: “They aren’t after him, considering it’s been nearly three years. Tell him to shut the f**k up.” I told Dan this many times but he was determined. He didn’t want a black cloud hanging over his life, he could never move on until this thing was resolved one way or another, even if he ended up in a jail cell. I told Dan that jail was not a place he should ever aspire to, even a short sentence could be life-changing and not in a good way.
He understood what the stakes were and was determined to press ahead with the story. Above all he didn’t want to become a crook, even though he had broken the law. It sounds like an artificial distinction when you have stolen half a million dollars but a man who wants to be punished is not a crook in my book. A crook would never ring up a journalist and confess to a crime and virtually demand to be exposed. If this was not resolved, he feared he could disappear into the moral abyss of crime.
“Walking around with the blueprint of a bank’s internal clock in your mind is a dangerous thing, my mind constantly entertains thoughts of other potential bank glitches. I ultimately want this to stop at some point,” he wrote me in an email last night.
“I want people to know how it really happened, I’m not a card skimmer, I overdrew my own accounts. At the end of the day Adam I’m just a worker, who loves a bet and a drink,” he wrote.
So, now the story is out there, who knows what will happen next. Dan feels like a weight has been lifted. It’s hard to believe the bank will do nothing but whatever consequences flow Dan is ready.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the queues at NAB’s ATMs might be a little longer today.

Camp Hell

Kids waiting for Sunday School to open at Camp Pell late 1940s. They carried the moral stain of growing up there for years.

Kids waiting for Sunday School to open at Camp Pell late 1940s. They carried the moral stain of growing up there for years.

The inquest into the May 2004 murders of Christine and Terry Hodson is being held in Melbourne this week. The man who ordered their killing Carl Anthony Williams is once again in the public spotlight, perhaps for the last time. It took me a long time, nearly ten years, to fully understand what motivated him. Here was a family that was at odds with the law and the State, but also with the criminal elites that ran the underworld. They seemed to have materialised from the suburban ether, poor white trash from nowhere. But they had risen above the rest of them. There was a streak of rat cunning and resentment in the Williams clan that made them push back against much greater forces.

They had built a small empire in the space of a single generation and Carl was fully prepared to slaughter anyone who crossed the family. Their bloody feud with the Moran clan and the rest of the Melbourne big shots was the climax of an untold history. It was about ingrained poverty and disappointment, of generations beaten down, neglected and despised. The descent into crime and murder spoke of what happens to the self-esteem of people when they are denied the opportunity that others regard as a birthright.  It’s the bitter realisation that the Australian ethos of the fair go is in fact a cruel joke. It’s the story of what happens when the have-nots finally get a grip on the main chance.

The Williams’ journey to infamy began in the squalor of a transit camp for the homeless and destitute on the northern fringe of Melbourne’s Royal Park in the mid-1940s. In the years after World War II, Camp Pell was a human tip for what many regarded as the detritus of Melbourne society. It’s almost forgotten now. It’s a memory that jars with the post-war prosperity story that most Australians learn in schools these days. This place of degradation and suffering has been transformed into an “Urban Camp”, a quiet patch of cultured bushland nestling between busy Flemington Road and the State Hockey Centre. Teenagers come here now for school excursions. Nice people from the affluent adjoining suburbs walk their dogs among the eucalypts and wattles, enjoying the serenity of this oasis in the urban jungle. It seems benign and peaceful.

In the 1940s, when Carl’s grandparents on both sides of the family came here it was far from that. Camp Pell was their last resort. It was a choice between this stinking sinkhole or the streets for the Williams and the Denman clans. To George Williams, it seemed that everyone he knew had come from Camp Pell. It was his first memory. And his bride Barbara Denman had been born there too.

The sprawling shanty town had begun as a camp for Taskforce 6814, the forces that US Supreme Commander General Douglas MacArthur had thrown together after the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbour in Hawaii in December 1941.  As a military camp, it had been suitably hard and uncomfortable but it was only ever meant to be temporary. The soldiers had stayed in tents or Nissan huts, igloo-shaped iron sweat boxes with dirt floors and no insulation.

The place had acquired a sinister reputation almost from the beginning. In the space of two weeks in May 1942, an American serviceman Private Eddie Leonski stationed there had murdered three local women, gaining the sobriquet the Brownout Strangler. On Macarthur’s orders, Leonski was hanged at Pentridge in November 1942 but the scandal cast a morbid shadow over Camp Pell. Later, a rumour swept Melbourne that American military police had shot and killed a number of GIs and some locals who had been involved in a vicious mass brawl outside the Flinders Street Railway Station in December. The story went that the incident was covered up on MacArthur’s orders and the corpses were secretly cremated at Camp Pell and the ashes spread on the grounds. The story was apocryphal but it helped cement public notions that there was something evil about Camp Pell.

After the war, the camp was turned into a transit camp for homeless families who moved straight into the Nissan huts the Americans had vacated. It was supposed to be a temporary arrangement for one year while the Victorian Government built new state housing for the poor. However, it stayed open for ten years amid government inaction and growing public revulsion.

In 1947, the Building Trades Federation wrote to government saying that living conditions at Camp Pell were “worse than the worst slums in Melbourne.” At any one time, more than three thousand people lived in Camp Pell sharing communal washing and cooking facilities. When it rained, the camp quickly became a quagmire, a dismal playground for hordes of filthy children with no shoes and ragged clothes. In summer the iron huts were intolerably hot so many took to sleeping out in the open. There were frequent outbreaks of diseases like diphtheria and whooping cough, diseases of poverty and overcrowding.

Camp Pell kids were ostracised at local schools for being unclean and spreading illness and head lice. Carl’s uncles and aunts even found the teachers gave them a hard time for their ragged dirty appearance.

Despite occasional half-hearted attempts to tidy it up, Camp Pell remained “a breeding ground of physical and spiritual disease…an evil intolerable plague spot,” according to an editorial in the Argus newspaper in April 1953.

“Nobody with eyes to see could bring himself to call any such monstrosity as this “a housing settlement.” Camp Pell is, in plain language, nothing but a dump for human beings.”

Little wonder then that the settlement became known as “Camp Hell.”

Privately, the State’s leaders could only agree the conditions were disgraceful but there was simply nowhere else to house these poor families. A slum reclamation programme had begun after the war and many families had been displaced from cheap rental accommodation across the inner-city. A wave of middle class migrants from Europe had bought up many of the old tenements in inner- city suburbs like Richmond, Fitzroy, St Kilda and Carlton. The original inhabitants, many of whom had been living there for generations on cheap rent were given their marching orders.

There had always been a shortage of housing for the poor in Melbourne but by the late-1940s the situation was dire with evictions running at 100 a month. There was little sympathy for the poor souls forced to live at Camp Pell and a number of other transit camps around the state. It seemed to them that the migrants got a better deal than the poor families of the city, many of whom had sent sons and daughters to fight and die for King and country in the war.  While the migrants were praised for their work ethic and family values, the Anglo-Celtic poor were reviled for their moral degeneracy.

In 1949, the state housing minister had complained his “big problem was the provision of accommodation for habitual drunkards, sex perverts and sub-normal people living in emergency camps.”

Barbara’s parents, Bill and Mary Denman were none of those things, just decent hard working folk who left their home in Fish Creek in south Gippsland to look for a life in Melbourne. Bill Denman was a qualified welder but work was scarce and accommodation virtually non-existent so the only alternative was Camp Pell.  With a growing brood of children, they tried to make the best of what they hoped would be a short stay. They stayed for nearly five years until they had seven children crammed into their iron hut.

George’s family had lived a few rows away from the Denmans with his mother, two sisters and a brother. George’s father had been a wharfie though he spent little time with the family.  In fact George was not sure that the man was even his father. “You only know your mother for sure don’t you,” he liked to say later. Despite this George had fond memories of Camp Pell. It was a hard life but they were together, sharing the hut with its dirt floor, huddling around the saw dust burner for warmth in winter and sweltering under the tin roof in summer.

Camp Pell was overrun with children, many of whom remember those days with nostalgia. George had cousins living nearby and they formed a gang of urchins who were always getting into trouble, cutting down trees for fun and generally running amok in the camp.  They had their own catch cry: “Camp Pell kids. Camp Pell kids. Camp Pell kids are we. We’re always up to mischief, wherever we may be.”

Yet the camp was an extremely dangerous place for adults, especially under the seething smoky cover of night. The newspaper archives are full of stories of murders, robberies, rapes and domestic violence that were commonplace at Camp Pell. Police regarded the camp as the epicentre of crime in Melbourne.

But the kids generally were exempt from these horrors and, as kids do, adapted to life in the mud and filth. George Williams remembered nights roaming the grounds with other kids, seeing groups of men drinking around late night fires and hearing their stories.

In January 1950, as the rest of Melbourne warmed to the beginnings of post-war prosperity The Argus ran a story depicting barefoot children playing in the rubble of Camp Pell. “Is this our heritage,” the correspondent asked. “Broken huts and disused stoves are Camp Pell children’s playground.”

By 1953, there were 1300 children under 16, like George Williams and Barbara Denman living at Camp Pell. There were fears that “this evil pernicious place” might poison its inhabitants and the city in general.

In 1953 The Argus mounted a strident campaign to have the camp demolished.

“First the camp holds many hundreds of decent, hardworking men and their families, who want homes but can’t get them.

Second it holds an unhealthy number of work-shy parasites who wouldn’t move out of Camp Pell at any price.”

The social consequences of the moral contagion that had flourished in Camp Pell would be felt later, the newspaper warned.

“We can’t expect people, basically decent people, to go on living there for four, five, six years, as some of them have done, without contracting the moral diseases that Camp Pell breeds. We cannot expect children, basically decent children, to grow up in the miasma of this foul place as children are without becoming Dead-End kids – and graduating as Dead-End men and women.”

Families in the adjoining areas would warn their kids to stay out of Camp Pell as if the contagion of poverty could somehow be transmitted by contact with “the inmates” as the residents were described as if they lived in a jail or an asylum for the insane.

The public condemnation of Camp Pell brought the residents closer together. In 1954 they formed an association to correct the public perception that everyone living in their “suburb” was “an undesirable.”

“Every suburb has its undesirables – even Toorak” one resident, AF Gelsi told The Argus.

“But 99 per cent of residents at Cam Pell are good clean families who care for their homes and their families and behave as well as anyone,” he said.

Some families seemed content to stay in the camp indefinitely.

“I have lived here for two years and spent more than £400 on furniture,” said a widow, Mrs EM Stanley who was raising a 13-year old daughter.

“There are hundreds of other families here who have done the same,” she said.

In July 1955, the Labor Government of John Cain issued mass eviction notices to the residents without any plan of how to re-house them. With the Olympic Games coming to Melbourne the following year, the State Government had built 800 houses for the competitors in the Games Village but apparently could not find any funds to accommodate the residents of Camp Pell. Instead the residents had been told to move their belongings out as soon as possible so the decrepit hovels could be razed. The indignity of their treatment welded the people into mass action. Protest meetings were held to complain of the inhumane treatment.

“No self-respecting person wants to live in this filth and squalor but most of us have to,” the chairman of the Emergency Housing Tenant committee told a meeting of residents.

“As he addressed the open air meeting children played in pools of mud and slush,” the Argus reported.

“This is what we have to put up with,” said Mr AA Black, a member of the committee said his eyes sweeping the scene.

“We don’t want to live here. None of us with any decency would. But we have to have shelter for children.”

When the authorities came to forcibly evict residents, members of the Communist Party and trade unions helped families stand their ground, wresting back furniture and personal belongings and returning them into the huts.

Eventually sense prevailed and the camp was given a reprieve while government worked out what to do with the 600 families who stubbornly refused to move until offered proper housing. Despite all the outrage there was still nowhere to put these destitute people who seemed to threaten the moral health of the city.

In 1955 Liberal Party leader Henry Bolte came to power and vowed to put an end to Camp Pell as one of his top election promises. The last family left Camp Pell on May 31 1956, giving the Public Works Department enough time to clear away the remaining 50 huts before the Olympic Games came to Melbourne in November. It was not from a sense of pity or compassion. Bolte privately said that he could not allow Queen Elizabeth and husband Prince Phillip to gaze upon the filthy eyesore as they came in from the airport to open the Olympic Games.

The Denmans had already left Camp Pell in 1954 when Barbara was six but George’s family had been among the last to vacate.

Most families had been shifted to Housing Commission dwellings while others had found their own housing. George’s family had ended up in a rundown worker’s cottage in North Richmond that was only marginally better than the hovel they had left in Camp Pell.

But families who had lived at Camp Pell could never remove the stain, at least in the eyes of the good middle class folk of Melbourne. While they abhorred the conditions and castigated the government for its inaction there was a sense that the people living in Camp Pell were beyond redemption. Soon the chickens would come home to roost in the form of crime and social dysfunction. The vermin would infect the city.

“We hear of marriages breaking, men turning to crime, children becoming tough young dead-end delinquents under the ugly spell of Camp Pell,” one editorialist thundered.

“Is it surprising? The family that spend months or years in Camp Pell and comes out untarnished must be of uncommonly strong moral fibre.”

“Men, women and children are not only physically ravaged by life in Camp Pell; they are also irreparably damaged in spirit.”

More than fifty years later, the moral arbiters were still passing judgement on the families who had passed through Camp Pell. Even though society had been tainted by drugs, violence and official corruption at the highest levels, the blame could still be sheeted home to individuals as if all was perfectly well on the high moral ground. At Carl’s death in 2010 radio broadcaster Derryn Hinch declared him nothing more than “a piece of greedy human flotsam.”

“Carl Williams is dead and believe me the world is better for his passing. It’s one more vote for a cleaner Australia. He was scum and don’t let TV shows like Underbelly ever fool you otherwise,” he said.

How laughable it was that Hinch and others could wish away half a century of social exclusion with the death of one man. There were thousands of people who recognised their own lives in Carl’s story.  To them, it was hardly surprising that Carl had put family before the law or society’s norms.


Grace The Cold Case


Tommy Wraith at his birthday party hosted by the infamous Richmond crime matriarch Kathy Pettingill (background)

Tommy Wraith at his birthday party hosted by the infamous Richmond crime matriarch Kathy Pettingill (background)

The commotion upstairs stopped abruptly, like a radio on full volume was switched off that night in London in late 1974. The neighbours, a middle-aged couple, had heard voices -two women and a man. An argument had raged for hours, but after midnight, all went quiet. Some time later there was a rhythmic “thump, thump, thump” down the iron backstairs of the building in Seymour Grove Paddington. From their kitchen window, the neighbours watched two people in the car park struggling with a heavy rolled-up carpet. They had tossed the carpet into the boot of a lime-green Ford Cortina and driven away.

The couple on the second floor had maintained a passing acquaintance with their Aussie neighbours. They were an unusual pairing. The woman was a handsome dark-eyed lady in her mid-30s. Though the bloom of youth had faded, she carried herself like a lady, a gloss of rich red lipstick and powder. She was courteous and polite when they passed her on the stairs with the baby in a pram. There was no in-depth conversation but the woman just gave off a good vibe.

By comparison, the man was shifty and sly, much younger than his partner. There were lots of Australians living in the Paddington area, so two more were unremarkable. They had been quiet and easy going. That is, until a second woman had arrived on the scene a few days before. She was big, brassy and loud with the hard eyes of a prostitute. For the first few nights there had been laughter and music into the night upstairs. But this night it had turned nasty and now there was this deathly silence. They hadn’t called the Old Bill, despite their concerns. You learn to mind your business living cheek by jowl in London’s inner-city.

On the same night, the telephone had rung in the apartment of an English villain well-known in London’s Australian circles. He struggled out of bed to answer it, annoyed to be woken so late. This man was the West End’s top distributor of illicit pornography and adult products. He did a sideline fencing whatever goods would sell. Business was good but the hours were long. People just didn’t buy dildos during business hours. And the Aussies kept him up late too. They pitched up at all hours, looking to fence some hot gear or to ask his help in a jam. What the Aussies did not know was that this man had connections in the Flying Squad. The price of his criminal franchise was a steady flow of information back to the Sweeney. He liked the Aussies and they trusted him, but he had to look after number one. Business was business.

The caller was Tommy Wraith. A small time thief in Melbourne, Wraith was a minor player in the West End, trading false passports, stolen traveller’s cheques and credit cards. He hadn’t even made the Australian Index in the Police Gazette, such was his lack of form and reputation.

It had been a surprise to many that Wraith had hooked up with the best female take of the day, Grace “The Case” O’Connor.

By mid-1974 Grace now 36 was living with Wraith in a top floor flat on Seymour Place, Paddington. They had a child together, born in England, and seemed set to stay. It was a shame, other members of the Kangaroo Gang had said. A top thief like Grace could make money for all of them. It was a waste of a good earner for her to be tending house for Tommy Wraith.

Grace "The Case" O'Connor. Not just a headpuller but a top thief in her own right.

Grace “The Case” O’Connor. Not just a headpuller but a top thief in her own right.

But now, Grace was dead, Wraith told the informer. He needed to get rid of the body before morning. The informer was torn. He had made good money from the Aussies but this was too hot to hold, so he rang his handler at the Yard. He recounted Wraith’s story and asked what he should do. The detective told him to go down there as requested by Wraith. He should confirm there had been a murder and confirm the victim was Grace O’Connor. But then he must beg off and let the Old Bill take over. Nobody would ever know he had shopped Wraith.

The informer hurried over to meet Wraith. He recognised the other woman in the flat when he arrived.  “Val” (not her real name) had been working in London and on the Continent since the late 60s. Nicked in Teneriffe, Spain in April 1969 for theft, Val had slipped back and forth into London using passports in assumed names. She had just returned from a few months lagging in Germany. She wasn’t in Grace’s class, just a head puller for whoever would take her on. Grace was the lady thief, living “respectably” on her hoisting. She had put away a tidy float if things ever turned sour. She didn’t need a man, while Val was entirely dependant, a survivor. She had slept with many of the Aussie thieves over the years, but she was no beauty, a big blousy blonde, with a hard jaw and thin cruel lips.

She was still drunk when the informer arrived there. She seemed unconcerned at the scene before her. On the bed lay Grace’s lifeless body, a stocking lashed around her throat. Wraith filled in the details for the informer.

He had been sleeping with Val behind Grace’s back. Grace had found out and an argument had broken out. Dead drunk, Wraith had watched the whole thing unfold, sitting by when the women came to blows. Grace had run into the bedroom with Val in hot pursuit. The smaller woman hadn’t stood a chance against an attacker of Val’s size and strength. She had proceeded to choke the life out of her on the bed. By the time Wraith got in the bedroom, the murder was well under way. He could have stopped it, but killing Grace had seemed the best option at that moment.  Everything that was hers became his instantly.

The informer didn’t want a bar of this and as per orders made his apologies and left.

The following morning at 4 o’clock, PC Carol Bristow mustered with 20 other officers at Harrow Road Police station, two miles from Seymour Place. They were briefed on the information to the Flying Squad had been given, but warned there could no mention of the informer or the murder allegations. They could not risk the informer being exposed, as much for their convenience as the informer’s well-being.

The flying Squad could not afford to have its informers exposed.  They were to execute a ruse, pitching up to the Seymour Place flat with a search warrant for stolen cheque books, credit cards and passports. Once in, they could search for evidence of the murder. A back up squad of 18 members was ready to pounce if the villains jerried.

At 5:30am when Bristow and a detective-inspector knocked at his door Tommy Wraith had been cool and calm. He welcomed the police in. There was just him, the wife and their baby at home, he told them. Val emerged from the bedroom, with Grace’s baby in her arms. Where Wraith had been cool and accommodating, Val was sneering and belligerent. Furious the baby had been woken, she had let fly with a foul-mouthed tirade. When she calmed down, Val was asked her name. Without hesitation, she told them: “Grace O’Connor”

Bristow’s heart leapt into her mouth. She and the DI had to stop themselves challenging the blatant lie. They searched the flat and, finding a cache of stolen chequebooks and credit cards, hauled Wraith and “Grace O’Connor” back to Harrow Road station. They would be remanded on conspiracy but these were just holding charges, until murder could be proven. Clearly Val was not O’Connor, but the lie was allowed to remain until the demise of the real Grace could be proven. Meanwhile, detectives were secretly despatched to Australia to recover items from Grace’s mother that might help with identifying a corpse, if and when they found one. They came back with hair from brushes and clothes and dental charts.

Meanwhile a search was mounted London-wide for O’Connor’s body. There was a tip that Grace had been dropped into a grave with a table-top in Hampstead Cemetery, someone else said Highgate Cemetery. Officers flipped the lids on hundreds of graves with no success.  There was also a story that Wraith had buried Grace in one of London’s eight Royal parks, which narrowed the search area to a mere 20 square kilometres.

A week later, Wraith’s lime-green Cortina, possibly a hire car, was located at Southwark police depot. It had been abandoned not far away from Seymour Place. The carpet from Wraith’s flat was still in the boot, but there was no other evidence linking it to Grace O’Connor.

Police delayed taking the holding charges to court as long as they could, but never revealed the true reason. Bristow would sit in back of the prison van with Val as she went to and from court. She didn’t expect a confession. She wanted to see how this person could take someone’s life then steal her identity and her baby. As a woman, PC Bristow had begun to identify with Grace. She wanted to tell this foul-mouthed oaf of a woman what she thought of her but she always bit her lip.

Eventually,Val admitted she was not Grace O’Connor but still she was never questioned over the murder. She and Wraith were tried on the cheque fraud and sentenced in late 1974 to nine months jail and deported in March 1975. With the suspects out of England, the Metropolitan Police gave up the investigation into Grace’s disappearance without ever opening a murder docket. It is not known what happened to Grace and Tommy’s child. That’s what made the case stick in PC Bristow’s mind when I met her in London in March 2009. Over the next 20 years she would often check the file at Missing Persons section of the Criminal Records Office. There was never any progress. On the day she retired, she checked the file one last time, still nothing. Grace’s case was closed and forgotten. Though the police knew there had been a murder and who had committed it, Grace’s file would never see the light of day again.

In 1982, legendary Melbourne detective Sergeant Brian “The Skull” Murphy took a call from a junior colleague. The young policeman was in quite a state.  He feared some villains were trying to harm his family over an incident that had taken place in England nearly 10 years earlier. His wife was an agency nurse posted to a small psychiatric hospital in suburban Melbourne. One evening, a patient had told her an extraordinary story of how he had killed the mother of his child.

The private hospital was one of many treating a range of mental illness with one brutal, catch-all therapy. Electroconvulsive (ECT) therapy involved sending an electrical charge of up to 120 volts through a patient’s head in order to “reset” the brain chemistry.  It had been a popular therapy in many hospitals for treating addictions and depression, but in this institution just about every patient got a burst of ECT. Some it actually helped but the nurse suspected nothing would help this man. When she first laid eyes on Tommy Wraith he was strapped to his bed in a Posey restrainer, a kind of strait jacket that kept the patient flat on his back in his bed.

He was trying to come off heroin for the umpteenth time and as he went through the horrors of withdrawal staff kept him sedated and strapped to the bed. His chart said he was in his 40s, but he looked much older. His arms were covered in track marks from needle use. Most of the veins in his arms and legs had collapsed and among his many tattoos there were scars and fresh sores. The staff cut his greying unkempt hair short at the temples in preparation for the ECT electrodes.

After a zap or two, Wraith seemed to pick up a little. Though he was a hopeless junkie, the nurse could see he had lived another life before this dismal descent into substance abuse.  One evening on her rounds, she stopped at Wraith’s room and they began talking.

Wraith already seemed a shell of a man, just waiting for death. Something, more than the heroin, had hollowed him out. He had died years before, the nurse thought. As police of the day would say he had “the hopeless expectation of impending doom.”

He was haunted by guilt. He had killed someone in England, he said. She hadn’t believed him at first but, as he spoke, the clarity of his story changed her mind.

Wraith said he had murdered a woman in his home and buried the body in a park or wood 10 years earlier. She recounted her meeting with Tommy to her husband that night and he was straight on the phone to “Skull” Murphy, who organised a meeting with Victoria Police’s Bureau of Criminal Intelligence. A message was sent to detectives in Scotland Yard and word came back that Wraith had indeed been a suspect in the disappearance of Grace O’Connor. Murphy was thunderstruck, he had nicked O’Connor in the early 60s for housebreaking and she had given up a whole team of her associates. She had been helpful and polite. To help find her killer, not to mention her mortal remains, was the very least he could do. But it wouldn’t be easy: there was no way Wraith would repeat his confession to a policeman. So it was decided that the nurse would go back to Wraith and gently probe him for more information. If she could find out where Wraith had buried the body, Scotland Yard would almost certainly re-open the case. The nurse was terrified, but with a little cajoling she agreed. In their second chat, Wraith told her that he had taken the body to Hertfordshire. He said it was buried in “beautiful country.” It wasn’t much to go on though it had narrowed down the potential burial site to 634 sq miles. In 1973, police been looking for Grace’s body in London, so Hertfordshire was new information. It was a logical place to bury a body. From Seymour Place, the murderers could have been in the pleasant countryside of Herts county in just 45 minutes. Though just 26 miles away from the West End, this was farmland and country estates, the setting for Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. In his novel Howard’s End, E. M. Forster described Hertfordshire as “England at its quietest.” It was a perfect place to bury a body in the middle of the night.

Meanwhile, Wraith had picked up enough to be discharged from the hospital. He hadn’t died after all, so perhaps he thought his confession might come back to bite him. One night after work, the nurse was followed all the way home by a man in a black utility. “Skull” Murphy’s inquiries suggested the car was Tommy Wraith’s. The nurse and her family could well be in mortal danger, he said. Shortly after, someone broke into their home, nothing was taken, but it was enough to spur Murphy into action. He rang a mate of Wraith’s and told him to relay a message that Tommy had nothing to fear from the nurse, but if he kept bothering her there would be trouble. “Tell him that if he doesn’t stop bothering her, I will personally come and shoot your wife and kids in front of you, okay?”  That was enough for the Wraith camp to drop off.

In 1983, Sgt Murphy received a call from a woman named Rae Elizabeth Collingburn,asking for his help. It was a surprise, given that Murphy and another policeman had stood trial for the 1971 manslaughter of her husband, Neil Stanley Collingburn. They had beat it, but the widow had persisted with a civil action for wrongful death. Finally she had dropped off and disappeared. Now, out of the blue, she needed his help. Her de facto husband Tommy Wraith was beating her and threatening to kill her. She feared she would have to kill him first to survive. Murphy begged her to come in and report Wraith but she refused. Our people don’t lag each other, she said. Murphy resolved to pay a visit on Wraith to quieten him down. But before he got there, tragedy had intervened.

In the midst of another drunken beating, Rae Collingburn had grabbed a tommy axe to protect herself from Wraith. He had pulled his gun out but before he could shoot her, she had smashed the axe down on his head.. With a few more blows, she made sure he was dead and then covered the body with a cloth “so the kids wouldn’t see,” prosecutors told the Victorian Supreme Court in 1985.

She then rang her sister to say: “You know what he was always going to do to me? Well I’ve done it to him.” She was found innocent of murder but was convicted of manslaughter.

Murphy noted, on behalf of Grace O’Connor, that Wraith had ended up with his right whack.

Someone knows where the body of Grace O’Connor still lies buried. My information is that Val remains alive.

The Abhorrent Vacuum



Long ago I read that you could tell a columnist was in trouble when he started writing about stuff that happened around the house. Now there are entire careers based on nothing else but domestic ephemera. There are a legion of writers who seem to trail behind their children and their pets with notebooks in search of material. Today I join their ranks.

I sacked the cleaner a few months back when I realised he spent his time talking to me while his partner did all the work. I don’t regret that but every so often I am forced to clear a path to vital locations such as the fridge, the toilet and the sofa. For this I put my faith in labour-saving devices.

The vacuum cleaner is designed to appeal to single men. How else can the faux-automobile styling be explained? The whooshing motor, the sleek sports car lines, the red paint job, the impressively telescopic nozzle, it’s all about seducing the gormless male buyer. It was ever thus. The first motorized vacuum cleaner circa 1901 was a petrol-powered, horse-drawn monstrosity which relied upon air drawn by a piston pump through a cloth filter. It was invented by a man and yes it was red. Its inventor Hubert C Booth spent as much time picking up the horse’s droppings which no doubt limited the effectiveness of his device. Ever since, men have been inventing new versions, which are invariably useless, every last one of them.

I grew up watching the Godfreys TV ads where the guy with the comb-over picked up the 16-pound bowling bowl with his trusty Electrolux. It’s that kind of grunt that has kept me buying vacs for years. The fact that the bowling ball suction cup never came as an accessory should have been a giveaway, because they keep dying on me. Inevitably they end up with the suction of an emphysema-stricken chain smoker. An hour’s furious activity knocking the paint off walls and the only impression I make are wheel tracks in the muck. And my cleaning regime is erratic. I haven’t covered the surface area of a tennis court since 2000.

Recently, I bought a “cyclonic” bagless model because, as everyone knows, cyclones move heavy stuff like houses and caravans with ease.

It was a thing of beauty with a grille like a mini Mack truck and a dust canister fit for biohazard storage. For the first month, it sucked the labels off beer bottles but soon my $500 purchase was reduced to the feeble wheeze of all its predecessors. Now I can grind away on a feather for 10 minutes and still finish picking it up with my fingers. To add insult to injury, my vac has an adjustable power control. On low speed, it wouldn’t part the hair of a cockroach. On high, the roach gets a little resistance training but scuttles away. Really my dog is doing a better job of cleaning up, at least the random pests and meat scraps.

The next time I buy a vac, I want the guy with his bowling ball again but this time I want it suspended just above his head. Then someone can pull the throttle back to low, not because I want to check the power of the vac. I want to be sure the damn bowling ball is real.


The People and Putin

A friend of mine rang last night to take issue with my blog on Putin’s treachery over MH17. He’s a rather shy fellow so I will summarise the argument on his behalf.

In seeking to censure Putin, we appeal to our politicians who allowed the conflict in Ukraine to continue for months, he said. It’s a fair point, we didn’t seem to care too much about the loss of life in Ukraine until it affected us directly. We didn’t give a toss that Russia was destroying the lives of thousands of people and taking Europe into a new age of imperialism. Not our problem. Just like Israel’s invasion of Gaza.

To suggest that Abbott was doing a good job over MH17, as I did, missed the point that he should have been on the job earlier, my friend said. But we are fixated with our own political issues, mostly esoteric arguments about carbon and mining taxes etc, invariably connected to our hip pocket nerve. We give Abbott too much credit for precious little in demanding that Putin front up for what he has done, my friend said. A struggling government will bounce in the polls for doing what is right, rather like being paid twice for turning up to work. It’s a reasonable argument but I’m inclined to give Abbott some benefit of the doubt. At least he didn’t call it Ukrainia.

My friend says we need a new politics, possibly without politicians, that recognises the fundamental connections between people of the world. If that were so, then conflicts like Ukraine might not get so far, and he’s not talking about a UN-style body that fosters inequality and lack of accountability. As another friend said yesterday: “Rule 1 of international relations – countries with nukes and who are permanent members of the UN security council tend to avoid action from the “international community”(love that meaningless term).”

It’s the abiding love of self-interest and expediency that has rendered the term “international community” meaningless. I hope this time things begin to change. We are globally connected like never before. We no longer rely upon politicians to speak for us. Our thoughts are no longer shaped and controlled by a few media gatekeepers. Is there a new fellowship of nations possible through direct communication of peoples, or is that hopelessly idealistic?


Send a message to Putin

It’s time to find the political will to do what is right. If there is no independent investigation into the shooting down of MH17, no pursuit and prosecution of the guilty, we must send the Russian Ambassador to Australia home to Moscow. Our allies must follow suit or face charges of cowardice. If China backs Russia on this outrage, its ambassador should also pack his bags. To hell with the niceties of diplomacy and trade. The remains of victims are being desecrated by their killers.

Vladimir Putin said if there was peace in eastern Ukraine this incident would not have happened. He looked uncomfortable, head down over his papers, his eyes everywhere but on the camera.

Putin has backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, causing the deaths of many civilians. Now his filthy wickedness is stripped bare.

Australia’s understanding of this far-off conflict has been abstract, now after the murder of 36 of our people, it has become real and visceral.

Tony Abbott has been a polarising figure as prime minister but his actions so far on MH17 have been exemplary. He was among the first leaders to call this what it was – a crime. He must keep his nerve and drive international condemnation and justice for the victims. Kicking out the Russian ambassador is merely symbolic, but it’s a statement about important values: fairness, compassion and the faith in international morality.


A Private Army



This morning I was perusing the Herald Sun, that fine and reasonable journal, when a headline jumped out at me. “Bikies vow they are going to ‘wreck’ Mildura, police claim.” My, my, I thought, not that old chestnut again. Seems we have been reading that one since the 1950s. There has always been this sense that bikies (or indeed any alien force) are massing just over the horizon ready to overwhelm civil society. I have yet to see any club manage to succeed in setting up their own anarchic MC state, yet the fear seems to be as strong as ever. I had a crack at unravelling this phenomenon in my book Outlaws: The Truth About Australian Bikers. I reproduce the chapter,  A Private Army, here with some updates and editing to make myself look smarter. 


When 15-year old Ralph Hubert Barger Junior saw The Wild One at his local cinema in 1954, he decided a biker’s life was his destiny. He had flirted with becoming a beatnik, but he had loved the motorcycle from the moment he straddled a $20 motor scooter.

That movie, which inflamed America, helped Barger and many other juvenile delinquents understand the anarchic possibilities of life on two wheels. At 18 years old, fresh out of the army, he bought his first Harley, a 1936 Knucklehead. Yet unlike most of his generation, Barger did not idolise the hero Johnny Strabler played by Marlon Brando, but rather the anti-hero Chino, portrayed by Lee Marvin.  Johnny and Chino had once been part of the same club which had split in two after a dispute which was never fully explained. Angry young men like Barger took Chino’s image and turned it into a 1960s counter-culture that roared across the concrete highways of California.

In his 1965 gonzo classic, Hell’s Angels, Hunter S. Thompson introduced Ralph “Sonny” Barger to the world as the “Maximum Leader”: “There is a steely thoughtful quality about Barger, an instinctive restraint that leads outsiders to feel they can reason with him. But there is also a quiet menace, an egocentric fanaticism tempered by eight years at the helm of a legion of outcasts.”

In December 2005 it had been a long, tortuous process for me to get permission to interview Barger for the Bulletin magazine and Nine Network’s Sunday programme. Letters had originally been sent to the Australian presidents of various Hells Angels chapters and correspondence had gone back and forth as credentials and bona fides were checked. A San Francisco-based lawyer Fritz Clapp had contacted us when we arrived in Los Angeles and further discussions were held.  Clapp acted as the attorney for the Angels and as a personal adviser to Barger. While not a patch member of the MC (that might have made legal practice difficult), he was the next best thing.

A lifetime biker, Clapp sported a bright red mohawk, like the fin of a tropical fish, and a patch on his vest that read “Lawyer from Hell”. He divided his time between Hawaii, San Francisco and numerous courtrooms around the nation. On behalf of the Angels, he had successfully sued numerous companies that had infringed the club’s copyright and intellectual property by daring to steal its insignia, including its trademark grinning death’s head logo. These intellectual property thieves had been trying to flog everything from haute couture in Saks 5th Avenue in New York to T-shirts and coffee mugs in Wal-Mart. The Hells Angels MC was now a corporation, something no other “crime gang” had ever achieved.

The Angels had created an impressive defensive infrastructure to ensure their survival. I visited the club’s number one lobbyist, Jeff Rabe, the president of the Sacramento Angels chapter in northern California. From a cluttered office in the state capitol, Rabe dealt with everything from managing the media and petitioning Congress on road safety and gang laws to arranging bail bonds and legal defence for accused bikers. Rabe, a burly gravel-voiced man, was also the lobbyist for the US Modified Motorcycle Association and the Collation of Clubs which spoke for many of America’s outlaw clubs.

Rabe dismissed the popular wisdom that the clubs existed to perpetuate crime. On his salary, he wasn’t about to work this hard to help criminals operate unfettered, he said, This was about preserving fundamental rights, such as freedom of association and the right to bear arms. “Freedoms we use each and every day,” he added. Some Angels still enforced extra-legal solutions to problems with baseball bats and motorcycle chains but life had become much more civilised, he said. He was wearing a tie and business suit these days almost as often as he did his patch. Bikers were no longer outlaws, but taxpayers and voters, who were entitled to a say in how they were governed.   

But still the notion persisted that bikers wanted only to rip at the fabric of Western society, I said.

“I don’t know if rip is the correct term. I think maybe just brush against it, because it’s exciting and it breaks up the monotony of the day,” replied Rabe, with a huge grin.            

The Lawyer from Hell had finally managed to fit us into Sonny’s schedule, which was hectic with book signings, personal appearances and media interviews across America. As I flew with a cameraman over the desert from Los Angeles to Barger’s home in Arizona, I couldn’t decide whether  I was meeting a gang boss or an American icon of freedom.   


Today, The Wild One seems embarrassingly dated with cringe-worthy lines that Brando must have struggled to deliver with a straight face.

Kathie Bleeker: Do you just ride around or do you go on some sort of a picnic or something?
Johnny: A picnic? Man, you are too square. I’m… I… I’ll have to straighten you out. Now, listen, you don’t go any one special place. That’s cornball style. You just go. [snaps fingers]

But the film and its source material, drawn from true life and fiction, are still valid today in understanding the biker menace and how bikers perceive themselves. Despite its appalling dialogue and costumes later parodied by the gay community, The Wild One set the opposing archetypes of the movement for decades to come, the fraternity of equals versus the criminal hierarchy, the brotherhood versus the gang.    

In the film, Johnny’s Black Rebels all appear to be in uniform. Each has a leather jacket with BRMC over-crossed pistons stencilled on the back. Each member’s name is embroidered on the front as in a military unit. Their bikes are remarkably similar too – equal numbers of well-kept BSAs and Triumphs which they ride in a tight orderly formation. By contrast, Chino’s Beetles ride a ramshackle collection of beat-up Harleys and Indians. Beyond the grimy Levis, each Beetle sports his own look, from Chino’s striped sweatshirt to other members’ tasselled cowboy jackets, flight-deck hats, skunk-skin caps, engineers and logger’s boots. Chino’s gang embraces an almost organic diversity and individuality, while Johnny’s group seems to glory in uniformity and discipline.

This battle has continued in different ways inside clubs (and between clubs) ever since. It’s a struggle between those who join to enjoy a conditional freedom and those prepared to fall into line behind a charismatic leader.

Today the public image of bikies suggests that Johnny’s Black Rebels have won that argument, just as Brando had beaten Marvin in their punch-up in the film. To cinemagoers, the Black Rebels represented the frightening potential of a bunch of hoodlums welded into one disciplined, cohesive unit. Critics say the Hells Angels MC and its clones today are the bastard children of that fear – franchised criminal organisations which hold the values of mainstream society in sneering contempt. 

In part, The Wild One was inspired by a legendary 1947 incident in Hollister California when several hundred bikers ran amok in the small town during an American Motorcyclists Association-sanctioned race meeting. On the 4th of July holiday weekend, four thousand motorcyclists had descended on Hollister for the popular Gypsy Tour, overwhelming the town of just 4500 citizens.

The San Francisco Chronicle described what followed as an “outburst of terrorism – wrecking of bars, bottle barrages into the streets from upper story windows and roofs and high speed racing of motorcycles though the streets”: “Riders, both men and women, steered their machines into bars, crashing fixtures and bottles and mirrors. They defied all traffic regulations racing full speed through the streets and intersections. Hundreds loosed bottle barrages,” the paper thundered.

Sixty people were injured, three seriously, including one rider  who had his foot nearly severed. Bartenders in Hollister’s 21 saloons halted the sale of beer, mistakenly believing the group could not afford whisky. Riotous activities continued as the seven-man Hollister police contingent looked on helpless. The bars closed two hours early, but still pandemonium reigned. 

At dusk on the second day of the outrage, 40 State highway patrol officers arrived with an ingenious plan. They “forced a lull in the terrorism” by putting on a concert. According to the Chronicle: “Armed with tear gas guns, the officers herded the cyclists into a block on San Benito street, between Fifth and Sixth streets, parked a dance band on a truck and ordered the musicians to play. Hundreds of individuals who invaded the town yesterday for the motorcycle show, about 10 percent of them women, halted their riotous ‘play’ to dance.” The formal ball at the American Legion Hall was cancelled, presumably because there was no band.

Members of early outlaw clubs, the Boozefighters and the Pissed off Bastards of Bloomington, were among fifty of the riotous “gypsycycles” to be arrested and fined a total of $2000 over the incident. Days later, when all had dispersed, Time magazine staged a famous photograph of a drunk sprawled over a motorcycle in a Hollister street surrounded by broken bottles. The story caused a nationwide sensation, America’s first motorcycle-inspired moral panic.

The following year on the Fourth of July weekend, the bikers descended on Riverside, California and a tradition of motorcycle gangs taking over terrified communities was well-established. The undersheriff of Riverside County captured the hysteria in an open letter to news media: “Just what is the extent of damage caused by these hoodlums and tramps, these uncivilised demons, who ride exploding and fire-belching machines of destruction, hell-bent on destroying the property and persons of Riverside citizens…” Just as Americans were getting used to peace, here was another threat to the social fabric. But in the Hollister and Riverside “riots” there was no evidence of leadership or organisation; this was a spontaneous reaction from too much beer and high spirits.   

But when Hollywood got hold of the story the drunken rabble was transformed into a dark, paramilitary-style force – Johnny’s Black Rebels MC, moving from town to town on the whim of its resentful, sociopathic leader. America had seen outlaws like Chino riding the roads ever since motorcycles had come on the scene, but the brooding Johnny Strabler was something new and darker.

The model for the regimented Black Rebels had been sketched by Frank Rooney in an article called Cyclists’Raid, published in Harper’s Magazine in 1951. “Troop B of the Angelenos Motorcycle Club” roars into the small town of Pendleton. All the riders are on red bikes, except for the leader, Simpson, whose cycle is white. They intend to “bivouack” outside of town, but plan to spend the evening at a hotel run by former army veteran, Joel Bleeker, for whom distasteful memories of war service are still fresh. He takes an instant dislike to what he calls Simpson’s “private army”.

The Angelenos, in Rooney’s story, look more like Adolf Hitler’s Storm Troopers, the brownshirts, rather than outlaw bikers: “Like all the others, [Simpson] was dressed in a brown windbreaker, khaki shirt, khaki pants, and as Bleeker had already observed, wore dark calf length boots. A cloth and leather helmet lay on the table beside Simpson’s drink, but he hadn’t removed his flat green goggles, an accouterment [sic] giving him and the men in his troop the appearance of some tropical tribe with enormous semi-precious eyes, lidless and immovable.” 

From the rollicking, pleasure-seeking chaos of Hollister, Rooney had created a sinister alien force. Simpson’s twenty men were really only “variations of the one, the variations with few exceptions being too subtle for him to recognise”; his troop of clones was just one unit of a growing army fanning out across the nation.

“You say you’re from Troop B? Is that right?”

“Correct. We’re forming Troop G now. Someday…”

“You’ll be up to Z,” Bleeker said.

“And not only in Calfornia.”

 To his horror Bleeker discovers that, in return for their loyalty, the leaders of the wealthy Angelenos MC give members a carte blanche for destruction and mayhem. “In an organisation as large and selective as ours it’s absolutely necessary to insist on a measure of discipline. And it’s equally necessary to allow a certain amount of relaxation,” Simpson says.

When the drunken mob begins ripping up Bleeker’s hotel, Simpson merely hands over a wad of bills to cover the damage. When, in the climax of the story, Bleeker’s daughter is killed in the hotel lobby by one of the cyclists, the leader is a mere spectator.  “He saw Simpson – or rather a figure on the white motorcycle, helmeted and goggled – stationed calmly in the middle of the street under a hanging lamp….Simpson was making no effort to control his men but waiting rather for that moment when their minds, subdued but never actually helpless, would again take possession of their bodies.”    

It’s this image that has permeated America’s understanding of outlaw motorcycle clubs – the fear of vigilantism, that a well-organised paramilitary force could overwhelm civil society. By force of its numbers and wealth, this gang would be almost impossible to stop, even by its leaders. From the 1950s, America began to perceive a threat to its way of life from organised groups, both social and political. The Communist Party of America had stolen the blueprints for the atomic bomb and sold them to the Soviet Union. A network of communist agents was involved in crime to gather resources for the overthrow of democracy, which led US President Lyndon Baines Johnson in the mid-1960s to suggest that “organised crime constitutes nothing less than a guerrilla attack on society”.

LBJ’s USA of the 1960s could easily be the Queensland of today. It’s the same fear story again and again.


Fishing for a Happy Ending

You had to feel for Boyd Rankin, the towering English fast bowler, as he trudged off the SCG yesterday clutching his left hamstring. He had broken down not once but twice on his debut. The look of anguish on his face was so palpable it even evinced sympathy from this one-eyed Aussie fan. You don’t like to see a young man’s dreams dashed before your eyes. And at 204cm tall there was no place to hide for Rankin.

The shame of it was that it could have been preventable, according to those who know. The instant diagnosis was a torn or strained hamstring, a sensible conclusion based on conventional wisdom. But that appears not to be the case. Here’s how Cricinfo’s George Dobell summed up the “mystery” of Rankin’s condition.

“After a scan showed no injury, the England camp claimed Rankin had simply been suffering from cramp and should be fit to resume bowling duties in the second innings.

Such a scenario would raise questions about Rankin’s physical condition going into the game. While the weather in Sydney was warm – it reached 27 degrees at one stage in the afternoon – it was some way below the extremes experienced in Perth or in Alice Springs.

It is possible that nerves could have played a part. The 29-year-old Rankin has endured a long journey to the Test environment and knows, coming into a struggling team at the end of a series, that he may not enjoy many opportunities to prove his worth at this level.

It is also possible that tension played a part, or that the pain has some psychosomatic origin. He has been known to experience similar problems with his left foot after suffering from a stress fracture in it several years ago.

The schedule may also be relevant. While Rankin has bowled almost every day in the nets, he has not played a match since the end of November, when he delivered 14.5 overs during the game in Alice Springs. It may be that he came into this game simply lacking match fitness.

While Rankin was monitored by the England medical team ahead of play after reporting general stiffness, there was no specific concern about his hamstring and he was subsequently cleared to play.

In other words, the England medical staff have no effin’ clue! My mate Geoff Fisher of Southport Physiotherapy in Melbourne reckons the “general stiffness” is the best clue.

He diagnoses and cures people every day who pitch up with mystery conditions. I went to him 10 years ago with what a chiropractor had called “a degenerative knee condition.” Every time I ran for more than five minutes, I would get a searing pain behind my left knee. The chiro had said this was wear and tear, a symptom of ageing. If I wanted to run I would need to sign up for a long term plan of therapy. This fortnightly regime consisted of the chiro rubbing the back of knee for an hour hard enough to start a campfire before cracking my back in a dramatic finale. I always walked out feeling two inches taller and pain-free but always the knee would flare up again.

I was referred to Geoff by triathlete coach Oscar Carlson who swore that he would fix what ailed me. I was prepared for another long term regime, but one that might get me back on the track. It was sad to think that after an active 40 years I would have to make a compromise with the ravages of time.

He asked me straight up: “Was there a moment when you recall actually hurting your knee? Some kind of trauma?”

“No,” I replied. “It just kind of crept up on me.”

With that, he began to work gently, but insistently, on my lower back. I kept waiting for him to get to my knee but he never got close. I came back for two more treatments and the same routine was repeated. To this day the pain in my knee has never returned. Geoff explained that I had been suffering referred pain in my knee from a protective response in my lower back. I have had various aches and pains since in toes, ankles and hips, all of which have been relieved by Geoff’s continuous mobilisation method. I have referred countless people to Geoff who have all reported good results.

Geoff and I had a talk about Michael Clarke’s well-publicised back and the words ran in The Australian last March. It summarises the issue of referred pain.

“AT the end of a disastrous tour of India, Australia’s skipper Michael Clarke literally carries the burden of the nation’s expectations on his dodgy back.

While this weekend’s fourth Test in Delhi is the first match Clarke has missed through injury, the timing is ominous with back-to-back Ashes series looming.

Clarke’s “degenerative” back condition, a “bulging disc” first diagnosed when he was 17, has become an ever-present concern for the 31-year-old.

Leading Melbourne physiotherapist Geoff Fisher believes Cricket Australia must re-examine its protocols about managing injuries if Australia’s most valuable asset is to pay his way.

Fisher questions whether the team doctor should be in charge of diagnosing and overseeing treatment regimes for conditions like Clarke’s. “In sporting teams, doctors have become the front line of diagnosis for such pain but they are hopelessly out of their depth in dealing with musculoskeletal problems,” says Fisher.

“If the Australian team’s frontline response is medical then it will almost certainly fail.”

Fisher claims there is an over-reliance by sports doctors on CT scans and X-rays to diagnose pain. Scans often reveal abnormalities in the structure of a joint or limb, like Clarke’s bulging disc, he says.

“The doctor will say, ‘we see there is change in the structure of the joint. There’s evidence of wear and tear or abnormality. We can’t explain why it’s happening but we know it is happening because of the pain’.”

Studies have shown that up to 40 per cent of people have abnormalities in their spines that don’t automatically cause pain. Clarke’s pain, often described as his back “locking up”, may have nothing to do with discs or vertebrae. It may in fact be a protective response from the muscles of his back, not an injury at all.

It’s a problem that blights the lives of millions of people who spend too much time chair-bound or sitting in motor vehicles with knees elevated higher than hips. This places excessive strain on the postural muscles that keep the spine stable. Spinal muscles will attempt to control movement by an increase in tightness and tone.

“By reducing the range of movement, threats to the spine, are reduced. These responses are hard-wired and self-increasing, built into the neurology of the brain and spinal anatomy.”

The giveaway clue is that Clarke often suffers tightness in his hamstrings, Fisher says.

If Clarke’s problem is related to his spinal muscles, it is a treatable condition, using safe non-invasive manual therapies, says Fisher.

Working with triathletes, Fisher uses a variation of an Australian-devised therapy known as “continuous mobilisation” which might provide an alternative for Clarke.

Fisher’s method of manual therapy is designed to “turn off” the protective behaviour in the spine and the referred pain is often immediately relieved.

Fisher says that 95 per cent of his patients with chronic pain in their head, legs, knees, arms, feet or hands, are in fact suffering from “referred pain”. If, like Clarke, they haven’t suffered a trauma or arthritis, the source of the problem is invariably found in the lower back or neck where muscles have engaged in a protective response to guard the spine.”

The response from other chiros and physios was outrage. Some went on Twitter to call for Geoff’s deregistration and worse. He was “dangerous”, one said. Of course, Geoff is dangerous, he threatens the livelihood of these quacks who want to sign us up to long term treatment plans costing thousands of dollars. He wants to cure people not turn them into patients by convincing them their problems are due to advancing age.

I emailed Geoff last night about Rankin’s predicament and his response was succinct.

“No mystery there, just another sportsman with a slightly dodgy back that had given rise to various bouts of referred symptoms. Simple to resolve, if you knew how.”

As much as I want Australia to whitewash the Poms 5-0, I’d like to see Rankin back on the field. I suspect that Geoff could get him back out there.

Moreover, Geoff’s message is don’t accept that your aches and pains are a consequence of being a little older, that you’re wearing out. It’s mostly bullshit.

No I’m not on a commission for referring people to Geoff. It’s such a pleasure to see people’s faces when they become pain-free.

Drop him an email on   

The Long Walk to Freedom Continues


In one sense, Nelson Mandela had to die to fulfil his vision. He knew his time had come, he was ready to join the ancestors. At 95, he had earned his rest. He will become even greater in death than in life. As one scribe wrote, his death will allow the real consequences of his life to begin.

I suspect he knew that, while he was alive, his achievements as the first president of a democratic South Africa would be steadily diminished. The rainbow nation still faces many challenges. The ambitious promises to eliminate poverty are yet to be fulfilled, it’s still a work in progress. Crime remains a huge issue in South Africa and its major cities remain dangerous places to visit. Gender equality has improved from the apartheid days but the level of sexual assaults against women is still unacceptably high. HIV and AIDS are still taking so many of the country’s best and brightest people.  

The African National Congress, the vehicle which brought freedom to South Africa, is riven with corruption and nepotism. A new black elite has replaced the old white one and ordinary folks are yet to see the fruits of independence.

As president, Mandela became a treasure of the world, not just South Africa. He travelled the globe to let everyone know that South Africa was open for business. People rushed to identify themselves with his brand, to get close to him. Every two-bob celebrity from Bono to Naomi Campbell rushed to have their photo taken with him. He was unfailingly co-operative, even when a bumptious Australian journalist from the Nine Network’s Business Sunday show buttonholed him at a function at the presidential residence in Pretoria a few days after his inauguration in October 1994.

When I heard he had died last week, the feeling of exhilaration of that day returned to me all over again. I remembered how he had changed my life.

I recalled the euphoria that had gripped South Africa in those heady days, the sense of gratitude for the miracle that had taken place during the elections. The nation had braced itself for a bloodbath and instead it witnessed the birth of a multi-racial society.

In his inauguration speech, Mandela had laid down a challenge.

“Our daily deeds as ordinary South Africans must produce an actual South African reality that will reinforce humanity’s belief in justice, strengthen its confidence in the nobility of the human soul and sustain all our hopes for a glorious life for all.”

It’s still relevant today. Mandela took us all a step closer to achieving those lofty ambitions. He showed it was possible to show mercy without being weak, to forgive our enemies unconditionally.

I read one tribute by a journalist who lamented that great figures of history like Mandela are few and far between these days. I disagree entirely. I think his passing and the telling of his story will inspire countless others to follow in his footsteps, to dare to dream of a brighter day.

In his inauguration speech he was already preparing us for this time. There was something greater than himself that guides the path of humanity.        

“Each time one of us touches the soil of this land, we feel a sense of personal renewal. The national mood changes as the seasons change.

We are moved by a sense of joy and exhilaration when the grass turns green and the flowers bloom. “

His legacy is the maintenance of hope against overwhelming odds, the certainty that hatred can never triumph over love. This does not die with the passing of a single man.




Afterword. Rain fell on the ground where they gathered to remember Nelson Mandela, symbolically erasing his footsteps from the earth. It reminds me that the earth is greater than any one man but produces each and every one of us. To its embrace we all return.

Optical Illusions


So the deal-making behind James Hird’s 12-month suspension is finally apparent.  

The Herald-Sun’s Mark Robinson sums up this whole grubby, expedient business in today’s column.

Personally, I could never work out how the AFL had managed to distance itself from the scandal once it had accused Essendon of bringing the game into disrepute. The allegation (and it was never more than an allegation) was that Essendon’s governance of its supplements program had been poor. I think Essendon and James Hird would agree they could have done it better, but what of the AFL boss Andrew Demetriou?

Former Test cricketer Bruce Francis understood the story better than most journalists, certainly those who have relentlessly backed the AFL’s pursuit of Essendon and James Hird. As an independent observer, he wrote to me in August to raise questions about the AFL’s responsibility for occupational health and safety at Essendon. His point was that when a player signs up to play for a club, he signs a tripartite deal, between himself, the club and the AFL. Sounds dull and dry but it’s devastating to the AFL’s claim it has no legal responsibility. 

It’s inarguable that the AFL has a direct legal responsibility to ensure that its clubs provide a safe working environment. So when the AFL’s integrity officer Brett Clothier is alleged to have warned James Hird about peptides in August 2011 there should  have been a process undertaken to monitor and resolve any concerns. Nothing happened. The AFL did nothing with the information until its peculiar joint investigation with the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority began much later.

Months ago, the AFL admitted that it could have done more to stop Essendon’s supplements program.

Despite claiming credit for warning Essendon, AFL deputy chief executive Gillon McLachlan admitted on SEN radio that: “the fact that we weren’t out there regularly monitoring the situation is potentially a failure of the AFL. There is responsibility all round here.”

Oh yes responsibility all round…but only Essendon staff and James Hird copped any sanction, the heaviest penalties in the history of the AFL.

The AFL looks hopelessly conflicted in this. It was carrying out a joint investigation with ASADA when it quite properly should have been under scrutiny from the same investigation itself. It has dodged all its legal responsibility for maintaining a safe workplace at AFL clubs. If my son were going to a club, I would expect better. Instead, the public has witnessed the AFL doing all it can to find a scapegoat and absolve itself of any blame.

Many people believe that James Hird et al pleaded guilty to lesser charges and accepted bans based on a hearing that took place. Andrew Demetriou has said as much in interviews but it’s demonstrably false. There was never any hearing, no lesser charges, no AFL Commission-sanctioned penalties. There was a deal, a typical back room deal because the AFL could not afford to end up in the Supreme Court explaining its version of justice. Now we learn that the AFL and Essendon offered to keep Hird on full pay and stump up for an overseas study tour if he accepted his year-long suspension.(Demetriou has now denied any knowledge of this.) While it might have been better for the game if Hird went to the Supreme Court, I don’t blame him for taking a deal in the end. He would never have coached again at any club had he not done so. 

Yes, as Robbo said in the Herald Sun today, this was all about the optics. And watch the eyes grow wider as more stories tumble out in the coming days. I’m glad to see cricket back on the front and back of our newspapers again but this story has a long way to run.

UPDATE: Andrew Demetriou has defended his position telling The Age:
there were discussions between John Wylie and Little before the AFL Commission “hearing” into the supplements scandal, but disputed details in News Limited reports published overnight.

“There are always negotiations before any hearing…” Demetriou said.

He admitted that AFL employees, including Gillon McLachlan, had discussions with Essendon and Hird before the AFL Commission hearing, but insisted he had no knowledge of the substance of such meetings. Isn’t that convenient?

There may well be negotiations before AFL Commission hearings. But in this case there was plenty of negotiating but no hearing.

Runaway Mum

Savanna Todd (left) at court in Maroochydore last  month

Savanna Todd (left) at court in Maroochydore last month

After nearly twenty years on the run, Dorothy Lee Barnett had all but transformed herself into her alias, Alexandra Geldenhuys, a 53-year old single mum working as a sales rep on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. But it’s always one careless moment that brings a fugitive undone.

Barnett’s came as she enjoyed a few drinks with friends after a day’s sailing in 2011. She referred to her then 18-year old daughter Samantha by an unfamiliar name“Savanna” and mentioned that she had fled an abusive relationship in the US.

The chain of events in Charleston South Carolina all those years befor – the divorce, the custody battle and her flight with her baby girl – must have seemed another life ago, perhaps several lives ago, because Barnett had reinvented herself many times. But now she was damned from her own mouth.

One of her friends searched the website of the US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and found details and a picture of 11-month Savanna Todd from 1994.

Alongside was an “age-advanced” picture of the child who bore a striking resemblance to the hazel-eyed girl she knew as Samantha. Pictures of Barnett also matched.

According to court documents, the friend contacted Savanna’s father, Charleston stockbroker Benjamin Harris Todd III, who reported the information to the FBI.

So began the painstaking process of confirming Barnett’s progress around the globe, a path that led to her door at Mountain Creek, near Mooloolaba.

Not surprisingly, Savanna Todd is said to be in a state of deep confusion over her identity right now. She had no idea of the tortured history that led to her mother’s arrest, according to sources close to the family.

The vivacious blonde 20-year old was living life as Samantha Geldenhuys, a first-year nursing student at Townsville’s James Cook University. She wrote in an affidavit that she had recently returned from a six-month stint volunteering in a hospital in Peru, having overcome a battle with clinical depression to pursue her dreams.

As far as she knew, her father was a South African man named Juan Geldenhuys. Barnett had met and married Geldenhuys in South Africa and they had another child, Reece, now 17.

According to documents filed in Barnett’s extradition case, they had lived in South Africa, New Zealand and Mountain Creek before that relationship had foundered. Geldenhuys had returned to South Africa but tragically succumbed to bone cancer just weeks before Barnett’s capture.

The only father Savanna had known was dead. Then her mother rang her after being arrested to tell her another man, Harris Todd, was her real father.

Savanna had always known that she had American relatives. Her mother after all had an American accent, but she couldn’t work out why her mother had kept her away from them. Now everything is falling into place.

Barnett and Todd had been an odd couple, sharing little else but the fact their fathers had died young.

The son of a Kentucky doctor and a nurse, Todd was described in a 1997 media report as “the very picture of Southern White Anglo-Saxon Protestant propriety: a graduate of Andover and Yale. Todd speaks softly, opens doors for women and can converse on everything from John Barth to Beethoven without missing a beat.”

He had gone straight from college to Merrill Lynch’s Charleston office where he remained for his entire career.

A judge noted Dorothy Lee Barnett, on the other hand, had been raised by her eccentric mother in a dysfunctional family supported by her stepfather’s social security cheques. They moved frequently between different homes in Florida and Belize in Central America.

Barnett wanted to be a vet but dropped out of college to run a piggery in Belize and then moved to Africa where she bought jewellery for sale in the US.

She had become a flight attendant in 1988 , but she complained the work was below her intellectual capacity.

The couple met when Todd became her stockbroker in 1985 and five years later began dating when she was disengaging herself from a tumultuous relationship with an airline pilot, according to US court documents.

In granting their divorce in 1994, Judge Robert Mallard noted that Barnett’s “troubled” relationships with men had been characterised by “arguments, temper outbursts and occasional physical violence”.

Trouble soon began. In April 1991, Todd threw Barnett out of their home after she had called him 18 times while away at a seminar accusing him of infidelity. According to Todd, Barnett pursued him until she finally wore him down. In December 1991, they eloped and were married.

It was the only daring thing the southern gent had perhaps done apart from  making some arty nude films of himself and friends in the 1970s.

Six months later the marriage was falling apart with him claiming that Barnett was regularly brutalising him physically and verbally. Two days after they decided to divorce, Barnett discovered she was pregnant.

Barnett told a psychiatrist that Todd did not want the baby and demanded she have an abortion, which had further intensified the conflict.

The psychiatrist noted in a report to the court that she claimed to have had a miscarriage in August 1992 and believed she was no longer pregnant. In fact, she later discovered she had been carrying twins and still bore one foetus, Savanna, she told the psychiatrist.  Todd’s longtime lawyer, Graham Sturgis, would not confirm whether this was true.

The couple began joint therapy sessions with a psychiatrist, Dr Oliver Bjorksten, who diagnosed Barnett as having “hyperthymic temperament”, which he said was a form of bipolar disorder, according to the court judgement.

He prescribed Navane, a psychotropic drug rarely given to pregnant women. Barnett began to suspect that Todd and her mother (whom she claimed was susceptible to male intentions) were conspiring with Bjorksten to make her appear mentally ill.

By October 1992 they had split permanently but their skirmishes continued right up until Savanna’s birth in May the following year.

Savanna at 11 months old before her abduction in 1994

Savanna at 11 months old before her abduction in 1994

A grim struggle for custody of the child began. In the divorce proceedings, Barnett claimed that Todd was gay or bisexual, citing his nude home movies and writings as evidence of perversion and unfitness as a father.

None of this was accepted. Meanwhile expert witnesses lined up to say that Barnett was mentally unstable, promiscuous and volatile, causing her to become increasingly unhinged in the court.

The judge repeatedly cautioned her for making remarks, “talking excessively or too loudly (and) getting up and down from her seat”. She had gone through a variety of moods “from tearfulness, abjection, agitation, anger to near euphoria”. Perhaps this was understandable, given Barnett must have known she was about to lose custody of her nine-month-old daughter.

She had been tailed by a private detective who discovered she had gone out with at least five men since Savanna’s birth, one of whom was married.

She had been “alone in either her house or the houses of her male companions late at night under circumstances under which adulterous conduct could occur”.

In conservative, God-fearing Charleston, such behaviour was regarded as a scandal.

In his judgement, Judge Mallard blamed Barnett entirely for the break-up of the marriage and awarded sole custody of Savanna to Todd, determining that a stockbroker working full-time was best placed to look after a child who was still being breast-fed.

“The psychological and emotional problems experienced by the mother, if left untreated, will create conflict and havoc in the child’s life and she will suffer accordingly,” Judge Mallard concluded.

Todd was “a caring, conscientious and stable person who tried to get help for his wife but failed”,  according to the judge.

While Todd had been prepared to allow joint custody, Barnett had made it clear she believed her daughter should have no contact with her father whatsoever.

Overwhelmed in court by her husband’s battery of psychologists and pediatricians, Barnett would walk from the marriage with a $9000 emerald engagement ring, a ride-on lawnmower and a set of steak knives. She would only be allowed to have Savanna two weekends a month.

On the first weekend visit, she failed to return the child and the court ordered her access to Savanna be supervised.

Faye Yager, the founder of Children of the Underground, which claims to have helped 7000 women escape abusive spouses, says Barnett never had a chance. “He stomped on her like an ant. They set out to prove she was crazy so they could strip her of all her rights as a mother,” according to Yager, who claims to have helped Barnett while on the run.

Todd was awarded $50 million in damages claim against Barnett by a South Carolina court after she fled, which Sturgis concedes is “uncollectable.”

Remarkably, another court-appointed psychiatrist in April 1994 found Barnett was not suffering from any mental illness or personality disorder. In a Dr Madelaine Wohlreich reported that Barnett was suffering from no more than an acute reaction to the stress of being separated from her baby in the crucial first year of life.

“Hyperthymic personality” was not even a recognised diagnosis, according to standards set by the American Psychiatric Association, Dr Wohlreich wrote.

Sturgis claims this report was “rigged” as the doctor had been sympathetic to Barnett’s case.

It mattered not because by the time, Dr Wohlreich had submitted her report, Barnett and Savanna had disappeared. On April 24,  1994, she persuaded her custody supervisor that she could take Savanna to a birthday party alone and never returned.

Two days later, seven friends, family and co-workers received videotaped and written messages from Barnett she and her daughter had left because she “had to do something because of the custody order” Barnett’s camp also an alleges that when Barnett picked up Savanna for her last access visit, the child had facial injuries. This may have been another factor in Barnett abducting Savanna, they say.

Media reports over the years suggested that Todd had expended nearly all his assets in a global pursuit of his daughter. Early efforts focussed on Belize after Todd found a map of South America at Barnett’s residence, but it was a red herring.

Apparently, she had learned how to create a false identity from watching a segment on 60 Minutes. According to documents filed by the FBI in the Queensland court, she left the country on a passport under the name Alexandra Canton bound for Frankfurt in Germany with
Savanna. She then moved to South Africa’s Western Cape region before moving on to New Zealand and finally to the Sunshine Coast.

As Todd paid private detectives across the globe to track her, Barnett was raising her children by the ocean in Queensland where they excelled in competitive swimming and surf life-saving, friends say.

Todd’s life remained more or less static, according to his lawyerHe never re-married or had any other children, instead playing father to his niece and nephew. All along, he kept Savanna’s room,  awaiting her return, updating the decor to suit her age as the years rolled by.

On the Sunshine Coast, Barnett  made a new circle of mostly female friends who have rallied around her. No-one but the friend who betrayed her had suspected her secret and even now they staunchly defend her as she remains in custody awaiting an extradition hearing in February.

“I know her as a loving, supportive, and totally devoted mother and a loyal and loving friend with a strong work ethic, an extroverted fun personality with a welcoming home,” one said in a character reference.

“I don’t know the circumstances of what happened 20 years ago, but whatever it was, it would have been in desperation that only a mother would understand,” said another.

Todd has reportedly travelled to Queensland seeking a meeting with his daughter, but has refused media requests for interviews.

“His entire focus is on Savanna and creating a relationship with her,” says Sturgis. “But he’s going to be patient. He’s going to give her time to come to him.”

So far Savanna has rejected his offer of a meeting while her father is backing the FBI’s efforts to extradite her mother back to the US where we she will face up to 20 years in prison. “That Lee would leverage her daughter’s emotions to win her freedom demonstrates the depth of her selfishness,” says Sturgis.

There’s no doubt, her actions two decades ago are still causing trauma for her children. Coming up to Christmas, seventeen year son Reece  finds himself with no father and a mother in a Brisbane jail. He has gone to New Zealand to stay with friends on a pre-arranged trip but faces an uncertain future when he returns. Savanna has so far rejected Todd’s overtures for a meeting but  having just finished her university exams she wants some breathing space to process all that has happened, sources close to the family say.  

She faces a delicate balance between her mother who claims she is terrified of Todd and a daughter’s right to know her father and her family in the US. At least as an adult, she will be able to choose for herself in this tug of war.

Far from hating her mother for depriving her of a life of privilege in Charleston, Savanna is sticking by her mother.

At her mother’s recent bail hearing she held up a sign that read “I love you Mom”.