Happy New Year! For those interstate, overseas or who might have missed the Sunday Age, here is a feature which ran today. I am planning another probing the police side of the ledger in the coming week.
“It’s not over until the widow sings”
January 9, 2011
Justice for the two policemen slain in Walsh Street, South Yarra, in 1988, rests on the word of a perjurer.
WHEN Wendy Peirce opens the door, her jaw is slack and eyes glassy. Then, as if in slow motion, her features set in a scowl. She is ready for conflict. Through the furry haze of the anti-depressants she has been popping like Smarties, Wendy can still summon up the hate. And to the widow of a despised cop killer, the world is a hateful place.
Fortunately, the glare doesn’t last long. She’s mistaken this reporter for a TV documentary crew who have been pestering her night and day.
Everyone wants to know if she’s finally going to share the truth of one of Australia’s great unresolved crimes – the cold-blooded murder of two young police constables, Steven Tynan and Damian Eyre, in Walsh Street, South Yarra, in the early hours of October 12, 1988.
Next month the State Coroner is expected to notify Tynan and Eyre’s parents whether there will be an inquiry into the murders some time this year.
Mid-last year, Peirce was ready to testify but that’s now uncertain, as her mental state has deteriorated. Last week it was reported that Peirce had changed her mind, declaring she would never give evidence against her late husband, Victor Peirce.
But it is understood Peirce has already given a damning statement to police that implicates her dead husband. According to one legal expert, a coroner’s inquest can proceed without her. Even if she tried to withdraw her statement, the coroner could still take it into consideration.
To many Victorians, a Walsh Street inquest would be an exercise in ancient history, just some unfinished business of the war between Victor Peirce’s ”Flemington Crew” and the former armed robbery squad of Victoria Police in the 1980s.
In this Underbelly-obsessed city, Victor Peirce is most notable now for being a victim of Carl Williams’s hitman, Andrew ”Benji” Veniamin, in 2002 during the recent gangland war.
But to the Eyre and Tynan families, and the police who lived through Walsh Street, an inquest still matters deeply. Especially now the facts are in danger of being forgotten or mythologised.
The plot of the hit Australian film Animal Kingdom, which features possible Oscar contender Jacki Weaver, revolves around the killing of two innocent policemen in retaliation for the cold-blooded murder of a popular crook by corrupt detectives.
The producers maintain the story is fiction but the echoes of Walsh Street are unmistakable.
Former Victorian deputy commissioner Bob Falconer left the cinema shaking in anger, believing the film had portrayed the killers as the good guys.
”The truth of Walsh Street should never be forgotten. Anyone who watched that film would believe that Eyre and Tynan died because of police corruption – that their murders were somehow justified,” Falconer said.
Wendy Peirce could have ended this matter 20 years ago. In July 1989, she made a comprehensive 31-page statement and gave evidence unflinchingly at the committal hearing, with her husband, Victor, his family and gang members looking on.
She said the murder plot had been formulated by Victor after members of the armed robbery squad shot and killed his closest friend, Graeme Jensen, during an arrest on October 11, 1988, the day before Walsh Street.
Jensen was wanted over a botched robbery of a Brunswick supermarket earlier in the year in which a security guard, Dominic Hefti, was killed. Jensen’s death was part of an escalating war between the Flemington Crew and the armed robbery squad. Two other Victor Peirce associates had been shot and killed by police in the year before Jensen’s death.
”He [Victor] disliked police so much that he would often say to me, ‘I’d love to knock them dogs’. His hatred of police was so vicious that at times I was scared to be with him,” Wendy Peirce told police in 1989.
Victor believed the armed robbery squad had become a self-appointed hit team, executing criminals. And evidence continues to emerge that arguably supports that view.
Malcolm Rosenes, a former drug squad officer who was jailed for trafficking, has alleged in a new book, Snouts in the Trough, that he witnessed police planting a sawn-off .22 calibre rifle in Jensen’s car at the scene of his death.
It was alleged that Victor had decided that two police officers would die for every one of his crew that fell. Jensen would be avenged, Victor vowed. He did not know that behind his back Wendy had been sleeping with his mate Jensen. A stolen car was left in the middle of Walsh Street to attract police. When Eyre and Tynan attended the scene, they were executed.
At first Wendy gave her husband an alibi. They had been together all night in a motel room in Tullamarine.
With Victor in custody for the murders, their home in Richmond was demolished by police looking for evidence. Then police reportedly told her of other women in Victor’s life.
She then told police that during the night in the motel she had heard Victor rise and get dressed. He had left, returning at first light, giving him plenty of time to get to South Yarra for the ambush.
But then Victor’s family got to her. By the time Victor’s trial came around, Wendy had recanted. More than $2 million spent on witness protection had been wasted.
At the pre-trial voir dire hearing, Wendy claimed she had never seen Victor with a gun. She served nine months’ jail for perjury, but Victor got away scot-free.
In 1991, Victor and three members of his crew of bank robbers – half-brother Trevor Pettingill, Anthony Farrell and Peter McEvoy – were acquitted of the killings.
In February last year, McEvoy openly boasted about the murders, safe in the knowledge he could not be retried under double jeopardy rules.
He approached NSW police in Newcastle and gave an 11-minute speech: ”The sweetest thing I ever heard was the police officer’s last words while he was dying,” he allegedly said. ”I can’t wait to put a shotgun to your head. Loaded up with a solid and watching your f—ing head get blown up.”
McEvoy’s taunts were revealed in a NSW court hearing last April.
THE public outrage at the murders of Tynan and Eyre recalled the furore that followed the Stringybark Creek massacre in 1878 when Ned Kelly’s gang ambushed and murdered three police officers in northern Victoria.
Kelly faced the people’s judgment on the scaffold, but in Walsh Street a brutal and callous attack on the state went unpunished.
”The police that Kelly killed were actually pursuing him and the gang. Walsh Street was the only time that police were lured to a place of ambush and killed simply because they were wearing the uniform,” said Falconer.
Walsh Street changed the relationship between Victorian criminals and police forever, according to reformed standover man Mark ”Chopper” Read.
”The police don’t go to water when you try to terrorise them. They come back stronger and tougher, and with the full force of the community and the government on their side,” Read writes in his new book, One Thing Led to Another.
”[When] you kill one copper, all you do is get another 1000 coppers hopping mad. And they can get away with a lot more, in the name of making the streets safe again for Mr and Mrs Citizen,” says Read.
After Walsh Street, two more of Victor’s crew were shot dead by police in questionable circumstances as Victoria Police racked up fatal shootings at twice the rate of all other Australian jurisdictions combined.
”It was the end of the warning shot. There had been an unwritten rule that you fired a warning shot or two when pursuing a villain. But after Walsh Street there was no more of that,” according to retired sergeant Brian ”Skull” Murphy. Victoria Police dramatically changed its strategic approach after Walsh Street, said retired senior sergeant Alex Krstic, a former trainer at the police academy.
”We were teaching police to survive gun battles after that. Previously, recruits only wore their firearms during firearms training. Now they were carrying them all the time, so they got used to handling them. It was now critical to their survival,” he said.
PEOPLE have been knocking on Wendy Pierce’s Port Melbourne door for a long time now. Apart from laying to rest what really happened, there’s also the mystery of Eyre’s missing .38 Smith & Wesson revolver that was used by the killers to deliver the coup de grace to the wounded constable. It’s thought the murderers kept it as a souvenir.
In Wendy Peirce, a less glamorous picture of crime is impossible to conceive. Her husband and daughter are dead and she is estranged from her entire family and most of her in-laws. She’s lucky to still have her former Housing Commission flat in Port Melbourne. Inside, it’s surprisingly neat and tidy. She’s polite and respectful, asking permission to smoke in her own house. She apologises for her dishevelled appearance, the small pile of washing in the laundry.
It’s easy to feel pity but Wendy’s story is the inevitable trajectory of all empires of crime. For a few years of reckless hedonism, there are decades, sometimes generations, of pain and despair.
Last year, Wendy believed co-operation with the new inquest would bring a fresh start. Now everything seemed meaningless and in ruins, she said recently. The blinds are always drawn and she rarely ventures out these days. She feels like everyone recognises her, as if Walsh Street confers an enduring celebrity. The sad reality is that few people under 40 would recognise her, much less care about her fate. Only her possible co-operation with the inquest keeps her in the public spotlight.
”People are going to be very surprised. My oath, they’re going to be surprised,” she said late last year, with some pleasure.
She has always enjoyed the media attention. When Melbourne shock jock Derryn Hinch regularly called her a ”gangster’s moll” and ”a conniving, immoral, hypocritical, criminal bitch”, she just had to call in to harangue him on air, again and again.
Certainly, she now knows the anguish of the parents of Eyre and Tynan. In December 2009, her daughter Katie met a squalid and pitiful end in an outer suburban home with an older man fresh out of prison. In an ironic twist, Wendy has been fighting for police and the coroner to treat Katie’s death as murder or manslaughter after her demise was initially dismissed as a heroin overdose. Katie was suffering from pneumonia when the man allegedly gave her a dose of methadone, which can be lethal to new users. She had been using heroin but had apparently been clean for months. The police found Katie naked on the lounge-room floor, her two-year-old daughter, Zoe, running around oblivious.
Death had never bothered Wendy before. She had once seen her brother-in-law, Dennis Allen, chop up a body with a chainsaw and she had been able to laugh it off.
When hitman Andrew Veniamin murdered Victor a few blocks from their home in May 2002, Wendy’s dominant emotion had been anger. She even had her husband’s blood cleaned from the car he was killed in so she could drive it for ”sentimental reasons”.
Now, with Katie’s death, there was an aching hollowness. Inside her there was a bottomless pit she was falling into, she said.
Katie died while Wendy was in prison. They were both charged with attempted murder, but Katie was out on bail. Wendy was also doing time for threatening to kill a witness in the trial of a man later convicted as the driver in Victor’s death.
It was alleged that Wendy and Katie had paid a local man to attack the father of Katie’s ex-partner’s new girlfriend in a Port Melbourne pub. It was nothing unusual for a family steeped in wanton violence and murder, but this was a new low. The attacker mistook a bystander who came out of the pub to smoke a cigarette for his intended victim and drove a meat cleaver into his jaw.
Jail held no fears for Wendy but when news of Katie’s death reached her she thought the guilt might kill her.
Wendy wasn’t allowed leave to bury Katie, so the body remained on ice in the morgue for three months until Wendy’s release. She told this reporter Katie’s death was a turning point. She said that Katie would have wanted her to co-operate with the Coroner. Katie had no criminal record but her father’s sins had robbed her of a normal family life.
Wendy had said she owed the Tynan and Eyre families the truth of how their sons had died. She had been surprised at how diligently police had investigated Katie’s death despite her family pedigree. She needed forgiveness if she was ever to shed her burden, Wendy said.
Eyre’s father, Frank, a former policeman himself, agreed to meet Wendy. He could never forgive her for helping Victor evade justice but he had sympathy for her as a mother. He would thank her for helping bring some kind of closure.
But with each monthly milestone of Katie’s death, Wendy descended deeper into depression.
Recently, she sent this reporter a message to break another appointment for a formal interview: ”i’m just really really depressed at the moment, i sleep all day and night, just thinking of katie, i wont let u down, its just that i need some help, im slipping rite into deppression, seeing doctor, … take care speak soon.”
And so, just like 1989, everyone’s waiting for Wendy.
Back then, detectives investigating the murders suggested that co-operation was her only chance to turn her life around. Maybe she knew that was a lie.
There’s an old police saying that informers are like manure: very useful but nobody wants to handle them. If she had testified, Wendy would have spent her life in witness protection.
In the end, she decided it was better to be a pariah among friends than a dog alone. There’s still hope she might change her mind yet again. But whatever her whim, the Coroner has Wendy’s signed statement. So, if the inquiry is held, there still might be justice for Damian Eyre and Steve Tynan.