For decades, gay bashers operated with impunity. Sometimes, they killed their victims. The police often didn’t care. Sometimes, they were said to be doing the bashing. A culture of indifference meant the bodies piled up as the world looked the other way. But little is known about gay hate crimes outside those now widely documented in NSW. This exclusive SBS investigation lifts the lid on Adelaide's shadow lands.
It is 1.20am when Rex Robinson noses his white Torana onto a narrow gravel track that, for 450 metres, is a shadow land of nods, glances and subtle comeons. About halfway along the drive-thru pick-up joint, he sees a red Mercedes. Interesting. Don’t often see flash cars like that at the beat.
Before he reaches the Merc, however, he glides past a Valiant with fat tyres, mag wheels and doors painted a different colour to the body. A guy in his 20s in the driver’s seat. More interesting. Worth another look, that one.
Robinson drives to the end of the track, past two more cars, and does a U-turn at the car park of the Adelaide Pavilion restaurant. He cruises back, senses fully alive. The 25-year-old comes here a lot. Loves the thrill of it all.
Most nights he won’t pick up. He’ll see some mates over near the toilets and end up just chatting. They’ll watch the married men come in and have a laugh at the desperation of it all, have a dig at their own sluttiness, slipping into the darkness when the cops come rolling through to harass them. Or the car full of yobbos hurling invective.
The next pick-up is always just a glance away.
And so Robinson, with his cropped hair and short moustache, cruises back past the Mercedes. He can’t see anyone in it. Past the toilet block. No mates in sight. Then slowly towards the Valiant, pulling in behind.
The driver has got out and is now leaning on the boot, his blond mullet illuminated in the Torana’s headlights. His arms are folded and a cigarette dangles from his lips. Bit of all right.
But then a head pops up in the back seat. Robinson can see it clear as day. It bobs down. Someone is hiding there. Alarm bells ring in his head, so he pulls away and the guy leaning on the boot turns to watch him go. Robinson checks the rearview mirror to make sure he isn’t being followed.
Bashers are common at beats, but they’ve never got Robinson. One time, four people followed his Torana out of here. He pulled up at a traffic light and heard their jeers of “faggot” and “poofter”.
Then his car got a bump from the back. He jammed his foot hard onto the brake as they pushed him into the city intersection. Tyres screeched. Rubber burned. The light went green and he sped off to Holden Hill police station. It was closed. More red lights, more screeching as they chased him until he got to his sister’s place and ran inside.
You have to keep your wits about you. So after he makes sure the Valiant isn’t following him, Robinson drives off to buy fuel. Ten or 15 minutes later, though, he returns. The risks might be huge, but so is the allure.
Now, there is only one vehicle on the strip. The red Mercedes. It has moved to where the Valiant had previously been parked. He puts his high beam on and sees a shape on the road next to it. Is this some sort of trap?
It was the era when “poofter bashing” became a sport.
He drives past, does a U-turn, drives past again. He sees the lump on the road is a man, face down, motionless. Robinson pulls up alongside and winds down his window. “Are you all right?”
The guy moans and rolls over, revealing a face covered in blood.
“Can you help me?” he says, weakly.
This is a story from a blighted time. A time where people were forced to find their freedom under the cover of darkness, and in doing so risked violence, victim-blaming and institutional prejudice. Where a murder could be written off as a robbery gone wrong, a suicide or a “high-spirited frolic”. And not only did the police mostly turn a blind eye to it, but sometimes, it is believed, they were the perpetrators.
NSW now has a task force, Operation Parrabell, reviewing 88 deaths including 30 unsolved cases from the 1970s to the early 2000s as potential gay-hate murders, most of which weren’t treated as such at the time. Those 88 deaths are the worst of the tragedies.
But what those figures don’t reveal are the broken ribs and ruptured spleens that were nurtured and unheeded by a society that was looking the other way. For every death, there were dozens of assaults that went unreported.
It was the era when “poofter bashing” became a sport. I remember a guy in my footy team, Gavin, boasting about doing it. “Mate it’s unreal,” he said with casual bravado. “You should try it.”
It was 1978. We were in the under 13s and Gavin, blond haired and freckle-faced, was the smallest member of the team.
I wondered if he was bullshitting. I wondered why and where these poofters would gather in order to let themselves be bashed by little guys. There was a lot I didn’t understand. The fact he was talking about it tells you it was out there. It was a thing.
And we’ll never know how much of a thing. Police didn’t keep stats and even if they did, they would have been worthless because gay people didn’t go to the police. On numerous occasions while researching this story, I was told stories of men attempting to report such crimes but being jeered out of the station once the officer heard where they’d been, what they’d been doing. They never went back.
For their part, the police saw the homosexual community as the criminals - because they were. In Victoria, sodomy carried the death penalty until 1949. Even after homosexual acts became legal across Australia between 1975 (South Australia) and 1997 (Tasmania), what went on at beats has remained an act of public indecency.
Also, most of the men performing these acts were shut tight in the closet. Even some of the out-and-proud gay community looked down on what those men did in the darkness.
And the murders and bashings weren’t confined to NSW.
According to Professor Stephen Tomsen from the University of Western Sydney, the criminologist who did a lot of the work in identifying the 88 NSW cases, the only reason similar potential gay-hate murders haven’t been found else where is that no one’s gone looking. “I wish people in other states would step in and actually start research projects on what’s happened elsewhere,” he said.
I remember a guy in my footy team, Gavin, boasting about doing it. “Mate it’s unreal,” he said with casual bravado. “You should try it.”
When I went looking back over old unsolved murder cases and the few assaults that had managed to make the papers around the country, Adelaide kept popping up. And so I decided to focus on the city of churches and bodies in barrels – a socially progressive city with a reputation for twisted darkness – where even while they were leading the way in gay law reform, men were being viciously bashed behind the bushes.
And while other Adelaide crimes like the disappearance of the Beaumont children and the Snowtown murders grabbed the headlines and gave the city its perhaps undeserved reputation, with one notable exception the cases I was looking at – like most gay-hate crimes – went by largely unnoticed.
This story will take you into the world of beats and bashings during those dark decades, at a time when society with all its fears and biases not only tolerated but perpetuated the abuse. An ingrained culture whose legacy re-mains in a fear of reporting crimes and in the “gay-panic defence”, whereby, in two states, you can still kill a bloke and have it downgraded to manslaughter by saying, “He came on to me.”
Once I started looking more closely at Adelaide, it became clear that the epicentre of these murky activities was a pocket of the city’s South Parklands called Veale Gardens. Which is how I came to be looking at the case of the red Mercedes, the two-tone Valiant and the white Torana.
When Rex Robinson was doing his first cruise along the strip that summer’s night in early 1992, another man who we’ll call Tom also cruised in. Tom, who described himself as bisexual, told police he wasn’t there to hook up, but had gone to see if there was anything on connected with the Festival of Arts.
His account of events didn’t entirely gel with Robinson’s but it was close enough. He saw Robinson’s white Torana, and noted the Mercedes parked close to a lime-green Valiant. He drove out again, but as he turned right and right again along South Terrace, he saw a second Valiant, with doors painted a different colour to the body, parked about 100 metres from the beat.
A young man in a black T-shirt and jeans was reaching into the boot. After passing, Tom looked back and saw the guy had a long object in his hand. “I assumed that he must have had tyre trouble,” he told police, “and that he was getting the jack.”
This information would become important.
Jim Blaxland, 53, (not his real name), a fundraising manager for a prominent charity, finished the Crossquiz in The Advertiser before he got into his “British red” Mercedes around midnight to go and house-sit for a friend.
In his first statement to police, he said he was feeling dizzy as he drove along so he pulled into Veale Gardens “to see what was happening down there and also to watch the Festival of Arts laser show”.
Pushed on this point in a later police interview, he said he’d been there before. “It’s a meeting place for men who want to meet other men. I thought if I was going to look for laser lights, I could do it there as well as anywhere else.”
He saw the light show then went to leave, but as he drove down the narrow track out of Veale Gardens, the dizziness returned so he pulled over.
Maybe he dozed off. When he refocussed, unsure if he’d slept, he noticed a car parked close behind. “There was a youngish man sitting on the bonnet of the vehicle,” he would later say. “I looked around me and looked into the rear-vision mirror and I could not see anyone else around. I got out to see who this person was and to see what he was doing, maybe strike up an acquaintance.”
“It felt as if I was being continually hit and kicked.”
Blaxland sat on the back corner of his car, about three metres from the youth on the two-tone Valiant. They talked about the laser show and the powerful old-model car. “He kept looking at me with a smiling face,” Blaxland would recall.
The youth asked: “Do you come here often?”
“No, not very often at all.”
Then, out of the blue, someone grabbed Blaxland from behind. “My head was twisted around and I was being forced to the ground in the same movement. I felt myself being hit with a hard object ... more than a fist. I was on the ground ... it felt as if I was being continually hit and kicked.”
He begged them to leave him alone: “If you want money, take it. I’ll give it to you. There must be more in the car.”
“We’ll take what we want anyhow,” the guy replied. “You’ve got no say.”
Blaxland heard someone walk to his car and that was the last thing he’d remember until a voice: “Try and hold on. There’s an ambulance coming.”
Uniformed constable Rebecca Kuss arrived and saw a man sitting in the door well of the red Mercedes with his feet on the road. His head was bloodied, his clothes dishevelled. He didn’t know where he was or how he came to be there. She noted that the glove box had been rifled and papers were strewn about the front seat.
The following evening, the TV news reported the vicious bashing in Veale Gardens. The victim was in a coma with a fractured skull, a broken cheek bone, a broken eye socket. His leg was broken, as were some ribs.
Soon after the news report went to air, two young men, Robert Verco and Jason Londema, walked into Adelaide police station with their parents and handed themselves in.
Detective Jennifer O’Donohue interviewed Verco first.
“Um, we were parked in the South Parklands, um, I got out to go to the toilet, a car pulled up in front of my car and the – the fellow come over towards me and, er, started talking to me asking – asking me if I go there often and well if I – and said, ‘Oh do you like older men?’”
Verco claimed that Blaxland had tried to touch him, gently, on the testicles. “I, like, detest that kind of thing...” A struggle broke out and he said he called out to his friend Jason. “He came out of the car and then it just got out of hand and, er, this fellow fell down and we panicked and took off.”
“It’s just not on what he did. When it comes to touching other people up especially from a stranger. I mean fair enough at work ... where mates want to give you a slap on the bum, but you know he’s only mucking around. You know he’s going to go home to his girlfriend.”
Asked if his friend Londema had punched the victim, Verco replied that he didn’t know. “We had a few to drink so I wasn’t, er, wasn’t too clear.” He described how he and Londema had started smoking cones in the morning, then drank Strongbow cider through the afternoon. In the evening, they’d gone to the Century Hotel in Adelaide and drunk five or six Coopers Ales.
He presumed he was well over the limit. Nevertheless, on the way home they thought it would be a good idea to punch back a few more cones, so they pulled into this little track in the South Parklands, completely unaware, he said, that they’d just driven into Adelaide’s most thumping beat. He denied that they went there to bash gay men.
The detective clarified that there had been no aggression from the victim. “No, but like I said, it’s just – it’s just not on what he did. When it comes to touching other people up especially from a stranger. I mean fair enough at work ... where mates want to give you a slap on the bum, but you know he’s only mucking around. You know he’s going to go home to his girlfriend.”
Verco claimed at first not to remember any of this the next morning. “And then I – it just clicked that we did have a fight and then I saw it on the news and I was – it shook me up ... When we finished I stood up and the fellow was laying there and I thought, ‘Wow! What have we done? We’ve killed him.’”
Detective Linda Mildren interviewed Londema next. His story was consistent with his friend’s about the beer and the bongs and the random nature of their stopping. About how his mate got out for a leak and was suddenly wrestling with the old guy.
It took a bit of cajoling from the detective, but Londema, who was 183 centimetres and 93 kilograms, finally told her that he’d grabbed a metre-long jack handle from the floor of the back seat. Unprompted, he felt the need to explain to the officer what a jack handle was doing in Verco’s back seat: “He’s been fixing his car ... he’s got everything in there.”
He admitted hitting Blaxland a couple of times. They panicked and left.
He too denied knowing it was a beat. “I’ve heard that there’s poofters around but I – I’ve never even really seen one.”
“Did you go there for that purpose, to have a look at one?”
He admitted going home and putting his bloodied jeans and his Metallica T-shirt in cold water to soak before washing them the next day.
Verco, 21, and Londema, 20, remained consistent in their story throughout the committal and trial for grievous bodily harm with intent. They took the stand and carried it through cross-examination. They denied having heard anything about the 1991 murder of another gay man, David Saint, in the South Parklands.
“Who would have believed that South Australia would, in 1992, see a jury set free two men who brutally bashed a gay man with a three-foot metal bar?”
The gay men – victim and witnesses – were all questioned at length about what it was they were doing in Veale Gardens and about such germane matters as where they would have had sex had they met the right man. In cars? The toilets? At home?
The judge in his summation told the jury it came down to who they believed. And then whether or not a homosexual advance was sufficient to explain the subsequent extreme violence meted out.
The jury came down on Verco and Londema’s side. To do that they had to ignore Tom’s evidence that he’d seen them pulling a jack out of the boot on a nearby street; the evidence of the ransacked glove-box; Robinson’s evidence that he’d seen someone hiding in the back seat, and that Verco was loitering on his boot watching the cars go by as Blaxland had said, rather than just dashing out for a leak. The jury also believed that the ferocity of the response was reasonable.
The acquittal came as a shock to the gay community. They quickly organised banners and rallied outside the attorney-general’s office. Activist Ian Purcell stood in front of a banner proclaiming “Gay Bashing isn’t self-de-fence”, as he addressed the crowd: “Who would have believed that South Australia – which proudly led the world in gay law reform in the 1970s – would, in 1992, see a jury set free two men who brutally bashed a gay man with a three-foot metal bar? Shame, South Australia, Shame.”
Kenton Penley, spokesman for the Lesbian and Gay Community Action, said gay bashings were on the rise and that according to information gathered by the community, at least two homosexuals were hospitalised each week after serious attacks. “The message ... from this decision is that gay people are no longer protected by the law,” Penley said.
The Advertiser ran a letter from the secretary of the Moral Renewal Society, David W Griffiths, which agreed: “The signal being sent to the homosexual community [by the verdict] is one of: be warned, unnatural behaviour, if advanced unwarranted to a normal person, can be construed as offensive and retaliation can be accepted as self-defence.”
Adelaide is a city surrounded by parklands which at night become a ring of blackness. Comedian Julian Clary apparently once said the city’s designer, Colonel William Light, must have been gay for the way he set it out.
Veale Gardens sits at the southern end of the ring, while further north, near the top end of town and the River Torrens, is the “Number One Beat” which, in 1972, had been Adelaide’s hottest gay pick-up spot since before anyone could remember.
Mick O’Shea recalls being there at the time trying to get a pinch. As a vice squad officer, the diligent 22-year-old had a duty to uphold the laws against gambling, SP bookmakers and prostitution, to monitor the nightclubs and to keep the “homos” in check.
He liked this last part of his work the least. “You’d be approached or there’d be a bloke playing with his tool or something going on,” he recalls. “You would end up loitering around a toilet block yourself. Not playing with your dick or anything, but loitering around the toilet block in, to me, an uncomfortable sort of way.”
As a strapping young blond man, he found it easy to attract advances, and that was enough to find something in the statutes to charge his suitors with. He winces and rubs his now loose-skinned face as he recalls the job that would define him. “To detect them and deal with them you had to sort of operate partially covertly, which sort of put you in the realms of being a queer yourself. And I just never felt comfortable with it.”
He liked the homosexual work the least. “It was like pulling up bloody weeds. You pull a patch of them in one spot and they spring up somewhere else.” But he did try. “Got a lot of buggeries,” he says, like a salesman saying he’d closed plenty of deals. He was doing his job.
“That was the actual wording of the charge in those days, was it?” I ask.
“Yep. Got a lot of buggeries, and general indecent behaviour ... it was all there to be had. Yeah, it was pretty crawling with them.”
This was a time when, according to Ian Purcell, two men living in the same house could be convicted on the basis of an un slept-in bed and an open jar of Vaseline. Police had the right to go in and look.
It’s been argued that the screw got turned particularly tightly on South Australia’s homosexuals after the Woomera rocket range was built in 1949. It was a matter of national security. Any gay man working for the project could be a blackmail target for foreign agents.
The job was “like pulling up bloody weeds. You pulla patch of them in one spot and they spring up somewhere else.” But the policeman did his job. “Got a lot of buggeries,” he says, like a salesman saying he’d closed plenty of deals.
“Homosexuals got together with each other and had great parties,” says historian Tim Reeves. “They had a wonderful social scene but they had to be very careful because they could easily be dragged before the courts.”
And while the straight cops like O’Shea were dragging gay men into the legal system, throwing them in prison cells, the bent cops were coming at them from a different angle.
“They used to talk about it in the vice squad every bloody day of the week,” says O’Shea. “They would brag regularly about their escapades with the gays and what they’d done to them and how they’d thrown them in the river ... I said to them on a number of occasions, ‘You’ll drown one one day. You’re gunna drown one.’”
It seemed to O’Shea that the practice of tossing homosexuals in the river went back a long way. Like it was something the bosses had done when they were younger. “But no one that got thrown in ever surfaced for a complaint because they were homosexual.”
I can’t help wondering if many would have preferred the dunking to the opprobrium of coming across O’Shea and his fellow conscientious officers; being charged, named in the paper.
It was a life–changing event. “If you were brought before the courts, your name would be splashed across the front pages,” says Reeves. “Everyone would see. People killed themselves.”
Kevin Williamson, not long out of the army, had a few beers at the Torrens Drill Hall on the parade grounds below Government House, before heading to his car about 10.45pm on May 10, 1972. The 33-year-old grabbed some cigarettes off the dash and sat on a bench by the river to think about some problems. He’d recently split from his wife and had custody of the three kids.
After a few minutes, he saw four men in suits and waistcoats running along the bank. “I seen them scuffling and throw something in the water,” he tells me. “I didn’t know what it was at the time. And then I seen them running up the river a bit.
“One of them must have seen me because the big one come up and sat down beside me ... He said, “You better get going. The coppers will be here shortly.” And I said, ‘But I’m not doing nothing wrong.’ And he said. ‘I’m telling you to go.’ And he stood up: ‘’’Cause I’m bigger than you.’”
“There was no struggle, nothing. And then he just slipped away ... the river swallowed him.”
Williamson got a good enough look at the bloke to decide that he was, indeed, larger. He left.
Further down the river, 27-year-old Roger James was walking home from dinner with a friend. He has always maintained he was not cruising the beat that night. It’s not that James denied ever using beats. Just not this night.
His hair was long, straight and black. Being gay had got him an honourable discharge from the army which he’d wanted. It had also got him sacked from a job with a pharmaceutical company which he hadn’t wanted. And it got him an occasional television star boyfriend, cabaret singer Tony Monopoly, with whom he lived.
James has only ever given one public interview about the night that was going to change everything for him and for all gay men in the state. “Suddenly there was a person behind me ... and they sort of said, ‘Do you give it or take it?’” he told the ABC’s Simon Royal in 2005. Right at the same time, a group of men was coming towards him along the path until, just as they drew level, one of them was thrown in the river.
The person behind James suddenly pushed him in the back so that he collided with the approaching group. They grabbed him. “I somehow had my back to the river and they pushed me and I fell in, but my foot slipped down into the pylons along the riverbank ... I was completely extended and I just felt and heard a crack and I knew I had broken something.”
In the water, James looked about and saw the top of the head of the other man who had been thrown in. “There was no struggle, nothing. And then he just slipped away ... the river swallowed him.” One of the attackers stripped to his underwear and dived in as if to rescue the other man, but he had disappeared.
The attackers ran off. James crawled to a road where he waved down a passing car, driven by a man called Bevan Von Einem, who would later go on to notoriety as a convicted child murderer and suspected serial killer. James knew him from parties and the beats. Von Einem took James to hospital where the alarm was raised.
If it hadn’t been for James’s presence, the dead body would probably have surfaced a week or so later and the death would have remained an obscure event - a mystery even more opaque than the one we are left with today.
Mick O’Shea arrived at the vice squad the next morning unaware that his career had already been thrust onto a new trajectory. Or indeed that the history of gay law reform in Australia was about to begin.
The whole squad had been ordered to attend a farewell booze-up the previous night where he’d endured a lot of bravado from his colleagues about their escapades with the queers down at the river. “Teaching the poofters how to swim.”
“There were instructions that we were to know nothing about it, absolutely nothing.”
That crew had left the pub about 10pm. But in a small-town coincidence, when O’Shea left more than an hour later, he had pulled up next to them at traffic lights, still in the city.
And now there was a lot of talk about a body that had been pulled out of the river.
It was known from the beginning that vice squad officers were the chief suspects in the murder, according to O’Shea. “It was a big buzz around the place. We thought, ‘Fuckin’ hell this is gunna be messy.’ And it was.”
O’Shea says a superintendent called them all in. “He came down very, very early in the piece on the Thursday morning to advise us that it was a terrible thing that had happened and that [senior officers] Lehmann and Turner were doing the inquiry and quite clearly they were investigating vice squad officers and there were instructions that we were to know nothing about it, absolutely nothing.”
It took a couple of days to even identify the victim. He turned out to be Dr George Duncan, an Australian academic who came to Adelaide to teach legal history and Roman law. He had arrived from a teaching post in England only six weeks’ earlier. Tall and thin, he was intensely shy, private and unable to swim. The now controversial forensic pathologist, Dr Colin Manock, had him pinned as a homosexual at his autopsy, owing to the funnel shape of his anus.
So the vice squad knew nothing. O’Shea didn’t report seeing them in the city which would have contradicted their version of events. Kevin Williamson, who’d spoken to the attackers, remembered exactly what they looked like but told investigators he couldn’t recognise them.
“I was a bit wary because when I first went up there to identify them they told me [the suspects] were police officers,” Williamson recalls.
Another man, who would become known as “Witness A”, had also been thrown in the river that night. He said he couldn’t recognise his attackers even though he’d been tricked into getting out of his car to follow one of them down to the river bank.
The other victim, Roger James, was brought into police headquarters on crutches. “They took me into a room,” he told the ABC’s Simon Royal. “I had to remain standing, I wasn’t offered a chair. Then they started bringing one person in at a time.
“So I think I asked one of them to speak or to turn around or something, and then he said to the police officer, ‘Is that all sir?’ and I thought, ‘Hang on. That’s a bit strange.’ You know, like, ‘Why would this common criminal be calling this policeman ‘sir’?’ and I thought, ‘They are trying to trick me.’”
“Even if they are police officers they’re not exempt from the law are they?”
James has suggested elsewhere that this fear that the police were trying to discredit him by having him identify an innocent officer made him “clam up”.
So the investigation into Duncan’s death came up with nothing. And that’s where it would normally have ended. But word had got out that police were suspects. Duncan’s boss, the head of law at Adelaide University, Professor Horst Lucke, started writing letters to The Advertiser agitating for further inquiries.
An inquest was called. Sensationally, the three police officers suspected of involvement refused to give evidence on the grounds it might incriminate them. The inquest failed to reach a conclusion as to who killed Duncan, though the three officers were pushed out of the force.
The agitation continued, so two Scotland Yard detectives were called in for an independent inquiry.
Once again, Roger James could not identify his attackers. But when they came to interview Kevin Williamson, he thought, “Well, why not? Even if they are police officers they’re not exempt from the law are they?” He admitted that he did in fact recognise two of the attackers and picked out two vice squad officers.
Even so, O’Shea felt the Scotland Yard investigation was a snow job from the start. “I used to drink with them every bloody night at the Crown and Sceptre,” he says, “and eventually one night I said to ’em, ‘When are you actually going to formally interview me about this?’ They said, ‘We’re not. You’ve had too much to say already.’ In other words, ‘We don’t want you to tell us the story.’”
“There was no real intention of causing anyone’s death. This was merely a high-spirited frolic which went wrong.”
Detective Chief Superintendent Bob McGowan from Scotland Yard wrote in his report – only tabled in parliament in 2002 after successive governments had refused to release it – that Michael Kenneth Clayton, Francis John Cawley and Brian Edwin Hudson “took part, possibly with others, in throwing Duncan, James and [Witness A] into the water but despite intensive inquiries, no further witness has been found who can assist in providing further evidence against them ... there was no real intention of causing anyone’s death – this was merely a high-spirited frolic which went wrong.”
McGowan did suggest that Williamson changing his story “might tend to substantiate charges being preferred, and I submit this report for directions”. The prosecuting authorities, however, declined to act.
Mick O’Shea felt his career was ruined by the Duncan drowning. He felt his name was forever besmirched by having been in the vice squad at the time, by having his picture in the paper leaving the inquest. People thought he was one of the suspects. But he battled away for a decade. His hatred of the bosses grew as he rose, very slowly, to be a detective in the CIB before he quit in 1981.
In 1985, he decided to go public with what he knew about the vice squad culture and the events of that night. It led to another investigation and this time, the three former vice squad men were charged in 1988 with manslaughter. The charges against Hudson were dropped and, some 16 years after the event, Clayton and Cawley were found not guilty.
There has been no justice for Duncan, but within seven weeks of his death, the first bill in Australia to decriminalise homosexuality had been introduced into the South Australian parliament, by a conservative politician. By the time it was passed, it was considerably watered down, but over the next few years South Australia became the first state in Australia to decriminalise homosexuality. (Britain had done it in 1967. France in 1791.)
The decriminalisation of homosexuality, however, didn’t make it legal to have sex at beats. The men that used them, “beat queens”, remained separate from the increasingly out-and-proud “scene queens”.
Because beats are such secretive places it would be near impossible to survey who is using them. But if we take the victims of gay-bashing murders as a random sample of beat users – and perhaps they are except for a bias towards an older, slower cohort – they represent a cross-section of society, according to criminologist Professor Stephen Tomsen, who studied 74 gay murders in NSW in the 1980s and ‘90s.
“They were actually unemployed. They were students. They were hospitality workers. They were white-collar office workers. They were tradesmen. They were professionals and managers. A very broad range of occupations.”
“Beat” is a peculiarly Australian usage for the places where men cruise for casual sex with other men. Different beats have their own rhythms and cultures.
My informants tell me that in Canberra, no one gets out of their car. They signal to each other by pumping on their brake pedal in a sort of brakelight Morse code to indicate whether they’re “on”. In inner-city parks, a “G’day” and a groin rub might be all the sign that’s needed to head behind a bush.
On a clifftop in Sydney’s Manly on sunny weekends, men were divided into seekers and seekees: the seekees might be sunbaking naked until a shadow appears over them – the seekee.
I wanted to find out what the scene was like in Adelaide so I put out a call via the city’s gay newspaper, Blaze, looking for people to tell me about their experiences. Within hours of the story going live, I received an extraordinary email from a guy we’ll call Todd.
“I was sent in as bait because of how young I looked to lure guys into the bushes. Once there, the street kids bashed and robbed them.”
“Growing up in suburban Adelaide, I was one of six children, but I never really fitted in with my family and I was always in trouble and truanted school often.
“In my family I was brought up that you finished school, got married, had kids, bought a house and got a good job, but this was not me. Homosexuality was never discussed and I could not understand why I found guys attractive. I was made to feel like an outcast.
“In 1983, I was placed in a foster home by my parents. I was 16, but looked about 13. After being abused by my stepparents, I ran away and lived on the streets of Adelaide and I fell into the wrong crowd and did not know any better. I just wanted to be liked and accepted.
“The street kids I hung out with used to go down to Popeye’s boathouse near the River Torrens [the Number One beat where George Duncan was murdered]. I was sent in as bait because of how young I looked to lure guys into the bushes. Once there, the street kids bashed and robbed them.
“I remember the kids saying they did it because they were gay and easy prey. Deep down, I felt sorry for these guys and hated being a part of this. After several attacks, I left the group and went and lived on the streets in another part of town.
“There was a place young guys could go for a bed and a feed that was run by priests, but once the lights went out they used to come and drag you out of bed and you were raped by several of the priests there. I tried not to go there, but when you were desperate and hungry and tired, I went back there and hoped it would not be me chosen that night for them to have their way.
“I was taken to hospital and the police came and saw me and questioned me but when they heard where I was, they verbally abused me, calling me a fucking poofter and a pervert and I got what I deserved.”
“Eventually, after two years on the street, I got my act together and joined the army but after three months I was discharged for having a bad back, and I went back to Adelaide. By this time, I had my act sorted out, got a job and an apartment.
“It was then I started cruising the beats myself, South Parklands, Veale Gardens and a few well-known public toilets, sometimes during the day but mostly at night. I was warned by a mate to watch out for bashers but I thought, ‘I will be right, I can run fast.’
“One night at Veale Gardens, someone yelled out ‘Bashers!’ and everyone ran. I ran, but straight into the bashers who beat me senseless. I was taken to hospital and the police came and saw me and questioned me but when they heard where I was, they verbally abused me, calling me a fucking poofter and a pervert and I got what I deserved.
“It was only after three months that I could leave my apartment ... After six months I returned to the beats. I was lonely and horny and thought this time I would know better, but again that voice rang out in the night, “Bashers!” I got away but I did see one guy lying on the grass, getting kicked over and over by these guys. After that I never returned.”
Professor Tomsen found the victims of gay murders were considerably older than the average victim of violent crime, while the perpetrators tended to be younger than the standard killer. Of the 92 offenders he studied, 43 were teenagers and 23 were in their early 20s. And the older ones tended to be involved more in the “gay panic” murders, rather than the “poofter bashing” homicides.
“Gay bashing is something that is almost monopolised by teenage boys and young men,” Tomsen says. “It is more attractive to them. There’s an insecure and rather clumsy anxiety about masculinity among many young men in our society and I think a simple way to achieve some sort of masculine status and some sort of peer-group respect for themselves is to actually carry out gay bashings.”
The attacks were marked by their frenzied nature and while murder was usually not the intention, there was usually “a reckless indifference to the outcome”, Tomsen says, noting that the attackers were often surprised when police took the cases seriously. “They actually thought they were engaged in some sort of leisure sport that actually had a degree of community approval.”
“The writer Randolph Stow said, ‘Gossip made me a homosexual before I was one.’ And I was a bit the same”
Soon after Todd’s email, another one lands in my inbox: “Heard of your research and can maybe help, anonymously.” What makes it interesting is the name at the bottom – that of a prominent Adelaidean.
I wonder what he has to tell me. I googled his name along with the word “gay” and don’t find any clues. I phone the number attached and the voice confirms his identity.
We talk for a while about the Duncan murder and how one of the acquitted officers ended up owning a pub where people would go wanting to see the bloke who threw Duncan in the river. Through all this, though, I’m still wondering where it’s going.
Then he reveals himself: “I read recently the writer Randolph Stow said, ‘Gossip made me a homosexual before I was one.’ And I was a bit the same ... My sexuality is widely assumed but that’s as far as it goes in Adelaide. [At beats] you get people like me and people who are not out. You get a lot of married men.”
This is something I was told repeatedly. Another beat regular, Brad Shannon, who jokingly styled himself as “probably Australia’s premier authority on beat culture, sadly” estimated 90 per cent of beat users were married men.
Indeed Shannon recalled a time in the late-’80s when he was hanging around Veale Gardens: “By six o’clock in the morning you’d start to get what we called the morning shift and all of these guys would come through who had told their wives, ‘I’m just ducking out to get the paper and milk.’”
Shannon did a trade in selling milk and newspapers out of his van to these blokes so they’d have something to take to their wives.
“Part of the thrill of it all is straight boys experimenting,” says our Adelaide identity. “Sadly ... it was generally unsuccessful. You might have hooked up with somebody in a fumbling and hardly ideal way, I don’t know, maybe two in ten times. Not even that.
“And my successes in all those years were generally in areas around the beats. You’d be driving along South Terrace and somebody would just sort of give you the eye in the car as they were driving alongside of you and you’d pull over into a side street... (Or) you’d see some guy staggering home drunk and you’d offer him a ride and stuff would happen.”
“The next thing I know, he had taken the shoelaces out of my pair of black patent leather shoes - and was attempting to strangle me with my laces.”
The first time he went to a beat, at what is now the Himeji Japanese Garden, he was a 23-year-old with a girlfriend, still in denial about his sexuality. It was a great success and it was the memory of that triumph that kept drawing him back.
“I have a very addictive personality and I became almost an addict of these places ... I wasn’t an alcoholic but I was a binge drinker, so for the next 14 years, either on alcohol, dope or speed, I would do the beats.”
He doesn’t want to overstate the perils. In all his cruising days he only had two incidents. The worst was in June 1984. It was 3am. He’d left a big party to go to Veale Gardens.
“I was parked on South Terrace. I don’t remember a lot of it, but I went into the bushes with some guy. The next thing I know, he had taken the shoelaces out of my pair of black patent leather shoes – I remember the shoes very well, with pointy toes – and was attempting to strangle me with my laces. He could have killed me but didn’t.
“I don’t know why he started and I don’t know why he stopped. I came around to discover I still had my wallet; that I had my shoelaces around my throat which had left a slight mark and I sort of staggered drunkenly back to the car.”
It didn’t stop him cruising.
Our prominent Adelaidean, with his sombre introspection, tells me he is thinking and talking about stuff he’d never thought of or talked about. Then he draws on a literary allusion that perfectly describes the way so many people had acted in the stories I am researching.
“In Dante’s Inferno, he has the homosexuals endlessly walking ... You’re walking around looking; looking for the signs, the signal, for the pick-up ... you go to a beat and walk and look and cruise and walk and get back in the car. That never goes away.”
After the murder of Dr Duncan in 1972, the police brutalising of homosexuals in Adelaide entered a period of respite, according to gay activist and archivist Ian Purcell. The South Australian Premier, Don Dunstan, famously sacked his police minister for having told parliament the “pink files” – the intelligence files on who was and wasn’t gay in the state – had been destroyed when, in fact, they hadn’t.
But after the pink-shorted Premier’s reign ended in 1979, problems resumed, according to Purcell. This was, in part, due to a series of murders which would go a long way to cementing Adelaide’s reputation for particularly sick sadism.
Five young men and teenage boys were drugged, sexually abused, tortured and murdered between 1979 and 1983. It became widely believed that a close-knit group of prominent Adelaideans – The Family – was behind it.
Only one man, however, was convicted for just one of the murders. That was Bevan Von Einem.
In 1983, 11 years after Von Einem had rescued Roger James on the night George Duncan was murdered, he abducted a 15-year-old boy, Richard Kelvin, the son of long-time Adelaide Channel Nine newsreader Rob Kelvin. The teenager’s body was found almost two months later, but examination revealed he’d been tortured for five weeks before his death.
Police first linked him to Von Einem through the drugs found in his system, Mandrax and Noctec. Von Einem had prescriptions for them and had already been questioned over the similar deaths of three other young men. Police searched his house and took fibres which matched fibres taken from Kelvin’s clothing.
Attempts were made to link Von Einem to the other murders but the Kelvin murder was the only one that stuck. Von Einem got life and remains in prison.
The Family murders cowed the gay community in South Australia. The murders focused attention on the sort of things that went bump and grind in the night, and threw up rumours about a cadre of paedophiles in high places.
So the backlash began. A 1992 poll in The Bulletin revealed South Australia – with its proud history of social progressiveness – was in fact the least tolerant towards homosexuals of all states. (Queensland and the Northern Territory have taken this mantle in more recent surveys.)
“We took our complaints to Minister [John] Klunder and said, ‘This has got to stop or sooner or later somebody’s going to get murdered.”
I formed the impression that the gay community in Adelaide, afraid of being lumped together with these sadistic paedophiles in the public imagination, had been making itself into as small a target as possible ever since. But there was only so much they could take.
“As we got into the late-’80s and early ‘90s,” says Purcell, “there were definitely bashers in cars going around to the beats, again, and the police seemed to be more interested in chasing homosexuals than the bashers in cars.” This was the period when Jim Blaxland was attacked next to his Mercedes in Veale Gardens.
Adds Purcell: “There were vigilantes from the gay community who would collect number plates and hand them in to the police.” There was a feeling, however, that the information was never acted upon. “We took our complaints to Minister [John] Klunder and said, ‘This has got to stop or sooner or later somebody’s going to get murdered.’”
David “John” Saint was an ordinary guy. Not at all camp, the 41-year-old had spent a lot of his working life in the freezer of a chicken processor. He’d bought three houses, done them up and sold them, doing well enough out of it to be just about unshackled from the banks. He’d moved back in with his mum for a couple of months while his next place was under construction.
At 10.30pm of April 16, 1991, he stumbled across South Terrace and collapsed into bushes where he was found, covered in blood, by a passer-by. The ambulance was called. Saint didn’t make it.
“So John was staying at Mum’s,” recalls his sister Helen Hillard. “He didn’t come home. She had the radio on. They said a body had been found. A person had been bashed to death on South Terrace, and the description fitted what he’d had on when he left home. Of course she panicked.” When the police arrived at the house shortly after they took one look at a photo of him and said, “Yeah, that’s John.”
From day one, police said publicly that robbery was the motive. But this didn’t sit well with the gay community, which saw itself in the centre of a violence storm, says Purcell.
“Immediately following the David Saint murder, in reading the media reports from police it became obvious to us that they were treating it as a burglary gone wrong. Nothing about the fact that that area of the South Parklands was a well-known beat or that David Saint ... was in fact homosexual. So we took this up with Klunder the minister and said, ‘You know, we warned you this was going to happen.’”
Lesbian and Gay Community Action spokesman Kenton Penley told the media the area was notorious for gay bashings. The words “The Fruit Pirates” were graffitied on a chair there. It was thought this could be the name of a gay-bashing gang. Penley said the most common assaults were well-planned, with gangs jumping out of cars and dragging their victims off to be kicked, bashed and left bleeding in the darkness.
The gay community organised a candlelight vigil in the park next to the Japanese gardens. “I think collectively it put a fair bit of pressure on police,” recalls Purcell.
The only lead the cops had was a sighting of three men in a white van who’d been hanging around. So they set up a similar white van at the beat and asked people to come forward with information, no questions asked. “Of course, the relationship between the police and the community at the time was such that I can’t imagine anybody wanting to go into the van and have a chat with the police,” says Purcell.
The gay community’s embrace of Saint and his death left his siblings in something of a quandary. Their brother, who they always called “John”, had come out to them a few years earlier, but not to their mother.
They had to tell her before she read it in the paper. And, recalls his sister Helen, there was something else. “So that evening of the 17th we had to sit Mum down and say, ‘Look, John was gay’ and also that he had AIDS ... So it was terrible for her ... It was only 16 months after Dad died.”
The family closed ranks. Didn’t talk to the media. They’d never spoken publicly about it before I came along, but Helen wanted it known that there was more to her brother than the guy who got killed cruising in the shadows.
“The attitude [of the police] wasn’t a problem. It was just that they never came back.”
He loved holidaying with the family, taking his speedboat down to their shack on the Murray. He often dropped in on Helen for a coffee. When she was in hospital having her seventh child, he babysat her kids at night and went out and bought a station wagon just so he could ferry them to hospital for visiting. He took his parents to the Melbourne Cup when they got too old for their regular coach trip.
“John” hadn’t come out to his siblings until he was in his 30s. The family had a distant cousin – Bob, a married man – who’d become a woman, explains Helen. “It was a talking point, a laughing point, all those things rolled into one.”
So when they asked John why he hadn’t come out to them earlier, he’d said, “Well everybody carried on so much about Bobby, I couldn’t do that to Mum and Dad. I didn’t want people laughing and talking.”
When the police came around the day after his death, they seemed to be on the case, says Helen. “Their attitude wasn’t a problem. It was just that they never came back.”
There was no inquest. Inquiries fizzled out. The file got sent to storage.
The bashers had got away with it.
The Saint family didn’t hear from police again until recently when a detective from the new cold-case unit rang her brother asking to use John’s image on a deck of playing cards that was to be distributed to prisons. All 52 cards featured the faces of unsolved-murder victims. Saint was the nine of spades. The hope was that the pictures might get the chatter going in prison to bring information to the surface.
I couldn’t get a member of the South Australian police force to sit down and talk to me about any of these murders, but was instead asked to put questions in writing to the media depart- ment. When I asked why police said robbery was the motive for David Saint’s murder, they answered: “The motive for his murder remains unclear with no evidence to suggest that it was robbery.”
Well, exactly. So why, the day after the murder, did they tell the media that it was? Why would they obscure the fact this was almost certainly a hate crime?
“Certainly you just can’t explain the level of violence and the level of targeting if you think the motive is a simple robbery.”
It brought to mind something that a PhD student, Thomas Poberezny-Lynch, had said about how the media and courts often dealt with these crimes. Studying the gay press of the 1970s, looking for evidence of bashings and murders, he’d found cases that the gay community clearly treated as hate crimes. However, he’d follow them up in the mainstream media and court documents only to find that the victim’s homosexuality had been left out.
Criminologist Stephen Tomsen doesn’t want to be too dismissive of police who focus on the robbery-gone-wrong aspect of a crime. “But it’s also a matter of convenience,” he says. “It’s actually something that is so well known to police that if some goods, a wallet or a car was taken, they actually think, ‘That’s easy to classify. That’s robbery. We know about that.’ It’s much harder to actually try and understand how levels of bias and hatred towards a minority group of victims come to be part of these scenarios as well.”
He adds, “In Sydney and NSW we’ve had this history of gay-hate killings where people have been viciously attacked, brutally killed, and also they’ve been victims of robbery. Certainly you just can’t explain the level of violence and the level of targeting if you think the motive is a simple robbery, for what is very often only a very small amount of money or fairly worthless property.”
This “straightening out” of the news has continued into this century. Take the murder of Ken Doig. On Christmas Eve, 2001, he’d been on his way to meet his parents for Midnight Mass when he stopped at a public toilet near Toowoomba, Queensland. There, he was bashed, hit in the head with an axe and had his throat cut.
Local gay community leader Bill Rutkin knew Doig through common friends who could attest to his popularity in their circles. So when he heard about the murder at a well-known beat, he got straight on to a police inspector who he’d had previous dealings with.
Rutkin recalls: “I knew him well enough to speak openly and to say, ‘Look I don’t know whether you know this, but this will turn out to be a gay-hate crime because Ken was there and he was doing the beat.’
“He was a bit shocked by that. I don’t think he knew. Although he’d been a policeman for many years, I don’t think he understood that Ken was going there to pick up men for sex, because at the time remember Ken was married.”
Three suspects were on the run and so police were trying to generate leads through the media to hunt them down, but there was never any mention of the gay angle. Rutkin asked his inspector friend why.
“[He] said to me the police didn’t want to publicise it, one, because of the sensitivities of the police relationship with the family ... But the other reason was they were afraid that the public sympathy over what had happened might be diminished if it came out that Ken was gay and that he was doing the beat. And I guess that goes to the police’s understanding of the level of homophobia in the town.”
“They were afraid that the public sympathy over what had happened might be diminished if it came out that Ken was gay.”
One of those wanted for the crime was a 16-year-old girl. In an extraordinary twist, a close relative appeared on Big Brother a few years later and told her fellow house-mates what the girl had done.
“She knew she was doing it,” the relative said, drunk, on the live stream.
“Why? What did the guy do that she killed?” her housemate asked.
“He was gay.”
“So she killed him?”
“She did not kill anybody. The two males that was with her killed the man. I don’t care if everybody knows.”
“Because the dude was gay?” the house-mate persists. “Is that what you’re saying?”
“Yep. He was in a gay park in Toowoomba.”
“Do they know the guy?”
“Can I tell you who it is? ... Ken Doig. His name was Ken Doig.”
“Because he was gay they killed him? That’s pretty harsh.”
“It wasn’t they. It was one man. It was Pete. His name was Pete.”
“So this one dude killed this one dude?”
“Can I tell you what he did? He sliced his throat, made sure he saw everything. And put a small, a small axe through the back of his head.”
No mention of the homosexual motive was made when the three were convicted, either. The evidence presented was that they went to the park just to rob someone. The intention was to get a key card then threaten the victim until he handed over his PIN.
But Doig gave up his wallet and his PIN without resistance. Twenty-year-old Peter Stephens had Doig on the ground with his hands behind his head. He pulled out an axe and hit him in the head with it, twice, before slitting his throat.
And that’s one example of how a gay murder becomes not a gay murder.
But it’s not the only way.
On January 18, 2002, Adam Zito, 19, and his 17-year-old mate, who can’t be named, got drunk and went down to “poofter park”, as Zito called it – Veale Gardens – where they saw Kym Pitcher sitting on a bench. They went straight up to him and the 17-year-old attacked. Hitting Pitcher to the ground, he kicked him and jumped on his head.
Zito joined in. Together they smashed Pitcher’s face to a pulp – and that expression is meant literally – breaking his jaw, his eye socket, his cheek.
They took Pitcher’s mobile phone and Zito phoned his own mum.
Pitcher was in a coma for five days, during which time he almost died twice when the swelling from the broken bones in his head threatened to block his airways.
Thanks to the phone call, the attackers were caught and tried. They each received minimum sentences of 16 months.
Four months after Pitcher’s attack, Mark Coonie, 34, left Adelaide’s most prominent gay nightspot, the Mars Bar, saying he was headed for Veale Gardens. With yellow hair and numerous facial piercings, he was hard to miss.
But his movements would remain unclear. He was next seen at 1.30am by two women who approached him a block away from the Mars Bar, heading away from Veale Gardens near Adelaide’s Chinatown. They asked what was wrong because they could see he was bleeding from the back of his head. They gave him a towel and offered to take him to hospital, but he declined.
Instead, the women drove him home to the suburb of Dover Gardens. Despite the blood, he was chatty. He told them he was gay and that he’d been bashed by a man he’d met who wanted to take him home.
The good Samaritans dropped Coonie off, but were sufficiently worried to visit later the same day. They found him asleep and snoring on his bed. Ten days later, Coonie’s brother checked and found him still in his bed, dead. He had died from the head injuries.
Adelaide community groups reported that they were hearing of about one attack a week on gay men at this time. The violence was escalating.
It would appear that robbery was part of the picture because his bag and wallet were missing, but the fact that his assailant had “wanted to take him home” would indicate that he was targeted as a gay man. And certainly the gay community saw it as a hate crime. Even the police never said this one was a robbery gone wrong.
Which brings us to the curious case of Robert Woodland. It is most likely another sad, lonely death in the dark, but maybe, if you allow your mind to run a bit, you can see it entwined in a deep-black criminal conspiracy touching on those stories that many believe about who really run South Australia.
Robert Woodland’s body was just starting to decompose, the papers said, after four days in the early summer heat, when it was discovered by a dog walker on December 8, 2004 – 50 metres from Sir Lewis Cohen Drive, a busy road feeding into the city centre. Woodland’s dark-blue Commodore was parked in the Veale Gardens car park at the Adelaide Pavilion restaurant, while the 36-year-old's corpse was found 700 metres away at the far end of the beat, and off to the left in long grass. He was last seen at the beat at 1am on December 5, after having left a Gouger St nightclub.
“He was afraid for his life. He said there were people who didn’t want him to be able to talk about what he wanted to tell me.”
Within a week, police had declared robbery as the motive. Perhaps they thought saying that would save the family some anguish. Perhaps they thought his missing wallet was sufficient to explain away the vicious injuries to his head at a place where gay men were routinely bashed.
It was a small murder in the media sense, rating a few short stories over following days and in the normal scheme of things would have received minimal attention even if a killer had been caught. Three months later, however, Woodland’s death would become a whole lot more. It would become central to an exquisitely Adelaide-style front-page drama, featuring allegations of paedophilia in high places, a string of deaths, claims of a cover-up, a political resignation and, of course, the Parklands – that ring of darkness that besieges the city each night.
The story had its origins a few years earlier when Peter Lewis, the independent Speaker of the South Australian parliament, and a small team of committed campaigners fought to change the statute of limitations on child sex-abuse cases. Once they won that battle, they switched to campaigning for a royal commission into child abuse.
The victims came flooding through the Speaker’s door with their stories of abuse. Among them were former male prostitutes who had plied their trade down at Veale Gardens and had stories about people in high places.
One of them, according to Lewis, was Robert Woodland.
“He was afraid for his life,” recalls Lewis. “He said there were people who didn’t want him to be able to talk about what
he wanted to tell me. And I said I understood and that I’d be pleased if he would talk to some of the people who were my staff volunteers.”
Now, the reason I said, “according to Lewis” was that I haven’t seen anything to substantiate that Robert Woodland even visited Peter Lewis’s office, let alone what he said there. Neither of Lewis’s researchers, victims’ rights advocate Wendy Utting and Lewis’s old school friend Barry Standfield, have strong recollections of Woodland or what he said.
“I grew up in welfare ... and was sexually abused there in Western Australia, and by the age of 12 had decided, pragmatically, that if I was going to be bent over and f**d every night I’d rather be paid for it and get on with having independence.”
I never saw any stat dec by him. If he made one, it was gobbled up by the legal system and buried under suppression orders
in the events that would follow. Lewis says he probably has a copy in storage but he wasn’t able to go looking for me.
When I phoned Woodland’s mother, she stated, emphatically, that her son was not gay, that he had never spoken to Lewis and never made the allegations attributed to him.
But the story that became public was this: that Robert Woodland, along with two others, alleged that while underage they performed sexual acts for two MPs (one of whom was still serving in 2002), a judge and a prominent policeman. According to Lewis and his team, two female social workers had, independently, already come forward claiming knowledge of the same allegation against the same people.
Another of those to walk into the Speaker’s office with stories of abuse was former male prostitute, Brad Shannon – the beat regular mentioned earlier – who remains happy to talk openly about what happened to him. He says, “I grew up in welfare ... and was sexually abused there in Western Australia, and by the age of 12 had decided, pragmatically, that if I was going to be bent over and f**d every night I’d rather be paid for it and get on with having independence.”
He adds, “So I knew from one of the first paedophiles that I met about The Wall [in Sydney, where rentboys gather] ... He told me how a boy of my age could go to The Wall and make a lot of money and life would be fabulous and you’d have sugar daddies and everything would fall into your lap.”
Shannon escaped from the children’s home and lived with the paedophile until he was tossed on the street: “the novelty wore off for him”. He then made money in Perth beats and travelled to Sydney via Adelaide.
“I hit beats at the sweet spot ... where it coincided with the legalisation of homosexuality in South Australia, and shortly after also in NSW. So I was privy to the high-fliers and big rollers who used to come through The Wall and pay us boys for sex.”
Shannon used his earnings to move around the country and found himself working Veale Gardens where, in about 1985, he claims to have been picked up by a well-known South Australian politician, though not one of the two implicated in Woodland’s allegations.
“When (the politician) came along, I remembered, I rthat he had a white VK Commodore. I remembered that it had a burgundy interior. I remembered it was an automatic and it was a six-cylinder and I remembered the first three letters of the number plate.”
I ask how he’d remembered the number plate 20 years later.
Shannon said it was a habit he got into on the Wall. “You’re on the side of the road. You have no place to live. Your next meal comes from the next money you’re going to earn.
“They’re bashed to shut ’em up, and if that doesn’t shut’em up, then bash’em a bit harder and they won’t ever be able to stand up, let alone walk up”
“You also know you’re jumping into the car with complete strangers who could be genuine clients or they could be axe murderers. You’re also watching the only people that you have as friends doing the same thing ... I look at the first three letters and I turn them into a word, because if your friend doesn’t come back in an hour or two, I can then go to the police and go, ‘Right, he jumped into a red Commodore and these were the first three letters.’”
So just imagine the besieged atmosphere of an office where you were hearing stories like this every day implicating powerful people. But then, a partial victory. On December 3, 2004, former Supreme Court judge Ted Mullighan was appointed to head a commission of inquiry into the abuse of children in state care. Lewis had wanted something more wide ranging. But it was a start.
The very next night, however, Robert Woodland went to Veale Gardens where he was seen by an acquaintance about 1am, on Sunday December 5. He was never seen alive again. Soon after his presumed time of death, someone attempted to use his ATM card to withdraw money near the Mars Bar in Gouger Street.
Woodland’s body was found on the Wednesday. “It was before lunch that I was told about it,” recalls Lewis, “and it made me sick – and I’m not often made sick – because he’d been afraid of that happening to him.”
I ask Lewis if he was alleging that Woodland had been killed to shut him up. There is a long pause. “I don’t have any doubt that that was the reason for him being murdered,” he says. “Why would somebody murder a bloke like that, or any person like that, that’s harmless?”
But gay men get bashed at beats all the time, I point out.
Lewis pauses again: “It’s well documented and not only in the case of Robert Woodland, but in many other such instances, they’re bashed to shut’em up, and if that doesn’t shut’em up, then bash ’em a bit harder and they won’t ever be able to stand up, let alone walk up, and talk up, again.”
As part of the investigation into Robert Woodland’s murder, police went looking for another one of the guys who’d made the same allegations of paedophilia to Lewis, Shaine Moore. In February 2005, the police knocked on his door, went into his house, had a look around but couldn’t find him. Friends reported Moore missing.
It wasn’t until 10 days after he was last seen that a forensic team was sent to examine Moore’s bedroom and the truth was revealed. Shaine Moore was lying under his doona, bulked up with pillows, with a red line around his throat where he’d been strangled with a shoelace.
This death had an even greater impact on the team, says researcher Wendy Utting. “Our reaction was more so utter disbelief when Shaine was found ... It became rather surreal at the time. And even then, I don’t think any of us were in there saying this is definitely connected. We did not know.”
Another of Lewis’s informants, Craig Ratcliff, leaked the story of the link between the two deaths to the media and the frenzy was on.
The police were surprisingly quick to publicly dismiss the paedophilia allegations, especially considering that they hadn’t even seen the information that Lewis and his team had gathered.
“The perpetrators had infiltrated the police service and its administration and ... evidence ... was then either corrupted or destroyed”.
Fearing that the police officer who was at the centre of the claims might still be able to influence the inquiry, Lewis’s team refused to hand over their information. They didn’t trust the police. Lewis told me that “the perpetrators had infiltrated the police service and its administration and ... evidence ... was then either corrupted or destroyed”.
Utting says they told police what they knew but were guarded in what documents they handed over. “When they [the police] came to us and questioned us,” Utting says, “we believed they were there to ... ask us what we knew about these people that had been murdered. But it didn’t take long to figure out that it wasn’t about that. They were there to find out about these allegations.”
Now, it isn’t at all peculiar that an officer investigating such a murder would focus on the allegations the victim had made. What else was there to ask the Speaker and his staff about? The fact is, though, that Lewis and his team already had a deep distrust of the police’s ability to handle the allegations, given what they’d been told by their informants about police cover-ups.
Frustrated by the deadlock, Utting wrote a letter to the inquiry head, Ted Mullighan, outlining the allegations that had been made about the prominent citizens. Her colleague, Barry Standfield, thought he’d shake things up by sending the letter to the media with all names included.
WIthin five weeks of the discovery of Moore’s body, Lewis’s failure to hand over the documents and a video tape (which he’d never claimed to possess) to police led to him being forced to resign as Speaker. And Utting and Standfield were on notice that they faced criminal libel charges over the letter.
The team kept quietly plugging away. Lewis tried to make contact with another witness to the same goings-on at Veale Gardens, Walter Handley. He wanted to encourage Handley to come forward and give a statement. But he claims his attempts were hamstrung by police seeming to somehow know of their planned meetings in advance and being there waiting.
Then Handley left a message on Lewis’s mobile asking if Lewis could get him a handgun for protection. Utting recalls: “Peter was absolutely flabbergasted at the time as the Speaker of Parliament [Her timing is out on this; he’d actually resigned the previous month], to have a message like that left.” He tried to calm Handley down, saying if he felt threatened, protection could be organised.
Within days, Walter Handley was killed with a single gunshot wound to the head while attempting to buy a gun in the car park of the Smithfield Plains Sports Club. It was May 2005, exactly three months after Shaine Moore’s body had been found.
Two days later, Lewis got up in parliament to say that Handley had been another of his witnesses. “I say now to the House that there is a stench of the most heinous kind arising from these crimes and associated activities which comes right into this place and into the front bench.”
Soon after Handley’s death, Utting received a phone call from another of her contacts, the former local chapter president of the Gypsy Jokers, Steve Williams. Williams had not only been a great source of knowledge about official corruption relating to the perpetuation of paedophilia – he’d begun his own anti-child-abuse campaign – but he’d been a great friend to Utting, too.
This day she’d left parliament and was heading home when Williams rang. “He said, ‘Look, I think you should carry something.’ And I said, ‘No, no, no.’ And he said, ‘What about a sawn-off shotgun? How big a purse do you carry?’ ‘No, no, no, please don’t say these things over the phone at the moment, Steve, for God’s sake, you’re trying to get arrested before I even attempt to try to protect myself. I’m not carrying anything.’”
“The day he was due to meet with this officer ... those couple of days ... is when he disappeared.”
A week or two later, after much cajoling, Utting convinced Williams to come in and meet a police officer she trusted with a view to handing over some of his information about how paedophiles were getting away with it through the legal system.
“The day he was due to meet with this officer ... those couple of days ... is when he disappeared,” Utting recalls. Steve Williams has not been seen since and is presumed murdered.
Utting blamed herself. She knew Williams had a lot of dangerous enemies, any one of whom could have taken him out, totally unrelated to her business. But she couldn’t help but wonder if she’d caused his death by setting up the meeting.
And then one day while opening her front door, Utting was attacked. She regained consciousness unsure what had happened. She moved house a couple of times. Farmed the kids out to friends.
Two and a half months after Williams’s murder, she and Standfield were charged with criminal libel, an extraordinary move that had only ever happened once before in the state.
A judge ruled there was no case to answer, but the director of public prosecutions reinstituted the charges. They spent the next three years in court. They beat the charges a second time and were acquitted, but the evidence became so obscured under the weight of suppression orders that it has become difficult to talk about. They won the court case but lost the fight. Lost the will to fight it.
Meanwhile, the Mullighan inquiry into the sexual abuse of children in state care found that it was very common for state wards to run away and head to the beat at Veale Gardens to make money, much as Brad Shannon had done. Mullighan made no mention of any specific high-profile paedophiles in his report, just that: “One PIC [person in care] alleged that at Veale Gardens ‘there was judges, there was magistrates, there was police ... they all go down there, absolutely’.”
Brad Shannon’s allegation to the Mullighan inquiry about having had sex with a well-known politician while underage was passed on to South Australian police along with another allegation he’d made about being raped by two police officers and a man known as Mother Goose, but nothing came of it. The police have said they made “comprehensive and extensive inquiries”. For his part, Shannon blames one particular former police officer for his claims not proceeding further, and says male prostitutes who witnessed or suffered crimes were too readily dismissed as unreliable witnesses.
While the Mullighan inquiry was underway, the mystery of Shaine Moore’s death was solved. In 2007, his ex-boyfriend, David Richard Fraser, took a plea deal and confessed to having strangled him in an auto-erotic sex game gone wrong. Fraser got manslaughter and was out a few years later on parole. In 2009, he killed his next boyfriend, Luke Noonan, 29, in similar circumstances. This time the charge was murder and he got a minimum of 22 years.
The disappearance of Steve Williams remains a mystery, as does the bashing death of Robert Woodland in Veale Gardens.
In 2007, Mark Anthony Ninnes was convicted of manslaughter over the death of Walter Handley in the carpark. The court heard that Handley, 38, was acting as a go-between for a third man who wanted to buy a gun from Ninnes worth $1600. It was alleged that Ninnes attempted to rob Handley and shot him in the head at point-blank range with a .22 calibre gun during a scuffle.
The disappearance of Steve Williams remains a mystery, as does the bashing death of Robert Woodland in Veale Gardens. Like so much else, Woodland’s death had been swallowed by the darkness.
As to the allegations that Woodland apparently made, a police spokesperson said there was “no evidence that he reported on high profile people, no evidence he was abused as a child, no evidence to substantiate his claim”.
They no longer say robbery was necessarily the motive. In a little ray of light shining through the darkness, though, recent retesting of exhibits has enabled South Australian police to create a DNA profile of a suspect.
Now they just need a name to match it to. “The noose is tightening,” Detective Inspector Greg Hutchins, from SA Police Major Crime Investigation Branch, says. “We know that one single call can make all the difference.”
There is another way you can take a gay murder and make it not a gay murder. You get a good lawyer. Which is what happened to a brutal killing five years ago that continues to bounce around the legal system.
It was around 11pm on March 31, 2011, that Andrew Negre’s girlfriend left a southern AdelaIde pub in a huff. She wanted him to come home because it was getting late. He wanted to party on for the exact same reason.
Negre, 37, was the type of bloke who could walk into a pub not knowing anybody and walk out with a dozen new best friends. And that’s how it went when Michael Lindsay, his two sisters, his de facto and a couple of mates came through the doors of the Hallett Cove Tavern around midnight. Negre struck up a conversation with the strangers and hit it off right away.
About 1.30am, they all left together, going back to Lindsay’s place where they cracked open another round of pre-mixed bourbon cans. Around this time, Negre’s girlfriend, Fiona Ninos, woke up in her bed alone. She decided to call him to find out where he’d got to. Negre’s phone was answered by his new friend Michael Lindsay who told her to come on over. There was a party going on.
Ninos got in a cab and came over.
Lindsay showed her around his house. The 26-year-old might not have worked a day in his life but he owned it all thanks to a $2.2 million payout he’d received from having been hit by a car when he was 20 months old. He’d suffered brain damage and his cognitive function was in the bottom one per cent of the population. He was always hassling his trustee to dip into the pot for more.
“Just don’t go doing shit like that again, because I’m not gay, or I’ll hit you.”
As much as Lindsay might have tried to get Ninos into the swing of things – and she later would not deny that everybody else seemed to be having a good time – she wasn’t into it. She was heard yelling and swearing at Negre, wondering why he’d endanger their relationship to hang out with people he didn’t even know.
She called a cab and left. Lindsay told Negre he was cool to stay the night.
The group kept drinking out at the pergola. Lindsay’s sister Ashleigh would recall someone making a comment about someone being gay.
Next thing, Negre was straddling Lindsay’s lap, moving his hips backwards and forwards, having a laugh. The whole group saw it, and they heard Lindsay tell him to stop.
“I’ll pay you for sex, then.”
“What did you say, c**t?” Lindsay replied.
Negre apologised and Lindsay accepted, being heard to say, “Just don’t go doing shit like that again because I’m not gay, or I’ll hit you.”
Lindsay’s de facto Mel Glover, the mother of his son, wasn’t impressed. She growled something at him and said she wanted this bloke out of there, but Lindsay wasn’t going to kick him out.
Eventually, Negre grew tired. Lindsay said he could have a bed upstairs. Negre said he didn’t want to be alone. He wanted to sleep with Lindsay. Lindsay declined. And somewhere in there, most of the people present heard Negre say, ‘I’ll pay you for sex, then.’
‘What did you say cunt?’ Lindsay replied.
In an instant, Lindsay was punching Negre in the head. Smacked him to the ground. It all happened so fast there was no resistance. Lindsay grabbed Negre’s long hair and laid in, banging his head into the floor. Lindsay asked his friend, Luke Hutchings, to hold Negre down so he could go through his pockets.
Lindsay kicked him and stomped on his head. His housemate, Brigette Mildwaters, told him to let Negre go. “I can’t let him go,” Lindsay replied. “He’ll go call the cops.”
Terrified, Mildwaters took refuge in a nearby bedroom. From there she saw Lindsay and Hutchings either side of Negre’s prostrate body. She saw Lindsay with a knife in his hand, now wearing gloves.
There was a furious drumming of knife blows to Negre’s chest. At least 25. But Mildwaters didn’t see who delivered them.
Mildwater’s version of what happened next (contested by Lindsay) is that Lindsay came into her room and told her to clean up the mess. She declined. “I’m going to gaol for the rest of my life, aren’t I, sister girl?”
“Yes,” she told him.
Not so fast, sister girl.
Lindsay and Hutchings dumped the body in a nearby dry creek where it was found a week later. Lindsay stole a Subaru Liberty and robbed an “On The Run” convenience store. He was captured a few days later, 100 kilometres away in Tailem Bend.
At trial, he argued it wasn’t him that stabbed Negre, it was Hutchings. But the jury found him guilty of murder and the judge sentenced him to life with a 23-year non-parole period.
Lindsay appealed the decision on the basis that “provocation” – colloquially known as the “gay panic defence” – was not put properly to the jury.
Which might not seem surprising to the lay person, given that his defence was that he was not provoked into murder because he said he didn’t commit murder. He said Hutchings did it. He had no reason to kill Mr Negre. In fact, the prosecution had to present the evidence of provocation to show a motive, but not so strongly as to turn a motive into an excuse.
Even though Lindsay did not use the gay panic defence, the judge was still required to tell the jury that if they didn’t believe Lindsay’s version of events and if they thought he really did do the stabbing, they could still find that he was provoked into it by the homosexual advance. This would change the conviction from murder to manslaughter.
South Australia and Queensland remain the only states where the gay panic defence can still be used.
Until the late 70s, the gay-panic defence was not a defence of provocation but of insanity. Thomas Poberezny-Lynch tells me: “The logic went that the accused would say the deceased made a sexual advance towards me and that triggered my latent homosexuality which then caused me to suffer a bout of insanity – because homosexuality was considered a mental illness at the time – and therefore inflict fatal violence upon the deceased. And because at the time of the death I was insane, I cannot be held legally responsible for my actions, and I can’t be found guilty of murder.”
Since homosexuality has not officially been considered a mental illness since 1973 the defence has morphed into a more straightforward matter of “he came on to me and I flipped out”.
“Losing self-control means what it says; it must be more than mere anger or panic. It must be such, as in a case like this, it causes the accused’s blood to boil to the extent where reason has been temporarily suspended.”
This is how the judge explained the defence’s modern manifestion to the jury in the Lindsay case: “In considering provocation, there are two questions which you must ask.
“First, is it a reasonable possibility that what the deceased did or said caused Mr Lindsay to temporarily lose his self-control and to kill Mr Negre whilst he was not in control of himself?
“Second, is it a reasonable possibility that what the deceased did or said ... might cause an ordinary person, in the position of the accused, to lose his or her
self-control and do what the accused in fact did?”
He further explained that: “Losing self-control means what it says; it must be more than mere anger or panic. It must be such, as in a case like this, it causes the accused’s blood to boil to the extent where reason has been temporarily suspended. If you consider that the accused, Mr Lindsay, was so provoked, then you must consider whether the conduct is capable of causing an ordinary person to lose self-control.”
So like we said, the jury thought that grabbing a bloke by the hair and smashing his face into the floor, kicking him, rummaging through his pockets, grabbing a pair of gloves, pulling his trousers off and stabbing him 25 times was not a way an ordinary person could act. The South Australian appeal court agreed.
The justices of the High Court of Australia, however, disagreed. They found that not enough emphasis had been put on the fact that the ordinary person is not a single being. The jury had to make their ordinary person of the same race, age, ethnicity and personal background as the accused. They had to take into account that an offer of money for sex made by a Caucasian man to an Aboriginal man – in his own home and in the presence of his wife and family – had a “pungency” that such an advance would not have to the rest of us.
Lindsay was Aboriginal.
The High Court ordered a retrial. Lindsay went back before a jury. He was again found guilty of murder on March 30 this year and is appealing the conviction.
This gay-panic issue was given a kickalong by an incident in a Queensland churchyard. Three men left a pub in Maryborough about 9pm on July 3, 2008 to smoke pot in the grounds of nearby St Mary’s. One of them, Richard Meerdink, hung back because he was on parole. But Jason Pearce and Wayne Ruks went in and sat on a bench.
Pearce rolled a “scoob” when, according to Pearce, Ruks “started all this poofter shit” and grabbed his crotch, causing him to “snap”.
Security footage showed no such grope by Ruks, but it did show that relations soured quickly. It showed Pearce and Meerdink chasing Ruks, tackling him to the ground then kicking and punching him for several minutes. They then “callously abandoned him to the elements”, as the judge would later say. “A simple phone call could have saved his life.”
Ruks died from internal bleeding of the abdomen. A parishioner found his body the next morning.
Pearce’s barrister argued that his client had been interfered with as a child and so, to him, a homosexual advance was a grave insult. Despite the court rejecting the gay panic argument, the jury convicted the pair of manslaughter, not murder.
The verdict prompted legal academic Alan Berman to start a petition to change the laws in Queensland. He got some traction but then the Newman Government was elected and plans to change the law were scrapped. The priest whose church had been the scene of the terrible murder picked up the idea and launched a change.org petition which went viral after it was re-tweeted by British actor Stephen Fry.
Plans to change the law in Queensland are back on the drawing board.
There is some good news. Police forces across the country have made huge advances in the way they deal with the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex communities.
All Australian police forces now have lesbian-and-gay liaison officers to bridge the gaping chasm that has historically existed and still exists between the two sides.
And it’s needed. A study in Melbourne showed that seven out of 10 LGBTQI people still don’t report assaults and harassment. Earlier surveys had the number at nine out of 10. A 2010 study in Queensland showed 23 per cent of LGBTI people had been victims of assault in their lifetime – three times the state average.
“That’s the day I lost all faith in the legal system, our whole system of government. You can get away with anything so long as you say, the dirty faggot came on to me.”
This has been a story of justice denied, and there is still a long way to go. Gay bashings and murders continue. As recently as 2015, two men were convicted of the vigilante-style murder of Warren Batchelor, 48, in a Perth toilet block, aiming to rid the area of gay men. But the institutions dealt with the case appropriately and the killers went down for long stretches.
It is the least that so many of the victims in the above stories could have hoped for.
Some 23 years after Rex Robinson found Jim Blaxland brutally bashed beside his red Mercedes in Veale Gardens, I knock on his door and explain my purpose. He spits bile at me through the hard mesh screen about the way the judge let the families in the gallery yell out “faggot” and “poofter” when he and other witnesses took the stand. How the system let those little turds off.
“He was sitting on his car playing with his dick, having a tug, and they reckoned they were just there to go to the toilet,” he says. “That’s the day I lost all faith in the legal system, our whole system of government. You can get away with anything so long as you say, the dirty faggot came on to me.”
“I despise the legal system and all lawyers and every politician ever put on the face of this earth.”
“That’s exactly what I’m here to talk about,” I say, and Robinson opens the door and agrees to have a chat.
He says that the whole drama cost him his job. “I was a cleaner and a supervisor. Everybody thought I was gay but nobody had enough guts to say anything. When that was on the news my boss said to me, ‘I think it’s time you left.’ And I said, ‘Is it because of the court case?’ And he said, ‘Well that’ll be your word against mine, won’t it.’”
He wished he had bolted after he called the ambulance.
Jim Blaxland spent eight weeks in hospital after the attack. He endured numerous operations. A segment of his skull floated loose in his cranium. He was blinded sufficiently to lose his driver’s licence for a year. The nerves down the side of his face were frozen. He got pins in his cheek. Pins in his leg.
Knowing the extent of his injuries, and knowing that he’s now about 77, I wonder what state he’ll be in when I knock on the door of his cute inner-Adelaide cottage with its rambling, mossy garden. He greets me jovially but his charity-fundraiser demeanour hardens when I explain why I’m there.
“I despise the legal system and all lawyers and every politician ever put on the face of this earth. And I despise those c**ts on the jury and the judge. He’s dead, thank Christ. I hope the bastards who did this to me have lived a horrible life, died from an awfully painful cancer.”
Before he shuts the door in my face, he tells me he is going in for surgery next week on the leg that Verco and Londema had broken all those years ago. Just another detail, another repercussion, another agony, rippling down the years.
Episode 4 – An ordinary guy
Episode 5 – How to get away with murder