March 19, 2016
For 20-year-old Matthew Leveson, it was a typical Saturday night in Sydney’s Darlinghurst. In a haze of drinking, dancing and drugging, he partied joyfully at popular nightclub Arq into the morning of September 23, 2007, with a circle of close friends including boyfriend Michael Atkins, then 45.
Matty, as Leveson was known to family and friends, was an attractive and popular young man with blonde hair, blue-grey eyes and a mile-wide smile. He loved to dance. He was accepting of his sexuality and open about it with his parents, Mark and Faye, and with brothers, Peter and Jason. He felt loved and accepted by his family, who knew him as a fun-loving, life-of-the-party type – a prankster who could also be thoughtful and kind.
His whole life lay before him, as a gay man who knew who he was and where he was going. But in the early hours of that Sunday morning, something went horribly wrong. Last seen on CCTV at around 2am, leaving the nightclub shortly before Atkins, Leveson is still missing, presumed dead. About one hour after they left, Atkins returned to the nightclub alone.
The search for answers in the disappearance of Matt Leveson is the subject of an ongoing inquest led by Counsel Assisting Lester Fernandez at the NSW Coroner’s Court, before magistrate Elaine Truscott. It follows gaping holes left at a trial in 2009, in which a jury acquitted Atkins of both murder and manslaughter.
During the trial, Atkins denied buying a mattock and gaffer tape in Bunnings on the day of Matt’s disappearance. The police alleged CCTV evidence showed Atkins doing so, which he also denied. Atkins' fingerprints were on a receipt for the items, found in Matt’s car, which was abandoned near a known gay beat in Waratah Park, Sutherland. To the Leveson family, some evidence had seemed compelling.
A giant subwoofer that had occupied the boot of the car, making it the disco on wheels that Matt loved so much, had been crudely removed. In an interview with 60 Minutes, Matt’s brother Peter Leveson suggested the only reason to remove the giant speaker would have been to dispose of a body.
On the night of his arrest, Detective Senior Sergeant Melissa Cooper, then first officer in charge of investigations at Miranda Police Station, said to Atkins: “Michael, tell me what happened to Matt. I know you know.”
Atkins replied: “I want to tell you, but I am scared of what will happen to me if I do.”
The current inquest, which began on December 7 and is expected to conclude in May, does not address the guilt or innocence of Atkins. Instead, it attempts to answer questions such as the date, place, manner and cause of death of Matthew Leveson. At the outset, Fernandez admitted there were limitations, including the quality of evidence after such a long time. He said there was a real possibility that in the end, findings about the manner and cause of death might not be advanced, but that the family deserved the chance to find out whether Matt is dead. And if so, how did he die? When did he die, where did he die, and who, if anyone, is to blame for his death?
As a by-product of this search for answers, which might give the family closure after more than eight years, the inquest has shone harsh light into some of the darker corners of gay life. Due to the prevalence of drug taking (both Matt and Atkins were users and small-scale suppliers of the party drugs GHB and ecstasy), many of the young witnesses were given immunity to prosecution on drug crimes so that their testimony, useful for the inquest’s objectives, could not be used against them.
They were also given pseudonyms. “John Burns” told the court he was 16 when he started going to Arq, but was 21 when he first met Matt, three months before Matt went missing. He felt Matt was sometimes used by Atkins to procure younger guys for group sex. The friendship moved beyond the nightclub and Burns would sometimes visit the unit Matt and Atkins shared in Cronulla. In August of 2007, the suggestion of a threesome with Matt and Atkins was an offer Burns found “too good to refuse”.
The court heard that the three took GHB from a cup, which made Burns feel energised and highly sexual. Burns watched Matt and Atkins have sex, then had sex with Atkins. Burns wanted to have sex with Matt, but was worried Atkins would get jealous. As the drugs wore off, Burns began to feel he had done the wrong thing with regard to the couple’s relationship.
The dynamic of the friendship changed. Quietly, Atkins told Burns: “If I wasn’t with Matt, I’d be with you.”
Burns remembered Matt as bouncy and happy on the last night of his life, in a part of the nightclub known as “Smoker’s Alley”. But this apparently changed after Matt and Atkins appeared to have a fight. Peter Leveson told 60 Minutes of bumping into his brother that night. He described Matt as bouncing up the stairs, but then Matt brushed Peter off, saying “I don’t want to talk.” Peter found this odd. It only made sense when he found out later that Matt and Atkins had had a fight. It was the last exchange he had with his brother; the last time he saw him alive.
Witness “Jack Smith” had a very different take on Matt’s last night. He remembered going out to say goodbye to Matt and Atkins at their car, but not actually getting to the car after meeting Atkins some metres from it. Grilled at length by Fernandez about the details of an event that took place so many years ago, Smith appeared at times to contradict himself – for example, noting that Matt was very badly affected by drugs, but saying he was not near the car. He then said he could see Matt’s arms flailing and hitting the windscreen from a distance.
He described Matt as “manky”, an old Scots world for “filthy” that now apparently neatly summarises the effects of too much GHB on the body. The description of her son in this dishevelled state proved too much for Faye Leveson, who became increasingly distressed during Smith’s testimony. Finally, she erupted, yelling: “You let him die!”
This was aimed at Atkins, now 54, sitting quietly throughout testimony given by others, in what must have been an excruciating public airing of details of his sex life. Day after day, he would sit expressionless in the court in a dark suit, in dark shirts, always with a tie, looking as neat and conservative as a banking executive, his thinning grey-brown hair clipped short.
In the many breaks and delays that have bedevilled this inquest, Atkins would sit motionless and expressionless in the foyer of the court, as far as possible from the slightly boisterous clutch of Matthew’s friends and supporters. Many of them were people he’d once considered friends. As it turned out, he had also had sex with some of them. No-one spoke to him. When journalists would approach for an interview, he would simply stare them down until they walked away. If he felt the eyes of the Leveson family and their supporters burning into the back of his neck as they sat behind him in court, it didn’t show.
Details of Atkins’s strange and somewhat callous behaviour mounted throughout the inquest. Smith’s partner “Sally White” said that she and Smith frequently went back to Atkins’s flat in Mascot for Arq after-parties and that this continued when Matt and Atkins moved to Cronulla. Atkins, she said, would get angry if teased by Matt. She once saw Atkins hit him with a clenched fist.
White told the court she was shocked by this, as she had never seen Atkins angry before. She said that she knew Matt was indulgent with drugs, but that she never saw him dangerous or out of control. She was not present near the car when Smith saw Matt “manky” on GHB, she said.
A witness given the pseudonym Bradley Johns had some chilling revelations. He first met Atkins in online gay chatrooms in 2006. They had a relationship that consisted of chatting and mutual masturbation via webcams, usually late at night. Atkins had told him he was 35 and worked out at the gym a lot. Johns knew Matt had moved into the flat in Cronulla, but the online relationship continued, as Atkins had said he and Matt were in an open relationship. Occasionally, Johns would see Matt moving in the background of the webcam’s view.
The chilling part began with the timing of their first physical meet up in Newcastle. It was on Tuesday, September 25, just two days after Matt went missing, that Atkins, an electrician by trade, drove up to Newcastle, straight after work in Sydney, describing himself in text and voice messages along the way as filthy and in serious need of a shower.
When Atkins arrived at the Newcastle apartment, he went directly into the shower. The two then had sex and went out to a nightclub nearby. Johns said Atkins expressed no emotion about the disappearance of his partner. He also offered him a ticket to the forthcoming Sleaze Ball, saying he now had a spare ticket. Johns ditched Atkins at the nightclub and fled back to the apartment, leaving Atkins stranded outside the security building. The filthy work clothes Atkins arrived in were later thrown away. No-one will ever know what clues those work clothes might have contained.
There has been a litany of bungling and mishandling of evidence in this case since the beginning. Mark and Faye Leveson have done everything in their power to get answers, including searching the scrub of Sydney’s vast Royal National Park with picks and shovels for evidence of their son’s remains on most weekends since 2008. Mark Leveson even wore a wire in a meeting with Atkins, in the hope that he might discuss what became of Matthew.
Incredibly, the recording of this wire, while available at the murder trial in 2009, mysteriously vanished, along with unedited footage of a bungled search of the garage at the Cronulla flat the men shared, and extended surveillance footage of the Arq nightclub from the night Matthew disappeared. During the inquest, some of this material was uncovered in the loft of a detective’s partner. The detective had taken it home to work on a brief of evidence and simply never got around to taking it back. Mark Leveson's recording has still not been played at the inquest.
To the layperson, it might seem odd indeed that Atkins never took the stand during his trial for murder, as he never had to answer questions the whole world seems to want answered. During the 15 days so far of the current inquest, though the media was alerted several times that Atkins would take the stand, he never did. And crucially, in the murder trial of 2009, though police felt that they had evidence on CCTV of Atkins buying a mattock and gaffer tape at Bunnings on the Sunday of Matt’s disappearance, the jury was never told of Atkins’s denial that he did so, nor of his denial that the CCTV shows him. The judge in that case ruled that, as Atkins was not told he was a suspect before that interview, the denial had to be suppressed. Both Mark and Faye Leveson are convinced that had the jury been aware Atkins denied buying the items, the verdict would have been different.
Mark Leveson remains positive, even upbeat, about long delays that have seen the inquest sit for just 15 days, which were often truncated (“it gives the police and the judicial system more time to finally get things right”, Leveson told this writer), the toll taken on Faye Leveson has been huge. If she wasn’t thrilled at Matt’s choice of partner (Atkins), Faye nonetheless loved her son intensely, dealt relatively easily with his sexuality and hedonistic indulgences, and was completely devastated by his death. Since then, she has had to cope with constant media intrusions, with sitting through a murder trial that seemed to have a farcical outcome, and – almost every day of the current inquest – has had to be within spitting distance of the man acquitted, despite her feelings about the evidence, of taking the life of her son.
The hardest thing Faye Leveson has had to endure, however, is more than eight years without knowing what happened to Matt. Speak to anyone who has lost a loved one in this situation and they will tell you that the not-knowing is the most corrosive thing you can experience.
Peter McQueen is a “court watcher”, a person who of his own volition chooses to follow court proceedings. But to say, as some do, that court watchers observe court cases the way the rest of us read books or watch television, is to far undervalue the interest shown in the carriage – or miscarriage – of justice experienced by people such as McQueen.
His fascination with court procedures, McQueen says, came about as a result of conflicting reporting on the nightly news.
“I’d watch the Ten News at five and it would be completely different to the report on the Seven News at six,” he says. “I thought: ‘I’m sick of this – I’m going down there tomorrow to see what happens for myself’.”
Over nine years, he has observed court proceedings at almost every level, including high-profile cases such as those of Gordon Wood and Marcus Enfield. Like the Levesons, to whom he has become a trusted friend, he was gobsmacked by the not guilty verdict at Atkins’s murder trial in 2009, which he attended. While he is at pains to say he does not speak for the Levesons, he appears to have their best interests at heart.
“The delays in the current inquest are a real torment for the family,” says McQueen. Reflecting on what they have been through, he expresses what many in the court may have been feeling.
“You know, when you are engaging in threesomes and taking drugs, you never imagine that one day your parents will have to sit in a courtroom and hear all of that read onto the public record.”
McQueen’s respect for Faye Leveson is immeasurable. When she becomes upset, he is frequently moved by the presence of family members and other supporters at her side (Mark Leveson has received special dispensation to sit at the bar table during the inquest, so cannot be by her side).
Because of his activities as a court watcher, McQueen has met several others in Faye Leveson’s position, but the singular difference for most is that they have been able to visit their lost son or daughter lying in some sunlit meadow. And they have been able to achieve closure.
It seems an unthinkable burden to expect a mother to carry; to have lost her son to the night, to the darkness, while lawyers and police bumble and stumble over the facts, crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s. The one man in the world who could possibly end her misery looks set to remain silent once more.
Note: This article was published in March 2016, before the inquest resumed.