And Then the Darkness by Sue Williams

This is the second book I’ve read about the disappearance (and presumed murder) of English backpacker Peter Falconio.
I bought it at the same time that I picked up Dead Centre (see previous post)

darknessIt didn’t take long to know the direction this book would take. It loudly broadcast its lack of objectivity in the second chapter, saying of the man who was ultimately convicted of murdering Peter Falconio:

“Bradley John Murdoch was a mistake from the moment of conception”.

It’s a far different kind of book from the one written by Robin Bowles.

Bowles wrote from her own experience, reporting what others told her, and what she personally saw and heard. Although her own assumptions clearly colour how she recounts those experiences and her observations.

In the earlier part of her book Williams writes more in the style of a novel, from the viewpoint of an all seeing, all knowing narrator. While she most likely based her work on a lot of research, I find that kind of narrative voice can give a story a sense of authenticity and authority they possibly don’t deserve. A lot of authorial assumptions can be presented with the appearance of being fact rather than an imaginative interpretation of events and experiences.

For me, what is gained in “readability” is lost in trustworthiness, and my motivation to keep reading wasn’t there, despite the “easy-to-read” style. If I wanted crime fiction I have more than enough unread books of that genre on my shelves. I read this one hoping to get a more FACTUAL perspective.

The central event of the case, in which Falconio disappeared and Lees escaped abduction, is described partly from the point of view of the perpetrator, getting into his head. Considering the person convicted of being that perpetrator insists on his innocence, Williams clearly has not based that perpetrator’s point of view on interviews with the man who was actually there committing the crime. She has clearly made it up.

After this imagining of events, Williams does move on to reporting known events: from the police investigation through to the ultimate conviction of Bradley Murdoch. That latter part of the book seemed more objective than the earlier half, but for me the damage had already been done.

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Dead Centre by Robin Bowles

dead-centreI’ve had a couple of Robin Bowles books for a while, but this is the first I’ve read. I’m not sure why I haven’t started any of the others yet, but this one gives me clear encouragement to do so.

The first book of hers that I bought was Death on the Derwent, about the disappearance of Bob Chappell and the subsequent conviction of his partner, Sue Neill-Fraser for his murder.

When I bought it I’d only recently finished Colin McLaren’s book Southern Justice, and the TV documentary Undercurrent about the same case, so I probably needed a break from it before starting Bowles’ book on the same subject.

I found this book on the weekend while I was looking for one about the Belanglo Forest “backpacker murders”. I found the book I was looking for, and for some reason I decided to get this one too. I’m not sure why, but I’m glad that I did.

It’s a book that I was reluctant to put down, even though my work day sadly made that necessary.

Bowle’s account is a well paced, well constructed journey through her research and investigation into the disappearance of Peter Falconio and the attempted abduction of his girlfriend Joanne Lees.

She interviewed most of the major players in the investigation as well as a number of meetings with Bradley Murdoch, the man who stood trial and was eventually convicted of Falconio’s murder, visiting him in jail while he was awaiting trial.

The official story is that Lees and Falconio were driving between Alice Springs and Darwin. According to Lees their trip was interrupted when the driver of a white 4WD truck pulled alongside and warned them about a problem with their Kombi van.

While Falconio was checking their vehicle, Lees heard a loud bang and was then confronted by a man with a handgun beside her. She was bound and bundled into the man’s truck, but somehow managed to escape and hide in the scrub alongside the road.

Falconio has never been seen since.

There are many inconsistencies in that official story. These are addressed in Bowles’ book. One that stands out to me is that Lees described her attacker as a man of average height and build, with longish hair.

Bradley Murdoch, the man eventually found guilty of the murder of Falconio and the attempted kidnapping of Lees, is six feet five tall (approx. 195cm) who always had closely cropped hair.

The assailant also reportedly had a blue healer dog as a companion – Murdoch’s had a dalmatian, a dog of distinctly  different appearance.

healer.jpg

Blue Healer

dalmatian

Dalmatian

 

 

 

 

 

 

Although Lees was reportedly pushed into the truck along side the assailant’s dog, no trace of dog hair was found on her clothing, despite both healers and dalmatians being notorious hair shedders.

Lees also claimed to have escaped by crawling through a gap in the truck seats, and out across the covered back tray, dropping from the rear of the truck onto the road. No trucks of the type described were found with that access from the cab to the rear tray.

These and other details in this book bring into question the official story, and left me in no doubt that Murdoch is probably in jail for a crime he didn’t commit.

A podcast including interview with Robin Bowles about the case. [The presenters of this podcast include his warning: “please be advised this episode contains graphic content”].

I have another two books about this case and will be interested to see how two different authors approach this case.

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One minor quibble (or puzzle) – Bowles gives a story of the difficulty she had finding the Dymock’s bookshop in George Street Sydney, where Lees had worked prior to the journey she took through Central Australia with Peter Falconio.

I was very familiar with the shop. I was a frequent visitor to it when I lived and worked in Sydney, and it was in a very prominent central location, easy to find. And the description she gives of the shop after she eventually found it isn’t of the main Dymock’s store which had a wide display window and street level access to the main shop area.

Her description seems more like the Angus and Robertson book shop that used to be in the Pitt Street mall, parallel to George Street. The A & R Shop had a street level display window, but the shop itself was accessed from the mall via descending stairs.

I had also been a frequent visitor to A & R during the late 90s.

I have vague recollection of a secondary Dymocks closer to Circular Quay, but can’t remember whether that one was in George Street, but I think that one was also a street level store, not one accessed by stairs.

Another Miscarriage of Justice?

Last night I saw the final episode of Undercurrent, a documentary series investigating the conviction and imprisonment of  Susan Neill-Fraser for the murder of her partner Bob Chappell.

Chappell had been working on his new yacht and stayed on board on the night of Australia Day 2009.  Bystanders saw the yacht seemed to be sinking and alerted authorities. After saving the boat, suspicions were aroused that a violent crime had been committed on board. Bob Chappell was missing and there has been no sign of him or his body since.

Police quickly looked at his partner as being the prime suspect.  Susan Neill-Fraser, a slightly built grandmother was alleged to have struck Chappell on the head with a wrench, winched his body from the lower deck via the main hatch, and disposed of it overboard, weighted down with a missing fire extinguisher. A detailed claim based on no body (therefore no wounds to suggest means of death) no explanation of why a wrench should be suggested as the weapon used, and on the likelihood that a middle-aged grandmother would have the strength to winch the body of a well-built man out of the boat by herself.

Undercurrent introduces former detective Colin McLaren to the investigation, and one of the first things he noticed in a photo of the crime scene was drips of blood on a bench seat immediately beneath a skylight – suggesting that Chappell’s body had been removed from the inside of the boat via that skylight, and not as according to the police report winched via the main hatch.

McLaren conducted a re-enactment in which two people successfully lifted a “body” of the same size as Chappell through that skylight.

Another disturbing aspect of the case was that a DNA sample found at the scene had been discounted as being a secondary transfer from a policeman’s boot. The sample was reportedly the size of a dinner plate, indicating the policeman had exceptionally large boots, or the  secondary transfer claim was false. The DNA was later found to belong to a homeless teenage girl, Meaghan Vass, who denied ever being on the yacht.

McClaren later tracked Vass (now in her twenties) down and attempts to obtain testimony from her made up a large part of the final two episodes. It was a difficult task that seemed to bear some fruit – until all of those involved in this new investigation were individually raided by the police, and either charged, or threatened with charges, of perverting the course of justice.

At the end of the series, Susan Neill-Fraser was still in jail, waiting for the result of her final appeal. That was over a year ago and the result of the appeal hasn’t yet been disclosed.

Accusations were made in court during that appeal, that the investigators and documentary makers had threated and bribed Vass to make a false statement about her being on the yacht the night Chappell went missing. Footage of the interaction between Vass and the investigators show that wasn’t the case. Further confirmation of her involvement (as per her original statement) will seemingly be provided in a 60 Minutes story to be screened on Sunday night.

In addition to the Undercurrent documentary, a previous film Shadow of Doubt was released about this case and 60 Minutes have done a number of earlier reports.

What makes this story relevant to my “book blog” is that I’ve become aware of three different books about the case and its inconsistencies.

Murder by the Prosecution by Andrew L. Urban

Death on the Derwent, by Robin Bowles

Southern Justice, by Colin McLaren

I haven’t had the chance to read any of them yet, but they are all now on my list of books to buy when I can afford it.

Two short, relevant videos.