Forever 23

Most people can pinpoint an event, or simply a moment in their lives that changed everything, for better or worse. My moment came in May 1993 when I was nineteen years old. It was a morning like any other; or so I thought.  Sunlight peeped around the edges of the Venetian blind at roughly 8am. I remember I was due to work in my father’s shop later that day, so I got to sleep in, but the sun clearly had other plans.

As did whoever was on the phone at this early hour. Who calls someone at their house before nine o’clock, I wondered. Telemarketers? If so, they were being cheekier than usual.

My bedroom was mere metres from the phone in the hallway, so I caught snippets of the conversation through my door. Mum was talking to one of her six brothers, and not grasping what he was trying to tell her.

Then she screamed, and it was the single worst sound I’d ever heard, up to that point.  I’m not even sure I could describe it to someone if they asked.  Maybe I repressed the sound somehow, but not the memory of hearing it; if that makes any sense.  She kept saying ‘No, no, you’re lying, it’s not true.’  When I finally dredged up the courage to find out what was wrong, she said, in a strange, flat tone: ‘Craig’s been killed.’ I’ve never seen my mother like that before and I hope I never do again.

Craig was my uncle – is my uncle.  He was four years older than me so was more like a cousin, really.  He was the youngest of a family of twelve children; my mother was third eldest.  The baby of the bunch, he learned to talk late because his siblings would speak for him. But that’s not to say that he was spoiled, or self-centred. He was one of the most giving people I’ve ever met.  He and his closest brother in age, Bob, taught us nieces and nephews the essentials in life: how to make a Hills Hoist into a flying fox, how to keep your feet while sliding along a soaped-up tarp in summer, and the delights of Iron Maiden and Led Zeppelin at an ear-splitting volume. When he’d crank up the metal, the window panes would vibrate. He also introduced us to the irreverent humour of Ben Elton and The Young Ones. His favourite character was Vyvyan, and he could rattle off whole passages of dialogue in character.

I’ve always found it easy to express my emotions but initially at least, I was much too stunned to cry at the time, especially when I found out how it happened.  My mind could not grasp the concept. Who would want to shoot my uncle?!  He had a loving fiancée and two beautiful little girls.  And as far as we all knew, not an enemy in the world.  Until now.

We all gathered at my grandparents’ place in North Geelong that day as the news filtered through about how and where it had happened. To say the mood was sombre was an understatement.  Most of us sat or stood in the lounge and dining area, looking pale and stunned, with tears streaming down our faces. Some were more vocal than others, but the general feeling was of shock, at that stage. There was a lot of hugging going on, and talk of who might have done the awful deed. At that stage, the police had some persons of interest but had made no arrests. It wasn’t until the following morning we learned they had someone in custody. Someone who was saying it had been a case of mistaken identity. He was a complete stranger to Craig; but as time went on we’d learn more and more about the drug-addict who took the life of a beloved member of our family for no good reason. Among the things we learned was that he was out on bail when he killed Craig.  The charge was assault with a deadly weapon – a knife.  This fact would be one that would prompt one of my uncles to write a letter to the ombudsman outlining the case and asking why my uncle’s killer was allowed to walk the streets after committing such a violent assault.  It was because of a trivial argument that he’d wound up outside the address my uncle had visited that night, waiting with a friend – and a shotgun – for someone else, also called Craig.  It was something none of us could understand – how someone with a violent and drug-riddled history could be given the benefit of a doubt by a judge, who’d probably seen countless cases like this before. One thing that seemed to compound our collective grief and anger was the fact that the evening news confused Craig’s name with the name of my mother’s eldest brother. People were calling the house, thinking Gary was the one who’d been killed. I remember thinking just what shoddy journalism that was, although I can’t recall which station made the blunder.

Craig’s funeral was packed out. Such was the down-to-earth, caring nature of this man that so many people attended they were spilling out the door and into the foyer.  Songs were played on that day in June that I still have trouble listening to without getting a lump in my throat.  Stories were told about him by family and friends, mostly alluding to his off-beat sense of humour and generosity of spirit. But it was the image of his fiancée at his gravesite, and the heart-rending expression on her face, that will stay with me for life.

Whether you’re a member of the immediate family or a cousin or niece, as I was, murder changes you. You can’t escape it. Geelong is a small town and because of the size of my mother’s family, it seemed like everyone knew what had happened. The death notices in the newspaper ran for over a week. Friends didn’t know what to say, and my boyfriend at the time thought I’d be better off not talking about it.  But I did want to talk about it. I had so much to say.  I still have so much to say, almost a quarter of a century later.  So when, in 1995, a chance arose to speak at a forum about sentencing that was held upstairs at the Wool Museum, I jumped at it. I heard about it through VOCAL, the local chapter of the Victims of Crime Assistance League that I’d been in contact with since Craig’s murder.  They told me it was being held to compile data about crime and punishment in Victoria for a book on the subject, but that I might find it cathartic to speak my piece and there was bound to be important people in attendance who might have a say in getting laws changed.  I felt I couldn’t pass the opportunity up. I’m not a big public speaker and as I’ve mentioned, I’m quick to get choked up, but it was surprisingly easy to stand up, introduce myself to the room and tell my story.  I made sure the room knew Craig’s killer had been out on bail for a serious assault with a weapon when he chose to commit murder and that he’d also physically assaulted a corrections officer while on remand for Craig’s murder.  I asked why there is bail at all for violent offences. I also stressed the importance of victims having their say in court, via Victim Impact Statements, which were a relatively new concept at the time.  I wasn’t the only family member of a murder victim to speak, but we were all applauded and thanked for our time. Months later, when the book came out, I was mailed a copy. It was not the first time I’d seen my name in print – I wrote a newspaper article that was published in the Geelong Advertiser when I was in Year 12 – but I hope that I never have to see it attached to something like this ever again.

It may sound strange, but you join a special, unofficial club when someone you love is murdered. It’s not a club you ever want to be a member of, obviously. But to know that there are people in the world who have felt exactly the same as you (and undoubtedly worse) and can empathise, is oddly comforting.  VOCAL helped me out a lot in those first few weeks. Just calling to speak with Jenny, one of the ladies who counselled people back then, I learned that I most certainly wasn’t alone and that the anger I was feeling was totally normal. I’m not big on the idea of counselling, even now, but I didn’t want to burden my friends with this stuff. Not that I thought my friends would mind, or would be the type to phase me out of their lives because I’d become a downer to have around.  I just didn’t want to make them feel uncomfortable, or think that they had to come up with the right words to console me.

I was also dealing with a number of other major life changes at the time – my parents’ marriage broke down quite spectacularly in the aftermath of her brother’s murder and my own relationship ended a few months later.  Then in November of that year, on Remembrance Day, of all things, my maternal grandfather died of natural causes. He’d suffered from heart problems and complications from diabetes for a long time but it was losing his youngest son that did him in. What made it even harder to take was he was actually starting to recover his strength and vitality. After Craig died he lost all will to fight.

They say time heals all wounds. I don’t believe that. I think you learn to live with the pain and find a place for the memories of the person you lost; somewhere removed from the front of your mind but still within reach at a moment’s notice.  As I said, some songs from the funeral are still incredibly difficult to listen to, but watching The Young Ones has special meaning now. It’s something that will always remind me of him, no matter how much time has passed.

Something that will also, unfortunately, always remind me of my uncle is the ongoing struggle of victims of crime to have the laws in this country surrounding bail changed.  Every year it seems there’s another terrible story of pain and loss that could have been avoided had the person who caused it been remanded in custody for previous violent acts instead of being let out on bail. The roll call is full of familiar names of victims: Jill Meagher, Sarah Cafferkey, Luke Batty, Masa Vukotic … and some not so familiar. Teresa Bradford was killed by her husband, David, who was on bail for attacking her on a previous occasion. The 2015 Sydney Lindt café siege was committed by a man on bail, as was the Bourke Street mall tragedy in January, where six people were run down and killed by Dmitri “Jimmy” Gargasoulas, who’d been released on bail the weekend before his killing spree – for stabbing his brother.

Caitlyn Bishop, in her article published on 2nd Feb 2017 on the Mamamia website, states that: “In the UK, 2011 research out of the Ministry of Justice found that every ten days, a murder is committed by a criminal out on bail. In Australia, the numbers aren’t that high but they’re high enough.”

This is disgraceful. It simply should not be happening. What does it take for a judge or magistrate to listen to warnings from the police – who deal with these offenders every day and know what they’re capable of – and simply not grant bail for violent offences? If they are indeed innocent then they have the opportunity to prove that at trial. The risk of allowing a violent offender back on the street, due to the presumption of innocence, has been shown time and time again to be an unacceptable one.

Glen Andrew (Jamie) Whelan was sentenced to fourteen years in prison for my uncle’s murder.  In the end, he served only four, having died of a drug overdose in 1998. This year, in November, Craig would have been forty-eight years of age. But to us he will remain forever frozen at 23.

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2 thoughts on “Forever 23

    • Thank you so much for your lovely comment. Yes, my uncle was a wonderful man and widely loved. He will always be missed. I hope that the laws around bail can be changed so that this doesn’t have to happen to anyone else or their family.

      Liked by 1 person

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