Sunday, March 03, 2013

At long last!  Police negligence accepted.  Murder charges  in the deaths of Atherton women 21 years ago

To anybody who knew even the basic facts about this matter, it has been crying out for justice.  The small-town cops who ruled that the deaths were suicide were widely ridiculed.  Were they just lazy or did they want to avoid upheavals in their small town?   Perhaps both.  Or could it be a simple as what one of the cops involved said:  He claims a senior police officer refused to order an investigation into the suspected double murder because of overtime costs?

FOR 21 years, Vicki Arnold's family has been told the mild-mannered chartered accountant bashed her best friend with a rock, slit her throat and shot her twice before turning the gun on herself - firing two shots through her own head in an apparent murder-suicide.

She did this, according to a police investigation and two coronial inquests, despite having no motive and no history of depression or any other mental health issues.

Yesterday, State Coroner Michael Barnes tore holes in the findings of police and the previous inquests - declaring it was more likely Ms Arnold, 27, and her best friend Julie-Anne Leahy, 26, were murdered.

In an extraordinary hearing before a packed courtroom, Mr Barnes ordered Mrs Leahy's husband Alan stand trial on two counts of murder.

A warrant was issued for his arrest and he is expected to be extradited from Western Australia to face court in Queensland.

Mr Leahy yesterday told The Courier-Mail he would maintain his innocence.  "Of course I will fight the charges," he said.

The bodies of the women were found inside the Leahy family 4WD in remote bushland near Cairns in August 1991 - two weeks after they failed to return from a late-night fishing trip.

"Those involved in the early stages of the investigation failed to gather, lost or corrupted evidence that may have established the truth of what happened at Cherry Tree Creek on the night of July 26, 1991," Mr Barnes said.

"They then set about squeezing what evidence was left into an explanation that required no further action."

He said two coronial inquests went along with the police opinion that the women's deaths were an open-shut murder-suicide.

The court heard Mrs Leahy's husband told police the women had left home after midnight to go fishing and never returned.

Mr Barnes said it was telling that Mr Leahy spent that night in bed with his wife's 16-year-old sister Vanessa. "Alan Leahy spent considerable time in his wife's sister's bed on the night the two women disappeared," he said.

"A possible interpretation for what would seem cavalier behaviour is that he knew his wife would not be returning."

Mr Barnes also found:

*    While Ms Arnold had bought the gun that was used to shoot the women, the most likely scenario was that she had done so for someone else. Mr Barnes said she knew nothing about guns, yet insisted on buying a .22 rifle while giving various explanations as to why she needed it.

*    Ms Arnold had neither the equipment or the know-how to saw down a rifle. Mr Leahy did and lied about owning a vice, which would have been used to shorten the barrel.

*    Ms Arnold had no motive, appeared content the night she disappeared and had apparently embarked on a midnight fishing trip despite having made work appointments for 6am the following day.

*    It was unlikely Ms Arnold had shot herself in the back of the head after first shooting herself in the thigh and chin.

*    Trajectory examinations found one bullet was likely fired from the back seat.

*    The sawn-off barrel from the gun, a hacksaw and instruction manual were placed inside a pillow slip from the Leahy house and left in Ms Arnold's driveway two weeks after her body was found. Mr Barnes said "only someone who had themselves been involved in the deaths had a motive to do that".

He said while Ms Arnold did not appear to have a motive, Mr Leahy did.

The court heard Mr Leahy had been having an affair with his sister-in-law, had mounting debts and stood to gain $120,000 from his wife's life insurance. He also lied about owning true crime magazines - one depicting a murder made to look like a murder-suicide. The court heard the day before the women disappeared, Mrs Leahy had asked her younger sister to stay home from school - a request the teenager was convinced meant Mrs Leahy wanted to confront her about the affair.

Mr Barnes ordered Mr Leahy to stand trial at the next sittings of the Supreme Court in Cairns, giving him 14 days to surrender to police.

The women's relatives in court - and others viewing the hearing live in Cairns - cried and applauded as Mr Barnes delivered his finding.

Mrs Leahy's brother Peter Martin punched the air.  "I'm on top of the world," he said. "(The decision) takes Vicki straight out of the picture - as it should have been from word go. We can wake up tomorrow morning and have a smile on our face."

In Cairns, Ms Arnold's wheelchair-bound mother Vida sobbed as Mr Leahy was ordered to stand trial.

"I've waited nearly 22 years for this result," she said. "I've lost a lot of sleep over the years. Who knows if I'll get any sleep tonight." She thanked Mr Barnes, her lawyer Philip Bovey and State MP Curtis Pitt for correcting a "miscarriage of justice".


Vague federal "reforms" to  education under challenge

CHRISTIAN schools have threatened to withdraw support for Julia Gillard's education funding reforms if the Prime Minister fails to spell out the effects on individual institutions within one month.

Christian Schools Australia also hit out at states looking to go their own way, saying premiers would be disregarding the national interest if they could not agree on a national plan to overhaul school funding.

Ms Gillard's hopes of striking a deal with the states at a meeting with premiers next month have suffered a blow in the past week, with Victoria and Queensland indicating they would develop their own alternative plans.

A Senate committee is examining the Gillard government's legislation designed to pave the way for the Gonski school funding reforms, which would see a set amount of funding allocated for each student to be topped up with "loadings" recognising disadvantage and disability needs.

The chief executive of Christian Schools Australia, Stephen O'Doherty, told the inquiry the sector was being asked to buy into a scheme that was not fully articulated yet, and had shown "great patience" and "tremendous goodwill" in its approach up to this point.

Mr O'Doherty said if the exact detail of the effect on individual schools was not clearly explained by the end of this month, the government should introduce legislation to extend the present funding system beyond December.

"Quite frankly, at the end of this year, the money simply runs out," he said.

The Australian Education Union federal president, Angelo Gavrielatos, told the inquiry Ms Gillard's signature education reforms - set to deliver an extra $6.5 billion in funding to schools each year - were not dead so long as everyone displayed "a degree of political maturity".

The deputy executive director of the Independent Schools Council of Australia, Barry Wallett, said 900 schools in the independent sector were in a non-systemic arrangement and several hundred of those could lose funding if the Gonski model was implemented in its pure form.

Although the federal government continued to promise no school would lose a dollar, Mr Wallett said the indexation level to keep up with annual increases in costs was yet to be determined.

The National Catholic Education Commission chairwoman, Therese Temby, said the bill designed to pave the way for the Gonski reforms was couched in "highly aspirational language" and silent on actual funding details.

The Catholic Education executive director, Stephen Elder, said the Victorian government had done modelling on the Gonski reforms, which showed about 30 per cent of schools would lose money. He said the process had been long and drawn out, and was causing "enormous anxiety".

The associate secretary of the Department of Education, Tony Cook, reiterated that no school would lose money.

"A school will receive more money in 2014 than they received for 2013 based on this particular model."

The executive director of Independent Schools Queensland, David Robertson, said time was "getting pretty tight here" and he was aware of schools that had delayed building projects as a result of the uncertainty.

Visiting Hobart, Mr Gillard refused to concede her reforms were in jeopardy.

"Well, I'm absolutely determined to get this done," she said.


Frankly, this secrecy is undemocratic

AUSTRALIA boasts a stable democracy and a famously frank political culture. Yet for all that robustness, Australians too readily accept secrecy by those representing us.

Like many journalists, I know a simple truth: if you want useful detail and you want it before your deadline, don't bother waiting for our leaders or their high-level officials. That way lies stone-walling and obfuscation.

A better bet is to go straight to the Americans, the Brits, the New Zealanders, or even the Indonesians.

And you don't even need to go to them directly. Sometimes their websites display a level of detail Australian officials reflexively withhold as if the country's survival depends on its non-disclosure.

Foreign officials are sometimes disarmingly frank and are often quite happy to background media revealing pertinent facts, context and atmosphere.

Perhaps surprisingly, Australia's claimed egalitarianism and supposed disdain for rank and privilege does not extend to a perceived right of ordinary people to information.

When US President Barack Obama travelled to Cambodia last November for the East Asia Summit, members of the White House press corps were given a detailed briefing covering what the administration hoped to achieve in foreign policy terms and how the President would go about it. The briefing was transcribed and made available on the White House website.

Australian journalists covering the summit were provided a logistical briefing on Prime Minister Julia Gillard's main appointments. Matters of inevitable interest to the media were judiciously excluded, such as the fact that Ms Gillard's partner Tim was accompanying her and that his son would meet the couple in the Cambodian capital.

A Reuters colleague tells of approaching the Australian embassy in Burma during a period of intense political violence. He was turned away amid "blind panic" at the ramifications of talking to the press. The British, on the other hand, invited him inside, offered a full briefing and even provided internet facilities.

Domestically, the same non-disclosure tendencies inform most of what governments do.

Last week, Fairfax Media's Anne Davies reported on a push to have Gillard reveal her daily diary, so Australians can see what she is doing, and with whom she is meeting.

This kind of information is available in other countries, including the US and Britain.

Yet it is so foreign to official Australian sensibilities as to be almost unthinkable.

Ask the Prime Minister's office about issues being considered at Cabinet meetings and, more often than not, there is a reluctance to confirm even that a meeting is scheduled.

Now as we enter the longest-ever federal election campaign, both sides are moving into super-secure mode. This involves not revealing where and when the leader will be at any given time.

The dominant fear is of protesters stealing the limelight and wrecking carefully stage-managed television pictures. To that end, advice to media is parsed out on an event-by-event basis.

This circling of the wagons reaches its absurd apotheosis during the campaign proper when travelling media are not told of campaign functions and destinations sometimes until the last possible moment. This secrecy is inimical to democracy.

In its place we get circuses such as this week's Western Sydney soiree crafted to impart the illusion of accountability and participation while cementing in place the polar opposite.


Labor's record on crime is poor: Abbott

A federal government plan for a gang crime taskforce sounds very much like an old coalition proposal, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott says.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard is expected to announce a joint police taskforce to combat gang crimes including gun violence and drive-by shootings, particularly in western Sydney, on Sunday.

The $64 million taskforce will include 70 federal and state police with bases in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, News Limited reports.

Mr Abbott says it sounds like a coalition proposal from the last election.

"It sounds very much like the government is playing catch-up politics here," he told reporters at Auburn in western Sydney.

"We'll have a good look at it. If it makes sense we'll support it."

However Mr Abbott says Labor's record on crime control shows it doesn't always live up to its promises.

"They promised in 2007 that there would be 500 additional AFP (Australian Federal Police) officers," he said.

"They've actually cut more than $250 million out of the AFP and as part of those cuts, 97 officers went."

The government also had cut $22 million from the Australian Crime Commission (ACC), he said.

"There are 144 fewer people in the ACC," he said.

And $60 million had been cut from Customs, meaning less than 10 per cent of incoming air cargoes were now screened, the federal opposition leader said.

The NSW Labor opposition called on Premier Barry O'Farrell to back the anti-gang taskforce.

"After more than 200 shootings, it's clear that whatever the O'Farrell government is doing just isn't working," Opposition Leader John Robertson said in a statement on Sunday.

"The Commonwealth has announced a taskforce today that will help tackle gang-related violence in western Sydney and the premier should support it.

"We need all the resources we can get to tackle gun crime and criminal gangs in Sydney's west."


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