This story was published on March 26, 2014.
When Scott Hammond was found brutally murdered in his house in Tahmoor, many of the locals didn't seem to care, reports JOHN SAFRAN.
On the first day of July last year, a man called Scott Hammond was found bludgeoned to death in his home in the tiny town of Tahmoor, north-west of Wollongong.
A news report had drawn me to this particular murder. The bizarre sound bite was that everyone in the town was a suspect. That's how hated Scott Hammond was.
A local must know something, the police said, but no one was coming forward.Six months after the crime, no one had been arrested.
Tahmoor's two big employers are the nearby coal mine and abattoir. The abattoir was the big news story before Hammond's murder - animal rights activists had snuck in and filmed workers punching and kicking live turkeys.
"Scotty used to sick his dogs on people," a red-haired woman in the pub tells me. "So, you know, like, he was just a scumbag."
She tells me the citizens of Tahmoor aren't exactly on board with the investigation. "Nobody's speaking. It's just that nobody cares enough to say, 'Well, who killed that fella?' Because everybody's going, 'Thank God somebody did.' "
"Sure," I say, "but when a person dies ..."
"It's not a person," she interrupts. "It's an it. He was an it."
Outside the pub, another local tells me he also didn't like Scotty. Scotty once fired an arrow at him.
Christ, who was this guy?
Tahmoor has a small town centre with supermarkets, the local MP's office, a second-hand bookshop and some fast-food joints, like Danno's Takeaway. Its owner, Danny Forrest, has narrow eyes and a horseshoe moustache. Someone, or several someones, spray-painted "RIP Scotty" on his shop shutters the day after the murder.
"His friends thought that I had done it," Forrest says. "The detectives come out and they said, 'You are one of the main suspects of it because what he done to you with the dogs.' "
A couple of years back, some young girls were eating fish and chips at the outside tables. They bolted into the shop. Hammond and his two white pit bulls had frightened the bejesus out of them.
"I said, 'Scotty, get away from here with your dogs.' He says, 'You, you f...ing c..., I'll get my dogs to tear your f...ing throat out, you arsehole.' "
Hammond then disappeared. Forrest takes me to the back door of his shop. A metal bar rests against the door. He says he was so worried Hammond was waiting for him out the back that he tucked this metal bar in his pants.
"As soon as I opened the door ... he dropped the two leads and set the two pit bull terriers on me. One of them was on the front of my leg and I was belting it with the bar. The other one just kept circling me and it actually took a great big chunk out the back of my leg."
Forrest's leg is still lumpy with scars after all this time. "You could see the main artery to my heart pumping," he recalls. "The doctor said another millimetre and I would have died. Those dogs were lethal weapons and he got a seven-month [good behaviour] bond."
Forrest says his accusers think he was motivated by revenge, but he not only denies any involvement in Hammond's death, he denies he is angry. "I'm a businessman in town. Why would I waste my energy? I said to the detectives, 'That's water under the bridge, I don't really give a stuff now. At first, yes, I was bitter, what happened to me, but I don't really care.' "
Instead, Forrest looks elsewhere for an explanation for Hammond's demise. "He was well known around the town for selling drugs," he mutters.
Scott Hammond was 48 when he died. Plenty of people in town thought his death was tied to a drug deal gone wrong. His murder wasn't the first time violence rained upon Hammond. A few years back, someone broke into his home and snapped both his legs. Hammond had his dogs pull him around the streets in a wheelchair, like reindeer, Forrest says.
Hammond's house is no longer the fortress everyone told me it was, with dog cages and junk out the front, surveillance cameras and electric grids along the roof. The council swooped in after the murder and now it's brown and bland, with a rich green lawn.
Up the street, an elderly couple are out on their porch, shading themselves from the searing heat. They have known Hammond since he was a little boy. That was how long he had been a part of Tahmoor. They used to go camping with him and his parents.
"He was adopted," the old woman says. "He was always in trouble. How should I say this? As a little boy, I think he craved affection but probably didn't get it, if you know what I mean? I'm not having a go at his parents, because they were nice people."
Hammond's dad is dead and his mother moved to Queensland long ago. Hammond has a sister - an adoptee, too - who is also up north.
The elderly couple tell me that when Hammond was about 20, he smashed his car into a telegraph pole nearby. Wet weather and speeding. His girlfriend - she was about 16 - was killed. Hammond served a little time for reckless driving and left Tahmoor afterwards.
"We didn't see him for a long time, but he came back. Because he's part-Aboriginal, I think they got him the housing commission house, three bedrooms on his own, and he just sold drugs out of it."
"Did he look Aboriginal?" I ask, fishing for some race angle. Did that play into why he was hated?
"Well, I would never have picked that when he was a child," the old woman says.
"When you look hard, then you realise," the old man mutters.
Around the corner, a younger couple invite me inside. I tell them about the redhead in the pub who said everyone was happy Hammond was gone.
"She's talking off the top of her head," the younger woman says, distressed. "She obviously doesn't know the person, she's obviously going on what she's heard and she obviously hasn't lived here for years like Scott and we have."
"He wasn't aggressive", the younger man says, also upset. "He would get extremely reactive to the point that it would look like aggression."
He says the people of Tahmoor bullied Hammond, not the other way around. Hammond was the town freak. He didn't shower. He lived in filth. His front lawn was a mess. Arseholes would throw firebombs at the house from passing cars just for fun. The dog attacks were Hammond standing up for himself, or standing up for local kids who were also being pushed around.
"The kids here in Tahmoor, my son included, loved him," the man says. "Scotty would ride past here on his pushbike and he would make my son feel important. Now, is that a bad person?"
Hammond would invite the kids into his house to see all the birds and dogs he kept inside. At one point, he had six pit bulls. If a kid was hungry, he'd put on pizza. If someone had been kicked out of home, he'd let them crash on his couch.
"He sold a bit of dope," the woman concedes. "Because he wasn't bashful about that, I think that really deflated his reputation."
Chickens scream in the couple's backyard as they speak. They recovered them from Hammond's house after he was killed. "People need scapegoats," the woman says. They, like nearly everyone, believe a local killed Hammond. What was the motive? It was because of a rumour: Hammond had a tin filled with a lot of money. "They've gone there thinking they're going to come across some mythical treasure," the woman says. "There's no treasure."
I ask them who they think the killer is. "I'm not going to go there," the man says. He tells me Danny from Danno's Takeaway was being melodramatic and that no one in town really thought he killed Hammond. The locals who'd spray-painted his shop were just annoyed he was blabbing to the media.
The evening air has cooled down Tahmoor. Rachael Taylor, Hammond's niece, sits in her front yard with her partner, Mitchell Briggs. Both are in their mid-20s. Briggs has Ned Kelly's gun inked on his arm. Taylor was Hammond's last remaining relative in Tahmoor. Everyone else left long ago.
Taylor says that a few years back, Hammond headed off to find his birth mother and father. "I think for him it was about accepting himself. [It] was something he was striving for, for a long time. He tried to track down his real mother also for the sake of verifying his indigenous status."
Hammond did find his mother and he did get his verification paperwork. His Aboriginality, Taylor says, played into the town's resentment, but in an unusual way.
An old Aboriginal woman lived in his home before he did. It was public housing set aside for indigenous people. When she died, and Hammond moved in, her family was furious. Hammond's skin is too light, the family seethed at everyone in town: "He's called himself Aboriginal and he's not!" Another reason for the people of Tahmoor to hate Scott Hammond.
Rachael Taylor loved her uncle, however, and checked up on him all the time. Since his murder, the police had left her in the lurch. "I just want someone to call me back, please," she says sadly. "I've left numerous messages, just asking. Especially around the time of his birthday."
The police did spend quite a few hours with Taylor right after the murder, though. They wanted information out of her, and in the course of this, she got information out of them.
The police told her that there was continuous brutal force to Scott Hammond's head with a blunt object. That the bashing was so severe his eye popped out and he lost part of his ear. That the injuries were to the back of his head, which meant he might not have seen it coming.
"It was someone he knew," Briggs says, scratching his Ned Kelly gun.
"He had that house monitored like Fort Knox," Taylor explains. "If you were let into his house, he trusted you. The police said there was no break and enter. It was someone who he knew and trusted, or someone who was already in the house."
"Do you have your suspicions?" I ask.
Taylor gives me a name. "He has known my uncle for a long time; he was the last one who was seen walking out of the house."
A neighbour spotted this man leaving the house, at a time the police believe Hammond was dead. The neighbour asked the man where Hammond was. The man said he was inside doing the dishes. Scott Hammond was famous for living in filth. Doing the dishes didn't sound like a very Scotty thing.
The police thought that more than one person was involved. And that they had been let in via the back door, where, unlike the front entrance, there were no surveillance cameras.
"They found the dog, the red-nose pit bull, with a broken back," Briggs says.
The killer, or killers, had chucked the dog, still alive but immobilised, on Hammond's body. Briggs thinks they would have broken the dog's back before they got to Hammond to stop it from savaging them while trying to protect its master.
There were possible witnesses to the murder but they're of limited help. Briggs leads me to them - cockatoos in the garage. Explains Briggs, "They were in the house with him all the time, so there's some pretty crazy things they say, just anything, all schizo sayings.
"It's full sentences, because Scotty was diagnosed with schizophrenia, so he'd sit there by himself and rant and rave. Sometimes it's real creepy."
"Shut the f...in' door, you c...," is one of the bird's favourite refrains.
Back at my motel room, attached to the pub, I track down The Last Man To Leave The House on the internet. His profile picture shows him huddled up with blokes wearing outlaw motorcycle club tops. He is tucked up the back, so I can't see if he is wearing one himself.
The next morning I find a woman purporting to be the girlfriend of The Last Man To Leave The House. "Definitely was not him," she says, defending her man. "He loved Scott too much." She tells me her boyfriend met Hammond in jail long ago. Hammond was serving time for his part in the car crash that killed his girlfriend.
I ask her why her boyfriend was in jail. "I think the first time he cut someone's ear off," she says.
"But isn't someone who could cut someone's ear off," I say, "someone who could whack Scott?"
"He was doing it for somebody else, not for himself, " she tells me, convinced this was a comforting explanation. "I've never seen him angry."
"He's not going to cut off my ear for writing a story?" I ask.
"No, he's calmed down in his old age."
She says she passes by Hammond's old house most days. "He's still in there - there's no way he's not there. And he's an angry ghost, too."
Around the streets, I hear versions of one particular story. Hammond wanted to leave Tahmoor because he hated how people treated him. He was saving his money to buy land up north, somewhere tropical.
He lived off the proceeds of selling dope, but he never spent a cent of his pension. This he secured in a tin and he had accumulated tens of thousands of dollars. The tin was hidden somewhere in Tahmoor and no one knew where.
Some people told me that there wasn't an actual hidden treasure, but that it was a strong enough myth to motivate a murder. I was told that Hammond's lover at the time, a girl who worked at a local shop, was visited by people after the murder. They were convinced she knew where the treasure was buried. That it was under some house nearby. She has since left town.
"The story is for Good Weekend," I tell a muscular guy stacking his belongings in a truck, moving out of home.
"Yeah?" he says squinting. "Oh, you don't have any good weekends out here, mate, I can tell you."
A few locals have told me I should visit this man, to find out more about the murder. "And so ..." I say.
"I've got nothing to say, mate. He was my drug dealer. I used to score pot, that's it."
"Yeah, but it seems ..."
"Can't help you, mate," he snaps.
I drop my voice to a whisper. I tell him what people have told me. That he and another bloke helped The Last Man To Leave The House kill Hammond. The Last Man was already inside and had creaked open the back door and let them in.
"Yeah?" he says, very interested.
"That's one version I heard."
"They'll never know," he says.
"They'll never know?"
"No," he snaps. "And best you better get off my lawn before you piss me off even more now."
Not long after this encounter, I track down another bloke some thought could have been an accomplice to The Last Man. He was sitting under a tree by the railway line, equally unhappy to see me. "What makes you think I know anything?" he asks.
I tell him that people around town have pointed the finger at him.
He demands names. I say I didn't take their names.
"That's 100 per cent not the story, but yeah, whoever's spinning you that shit I'll f...in' go and kill them, mate."
Seemingly out of nowhere, a car drifts up and stops by the tree. "Stay out of the f...in' street, stay away," the man warns. He jumps into the car. It takes off, leaving me alone by the railway line.
I drive my blue rental car back to the pub and park just outside my motel door. Just before 11pm my mobile phone buzzes. The man at the other end of the line tells me a local has passed on my business card. He asks me who I have been talking to in town. "Well, you haven't given me your name," I say.
He tells me his name. It is The Last Man To Leave The House.
"You sound a bit hesitant after hearing my name," he says.
I stutter out a "Yeah, okay." He wants to know what names, besides his, have come up in my snooping.
"Like I don't understand why - it seems ..."
"F...in' tell me the names you've been given, c... ."
"But why, but ..."
"It's not a f...in' question and answer, it's a f...in' order."
"There were, there were ... there were just lots ..."
"John?" he interrupts.
"Please stop treating me like a f...wit."
"I just got lots of stories from lots of ... lots of stories and you were just in one."
"Well, I didn't kill Scotty. The police did it and set me up."
He tells me the name of a local detective. And that Hammond was an informer and knew too much, so the detective had to get rid of him. I tell him I didn't find that story too credible.
"We should meet up, mate," he says. "Where are you staying?"
I give out a nervous chuckle.
"Cat got your tongue, Johnny? Where are you staying?"
"Just with friends."
"Oh, you just happen to have friends in Tahmoor?" he sneers.
Everything was quiet except for the airconditioner.
"Is your little blue car parked out in front of your room?"
Fear bolts through my body. I have never been more frightened. "Walk out the front," he commands.
"No, please don't."
"Come on, walk out the front."
"Walk out the front!" he screams.
"Are you going to hurt me?"
"F...in' walk out the front, c...!"
He tells me he has left something for me at the car.
"Kneel down in front of the driver's side door. There's a note with a name on it. Pick it up."
The phone cuts out. I scan the room for a weapon. I grab the fork next to the kettle, squat down beside the bed and ring the police. It is getting close to midnight.
An hour later - after I have made a second phone call to the police, asking them where they are - a policeman and policewoman knock on my door.
"Mate, it's best ... just stay away from these people," the policeman says.
They check the car but can't find any note. "I don't know where you're from, mate, but ..."
"But, yeah, people around here, mate, it's not the type of town you want to be going and giving your name and phone number out to people, okay? The names you mentioned? To us ... to us ..."
"... to us are scary," the policewoman says, completing his thought.
They offer a shocked giggle when I tell them that I've been door-knocking around town.
"I wouldn't be going to their doors off duty," the policeman says. "It's not good because once they get an eye on where you're staying, shit's going to start and it's obviously started."
I tell them I'm planning on leaving right now. "It wouldn't be a half-bad idea," the policewoman says. "I would get out of town if I were you."
They tell me they will escort me out of Tahmoor to make sure no one follows. "When we get to Picton," the policewoman says, "I'll put my arm out the window, where you'll see a sign that points to Sydney. Just follow that all the way out to the freeway, okay?"
"And then, sorry to be rude, but then get out of here."
I was meant to spend five days in Tahmoor, but am flushed out after three. When I pull into Sydney at 2.30am, I crank back the driver's seat and try to get to sleep by the side of the road.
Why did it take two calls, and an hour, for the police to get to my motel? After I tell them that the apparent main suspect in a murder case is threatening me? Why didn't they ask if I wanted to press charges? Why didn't they assure me they'd go after the guy? I couldn't help but stack my experience in the same pile as Taylor's. The one where the cops refuse to update her (or Hammond's mother) on the investigation.
One dark thought kept travelling through my mind during my three days in Tahmoor. "I just keep on thinking the killer felt comfortable," I told Taylor, "because he knew the town hated Scott."
"I feel that's exactly right," Taylor said.
Weeks later, I find myself in the police station in Narellan, not far from Tahmoor, with the cop in charge of the investigation. I am not the interviewer this time. I am the interviewee.
The policeman explains that he has called me in because he wants to know what I found out over my three days in Tahmoor, if there is anything that could help with the investigation. But, to be honest, in actuality he seems to be wanting to solve the case of why this Melbourne comedian is poking around in this no-name case, and what is he going to write?
As it is a live case, he says, he can't tell me anything. The only thing I manage to draw out of him over the hour is that he doesn't think the man who called me was The Last Man To Leave The House. He thinks it was one of the two supposed accomplices I had confronted, pretending to be The Last Man. He thinks the claim a cop killed Hammond is exactly the type of ridiculous conspiracy one of those clowns would try on.
Weeks after this, the policeman finally sends through a statement. "We are working hard to solve this murder. We're aware of many theories and ideas about what happened and who's responsible, but our job is to examine the evidence. That is exactly what we're doing. I urge anyone with information to come forward to police."
So the cops are in one ear telling me the case is top of mind, while Rachel is in the other ear telling me it's not.
I text her, telling her about the police statement. "I hope the police are staying on top of it," she replies. "They still won't get back to me or talk to my family. There should be no reason for them to slack off ... but being who he was, I really don't think they genuinely care."
This article originally appeared in Good Weekend