A life sentence for victims of crime

How does a family survive when one of their number is murdered?WILLIAM VERITY discovers that the crime is never over for those left behind. 

Long after his daughter was killed, molested and dumped in a lake. Long after her killer was jailed for life. Long after the TV crews had moved on to the next story.

Long after his marriage had collapsed, his two sons had left home, and he found himself sitting on the verandah with just a dog for company, wondering to himself, 'How did it come to this?'.

Shortly after he sold his farm and his car, but while he still wore black and before colour returned to his life.

About five years after Ebony died and everything turned to dust, Pete Simpson found himself alone.

He was lying in a small, hot room at Woomera in the South Australian desert where the window didn't open, the bed sagged and the tap at the sink was dry.

Black Night was the name for the settlement, built for men working at the uranium mine where Simpson worked long, hard hours as an electrician.

"My whole life had fallen like a house of cards," Simpson said.

"As much as I thought I was keeping the family together, I sadly realised that wasn't the case. I realised I was out there, really out there."

After Ebony was abducted from Bargo on her way back from school in 1992, Simpson and his wife Christine had become public figures, fighting for the rights of victims.

"I was at a stage of my life when Ebony was murdered when I owned my farm, I owned my car, I had three children and life was pretty good," Simpson said.

"It was peaceful and quiet. Everybody, from my recollection, was fairly happy.

"It's nearly 20 years on but to me it just seems like yesterday."

Simpson was in the fifth and last year as president of the Homicide Victims' Support Group that he had founded with Grace and Garry Lynch, parents of Anita Cobby, the nurse abducted, raped and murdered by thugs in Blacktown in February, 1986.

The group was the first of its kind in Australia, and possibly the world, and was formed to campaign for victims' rights and support them in their grief and through a justice system that could appear uncaring, even hostile.

It was at Black Night that Simpson's grieving started.

"I was lonely and in the intense moments I was in this little cell of a room," Simpson said.

Even now, tears well in his eyes when he remembers that time.

"I get sad talking about this, because for a long time I was lost," Simpson said.

"I was Ebony's father, I was introduced as that and everything seemed to hinge on that. I had somehow lost me in that."

It was the camaraderie of his workmates, who accepted him for the man he was, that helped save him.

"I became Simmo again," he said.

These days, Simmo, 63, has his life back on track in many ways - he lives in Kiama and surfs when he can, he's remarried, has two young children and still works as an electrician on construction sites and down mines.

Yet there are clues that this self-described "knockabout fellow" with gaunt face and intense manner is still troubled deep down by the unspeakable crime against his daughter.

He hasn't spoken to his wife, Ebony's mother, for years.

Ebony's grave at Thirlmere is still incomplete ("I really wanted to put something simple but powerful on the headstone, but so far I have come up with nothing I want").

Visiting the lake where she drowned became too painful after he found obscene magazines in bushes nearby one time. They made him angry.

He worries for one of his sons, who continues to block any grieving for his sister.

He's still angry, sometimes very angry, and is in counselling to try to control it.

Every Christmas, he still weighs up sending a card to the killer to tell him what devastation he has wrought on so many people.

"I don't know how to word it, or whether he'd even be given the card," he says.

"That man has never shown any remorse, which is a big stumbling block for me.

"I don't get it and it somehow holds me back."

How right were the hand-written words that concluded Simpson's victim's impact statement at the end of the trial:

"And this is just the tip of the iceberg."

■ ■ ■

Ebony's beautiful smile is framed at the centre of the Wall of Fame that greets all visitors to the house bearing her name at Garrawarra Hospital, near Helensburgh.

It's her school photo, taken shortly before she died, no different from any other photo of a nine-year-old schoolgirl, except for what we know happened next.

Shortly after Ebony House opened in 1995 - as a place for those left behind by murder to take refuge, or to stay while they attended court - someone had the idea of the Wall of Fame. Now covering five walls of the hallway, the photographs are as different as you could imagine, except they are all of murdered people.

It's an intensely affecting and absorbing experience to gaze at these happy snapshots and their varied inscriptions, knowing the single thread that binds them together.

There are babies, children, men, women, young and old, black and white. There's an 81-year-old woman with her cat, Rufus, who later "fretted and had to be put down".

There's a man waterskiing, another hiking, a child pretending to keep shop, birthday parties, happy times.

There's the young German couple, Gabor Neugebauer and Anja Habschied with the words "backpacker victims".

Then there's the Walgett nurse, Sandra Hoare, whose inscription reads: "Bashed, Raped, Throat cut to almost decapitation".

Names that are familiar - Caroline Byrne, Nicole Burgess (who died in the Port Arthur massacre), Anita Cobby, Michael Marslew - and many that are not.

Our guide is Mary Cusumano, whose husband, Angelo, was shot dead in an armed robbery on his computer games store four days before Christmas in 1995.

She was left to care for four young children, including her 13-year-old son who was in the shop at the time.

The man who pulled the trigger - twice - is due to be released next month.

"I try not to think about his release but I can't stop thinking about it," she said.

"I don't know how I'm going to feel in a couple of months time.

"I don't concentrate on the perpetrators, but concentrate on my marriage of nearly 15 years and what a great family man Angelo was.

"Now it's like I have to think of the perpetrator, he's now in my thoughts again. I don't want him in my thoughts any more."

It is clear that for Cusumano, as for Simpson and so many other survivors, the crime does not end with conviction, the cost continuing indefinitely for those left behind.

Cusumano joined the support group after two of the three men were found not guilty of murder on a legal technicality, though they served four years each for robbery.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that she "wept and kicked the court's public seats as the verdict was read out", though Cusumano has no memory of this.

Outside the court, she asked the world: "How am I supposed to go home and tell my children their father's life was worth nothing?"

The next day, she wrote a piece for another Sydney newspaper.

"To the public, Angelo is just another murder victim; in the court he is referred to as the deceased; to me, he was my whole world.

"The unhappiness, emptiness and despair my children and I feel is immeasurable, the bottled-up anger we take out on each other is soul destroying.

"The absence of their father to my sons at a time they needed him most is irreplaceable."

It is clear she is still angry at the widespread and lasting damage done by the man she never calls by name, simply referring to him as "the perpetrator".

"Forgiveness? Sorry that's a hard one," she said.

"I don't want to do it.

"He can be apologetic or remorseful but he didn't have to be there that night.

"He didn't have to pull that trigger and he did. And he changed my life, my children's lives and my grandchildren's lives when they come along.

"It's always going to be there."

■ ■ ■

When you arrive at the Homicide Victims' Support Group office in Parramatta, security is tight.

The receptionist speaks from behind a sealed glass screen and only unlocks the door once your identity and purpose is confirmed.

Martha Jabour, who has been executive director of the group since it was formed in 1993, explains the security by opening a door on a room packed, floor to ceiling, with black filing cabinets.

"This is the saddest room in the office," she says.

Each of the cabinets has a label, listing details of all the murder victims whose cases have crossed paths with the group.

Categories include: "Bali bombing", "Unresolved homicides" and "Mental illness".

Jabour explains that murder through mental illness is among the hardest for families - in part because the murderer may be a family member.

Harder still, is the fact that the killer's sentence is reassessed every six months, causing the family to constantly relive the crime, dredging up anger, fear and grief.

With an average of three murders a week - 120 a year - in NSW, Jabour and her team of five full-time counsellors are never short of work, in addition to constant political lobbying to make laws more friendly to survivors.

"It's the most amazing support group that anyone could come across," she said.

The group has supported 2700 families since it started, sends counsellors to homes across NSW and runs a 24-hour helpline staffed by trained volunteers.

Although funded out of the State Government's health budget, the group is independent, and therefore able to criticise policy or campaign for changes in a way that is non-partisan.

Jabour became involved after losing a baby to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) in 1986, training as a grief counsellor, and working with the mortuary at Glebe.

When Peter Simpson and the Lynches called the first group meeting at the nearby Nag's Head pub, it was decided to invite Jabour to run the group, initially for no pay.

When she arrived at her "office" in the mortuary, she found a table a couple of metres long, stacked high from end to end with manila folders.

Each contained details of a homicide in NSW over the previous two years.

Jabour decided to pick "a really hard one" and called a woman whose two daughters, unborn grandson and husband were killed in the so-called Terrigal Massacre.

"I could hear that this woman was not on the same planet as me," Jabour related.

"She asked me what day it was. I replied, 'Wednesday'.

"She said: 'Oh, I've been in bed since Sunday'.

"My heart slumped. I asked if anyone had come to see her.

"She said: 'No, my family are all dead'.

"Have you had anything to eat?"

"She said: 'No'.

"I told her I would hang on while she got out of bed.

"'Make yourself a cup of tea and come back and we can have a talk.

"I could hear the kettle go on, I could hear her go to the bathroom because I heard the toilet flush ... half an hour later she picks up the phone and says, 'Hello'.

"I say: 'Oh you're back'.

"And she says; 'Nobody wants to talk to me. You do because you waited'."

The woman ended up coming to a group meeting, and years later, lecturing recruits at the NSW Police Academy, she told them that she was preparing to kill herself when Jabour called.

"She - Ann Gannon - was a little grub in a cocoon that ended up being a butterfly. She just soared," Jabour said.

The key to survival, Jabour believes, is to find the right balance between living and grieving.

She is often asked by survivors if they will ever smile or laugh again, if it is ever possible to feel happiness.

Her response is an emphatic yes, although recovery takes time and there's no avoiding the pain.

"My favourite saying is, 'Don't let murder walk behind you or in front of you, but you can let it walk beside you'," she said.

"You don't have to let it run in front of you so it takes over your life and you don't have to let it drag you down.

"You can live with it.

"It's important that you have the ability and strength to go there every once in a while, that then gives you the ability and strength to keep going.

"The people who block it out are the ones that you wonder if they will survive."

■ ■ ■

Doctors wondered if Robert Taylor would survive after he was stabbed through the right lung on March 21, 2003.

He gave chase to the two robbers - one brandishing a replica gun and the other a knife - and collapsed against a car as blood flooded his lung.

The next thing he remembers is a doctor's voice saying: "He's back with us".

His son, Simon, had also given chase to the men who had grabbed a $26,000 engagement ring he had offered for sale through The Trading Post.

Simon, 33, and his parents - Robert and Rosalie - had travelled from their North Shore home to Glebe to meet prospective buyers, who turned out to have evil intent.

After Simon gave chase and crash-tackled one of the men, he was slashed repeatedly with a knife and later died with horrific injuries.

The Taylors now divide their time between Sydney and a holiday retreat they built on the South Coast and filled with Simon's furniture after their son died.

They have thrown themselves into work with homicide victims and Robert, a retired company director, now holds the post Pete Simpson once occupied - president of the Homicide Victims' Support Group.

"The group has been very important for us," Robert said.

"I felt very comfortable.

"You hear what other people have gone through and they have survived.

"Where would these people be without this group? They would not survive, or if they did with many mental health issues."

Their perpetrator is due for release in 2023 and the Taylors have real fear for that time, living against the backdrop of some sort of twisted revenge.

"Every now and again, I think 2023," Rosalie said.

"It's a date in my head. He's the sort of person who would take revenge, he's a nasty piece.

"He stabbed our son in the heart, he slashed his nose, he cut him so severely on the leg that Simon would never have walked again. He severed one of the arteries.

"I have often thought, do we move, do we get out of NSW or Sydney or Australia?"

A week after the interview, the Taylors email, concerned that their home addresses will be revealed by this article.

"We should reiterate with you that we don't want the article you are writing about our situation to identify us and where we live," they write.

Although the Taylors are luckier than some - they secured a conviction and a long sentence, 26 years - there's only so much the justice system can do.

"It was a victory, but it was a pretty hollow victory," Robert said.

"We still have no son.

"I constantly think of him, I can't get (the perpetrator) out of my mind although I would love to."

As with all murders, the effects of a short moment of greed and violence are wide-ranging and long-lived.

The Taylors' other child, Jane, was so grief-stricken she could not work for three years and now looks unlikely to be able to have children.

Robert had five heart bypasses within six months of the murder - brought on by stress, and Rosalie could barely go shopping without anxiety.

The couple are planning a trip to Russia with their daughter later this year and are considering whether to rewrite their wills.

"If anything happens to the three of us, what will happen to what our grandchildren would have inherited?" Robert asked.

"That is a very hard call."

Later, the Taylors mail their victim's impact statements read to the court before sentencing.

Robert finishes his by revealing that he quietly talks to Simon each evening before he goes to bed.

"My opening words are, 'Hi Simme, miss you mate, I wish you were here'.

"I then proceed to tell him what the weather was like that day and tell him it was a "Simon" day.

"(This is a reflection my wife and I share on days when it is a day for the beach or the golf course).

"I finish my talk with, 'Miss you mate. I wish you were here. Talk to you tomorrow'."

Then finally, in bold letters and capitals:

"MAY YOU REST IN PEACE".

This story originally appeared in the Illawarra Mercury Weekender magazine on July 2, 2011.

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