'I fear he may kill me': how the system failed domestic violence victim Kelly Thompson

Stalking. Attempted strangling. Breaching an intervention order. Kelly Thompson repeatedly reported her ex-partner's violence to police, so she thought she was safe.

Some might say Norman Paskin is a nosy neighbour. Some might, more kindly, say that he is simply hyper-observant. Paskin is the kind of guy who, while tending to his front garden, mentally logs the comings and goings on his street. And whatever people might think of his watchful behaviour, he is precisely the neighbour you would want if you suspected someone might come to your house and murder you.

Wayne Wood wasn't a bad person, he knew right from wrong. But at no time was he given any consequences for his actions. 

''At no time was he given any consequences for his actions. If he had been brought to account, there is no way he would have accelerated to the point that he did."

That place of crippling fear is where Paskin's neighbour Kelly Thompson – a warm-hearted, dog-loving 43-year-old customs clerk – found herself on the night of February 8, 2014. As she turned off the lights sometime after 8pm on that hot Saturday evening, three kitchen knives sat on and in her bedside table. Thirty metres away, Paskin, then 53 and just back from Fiji with his wife Sheryl, 49, was hosing his parched garden. The suburban scene he surveyed in Point Cook, in Melbourne's booming south-west – the double garages, statement letterboxes, fledgling street trees – was all just paddocks five years back.

Kelly Thompson was stabbed to death in her home last year by her ex-partner, Wayne Wood. Photo: Luis Ascui

Kelly Thompson was stabbed to death in her home last year by her ex-partner, Wayne Wood. Photo: Luis Ascui

Around 9pm, Paskin noticed Wayne Wood, 54, Thompson's ex-partner, drive into the cul-de-sac and out again. This happened another three times within an hour and each time Wood did not so much as glance at him. Paskin thought this strange. Wood, a tyre fitter, was normally "quite chatty". The couples had been on good terms; catching up while putting the bins out. Now Wood seemed fixated, staring at his ex-partner's house. Paskin went inside, turned the light off in his study, and watched the street through the blinds.

What Paskin then witnessed worried him: Wood was suddenly on the footpath outside his house. He crossed the road, peeked through Thompson's fence, walked around some more and drove off. Then about every 15 minutes, Wood drove in and out of Etchell Court (the two houses were opposite each other at the court's entrance, with the Paskins' house looking directly at the side of Thompson's house, which faced on to the adjoining Hamilton Street). By 11.30pm, Paskin was concerned for Thompson. She'd recently changed her Facebook relationship status to "single" and he'd seen Wood at the house with a police escort several times in the past month. He wondered if Thompson had an intervention order against him.

Near midnight, Wood returned, parked some distance away on Hamilton Street and walked towards the house. Paskin decided to call the Werribee Police. Probationary constable Sean Pringle, then 26, answered. It was a busy night; a man with a hammer was engaging police in a siege. In a seven-minute conversation, Paskin says he explained his concerns about an intervention order and what he had witnessed. Then, while on the phone to Pringle, the Paskins saw a silhouette cross the frosted glass of what they thought was Thompson's toilet window. Paskin says he told Pringle that the man was in the house. He didn't have the exact address, but it was at the corner of Hamilton Street and Etchell Court.

Pringle, a police constable for two years, told Paskin there could be many reasons why police had been at his neighbour's house. It didn't necessarily mean "the male" was "excluded" from the address. Perhaps it was a simple property dispute. "Can you do me a massive favour, pal, and keep an eye on the address?" Pringle recalled asking Paskin. "If the circumstances change, you notice anything untoward or if you hear any yelling or screaming coming from that particular address, please do not hesitate calling back and I'll send a van around."

Kelly with Wayne Wood in 2013.

Kelly with Wayne Wood in 2013.

Paskin hung up, dismayed that the constable had not checked for an intervention order. The couple opened their front door so they could hear any sounds from across the street. For half an hour they watched the house. They heard no yelling, no screaming. But by the time the Paskins went to bed at 1.15am, Thompson, lying in her bed, was almost certainly already dead – lethally stabbed three times by Wood with his hunting knife. Sometime after climbing through the toilet window and killing Thompson, Wood, too, was dead: he had hanged himself from the bedpost.

As Pringle later admitted, if he had looked up the house on Google Maps and entered the address into the police database, he would have found Kelly Thompson's intervention order against Wayne Wood and sent a van. This may have saved her life.

If Pringle's mistake had been the only police failing in the case of Kelly Thompson, then her story might have faded away, like those of the other women – one a week in Australia – who are killed by their partners or ex-partners. But Pringle's error was just the last in a litany, a pattern of professional police neglect so serious that 16 officers and an assistant commissioner – supported by two barristers and their legal teams – were called to answer for their actions at a coronial inquiry earlier this year.

Kelly Thompson's story shows that, for all the good intentions expressed by police chief commissioners about family violence, something is fundamentally wrong with the response from on-the-ground police. They are overwhelmed, ill-equipped and under-trained. "The one thing that gives us such profound grief and sadness," says Thompson's mother, Wendy, "is that it was so preventable. She did all the right things."

Dreams are one thing, school marks another. In high school, Kelly Thompson dreamed of becoming a vet. She competed in pony club at Keilor, near where her family lived in Melbourne's west. But Thompson left school after year 11 and became an office administrator. Later, while working for shipping firms, she spent four years at night school to qualify as an import-export broker.

Her friends and family say she was trusting – she always believed what people told her – loyal and caring. She was also strong, independent and feisty. She had a fringe above her blue eyes and her long hair was often brown, more recently blonde. She had built a community of friends playing Wednesday night competitive pool at the nearby Sanctuary Lakes Hotel and she adored her whippet, Roxy.

When Wayne Wood was a boy, a fancy professional career was not a dream, it was fantasy. The sixth child in a brood of seven, Wood grew up with a heavy-drinking father and a family constantly on the move around Melbourne's western suburbs. Wood shuffled through seven primary schools, often picked on for a slight speech impediment. He slipped through the education system's cracks, never learning how to read and write, even as an adult. He was labelled disruptive and the school system kicked him out at age 14. "It was a hard life," his sister Walena told Good Weekend. "Mum and Dad weren't really involved with us – the last three children. There was no money, ever."

Like many alienated teenagers in Melbourne in the 1970s, Wood joined a gang of "sharpies" who were known for their natty dress code and occasional street violence, often against other gangs. The gang became his family but could not fully protect him: he was raped by two men in their 20s while on the streets.

In 2009, some of Wood's sharpie mates – now respectable adults with mortgages and serious jobs – reconnected, and Wood renewed his friendship with former gang member Julie Dibella, now a drug and alcohol counsellor. His 20-year marriage – which produced two sons, now adults – was over and he found himself single at one of Dibella's parties. That's where he met Thompson, Dibella's former co-worker at an import-export business. Wood, who was balding with a shaved head and a greying goatee, was 11 years older than Thompson. They fell in love.

For four years, Wood showed no signs of violence. He was, however, controlling, possessive and quick to anger. Initially, Thompson did not mind, says her best friend, Sue, who does not want her surname used. "She liked her fella to love her that way, but I think he started going too far. If we went to lunch, he'd drop her off and pick her up. He'd hang around wherever we were."

In 2013, the couple made a fateful decision. Two men – Joe Trifilo, an old friend of Thompson's, and Shawn Donnelly, a fitter and turner – asked Thompson and Wood to start a business with them. Their plan was to import something from China and get rich. "We didn't know what to import," Donnelly would say later. "That's why we went to the Canton Fair [in China]." The two men believed Thompson's experience in customs would be an asset. Thompson and Wood took out a $60,000 loan and the four flew to China and then the Philippines between October and December, 2013. However, in the end nothing came of the business idea, and this – on top of all the money spent on the venture – put enormous pressure on Thompson and Wood's relationship.

Kelly Thompson's neighbours Sheryl and Norman Paskin at the inquest into her murder. Photo: Penny Stephens

Kelly Thompson's neighbours Sheryl and Norman Paskin at the inquest into her murder. Photo: Penny Stephens

It was on these trips that Wood's temper and possessiveness turned violent. When Thompson came home, she told her friends that Wood had choked her and locked her in a hotel room in the Philippines for two days. Wood told his sister Walena that while overseas, for the first time, Thompson had put him down about his inability to read or write. He said he'd locked her in the hotel room only because he was trying to stop her going out when she had been drinking.

As a result of the violence, Thompson decided to terminate the relationship. Before coming home, she messaged her friend Catherine Low, saying she would stay with Wood for six months to ensure his financial stability, which meant living separately in the same house.

On New Year's Day, 2014, around dusk, Steven Hall, an air conditioner installer, was driving down Tristania Drive, near his Point Cook home, when a silver Holden Commodore veered out of a street and narrowly missed him. Nearby was a distressed woman walking quickly along the street. Hall kept driving, but as he approached the intersection with Point Cook Road – and developer Metricon's "Love where you live" display home – he decided to turn back and ask the woman if she was okay. "Not really," replied Kelly Thompson. "My partner tried to strangle me."

The Commodore then ran over the kerb and onto the nature strip which "more or less wedged her between both cars", Hall said. While the driver, Wayne Wood, shouted at Hall, Thompson, in a whisper through the passenger window, asked Hall's partner Juhee to call the police and gave her address.

The police radio operator dispatched the job to Senior Constable John Whichello and Constable David Attard, as "just a domestic". When they arrived at the Hamilton Street home, knowing that Thompson had reported an attempted strangulation, the two were separated – about 15 metres apart – and questioned. Thompson, clearly afraid of speaking to police in front of Wood, told them he was jealous and at times controlling but repeated the same thing: she would not speak about the incident until her old friend Joe Trifilo – whom she had called – arrived.

After 20 minutes, the policemen decided not to wait. They suggested Wood stay somewhere else for the night, and he did. Whichello and Attard told Thompson she could go to court for an intervention order (if police suspect a partner is violent, they can either take an intervention order out themselves – which is easier for the victim – or tell the victim to go to court). They left, deciding it was a "verbal only" dispute. Crucially, they chose not to interview Steven Hall, who would have confirmed Thompson's claim of attempted strangulation and who witnessed Wood wedging Thompson between two cars. They referred the case to the family violence team, but failed to note the choking report.

This was a key omission. For family violence workers, and ideally for police, strangulation is a key signpost, a red flag, for domestic homicide. American research has shown that an incident of non-fatal strangulation increases a woman's chances of being a domestic homicide victim by 800 times. Unfortunately, six days later, when conducting a routine follow-up, Alex Riches, a then 21-year-old member of the Wyndham Family Violence unit, saw no mention of strangulation on his colleagues' report. The New Year's Day incident was marked "minor" in nature and future violence rated "unlikely". Riches rang Thompson on her mobile, but she did not answer. He left a message and marked the form's risk-management status "complete". Thompson did not ring back.

Meanwhile, Thompson's world was narrowing fast. Wood, like a malevolent bodyguard, was her constant shadow. He sat on her car bonnet to stop her going to a business meeting. "I can't even go to the toilet without him," she told her friend Catherine Low when, on January 8, they went to the Sanctuary Lakes Hotel. That night, Wood started fights with people in the pub and demanded Thompson go home. She rang her older brother Patrick – Wood's ear was up against the phone as she did so – and he picked her up. She stayed with him that night and, the next day, went to the Werribee Magistrates' Court for an intervention order. "I don't believe he will leave me alone," she wrote on her application, "and I fear he may kill me."

Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Luke Cornelius. Photo: Pat Scala

Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Luke Cornelius. Photo: Pat Scala

The intervention order, faxed by the court on the Friday, January 10, sat all weekend in the fax tray at Werribee Police Station: the clerk had knocked off. The clerk processed it when he returned on Monday. On the Tuesday, the Files Unit officer charged with serving intervention orders, Constable Warren Martin, had a "rest day". Finally he served the intervention order at midday on Wednesday – five days after it was granted (in comparison, police-initiated orders can be served within three hours). During this time Thompson, unable to go home, called Werribee Police 10 times to ask when the order would be served; Wood had also threatened to kill himself, she added.

Meanwhile, Wood knew he was spiralling and sought help. On January 4, he had gone with Thompson to his GP to discuss his anger issues, depression and alcohol abuse and was referred to a clinical psychologist, Lily de Bruin. He told de Bruin he was remorseful about choking Thompson. He went to another two sessions but missed the fourth, telling his sister Walena that de Bruin was "too young" and "just didn't get it" (de Bruin had had minimal training in dealing with family violence matters). Wood also called a men's help line and was told, Walena says, to "suck it up and get over it".

On Saturday, January 18, Thompson was having dinner with girlfriends at the Sanctuary Lakes Hotel when Wood approached her, breaching the intervention order. The next day, Thompson reported this to Manase Holani, a 22-year-old constable at the Wyndham North police station. Holani conducted a phone interview with Wood, who admitted to having been at the hotel, but the constable never got around to charging him. The hotel could not provide the CCTV footage to confirm Thompson's claim and Holani did not contact her friends, who were witnesses.

On February 5, three days before Thompson's murder – and 2 1/2 weeks after the breach – Holani was still preparing his brief, researching it after midnight while on night shift. He told the inquest the night shift was one of the only times police could complete paperwork "due to the nature of the Werribee Police Service area". The region is a busy area for police, with a mix of entrenched disadvantage and large tracts of new suburbs under mortgage stress.

On January 23, Thompson went back to court seeking a one-year order. Her best friend, Sue, met her at court. "She looked terrified. I had never, ever seen her so rattled," she remembered.

That day, Thompson dealt with Vu Kim, the local legal service duty lawyer exclusively working on family violence. He is a quietly spoken person, but his coronial evidence was devastating. At least three-quarters of intervention orders he helps women get are ignored by perpetrators, he said. Police do not seem to listen to women about breaches. "It just makes a mockery of the whole system ... There's no point in getting an order when no one is doing anything about it."

Sometimes, as author Helen Garner has noted, apparently ordinary people, under life's unbearable pressure, "burst through the very fine membrane that separates our daylight selves from the secret darkness that lives in every one of us". For Wood, this membrane, this barrier between obeying a stop sign and murdering someone, was at breaking point in the early weeks of 2014. On February 5, Wood visited Jenny Le Fevre, a mutual friend. For 2 1/2 hours, he stood at her door and told her everything.

He admitted he'd been following Thompson and her friends. He'd been hiding in the backyard one night when Thompson had people over. He said he listened at the window, so close he could hear their conversations. Wood told Le Fevre: "I am smart. I built something before I left which enables me to get in the house."

Le Fevre, concerned, reported the conversation to Thompson, sending her into a panic. "You need to protect yourself," Le Fevre told her. Later, Thompson told Le Fevre she believed she was safe: she kept the doors locked, she said, and "I have an intervention order."

On his last day alive, Wayne Wood went to a wake where he saw Julie Dibella and confided in her. He still loved Thompson and wanted her back, he said. He suspected he and Thompson had been ripped off by Trifilo and Donnelly. "When I know we're not getting the money, I will get them and then I will kill myself." He was crying as he told Dibella this. He had limited job opportunities because he was illiterate (he and Thompson had left their jobs for the business) and he would have to go on the dole. "I've lost everything." Then he said: "I will get her, you know." Dibella left the pub unsure what to do with Wood's threats but was then evacuated from her home due to a bushfire.

That evening, Wood visited Rose Tonihi, 31, a pool-playing friend, and sat there, fidgeting: "He did seem like he had a bit on his mind," Tonihi said in her statement. After 15 minutes, he stood up and shook her husband Joe's hand. He put his hand on Joe's back and then kissed Rose goodbye. Only in hindsight did she realise these goodbyes – more formal than his usual farewells – were actually a permanent leave-taking.

Kelly Thompson's parents Wendy and John Thompson. Photo: Pat Scala

Kelly Thompson's parents Wendy and John Thompson. Photo: Pat Scala

Before he was called to Thompson's coronial inquest earlier this year, Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Luke Cornelius gave evidence to Victoria's Royal Commission into family violence. Cornelius has been pushing for reform within the police around family violence. Based on his conversations with members of the police force, he told the commissioners, police are spending up to 60 per cent of their shift dealing with domestic violence.

Yet the Thompson inquest revealed police prioritised family violence as a second-class crime category, responded to by the youngest, most time-pressed, inexperienced police officers. For several days in August and September, more than a dozen police gave evidence at the inquest about their interaction with Thompson and/or Wood in the months before they died.

Almost all of them were young and fit; they could have been footballers appearing at an AFL tribunal. Most of them had only two weeks of family violence training at the Academy (this training focuses not on the family violence code of practice but legislation and police powers under the legislation). First Constable Alex Riches was just 21 when he followed up the New Year's Day strangulation incident. He was asked what he would have done if he'd known about the strangulation report. Would he have warned Thompson she was at risk of being killed, given that strangulation is a red flag for domestic homicide? "I think it is a bit rude to do that," he told the coroner. "I would try to comfort them and not scare them in letting them know that they are at risk of being killed."

Unlike the junior police, who had fresh careers to defend, Cornelius used his time in the witness box to accept blame, which he did with remarkable candour. Thompson's death, he said, had prompted many in Victoria Police to "pause and reflect". Cornelius said police should have waited on New Year's Day for her friend and business partner Joe Trifilo to return, they should have interviewed Steven Hall, the car-wedging witness. Faxing intervention orders was, in the 21st century, like using a "carrier pigeon". The failure to record the attempted strangulation was a "critical omission". And the last mistake, the failure to act on Norman Paskin's call, "was a very significant oversight".

Cornelius told Coroner Ian Gray that police had made improvements since Thompson's death, including an audit of all family violence risk-assessment and referral processes and how long it takes to process intervention orders. They have also established an Australian-first Family Violence Command. "There remain instances where members [of the police] have fallen short and tragically, this case, in my view, is one of those cases," he said.

Wood's sister Walena cannot make sense of the murder-suicide. "Never in a million years did I think he would have done something to Kelly," she says. "I know what Wayne did was completely and utterly wrong and there is no excuse for it – no matter how far Kelly pushed or provoked Wayne. But there should have been help there from the day he went to court for the intervention order. The guy at the court said, 'There are some pamphlets over there.' "

For Thompson's mother Wendy, the grief of losing a daughter is not unfamiliar; she's lost two before. Megan, her second daughter after Kelly, died at 11 weeks old with a virus; Michelle, her third daughter, committed suicide at 15. But Wendy and her husband John are not just sad, they're furious. "I think our anger is the only thing that has enabled us to keep going."

What particularly frustrates her is that police failed to confront Wood. "He wasn't a bad person, he knew right from wrong," says Wendy. "But at no time was he given any consequences for his actions. If he had been brought to account, there is no way he would have accelerated to the point that he did."

For help or information regarding domestic violence, call the Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service 1800 737 732 or go to 1800respect.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.

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