Paul Conlon has spent decades sharing a court room with the most despicable, violent criminals Wollongong had to offer. Yet, as BREE FULLER discovered, he has retained his sense of humour, as well as his sense of purpose.
When Paul Conlon accepted a job in the public service in 1970, it was on the condition he joined the Attorney-General and Justice Department's football team.
As a bright young school-leaver with few plans for the future, the decision was a no-brainer.
"I've always loved the game, I started playing [junior rugby league] when I was six and I didn't stop until I was 28," he says.
"When I left school I had no idea what I wanted to do, so much so I thought 'I'll just go get a job' and I went for a job in the public service.
"They wanted to know if I'd be prepared to play in that team and, of course, I loved rugby league, so I said yes and … I ended up at the Attorney-General and Justice Department," Conlon says.
Ultimately Conlon would go on to prosecute and judge some of the Illawarra's most depraved and despised criminals.
‘‘You definitely need to be able to develop a tough exterior: you almost need to have the ability to put a brick wall around you’’
After almost two decades working in Wollongong's courtrooms, Conlon farewelled Wollongong Courthouse last week to continue his career in Sydney.
He was one of the state's youngest Crown prosecutors when he was appointed at the age of 34, and worked in Sydney before arriving in Wollongong in 1988 where he spent the longest single posting of his career, until 1999.
His first experience of court life in the steel city was punctuated by a grim series of child sexual assault acquittals, many he felt were wrong decisions.
Conlon found himself in a culture hesitant to believe the evidence of children or that such crimes even occurred. The sense of injustice affected him greatly.
So the fearless advocate aired his grievances in the media about a system that was stacked unfairly against child sexual assault victims and he called for change.
Conlon spoke of a father's devastation as he watched his child struggle through the traumatic court process, only to hear that her uncorroborated evidence should be considered "dangerous" by juries.
The move, which prompted an unsuccessful complaint against him to the NSW Bar Association, helped change a culture ignorant of the sickening crimes committed against children to recognise the validity of their claims.
"It was a major challenge for me to be able to get juries to accept that these things actually occurred," he says.
"There were so many not guilty verdicts in those cases ... though things did change over the years and we gradually got juries to accept the words of these young complainants, thankfully."
The parade of macabre cases continued throughout his 12-year stint, pitting the fresh-faced family man against the very worst of what the region had to offer.
Conlon successfully tried murder cases against brutal killers like Ljube Velevski, who cut the throats of his wife and three young children in 1994; Matthew De Gruchy, who slaughtered his mother, brother and sister in a frenzy in 1996; and chilling double-murderer Mark Valera, who killed former Wollongong Lord Mayor Frank Arkell two years later.
He also acted for the Crown against West Dapto man Sandor Cikos, who pleaded guilty on the first day of his trial to bludgeoning his de facto wife and choking his two young sons to death in December 1999.
Dubbed "the Rottweiler" by colleagues - with a steely glare and quick bite that became even more apparent when he reached the bench - Conlon developed a thick skin to counter the horror.
"From the mid-1990s there was almost a never-ending supply of gruesome murder trials that I was being called upon to prosecute," he says.
"Even to this day I have a photographic memory of every single detail in every one of those crime scenes. Maybe that is not a good thing to carry around - however it only comes into focus when I am asked from time to time about the various cases.
"You definitely need to be able to develop a tough exterior: you almost need to have the ability to put a brick wall around you."
It was a skill that served him well even after he left Wollongong for Sydney in 2000, when he accepted the position of Deputy Senior Crown Prosecutor.
A confident and fierce advocate, Conlon had found a sport he loved away from the manicured cricket pitches and football fields.
"Your life as a barrister, if that's what you enjoy, [means] you are in the arena, you are a real part of the game. To a degree, when you become a judge, you've taken yourself out of the game; you're more in the role of the referee," the 62-year-old explains.
"When I was appointed a judge I wasn't looking at the elevation with rose-coloured glasses, I knew that I was leaving the best job that I was ever likely to have and that has proved to be the case."
After two decades as a NSW Crown Prosecutor, Conlon walked away from the job he loved so dearly to become a judge.
Less than a month after being sworn in on August 15, 2006, fate would see him return to city where he built his reputation, to sit as Judge Conlon of Wollongong District Court.
Ironically, the career that was launched by a passion for sport left him less time than ever to catch a cricket match or coach his women's touch football teams, as he had in the past.
"I knew [the position at Wollongong] was going to be difficult - and I did find it difficult for the best part of 12-18 months. There was no lifestyle outside of court," he says.
The occasional round of competitive golf and his presence on the NRL judiciary proved to be his saving grace.
"I've always loved the game and I've had a real interest in the direction it should be taking and it just so happens that my career has then put me in a position where [I can be involved to an extent]," Conlon, the current judiciary chairman, says.
Rapists, murderers, drug dealers, paedophiles, robbers and violent thugs; the guilty and the innocent; the old and the young; they provided an endless cast of characters for the state's busiest regional court.
In 2013 alone, Conlon's court cleared 395 severity appeals, 80 conviction appeals, 77 trial matters and sentence matters.
"That's a mammoth amount of work in one year … and I'm driven to keep on top of that workload for the simple reason that people from the community who end up in the court system [deserve] some speedy justice.
"It's my responsibility."
Reminiscing about his time in Wollongong, the hardened judge was bewildered by the acts of mindless violence - the glassings and random street attacks - that punctuated his eight-year reign.
"'I think the landscape [of violent confrontations] has changed enormously over the years," he says.
"The type of violence I started to see into the '90s, and certainly now, has just been marked by this incredible cowardice, where innocent people are targeted."
It is something he was always quick to communicate from the bench, often delivering a verbal spray to offenders alongside their sentence.
"Members of the community are entitled to walk the streets without fear of being attacked by those [intent on] inflicting violence ... those who offend in this way cannot expect any leniency from the law," he said in July 2011, upon sentencing a trio of Sydney men responsible for a sickening, unprovoked attack on a man in Crown Street Mall.
"The ferocious nature of the attack can be viewed in a way that words could never adequately describe.
"I have difficulty accepting that persons of truly good character would be capable of such an unprovoked, swift and sustained attack on defenceless, outnumbered victims, involving as it did, such a high level of violence."
And yet the stern courtroom presence belies a man who is both witty and warm; a man known as Paulie to his grandchildren, who softens and beams proudly as he shares photos of them on his mobile phone.
Behind the bench, Conlon's light-hearted quips provide a rare moment of relief in an otherwise joyless environment.
"Dealing with the type of material that I've had to deal with, day in and day out, I think you still have to retain a sense of humour otherwise life becomes pretty burdensome," he says.
"There aren't many joys in the job at all … there's no enjoyment in sending people away to prison for a long period of time, it's just something that must be done."
Nor is there enjoyment fielding public criticism for his decisions - something the thick-skinned adjudicator has become well accustomed to over the years.
Accusations of sexism were levelled against him when, in 2010, he mocked a man for pressing assault charges against his ex after she threw a plastic bottle at his face.
"Oh boo-hoo. The bloke should have been told [by police] to man up, quite frankly," he said at the time, scoffing at the notion the man was "trembling and crying" as a result of attack.
"To this day I have no regret about the way that I dealt with that case," he says.
The same cannot be said in the instance of 19-year-olds Ricky Steven Szwanka and Murray Pearson, who bashed a man within an inch of his life just eight days after Conlon handed them a suspended prison sentence on another assault matter.
"All the material before me was suggesting [that despite their troubled history] they had finally woken up to themselves, that they were ready to turn over a new leaf," he says.
"I was wrong to give them that opportunity, in fact they could've killed that person. However, that wouldn't mean that I still wouldn't go by my gut reaction, my instincts, to give another young person a chance."
As his final week in the region came to the close, it was time for Conlon to pack away the sporting memorabilia that littered his chambers and farewell the building that featured so prominently in his career - its panoramic view of the steelworks to the south forming a lasting impression on the southern Sydney man, who will unlikely return to the bench in Wollongong before retirement.