On the evening of 4 September 2005, Father’s Day, Robert Farquharson, a separated husband, was driving his three sons home to their mother, Cindy, when his car left the road and plunged into a dam. The boys, aged ten, seven and two, drowned. Was this an act of revenge or a tragic accident? The court case became Helen Garner’s obsession. She followed it on its protracted course until the final verdict.
In This House of Grief, Helen Garner tells the story of a man and his broken life. She presents the theatre of the courtroom with its actors and audience—all gathered to witness to the truth—players in the extraordinary and unpredictable drama of the quest for justice.
Below is an extract from the opening chapter.
Once there was a hard-working bloke who lived in a small Victorian country town with his wife and their three young sons. They battled along on his cleaner’s wage, slowly building themselves a bigger house. One day, out of the blue, his wife told him that she was no longer in love with him. She did not want to go on with the marriage. She asked him to move out. The kids would live with her, she said, and he could see them whenever he liked. She urged him to take anything he wanted from the house. The only thing she asked for, and got, was the newer of their two cars.
The sad husband picked up his pillow and went to live with his widowed father, several streets away. Before long his wife was seen keeping company with the concreter they had hired to pour the slab for the new house. The tradesman was a born-again Christian with several kids and his own broken marriage. Soon the separated wife began to accompany him to his church. Next, the husband spotted the concreter driving around town in the car that he had slaved to buy.
Up to this point you could tell the story as a country-and-western song, a rueful tale of love betrayed, a little bit whiny, a little bit sweet.
But ten months later, just after dark on a September evening in 2005, while the discarded husband was driving his sons back to their mother from a Father’s Day outing, his old white Commodore swerved off the highway, barely five minutes from home, and plunged into a dam. He freed himself from the car and swam to the bank. The car sank to the bottom, and all the children drowned.
I saw it on the TV news. Night. Low foliage. Water, misty and black. Blurred lights, a chopper. Men in hi-vis and helmets. Something very bad here. Something frightful.
Oh Lord, let this be an accident.
Anyone can see the place where the children died. You drive south-west out of Melbourne on the Princes Highway, the road that encircles the continent. You bypass Geelong, resist the call of the Surf Coast turn-off, and keep going inland in the direction of Colac, on the great volcanic plain that stretches across south-western Victoria.
In August 2006, after a magistrate at a Geelong hearing had committed Robert Farquharson to stand trial on three charges of murder, I headed out that way one Sunday morning, with an old friend to keep me company. Her husband had recently left her. Her hair was dyed a defiant red, but she had that racked look, hollow with sadness. We were women in our sixties. Each of us had found it in herself to endure—but also to inflict—the pain and humiliation of divorce.
It was a spring day. We passed Geelong and were soon flying along between paddocks yellow with capeweed, their fence lines marked by the occasional windbreak of dark cypresses. Across the huge sky sailed flat-bottomed clouds of brilliant white. My companion and I had spent years of our childhoods in this region. We were familiar with its melancholy beauty, the grand, smooth sweeps of its terrain. Rolling west along the two-lane highway, we opened the windows and let the air stream through.
Four or five kilometres short of Winchelsea we spotted ahead of us the long, leisurely rise of a railway overpass. Was this the place? Talk ceased. We cruised up the man-made hill. From the top we looked down and saw, ahead and to the right of the road, a body of tan water in a paddock—not the business-like square of a farm dam but oval-shaped, feminine, like an elongated tear drop, thinly fringed with small trees. Its southern bank lay parallel with the northern edge of the highway, twenty or thirty metres from the bitumen. I had imagined the trajectory of Farquharson’s car as a simple drift off the left side of the highway; but to plunge into this body of water on the wrong side of the road, the car would have had to veer over the centre white line and cut across the east-bound lane with its oncoming traffic. As we sped down the Winchelsea side of the overpass, forcing ourselves to keep glancing to the right, we saw little white crosses, three of them, knee-deep in grass between the road and the fence. We flew past, as if we did not have the right to stop.
We had a vague idea that six thousand people lived in Winchelsea, but a sign at the entrance to the township gave its population as 1180, and by the time we had rolled down the dip to the bluestone bridge that spanned the Winchelsea River, then up the other side and past a row of shops and a primary school, the outer limits of the town were already in view. In a place this size, everyone would know your business.
A mile or so beyond the township, we turned down a side road and found a grassy spot where we could eat our sandwiches. We felt awkward, almost guilty. Why had we come? We spoke in low voices, avoiding each other’s eye, staring out over the sunny paddocks.
Do you think the story he told the police could be true—that he had a coughing fit and blacked out at the wheel? There is such a thing. It’s called cough syncope. The ex-wife swore at the committal hearing that he loved his boys. So? Since when has loving someone meant you would never want to kill them? She said it was a tragic accident—that he wouldn’t have hurt a hair on their heads. His whole family is backing him. In court he had a sister on either side and an ironed hanky in his hand. Even the ex-wife’s family said they didn’t blame him. But wasn’t there weird police evidence? The tracks his car had left? And didn’t he bolt? Yes. He left the kids in the sinking car, and hitched a ride to his ex-wife’s place. He looked massive in the photos—is he a big bloke? No, he was small and stumpy. With puffy eyes. Did you see him close up at the committal? Yes, he held the door open for me. Did he smile at you? He tried to. Maybe he’s a psychopath—isn’t that how they get to you? By being charming? He didn’t look charming. He looked terrible. Wretched. What—you felt sorry for him? Well...I don’t know about sorry. I don’t know what I was expecting, but he was ordinary. A man.
The cemetery, on the outskirts of Winchelsea, was a couple of acres of wide, sloping ground, open to the sky. Nobody else was around. We wandered up and down the rows. No Farquharsons. Perhaps the family came from another town? But as we plodded up the path to the car, I glanced past a clump of shrubbery and saw a tall headstone of polished granite that bore a long surname and three medallion-shaped photos. We approached with reluctant steps.
Some AFL fan had poked into the dirt beside the grave an Essendon pinwheel on a wand. Its curly plastic blades whizzed merrily. In the upper corners of the headstone were etched the Essendon Football Club insignia and a golden Bob the Builder. The little boys faced the world with frank good cheer, their fair hair neatly clipped, their eyes bright. Jai, Tyler, Bailey. Much loved and cherished children of Robert and Cindy...In God’s hands till we meet again. I studied it with a sort of dread. Often, in the seven years to come, I would regret that I had not simply blessed them that day and walked away. In the mown grass sprouted hundreds of tiny pink flowers. We picked handfuls and laid them on the grave, but the breeze kept blowing them away. Every twig, every pebble we tried to weight them with was too light to resist the steady rushing of the spring wind.
A year passed between the committal hearing and the trial. When Farquharson’s name came up in conversation, people shuddered. Tears would spring to women’s eyes. Everyone had a view. The coughing fit story provoked incredulity and scorn. The general feeling was that a man like Farquharson could not tolerate the loss of control he experienced when his wife ended the marriage. Again and again people came up with this explanation. Yes, that must have been it—he couldn’t stand to lose control of his family. Either that, or he was evil. Pure evil. I don’t get these guys, said a feminist lawyer. Okay, so the wife dumps them. Men don’t have biological clocks. Why can’t they just find a new girlfriend and have more kids? Why do they have to kill everyone? Whether he did it on purpose or not, said an older woman, a Christian, how is he going to atone? Countless men declared in anger and distress that it couldn’t possibly have been an accident; that a loving father would never leave the car and swim away. He would fight to save his kids, and, if he failed, he would go to the bottom with them. Rare were the ones who, after making such a declaration, paused and added in a lower voice, ‘At least, that’s what I hope I’d do.’
When I said I wanted to write about the trial, people looked at me in silence, with an expression I could not read.
On 20 August 2007, two years after his car went into the dam, Robert Farquharson’s trial opened in the Supreme Court of Victoria. As a freelance journalist and curious citizen, I had spent many days, solitary and absorbed, in the courtrooms of that nineteenth-century pile in central Melbourne, with its dome and its paved inner yards and its handsome facade along William and Lonsdale Streets. I knew my way around it and how to conduct myself inside its formal spaces, but I could never approach its street entrance without a surge of adrenalin and a secret feeling of awe.
This time I had brought with me a close friend’s daughter, a pale, quiet sixteen-year-old with white-blonde hair and braces on her teeth, dressed in jeans and a sky-blue hoodie. Her name was Louise. She was in her gap year. I would come to be grateful for her company, and for her precocious intelligence. We squeezed into the press seats of Court Three with a gang of cheerful journalists. From the tone of their gossip, Farquharson was already hung, drawn and quartered.
The court was beautiful. It had a soaring ceiling, pale plaster walls, and fittings of dark, ponderous timber; but, like all the courtrooms in that grand old building, it was cramped, and awkward to move around in. The dock ran along the rear wall, and in it, behind a red velvet rope, sat Robert Farquharson in a glaring white shirt with a stiff collar and tie. He had entered a free man, but now his bail had ended and he was in custody. Though the room was packed with his supporters, he looked scared, and small, and terribly lonely.
Jeremy Rapke QC, Acting Chief Crown Prosecutor and soon to be appointed Director of Public Prosecutions, had appeared for the Crown at Farquharson’s committal hearing. He was a lean, contained-looking man, with a clipped grey beard and a mouth that cut across his face on a severe slant, like that of someone who spent his days listening to bullshit.
‘Wow,’ hissed Louise. ‘He looks like a falcon.’
Lawyers I knew said he was formidable in trials, and at the committal he had been enthralling to watch: he did not seem to exert himself, and he spoke sparingly, in a low, courteous voice, as if his words were only the upper layer of some more crucial process that was going on inside his head. But his final submission that day, delivered in the same conversational tone, had flowed out of him in a scorching stream, elegant and devastating. Now, beside his shiny-faced, brown-haired young junior, Amanda Forrester, who had clattered into court in ankle-strap stilettos, Rapke sat with curved spine low in his swivel chair, his wig tilted forward, his cheek resting on the palm of one thin, dry-looking hand.
The narrow, glass-paned timber doors at the back burst open and Peter Morrissey SC came barging in, with his black gown hanging off one shoulder and his wig pushed back from a shiny forehead. He was big, fair and bluff, Irish-style, with the bulk and the presence of a footballer: as he strode towards the defence end of the bar table, dwarfing his junior, Con Mylonas, he whistled through exaggeratedly pursed lips the provocative anthem ‘Good Old Collingwood Forever’. He veered close to the dock and called out in a hearty, man-to-man voice, ‘G’day, Rob!’ If Farquharson replied, I did not hear him. Morrissey, people said, was just back from the International Criminal Court in The Hague, where he had won his case. His stocks were high. He looked a spontaneous, likeable man. Farquharson’s family seemed to share this view. Out in the lobby they would crowd around his massive, robed figure, looking up at him with trusting smiles that filled me with anxiety.
Justice Philip Cummins entered, a silver-haired man in his sixties with an open, good-humoured face. He wore a scarlet robe, but no wig. A tiny diamond stud flashed a point of light from the lobe of his left ear. Cummins was well known in the city. I did not need the journalists to tell me that his nickname was Fabulous Phil. But he was reassuring to look at, not lofty or threatening; behind his high bench he would lean forward on his elbows and address the court with genial warmth.
A jury was empanelled, ten women and five men, the requisite dozen plus three spares: this trial would not be short. By the next morning one of the women had already been excused. The jurors filed into the box and sat with hands folded, looking about nervously. Their shoulders were bowed, as if their new duties were pressing them into their chairs. From now until the end of the trial, every time they entered the court, Farquharson would spring to his feet in the dock and remain standing until they were seated—a protocol that seemed to say my fate is in your hands.
On the evening of Sunday 4 September 2005, Father’s Day, two young Winchelsea men, Shane Atkinson and Tony McClelland, left their dogs to be minded overnight by a lady they knew, and set out in Atkinson’s Commodore for a barbecue in Geelong, to celebrate the birth of a baby that Atkinson’s fiancée had, that day, brought home from hospital.
As Atkinson, the Crown’s first witness, negotiated the narrow aisle past the family seats, two women who, from the shape of their eye sockets, could only be Farquharson’s sisters raked him with cold stares. Dark-haired, tall and thin, he was dressed from head to toe in black. He stood in the box, facing the Crown’s Ms Forrester with the stooped, appeasing posture of a kid expecting to be told off. Speech was labour for him. He drawled and fumbled, writhed and bowed his head. Whenever a coarse word escaped him he would drop his face and grin with an embarrassed, goofy sweetness.
It was about 7.30, he said, and already dark, when he and his mate Tony approached the railway overpass, four or five kilometres east of Winchelsea. They saw several cars ahead of them suddenly swerve and keep going, as if dodging something. Then a bloke stepped out into their headlights, vigorously waving his arms. Shane’s nerves were raw: his brother had taken his own life only a few months earlier. He slammed on the brakes and jumped out. The man ran towards him.
‘I said to him, “What the fuck are you doing, standing on the side of the road? Are you trying to kill yourself, mate?” We couldn’t get no sense out of him. He was swearing, like, “Oh no, fuck, what have I done? What’s happened?”’
The man jabbered that he had put his car into the dam—that he had killed his kids, that he had done a wheel bearing, or had a coughing fit. He had come to and found himself in water up to his chest. All he wanted, he said over and over, was to be taken back to his missus’ house, so he could tell her he’d killed his kids.
The bloke was short and chunky, panting and wringing wet, covered in slime and mud. What was this crazy story? Was he all there? Shane thought he might have Down syndrome or something: they got some weird cunts out that way. Tony was a relative newcomer to the township. Until this moment he had barely registered that there was a dam at the foot of the overpass. Shane was a Winch boy, and had driven past the dam countless times, yet even he had no idea it was deep enough for a car to vanish into it without leaving so much as a bubble. He stood up in the doorframe of his Commodore and strained for a better view of the water. He and Tony walked off the road as far as the fence. The night was very dark, but dry and clear. Every time a truck roared down the overpass, they followed the sweep of its headlights to scan the dam’s surface. The water looked like glass. Surely nothing had happened here.
Shane had credit on his mobile. He tried to give it to the man so he could ring the ambulance, the police. The man refused. Again and again he begged them to take him to Cindy’s.
‘I’m not going anywhere,’ said Shane, ‘if you’ve just killed your kids! We’re two skinny little cunts—we can get in the water and try to swim down!’
But the man kept saying, ‘probably a hundred times, “No, don’t go down there. It’s too late. They’re already gone. I’ll just have to go back and tell Cindy.”’
Farquharson, who had wept helplessly right through the terrible accusations of the prosecutor’s opening address—‘a shockingly wicked and callous act’—listened to all this in the dock with his head tilted and his small eyes narrowed in a sceptical expression.
‘And,’ said Ms Forrester gently, ‘did you take him back to Cindy?’
In the front row of the public seats, accompanied by their quiet husbands, Farquharson’s sisters sat still, their mouths stiffly downturned.
Shane Atkinson hung his head. ‘Yes,’ he said, in a low, miserable voice. ‘I done the stupidest thing of my whole life, and I did.’
Shane made the sodden man sit beside him in the front, with Tony in the back ‘so he could punch him in the head if he went nuts’. He spun the car round and headed back to Winchelsea. Just as they reached the outskirts of the town, Shane flicked on the interior light and took a proper look at their passenger. The penny dropped. It was Robbie Farquharson. Since Shane was a little fellow, he had seen Robbie mowing people’s grass and driving the same sort of Commodore as Shane had now, except that Shane’s had mag wheels. And suddenly he twigged which Cindy he was raving about, this wife he was so keen to see—Cindy Farquharson, his ex, who everyone in Winch knew was on with another bloke, Stephen Moules.
They pulled into Cindy’s drive, all three men panicking and yelling. Farquharson and Shane ran to the back doorstep and shouted for Cindy. One of Stephen Moules’ kids came to the screen door. Cindy followed him. Where was Rob’s car? Where were the kids?
Farquharson gave it to her straight. There’d been an accident. He’d killed the kids. Drowned them. He’d tried to get them out, but he couldn’t. Cindy started to scream. She called him ‘a fucking cunt’. She went to hit him. Shane stepped between her and Farquharson and tried to take her in his arms. Then he leapt back into his car and drove so fast to the police station that when he pulled up outside he did a doughnut.
The station was locked. He ran to the sergeant’s house next door. Nobody home.
By now every man and his dog was out on the street. Somebody dialled 000 and Shane told the ambulance where the car had gone into the water. A bloke called Speedy from the State Emergency Service rushed off to get his truck. Shane got into his car with Tony and a couple of strangers who had jumped in. He drove back to Cindy’s but her car was gone, and so was she, with Farquharson and the kid from the kitchen door. Shane roared out on to the highway.
He pulled up near the overpass. Farquharson was standing against the fence, nodding, lurching, wheezing. He was ‘smoking cigarette after cigarette’, and begged the new arrivals for another.
Tony McClelland threw a whole packet at him, climbed through the fence and ran stumbling across the dark paddock. Shane hung back. ‘I didn’t wanna go near the dam,’ he told the court, hanging his head as if ashamed of his dread.
Cindy had got through to 000 on her mobile and was rushing back and forth on the bank in the dark, sobbing and shrieking directions to the operator, but she kept calling it the Calder Highway instead of the Princes. She must have rung Stephen Moules earlier. He was already there, stripping off to wade into the dam. The water was black and terribly cold. Moules took a few steps in from the edge and the bottom dropped away under his feet. Tony had to grab his arm to save him. This was the moment they all realised how deep the dam was.
But not until the police gave their evidence in court would its true dimensions become clear. It was not an ordinary farm dam with sloping sides. It was the pit left behind when the road-makers dug out the soil to build the overpass, and it went straight down for seven metres.