Melbourne killing means we're all vulnerable

JOHN SILVESTER
Last updated 23:53 29/09/2012
Jill Meagher
Jill Meagher went missing on Friday night when walking home from drinks with workmates.

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A good homicide investigator is more marathon runner than sprinter.

On-call detectives from the squad know that from the moment their mobile phones ring they may have a job that will absorb them for years. Usually homicide detectives are the last to arrive on site, knowing they will be there for the long haul.

In most cases the investigation begins at a static crime scene. There is a body that with careful forensic examination can often provide the necessary pointers to the direction the investigation should take.

Homicide detectives are trained to control their emotions while viewing the worst of human nature. Patience and thoroughness are prized while adrenalin surges are considered the enemy.

A rush of blood can lead to evidence being overlooked and a surge of anger in an interview can sabotage a prosecution.

The eye is always on the long-term goal: a date in the Supreme Court where the offender will be found guilty on the evidence they have unearthed.

But then there are the rare cases where the normal rules don't work. Such as Jill Meagher, who went missing around 1.40am last Saturday after she had been drinking with her ABC colleagues in Brunswick.

By Saturday afternoon Homicide Crew Four - the suspicious missing persons unit - under Detective Sergeant Dave Butler began monitoring the situation.

Soon it became obvious this was not a matter of a night on someone's couch. Ms Meagher's phone had gone dead and she had not accessed her bank accounts, discounting thoughts that she had engineered her own disappearance.

So by late Sunday, more than 36 hours after she was last seen, Crew Four moved in.

But, at least initially, this was not a normal murder probe as police were not sure there had been a murder.

Still, there was an unspoken urgency. What if Ms Meagher had been abducted and was still alive?

When homicide detectives arrived in Brunswick that Monday morning, they didn't even have a crime scene.

What they did have was a starting point. They knew Ms Meagher had left Bar Etiquette to walk to her home in Lux Way. They knew she had refused a colleague's offer to accompany her for safety.

Eventually her handbag was found in Hope Street but police were sure it had not been there when they checked the area on Saturday, meaning it had been planted some time later.

This would have initially indicated the offender may have lived nearby. (The reality was a local found the handbag in the lane on Saturday morning then returned on Sunday evening to put it back as a result of the media publicity.)

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The first step for police was to confirm that Ms Meagher had not reached her destination, which meant interviewing her husband, Tom.

He was told firmly, but politely, that the homicide squad begins with those closest to the victim and then works its way out in ever-increasing circles. The reality is that in the vast majority of murders the victim knows the offender and in most cases involving females they are killed by their partners.

They told Mr Meagher the quicker they could clear him as a suspect, the quicker they could move on.

Some of Mr Meagher's initial answers were contradictory and confused, hardly surprising considering his level of stress. He had fallen asleep in front of the television late on Friday night and missed a text from his wife saying, ''Meet me at the pub''.

Police corroborated much of his story, effectively removing him from the suspect list by Tuesday. He was as he appeared: a decent man subjected to grief beyond imagination.

Detectives began to troll through Ms Meagher's personal life to see if she had a boyfriend, was under work pressure, suffered depression or a medical condition that could explain her disappearance.

When these were discounted, the strongest theory became the most ominous: that she had been abducted off the street, that someone seeing a pretty, isolated woman bundled her off into the night.

This added to the urgency as the investigators knew that if it was a random attack the offender could strike again. In 1993, Frankston killer Paul Charles Denyer abducted and murdered three young women in just seven weeks. The killing stopped only when he was arrested.

Few crimes have grabbed the attention of Melbourne as much as the abduction of Jill Meagher.

And in the void came the theories. The husband had not reacted as he should. Why had she made her last call to her family in Perth and not to Tom? Why had he said she had not gone out with her handbag when she had?

This reflected not so much on Mr Meagher as our need to come up with acceptable alternatives to the awful possibility she was the victim of an opportunistic abduction.

When Jane Thurgood-Dove was shot dead in her Niddrie driveway in November 1997, the murder became the subject of similar speculation.

It was falsely suggested she had been gangster Alphonse Gangitano's mistress or was a secret police witness in a major armed robbery. The truth was even more dreadful. It was a case of mistaken identity. The paid killers shot the wrong woman.

But the rumours in the Meagher and Thurgood-Dove cases were perhaps driven by our desire to find alternatives to the thought that ''nice'' people can get killed through no fault of their own. Because if that is the truth, we are all vulnerable.

On Wednesday morning homicide detectives had to make some tough decisions. They had sourced some CCTV footage from a Sydney Road boutique, which showed Ms Meagher outside the shop at 1.43am - her last known sighting just 450 metres from home. It also showed a man in a blue hoodie talking to her. From the moment police saw the images he became the number one suspect.

There was some debate over whether to make the footage public. Police knew the man would surely be identified once it was released but if Ms Meagher were still alive the consequences would be disastrous.

But the truth was police had concluded she was dead. There was further debate over whether releasing the vision could lead the man to destroy evidence, fabricate an alibi, flee or self-harm.

Perhaps in a normal homicide investigation police would have waited another 48 hours before releasing the film. But this was anything but normal and they decided to mount a public appeal to find the man. They feared they were hunting a predator who could strike again.

A telling consideration was that as his face was not shown clearly, the release of the footage could not be seen to bias a jury if the hoodie suspect was ultimately charged.

Newsrooms are full of people concentrating on delivering their own stories, but most journalists in The Age office stopped to watch the broadcast of Wednesday's press conference by the head of the homicide squad, Detective Inspector John Potter.

He urged pedestrians caught on camera walking past the shop to contact police. He also doused growing speculation that Tom Meagher was the hot suspect.

''I will say, Mr Meagher is not being treated in any way as a suspect. We've ruled no one out, but I will say we have no suspects at this time.

''We need to get it right, we need to make sure that everything we do is appropriate and that it gives us the best possible evidence, because ultimately we want to find out what happened to Jill.''

Tellingly, he was no longer talking of finding her alive.

The public's response was overwhelming, with 550 calls made to Crime Stoppers. Disturbingly, many told of similar abduction attempts in the area that had not been reported to police. This is now the subject of a separate investigation.

The suspect was ultimately identified internally by the homicide squad and by late Wednesday they had a name: Adrian Ernest Bayley, 41, of Coburg.

The surveillance squad, known as ''The Dogs'', was called in to watch Bayley for two reasons: to see if he acted suspiciously and to make sure he couldn't strike again.

From late Wednesday, homicide officers bunkered down and stopped talking to the media - a sure sign they were making progress.

By Thursday morning, Bayley was confirmed as the man in the blue hoodie.

Surveillance police observed him behave as an average guy from the suburbs, heading to work and following his normal routine. But his past showed another side. He was, as they say, ''known to police''. He had a history that fitted the likely profile and the CCTV vision showed him talking to the victim just before she disappeared.

As he was followed on Thursday morning by The Dogs, Crew Four started to rehearse the interview they would conduct with him later that day. They spoke to police who had previously dealt with him and carefully pre-prepared a strategy designed for his personality.

The interview room was arranged to be non-threatening. Gone were the desk, the notebooks and the straight questions of a formal record of interview. This was to be a friendly conversation rather than the third degree.

On Thursday afternoon Bayley was grabbed and taken to the St Kilda Road homicide office.

At first he was friendly but insistent. He was not in Sydney Road early on Saturday morning, had not spoken to the victim and was not the man on the CCTV footage.

After some hours police played their ace. They showed him evidence that he was the man.

Police will allege he eventually admitted he grabbed Ms Meagher, took her to a side street and sexually assaulted her.

They will produce the videoed confession in which he says he drove to Gisborne and used his own shovel to dig a shallow grave to hide his victim.

After initially denying any involvement he finally took police to the site where the body was recovered.

Yesterday he appeared in the Melbourne Magistrates Court charged with rape and murder.

It took six days to catch him. It took six minutes to remand him.

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