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Blood Ties: When the bonds of family love and trust are betrayed by murd er

Blood Ties: When the bonds of family love and trust are betrayed by murd er

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Blood Ties: When the bonds of family love and trust are betrayed by murd er

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2 ore
Feb 1, 2012


Chilling accounts of crimes where the victim knew their killer intimately -- when husband kills wife, parent kills child, child kills parents or siblings -- and a powerful insight into what compels a loved one to commit murder In Australia an astonishing 80% of homicides are committed by someone related to the victim or within their close family circle. But why do people kill those close to them, and how do these killings affect the family circle - beyond normal trauma and grief? What causes a father or mother to turn on their children, a husband or wife to end the life of someone they once loved? In Blood ties, renowned true crime author John Suter Linton tackles the subject of domestic murders, why they happen, how they happen and the long legacy they leave. through high-profile cases such as that of Mark Galante, who was convicted of killing his wife, Jody, and of Arthur Freeman, who threw his small daughter off a bridge, Suter Linton examines the stories behind the headlines. He talks to survivors, providing a fascinating glimpse into the ties which bind - and sometimes destroy us.
Feb 1, 2012

Informazioni sull'autore

John Suter Linton has written four true-crime books: THE STRANGER YOU KNOW, BOUND BY BLOOD, AN ALMOST PERFECT MURDER, and MURDER AT ANNA BAY. John has also worked extensively in radio, television and print media, and as a writer, journalist, researcher and producer.

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Blood Ties - John Suter Linton


Chapter 1


The Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) released a report in 1998 that found domestic violence played a significant role in the lead-up to lethal violence, accounting for 27 per cent of all homicides in Australia between 1989 and 1996.

When confronted with the news of a parent who not only takes their life but also takes the life of their child and, at times, that of their spouse, we find their actions unfathomable. Why should the child or children die because a parent decides to end their own life? What purpose does it serve? What would make a parent want to kill their offspring?

One person who knows better than most what would motivate a parent to do such a thing is Robyn Cotterell-Jones. Robyn is the Victim Support Unit manager with the Victims of Crime Assistance League (VOCAL), based in Newcastle in New South Wales. Robyn’s knowledge of what victims of domestic violence suffer – how desperate they can become in wanting to escape the nightmare, the helplessness and the hopelessness – goes beyond the academic.

She was such a victim.

The domestic abuse Robyn endured lasted 20 years and took many forms. The final event of violence put her in a wheelchair, unable to walk or work for a long time. She was financially ruined, then let down by the law and justice.

At an emotional and physical low and with no apparent end or solution in sight, Robyn came to believe that her only choice in life was to remove herself from this earth. In agonising over that conclusion, she had thoroughly considered who would look after her children. Who could she trust? Who was mentally and emotionally suitable? Who could raise them? Who would possibly care for them as they deserved?

No one.

With no one to trust the solution became obvious to Robyn. They would all go at once. She never ever saw it in terms of ‘murder-suicide’ or ‘familicide’. To her, it was the only solution.

Robyn was stopped from acting on her desperation by something as simple as a phone call. It was from Robyn’s aged mother who had already lived through the suicides of family members. Robyn realised what effect her death would have. What she would be doing to those, especially her mother, who loved her, had helped her and would not only mourn her but would assume they had failed her. The call was a ‘wakeup’ and forced Robyn to snap out of the place of no hope, and find a new way out to regain her life.

‘It was never a matter of selfishness in my mind … my mind never stopped trying to figure out a way out of it, but there was just no way out that I could find,’ Robyn explained.

Talking to her mother, Robyn says, ‘I just realised I couldn’t put her through any more pain’.

Robyn was lucky. Her experience demonstrated that even in the darkest moments and void of all hope, there is still a choice to be had. At the last moment she made this choice when she saw the impact her actions would have on her dear mum, who had done her very best through the trauma she had already suffered.

Looking back, Robyn reflects, ‘That’s such arrogance when you look at it in the cold light of day, once you have left that desperate point, but what people have to understand is there is no hope when you are in that place. When that hope is taken away, that’s the bottom of the pit.

‘When I look at what glorious people my children have turned into, I really recognise the arrogance of my belief that they would be better off dead than without me … I am lucky.’

Around 2.30 pm on Sunday 20 March 2005, police responded to a call from a house in Forest Hill Drive, Oakhampton Heights, a newly established housing estate north of Maitland in the Hunter Valley. The call had come from a relative of one of the occupants, who had arrived at the house to check on the welfare of Sally Winter. Sally had missed a prearranged appointment and had not been in contact. What the relative discovered were the bodies of Sally and her husband Stephen, both 32 years old, and their two children Jake, four, and Kasey, three.

It was evident to police the young family had fallen victim to a murder-suicide.

The incident was big news, especially as this was the second murder-suicide to have taken place in the Lower Hunter area in less than nine months. The first – in East Gresford the previous July – happened only 35 kilometres away, just a short drive in country terms.

It wasn’t long before media outlets led the news with ‘father shoots family dead and takes own life’.

They had jumped to conclusions.

Although police could not confirm any details so early in their investigation, the media ran with what they believed was a given. What the media knew was all members of the Winter family had died of gunshot wounds. Even though it was obvious to police who had pulled the trigger, they needed time to fully examine the scene before making any statements. The media were impatient and, given the nature of the murder-suicide and the use of a firearm, it seemed logical the man was responsible. Statistically, men commit familicide more often than women and are more likely to choose a rifle or gun as a weapon, though not always.

The Winter family murder-suicide, however, would prove to be the exception to the rule. It would also show that some women are capable of brutally murdering their whole family, a trait usually attributed to men.

A day after the tragedy, with news reports still suggesting Stephen had killed his family, the police felt obliged to correct the assertion. They had collected enough physical evidence to confirm Sally Winter, a mother and a wife, deliberately shot her two sleeping children, shot her husband, and then turned the gun on herself.

The news Sally Winter was the perpetrator received national press coverage. The fact a mother had committed such an act was as shocking as the crime itself. Editorials and media commentators ran hot asking how a mother could commit such a heinous act.

No one could recall a wife and mother ever committing such a terrible crime.

It defied all preconceptions about mothers.

Ron Richardson was concerned for the wellbeing of his son, Michael, his daughter-in-law, Roxanne, and their two little children. During Monday 12 July 2004, Ron had repeatedly phoned the family home, in the small town of East Gresford, New South Wales, but had received no answer.

Michael had separated from Roxanne and the kids some time ago, and lived in separate quarters on his father’s property. In the week before Sunday 11 July, police went to the Durham Street home in response to a domestic incident. Michael had returned to the family home and was aggressive and threatening towards Roxanne. Apparently, Roxanne considered taking out an Apprehended Violence Order against Michael, but decided not to, fearing it would only provoke her estranged husband.

Michael Richardson and Roxanne Hopson were married in 1998. Both the Richardson and Hopson families had been living in the Hunter area for generations, and Michael and Roxanne – ‘Rocky’ as she was known to family and friends – decided to continue the tradition and make a life for themselves in the picturesque rural setting. Michael worked on the family farm, while Roxanne took an office job at a local abattoir. In 2001 Roxanne gave birth to their first child, Luke; then in 2002 they had a second child, Grace.

As a couple, Michael and Roxanne’s relationship was considered by those they met as rock solid.

Unfortunately, in 2003 the Richardsons’ fortunes reversed. Drought had consumed most of rural New South Wales and other states, and allegedly this brought about a change in Michael. He became depressed, and worried about money and how to support his family. Roxanne, having left the abattoir to look after the children, found work at the Gresford general store to supplement their income. Michael became a self-employed fencing contractor.

In February, Michael attempted to take his own life, having ingested a poison. Roxanne found him in time and called the police and ambulance. He was hospitalised and recovered. Because he had tried to take his life, police revoked his firearms licence and confiscated his four rifles.

Life for the Richardsons appeared to go on as normal, though cracks in the relationship were appearing. There was still the pressure of finances, the drought and irregular work leading to stress and arguments. Michael had developed mood swings, and became possessive of Roxanne, occasionally bursting into a jealous rage when seeing her in conversation with other men. Few people in the tiny town were aware Michael had attempted suicide, but they had noticed he wasn’t the person he was prior to the drought. Townspeople realised the couple were ‘having problems’ but there was nothing to indicate how serious the problems were.

Michael’s depression allegedly worsened after his grandfather, Eric Hancock, shot himself, also in 2003. According to a neighbour, reported in the Daily Telegraph a year later, he ‘never got over the suicide of his grandfather’.

Michael applied for his licence to be reinstated and for the return of his rifles in July. The Firearms Registry put the application on hold ‘pending investigation’. The investigation requested that Michael supply two medical assessments of his mental health. Michael complied and, satisfied he was no longer at risk of self-harm, the Registry returned his rifles in January 2004. It was around this time his relationship with Roxanne reached a low ebb; they separated and he began living on his parents’ property.

On Monday 12 July 2004, not being able to raise anyone by phone, Ron Richardson went to the Durham Street address and began knocking on the door. There was no answer. He called the police and, together, they entered the house.

Lying in a bed were the bodies of Michael, 32, Roxanne, 30, Luke, three, and Grace, 20 months.

Some time on the Sunday Michael had accessed the house, smothered his two children, stabbed Roxanne and smothered her, then placed all three bodies together in bed. He then lay next to them and, using a .223 calibre rifle, shot himself.

Sally Barnes and Stephen Winter were childhood sweethearts, having met as teenagers, then marrying at age 25 in 1997. Their union was seen by family and friends as a ‘fairytale romance’ come true. Sally was a registered nurse and Stephen a diesel mechanic.

The Barnes and Winter families were uniquely close, not only because of Sally and Stephen, but because their elder siblings, Stephen’s brother, Douglas, and Sally’s sister, Anne-Louise, were also married with two children. With a love of the outdoors, Sally and Stephen often went on camping and fishing excursions with their respective families. It was the perfect life – a loving couple with the support of a loving, close-knit family.

In 2000 Sally fell pregnant. The joy that usually accompanies such news was tempered when Stephen’s mother, Irene, was diagnosed with a brain tumour and died a month before Sally gave birth to Jake Aden. Stephen was the youngest of three children and his mother’s death affected him deeply. Irrespective, Sally and Stephen continued as a happy couple, raising their first born; then three years later Sally gave birth to their second child, Kasey Rose.

It is unclear when or why Sally and Stephen’s relationship began to fall apart. There are no suggestions of monetary problems or any outside influences pressuring the couple. What is known is that in 2004 they were facing serious trouble. What had been a ‘fairytale’ had unravelled into a nightmare for both of them. Their relationship was volatile; verbal arguments would escalate into physical assaults. Considering later events, it is possible that the breakdown could have been the result of jealous rage.

During this time, Sally became pregnant, but told friends she terminated the pregnancy because she couldn’t stand to bring another child into their violent marriage. Stephen never forgave Sally for making that decision, believing Sally had deprived him of his third child. Police would later learn that some of Sally’s friends knew the child was not Stephen’s, but her lover’s.

Working as a nurse at the Cessnock Correctional Centre, Sally had begun an affair with a colleague in June 2004, around the time she realised she was pregnant. In July, Sally left Stephen and moved into her parents’ home. Stephen remained in the family house. The affair lasted until December, when the colleague broke it off to reconcile with his wife. This decision devastated Sally as she had been expecting to marry after a further six months. Sally would then have been separated from Stephen for a year. At that point she could have legally applied for a divorce. Instead, Sally was left rejected and dejected.

Between July and December police attended the Oakhampton Heights home on two occasions in response to a domestic violence call. Stephen had made the call both times. The first was on 27 July and the second on 12 September. On each date police removed Stephen’s three firearms, which he used when pig hunting. The firearms were returned within a week because no legal action was brought against Stephen, and police had no reason to keep the weapons. In both incidents the police reports ended with ‘no further action’.

After the incident on 12 September, however, both Sally and Stephen, through their respective solicitors, lodged separate AVO applications against each other. Sally lodged hers first on 13 September, and Stephen countered with his application on 17 September. Each claimed they had been assaulted by the other during the recent incident, and Sally noted she was assaulted previously on 27 July.

At this time Sally also called a domestic violence support group in Maitland inquiring what her ‘options’ were. There is no record of the advice she was offered, but it is known that domestic violence services in Maitland, as in other rural areas, were – and are – under-resourced. One support worker from the area, keeping their anonymity, admitted to a journalist from the Newcastle Herald, ‘There is a three-month waiting list for domestic violence counselling in Maitland … In the last financial year [2003–2004] 1000 women and children were turned away from the women’s refuge … [a] vast majority of these … women returned home because they had nowhere to go to.’ It is unlikely Sally would have been offered any immediate help.

A hearing into Sally and Stephen’s AVO applications was scheduled at Maitland Local Court for 23 September, but when it came for mention both parties had withdrawn their applications and the matter was dismissed by the court.

In December, Sally moved back with the children to the Oakhampton Heights home, but Stephen was not so forgiving. According to what police discovered after the murder-suicide, Stephen still resented Sally for leaving him for another man and terminating the pregnancy. He berated her, punishing her for what she had done.

On Saturday evening 19 March 2005, Stephen Winter was at the local trotting meet, drinking and chatting with friends. Even though it had been around three months since Sally returned, there was obviously still a lot of aggression and resentment within the household. At 8.36 pm, Stephen called Sally’s mobile. He left a message on her voice mail: You’ve stuffed everyone’s lives. I hope you’re happy. Stephen arrived home a little after 9.00 pm.

As far as anyone knows, Sally Winter was in a very deep state of depression on the evening of 19 March. In Sally’s opinion, she had run out of options. She believed there was only one course of action left to her. As the children lay sleeping, Sally took one of her husband’s shot guns. The sequence of events is not known, but we do know Jake and Kasey were in separate rooms. Sally fired a shot at four-year-old Jake, hitting the side of his head. It didn’t kill him. Sally then put the gun in his mouth. She covered him with a blanket and laid two toy dogs on top of him. Kasey, who had recently celebrated her third birthday, was shot in the back of the head. Sally placed a teddy bear under the little girl’s arm.

When Stephen arrived home – and this could have been before the children were killed; no one knows exactly – he obviously didn’t suspect or observe anything unusual in Sally’s behaviour. Stephen sat on the lounge to relax after his night at the trotting meet. Without alerting Stephen, Sally retrieved the shot gun and fired three rounds at him at close range. His body, too, was covered with a blanket.

Sometime after the killings, Sally went to the kitchen and wrote a letter to her family. Sadly, and frustratingly for the families and authorities, there was nothing in what Sally wrote to indicate why she did what she did. Instead, the letter was a one-sided conversation with her family. Some have described what she wrote as ‘ramblings’. When presented to the Coroner’s Court, the Deputy State Coroner said the letter was a ‘personal message’ and placed a non-publication order on its contents.

After finishing the letter, Sally went to the marital bed, lay down and shot herself.

What Sally did was contradictory to the image people had of her. She was described as ‘a sweet, young woman’ with a ‘green thumb’ who had planted roses and other plants around the house, and as a ‘caring’ person. She was a mother. She had chosen a profession which is dedicated to healing people, to saving people’s lives. How could a person who was a nurse and mother commit such a violent act?

The media sought answers from various experts, criminologists and forensic psychologists, but they were as much at a loss to explain why Sally had done what she did as those who knew the couple intimately. What was agreed by all was Sally was the first woman in Australia to have committed a murder-suicide using a firearm. History reveals poison, knives and suffocation are the methods women usually employ to kill. While they kill their children, according to the experts in most cases something happens which prevents a mother from taking her own life. They either botch the attempt or are discovered and rescued in time. Rarely do women use guns, unless in acts of self-defence. It might be noted that in other domestic homicides, despite popular belief, firearms are not commonly used, even by men. Stabbing is the most common form of death, followed by suffocation and strangulation.

‘A fatal spiral of depression and loneliness’ was how the Deputy Coroner described the condition Sally was in prior to the murders. Sally’s severe depression had isolated her. It prevented her from talking to anyone; it prevented her from seeking professional help. She didn’t even have the thought or will to confide in a member or members of her close-knit family.

Robyn Cottrell-Jones believes Sally would have been riddled with guilt, loss, helplessness, a sense of failure and hopelessness by being punished by her husband. Sally felt trapped in a place with no way out.

Suffering from her entrenched depression, and the ongoing abuse and payback from Stephen, Sally decided the only thing she could do to end her apparently unsolvable torment was to kill her children, her husband and herself. There was no other option.

Robyn questions if the message Stephen texted Sally just minutes before arriving home, plus the fact he was out drinking with his friends, was the tipping point for Sally. ‘Was Sally, because of the text, expecting a rousing argument? Did she know she was in for it when Stephen walked through the door?’

Robyn says that giving the children toys and placing a blanket over them and Stephen ‘would have been seen as the final act of love for someone, from someone who could take no more and had decided this was the only option available to her’.

Michael Richardson may not have felt trapped, but he was nonetheless in an equally depressed state as Sally Winter. He was estranged from his family and hurting from the loss. Like Sally, but for different reasons, Michael would have had low self-esteem feeding his depression and perhaps he used his wife as his outlet for his anger and self-loathing. As was the case with Sally, in his mind he was left with no options but the one he chose. Was the decision Michael made based on an irrational belief he was a failure? That he couldn’t take life any more and he couldn’t see how his family would survive without him? In answer to this Robyn suggests, ‘some men regard others as theirs, almost by way of ownership, and decide what will be. We just cannot really know’.

Many people believe a person who commits acts such as those of Sally Winter and Michael Richardson must be mentally ill. Research conducted by the Australian Institute of Criminology shows mental illness isn’t a major factor in the majority of murders.

In trying to comprehend what went through Sally Winter and Michael Richardson’s minds, Robyn offers an insight. ‘I don’t think you even think it out. It’s almost an absence of thinking when you reach that point of desperation. You think, they [the children] won’t be safe without you, so you take

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