It happened around 4am on June 7, 2008. Sarah Ward had been drinking and smoking dope. She took a friend’s car and went out for cigarettes with another friend. The young musicians they came across that dark night in Christie Lane, St Leonards, Sydney, had also been drinking. The altercation that ensued left one of the young men dead and Ward convicted of his murder. A man and his sister have a history with the dead man and believe this is a wrongful conviction. They tell a story which challenges the one that convicted her. Anthony Nikolich & Helen Keys put the case for Sarah Ward.
Sarah Ward is an attractive 175 cm tall blonde; she used to be a fashion model. Before she became a prison inmate. Born in Sydney in January 1971, she had also worked at a counter for a beauty brand. She has found prison a stressful place where she has had to fend off unwelcome attention. But according to Nikolich, Sarah is coping; she is in the minimum/medium security Dillwynia facility for women at Berkshire Park, NSW, 5 kms south of Windsor.
In 2010, Ward was convicted of the murder of 21 year old Eli Westlake on June 7, 2008; she was sentenced to 25 years prison, with a non-parole period of 18 years, 9 months. She maintains that several prosecution witnesses’ testimony at the trial differed markedly from the statements made at the Committal Hearing.
And the trial judge, Justice Howie, remarked, “some of these witnesses are not reliable… Firstly nearly everybody was intoxicated including the accused … and you do not need me to tell you what alcohol does to your recollection of events and to your perception of events.”
Nikolich later learnt that less than a year after Sarah’s sentencing, Howie was charged and convicted of drink driving (reading of 0.168), after taking a cocktail of valium and alcohol, causing a serious car accident, colliding with two cars and a truck. Howie failed to attend Ryde Local Court, with his lawyer telling the local magistrate his client had gone to Japan for a holiday. Justice Howie’s lawyer pleaded guilty on his client’s behalf. The court heard that Mr Howie had been taking medication for anxiety and sleeplessness for a considerable number of years.
Nikolich learnt much more, and below, the back story that connects him to this drama:
THE NIKOLICH FILE ON SARAH MAY WARD
As Sarah Ward was advised by her barrister not to give evidence at her trial, I will include what she related to me as to the events of the incident and her trial.
On the 7 June, 2008 Sarah Ward, then 37, was at the home and business premises of her friend Anthony Gilbert, where she was residing. Gilbert had a panel beating and mower shop downstairs.
William Long had recently sold his car to Gilbert and attended the premises on that night in a social setting where alcohol and an amount of soft drugs were consumed by all.
During the night William Long suggested Sarah accompany him to buy a packet of cigarettes. They took the car Long had recently sold to Gilbert. They arrived behind the 7/11 at St Leonards and encountered Eli and Joel Westlake and another man who were part of a larger group who had been drinking at a tavern across the street.
Sarah had entered the one way lane from the wrong direction: the Westlake brothers reacted aggressively by throwing some cheese balls they were eating at the car and then proceeded to yell abuse at Sarah and Long, calling Long a “fucking fag”. When Long got out of the car they attacked him. Long, who is a short man of slender build, was unable to protect himself.
Sarah, realising Long was in danger, left the car to come to his aid yelling: “Leave him alone”. She was punched by Eli Westlake and knocked to the ground.
Long had his clothing pulled off by Joel Westlake during the struggle. Long escaped and ran back to the safety of the car, while Sarah was beaten by the Westlake brothers. Apparently, the other man did not participate in the assault.
I have a copy of a police statement by an independent witness, Martin Pool, who lived nearby, stating: “I heard a male voice say, ‘Come on you fucking fag’; “it was definitely taunting”.
Sarah called out: “I am calling the police.” She then saw (the man who turned out to be) Joel Westlake run down the laneway. Sarah stated she was crying and injured when she returned to the car.
The car was unfamiliar to Sarah having been modified with heavy tinting on the windscreen and windows. It was an automatic with no illumination on the gear change console and missing an arrow indicating what gear was engaged. Unbeknown to Sarah there was also a fault with the transmission where the gears would not engage, leaving the car in a seemingly neutral position. When the car was revved, on occasion the gears would suddenly engage and the car would take off.
Long testified this had happened to him, but claimed the car “fixed itself”.
Not knowing in which direction her attackers went, Sarah drove down the laneway, having no choice but to turn left into Lithgow Street due to a concrete traffic control device on the roadway.
At this stage Joel Westlake can be seen on CCTV running, catching up to the rest of his drinking companions who were ahead of him, and who did not participate in the attack. Sarah at first did not recognise who these people were due to the dark tinting and lack of street lighting on that dark night.
When she realised some of these people were her attackers she attempted a 3 point turn into the driveway of a loading dock of the rugby club.
In this way she came close to Eli Westlake who ran in front of the car, Eli and his friend proceed to chase the car and attack it. At this stage Sarah is attempting to get the car moving, but it is stuck not proceeding, using both hands trying to get the car to move into drive.
Eli Westlake is back on the footpath after being dragged away by his friend. Having revved the car it takes off; Long is holding the steering wheel, the car mounts the footpath and collides with Eli Westlake trapping him against a wall and down the steps of a gym trapping him underneath the car.
At this point Joel Westlake and his friends return to give his brother assistance. Sarah immediately leaves the car and tries with Joel Westlake and friends to lift the car off Eli.
William Long grabs the car keys and flees. He can be seen on CCTV running away.
Long returns to Anthony Gilbert’s saying there was an accident, but concealed the gravity of the situation, then leaves.
William Long returns to Gilbert’s premises a few hours later and is confronted by police. He proceeds to conceal his true identity by giving police a false name. Long is taken to the police station for an interview.
Crown Prosecutor Ms E. Wilkins, states that Eli Westlake and Stuart Taylor are “hiding behind great big skip bins” to avoid the car Ward is driving. This is unsupported by the CCTV footage, which clearly shows no one hiding behind anything.
The CCTV clearly shows Eli Westlake walking casually down Lithgow Street after his attack on Sarah Ward and William Long. No one cross references the visual evidence and the prosecutor’s aide memoire (transcript of the footage), which also has no mention of skip bins.
Judge Howie however, makes further reference to these imaginary skip bins in his Remarks on Sentence: “It is clear that she waited for the deceased to emerge from behind the safety of the bins for another chance to vent her rage and seek retribution”.
A reasonable person might regard these remarks by Judge Howie as astonishing since the CCTV footage – which had been shown in court by the prosecution -proved this did not occur.
When Ward’s counsel Eugene Wasilenia requested the footage be reshown, so he could examine and advise the jury on a point by point basis, the technician operating the video equipment was unavailable, denying Wasilenia the opportunity to fully rebut the prosecution’s aide memoire.
Waselinia made no objection to this situation, and did not attempt to revisit the CCTV footage.
Ward was informed by Wasilenia that during a break from proceedings the jury was ushered through a public exit. He told her that jury members approached and comforted a crying Mrs Westlake and her family before reaching their verdict.
Justice Howie was informed that Sarah suffered from bipoloar disorder, but he said her illness had in no way influenced her actions that night. “She clearly wanted to teach the young men a lesson”, he said. (Report Bellinda Kontominas SMH April 22, 2010).
Sarah stated that while seated in the dock at the Supreme Court, Wasilenia mouthed the words “plead guilty to manslaughter” while using hand gestures for her to stand. The plea of guilty to manslaughter or it’s legal implications were never discussed with Sarah before this moment. She had planned to plead ‘not guilty’ to the murder charge.
THE QUESTION OF MOTIVE
(This section compiled & edited by Andrew L. Urban.)
Wasilenia had told the court the incident should be considered “an instantaneous reaction to a series of events” and not a premeditated attack on Eli Westlake. In short – an accident, not murder, neither manslaughter. Justice Howie said it was clear that Ward had not made a “cold-hearted, calculated decision to kill somebody” but she had driven up onto the footpath with bad intentions. Such a tragic misreading of the event.
Wasilenia told the jury in his summing up:
“… in the aftermath of what occurred the accused made a number of statements. She was clearly very, very distressed. She was, as police officers describe her, crying uncontrollably. The two police officers who were on the scene first, Haley and Hockley, when Hockley saw her he took her to the police car, he described her as being unsteady on her feet, very emotional, shaking, crying uncontrollably, and on three occasions she said to him “is he dead” and then he said, well, I don’t know.
And then, I mean, he wasn’t being coy, just until it’s established the person is deceased he’s not in a position to provide information to other people, it’s an ongoing investigation as we know, and the accused said “I think I killed him”. At the hospital, you recall, when Hockley took her there, she hit her head on the mirror, banged her head three times on the forehead on the mirror. That’s not one of the injuries that’s described in Justice Health, it’s a recent one.
At the time she’s banging her head on the mirror she’s saying “I killed a person, somebody’s son”. She had to be restrained, and you’ll recall that Officer Clarke, he’s the person who administered the breathalyser at the police station, or, actually, he administered it at the scene, he said that when he saw her she was visibly upset, she was crying, she was stood up in the middle of the road:
“She told me that she’d had her last drink at 4.15am and she kept repeating” throughout his time with her “‘I killed him, I killed someone’s son’.”
….one of the other matters that you would take into account on deciding the question of intent is this, and that is that upon discovering that the deceased was under the car, did she jump for joy? Did she stand back and wait, did she run? No. She was one of the people who was trying to lift that car.”
(This section compiled & edited by Andrew L. Urban.)
The Appeal was heard before McClellan CJ, Latham J and Adamson J, and decided on April 22, 2012.
There were nine grounds of which grounds 2 – 8 claimed that the trial judge erred in several ways. Ground 1 claimed the trial miscarried and ground 9 claimed the trial miscarried as a result of the accused being incompetently represented. The applicant (Sarah Ward) also sought leave to appeal her sentence.
At paragraph 21 of the transcript, McClellan states:
“The deceased can be seen on the CCTV footage leaving from behind the bins and crossing the driveway. He walked onto the verge close to the building at the far end of the driveway. The headlights of the applicant’s vehicle then appear to go into high beam. The vehicle is driven diagonally from the street mounting the curb. It hit a glancing blow to the young man who had been lying on the grass. It then made contact with the deceased who was struck by the front of the vehicle and carried forward. The vehicle continued until it careered down a flight of stairs to a gym at the corner of the building taking the deceased with it and crushing him beneath the vehicle at the foot of the stairs.”
Sarah has scribbled on the transcript at this point. “The bins cant be seen on CTV foot. They did not hide behind bins as I was not trying to run anyone over.” It is just one of several handwritten notes on this transcript, each putting a response in her defence. At par 200, for instance, Sarah again refutes the judge’s statement about bins, writing: “S. Taylor and E. Westlake did not take cover, they came on to road & towards car & kicked it.”
At par 205 (on the sentencing), McClellan says “The Sentencing judge was of the opinion that the offence committed by the applicant was in the mid range of offending. His Honour said that he made this finding ‘despite the fact that I am prepared to sentence her on the basis of an intention to inflict grievous bodily harm rather than an intention to kill.”
Sarah had written underneath that par – “Reasonable doubt again”
All the grounds of appeal were dismissed.
THE BACK STORY
In 2012, after a 12 year estrangement from his sister Helen Keys, Anthony Nikolich was surprised to get a phone call from her. She was heading back to their country of origin, Serbia, to do some searching through their ancestry. She sought his family knowledge. They remained re-connected and five years later in January 2017, her son Rohan was getting married.
At the wedding, Helen recalls, “Ro and Chris were standing with the other groomsmen, and I pointed Chris out to my brother Tony, telling him they had been best mates throughout their school years and beyond. I went on to relate the events of the attack on the boys in December 2004.”
This, too, happened in the dead of night …. It was after midnight on December 27, 2004, when the man Ward was convicted of murdering, Eli Westlake, had been involved in an unprovoked attack on Rohan and his friend Chris. The friends had spent the evening at Hornsby RSL and were waiting for a night ride bus on Station Street when Westlake, in the company of three unidentified friends, all seemingly drunk, caused several injuries to Rohan and Chris
By a bizarre coincidence, later the same day, while having a family lunch at a Chatswood food court, Rohan recognised Eli Westlake, serving at one of the food outlets. They reported the attack to Chatswood police, and two constables went to question Westlake. Due to the assault occurring in Hornsby, a formal report had to be made with Hornsby Police. But despite their obvious injuries, and several follow-up calls, no further action was taken against the attackers.
In February 2010, when Helen Keys read of Eli Westlake’s death and Sarah Ward’s trial, she contacted Eugene Wasilenia, Sarah Ward’s barrister, to provide information regarding Eli Westlake’s attack on her son, including the Hornsby police report dated 17 February 2005 concerning the December 27 attack. A copy of the police report was also sent to Ruth Heazlewood, assistant to Justice Roderick Howie.
Eugene Wasilenia confirmed verbally to Helen Keys that Eli Westlake had been the subject of numerous reports of unprovoked attacks on innocent people, and confirmed that he had never been held accountable.
Sarah’s barrister informed her of prior attacks by Eli Westlake, and she asked him to use them as supporting evidence at her trial. Wasilenia stated to Sarah that “he did not want to speak ill of the dead”, and so the evidence supporting this gang’s behaviour was never presented in Sarah’s defence.
When he heard this story at Rohan’s wedding, Nikolich, a former employment consultant and OH&S officer, was immediately curious. On the Monday after the wedding in February 2016, he arranged to visit Sarah in prison. A year later, after the solicitor who had been trying to assist stepped away, Nikolich took it upon himself to try and bring Sarah Ward’s plight to public attention.
Until he came across wrongfulconvictionsreport.org, no media outlet would publish or broadcast his story of Sarah Ward and what he believes to be a miscarriage of justice.
Sarah Ward could have been more appropriately charged with:
1 – driving without a licence
2 – driving with blood alcohol level over the legal limit
3 – dangerous/negligent driving causing death *
* Former Tasmanian DPP Tim Ellis SC was convicted of negligent driving causing the death of 27 year old Natalia Pearn in March 2013; he was given a four month suspended sentence and a two year driving ban. He was suspended from his $500,000 a year job on full pay after the crash. Ellis was eventually dismissed and now practices privately in Launceston.