Chris Brook’s new book, Road to Damnation, is the result of his two year investigation into the case of Robert Farquharson, and the science of the evidence that convinced two sets of juries that he murdered his three children by drowning them in the family car in a dam, contrary to his claim of having blacked out and losing control of the vehicle. Our first exclusive excerpt sets the scene. (See our preview of the book.)
It is pitch black. Jai is shaking him. ‘Daddy, daddy.’ He is dazed, at the wheel. He starts to feel around. We are off the road, he thinks, must be in a ditch. But then Jai opens the passenger door and water starts rushing in. He reaches over Jai, shuts the door quickly. The car lurches left. The kids are yelling now. `Just settle,’ he says, ‘I’m gonna try to get youse all out of here’. He starts to follow the routine for taking the kids out of the car. Go around the car and grab Bailey out of his baby seat, then Tyler will jump over the baby seat, Jai gets out the front door. Routine. He turns off the engine and the headlights before he gets out of the car. Routine. He sinks. He cannot touch the ground. He is swimming. Goes under. Comes up. He can’t touch the bottom. Why is it so deep? The car is sinking. Fast. He reaches out, tries to hold on to it. But it’s gone. Fuck. Fuck.
He dives down. Nothing. Where is the bottom? It is night and the water is dark and cold. He takes another breath. Dives as deep as he can, feeling around. Nothing. Why is it so deep? He dives again. Shit. What the fuck just happened? How could that have happened? The kids! Holy shit! Fuck fuck fuck. He goes down again. Nothing. Comes to the surface and screams. ‘Help! Somebody! Help!’ It is pitch black and he kicks his feet to stay afloat.
This is the innocent version of the night Robert Farquharson killed his children. In a way, he’d already lost them. His wife Cindy had asked for a divorce 10 months prior, taking custody, the house, the good car. Cindy explained that she had loved him, but had never been ‘in love’ with him. She had started a new relationship with the man who had laid the concrete for what was supposed to be Rob and Cindy’s new home. Rob had moved in with his dad who lived nearby, staying close to his children, now the focus of his life. He hated living with his dad. He still loved Cindy. He hated her new man. ‘Dickhead’.
He is still in the water when he sees the headlights of a truck. He swims toward them but it feels like he is swimming forever, that the water won’t end. When finally his feet touch mud he crawls out, onto the bank. He looks back at the dam, and sees nothing. He looks toward the road and sees nothing. The truck is long gone. Propelled forwards, he crosses the paddock and clambers over a fence and up the bank to the road. Now there are more headlights. He waves frantically but the car drives past. ‘I’m late,’ he is thinking, ‘Cindy is waiting for us. Oh fuck. What am I going to tell Cindy? Oh fuck. Fuck. They’re dead. I’ve fucking killed the kids.’
The next car he sees he steps out and stands in front of. He is covered in mud and soaked. It swerves around him, keeps going. Then another follows it and another. But then there is another, it stops. Two locals, Shane Atkinson, 22 and Tony McClelland, 23, get out. ‘What the fuck are you doing standing on the side of the road?’ yells Shane. ‘Are you trying to kill yourself mate?’
‘Fuck! No! No! No! I‘ve just killed me kids. No! No! No! Fuck Fuck Fuck! What have I done?’ His mind is racing. What happened? This is what will be asked. And it is. The men are staring at him. Think. What happened? Here is the road, there is the water. ‘I must have done a wheel bearing, put the car in the dam,’ he says. ‘I’ve killed the kids. I have to tell their mother.’ But still thinking, what the fuck happened? He can remember coughing. One of the guys tells him to calm down. And again asks, what happened?
And this here is where it begins, the trial of Robert Farquharson. The trial that repeated itself, that saw volumes of titillating memoirs and naïve observations, of vitriol, a trial by police, by media and in the justice system, applauded novel-length reportage by one of Australia’s most celebrated non-fiction writers, and in the seven years all this took, one person’s narrative remained unchanged.
‘I blacked out’. Robert, on the side of the highway with two confused young men, remembered. He was coughing. He had been for days. He was coughing and then they were in the dam. ‘I was havin’ a coughing fit, next thing I remember we were in the dam. I must’a blacked out’. Oh fuck. Fuck. ‘I tried to get the kids out. I need to tell their mother. I tried. I couldn’t get ‘em out.’ he says to the men. ‘Cindy is waiting for us. I need to tell her.’
‘Mate, what the fuck are you talking about??’
Oh fuck. I need a cigarette. Oh fuck. ‘Can ya gimme a smoke mate? You gotta drive me to Cindy. I gotta tell their mother. Fuck. I gotta tell her.’ Fuck. What am I going to tell her? Fuck. They are dead. Cindy. Fuck. She is going to fuckin’ kill me. Fuck.
Farquharson is not making any sense, he is not coherent, he is just babbling. The two guys do not move, just stare at him. ‘Mate, calm down, take a breath and tell us where the kids are?’
‘I blacked out and put the car in the dam. The kids, they are in the car. I tried to get them out. I couldn’t get them out. The kids, they are in there.’ Fuck. Fuck. They are dead! Fuck! Cindy is waiting for us! I am late. She is waiting. Fuck.
Shane and Tony looked at the dam. The dam was still. Is this guy insane?
‘Should we go down and try to get them out?’ asks Shane.
Still no cigarette.
‘Mate, do you want to call the police?’ asks Tony.
Farquharson just keeps babbling.
‘Get me to their mother. It is too late. I fucking killed `em. Fuck! Gimme a smoke, can ya? I gotta tell Cindy. Drive me to Winch.’
The crazy fucker is pointing to Geelong. Is he insane? He is clearly not the full dollar. Has he got Downs Syndrome?
‘Winch is that way mate’ says Shane, pointing in the right direction.
‘Ok, drive me there, I got to tell Cindy. I fucking killed the kids. I gotta tell her.’
‘You sure we shouldn’t call the cops, mate?’
‘It’s too late. I gotta tell Cindy. Fuck. She’s their mother. I gotta tell her. She’s waiting. I gotta tell Cindy. Drive me to Winch.’
It was Father’s Day, September 4th 2005, and Robert Farquharson had been driving his three young sons home to their mother’s house in Winchelsea (`Winch’ to the locals) after taking them to dinner at KFC in Geelong, 30 minutes up the Princes Highway. Just a few minutes before reaching Winch, the car went off the road and into a dam. The three children, Jai aged 10, Tyler 7 and Bailey 2 years old, all drowned. Robert Farquharson escaped the sinking car.
Tyler and Bailey were found lifeless in the back seat when the 1989 Commodore Berlina, the ‘shit car’, was winched from the dam later that night. Jai was found protruding from the front door by police diver Rebecca Caskey, who pushed him back inside before the car was winched out. Was it worse that he nearly made it?
The community of Winchelsea was shocked. The boys’ school flew their flag at half-mast and provided counselling to Jai and Tyler’s class mates, who planned a memorial garden. Bouquets of flowers were laid at the side of the dam. Media interest was intense at the funeral of the three boys at the Church of John the Baptist in Winchelsea. Farquharson and ex-wife Cindy Gambino cried, wailed, embraced. This was raw grief and the scenes, captured by tv and print media, are distressing.
Within months, Robert Farquharson would be charged with murdering his three sons. He was found guilty at trial in 2007. Farquharson appealed and won the right to a new trial, and was found guilty of murder for a second time in 2010. He appealed again, first to the Supreme Court of Victoria and then to the High Court of Australia, and lost. Farquharson is currently in prison, serving a 33 year sentence.
Who is Robert Farquharson, and could he be that evil?
A lot has been written about Robert Farquharson, with two full length books on the case, and a chapter in a third book written by a psychologist purporting to explain ‘why he did it’. None of the authors actually spoke to Farquharson, however one author, Megan Norris, did speak extensively to Cindy Gambino, his partner for 12 years. A portrait emerged of a very ordinary Aussie bloke.
In the 1990s, John Howard’s rise to prime minister of Australia was attributed by many to his appeal to ‘aussie battlers’, ordinary working class individuals. Howard described a battler as ‘somebody who finds in life that they have to work hard for everything they get… normally you then look at it in terms of somebody who’s not earning a huge income but somebody who is trying to better themselves, and I’ve always been attracted to people who try to better themselves.’ Prior to being thrust into the public domain as the embodiment of evil and of male violence, Farquharson had embodied the term ‘little aussie battler’. He was literally little, around 5 foot 2 inches in the old scale. He worked long hours as a cleaner in a hotel, having worked previously for the city council and then as a lawn mower. He was an ‘old school’ husband and father who left the housework and child raising to the Mrs, and whose interactions with the boys revolved around sports. He was ‘a good provider’ who was close to his boys.
Helen Garner, renowned author of a critically acclaimed narrative nonfiction book on the case, embraced Farquharson’s ordinariness as a touchstone for exploring the human psyche and, as is her want, her own psyche ‘I’m interested in apparently ordinary people who, under life’s unbearable pressure, burst through the very fine membrane that separates our daylight selves from the secret darkness that lives in every one of us.’
Does it though? Are we all capable of murdering our own children?
I have spoken to Robert Farquharson on multiple occasions, but I don’t purport to have great insights into his psyche. I visited him in the protective custody section of prison, where he has spent more than a decade. No-one likes a child killer, making him unsuitable for mixing into the general population of prisoners. An outcast from society’s outcasts, the lowest of the low. Sitting across from me, wearing a green jump suit, in an ordinary room with ordinary chairs and ordinary tables, he comes across as an ordinary aussie bloke. But consider that at the next ordinary table sits another ordinary looking bloke, also clad in a green jump suit, chatting amiably with his mother. That bloke is doing a life sentence for a string of brutal rapes that culminated in a horrific rape and murder. The ordinary table across from us was occupied by another bloke wearing a green jump suit, and his family; father, mother, sister. They seemed pretty ordinary too. This bloke, who had savagely killed two elderly neighbours, casually had his arm around his sister as the family chatted.
When Farquharson told me the story of what happened the night his children died, I could not look into his eyes and tell whether he was lying. I don’t have that ability. I cannot read minds. I can tell you that he stuck by his story of blacking out after coughing. Of coming to in the dam. Of trying to dive down. Of not reaching the car. Of going for help. That by the time he reached the road he had gone into shock. That the only thing that came into his mind was the need to tell Cindy, the boys’ mother. I can also tell you that I believed him. Not because he sounded earnest, and not because he looked me in the eyes, as though that matters. I believed him because I had spent the past two years looking closely at the evidence used to convict him, and had concluded that the evidence indicates that he is innocent.
Note: citations & references in the original have been removed
Footnote: Plenty of evidence was forwarded during both trials that Farquharson’s life at that time revolved around his relationship with his kids, e.g. at p1236-1238 in Trial 2, Cindy Gambino agrees that Farquharson was a very good father and “provided for them in many ways”, even though she was giving evidence against him in that trial. In the earlier trial when she believed in his innocence she agreed that he “lived for his kids” and was “extraordinarily close” to them. She stood by those statements as being correct, even during the second trial, as well as the fact that Farquharson had become even closer to the children after the separation. Another example is the family psychologist Dr. Peter Popko who was counselling Farquharson about how to move on with his life after the break-up, who agreed that Farquharson was a caring, protective enthusiastic and encouraging father, trial 2 p 2835.There was also evidence led that Farquharson had forgone extra double time shifts at his work so that he could spend time with his kids.
ROAD TO DAMNATION (Clear Decks Media) $19.99 (paperback) $9.99 (e-book)
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Chris Brook is a theoretical astrophysicist who works on the formation of galaxies, trying to understand what galaxies can tell us about the nature of dark matter. He works at the University of La Laguna and the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, one of Spain’s most prestigious science institutes. Chris has previously held scientific research positions in universities in Australia, Canada, the U.S. and the U.K., has published more than 80 refereed journal articles that have been cited several thousands of times, and has been invited to talk at conferences and universities throughout the world. As well as a bachelor science and doctorate in astrophysics, Chris also has law and commerce degrees, and has published work on issues in forensic science. Chris has a particular interest in miscarriage of justice, particularly in the way that the legal system engages science, and how misunderstandings and ignorance of scientific knowledge can lead to injustice. Chris grew up in Melbourne, and now lives in Tenerife, Spain, with his wife Arianna and daughter Miranda.
NEXT: Excerpt 2 from Road to Damnation – ‘An incubator of bias’