Dads Who Kill: Q&A with Megan Norris

Sisters in Crime’s Vice-President, Robyn Walton talked to Megan about her true crime book, Look What You Made Me Do: Fathers Who Kill (Echo, 2016) which won the 2017 Davitt (Non-Fiction).

Hello, Megan. First, a trigger warning to readers. The matters mentioned in our Q&A may be distressing, especially for anyone who has lost a child or has sensitivities to do with abusive relationships, family violence, or suicide. Did you want to add anything to that warning?

I’ve been told by my own family that this is not a book they could comfortably read. So, if the murders of 13 small children by their own dads are likely to be too confronting, then this is probably not for you.

Megan, I’m going to ask a few general questions based on your excellent Introduction, and then questions to do with issues raised by the seven Australian cases you investigated.  

Your subject is the type of child murder classed as spousal revenge murder or retaliatory filicide – or, as one killer parent put it, “Paybk u slut”. Can you tell us a little more about this kind of crime and its prevalence in Australia?

These are crimes motivated by revenge and spite in which a parent deliberately murders their own child with the sole intention of punishing the other parent. In retaliatory filicide the children, whilst the victims, are not the true target of the killer’s rage – the actual target is the surviving parent. The children are collateral damage.

The cases in this book support the international studies which show most perpetrators of retaliatory filicide are male, and the crimes are generally committed in the context of a relationship breakdown as fathers seek to inflict a lifelong punishment on their former partners for ending an unfulfilling relationship.

What I found particularly revealing about most of these crimes is that the murders did not take place when the woman was leaving the relationship – which is a known trigger time for serious violence; they occurred when the mother made it clear she would not be returning.

One UK researcher identifies four different motivators: economic/financial failure, disappointment, self-righteousness, and paranoia. How does this compare with your Australian observations? These killers show forethought, and usually there have been prior threats by the killer that he will harm his wife/partner, his children, and himself. Your comments?

The seven crimes in this book were committed by self-righteous perpetrators –  men who exhibited a proprietorial attitude towards their wives and children and treated them as their own personal possessions. Each of the fathers I studied showed an overwhelming sense of entitlement in relation to his family, and all had made menacing threats towards the partners when they attempted to end the abusive relationships.

Most of the men had been manipulative and had threatened to commit suicide during the collapse of the relationships. Threats were also made to deprive the mother of her children to punish her. Sadly, many of these menacing veiled threats were misinterpreted by relatives and friends who assumed these disgruntled fathers were referring to winning custody of their children when they threatened they would take them away. Nobody realised they were threatening to murder them.

The threats in themselves are clear evidence of forethought and, as the international research shows, offenders with a proprietorial attitude and sense of entitlement later justify their crimes by blaming the surviving parent. The offender blames his partner for the abuse he has been inflicting on her and blames her again for leaving. Later, after killing his children, he blames the mother for that too – hence the title of this book, Look What You Made Me Do. The book title is a direct quote from one of the murdering fathers and illustrates the punitive nature of the crime and its motivation of spite and revenge. I used a quote from each offender as the heading for each chapter.

Case one (Steck/East) happened 20 years ago. Michelle was being stalked by her ex, who even took up residence in the roof cavity of her house. Three-year-old Kelly reported to her mother that her father had put a pillow over her mouth, stopping her breathing. Sadly, neither police nor lawyers were much help in preventing murder. Have there been improvements in policing and laws since then?

There have been significant advances in community policing since the murder of little Kelly East, which took place in the days before stalking legislation was introduced in Australia. The kind of persistent blatant stalking which Kevin East perpetrated would now get him arrested and hopefully charged. But would it get him jailed? I doubt it – that is something that needs to change.

It is telling that at least three of the fathers in this book were already facing jail for repeatedly breaching their AVOs at the time they killed their children and were stalking their former partners despite the involvement of law enforcement agencies. This is not surprising since men with a proprietorial, self-righteous attitude do not respond positively to external authorities telling them what they can and can’t do. As stalking and repeated breaches of AVOs are two clear predictors of serious risk to mothers and their children, there should be tougher penalties on those who flout them. I think there is an argument for compulsory electronic monitoring of offenders upon release.

It’s encouraging that the recent Royal Commission into DV in Victoria has recommended more than 235 initiatives to tackle family violence. It will be interesting to see how many of those changes are implemented.

In case two (Fehring/Dalton), the controlling husband was a Vietnam veteran. Attempts were made to help him through veterans’ counselling and a separated fathers program, yet he killed his children on Anzac Day after losing a custody dispute. How do you feel about such troubled men?

Self-righteous killer Jayson Dalton told his abused wife she was crazy and insisted she have the counselling. When the counsellor revealed Dionne Fehring was not the problem – her abusive husband was – Dalton stopped her going. He still refused to acknowledge he was the one who needed help despite the concerns of his family and men’s support group.

I am not sure how this can be addressed without locking up men like Dalton the moment they breach their AVOs. I am not sure that court ordered therapy makes much difference to self-righteous men with a strong sense of entitlement. At least one of the fathers in this book completed court-ordered counselling and still killed his little girl.

The Farquharson/Gambino case is well known to Victorians, especially since Helen Garner published her account of the trial of the man accused of killing his three sons by deliberately driving into a dam. What angle did you take when investigating and telling this story?

After giving her evidence at Farquharson’s second trial, Cindy Gambino asked me if I would be interested in writing her story. I had already covered the court case and interviewed her for a couple of magazines and TV during the process of the two trials. Hours upon hours of interviews over years with Cindy and her new partner and other relatives allowed me a deeper understanding of her failed relationship with Farquharson and the festering anger and resentment which led to his revenge crime.

Perhaps people are unaware that my book, On Father’s Day, came out around a year before Helen Garner’s book, so this was not a question of me taking a different approach simply to be different. My book went to print as soon as Farquharson’s last appeal bid was rejected.

In my book I wanted to focus on the revenge motivation and the lasting impact retaliatory filicide has on the surviving mother, without injecting myself into the narrative or hijacking her grief in any way. As the grandmother of two young boys the same age as Cindy’s older boys, I found this difficult, though nobody knew from any of the publicity that I was a grandmother. I have had very positive feedback: from readers on Amazon, and from viewers of the TV programs Sunday Night and Crimes That Shook Australia, which featured the book.

Four-year-old Darcey Freeman died when her father threw her off Melbourne’s West Gate Bridge. You reproduce the sweet family photo of Darcey that was supplied to the media. Is publication of all relevant photos useful, or should we resist being too intrusive? Is it hard for you to deal with photos?

I always leave the photo section until last, especially in child murder cases, because that is the only way I can remain objective and unemotional whilst I am writing. The photo of Darcey was one the family released through the Alannah and Madeleine Foundation to keep the media at bay and thus protect Darcey’s two traumatised brothers, who had witnessed their father throwing their sister to her death.

There is a place for photographs like these when publishing material about violent crimes, if only to humanise the loss felt by grieving families and the senselessness of it all. Writing books, I have never had to ask for photographs; they are offered to me. But I know that this is painful for the surviving mothers, who inevitably revisit dark places when digging through old photo albums. In writing this book, I had many late-night calls from mothers questioning their entire lives, asking themselves what they might have done differently. That is part of the legacy of revenge crimes.

Controversy about the value of the journalist’s ‘death knock’ (which results in stories and photographs) has recently been the subject of a high-profile public inquiry in the UK, where two major disasters, the Manchester Concert terrorist attack and the Grenfell Towers disaster, raised the issue of media intrusion versus public interest. Interestingly, while the local media coverage of the Manchester attack was praised by the inquiry, national media coverage of the case came under attack for being unnecessarily sensational and insensitive.

In case five (D’Argent/Acar) the victim is a girl nearing her third birthday. Typically, it seems, the victims are young, trusting, dependent, and incapable of putting up much resistance. Your observations?  

Studies have shown that in child homicides it is infants under one that are at most risk. With retaliatory filicides, the victims tend to be a little older.

The Acar case was very upsetting in that it was particularly gruesome. Acar repeatedly stabbed his tiny daughter with a large knife, feeling so ashamed after the crime that he hid it and was very reluctant to show the police the murder weapon because of its size. This crime was typical overkill, and the multiple stab wounds were evidence of his extreme rage towards the child’s mother. Jazmina Acar suffered a slow, agonising death. That must have been dreadful for her mother to discover when the autopsy results were revealed at the inquest.

What is tragic in each of these cases is that these children went so willingly to their deaths with fathers they trusted and loved.

As she reflects on the killing of her three children, Karen Bell (case six) says: “The damage remains forever”. Even if the bereaved mother re-partners and has another baby, the horror of what has been done to her and her children affects her for the rest of her life. Any thoughts?

Retaliatory homicide is intended to be a lasting punishment and it really is. For every year that passes, as other surviving children reach the milestones that the murdered child has been denied, the pain continues to eat away. The birth of a subsequent child is painful because it is such a bitter-sweet occasion, the joy of the newborn overshadowed by a mother’s deep sense of loss.

Perhaps the most disabling question for the surviving mothers who go on to have other children is: ‘Is this your first?’ or ‘How many children do you have?’. An honest answer is too confronting for the person innocently asking the question. Yet to focus only on the new child, and to fail to mention the murdered children, is akin to dishonouring their memory.

Every surviving mother has told me about the painful limbo that follows the murder of her child. She loses her identity after years of being defined as a mother; the crime suddenly renders her a mother without a child.

In case seven (Poulson/Kongsom) you include information about the grief of the killer’s mother back in Thailand. (“I lost my only child and two beautiful grandchildren.”) There’s always a ripple effect, with many more people affected by a murder than we realise at first?

It is easy for the public to empathise with the murdered child’s family. But covering courts you quickly realise that there are no winners and that both families — those who have lost someone, and those whose loved one has killed — are victims of the crime.

The families of offenders suffer greatly because they are blamed and judged by society. Many change their names or move away to try to distance themselves from crimes. They suffer loss too. The judge in the Darcy Freeman case empathised with the pain that was palpable in the evidence given by Arthur Freeman’s parents, who lost their grand-daughter because of their son’s crime. The judge pointed out he understood – he was a grandfather too.

The Victim Impact Statement of Jazmina Acar’s maternal grandmother, who had been very involved in the little girl’s care, was equally as heartbreaking as the pain of Jazmina’s paternal grandparents, who had lost a grand-daughter because of their son’s actions.

 Finally, Megan, are there other things you’d like to say about your book and the problems it highlights?  

One of the things I think this book highlights is that there are too many mothers out there walking in Rosie Batty’s shoes and unless we implement changes, and fast, there will be more.

I re-visited the case of Michelle Steck because she was the Rosie Batty of the early 1990s and the public figurehead behind a campaign for change. Domestic violence was not sexy politics back then, and while people paid lip service to change little happened. Michelle predicted then that unless people recognised these sorts of revenge crimes as the ultimate act of domestic violence children would continue to be at risk.

Retaliatory filicide is a crime levelled at the mother for leaving. It is the ultimate in domestic violence.