JUST ANOTHER LITTLE MURDER
Maintaining the rage
Byline: Garry Linnell
SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
When Vicki Cleary was stabbed to death by an ex-lover in 1987,
her older brother Phil was racked by grief and guilt. But it wasn't
until her killer's trial that the anger really kicked in. Garry
Linnell talks to the former footballer and MP about the injustice
that became his abiding obsession.
He has a question. When a killing takes place, everyone has questions.
But if someone can provide him with the answer, then finally - finally
- he might be able to bring this dark, haunting tale he has lived
and wrestled with for 15 years to some kind of conclusion.
Of course, Phil Cleary figured out a long time ago that the answer
might remain forever beyond his reach. But it still won't stop him
asking the question again and again.
"How" he says," does a 25-year-old girl drive her
car to work on a bright August morning, begin to park the car, only
to be accosted by a man she's left three months before, and then
find herself dragged to the passenger seat where he attempts to
stab her numerous times?'
Cleary is now perched on the edge of a chair inside his study.
He rubs a hand across a face of white, wiry whiskers. His voice,
a powerful instrument he has always prided himself on, a voice that
has boomed through the halls of Federal Parliament and across crowded
suburban football fields, is growing louder, angrier. He screws
up his face as if tasting this outrage for the first time.
But we must go on. "Her hands are cut. The blade slices through
her fingers. She's got a deep wound to her lip, running right down
her lip and chin. She's completely traumatised. He then pulls her
out of the passenger-side door and he stabs her another four, five,
six times. Slices her liver and her lungs. Drops her to the ground.
He walks across the road. Wipes the blade on a handkerchief or tissue.
Puts it in a homemade scabbard and goes around the corner and has
a cup of coffee."
All the old bile is back now, eating away at him like acid. This
rage, it never goes away. "Tell me how, in a civilised court
in Australia, that man got a manslaughter verdict, instead of murder,
and [served] three years and 11 months. What ... is ... wrong?"
She was only young, this sister of his, when she was killed in
1987. A good, honest woman, too - but then, that hardly needs saying.
Vicki was, after all, a Cleary. And in the northern Melbourne working-class
suburb of Coburg, not one of the six Cleary kids had fallen off
the rails or brought shame on a family with proud Irish Catholic
Ron Cleary's butcher's shop, planted in the midst of a hardened
housing commission area, managed to feed, clothe and educate his
large family. He and his wife, Lorna, saved hard to buy a set of
encyclopedias in a home built on generosity and education.
The Clearys were storytellers. Phil's grandfather had been a left-wing
seafarer and spruiker for the working class, while the Cleary home
in Dublin had been an IRA safe house in the 1920s.
Phil became the first of the clan to go to university. He studied
politics, of course. By the time he reached his late teens, he was
already politically aware, already drenched in the family ideology
and quick to grow indignant at any perceived class injustice.
Sporting a heavy black beard as thick as a bushranger's, Phil Cleary
became a suburban cult figure in Melbourne, known for his tough,
unrelenting style with Coburg in the Victorian Football Association,
a vibrant, second-tier league with strong community roots. But politics
was always foremost. Life was politics. Before he won Bob Hawke's
seat of Wills as an Independent in 1992, Cleary coached Coburg to
two premierships. He would exhort his players to play as a collective,
to stand together, united, for the greater good of the team.
In the early 1980s, Vicki, the oldest of Phil's three younger sisters,
met this bloke, Peter Keogh, and he moved in with her. The Clearys
didn't like Keogh. The boys, particularly, didn't trust him. They
knew his type. He was 13 years older than Vicki, with a gallery
of crass tattoos that were little more than crude advertisements
for the man they covered. His elbows were wrapped in inky spider
webs and he rarely looked you in the eye.
Keogh was working-class, too, but from "a substratum in the
culture that we wouldn't piss on", says Cleary. He was sullen,
moody, unresponsive. One time, Vicki brought him along to the football
to see Phil play. In the clubrooms afterward, Keogh sat at a table,
surrounded by empty glasses. Phil looked at him and saw his dead
eyes. "He just had a look in his face and I thought, 'He's
no good, this bloke.'
The family said nothing. Ron even gave him work in the butcher's
shop. "It was that generosity, almost naivete, that let Keogh
slip under our guard," says Phil Cleary. "Mum and Dad
weren't fond of Vicki's relationship with him, but what do you do?
History tells us you never win those battles. We never believed
a man would do what he did. That's how he got under our guard. He
needed a bit of old-style treatment. He needed the brothers to appear
on the doorstep and say, 'F... off'. But we didn't."
No, they didn't. When it became clear after Vicki finally left
him that Keogh couldn't let her go, that he would always be there
to stalk and harass her, the brothers offered to pay him a visit.
Their father Ron knew the truth of it. "She's never going to
be free of that man until he's dead," he'd said one day. But
Vicki, who never really told them how bad it had all become, always
refused. Don't worry, she would say. It's under control.
There would be guilt later on, of course. Phil, because he was
the oldest, would blame himself. He should have been there for his
sister, protecting her. But what he and the rest of the family didn't
know was just how violent and soulless Keogh was. "How could
I know I was looking at a misogynist savage?" asks Phil. "This
bloke made the Taliban look like Germaine Greer."
Long before he met Vicki, Keogh had been described by a judge as
a "man of violence who committed outrageous indecencies"
when he sexually assaulted a nine-year-old girl in 1975. In 1976,
a parole officer described him as "a woman hater" - he'd
once taken a female co-worker into the basement of a city building
and repeatedly smashed her head against the wall. His past was littered
with similar offences.
Of course, the Clearys have asked themselves another question over
the years. Why was Vicki attracted to such a man? She was gentle,
almost naive about some things in life. She took people at face
value. When he'd first met her, Keogh had showered her with compliments.
It was much the same with other women in his life.
When Vicki left Keogh in May 1987, Phil was content. "When
she declared it was over, I thought, 'Yes, it's run its course.
I've not even had to say a bad word about him or get into an emotional
struggle about it.'" He remembers Vicki turning up to watch
him play his 200th game for Coburg, cheering him on from the terrace.
They were playing against Frankston that day, a far more talented
and skilled team. But Coburg gave them a hiding and Phil Cleary,
at 34, was among their best players. In the smoky, beer-drenched
social rooms afterwards, he looked across at his sister. "I
remember thinking, 'What an absolutely beautiful sister I've got.
The last three or four years I haven't seen much of you because
But the relationship hadn't run its course. Keogh was outraged
that she had left. He rang constantly, abusing and threatening her.
On Wednesday, August 26, 1987, the morning after Vicki had failed
to meet a demand by Keogh to visit him, he arrived outside the kindergarten
where she worked, an hour before she was due to arrive. He was wearing
bright yellow overalls and carrying a large knife, rubber gloves,
another blade and masking tape. At his trial, he would tell the
court he intended only to vandalise Vicki's car.
After the stabbing, as the butcher's daughter lay bleeding to death
in the gutter, a witness watched Keogh walk calmly away, wiping
the blood "callously" from the blade. He then strolled
around the corner to an auction room he knew and sipped coffee before
leaving to hide the knife. By then, an ambulance officer was leaning
over Vicki, trying to stem the blood flow. "Please, don't let
me die," she asked him.
But by then it was all too late. Too late to stop Vicki's life
ebbing away and far too late for a band of brothers to knock on
a door and order their sister's lousy boyfriend out of her life.
Now, they would never be rid of him.
Phil Cleary has written a book, called Just Another Little Murder
(to be published next month), about the injustices of his sister's
death and its lingering impact. It's a passionate book, because
he knows no other way. He's a man with a considerable ego, and his
narrative voice, as in his public life, is often hectoring, sometimes
profane and typically belligerent. Cleary sees class war everywhere;
to him, society has as many classifications as the natural world
has to a biologist.
The book's main purpose is to document Cleary's pursuit of Keogh,
his 15-year obsession with the man who killed his sister and the
justice system that Cleary maintains allowed him to get away with
Vicki's killing was bad enough, he says, but what followed at Keogh's
trial two years later was the real trigger for all the anger that
has festered since within the Cleary clan. "People like to
construct murder as the dark stranger," he says, "but
the most common kind of murder is killing by an intimate. If you've
got a killing by an intimate that involves a man like Keogh who
lies about everything he does, and is then exonerated, then you've
got the recipe for deep, deep suffering. If people wonder why I've
pursued this, ask them this: 'How do you think you'd feel if a court
told you that your sister somehow contributed to her own murder
by way of provocation?'"
At the trial in the Victorian Supreme Court, Justice George Hampel
allowed Keogh a defence of provocation. This was, says Cleary, based
on the so-called provocative language Vicki had allegedly used when
confronted by Keogh that morning (Keogh claimed she told him to
"f... off" and leave), and on the claim that Keogh was
an alcoholic depressive supposedly tormented over Vicki's departure
and a new boyfriend.
The Clearys sat through the trial, growing more bewildered by the
day. Who was there to speak for Vicki? Keogh had become the victim.
"It was the state that was almost an ally of his," says
Phil. "Parole officers continually blamed his mother. Shrinks
always found an excuse for him or an explanation for his violence.
He took no responsibility. Throughout his life he had barristers
to speak for him, no matter how vile his crimes were.
"Forget these middle-class barristers. They are able to do
what they have done because the law has been an accomplice. I'm
telling them straight in the book. I'm going to put their statements
and their rulings and their sentences and their attitudes on the
written page. These facts have been hidden from the public gaze
... When I went into Parliament, I was asked to explain my position.
Everyone should be asked to explain their position."
The anger and frustration that had grown within the Cleary family
during the trial spilled over once the jury found Keogh guilty of
manslaughter. Phil waited until the red robe of Justice Hampel had
disappeared from view before walking up to Keogh in the dock and
telling him: "You're nothing but a f...ing murderer."
Keogh, his face buried in his hands, did not look up. Outside, Lorna
Cleary walked up to the jury as it was leaving the court. "Do
you know what you've done?" she cried out. "You've let
a murderer go free."
"I was so proud of her courage and her intelligence,"
writes Cleary. "Not one expletive or a word of sarcasm did
Mum need to capture what had happened." George Hampel, however,
was not so impressed. When court reconvened the next day for sentencing,
the Clearys were banished from the body of the court as Hampel explained:
"In the context of this trial, it may be significant to realise
how little ordinary people are able to control their emotions and
prevent themselves from unsuitable outbursts."
Cleary's anger with Justice Hampel and his allowing of a provocation
defence has not waned in the 13 years since the trial, at which
Keogh was sentenced to eight years with a minimum of six. (He was
released after serving three years and 11 months.) A few years after
the trial, Cleary saw the Hampels dining at a Thai restaurant in
Carlton. He bided his time and thought about whether he should approach
the judge. There was never really a choice, not in Cleary's mind.
"When I left, I went over and said, 'George, Phil Cleary. How
are you? I just wanted to tell you I thought your decision was very
Bourgeois? "What I meant was that it related to the whole
concept of marriage and property. I was saying my sister had been
turned into a chattel as per the old marriage acts. And this was
what the real message of the court was. He sort of smiled at me.
I didn't abuse him. I left and walked away.
"If George Hampel had denied Keogh a provocation defence,
my family would have just moved on. We would have remembered a beautiful
girl we lost, but we would have moved on. But the provocation defence
changed everything. I could never allow that verdict or ruling to
stand unchallenged. I'm a political beast and that trial was a political
trial, in the sense that every trial that involves the killing of
a woman by her ex is a political trial. It deals with the politics
of society, the politics of sex."
Not long after Vicki's funeral, friends had suggested her brother
should take out a contract on Keogh's life - hell, everyone in Coburg
knew someone who knew someone who could help. A friend suggested
asking the well-known underworld figure Alphonse Gangitano to pay
Keogh a visit. "The only way to deal with Keogh was counter-violence,"
says Cleary. "It was the only thing he understood. People suggested
to me doing him in but it's hard as a public figure. I said, it
can't be done. It's just not something you can do."
But the fantasies about hunting down his sister's killer never
went away. New pieces of information about Keogh and his violent
past, which had been kept from the jury at Vicki's trial, continued
surfacing. Cleary kept digging. When he lost his seat in the House
of Representatives at the 1996 election, he looked harder. By this
time, Keogh had long since been released from prison, and sometimes
Cleary drove the narrow streets of Preston and Coburg, searching
Keogh's old haunts, peering through those tinted pub windows, trying
to find him.
He never let up. After his release, Keogh had begun a relationship
with another woman. When she ordered him to leave, her house was
torched not long afterwards. Cleary gathered evidence and went to
the police, naming Keogh as the main suspect.
One of Cleary's sisters, Donna, admits her brother has an obsession.
But no-one in the family, she says, has ever told him to let it
go. "I can't say that to him because I don't think he has to
let it go. That's the way Phil has always been. No-one has the right
to tell him to stop. And what he says, we all agree with it."
The thing about Vicki, says Donna, is that you can never remember
her without the killing getting in the way. "While she was
being stabbed, she never fell into unconsciousness. She fought so
hard to get away from Keogh. Every time I picture her, all of that
becomes part of the memory, too."
"Some of Phil's mates say he's been completely obsessed by
the case, but I don't think that is entirely true," says Cleary's
close friend and mentor, Doug White, a former editor of the leftist
political journal Arena. "He's certainly been driven by it.
Phil is an old-fashioned person in a way: he has this almost chivalrous
approach, this idea that men should look after women, protect them."
Over the years, Cleary, who has two daughters in their twenties
from his first marriage and two young boys with his current partner,
Christine, has immersed himself in the intricacies of criminal law,
hitting the books to learn more about provocation defence. There
were cases he leafed through - cases of gang rape and outright brutality
- where those middle-class barristers had smirked and sneered their
way through trials, portraying women and young girls (working-class
girls, of course) as nothing more than whores and easy lays. Like
Vicki, they were women who the law was only too ready to believe
had provoked the violence visited upon them.
Cleary, now a consultant at La Trobe University, never used his
four years in Canberra to try to bring about changes in the justice
system because, he says, he felt it would be wrong to put his own
needs ahead of his electorate. But now, "on reflection, yes,
I should have done more. I should have generated a big debate in
the Parliament about what produces these kinds of verdicts. The
right time would have been to do it then."
But that's another thing about murder. It forever condemns those
affected by it to a life of "what ifs" and "could
Peter Keogh committed suicide a year ago at the age of 53, gassing
himself in a car. Cleary would like to think that his haunting of
the man, his constant hounding and investigation into all his crimes,
had convinced Keogh he would never be free.
But, like Donna and the rest of them, Phil experienced no satisfaction
with his passing. Keogh's death, he found, did not bring any closure
to the case. Even the writing of the book, he admits, has still
not answered the questions that keep tumbling over and over again.
"This book is the retrial we never had ... hopefully it will
bring some kind of closure."
Murder, he writes, changes everything. It never goes away. And
Phil Cleary, the angry political firebrand from a family of Irish
storytellers, will forever be a character in a tale that will never,
truly, find an ending.
"He needed a bit of old-style treatment.
He needed the brothers to appear on the doorstep ... But we didn't