Twice in the winter of 1969, a little boy looked deep into the eyes of a young man called Derek Percy and got lost there forever.
The first time, that crisp Sunday in July, Shane Spiller was 11 and strolling down a dirt track at Warneet, on Westernport Bay, with his friend, Yvonne Tuohy. When they got to the beach at the end of the trail, they were going to make a little fire of driftwood and have a picnic lunch.
But Percy got there first. He grabbed 12-year-old Yvonne and pressed a red dagger to her neck. He told Shane to come, too, but the boy knew better than that. In his belt he had a small hatchet that he'd brought to chop firewood and now he waved it at the man and began backing away.
"Come back or he'll cut my throat," begged Yvonne. Instead, Shane sprinted 200 metres through the tea-tree scrub yelling for help. As he got to the road, he saw Percy driving away. He had Yvonne wrapped in a blanket.
The second time was at Russell Street police headquarters. Shane had been able to describe the car, an orange station wagon, and gave detectives a drawing of a sticker he'd seen on its rear window. It was a Royal Australian Navy insignia and pointed the police to the nearby base at HMAS Cerberus. They found Percy in the laundry, trying to wash Yvonne's blood from his clothes.
He took them to Fisheries Road, Devon Meadows, where he'd left her under some bushes. He had tied her wrists behind her, stuffed a balled cloth in her mouth, strangled her and mutilated her body and throat with long, deep cuts.
But now the detectives needed Shane to look into those killer's eyes again. They put him in a room where the 21-year-old naval rating with the long, narrow face had been placed in a line-up. "I had to pick him," he recalled later. "I had to walk up and point right at his nose."
After 30 years, he still shuddered: "The look he gave me …"
The police were very pleased with their young witness. They had a sketch artist do his portrait and gave him a show bag of gifts. The newspaper photographers were happy, too. They'd captured a terrific image of the boy in his army-style jacket, epaulets and turtle-neck jumper, holding his steel tomahawk in both hands, his wide hazel eyes staring straight down the lens.
"And for all the world," remembers former police victim liaison officer Robert Read, "that was the end of Shane Spiller."
The world had a lot to distract it that day. On the moon, Neil Armstrong had taken a small step on to the Sea of Tranquility. But, as Read now points out, that was a word that would never again apply to Shane Spiller: "That little boy was traumatised for life by Derek Percy and by what he'd seen."
At his trial a year later, Percy was found not guilty on the grounds of insanity and sent to prison for an indefinite term. He is still there. Shane went home to Armadale and tried to resume his life. "He went back to school after the holiday and seemed to be doing all right," says lawyer Michael Clark. "The effects didn't really catch up to him until he was about 14 or 15."
From the beginning, he had trouble sleeping and grew afraid of the dark. His parents had been advised that he'd get over it and not to mollycoddle him. These were the days before trauma counselling, says Clark. "Back then, if you saw something you didn't like you bit your tongue and took it like a man. He wasn't able to do that."
He got lost in guilt, loneliness and fear and began drinking at 14. "He'd been a pretty good student but very quickly his results went from good to pathetic, he fell out with his parents, left school and basically went walkabout. From that time on, he was a wandering, lost soul."
One day, years later, and by then a heavy drinker and drug user, Spiller washed up in the little New South Wales village of Wyndham, in the hills and bush 30 kilometres west of Merimbula. It must have seemed the perfect place to escape to. The trouble was, he took Derek Percy with him.
WYNDHAM is a pub, a general store and a couple of dozen modest houses tucked into the dips and folds of the Mount Darragh ridgeline, between Whipstick and Rocky Hall. In the 1860s, it was gold country but now yields mainly cattle and timber, with some sidelining in small-plot cannabis plantations hidden in the surrounding national park.
The Robbie Burns Hotel is the district's social centre. A twin-gabled weatherboard built in 1891, it is decorated with traps, maps, a long leather bullwhip, old logging photos and Scottish-themed bric-a-brac. Its public bar is homey and welcoming, with a log fire and a couple of fat lounge chairs; its only concessions to modernity a plasma flat screen and a clutch of pokies.
This drizzly Thursday, the back dining room hosts the weekly Stitch 'n' Bitch, where the local womenfolk bring their crafts and gossip to lunch. The men start drifting in to the bar about 3.30pm. They're taciturn but not unfriendly and when a stranger raises the puzzle of Stick Spiller, the theories, stories and suspicions spill out.
Ever since he suddenly disappeared on Monday, September 9, 2002, what might have happened to skinny Shane Spiller has exercised the minds — and imaginations — of Wyndham. "It's a real mystery. Everyone still talks about it," says general store owner Bryan Hunter, the last person to see him alive.
That morning, Spiller had walked to the store from his two-bedroom shack around the corner to pick up his mail. A few days later, when worried neighbours broke into his house, they found his boots in the middle of the living room, dinner set for two on the table, his wallet, and his medications untouched. His motorcycle was locked in his shed. They called the police and joined in the search for him, on motorbikes and horses, checking old mine shafts and lookouts. Every so often they still go out looking, but have never found him.
The police have settled on two probabilities. In one, Spiller suffered an accidental morphine overdose and someone panicked and got rid of his body. In the other, more likely scenario, after years of post-traumatic stress, substance abuse and paranoia, he went into the bush and committed suicide.
The blokes in the pub won't have that. "Not a hope in hell," says David Thoroughgood. "He could have done it 100 times before and he didn't want to."
What got him in the end, they reckon, was bad company. He'd become involved with "a bullshit scene" of morphine abusers, junkies and thieves. One in particular, who'd arrived not long out of prison, scared people: "A bad egg," says one. "Black, empty eyes," says another. When he first came to the pub looking for Stick, the barmaid told her boss: "If ever I've seen evil, it's just walked in to the bar."
For the second time in his life, Spiller had come too close to a killer. "We've bandied this about for years," says Tony Boller. "Somebody disappeared him, that's for sure." But however it ended, they insist, Derek Percy had already stolen Spiller's life all those years ago.
OVER 20 years, Robert Read has looked into the eyes of thousands of victims of violence. As head of the Victoria Police victim advisory unit, he has counselled survivors of rape, assault and armed robbery and families who have lost loved ones to murder and road toll. But in his scrapbook of hard memories, Spiller has a special place.
They first met in 1998, when he began helping Spiller seek criminal injuries compensation. Read liked the "loveable sort of bloke" from the start. "He was a knockabout sort of fella, a wild and woolly little character, very thin, with this big Ned Kelly beard. There wasn't much of him, probably more beard than anything. He was quintessentially a little Aussie bloke from the bush. But that was the facade. Underneath that he was a shattered individual and Derek Percy still controlled him. He was vulnerable and he was extremely fearful. Beneath the face of Shane Spiller lived a deep and dark cesspool of emotions."
And they were the baggage he carried when he drifted into Wyndham in the late 1980s. Next-door neighbour Andy Morris believes that from the time of his fatal beach holiday, Spiller had never felt safe again. Friends were asked to note the number plates of cars parked outside his home; he cut a trapdoor into his living room floor; and he slept with a baseball bat by his bed. He had become convinced that Percy would come after him or had put out a contract on his life.
"He was the most paranoid person I've ever met," he says. "Shane suffered all his life with post-traumatic stress disorder. There was this overwhelming dark cloud over his life and he was basically self-medicating with drugs and alcohol."
In mid-1998, Percy began moves to have his case reviewed by the Supreme Court of Victoria, seeking to be freed under recent laws relating to people serving indefinite "governor's pleasure" sentences. Of 46 people under such rulings, he was the only one held in prison and had become the longest-serving prisoner in Victoria.
Police had long been totally opposed to Percy's release, suspecting him of involvement in the notorious murders of eight other children: Christine Sharrock and Marianne Schmidt on Sydney's Wanda Beach in 1965; the disappearance of Jane, Arnna and Grant Beaumont in 1966; Alan Redston in Canberra later that year; Simon Brook in Sydney; and Linda Stilwell in St Kilda, both in 1968.
They began seeking statements from people who had been involved with Percy and Bega police were asked to contact Spiller. "It brought back all the memories and he went into stupefaction again," says his Melbourne lawyer, Michael Clark.
The police were so concerned they put him in contact with Read, who found him in utter distress: "In fact, he was almost out of control. He was utterly petrified of Percy. He'd had a wretched life."
Read would telephone him at the Robbie Burns, where he had a regular seat at the end of the bar. In long night-time conversations, he says, Spiller poured out his heart. "Derek Percy had absolutely ruined his life. He took a young innocent and turned him into a runaway — and it was Percy that he was running from."
Wyndham, with a floating population of less than 100, seemed a good place to run to. It was a mix of long-termers, logging workers and alternative lifestylers — or as one local puts it, tree-cutters, tree-changers, drop-outs and dole-bludgers. "It's a different sort of place," advises a policeman a few jurisdictions away. "Real Deliverance country. It's out in the scrub and the banjos are playing."
That's unfair, says barman Peter Cox. "This is a place where you can be who you like. People mind their own business but look out for each other. Stick was a nice bloke, he fitted in and everyone accepted him."
They laughed at his hoarding and his constant tinkering in his yard full of car parts, old washing machines, bike and boat hulls and his never fulfilled plan to open a laundromat. And celebrated his skill and — perhaps uncharacteristic — fearlessness on his GSX1000 Suzuki. "He was a manic rider," recalls Bryan Hunter. "He'd scream past here standing on the seat, arms spread wide. He came off a few times, scraped off a bit of bark, but never really hurt himself.
"It's hard to say exactly what twisted Stick's whistle. He was a normal bloke in many ways, just a larrikin motorcycle rider who liked a beer and smoked a few cones too many."
In 2000, Read helped Spiller apply for compensation for his decades of emotional trauma. He was awarded $5000, but appealed to VCAT and received the maximum $50,000. It was more money than he'd ever had, but it couldn't buy him peace of mind.
'PEOPLE liked Stick, but there were times his melodramas and paranoia could give you the shits," says a Wyndham resident. She says Spiller was having a whinge in the store one day when she called him a drama queen. He turned and quietly walked out.
"He came back a little while later and plonked a file down in front of me and said, 'This might explain why I'm like I am'," she recalls. "It was full of cuttings about this bloke Percy and what he did. I sat down that night and read it all. After that I was a lot more sympathetic."
Detective Sergeant Mark Winterflood from Bega police had helped track Spiller down for his 1998 statement. Every so often after that Spiller would ring to talk about Percy. Winterflood knew he was an alcoholic and that he grew and smoked a lot of dope. (Last year, after the bank sold Spiller's house, the new owners pulled out the ceiling and a bunch of rat nests fell out. They were all made of marijuana.)
But he had a strange fondness for him. He was harmless, considerate and for the most part honest, he says. "He was an unusual sort of bloke. But he lived on the fringe — and he didn't pick his friends very well."
Which turned into a problem when he became addicted to morphine. "He mixed with this circle of substance abusing people. Anywhere he could get morphine, through shonky scripts or other friends who could scam it, he'd grab it. People took advantage of him."
One of these people was Andrew Paul Kraaymaat, a 38-year-old who'd spent most of his adult life in and out of jail for a string of violent offences. He wasn't long out of prison when he came to Wyndham in 2000. He scared a lot of people, but was soon spending a lot of time at Spiller's.
In August 2000, after a night of drinking, Kraaymaat and a mate, Brian Peebles, "borrowed" Spiller's Nissan Patrol, purchased with his compensation payout, and rolled and wrecked it. Two nights later, the pair went on another drinking binge at Candelo, about 25 kilometres north, with another mate, Lee "Mick" Petrie. When it was over, Petrie was dead, with a filleting knife sticking out of his chest.
"The murder was three drunks in a room," says Winterflood. "Their alcohol readings were all around the 2.5 level — Kraaymaat described himself as virtually paralytic. One of them winds up dead and the other two can't really remember what happened. But they're able to shove a plastic bag over his head, drive him to a lookout on Myrtle Mountain, pull him out of the back of a car and dump him there."
They were arrested after Kraaymaat had a rare attack of conscience. He phoned his mother and said he'd committed "a cardinal sin … I've killed a bloke". Reverting to type, he added: "He was a mongrel bastard and he deserved to die."
Kraaymaat was sentenced to a minimum of 15 years for murder. Peebles, who turned Crown witness, was convicted of being a witness after the fact. But while he was locked up awaiting bail, some of his "friends" broke into his house.
"They've stolen his tools, his washing machine, anything of value," says Winterflood. "And one of the people he blames is poor old Spiller."
Peebles arranged for an associate to threaten Spiller. He rang and said he'd shoot him in the knee if he didn't name the thieves. Spiller immediately phoned the police. "The uniformed cop races around and while he's there, this bloke rings again and says, 'Me and my pistol are 15 kilometres away'. It wasn't real bright, but it caused him a lot more stress. No one was really out to kill him. But the fear played on his mind constantly."
THERE is an out-of-focus photo of Spiller from just before he vanished. He is standing at the bar of the Robbie Burns in a torn and dirty blue windcheater, looking away from the camera. His beard is gone, replaced by a five-day growth. He looks haggard, much older than his 44 years. He seems distracted and unhappy.
In the 4½ years since Spiller disappeared, Winterflood has arranged searches, pumped out a flooded mineshaft at Devil's Hole, scouted the lookouts where he had his cannabis crops, conducted all the relevant death checks and checked immigration. This year he sent a brief to the NSW coroner.
"There's nothing. He's never accessed any funds. The bank chipped away at his savings and when that ran out they foreclosed and took the house."
He suspects there are two possibilities. One is that he suffered an overdose at someone's home and they panicked and hid the body. "What doesn't fit with that scenario is that Wyndham is such a small place where everyone knows everything and sooner or later the word would have got out.
"The other theory is that he's gone to a place of his choosing, a nice lookout or whatever, and done it there. Suicide."
Spiller had already made two unsuccessful attempts to kill himself. In the last, he pulled a plastic bag over his head and injected an overdose. His psychologist booked him into Bega hospital but after a few days he walked out. Not long after, he was gone.
But Read, who knows too well the lasting damage done by trauma, says the suicide scenario doesn't sit right. "This was a bloke who talked night after night of killing himself, but it never happened. If I was honest with my emotions and my intuition, I'd have to say I don't believe he killed himself. Something else happened to him."
Despite his fears, there was a bravery about Spiller, says Cox. "He was a very clever boy. Look what he did way back then. If it wasn't for Stick, that bloke could still be killing people."
Adds Andy Morris: "In a sense, Shane was a Derek Percy murder victim as well. To me, he was a very brave man. I like to picture him lying in a hammock with a banana daiquiri, that'd be heaven to Stick. But wherever he is, I just hope he's happy at last."
- This story first appeared in The Age in 2007.