July 31st, 2016
Homicide detective Ron Iddles has seen it all, including the surprise discovery of a dead body at a media conference.
“YOU have to be prepared to lead your staff even if it means stripping down to your jocks to retrieve a body from the river.” — Ron Iddles
What does a murderer look like? Victorian detective Ron Iddles learnt early in his career at Homicide that wherever there are humans, there are disagreements, grudges, jealousies and murder and neither geography nor any amount of fresh country air can change that.
“Sometimes the motive for murder is revenge, sometimes it is lust, sometimes it is broken relationships, sometimes it’s over finances,” Iddles says.
“But sometimes you can look deeply for a motive and it can be obscure or minor.” He harks back to the Christmas Day murders where everyday people slaughtered family members because they didn’t like their presents.
“I’ve even investigated a murder that took place after an argument over the music being played on the CD,” he adds, shaking his head.
Once there was a time when people thought it was safe to live in the bush. But by the mid-2000s, crystal methamphetamine, or ice, had found its way to Australia. A decade later, its use had spread like a festering sore to the farthest reaches of the country, leaving people from Ballarat to Breadalbane looking sideways at their neighbours to see if they were sporting ice scabs.
But even before everyday Australians started breaking bad on methamphetamine, there was trouble in country towns, just like anywhere else.
On Sunday, 9 February 2003, the townsfolk of Shepparton in northeastern Victoria learnt a canoeist paddling up the Goulburn River had found a man’s battered naked body submerged in the water.
By the time Ron and his crew arrived at Kialla, five minutes out of Shepparton, the lifeless man had been fished out of the water and was laying on the riverbank. Even though his identity was unknown, a seasoned homicide cop like Ron knew that dead men tell tales: “He was of caucasian appearance, in his late fifties to early sixties, and he appeared to have some type of head injury,” Ron says.
“It’s often unclear, though, when a body has been in water, because they can sometimes have marks which look like they were homicide victims, when in fact the marks might have been the result of fish or yabbies eating the flesh.”
But yabbies didn’t do this. Once the man’s body was taken to the Coroner’s Court in Melbourne for a post-mortem, the pathologist confirmed that Ron was investigating a murder.
“The man had died of blunt trauma to the head,” Ron says.
“He had a fractured skull caused by a piece of pipe, or similar.”
Source: News Corp Australia
Solving a murder is generally impossible when you don’t know the victim’s name, so Ron held a media conference by the riverbank in the hope that someone who’d been camping or fishing there could identify the man. “The other hope was that they might be able to tell us if they’d seen anything suspicious,” he adds.
As the media conference drew to a close, a journalist peering past Ron’s shoulder and into the river, piped up. “That looks like another body!”
Ron turned around to look at the protuberance jutting out of the water and reassured the young reporter it was just a cow carcass. Satisfied, the journalists each recorded their pieces-to-camera along the riverbank, then headed off to file their reports.
Ron turned to his team of detectives. “I think it is a body,” he admitted. He had suspected it from the moment he saw it, but hadn’t wanted to startle the reporters.
It was just as well, because Ron stripped off his shirt, tie, trousers and socks and said to his crew, “Guess what? I’m going in.”
He knew that most detectives wouldn’t be inclined to paddle out to a cadaver, but Ron wasn’t most detectives. “If you thought about everything you did as a policeman, you wouldn’t survive,” he explains.
“It mightn’t have followed all the protocols but it was about getting the job done.”
No one was going to stop him — he was the boss. But no one was going to join him either. “One of the reasons I swam out is because there was a current and I didn’t want it to take the body away,” he says.
“The other is that it would have taken quite a long time before we could get the police boat out there.”
Also, he had to know for sure that the body was human, not bovine. It turned out that he and the TV reporter were right — it was indeed another dead man, this time with no visible injuries.
With the likelihood that he was now investigating a double murder, Ron had to get both men identified, quickly. Perhaps, Ron thought, if I can find out the identity of the second man, it will lead me to the identity of the first.
He made a snap decision, even though he knew it was unorthodox. “We had a camera in the car,” he says, “so I took a photo of the second man’s face and, without consultation, decided I would release it on the six o’clock news in the media.”
He was certain someone would recognise the man and call police straightaway. “Again, it’s about going with your gut instinct.”
At two minutes past six, Ron received a call from the boss, Detective Inspector Chris Enright, who had watched the news and asked Ron if he thought an artist’s sketch of the man’s face might have been more appropriate.
“In hindsight, maybe it was a mistake,” Ron concedes, “because I think if you deal with death as a homicide investigator it isn’t offensive. You forget there are a lot of people in the community who haven’t seen a dead person, so they might well be confronted by an image on the news.”
Especially in a close-knit community like Shepparton, where locals might know the dead man. But it yielded a result, just as Ron had hoped. “By 6.05 I had at least five phone calls identifying the man I’d pulled out of the river as Allen Raymond Thomas,” he says.
The callers also revealed where the forty-six-year-old had lived. “We went to that address, not really knowing what we’d find,” Ron remembers. “There was evidence of some sort of disturbance in the kitchen and lounge room, but no one was home.”
The detectives doorknocked the neighbours’ houses to see if they could shed any light on the matter. “We established that two men were living there and from the description we gave, we established the identity of the second person in the river as sixty-year-old John Gordon MacKay.”
The dead men were housemates.
Thanks, in part, to the country-town grapevine, Ron quickly found a suspect — Daniel John Nuttal — a twenty-five-year-old from Shepparton who was acquainted with the older men.
When Ron took him in for questioning two days after the bodies were found, it looked like he’d have a quick result. “He made full admissions,” Ron says. “He even did a re-enactment for us.”
Nuttal told them another man had been involved — thirty-two-year-old Jason Paul Guthrie, also from Shepparton. He and Daniel used to drink with Thomas and MacKay.
At first, the police couldn’t find him. “I’d been back in Melbourne for a couple of days when I received a phone call to say he was at a farming property about 30km outside Shepparton, so I arranged for the Shepparton detectives to go and arrest him,” Ron recalls. Once the arrest had been made, Ron drove back to Shepparton to interview him. He, too, made admissions.
With both Nuttal and Guthrie charged with murder, Ron returned to Melbourne to prepare the brief.
Nuttal and Guthrie’s night had begun with several alcoholic drinks and later a drive to Allen Thomas and John MacKay’s house in Ashenden Street, Shepparton. They forced their way in through the front door, then MacKay was bundled into the back seat of the car and Thomas into the boot.
Nuttal then drove Guthrie to “Sand Bar Number Two” on the banks of the Goulburn River, during which they discussed killing the men. Guthrie struck MacKay forcibly to the head and body with a metal car lock, inflicting grievous bodily harm.
Nuttal maintained that he asked Guthrie to stop and had tried unsuccessfully to pull him away. Nuttal then helped him drag MacKay into the water and held him down until “the bubbles stopped coming up”.
Nuttal said he’d agreed to help get Thomas out of the car boot as he was afraid Guthrie might hurt him too. In sentencing Nuttal, His Honour Justice Robert Osborn stated:
“Thomas struggled but Guthrie dragged him into the river and held him under the water for a period which you estimate at four to five minutes.”
After all the violence, Nuttal drove Guthrie back to Nuttal’s mother’s house where the men questioned what they had done. According to Nuttal, Guthrie apologised for involving him. The men then drove to nearby Broken River where they burnt the clothes they were wearing, afraid they might implicate them, before drinking more alcohol.
The trial began in November 2004, with the jury finding both Nuttal and Guthrie guilty of two counts of murder. During sentencing, Justice Osborn outlined the circumstances Ron had uncovered while investigating the case.
For participating in “the senseless and horrific destruction of two lives”, Justice Osborn sentenced Nuttal to 30 years with a non-parole period of 24 years. He said he was not satisfied, on the balance of probabilities, that Nuttal had been coerced into his actions. Justice Osborn sentenced Guthrie to a total effective sentence of 32 years, with a non-parole period of 26.
It was alleged in court that during a previous incident Guthrie had been angry with Allen Thomas who had accused him of spending his (Thomas’) rent money, while he (Thomas) was in jail.
So had a possible grudge led to murder? The judge said this in sentencing Guthrie: “No sensible explanation for your conduct on the night of the killings was (however) advanced either to investigating police or at your trial other than you were ‘pretty pissed and off your head’ and ‘just drunk and stupid’.”
Regardless of motive, Ron says murder is ultimately about “man’s inhumanity to man”. It’s that simple.
“I often get asked what does a murderer look like,” he says.
“I reply, ‘They look like you or me’. But they’ve made a bad choice.”
This is an extract from The Good Cop by Justine Ford, RRP $34.99, Macmillan Australia, out now.
– Justine Ford