Authors: Nikki McWatters
Tags: #Fiction, #Psychological, #Retail, #Suspense, #Thrillers
All that being said, of course, the girl had a colourful history herself. And by that I don’t mean sordid colourful, I mean vibrant colourful.
Libby O’Neil was born in Hong Kong and arrived in Sydney when she was a baby. Only child. Attended Beekman House, an exclusive performing arts school in Rose Bay. The family lived in a relatively modest double story cottage in the leafy suburb of Bellevue Hill. Tom O’Neil was a Professor of English Literature at Sydney University and his wife, Casey was a publisher for Drayton Books, an imprint of the Hatchette Group. Now, having been a writer for some years, I have some colleagues and friends who have had some sort of contact with one or both of these people. My boyfriend, a novelist, remembers meeting Casey at the Sydney Writers Festival and remembers her as sharp, abrupt and downright rude. My editor was a student in one of Professor O’Neil’s classes a long time ago in London and recalls that he was an aloof and shy man with a slight stutter. Cliché. Someone else at the local pub I had discovered also told me that they had been at a dinner party where the pair were guests and it seemed abundantly obvious to all that the couple hated one another. Watching the body language in court appeared to confirm this. He stared into his lap and almost drifted off at one stage while Casey O’Neil glared and rolled her eyes and jabbed at him with her finger. I overheard her hiss the word, ‘concentrate’ to him more than once.
Libby played piano proficiently and had performed in the lead role of many of her school musicals. I was amazed to learn that at the age of twelve she had played Annie in a professional revue of the famous musical of the same name. She was a popular student and did very well academically. She had also had a short story published in an anthology and was the Captain of her debating team. She was cheeky and mischievous and had once been cautioned for shoplifting.
The court room was packed although no cameras were allowed in. I knew some of the other reporters and there was a current of excitement snapping through the space. Vultures. All of us. Waiting to rip into the dripping flesh of this sordid story. Those with approval were allowed to use hand-held devices to text, tweet, email and the like but the sound had to be turned off and there was a strict no visual or sound recording warning.
Tim Murphy headed the defence and he was renowned for his celebrity clientele. Ever the show-man that the media liked to refer to as ‘the silver fox’ and despite his years he still was pretty dashing and debonair. He had a presence. A lofty arrogant confidence and quick wit.
Pitted against him was the ball-breaking Mia Bourke. She was crisp and pretty and clever and was famous for eating her enemy alive when she was on a sexual assault case. A militant feminist who made Germaine Greer look like a misogynist. Libby O’Neil had a fierce and dedicated woman going to bat for her. My research showed that both lawyers had an impressive track record.
Chris Bergin was clean-shaven, unlike the mug shots that did the rounds which had him looking like some wild mountain man. He wore a well-cut suit and sat stiffly with his hands on his knees, looking straight ahead. I noted that his wife was not present. She had given birth only days earlier in a dramatic home birth. Her husband had delivered the boy baby just as the paramedics arrived. The daughter was also present at the birth.
I think that was when the public mood began to shift slightly away from intense, torch-bearing hatred for the man. He couldn’t have had a publicist come up with anything better really.
Clayton Farrelly the drummer took the stand and predictably praised his mate as a total saint whose halo had slipped only once and even then ever-so-slightly. It was really just a character reference and did little to help the defence in my opinion. It was sycophantic.
A statement from the school principal of Beekman House was read and she did the girl no favours either, describing her as attention seeking and disrespectful. That really annoys me though, when people argue that a girl who claims to be raped is bla, bla, bla. This negative thing or that. As if someone who has a history of shoplifting, or eating junk food or being ill-tempered occasionally is less likely to have been raped. Stupid. It’s irrelevant and a waste of time to simply paint two characters as good, bad or in between and suggest that is even remotely relevant to a coerced sex act. It was not a good character competition.
Did he have a history of rape? No. But every rapist has to rape for a first time and if every rape got reported and properly prosecuted, it would be the rapist’s only opportunity to do so….until prison but that’s another story. And the argument that she was a consummate actress and could therefore be ‘acting’ the rape victim role was so reprehensible it made me ill. As if actresses or highly theatrical people can’t be raped. Really!
Frankly, the man was relying totally on the bullshit defence of ‘not being able to remember’ and that’s no defence at all. Drunks assault people all the time and just because they don’t remember doesn’t mean it didn’t happen or that their victim wasn’t traumatised.
The psychologist reported that Libby exhibited narcissistic traits. I’m sorry, but do you know a teenager that doesn’t? They are notoriously self-absorbed. Again. Just dirty fluff that gets in the way or the real issue.
Next we saw Abigail. She had kept a low profile until that point. One or two photos had surfaced. A snapshot of the two girls with Bergin was leaked. She was much softer and quieter in person. Quite radiant and she spoke well. She took the stand like some adolescent Aphrodite, shawled with golden tresses. Unfortunately she inadvertently mentioned that Libby had experimented with some speed-like drug. She also referred to a time when Libby had made a complaint against a teacher for touching her inappropriately but later recanted. Now, I thought that was interesting.
Women and girls receive unwanted attention all the time and we are then shamed if we talk about it. Those coming forward with sexual harassment complaints are very often viewed as weak and whining women who should just toughen up and get a sense of humour. It’s very possible that Libby did feel discomfort at something this teacher did but later felt pressured to deny it. She was a remarkably attractive young woman and sadly, that inflames unwanted attention from some ‘lesser’ males.
But a witness then took to the stand who changed the map of evidence or at least broadened it at the same time diminishing the range of perspectives. Chester McNaughton. A gentle-looking young man. Well-spoken. Nervous and polite. He claimed to have been seduced by Libby the day after the rape. He was a virgin and inexperienced. Those around me began to titter and whisper until the Magistrate glared at them. The buzz was that the kid might be the father of Libby’s baby but as the Magistrate commented – this is a rape charge, not a paternity charge and would stand to be investigated even in the absence of the pregnancy.
Chester was convinced she was a virgin but the kid had no experience and if Libby had been raped the night before there might have been some already present vaginal trauma. It was only the opinion of a sexually inexperienced boy who seemed to hope that Libby saw him as someone special. Sexual acting out after a rape is not unheard of. She may have been trying ‘make up’ for having lost her virginity to someone ‘not of her choosing’ to someone she ‘chose’. Trying to subconsciously take back control of her sexuality for herself.
The boy claimed that Libby offered him the drug that mimics speed. It wouldn’t surprise me if she had been handing it out at the party, trying to impress those big-shot rock-stars. Again that is irrelevant to the issue of rape. Handing out ADD pills doesn’t mean you deserve to be raped. Lots of kids experiment with drugs. It’s pretty normal behaviour.
The CTV footage was more damaging to Libby’s case because it showed the girls at approximately five in the morning, in the elevator, laughing. Libby looked a little shabby and was swaying a little but she was also smiling and joking. Abigail was looking at her phone, showing something to Libby and they are nodding and it seems, laughing. Presumably the photographs of them posing with Chris that were shown to the court. But evidence of nothing more than that they all met and seemed at some stage to be having a good time.
To listen to Tim Murphy you might have thought all of this added up to a duo of raging predators, stalking, trapping, drugging and torturing his poor little rock-star. But the Magistrate weighed it all up, listened to the recap of the day and was just beginning to give his summation when…..
Libby burst into the room. Libby O’Neil with eyes blazing. Her parents stood up and looked shocked. She strode down to Mia Bourke, her hands balled into fists. She was wearing a pair of flannelette pyjama pants and a baggy grey sweater and novelty bear-foot slippers. No make-up and her hair was a fuzzy mess on her head.
‘May I request a recess, Your Honour?’ Bourke asked hurriedly. ‘This is Libby O’Neil.’
It was granted and as all stood for the Magistrate, he pointed at Mia and Libby and spoke in a stern voice.
‘I’d like to see you two in my chambers. Now.’
The reporters around me were going mad, scribbling, texting, twittering like there was no tomorrow.
I raced out into the foyer to try to catch Abigail Proudfoot and her mother so that I could request an interview. I felt that Abigail was key to this case. During her testimony I felt she was keeping a large piece of the puzzle close to her chest. I wanted to see what she wasn’t sharing with us.
I just caught sight of the girl in blue with the blonde mane disappearing into the female lavatories. Looking around to make sure my fellow reporters weren’t on my tail, I hot-footed after her. It was perfect and it would look like a casual, accidental encounter. I needed to go anyway.
Inside I peed quickly and then raced back to the wash-basins and waited. She came out of one of the stalls behind me and moved over to the mirror beside me, putting her phone on the counter while she washed her hands she dried them with some paper. She had a silver handbag over her shoulder and even without the heavy make-up she did look older than sixteen.
‘Hi, Abbie?’ I smiled. ‘You spoke well. You must have been nervous. This is such a big scary and public thing, eh?’
‘Kind of,’ she rolled her eyes. ‘I think I stuffed up a bit. I was just blabbing there for some of it. It’s hard to think when they’re hanging on every word you say.’
‘And they always twist things to suit themselves. The defence team can be brutal at that. You were really brave.’ I said, finishing up with the paper towel. I held out a friendly hand. ‘I’m Sue Shine. I write for an English newspaper but I freelance for magazines like Cosmo and Cleo and Vogue. I’d love to do a feature piece on you. We wouldn’t have to use your name. I love lifestyle pieces on strong young women and you strike me as having a mature and confident sense of self. We’d do a photo shoot. The works.’
She looked at me and frowned.
‘Cleo and Cosmo and it wouldn’t just be all about Libby?’ she asked and I could tell I had her interested. ‘I’d have to ask Mum.’
‘Your mother could be interviewed for the article as well and we could include a nice picture of the two of you,’ I said, knowing just from the look of the Proudfoot woman in the foyer, that she would relish the chance to have her cosmetically altered face in a glossy magazine. To be honest, it was a ruse to get more information. No publication on the planet would risk printing something like that. I just wanted to get more understanding of the case as it was shaping up to be one of the stories of the year. I was considering doing a book. If the thing went to trial, I’d have more than enough material to fill a book.
‘I’ll ask her,’ she said brightly.
As Abbie left the room, a large group of women entered, having spilled from the court-house. I looked down and saw that Abbie had left her phone on the counter and I picked it up to take it out to her. The women slammed their way into the stalls and the rest waiting in line.
As I went through the door, I did something not altogether professional. I slipped the phone into my pocket and approached the two blonde women with an innocent smile.
‘Mum,’ Abbie said. ‘This is her. The magazine woman.’
I shook hands and we introduced ourselves.
‘I would not print anything that you did not give prior approval to and you can cancel and change your mind at any time,’ I said, not wanting to sound at all desperate.
‘I think that would be fine. You could come to my home in Vaucluse. It’s a very photogenic place. I’ve just redecorated,’ Sally Proudfoot beamed at me, nearly blinding me. ‘And you’re English. I love your accent.’
‘Wonderful,’ I nodded enthusiastically. ‘Let’s get back in and hear what the Magistrate has to say. I’ve got my fingers crossed for Libby.’
‘Oh shit,’ Abbie swore. ‘I left my phone in the loo. Shit!’
‘Don’t swear, dear,’ Sally said sweetly. ‘You go and get it and I’ll wait here for you. Here’s my number Sue,’ she said back to me and handed me a pink business card.
I looked at it. It was a picture of Sally with her phone number and no mention of her business. I smiled and pocketed it and let my hand wrap around the phone. I intended on returning it. But not until I snuck back in to the almost empty court room and did a little snooping. Then I’d claim to have accidentally picked it up thinking it was mine.
‘You head back in. It’s your job,’ smiled Sally. ‘We’ll wait for the bell.’
‘I’ll call you tomorrow about the interview, okay?’ I said as I walked away.
She nodded and I ducked back in to court room 7 and berated myself for having ‘borrowed' the girl’s phone. Journalism can sometimes be a dirty game. But at the end of the day it’s the story that counts.
Magistrate Fred Hallinan
‘I understand you are facing some enormous challenges at the moment, Libby,’ I said, frowning over my specs.
The girl looked a mess. Like she’d just fallen out of bed.