Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Crown's case against Gordon Wood, by Kate McClymont - The Sydney Morning Herald - 30th July 2008

It was a bitterly cold and windy winter's night when Caroline Byrne plunged to her death at The Gap on June 7, 1995. The air was thick with sea spray and visibility was almost zero.

Despite this, the man accused of her murder was able to lead her family to the location of her body using only the feeble light of a torch borrowed from nearby fishermen, a Supreme Court jury has heard.

Gordon Eric Wood, 45, has pleaded not guilty to the murder of his girlfriend, a 24-year-old model, who fell to her death at Watsons Bay in Sydney's east.

In his opening address Crown prosecutor Mark Tedeschi, QC, said that in the weeks before her death Byrne had confided to a friend, "Sometimes I fear for my life with Gordon" and that she wanted to leave him because of his possessiveness and jealous fits.

The jury heard Wood was terrified about Byrne leaving because she might disclose what Mr Tedeschi described as "serious, illegal insider trading activity" that Wood and his boss, the late stockbroker Rene Rivkin, had been involved in with regard to Rivkin's printing company Offset Alpine Printing. The company had been over-insured when it burned down in a 1993 fire.

The day before Byrne was murdered Wood and Rivkin had given evidence at an Australian Securities Commission investigation into the unusual share price movements in Offset Alpine.

Mr Tedeschi said that Wood had misled the investigators when he said he had no knowledge of Rivkin's affairs and that he was just a " bag carrier"' for the stockbroker.

Had it emerged that either of them had knowledge of the fire or the subsequent massive increase in the company's share price, they could have been prosecuted for "serious corporate offences," Mr Tedeschi said.

He also said there was not "the slightest skerrick of evidence" implicating Rivkin in the death of Byrne.

About 11.30pm on June 7, 1995, witnesses at The Gap heard a scream which sounded like "someone expressing terror or horror".

Earlier that evening about 8pm, John Doherty, who was living in an apartment on Military Road, near The Gap, heard arguing outside his flat. On opening his window he saw a woman, distressed and moaning out loud, sitting in the gutter. Mr Tedeshi said her face was down and covered by her long hair.

Above her stood a tall man who was arguing with her. For 10 to 20 minutes the argument continued and then they moved further down the road, the jury heard. Mr Doherty later identified Gordon Wood as being the man he saw that night.

Two hours later Mr Doherty heard the same voices again but they were further away. For another hour the arguments continued until there was a loud scream, Mr Tedeschi said.

Two fishermen also recalled hearing an unusual scream about 11.30pm, which sounded like someone expressing "terror or horror".

About 12.30am the fishermen recalled seeing Wood, who was calling out, "Caroline, Caroline," and asking if they had seen a young woman.

At 12.40pm, Wood called Tony Byrne, Caroline's father at his home at the Connaught apartment building in Sydney's CBD. Staying with Tony was Caroline's brother Peter, who just arrived back in Australia after a six-week trip to Japan. Wood told them he found Caroline's car at The Gap and that she was missing.

Caroline arranged to meet her family that night but calls to her home and mobile phone during the day, from both her father and brother, had gone unanswered. She also did not turn up to work.

They were also unsuccessful in reaching Wood on his mobile, the court heard. Wood arrived at the Connaught 15 minutes later driving a red pick-up truck, which belonged to Rivkin.

As they drove towards The Gap the Byrnes asked Wood how he knew where to find her, Wood replied: "I don't know. I just have this feeling."

He took them to Byrne's soft-topped Suzuki car which was parked in Gap Lane. He opened the car with a key and took out her wallet, handing it to her brother. He asked Peter to look in the wallet to see if there was anything relevant.

Byrne found nothing of interest except a note from a male admirer who had spotted Caroline in a coffee shop and left her a note with his phone number.

Handing back the wallet to Wood, the Byrnes were astonished when Wood took the cash out of her wallet and pocketed it, Mr Tedeschi said.

Wood then led Tony and Peter Byrne on a search round the clifftop. It was cold, windy and they could barely make out the pathway in front of them.

The court heard that when they came across the two fishermen, Tony asked them if they'd seen a tall, blonde woman. The fishermen said that they'd heard a scream an hour or so earlier and then one of the fishermen said to Wood: "I saw you here earlier" to which Wood replied , "I was out here about an hour ago."

One of them lent Wood a torch, the battery of which was almost flat, resulting in a feeble light.

It was so cold that Tony Byrne went back to the truck, leaving Wood and his son to continue the search. Shining the weak torch light over the cliff, Wood claimed he could see something. "Can you see that, Peter? It looks like legs and a body," Wood said.

Mr Tedeschi said that Peter Byrne, who had excellent eyesight, couldn't see "a single, solitary thing." He couldn't see the bottom of the cliff, let alone a body, Mr Tedeschi told the jury.

"She's gone, Peter, she's gone," Wood told him.

It was at that very location, some hours later, that Byrne's body was found.

The Crown's case is that it was not physically possible to see Byrne's body through the darkness and that the only reasonable inference the jury could draw from Wood's knowledge of the position of the body was that " he was present when she went over the edge of the cliff".

The three went to Rose Bay police station, where Wood produced a referral that Caroline had obtained from her GP to see a psychiatrist. She had an appointment on the afternoon of her death, which not only did she not keep but which she did not cancel.

She earlier told her GP that she felt down but assured her doctor she was not feeling like harming herself.

"She was depressed. Here, read it," Wood said to Tony Byrne, handing him the referral. The Crown's case is that Wood used the referral to convince others that his girlfriend committed suicide.

A number of police accompanied the Byrnes and Wood back to The Gap. With their torches, police couldn't see anything, nor could the powerful searchlight of the helicopter. But Wood was adamant he could see her. "I know she's down there. I can't believe she's done this," he told police on the night, the jury heard.

At 4.40pm, police finally located her body where Wood said it was. The Crown case is that because of the bad visibility, Wood could only have known she was in that location if he had been present when she was thrown from The Gap.

Mr Tedeschi said there would be scientific evidence given to show that a strong man, using a "spear throw", had hurled Byrne off the cliff. Wood, who was able to bench press more than 100kg at the time and who had been a personal fitness instructor, was capable of such a throw, the jury heard.

Five days after her death, Wood told police Byrne was sick with the flu on the day of her death and that she was in bed when he left for work. When he came home at 1pm she was still in bed and he found she had taken one of his Rohypnol sleeping tablets, he said.

He also said he had gone to lunch with friend Brett Cochrane and another person, but that he had to leave before eating his meal to pick up Rivkin. When he returned home later in the afternoon, she wasn't there, the court heard.

About 7pm he had come home again and she was still not there. He said he assumed she was with her doctor or her at her father's. He claimed to have fallen asleep in front of the television and woken up at 12.40am to find she was not there.

The jury heard Wood told police he immediately knew something was wrong. He walked from his Elizabeth Bay unit to Crown Street in Darlinghurst where Rivkin kept some of his cars. He took one that he usually never drove, a red pick-up truck, and drove to the Connaught but couldn't see her car parked there. He told police he had then driven to Bondi and then to The Gap, where at 1.30am he'd found her car. He also found the fishermen and then went to pick up Tony and Peter.

The prosecution claims there was not sufficient time to drive around to all those places as well as returning to the city to collect the Byrnes.

The other odd thing, said Mr Tedeschi, was that Wood had his phone turned off from 5.48pm on the day of the murder until four minutes after police located her body at 4.40am the next morning. This was despite Wood being on 24-hour call for Rivkin, he said. The jury also heard Wood did not ring his message bank to check if he had any messages, which the Crown says is strange for someone who was concerned about his missing girlfriend.

Nor did he attempt to call her mobile or to contact her family to see if she was with them, the Crown said.

Two days after her death, Wood told Caroline's brother Peter that "Caroline's spirit told me where to find her".


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