Inside Story

This house of Grieve

A murder case looked different close-up for a journalist with worries of his own

Jeremy Gans Books 7 November 2023 1818 words

Flanked by police, jurors and lawyers, Zak Grieve (in mauve shirt) visits the crime scene in November 2012. Katrina Bridgeford/Newspix

Rank these criminals. First, there’s Ray, who once shot a man in Katherine’s main street (boasting, Trump-style, that he got away with it) before turning his menaces on his partner and her son. Next there’s Bronwyn, Ray’s ex, who used to joke about having Ray killed and then put up $15,000 “escape money” to someone willing to get it done.

That someone was Chris, Bronwyn’s son, who spent several evenings in October 2011 waiting near Ray’s flat, a large spanner in hand. He also recruited his best friend Zak, who waited beside him each evening with a steel pipe. Zak in turn recruited Spider, friend of no one, who hefted a baseball bat while he spent Bronwyn’s money in his head.

How was justice meted out to these five in the Northern Territory a bit over a decade ago? Bronwyn got an eight-year prison sentence with a four-year minimum. Chris, Zak and Spider each got life, with minimums of eighteen years for Chris and twenty each for the others.

As for Ray, he got a quick but brutal death, courtesy of Chris’s wrench, and was dumped in a roadside clearing, one of the few spots in the outback a body is likely to be found. That was one reason the rest of them were swiftly caught. The other was Spider, who forgot to delete the group’s texts from his phone before the police brought him in for a chat.

Did you pick Zak and Spider as equal worst of the survivors? The judge who sentenced them, Dean Mildren, sure didn’t. If he could, he’d have given Spider credit for pleading guilty and testifying against the others, and Zak still more for pulling out of the plan early. But, as journalist Dan Box incredulously reports, the pair’s judge lacked the power to do justice.

Box produced an impassioned documentary about the judgement, The Queen & Zak Grieve, in 2017, successfully pressing for the Territory government to show Zak some mercy. Now he’s written a far less certain book about the case. What’s changed in six years? Mainly, Dan Box.

Box opens his third book with a confession: he made his documentary because he “wanted to win another Walkley.” He’d won two the previous year for his reporting on three murders in Bowraville, including the first such award for a podcast. But he never won a third and soon left the Australian and its podcasting scene to Hedley Thomas.

The Englishman doesn’t reveal exactly where he went, but he mentions enduring occasional snow and regular depression. And he also decided to speak with Zak for the first time. He wrote letters to Grieve “to reassure myself that I’d been right, and he really wasn’t a killer.” The pair’s correspondence is the heart of this book, the recently released The Man Who Wasn’t There.

I don’t think Zak is the title character. He was barely a man in 2011. The nineteen-year-old spent his time in Katherine on his Xbox and watching anime, and he’s been in stasis ever since. And he was very much there for most of the plot against Ray.

His co-conspirators split on whether Zak was still there during Ray’s final minutes or had pulled out hours before. Zak’s judge had to give him the benefit of the doubt on that point, but Box didn’t have to. Since the documentary, he’s read phone texts casting doubt on Zak’s claim that he cut ties when he realised that what he’d agreed to wasn’t a beating but a killing.

“You have to ask, Why lie?” writes Box of Spider, who testified that Zak was the first person Ray saw in the last horrible moments of his life. By contrast, Chris — “a kind and decent person, for a killer” — had every reason to “protect his friend.”

At some point in their correspondence, Zak became Box’s friend too. Box writes that this may be why his “doubts about Zak’s involvement in the murder itself have receded.” When it’s someone “you care about… it’s not enough to say this is not your fight [and] you don’t have to pick a side.”

In 1991, Helen Garner famously picked a side early on and, like Box, spent a book (The First Stone in her case) mulling over her instincts. Then, in 2004’s Joe Cinque’s Consolation, she befriended a bereft parent and, like Box and Zak’s mother Glenice, came to share her rage at the machinations of justice.

Some couldn’t stand how Garner inserted herself into the narrative, but I prefer my true crime writers to be there. You can see the difference in Box’s two works on Grieve. His documentary, made before he said more than a handful of words to his subject, ended with a dogged pursuit of a possible fourth co-conspirator who was never charged at all.

Box’s book reveals that Chris himself had named a fourth participant. But this time the journalist opts not to go there. Naming names, writes Box, “risks causing hurt, not just to his family, but to Zak’s also,” and to Zak as well. “Knowing whether Zak was right or wrong no longer matters to me.”

It never mattered to the courts. In 2014’s This House of Grief, Garner looks a man in the eye who drove his three kids into a dam and sees a failed suicide rather than a vengeful homicide. Either way, Robert Farquharson was still a murderer and so is Zak Grieve, whether he was there at the end or not.

Zak was guilty of conspiracy as soon as he joined Chris’s plan, and was guilty of murder the moment it succeeded. Conspirators can pull out of planned crimes under Australian law, but withdrawal is a tricky, unpleasant and fallible method of avoiding unwanted convictions. Zak had to not only exit before Ray was struck but also do whatever he could to save Ray’s life. His jury ruled that he failed one or both of these tests.

It’s a fair rule, but Territory law made it very tough in Zak’s case. A decades-old statute requires that murderers serve at least twenty years in prison. There’s one exception for good people who kill bad ones, hence Chris’s eighteen-year minimum. But Zak (and Spider) weren’t eligible, in part because Zak sometimes sold cannabis but mainly because neither of them knew much about Ray.

Thanks to Box’s documentary and a petition by his lawyers, Zak ultimately got a lower sentence, courtesy of the Northern Territory government’s power to grant mercy. This combination of legislative toughness and executive whim produced the same outcome that justice would have: a twelve-year minimum sentence, which expired last week.

Rank these punishments. Life in prison. Losing your life. Losing your child to prison. Losing your child.

Garner’s This House of Grief is named after a line in a 1930s Hungarian novel that laments how a troubled crime journalist’s “finest years had slipped by in this treasury of pain, this house of power and grief.” The author, Desző Kosztolányi, was describing a bustling Budapest police station, while Garner was thinking of Victoria’s Supreme Court.

Zak’s house for much of his twenties was the Darwin Correctional Centre. Known as Holtze, it’s a freshly built failure housing a thousand residents with no respite from heat or boredom. The in-cell screens, replacing the correspondence courses Zak once devoured, have never worked. The library he worked in was shut. His sole escape is handwriting a sprawling sci-fi novel he sends outside in five-page instalments that are checked for security threats.

Zak shared a wing with other lifers, including Chris, Spider and backpacker murderer Bradley Murdoch. One eighty-year-old got parole after his minimum twenty years but asked to stay in Holtze to avoid burdening his family. He hung himself on a ceiling fan when he learnt that the Territory government had banned lifers from work release. Authorities replaced the fans with desk ones.

Here’s how some other punishments have been meted out in recent years:

Spider never got his own documentary or the credit Mildren recommended for ratting on Zak and Chris. Friendless as ever, he’s the only one of the conspiracy still left in prison.

Halfway through his eighteen years, Chris died in his cell, bleeding from his anus. It wasn’t what you might guess. Many Holtze residents passed their days using Kronic, a potent synthetic cannabis they often concealed in their bodies.

Murdoch, who has never revealed where he hid Peter Falconio’s body, even when he was offered a transfer to Western Australia, hated the drug. He told Chris’s coroner that Holtze was to blame: “That’s why other people smoke Kronic. It takes them to another place.” Authorities gave the lifers board games.

Zak saw another culprit. When he and Chris took Kronic, they took turns to ensure that the other didn’t suffocate when they became “stuck.” But Zak was sent to another wing three days earlier for making a sexist joke. He wasn’t there for his best friend. Again.

Box might name another. Zak’s mother Glenice, attending the inquest to see her son testify, “found Chris’s mother Bronwyn sitting watching from the public gallery.” Bronwyn, who was convicted of manslaughter, has always said she had no idea Chris would murder Ray himself. She told Glenice “she would soon be leaving Darwin, to go somewhere small and isolated.”

Did you pick these punishments as the worst ones? Box wouldn’t. His daughter Poppy “counts off the days she’s spent in hospital along one wall,” he writes, “using coloured pens to draw four vertical lines with a fifth running diagonally through them, like some kindergarten prisoner.” Halfway through his correspondence with Zak, Box felt a lump in his nine-year-old’s tummy. The doctors gave her a fifty-fifty chance.

Zak was released last week. He’d already told Box it wasn’t an end: “I’m on a life sentence. On parole.” So are Box and his daughter. She had two years of chemo but the tumour is still there. “We leave hospital knowing we will be back there, every three months, over and over, always in fear, always not knowing.”

Why would Box include this in his book? Well, how couldn’t he? He’d learnt what mattered, and it wasn’t justice. “While I wouldn’t recommend having your child diagnosed with cancer as a cure for depression,” he writes, “it seems to have worked for me, at least.” Being there is a complete nightmare, of course. But not being there is worse. •

The Man Who Wasn’t There
By Dan Box | Ultimo Press | $36.99 | 320 pages