The furnace of Phil Cleary’s rage grows brighter as the monstrous injustice suffered by his sister dims from public memory. The former footballer and federal politician believes that until we publicly acknowledge how the justice system failed Vicki and hundreds of other female murder victims, we will never truly move to a position of fairness.
On average, a woman is killed every week by a partner or former partner somewhere in Australia.
This means about 1700 women have lost their lives since Vicki was killed – more than three times the casualty toll from the Vietnam War (521) and 10 times the deaths from Australia’s most lethal natural disaster, the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires (173).
Vicki’s killer, Peter Keogh, was acquitted of murder and found guilty of manslaughter on the grounds of provocation.
He would serve less than four years’ jail. Four years for taking a life. Let me make it clear, Keogh was guilty of premeditated murder and the manslaughter defence was barbaric, baseless and brutal. Back then, an accused could make an unsworn statement from the dock and avoid cross-examination. Keogh took the opportunity to tell a pack of lies that resulted in the jury getting it wrong.
Here are the facts.
Vicki was 25 and Keogh 39 in 1987, when they bought a house in Broadford. Eventually, she saw no future with the brooding, controlling and malevolent Keogh and moved out.
In a story repeated daily somewhere in Australia, Keogh refused to accept his partner’s right to control her own life and started stalking her.
Vicki went to court for a restraining order but, dispirited by the apathetic response, left without one.
She worked at a Coburg kindergarten where workmates noticed she was scared. When Keogh turned up and became threatening, they understood why.
Brothers Phil and Perry separately offered to talk to Keogh, to gently explain the relationship was over and he should move on. Vicki declined, blurting out to Phil: “He wouldn’t hurt me, don’t worry – there’s no problem.”
The reason she didn’t want help was that Keogh had told her that if any of her three brothers turned up, he would “iron bar” their knees.
At 7am on August 26, 1987, Keogh went to the kindergarten in Cameron Street– more than an hour before Vicki was due at work.
He was dressed in bright-yellow overalls, a peaked cap and blue jacket identical to the railway repair team that often worked on the tracks a few metres away.
He was armed with a large hunting-type knife, a Stanley knife, pliers, masking tape and rubber gloves. He would later say he planned to vandalise her car but lost control when she swore at him.
When she pulled up, he instantly attacked her inside the car, then dragged her out, stabbing her four times before leaving her fatally wounded in the gutter.
As brother Phil says: “Despite being ambushed by a man brandishing a large knife, Vicki refused to cower or give up on life. For a good three minutes, she fought Keogh off as he tried to kill her. Severely wounded, her face cut and her liver punctured by knife wounds, she refused to be subdued. ‘Please don’t let me die,’ she told the ambulance officer who comforted her.”
Despite evidence of months of harassment, testimony from a witness that Keogh had said if Vicki tried to get half the house “I’ll neck her”, the fact he arrived armed, ambushed her, stabbed her repeatedly, calmly walked away and discarded the murder weapon, the offender was portrayed as the victim at the trial.
He told the jury: “I have always loved Vicki.”
The classic definition of provocation was at one time an act that would “cause in any reasonable person a sudden and temporary loss of self-control rendering the accused … not master of his mind”.
Keogh’s was not a split-second act. It was months in the making.
For the Cleary family, the trial was a nightmare where the victim was somehow blamed for her own death. Phil recalls: “As Mum [Lorna] said many times, it was like having Vicki murdered again.”
He recalls the stunned Clearys standing outside the court. “I will never forget our mother accidentally walking into the path of the jurors after the verdict on Valentine’s Day 1989 and saying: ‘She was just a girl, do you known what you’ve done? You’ve let a murderer go free’.”
That, and a more forceful comment from Phil, had them banned from the court when Keogh was sentenced. The victim’s family banned from the day of reckoning? Are you kidding?
The maximum penalty allowable was 20 years.
Keogh was sentenced to eight years with a minimum of six. He was released on July 18, 1991. He’d served three years and 11 months.
No one in authority thought the sentence was so unjust it was worth appealing. Vicki, apparently, wasn’t worth it.
Keogh was no honest citizen whose actions were out of character. His criminal history showed a violent, vicious bully with no redeeming features.
He was 12 when charged with indecent assault. Still a teenager, he was shot in both knees when he attacked a policeman with a knife. He beat a man with a billiard cue and dragged a woman into a car park to bash her head repeatedly into a wall.
In 1974, he tricked a nine-year-old girl into his Richmond home, threatening to “smash her face inside out”, then sexually assaulted her.
Keogh was not a man who killed because he momentarily lost control, he killed because he had permanently lost control of Vicki Cleary, who in his mind was a mere possession.
‘It destroyed mum’s life’
Lorna and Ron Cleary had seven children, four boys (one died in infancy) and three girls. Married for nearly 60 years, they died a few months apart in 2011.
Lorna’s private papers showed her lifelong pain. In a letter to her daughter 21 years after she was killed, she wrote: “My Darling Vicki I think of you often, always with tears in my eyes and wonder why it had to be. Life has been very hard for me to carry on and be normal and the strain of it all gets to me … You did not deserve to die the way you did, Mummy.”
Phil says: “It destroyed Mum’s life.”
In 2005, the government closed the provocation loophole used by rats like Keogh to justify their murderous actions. (Keogh killed himself in 2001 when about to be charged with setting fire to an ex-girlfriend’s house.)
It was a perversion of the provocation law that allowed men to fabricate a defence their dead victims could not refute.
James Ramage strangled his separated wife, Julie, with his bare hands in their nice Balwyn house in 2003 when she refused to move back to the family home.
His disingenuous defence was that he lost control when she said, “you don’t get it, do you? I’m over you. I should have left you 10 years ago”, adding that he was repulsive and her new boyfriend was a superior lover.
The statement defies common sense. Years of brutality left her terrified, which meant she only met him in public places and was tricked into the fatal private meeting where there were no witnesses. Her crime was to try and claim back her life from a possessive oaf.
In 2015, police introduced the Family Violence Command, with units operating around the state. The courts have been revamped and domestic violence networks set up.
Yet the murders continue. Police deal with a family violence victim every six minutes, and more than 50 per cent of police time is devoted to this one crime.
Women face more danger from a partner or former partner than from any other offender. They are at most risk when they try to break free, when their tormentors fear losing control.
It is women like Vicki Cleary who suffer because they have the temerity to want to live peacefully in a civilised society.
“Vicki should be seen as a heroine. How hard would it be for the state to say sorry to Vicki and all the other victims?” her brother asks.
“The truth is Vicki Cleary and the women taken won’t be liberated until we formalise a Sorry Day. We’ve said sorry to the Stolen Generations and to children brutalised in institutions. It’s now time to say sorry to warrior women like Vicki Cleary, women who cast aside male coercion and control in the search of freedom and equality.”
Phil Cleary, equality advocate and former politician, you’ve got my vote.
John Silvester is a Walkley-award winning crime writer and columnist. A co-author of the best-selling books that formed the basis of the hit Australian TV series Underbelly, Silvester is also a regular guest on 3AW with his “Sly of the Underworld” segment.