It’s just before 1am, an odd time to be walking dogs. But Daniel Macklin has just clocked off from a forklift-driving shift in Bairnsdale, in eastern Victoria. Now, early on this Monday morning in October 2019, the 33-year-old has driven to Shaving Point, a picnic area in nearby Metung, to give Jasper and Kiro a run and quick sausages cooked up on the public barbecue.
Macklin loads the dogs into the back of his brand-new, $60,000 Toyota RAV4 (“lovely car, great car”), into which he’s sunk his entire recent divorce payout. He cruises past the Metung shops, past the yacht club, and – in a decision that still haunts him – past the Rosherville Road turnoff, his regular shortcut home to Swan Reach, 10 minutes away. The music’s on, but not too loud. And he’s driving just under the 70-kilometre speed limit because, as a local, he knows this is wombat territory.
He follows Metung Road up a hill, leaving behind the town lights. He passes the dog kennels that care for Jasper and Kiro and is now deep into farmland that gently undulates between Metung and the Tambo River. Then, rounding a soft bend 4.5 kilometres from Metung, a woman appears out of the pitch-black, running across the opposite lane towards his car.
“A girl has just popped out of the middle of nowhere,” he tells me. “But not just popped out, she ran in.”
He hits the brakes. Everything slingshots towards the windscreen: the dogs slam against their cage, Macklin’s collarbone snaps, his teeth chip against the steering wheel. He’ll be unaware of these injuries until a day later: right now he’s desperate to find his phone to call triple zero. He finds it and steps out into the inky black. “Are you okay?” he calls out, the thin white phone light revealing bits of his car everywhere. Then he falls over the woman’s body, cutting his knees on the bitumen. “I tried to help,” he says. “But it was too late.”
In the 15 minutes before the ambulance arrives, Daniel Macklin sits with the young woman in the middle of the night, in the middle of a road, in what feels like the middle of nowhere. When the ambulance arrives, throwing more light onto the scene, he realises with a lurching panic that this might be the woman he is currently dating. She’s wearing similar clothing. He spots her handbag, sitting upright in the opposite lane, and searches for a phone, desperate to call an emergency contact. The screen comes alive with an image of the woman and an older man. This is not his lover’s father, he thinks. This is not my lover. On the phone he sees no missed calls or messages.
Eventually Macklin is taken to Bairnsdale, where he clears an alcohol and drugs test. “The detective said: ‘Mate, Michael Schumacher couldn’t have stopped. You’ve done nothing wrong.’ Then he said: ‘I don’t want you watching the news. This girl’s well known.’ ”
Nineteen days earlier, the woman Macklin hit – 23-year-old Ashleigh Petrie – had gone from an unknown court clerk to the focus of a media storm and legal controversy. On October 9, 2019, in a front-page story, Melbourne’s Herald Sun newspaper had revealed her relationship with then 68-year-old magistrate Rodney Higgins, 45 years her senior. The story went viral, and sparked serious questions about power and workplace culture in Victoria’s court system. The relationship was raised in the Victorian parliament and a complaint – later dismissed – was fired off about Higgins to the Judicial Commission, the oversight body for judges in the state.
“In all honesty, I don’t think it was just the media that tipped Ashleigh over the edge. I think there’s more to it.”
Ashleigh Petrie’s brother
Then, the day after Ashleigh died, there was silence. The media noted “no suspicious circumstances” and moved on. The coroner found Ashleigh Petrie took her own life “by deliberately running in front of a car”. His report, which Good Weekend has seen, has not been made public. Higgins returned to the bench and – a few months later – to his long-term partner, Lurline Le Neuf.
Ashleigh’s mother Theresa and brother John (both pseudonyms) were left not only with unrelenting grief, but with many unanswered questions about that night – about what Ashleigh was doing alone on that road, and what they see as Higgins’s odd behaviour that night and his hurtful actions since. “In all honesty, I don’t think it was just the media that tipped Ashleigh over the edge,” says John. “I think there’s more to it.”
Theresa Petrie lives alone in a regional town an hour’s drive west of Melbourne. Hers is the back flat in a row of four small, 1980s-style brick units. On a Saturday in early March, Theresa – straight blonde hair, striped top, jeans – welcomes me into her spotless unit, where the floorboards are shiny and Ashleigh is everywhere. Framed on the wall, in a soft apricot dress, she’s with Theresa and John on Mother’s Day. In a corner, in a shrine-like setting, she’s pictured with a gold garland crowning her long brown hair. She looks almost like a forest nymph; a beauty from another world.
This is my second interview with Theresa, both conducted with a lawyer present. Her wariness is understandable: she partly blames the media’s scorching spotlight for her daughter’s death and guards her own privacy strenuously. This is why Good Weekend has changed her and her family’s names.
Ashleigh Louise Petrie was born in 1995, in Melbourne. John followed two years later. Theresa and then-husband Peter (they separated in 2015), lived in the city’s outer-western suburbs and the kids grew up under her protective watch. “I never took my eyes off my kids,” she says. Ashleigh was Daddy’s little girl, but mother and daughter were also close, only 16 years apart. “I was like her big sister,” Theresa laughs through tears. “Actually, she hated that comparison!” Ashleigh loved watching Keeping up with the Kardashians. She was chubby – then, after a health kick, skinny.
In years 11 and 12, at her high school in Hoppers Crossing, Ashleigh hit the books. Post-it notes bloomed around the house as she committed her studies to memory. She was uninterested in partying or boys. “I’d take her to a party and say, ‘Don’t ring me for a few hours,’ ” says Theresa. “But within an hour she’d be home, saying she had to study.” It paid off: Ashleigh’s marks got her into a psychology degree at RMIT University (she switched to criminology after six months).
Ashleigh was a lover of inside jokes; bubbly, happy, generous. About seven months before she died, Ashleigh dragged her mother and brother around the city streets until 10pm, handing out hot cross buns to the homeless. “We weren’t allowed to eat before we gave out all the buns,” remembers Theresa. But with this generous heart came a trusting soul. “She was young and naive, very naive, I probably sheltered her a bit too much in life,” says Theresa. “She trusted everybody.”
And when your trusting, big-hearted daughter becomes an adult, there’s only so much you can do.
“I wish I could have protected her,” says Theresa. “She was 23 and you can’t go kidnap her. I would have loved to have kidnapped her and spoken sense into her.”
In late February I drive to Shepparton, a rural hub two hours north of Melbourne, to meet a man that Ashleigh trusted implicitly: Stuart Gowty, 50, her former boyfriend of five years. After lunch, Gowty – soft, friendly face, blue eyes, chambray shirt – stands with me on a Goulburn River walking track. We look across an expanse of lawn to a row of riverfront houses. The smaller corner house is Gowty’s rental. Next door, with its extensive balcony, belongs to Higgins and Le Neuf. “As you can see, his is bigger than mine,” Gowty says wryly, as a flock of cockatoos roughly announce themselves in the river gums behind us.
Before everything soured, the two couples were friends here, often socialising with neighbours on the lawn. “It was not uncommon to sit outside on a nice Friday night in summer and open a bottle of wine and suddenly it’s two in the morning,” Gowty says. We climb the timber stairs to his outdoor alcove. Gowty stands, chain-smoking next to the barbecue. Hugo, his one-eyed black-and-brown cat, watches from an inside window ledge. Through the window I can see the closed roller blinds that block any view of Higgins and Le Neuf on their deck.
Gowty and Ashleigh met at Hoppers Crossing Bunnings in 2014. He was an account manager there, she a casual salesperson. He was 44, she 18. “She was very smitten with me and I liked that,” he says. “Certainly, there was an element of liking attention from a young girl and a very attractive girl. So it just blossomed from there, I guess.”
There were challenges. For a start, he was married. Also: mismatched energy levels. Ashleigh wanted to party until 5am. He was ready for a cup of tea and bed by 10pm. “She made me feel younger and I made her feel more mature. So we averaged out somewhere in the middle.”
In late 2015, after his marriage ended, Gowty moved back to Shepparton, his home town, and bought a picture-framing business. Ashleigh followed about four months later, commuting to Melbourne to study. Then in late 2016, she landed a job as a court clerk at Shepparton Magistrates’ Court. “She seemed to excel at it. Everyone thought she was wonderful,” says Gowty. She eventually switched to studying law online at the University of New England.
Three years into the relationship, Gowty inked a sign of his devotion into his skin: three cursive capitals “ALP” – Ashleigh Louise Petrie – in a forearm tattoo. But the relationship was not smooth sailing. They broke up several times. Ashleigh, he says, was “easily led by others” and suffered from depression and mood swings (she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 19). There was one suicide attempt, which Gowty saw more as attention-seeking than a definite decision to end things.
Then, in late 2017, he noticed something between Ashleigh and his neighbour Higgins. It was at one of the neighbourhood gatherings, a bogan-themed party. Gowty, who went in footy shorts and fake love-bites, remembers he wasn’t the only one who noticed. “Even Lurline made a comment like: ‘We’ll have to keep an eye on these two.’ ”
Born in 1951, Rodney Higgins worked for decades as a wharfie and union official. He joined the Labor Party in 1978 and was later a local branch president. Through the 1990s, Higgins studied arts and law part-time and was briefly mayor of Moreland, an inner-north municipality. In 2001, after separating from wife Lee (with whom he has three daughters now aged in their 40s), Higgins moved to Shepparton as a criminal lawyer and 16 months later met Le Neuf.
In 2013 and 2014, Higgins ran for Labor in the federal and state elections respectively. He had little chance of winning over the conservative-leaning Shepparton locals in either election, but Labor needed to be on the ballot and someone had to do it. (“They should vote for me because I stand for social justice,” Higgins told The Shepparton News in 2014.) In September 2017, when the Andrews government appointed Higgins to the bench – noting his “proven ability to navigate complex and sensitive legal issues” – the Liberal Party cried jobs-for-the-boys. Higgins’ elevation, shadow attorney-general John Pesutto complained, undermined the judiciary’s independence.
Higgins was first posted to the Gippsland courts and, in late 2017, Higgins and Le Neuf moved to Mirboo North, a South Gippsland town two hours east of Melbourne. Back in Shepparton, Gowty grew ever more suspicious. Ashleigh seemed to always know when Higgins and Le Neuf were visiting Shepparton. Then, on New Year’s Eve 2018, there was another lawn party incident. “Rod went inside to use the bathroom and Ashleigh followed him in, or something like that,” says Gowty. “Lurline realised something was going on.” In January, Ashleigh and Gowty broke up over the affair and she moved out, transferring her job to the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court.
Despite the hurt, a post-relationship friendship blossomed between Ashleigh and Gowty. “Stop worrying about having a boyfriend,” he says he told her. “‘Go to work, do your studies. I pray for nothing more than for you to meet a nice guy your own age.’ ”
The inner-east suburb of Richmond was now where Ashleigh called home. On the Saturday night of March 2, 2019, she went out to a local pub. She met a man there, and later that night an incident occurred that was deeply traumatising. In distress, Ashleigh rang Gowty, who drove to Melbourne the next day. She rang Higgins, too – numerous times – but he was away with Le Neuf.
On Tuesday March 12, Ashleigh sent Theresa and John a text: “I love you”. Sensing something was wrong, they rushed to Richmond. A friend had pulled Ashleigh back after she’d climbed over a barrier to jump off a balcony. The catalyst, John and Theresa believe, was Ashleigh’s belief that Higgins had decided to stay with Le Neuf. But Ashleigh was also extremely distressed about the Richmond incident, says John. “I was driving her to the hospital and she had to tell my old man what happened over the phone, because he was worried. She was a mess. She was bawling her eyes out.”
Ashleigh went to police about the incident but – according to Theresa, John and Gowty – was torn about proceeding: she’d seen in her job how victims of such experiences are treated in the justice system and worried how a court case would affect her legal-career ambitions. So at some point, she wrote to police requesting “no further police action”. Their investigation ended.
But the trauma didn’t end. Researchers have recently found clear links between traumatic events and the worsening of mood disorders such as bipolar, and the coroner later found the incident detrimentally affected Ashleigh’s mental health “until her death”.
In late March 2019, Le Neuf returned to Shepparton from Mirboo North, her partnership with Higgins over. Gowty, friends and neighbours gathered around her.
Ashleigh and Higgins were now officially a couple, but Ashleigh continued to struggle. On June 3, a distressed Ashleigh rang Gowty. She was feeling insecure about her relationship with Higgins. Late that night, Gowty’s phone rang again. It was Higgins’s number.
He braced for a conversation with the magistrate, but instead heard Ashleigh “talking very slowly, her breathing laboured”. She had taken a knife to her wrists while Higgins slept. Gowty called an ambulance to the Richmond apartment Ashleigh shared with a flatmate, and she was taken to hospital. She discharged herself later that night and took an Uber home.
By now, Theresa – who had in the past viewed Ashleigh’s self-harming as largely attention-seeking – was extremely worried about the Higgins relationship and despairing of the state’s mental health system (in its final report in February, a royal commission found the system had “catastrophically failed to live up to expectations”). “I said to her: ‘Just come home.’ But she wouldn’t come home.”
Two more significant acts of self-harm followed in June and July, the coroner noted. In late June, Ashleigh saw a psychotherapist who later told police she thought Ashleigh’s self-harm took place in the context of excessive drinking after conflict with Higgins. She saw in Ashleigh a pattern of involvement with “older, more influential and powerful adults” and that while Ashleigh appeared capable and confident she was also “extremely vulnerable, especially given her addictive behaviour with alcohol”. Theresa and John never saw Ashleigh as struggling with alcohol – and certainly not drinking alone. But they did witness Ashleigh and Higgins drinking heavily at places such as Crown Casino.
After the June suicide attempt, Ashleigh took leave from the Magistrates’ Court to recover. Around this time, Le Neuf took out a restraining order against her (Good Weekend asked why, but received no response). By July, Ashleigh had moved in with Higgins in Mirboo North. Things had been rocky, but in a few months, Ashleigh would get something she deeply coveted: a marriage proposal.
When Higgins popped the question on a Fijian holiday in late September 2019, Ashleigh took to Instagram. “I said YES!” [diamond ring emoji]. In the picture, Ashleigh, showing off her ring, has the sort of blemish-free, even-toned skin lent only by youth and a generous application of foundation. Higgins’ skin is a mottle of pink and brown sun damage. “What an amazing 10 days it has been here in Fiji! Firstly I arrived as Rods (sic) girlfriend and I leave as rod (sic) fiancé!” , the caption reads. “I cannot wait to become Mrs Higgins! It started with a crush and now I have a ring on my finger. The love of my life asked me to marry him and I said YESSSS.” (In another post Higgins holds his seniors card: “Dating a senior citizen … my community work is done,” Ashleigh jokes.) Theresa congratulated her daughter but still harboured deep concerns about the age gap.
On October 8, Gowty won a restraining order against Ashleigh: he could no longer deal with her constant calls. “I told her: ‘I love you, but I can’t do this.’ ” Late that night, Gowty’s mobile burst into life: Herald Sun court reporter Shannon Deery’s first article on Ashleigh and Higgins had hit the internet. The couple’s engagement, it said, had triggered an email warning to Magistrates’ Court staff about inappropriate relationships.
Deery, who declines to speak to Good Weekend, had been digging into the Magistrates’ Court culture for months. In March, a magistrate was stood down following Deery’s report of allegations that he’d sexually assaulted a woman at a Christmas party. Deery knew of several inappropriate relationships between magistrates and young clerks but could only confirm the Higgins/Petrie relationship, as Ashleigh’s social media posts were publicly accessible. Deery went on to expose a rumoured “X-rated romp” between a magistrate and a clerk in the Children’s Court and report that three magistrates were spoken to about dealings with younger clerks. (Chief Magistrate Lisa Hannan, who was appointed in November 2019, did not respond to questions about the court culture under her predecessor Peter Lauritsen, but told Good Weekend she is “unwaveringly committed to ensuring a safe and inclusive workplace”.)
The Higgins-Petrie story took on a life of its own. Everyone had an opinion: she was a gold-digger, he the shallow opportunist. Ashleigh’s social media accounts were mined for pictures, including her bikini-clad on a beach. In a leaked staff email, then Herald Sun editor Damon Johnston praised Deery for the scoop and noted the articles had attracted 30 new subscriptions.
Following Ashleigh’s death, the ABC’s Media Watch program asked Johnston how the story was in the public interest. The paper had been told of concerns raised with Lauritsen, including a perceived power imbalance between the pair. Several senior legal figures and court sources, Johnston added, believed the relationship could compromise court operations and Higgins’ sentences “may have been influenced, or had the potential to be”. (This idea originated from an event at a legal conference where Ashleigh allegedly described Higgins as “too soft” and boasted that she helped him decide sentences. According to media reports, a clash with a senior criminal barrister ensued and Ashleigh threw a glass of wine over him.)
Two weeks after the Herald Sun’s report, shadow attorney-general Ed O’Donohue, a state Liberal MP, made a complaint against Higgins to the Judicial Commission, breathing fresh life into the story. He alleged Higgins lacked judicial independence due to his relationship with Ashleigh (partly based on media reports of the legal conference incident), was involved in a drunken incident at Crown Casino and that his appointment was politicised. (In April last year, the Commission dismissed the first two complaints due to lack of supporting information, and the third because it was beyond its jurisdictional scope.)
For Ashleigh, the media storm was suffocatingly intense. “She’d be ringing me crying,” says Theresa. “One day she said: ‘Oh my god, [the media] are at my door.’ ” She walked out of her legal exams, unable to concentrate. Higgins later told police that on the evening of October 20, Ashleigh left his Mirboo North house, texting that she would walk in front of a truck. He says he found her walking down the middle of a road in Leongatha, a 20-minute drive away. (Higgins declined a request to be interviewed for this story and did not respond to written questions.)
But here’s the complex bit: Ashleigh, though not involved in Deery’s first story, began regular contact with him soon after, even providing the information for another story, published on October 19, about her one-month relationship with magistrate (and former The Castle actor) Costa Kilias, then 59.
The Herald Sun provided Media Watch Facebook Messenger texts to prove Ashleigh’s involvement. These show her offering to anonymously confirm or deny any tips and provide “goss”. On the Kilias article she said: “Anyway good luck [thumbs up emoji] it’s a good article (not flattering for me) but it’s good!.. And it’s true!” In another exchange, Deery said: “I’ll do it tomorrow. Only if you’re sure.” Ashleigh replied: “I’m certain right now! I won’t change my mind!” On October 25, two days before her death, Ashleigh wrote: “I’m going to the mint [a bar frequented by Melbourne court staff] tonight which I’ll be able to get goss! I’ll keep it for when your [sic] back.”
The Daily Mail, which ran seemingly endless digital reams on the relationship, and the Herald Sun told Media Watch Ashleigh wanted to raise concerns about the court’s culture. Theresa and John agree. “She told me she had a lot of dirt on the courts and she wanted to go public with it,” says Theresa. John adds: “She wanted to make a difference. But it backfired and it turned into an article about her.”
According to the coroner’s report, Theresa said that although Ashleigh liked attention, she was unsure whether her daughter liked the level of attention she received. It’s one thing to like attention, quite another to accurately predict the life-altering impacts of a viral story: the loss of anonymity, the taint of public shame, the harm to job prospects. Theresa wonders why the Court didn’t issue an off-the-record warning to Deery that Ashleigh was off work recovering from a mental-health issue. Chief Magistrate Hannan declined to answer this question, but a court spokeswoman said Ashleigh received “extensive support from court staff and management both before and after the news of her relationship made headlines”.
While Ashleigh was concerned about court culture, it’s important to remember she never framed her own relationship as one of sexual harassment. She was a consenting adult who genuinely appeared to love Higgins. They did not work in the same courtroom or building.
In April this year, former Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights commissioner Helen Szoke released her report, commissioned by the Andrews government, into sexual harassment in the Victorian courts. The report, which was not prompted by the Higgins-Petrie relationship, found sexual harassment an “open secret” in the Victorian legal profession and that court staff faced significant barriers in making complaints. Szoke tells Good Weekend that power imbalances are stark in court workplaces because judges are not bound by public service guidelines. Judges also administer justice, so their professional and private behaviour need to be beyond reproach. But people, including judges, meet their partners at work, so it’s a matter of handling “any power imbalances and potential conflicts transparently”.
Once these are addressed, says Szoke, it comes down to the age gap. And that’s tricky. Wade into these waters and it’s difficult not to emerge dripping in accusations of sexism (if you contend Higgins took advantage of Ashleigh, are you infantilising a grown woman?) or ageism (what’s wrong with older men?). But, says Szoke, it’s less about age and more about the status gap. “It’s important to bear in mind that when things go wrong, it’s always the person who’s the least powerful who bears the consequences.” Szoke says she would feel uncomfortable about a 60-something female magistrate with a 20-something court worker, but personally she feels “intrinsically uncomfortable” about a younger woman taking up with an older man in a significant position of power. “Men, after all, still continue to hold the majority of powerful positions. It feels more like an indulgence on his part than generating some sort of equal relationship.”
On her last Friday afternoon, Ashleigh dropped by her mother’s workplace, revealing she was flying to Sydney for a media interview with the ABC the following week. She seemed happy. But that night, Higgins and Ashleigh went out drinking, and everything ended in chaos. Called to their Melbourne CBD hotel room, police found them alcohol-affected and concluded that Ashleigh had committed a minor assault on Higgins. (Theresa was told by police that her daughter ended up in hospital with a head injury, but has been unable to confirm this.) The next morning, police asked if Higgins wanted to make a statement. He declined. They requested to interview Ashleigh, “which worried her”, the coroner’s report says.
On Sunday, the couple drove to the Gippsland Lakes and checked in to McMillans of Metung, a 3.2-hectare property of 20 luxury cottages and villas. That afternoon, they ended up at the local pub, the Metung Hotel, where owner David Strange remembers them distinctly. “You think it’s father and daughter, but then they’re holding hands and hugging. The age difference just shocked us all a bit.” Ashleigh mostly had her head down, he says, “texting, texting, texting”. Bartender Sue Haupt remembers Ashleigh “crying with someone on the phone”. I ask if she saw the couple fight. “No,” she says. “He was actually comforting her the whole time, rubbing her back.” They finished dinner, bought a takeaway bottle of wine and settled the bill at about 8pm.
There are conflicting reports on Ashleigh’s state of mind that night. Higgins later told police she’d confessed to being “in a dark place” and didn’t know if she could cope with the publicity. She worried no one would employ her. But Theresa spoke to her daughter as she was getting into the cottage’s spa and says she sounded “really good”. Higgins told police Ashleigh “got a bit teary” in the spa recounting things that “happened to her years before” but noted “she was fine”. Higgins left to buy another bottle of wine and returned to find Ashleigh on the phone with the detective who’d investigated the Richmond incident back in March.
The pair spoke twice that night and exchanged messages. The detective, in his coronial statement, said Ashleigh told him police wanted to interview her about Friday night’s assault of Higgins. He was unable to provide legal advice, but told Ashleigh police generally have a zero-tolerance approach and take action. She texted the detective saying the previous month had been the hardest of her life: a close family member and some friends were distancing themselves. He reassured her but could see “no indication she was in trouble more than the media and trust issues that had plagued her for the past month”.
I first meet Daniel Macklin in late May, at a pub in Northcote, in Melbourne’s inner-north. You could mistake him for a tough guy: tall, solidly muscular, a sleeve of tattoos. But it’s soon clear his heart is gentle. His girlfriend of one year, Amy, is here too. She puts a hand to his back when he breaks down. She has witnessed the pain in him, the sleepless nights and low motivation. He’s particularly on edge tonight – he hit a fox on the drive from Gippsland. The sudden flash in the headlights reminded him of the night that changed his life. “There are not many days that I don’t think about her,” he says, releasing a sharp exhalation and straightening his spine. “I never knew her, but I feel like she’s like a little sister. I’ll always be connected with her.”
After the accident, he couldn’t work. Then the bushfires hit and accommodation got scarce. He was briefly homeless. His collarbone healed, his teeth were fixed, the car repaired. He’s retraining for a security job. But the trauma continues to stalk him. He knows, intellectually, that Ashleigh’s death is not his fault. Yet he feels responsible. He feels sure it was a deliberate act: the way she ran “like she was pushed or dived” across a lane. It did not seem, he says, like she was trying to flag down his car. But he also hates it when, trying to make him feel better, people blame Ashleigh. “It’s the mental health state she was in,” he says. “The poor girl.”
Some things still puzzle him. The police gave him a typed note from Higgins that said something like “mate, she had mental-health problems, it was not your fault”. He thought it oddly lacking in emotion.
Higgins told the police they went to bed and that around midnight Ashleigh got up, dressed, and said she was going for a walk. She agreed to his request to walk within the property’s fences. “I begged her to stay,” Higgins told Media Watch. “But she said she needed to clear her head. Over the next hour she sent me four or five texts and voice messages, one of which said, ‘I can’t cope with all the coverage’. She apologised to me and said she loved me, but I’d be better off without her.” After waiting for Ashleigh to return for an hour, Higgins went looking for her, and came across the accident, the ambulance already there.
“She was a lovely, young, fragile, impressionable girl. I have no doubt at all that the Herald Sun and Daily Mail articles tipped her over the top,” he told Media Watch. He also dismissed the idea that Ashleigh saw herself as a whistleblower on court misconduct and was co-operating with the media. “She was devastated by the salacious revelations of her private life and had absolutely no intentions of commenting on the Magistrates’ Court.”
At the scene, the coroner’s report says, Higgins stated that he “had deleted some of the messages” between himself and Ashleigh that night. He told Senior Constable Chelsea Maxwell that there had been “a verbal argument and that Ms Petrie had left on foot”. But later, Higgins denied a fight.
Macklin is puzzled by how Ashleigh found herself so far out of town. At an average walking pace, it would have taken her an hour to walk the 4.5 kilometres there from McMillans, in the pitch-black, up a significant hill, with a mixture of alcohol (forensic toxicology tests recorded 0.12 per cent) and antidepressants in her system. (Macklin wonders too why he didn’t see Ashleigh while driving into Metung; walking the dogs had only taken 30 minutes.) Ex-boyfriend Stuart Gowty is also bewildered by how far she had gone. “Ashleigh doesn’t walk. I couldn’t get her to walk that far even if I took her shopping.”
Theresa, meanwhile, is puzzled about Ashleigh’s suitcase. Higgins told her he’d returned to McMillans and “thrown” Ashleigh’s stuff in her suitcase before driving to Mirboo North that night. But when he returned the suitcase to Theresa “it was packed like Ashleigh had packed it”, the “make-up perfect in the bag”. It was as if she’d skipped her pre-bed skincare routine. More significantly, Theresa remains hurt that Higgins didn’t immediately chase after Ashleigh that night. “You don’t let her go for an hour and then go, ‘Where is she?’ … If [a person is] not okay, make sure they are okay.” This hurt was only the beginning. In the months ahead, Theresa would struggle with the actions of the man who almost became her son-in-law.
At about 8.30am on Monday October 28, seven-and-a-half hours after Ashleigh died, Stuart Gowty found his neighbour Lurline Le Neuf madly knocking on his back door. She’d heard rumours on the court grapevine that something bad had happened to Ashleigh. Gowty rang Theresa and suggested she call Ashleigh. Theresa’s calls went to voicemail. Theresa then called Higgins, but it rang out. About 20 minutes later, Gowty called Higgins, who picked up first ring. Gowty urged him to call Theresa immediately. “He goes, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, I will. I’ve got to go.’ And then he hung up and proceeded to turn his phone off.”
Theresa tried Higgins about 10 times. Around 9.30am, she says, he finally returned her call. “He says: ‘Oh, she’s dead.’ I mean, who says, ‘Oh, she’s dead’? ” says Theresa, crying in gulping, big breaths.
Within three days of her death, Good Weekend has confirmed, Higgins had called Rest Super about Ashleigh’s $180,000 death benefit. The magistrate, who earns $324,000 a year, then made a successful claim, despite Ashleigh having bequeathed the money to Theresa, who earns a modest income in an accounts job. (An appeal process against Rest’s decision, now in its 16th month, is still afoot and Theresa is raising funds for her legal fees via a GoFundMe page.) Higgins refused to let Theresa and John see and listen to Ashleigh’s last messages.
Putting his garbage out a few months after Ashleigh’s funeral, Gowty needed more space and opened the Higgins/Le Neuf bin. He spotted some of Ashleigh’s mementos, including her Western Bulldogs hat. When Gowty tells me this, I notice his usual joviality has leached away. “I still love her and I still miss her,” he says. He regrets his restraining order every day – that he wasn’t there for Ashleigh when she needed him. I suggest that living here, next to Higgins, might not be good for his mental health. He’s already decided to move, he says, and does so a few months later.
As Higgins is a sitting magistrate, the Victorian coroner asked NSW magistrate Ian Guy to independently investigate Ashleigh’s death. In his report, which concluded that an inquest was not needed, Guy says the family was consulted about holding one. Theresa, however, denies that she was consulted, and says she would have welcomed a more public investigation. She is also disturbed by what she sees as a conflict of interest in the local police putting together the coroner’s brief on a case that involved a magistrate who sits in their area.
Guy’s report misspelled Ashleigh’s first name and omitted where she died on Metung Road. It made much of Ashleigh’s mental-health history, including an “eating disorder” while at school – which Theresa characterises as healthy eating.
“She was young and naive, very naive, I probably sheltered her a bit too much in life. She trusted everybody.”
Ashleigh Petrie’s mother
Indeed, both Theresa and John say they felt pressure from police to speculate that Ashleigh took her own life due to her mental ill health, a conclusion they reject. Says Theresa: “She would have texted us and said ‘I love you’. She had holidays booked … and all these new dresses that I still have in my wardrobe with the tags still on.”
Guy noted that several of Ashleigh’s suicide attempts and self-harm episodes happened prior to the media exposure. But the media interest was “undoubtedly intense” and despite her initial enjoyment of the spotlight, it became a burden. The press, he said, were unaware of her fragile mental state and “at least one media organisation would have seen Ms Petrie as a willing participant”.
As Media Watch host Paul Barry concluded, this was a “salutary tale for everyone in the media”. With so many people living their lives on social media, he said, journalists have unprecedented power to expose, ridicule and judge. “And they need to be a lot more careful about how they use and abuse it.”
On a midweek morning in November, 2019, Rod Higgins approached the lectern at Tobin Brothers in Werribee, in Melbourne’s west, and loomed over it. The white casket containing Ashleigh’s body stood just metres away. At first, Higgins’ voice faltered as he described this as “the saddest time of my life”. Ashleigh’s beauty, he said, was more than skin-deep, though she was “externally as attractive as a woman could possibly be”. She had dreams of being a Legal Aid lawyer. She had wanted a child and he was “willing to try”.
But the second half of his six-minute speech took a turn. Her zest for life, he said, contrasted against “problems of anxiety and depression”. Ashleigh, he said, was taking medication for a chemical imbalance in her brain. The black dog of depression “magnified” her “shortcomings”, driving her “constant need of reassurance”. At this, fellow mourners started to mutter their annoyance. Theresa sat a metre from Higgins in the front row, her back bent over in grief, her eyes fixated on her daughter’s casket.
When I view the video footage of Higgins’ speech with Theresa, she explains her fury in this moment: it was a time to celebrate Ashleigh, not highlight her struggles. “Put it this way, me and John had to hold each other,” she tells me, in tears. “Because we just wanted to get up and belt him.”
All Theresa knew was that Higgins must stop. “I think that’s enough,” she said out loud. And, with that, Higgins sat down.
Lifeline: 13 11 14. Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636.
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