Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Martin Bryant and the Port Arthur Massacre

I remember April 28th 1996 vividly for a number of reasons. I went to a concert that night – Alanis Morrisette at the Palais Theatre in St. Kilda, Melbourne. My first time at that venue, and my first time seeing Alanis. It is a lovely old theatre, right on the beach. The old leather seats smell like leather and the sea. I had gone to the concert with my mum and my best friend. It had been a good night. My best friend’s daughter was a little over 1 year old, and we had left her with a family friend for the night, which meant we had two hour drive home, to pick Jaimee up on the way. The radio had been tuned to a pop station, I think Fox FM was my choice in those days. The late night show was usually a relationship/sex show with a DJ with the ominous moniker of “Dr. Feelgood”. A real doctor, she generally gave decent, frank advice. We were talking about the concert when we first got in the car, Dr Feelgood’s soft voice not making a huge impression initially. Then the content of what she was saying began to filter through. Shooting. Massive casualties. Australia’s worst crime. Port Arthur. Tasmania. Deaths and lots of them. We soon began listening to the radio in stunned silence. While we had been singing and dancing, oblivious to the outside world, a tragedy was being revealed.

Port Arthur

Port Arthur is a hugely popular tourist destination in Tasmania, Australia’s island state, south of the mainland. Port Arthur had been a penal settlement in the days of convicts, and the historical buildings attract many tourists, with there being shops, cafes and tours of the site, most notably night time ghost tours. By 1pm on that sunny autumn day there were 500 visitors making their way around the site. Nearly sixty of those visitors were having lunch in the Broad Arrow cafe, along with a man with long blonde, almost white, hair and a big blue sports bag. After sitting on his own on the balcony to eat his meal, he made a few comments to no-one in particular – most notably a comment about the lack of Japanese tourists that day. He then returned inside the cafe, staring at a group of diners, before placing a video camera on a table, turning to an Asian couple nearby, removing a rifle from his bag, and shooting. Moh Yee Ng was killed instantly, his companion Soo Leng Chung shot in the head. Turning to the first group of diners he shot twice, grazing one man and killing his girlfriend. In only moments three people had been killed. It had only just begun. Within fifteen seconds twenty people were dead and fifteen more injured. Fifteen seconds.

Martin Bryant

The shooter then opened fire on a group of tourists in the car park who were not aware of the danger they were now in. Some of the tourists crawled under a tour bus to hide, but the shooter calmly leant down and shot them as they huddled in fear. He got in his vehicle, a Volvo station wagon, and began driving to find more victims.

Next, a young mother was shot, as was the small child she was carrying. Her other daughter ran to escape the shooter, but he followed her behind a tree and shot her point blank. Three members of a family unit obliterated in moments. These three victims were Nanette, Alannah and Madeline Mikac.

On that day sixteen years ago a man named Martin Bryant made Port Arthur more famous than ever before, and for all the wrong reasons.

Bryant had always been an odd person – a loner in school, he was a loner as an adult as well. With a Forrest Gump level IQ, Martin qualified for a disability pension and obtained work as a handy man for a rich lottery heiress, Helen Harvey. Harvey took the strange young man under her wing, cultivating an unusual friendship, taking him on shopping expeditions and lavishing gifts on him. Many wondered if their relationship was more than platonic.

Martin’s behaviour was bizarre and erratic at times, which was extremely noticeable in quiet rural Tasmania. Neighbours complained about him prowling around their properties late at night, amongst other things.

The happiest years of Martin’s life ended abruptly when Helen Harvey was killed in a car accident. While some people claimed Martin caused the accident (he was known to grab and pull the steering wheel as a prank), no evidence was found and no charges were laid. Martin was the sole beneficiary of Helen’s estate, leaving him a mansion and more than $500,000 cash. He moved into the house and used the money for more than thirty overseas trips in a three year period, returning to his previous status as a loner.

In the months leading up to the massacre, Martin visited the Port Arthur tourist site several times. During this time, he also bought a new sports bag. The shopkeeper who sold it to him, remembers him measuring several before deciding on which one to purchase. These two facts tend to suggest that the killings were planned in advance and carried out with cold, calculating precision, rather than an act of impulse as suggested by some.

After shooting at people, he began shooting at vehicles as they approached. Bryant drove off in a BMW, after killing the occupants and transferring his guns from the Volvo. He eventually ended up at a local guest house, where he killed the proprietors and held the police off with gun fire for the rest of the night. His only request during the six hour standoff was for a ride in an army helicopter.

The next morning smoke was seen billowing from the guesthouse. Bryant ran from the building, clothing on fire. He was apprehended, his clothing extinguished and he was taken to hospital under police guard. It was over.

This was the days before the internet and information superhighway made updates on current events almost instant. The news would have started to filter through before we had gone to the concert, but we had been listening to Alanis on audio cassette in eager anticipation of the night in front of us. I’m glad I didn’t know about it until later. I think I really appreciated the fact that I heard the news about this from Dr. Feelgood. People were calling in to discuss how distressed they were by the events, and she was able to counsel them on air, and vicariously counsel us as well. She was kind of like Dr. Phil, but in a good way.

Walter Mikac, the only surviving member of his family, was a local pharmacist and became the face of the victims of this horrific event. Public sympathy poured out for a man who went to work one day, husband and father of two beautiful little girls, only to end the day a widower with three funerals to prepare. Walter established the “Alannah and Madeline Foundation” in honour of his little girls. The foundation supports children who have been the victims of violence or bullying. He went on to re-marry and have another child. I cannot imagine the pain he has been through. The pain that Martin Bryant has put him through. I have enormous respect for him, that he was able to continue with his life after that day.

The massacre at Port Arthur also led to the speedy implementation of strict gun laws throughout Australia. A gun amnesty encouraged all unregistered guns to be handed in, and very swiftly the gun culture of the nation changed. Now the only legal gun owners in Australia are farmers, hunters and sports shooters. There have been mass shootings in Australia before this massacre, but *touch wood* none since. For Australia, gun control was needed and has worked extremely well.

One can only speculate on the motives of Martin Bryant. He seems to have been focused on tourists, but it is unclear if this was a racially provoked issue. Unlike many of the other mass murderers we see, there was no apparent political message. Just a troubled man and some guns.

It is for people like Walter Mikac that I feel when I read online conspiracy theories suggesting that Martin Bryant was not responsible for the shootings, that there was other shooters, that it was an SAS officer who committed the crimes to instigate acceptance of gun control legislation in Australia, that Bryant was just a patsy. While eyewitness testimony is not 100% reliable, the amount of eyewitnesses to this event leaves little doubt as to the identity of the shooter. No other shooter was spotted by any of the people on the scene. Martin Bryant had no friends and it is extremely unlikely he was acting in concert with anyone. It was his act, and his alone. I understand that for his family, especially for his mother Carleen, it is a hard fact to deal with, and I don’t begrudge their grief, but the rights of the victims and their families need to be paramount.

For the more adventurous of you out there, there is police video available online of the crime scene, with the bodies still in place. I won’t link it here – just google it. I have watched it a few times in silent, morbid fascination. I can almost see the events playing out before my eyes.

Martin Bryant remains in prison in Tasmania, and I cannot foresee him ever being released.
For more details, check out Wikipedia or Crime Library.