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Leonard Warwick was deeply embittered by the Family Court’s refusal to grant him full-time access to his daughter, Trudi. Litigation dragged on for years. Photo: courtesy of Sunday Night program, Channel 7
When four people were killed during a series of bombings and shootings in Sydney in the 1980s, one man kept appearing on the police’s radar. He was never charged, but remains the prime suspect. Debi Marshall reports on the Family Court murders.
Don’t prod that snake. That was the warning given to various journalists who had considered investigating the NSW Family Court murders of the early 1980s. It was too dangerous, they were told. The prime suspect, Leonard John Warwick, who was publicly named by a state coroner in two enquiries, is still alive. “If you look into those ice-cube eyes, you join a unique club of which there are very few members,” former lead investigator Kevin Woods warned me.
It was not a warning I heeded when I recently went, alone, to track Warwick down at his semi-rural home near Sydney. “Hello there,” I ventured. “I’m looking for Leonard Warwick. Do I have the right house?” Warwick’s pock-marked face is hard as cement and his small eyes hard as marbles. Not a muscle moved in his face as he advanced toward me. “Get the f… off my property,” he growled, leaning closer into my face. “Now.”
Justice Richard Gee, who took over Justice Opas?s case list after he was murdered, was the target of a bomb blast that flattened his home in March 1984. Miraculously, he and his family survived. Photo: courtesy of Sunday Night program, Channel 7
Three decades later, the horror of the Family Court bombings and shootings still haunt all involved. Warwick’s former wife and daughter nurse deep emotional trauma. Widows and children, tormented by grief, weep when they recall the incomprehensibility of the murders. Victims’ families struggle to understand why they were not contacted by NSW police for three decades; why, beyond an occasional “review” of the investigation, their loved ones were abandoned to the dark void of the cold-case files. Former investigating officers still rue that in 1986 the then coroner, the late Kevin Waller – with circumstantial evidence stacked so high against Warwick – did not push the NSW Department of Public Prosecutions to consider taking the case on.
An initiative of the Whitlam Labor government, the Family Court of Australia opened its doors in 1976, its lofty, if somewhat naive, principles based on the introduction of the “nofault” divorce. Through the doors they came, thousands of couples seeking emancipation from an unhappy marriage. But the court’s creators failed to factor in one important truth: that in a marital tug of war, vitriol and vengeance often walk hand in hand. So it was with Andrea and Leonard Warwick, who, in 1979, after five years of marriage marred by bitterness and violence, entered the Parramatta Family Court. At stake was the emotive decision about who would gain full-time custody of their one-year-old daughter, Trudi. Their litigation would drag on for years.
The next year, in February, 25-year-old Stephen Blanchard – a peace-loving surfer – was shot at pointblank range as he slept in his father’s home. His body, weighted with 11 house bricks tied with a fireman’s pocket line, was dumped into the murky depths of Cowan Creek, in the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park in northern Sydney. Four months later, on June 23, 1980, Family Court judge David Opas was also shot at point-blank range when he answered the courtyard doorbell at his home in the wealthy Sydney suburb of Woollahra.
Andrea Warwick with her daughter, Trudi, in the early 1980s, when she was fighting her ex-husband, Leonard Warwick, through the Family Court in Sydney for custody.Photo: courtesy of Sunday Night program, Channel 7
"One minute," Opas’s widow Kristin recalls, "David was dancing with our six-year-old daughter, Persia. The next minute the music stopped forever."
The shootings stopped, too. Police, flummoxed by the apparent randomness of Opas’s murder, surmised that his killer was a disgruntled litigant at the Family Court. There seemed to be no connection between this murder and the bloated corpse that had risen from the depths of Cowan Creek. Or was there?
In a sea of possible suspects, one man came on the police radar: 33-year-old fireman Leonard Warwick, a loner and crack shot who had grown up alone with his father, a miner, in Helensburgh, on the fringes of the Royal National Park south of Sydney, following the sudden death of his mother when Warwick was six.
Stephen Blanchard (pictured here with his father, Leslie), Andrea Warwick’s younger brother, was shot at point-blank range in February 1980 in Leslie’s house. Stephen’s body was later found in Cowan Creek, north of Sydney. Andrea and Trudi had sought shelter with Leslie after she became estranged from Leonard. Photo: courtesy of Sunday Night program, Channel 7
A former army conscript who did not see overseas service, Warwick had no criminal record, but Opas had made adverse findings against him during his bitter custody battle with Andrea, and eyewitness descriptions of a man seen running from the Opas murder scene matched Warwick’s stature and appearance. Warwick’s brother-in-law was Stephen Blanchard, who was living with his father, as were Andrea and Trudi, when he was murdered. Warwick knew the layout of that house, and he was off duty when both Opas and Blanchard were killed. But with only circumstantial evidence against him, police had no room to charge him.
Justice Richard Gee took over Opas’s court list, and in mid-1983 Gee, too, made adverse findings against Warwick. Then, suddenly, in early 1984, all hell broke loose. In February, two cases of the explosive material molanite were stolen from a securely locked quarry west of Sydney. A week later, detonators and fuses were also stolen after an elaborate break-in from an affiliated site. Whoever broke in knew exactly what they wanted – but what did the thief want it for?
Then, around 1.30am on March 6, 1984 – the same day that ongoing proceedings were due to be heard at the Family Court in the Warwick matter – a bomb, the equivalent of 50 sticks of gelignite, exploded on the front doorstep of Justice Gee’s home in the northern Sydney suburb of Belrose. It levelled the house from the front to the back wall, but Gee and his two children (Gee’s wife, Helen, was in hospital at the time) escaped with only minor injuries, a fact the deeply religious Gee described as a “miracle”. But while police acknowledged it was fortunate that no one was killed, they also realised a darker possibility: that the bombing might be related to the shootings four years earlier.
Justice David Opas, Family Court judge, was shot at point-blank range when he answered the courtyard doorbell at his home in Sydney’s Woollahra in June 1980. Opas had made adverse findings against Leonard Warwick in the custody battle. Photo: courtesy of Sunday Night program, Channel 7
While police scrambled to catch the culprit, one Sunday night in mid-April there was another bomb attack, this time on the judicial system itself: the Parramatta Family Court. No one was injured, and once again police looked at disgruntled litigants.
Ongoing court proceedings between Andrea and Leonard Warwick had been listed at the court for the day after the bombing, but when questioned by police, Warwick maintained his right to silence. “It was incredibly frustrating,” Kevin Woods recalls. “He used that at every turn.”
While he recovered from his injuries, Justice Gee’s court list was handed to Justice Ray Watson, a man known for his philanthropic generosity but waspish personality. Watson had no patience for Warwick’s habit of keeping his daughter beyond court-allocated times and punished him by further restricting his access.
Justice Ray Watson with his wife, Pearl, who was killed by a bomb fixed to the front door of their unit in Sydney’s Greenwich in July 1984. Photo: courtesy of the Watson family
On a wintry July morning in 1984, Justice Watson’s adored second wife, Pearl, headed to the door of their unit in Sydney’s Greenwich. Opening it, she triggered a bomb hidden in a plastic bag tied to the front-door knob. The massive explosion killed Pearl instantly, the impact so savage that her body, hurled backwards, was imprinted in the brickwork, her legs severed from her torso and half her face blown off.
Once again, police could find no physical evidence to tie Warwick, or any other suspect, to the crime. What they did know was they were dealing with an audacious serial killer who managed to outwit them continually in a deadly game of cat and mouse.
With security finally stepped up at the Family Courts, a grim-faced Bob Hawke and NSW premier Neville Wran announced the formation of a joint state and federal police task force. Woods recalls it as one of the largest murder investigations in Australian history.
Graham Wykes (pictured with his wife, Joy) was killed by a bomb at a Jehovah’s Witness hall in Casula, Sydney, in July 1985. Andrea Warwick’s sister, Judy, was a member of the congregation. Photo: courtesy of Sunday Night program, Channel 7
"It went on with more than 50 detectives for more than two years," he says. "There was virtually an ocean of suspects from Family Court [cases], but the trick was to find who had appeared before Opas, Gee and Watson, and who had the motive to want them gone. One name kept recurring: Leonard Warwick."
Teetering on the edge of a nervousbreakdown from Warwick’s unscheduled visits to see Trudi and repeated violent attacks at his hands, Andrea decided to take the advice of her solicitor Gary Watts and control Warwick’s access visits herself. The hard punch that landed on her face when she shared this with her former husband was the last straw for her jagged nerves. “We need to get out of Sydney immediately,” she told her sister, Judy, who was separated with two children. “Len will kill me if we don’t.”
On the same night in February 1985 as the sisters were packing their belongings, someone lifted the bonnet of a car parked outside Gary Watts’ former home, deftly placing gelignite and securing a detonator to the battery terminals before scurrying away. Watts had sold his home but his old address was still in the phone book. The next morning, the home’s new tenant, Peter Tall, opened the bonnet to do some work on his car, saw the bomb, and froze. Had he turned over the ignition he, and anyone else in the vicinity, would have been killed.
Hearing from police that there had been a failed attempt on her solicitor’s life, Andrea heeded their urgent warning to get out of Sydney, fast. Her sister Judy, an ardent Jehovah’s Witness, sought the help of her congregation and furtively moved them to Forster, on the NSW mid-north coast. After they left, a man who did not identify himself made vaguely threatening phone calls to members of the congregation demanding to know Andrea’s whereabouts. But safe from the violent turmoil in Sydney, the sisters finally breathed an uneasy sigh of relief.
Their peace didn’t last. Five months after Tall miraculously found the bomb in his car, there were two apparently random break-ins at the Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall in Casula, south-west Sydney. Strangely, nothing was stolen. The following Sunday, on a luminous July day, a massive explosion splintered the hall like a pack of cards as the congregation of more than 150 men, women and children were bent in peaceful prayer.
Father of three Graham Wykes was killed instantly, while David Winder, who was speaking from the pulpit, was blown through the roof, sustaining life-threatening injuries. Scores of others were seriously wounded and many still bear the physical and emotional scars today.Though long retired, Kevin Woods maintains a keen interest in seeing justice served for this and the other shootings and bombings. “We found Leonard Warwick gave conflicting versions to people about how he sustained cuts on his face around the time of the [Jehovah’s Witness] bombing,” he says. “The break-ins were obviously when the bomb was planted and the offender cut himself climbing through the window. There was blood found inside the hall, which tested O-positive. Warwick is O-positive. But still we lacked that smoking gun.”
With news of yet another bombing, Andrea, a plain-spoken woman, made a heartbreaking decision. “I couldn’t bear to think this would keep going on and on, that more people would be killed,” she says. “It was my opinion then, and remains so today, that Len was responsible for all the shootings and bombings. He wanted Trudi at all costs. Well, he finally got her.”
Heaving with sobs, Andrea handed over her beloved daughter, then seven, to her former husband. She still weeps when she speaks of it. “Once I gave her to him, the bombings stopped,” she says. “Trudi lived with him until she was 16, but she and his new Filipino wife didn’t get on. Trudi moved out, and she hasn’t heard from her father for years.”
Trudi, now married with two children, is incredulous that her father no longer has contact with her. “If he is the Family Court bomber, and he wanted me that badly, why doesn’t he want to see me now?” she asks, rhetorically. “I mean, it doesn’t make sense, does it?”
In each bombing and shooting, police found that Warwick had the motive, means and opportunity to commit the crimes. He was off duty each time. He had time to reach the crime scene and to get away. He had no alibi on each occasion. He was a crack shot who could have hidden explosives in the dense terrain of the Royal National Park, which he knew very well. But they lacked the evidence to prove it. If Warwick was the bomber, investigators needed him to make a mistake or an admission. Through two inquests, in 1986 and 1987, he belligerently maintained his right to silence.
Police sought the assistance of a consultant psychiatrist to assess Warwick’s personality. Though the pair did not meet, the psychiatrist’s research found that Warwick had no mates, did not drink or smoke, liked to confuse others, was a loner, and was cold and emotionless.
A former de-facto partner of Warwick’s described him as “strange” and said he slept with a hunting knife under his pillow. Warwick, the psychiatrist continued, suffered from a paranoid personality disorder and had little or no hesitation to hurt others when pushed or aggravated.
During my research for my book The Family Court Murders (published by Random House next week), which was sparked by a story I worked on as associate producer of Channel Seven’sSunday Night, I located excommunicated Jehovah’s Witnesses Anne and Warryn Stuckey. The Stuckeys had left the church long before the Casula hall was bombed and lived at an isolated farmhouse in NSW. With media interest high following the 1985 bombing, Warryn had answered a TV journalist’s question about what sort of person might be responsible for the bombing.
While he “utterly condemned the action”, he added that “I have met people who have been sufficiently disturbed by what’s happened to the family [after excommunication] to take that course”. Shortly after, they received an unexpected visit from a stranger with a hard, pock-marked face, who sat at their kitchen table complaining that his wife was involved with the Jehovah’s Witnesses and demanding whether, because Warryn had spoken on television, they knew the identity of the bomber. “The hairs went up on the back of my neck,” Anne recalls. “I realised with horror that I was looking at the bomber.” When he didn’t get the information he wanted, the stranger left.
Two years later, while watching the news on TV, Anne saw an image of Leonard Warwick as he walked from the 1986 coronial inquest into the death of Graham Wykes during the hall bombing. “I screamed out to Warryn, ‘Quick – this is the same man who came to our house asking strange questions.’ ” Anne has no doubt about his identity. “It was Leonard Warwick,” she shudders. “It still terrifies me.”
Last year, following the airing of the Sunday Night story, the NSW Unsolved Homicide Unit announced the formation of a task force dedicated to examining these cases. Andrea, who has now reverted to her maiden name, Blanchard, takes a cynical view of the new investigation. “It took ‘em bloody long enough, didn’t it?” she says.
If coroner Waller’s lengthy findings at the 1986 Wykes inquest, that “in Warwick’s case the coincidence of motive and opportunity as regards all the events is quite extraordinary”, gave hope to onlookers and police that he would push the cases to the NSW Department of Public Prosecutions (DPP), his rider quickly poured cold water on that. There was, he added, “no evidence that Warwick had ever possessed an explosive, knew how to construct a bomb, or that he had been to the site of any of the crimes”.
Warwick’s former lawyer, Michael Tubbs, does not mince words. “Warwick was a strange man, for sure,” he says, “but the truth is, the police case had more holes than a fisherman’s net.”
A senior barrister, who asks not to be named, agrees that the police did not have enough evidence, in the 1980s, to bring a case before the DPP. But he says that changes in the way our legal system regards circumstantial evidence between then – when “similar-fact” evidence was rare in criminal trials and every case had to be run individually – and now, means that a strong case could be brought against Warwick today.
During my research, I also found solid evidence to disprove Waller’s theory that Warwick did not have access to explosives – a factor in the coroner not putting a case to the DPP. When I show this evidence to the barrister, he says, “What you have found about explosives is sensational evidence. My understanding is that the police review process is, at this stage, ongoing. But with the explosives evidence you now have, coupled with the direct corroborative evidence of the Stuckeys, the current evidentiary regime of similar-fact, and other evidence you have unearthed, there seems to me to be a case for the police immediately arresting Warwick and for him to be placed before a court.
"In my opinion," the barrister continues, "there is no rational explanation whatsoever that is consistent with his innocence."
He quotes an aphorism from American writer and philosopher Henry Thoreau, written in 1854: some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk. “That sums it up perfectly,” he states, firmly. “It has been more than three decades. The community should demand that this goes before a jury. It is long, long overdue.
When our friends make “jw.org” pins and other items, please use the copyrighted correct logo. It is confusing to have all the incorrect logos out there! The correct logo has a “blue” background. The “JW” is on the top and “.ORG” is on the bottom. These logos are being put on our Kingdom Halls and the friends should support the chosen color and format.- Marlene G.