I’ve avoided speaking much at all about this case because when I did initially mention it online, an internet troll accused me of siding with a criminal. I have also been very aware of the victim’s family and did not want to add to their anguish in any way, nor the anguish that I saw in Gene’s family members as they grappled with the accusations against him. With tonight’s 4 Corners program, that seems to have changed somewhat.
The way I became a foster carer at the end of 2006 was perhaps a little unusual, although given the cataclysmic circumstances that merely being in need of foster care must often originate from, perhaps not as unusual as I believed at the time. Matthew was 9 years old when I met him in a town camp on the outskirts of Alice Springs. He was a cute and cheeky kid. Within two years his mother had been fatally wounded during a domestic assault perpetrated by her partner. Less than a year after that, his father also died a violent death. His older sister was 13yo at the time and after witnessing her father’s murder she moved to her 18yo boyfriend’s home, where she was also subjected to multiple episodes of domestic violence.
I soon became aware of the term “double orphans”. The organisation charged with their care failed these double orphans miserably, in fact their negligence was surely criminal although few consequences were ever faced, except by two innocent children. Mathew was placed with his sister, at her boyfriend’s family home in another, equally dysfunctional, town camp. He (and she) should not have been there. Unlike his sister he also did not want to be there and was regularly rejected by the family, whose children he fought with. Effectively homeless at the age of 12yo, he turned up on my doorstep almost daily. A protracted battle with bureaucracies and incompetent bureaucrats began and dominated my life for a number of years.
In brief, during the murder trial of their father, his older sister was summonsed as a witness and I found myself in the court room with her. Her stepmother, probably disabled from alcoholism, saw me in the court and asked me to act as her support person also. I reluctantly agreed. She gave no evidence at all despite persistent questioning. When court adjourned for lunch mid-questioning, the two accused who sat behind a partition divider, stood and were suddenly visible from the witness stand. One of them made a threatening gesture to the witness. When I tried to report it, I was stonewalled by their jail guard as well as a senior lawyer. I told Stepmum that I could not stay after lunch as I had to return to work. She, due back in court that afternoon, disappeared. The following day the senior lawyer who I reported the intimidation to, amidst his rebuttals that I must have imagined it, rang me to ask what I had done with his witness! I did not see her again for a number of years and she clearly did not contribute further (if at all) to the murder case.
Meanwhile, I found myself the primary carer of a young homeless boy while his social worker repeatedly told me to take him back to his sister. He refused to believe me over many months as I insisted that Mathew’s sister should not be in this particular home, let alone her younger brother. He also seemed disinterested in how or why Mathew found his way to me on an almost daily basis, it raised no red flags at all apparently. The family of his sister’s boyfriend received carer money for Mathew, whilst encouraging him to stay with me instead. Every fortnight he visited them and came home with $50 cash, which I saw as “bribery money” taken from the extra kitty they were receiving courtesy of the social worker’s negligence. It was only many months later, when I finally comprehended that having the title “social worker” did not make a person competent in their role, that I reported the situation to his line manager. Mathew was immediately placed in my official care that afternoon.
Around this time a cousin of the children appeared, telling me that the social worker had asked them to “tell Helen to back off because she is harrassing me”. When they argued with him that he was not doing his job and they supported me, he informed them that “she has had other children in her care who have ended up living on the streets, is that really someone you want caring for him?”. This seemed outlandish but when I asked if I could report it to his manager, they encouraged me to do so fiercely, saying that they wanted the opportunity to report him. His manager visited me the following day to discuss the accusation, which he had, of course, vehemently denied. I did not pursue it. A very short time later, he made a phone call to my employer to report that I “had a client” living in my house. Thankfully my employer knew the full story and refused to engage with him. Again I reported him to his manager, and within days he appeared to no longer be employed at the organisation.
After about seven months playing foster mum, Mathew was finally placed back into the care of family in a remote community and he left my care. We remain in touch and he is as troubled and in-trouble as I always predicted his formative years were guaranteeing for his early adult years. I live in hope that, given his enormous potential, he may work something out for a peaceful and decent life. It’s touch and go right now and he has limited decent role models, so my hopes are faint..
During my time knowing Mathew, I came to know many other indigenous people, all somehow connected to him. The stories during 2006 to 2013 have been numerous, humorous, sad, bad, hilarious and nefarious. Unimaginably funny, tragic, shocking and frustrating events seemed often, to monopolise my time and energy. Perhaps the most extreme is the story of Mathew’s cousin Gene. Their mothers were sisters and they call each other “brother”. I first met Gene when he was about 14yo and visiting town from their very remote, interstate community. He knew me as “Mathew’s mother” and on many occasions he stayed in my home with Mathew. A quiet and withdrawn young man, I saw him very many times over about seven years. His mother is a very colourful character who lives nomadically across a vast expanse of northern Australia and while I only ever saw Gene in “my” environment, I can confidently say that his upbringing was less than ideal.
In July or August of 2012, Gene knocked on my door one night. He was alone and sober. Guessing he was hungry I invited him in and fed him. In reply to questioning it became apparent that he wanted to stay at my home and so I organised the outdoor bedroom for him on condition that in the morning he would have to leave with me when I was ready for work. He agreed to this and in the morning, en route to work, I dropped him in town. That night he appeared again. For a number of weeks this became our daily routine and it was fine by me as long as he remained sober and left the house with me the next morning. On one evening I let him in before noticing that he was more chatty than usual. When I asked “are you drunk” he shook his head. When I asked “are you stoned” he nodded. I explained he could not stay, made him a toasted sandwich, and dropped him at his chosen location in the dry riverbed a little way from town. As I drove away I felt torn by the injustice that I, a privileged westerner, could leave a stoned young man in a riverbed with homeless families, because I had the right to feel safe in my comfortable home.
One Saturday morning during this time, Gene walked with me into town. He didn’t often have much to say but on this particular day he told me a story that while he was in Broome some time prior, one night he saw a dead body on the side of the road and rang the police. I don’t remember the exact story now. It seemed odd and when I asked how the person died, he mentioned seeing a car drive away from the scene. A week or two later, Gene knocked on the door one night and instead of wanting to stay, announced that he was leaving town and had come to collect his bag from the back room. We said goodbye and I have never seen him since except via video link a year or so later.
Within a week of Gene leaving town, Mathew’s sister rang me to say Gene had been arrested and taken to Perth on murder charges! The story seemed to match that of the dead body he had spoken about to me. In shock, I attended the local police station where my story about a wrongly charged murder accused raised a few eyebrows. Nevertheless, a detective was called down and took my statement. There was little else I could do. Various other dramas were unfolding on a daily basis and Gene in prison was just another crazy situation that I had to accept. On a weekday morning some weeks or months later, I must have had my programmed extra day off, I was in my red and black polka dot pyjamas, vacuuming the house. A knock on the door revealed two men and a woman dressed in blue t-shirts and jeans, looking like Jehovah’s Witnesses. They introduced themselves as Murder Squad and wanted to speak with me about Gene. They also wanted to know where Mathew was, who Gene had also spoken about the incident to.
At the police station later that day I learned Gene had been interviewed in his remote community and revealed evidence which proved he had committed an unsolved murder of a young man in Broome in 2010. The evidence was, according to the detective, infallible. Gene had committed a violent murder! He had suffered nightmares and this appeared to explain the strange circumstances, of him turning up on my doorstep every night whilst in Alice Springs. It assured him a quiet and safe place to rest with his demons. Or so it seemed?
Around this time I was contracted with Medecins Sans Frontieres and took two years leave from work, leaving town for training in Sydney before making my way to Cambodia. In Cambodia I had to travel to Phnom Penh to give evidence via video link in a Perth court about what I knew of Gene, particularly his ability to comprehend English. I was asked some unusual and surprising questions, such as how did I communicate with Gene when he was in my home (by the prosecution) and was I a qualified linguist (by the defence). It was confusing at the time but I came to learn that there was a defence argument that Gene had been questioned in his community without a translator present, giving rise to the suggestion that his confession was inadmissible. Gene was in the room during this hearing but we did not communicate. The trial was due to continue at a later stage but I was never required to return for further questioning. I believe he was later found guilty of manslaughter, after the murder charges were dropped.
Arriving back in town a few days ago, I walked past a location where I have often seen Gene visiting family and had a fleeting thought that now I am home, I could write him a letter, and what I would say, and who would read it to him. Amazingly, tonight he featured briefly on ABC’s 4 Corners program. The mother of his alleged victim is convinced that Gene, who is thought to suffer from Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, is innocent of the crime he was found guilty of committing. The evidence, which she has been privy to, includes his inability to locate the scene of the crime, and some doubts that appear to have arisen relating to the way he was questioned and the confession he finally gave after nine hours of questioning. More on the case can be read here:
Expert Casts Doubt on Gene Gibson Murder Confession
It is a tragedy on so many levels and to my mind, highlights the failure in Australia to protect young people from the consequences of growing up in chaotic and detrimental circumstances. There are so many reasons to protect young people, which are not just about the individual youth but also about society as a whole. I want my community to be fair and just for everyone, not just those who happen to have been born “lucky”, into functional and healthy environments.
For more on the background story:
WA Police Stood Aside Over Arrest