WARNING: Graphic details may be disturbing to some readers
In her photographs – be it wearing a beauty queen sash or just walking up a set of steps – Anita Cobby looked directly in the camera, with the smiling confidence of someone saying: “This is me, and I’m loving life.”
And that’s probably what got the attention of the five gutless creeps who abducted, tortured, repeatedly raped and killed her, leaving her nude and debased in a farmer’s paddock one February night in 1986.
It’s a sorry part of national folklore that Cobby, 26, had finished her shift at a Sydney hospital, enjoyed dinner with friends and caught the 9.12pm train to Blacktown in outer-western Sydney to her parents’ home.
Dragged off the street
She was living there after separating from her husband John, who was initially a suspect – and ended up in a US mental hospital after going off the rails with grief and guilt and knowing too much of what the scumbags had done to the woman with whom he hoped to be reconciled.
She decided to walk home and never made it. The men dragged her into their car, kicking and screaming, and not knowing how bad it would be.
Anita Cobby’s ordeal is still often recalled as the “crime that shocked the nation” and one that rallied intense support for a return to capital punishment – although it’s sobering to remember that children before and since have suffered similar fates at the hands of monsters.
The difference being, many of the brutal details – broken fingers, dislocated bones, head nearly taken off – were made public.
Plus, there was the fact, as evidenced in the different portraits repeatedly published over the years – from her life as a nurse, and as someone dealing with a failed marriage, as many us do – she carried herself with grace.
Not a natural victim
There are plenty of murder victims who were known to wear their destiny on their troubled faces. The odds were against them.
But Anita Cobby – like Jill Meagher – wasn’t the making of a sociological study. She was a happy person.
Her killers, on the other hand, were found to come from deprived childhoods, of low intelligence. So are a lot of people. But these guys – John Travers, Michael Murdoch and the Murphy brothers, Mick, Les and Gary – were sour-faced losers. Whiners.
All of them with criminal records and no obvious regard for others. And one of them, the youngest – Travers, the 18-year-old who led the gang and cut Cobby’s throat – was a stand-out sicko.
But there’s no great appetite to investigate where it all went wrong for them in life. Just as there’s little to no sympathy for Martin Bryant’s weirdo loneliness as a child. Perhaps there should be.
But as with Bryant, we don’t want to hear about these guys – all of them jailed, under the order never to be released.
This week comes word that the oldest, Michael Murphy, 66, is dead from cancer. Last year, as he was moved to a secure palliative unit, he was asked if he wanted to apologise to Anita Cobby’s family, before he made his final exit.
No remorse, not even on his deathbed
He reportedly replied: “ Why would I f—ing apologise to anyone while you bastards leave me in this f—ing room and treat me like sh–.”
He was one of three Murphy brothers who took part in the abuse and murder. Imagine that. What’s the family story there? Nobody cares.
And perhaps we don’t want to look too closely at a dynamic that was ultimately perverse variation of the team-bonding antics that sometimes brings football teams into disrepute: the men taking their turns, egging each other on, the weak-willed members of the group in the thrall of a strong leader of an exhibitionist bent.
John Travers, 18, thought to have raped more than 20 men and women in Western Australia – committing some of those offences in front of an audience. A pervert who brought sheep to barbecues: who would reportedly have his way with the animal and cut its throat as a form of entertainment. And what does it say of the people who watched?
Was it any wonder that Justice Maxwell on June 19, 1987, in his sentencing remarks, observed the killers were “worse than animals … wild animals are given to pack assaults and killings. However, they do so for the purposes of survival … not so these prisoners. They assault in a pack for the purpose of satisfying their lust and killed for the purpose of (avoiding) identification”.
One wonders if such language from a judge would pass muster these days. At the time they brought no resounding complaint.