Inside the minds of murderers

961120:Julian Knight (Hoddle Street mass murderer), photo taken in 1986 after Julian turned 18:news
961120:Julian Knight (Hoddle Street mass murderer), photo taken in 1986 after Julian turned 18:news

He didn't look much like a serial killer, the slight man sitting on a bench near a pond, surrounded by families on that early Sunday afternoon. It could have been any park in any suburb - until you looked up to see the bluestone walls that enclosed Pentridge Prison.

He agreed to meet and chat about his crimes, with no subject out of bounds - his hair swept to the left concealing the ear he had mutilated in prison years earlier.

Initially he asked for $20,000, but settled on a packet of Camel cigarettes and a cup of tea from the prison canteen. It was a 90-minute contact visit with no handcuffs, recorder or guards - designed as it was for families, not nosy reporters.

The excellent recent Netflix series Mindhunter, on how two FBI investigators interviewed serial murderers as part of learning profiling techniques, took me back to the days when you could sit face to face with killers - not just rat through Facebook to discover personality traits.

Paul Steven Haigh is not physically imposing, not charismatic nor particularly frightening, yet he remains Australia's (equal) worst serial killer, having murdered seven times.

We talk of his crimes without emotion. Me because I don't want him to feel judged and withdraw - him because he seems incapable of normal feelings. He concentrates on the consequence of his actions to him, never reflecting on his victims. (At this point he had murdered six times. He would kill again five years later.)

Which is why, perhaps, he quotes a Chinese proverb: "When evil sees itself, it destroys itself."

Stalker-killers such as Derek Ernest Percy and Peter Norris Dupas would withdraw into themselves, refusing to acknowledge their crimes, for to do so would be to acknowledge that they are monsters.

Adopted, Haigh said he was "a neurotic youngster" who lived a sheltered life, had a "religious upbringing" and was bullied at school. Asked why he killed, he responded: "I don't know why. Was it my parents who tried too hard and so gave me a faulty foundation? Was it because I stubbed my toe when I was three? God knows."

"I always was, and still am a coward ??? It takes no hero to murder. The most puny man in the world can pull a trigger. The obstacle is a psychological one."

Aged 21, Haigh killed six people, including a nine-year-old boy, in just 11 months. He shot Evelyn Abraham at a Prahran Tattslotto agency on September 1978, and Bruno Cingolani, 45, in a Caulfield pizza parlour in December the same year.

He then killed fellow criminal Wayne Smith, Sheryle Gardner and her nine-year-old son, Danny Mitchell, then his own girlfriend Lisa Maude Brearley, 19. He told me Gardner brought her son to a meeting as insurance, believing Haigh would not kill her in front of the boy.

"His mother I shot first. As Danny's back was to me, crying, I shot him too."

When I ask why he stabbed Brearley 157 times, he responds "I lost count", before miming stabbing motions while counting out loud. He then paused to sip his tea. It was getting cold.

"The crimes I committed were atrocious but I can't run back the clock. What is done is done."

But Haigh wasn't done. In 1991, he helped fellow prisoner Donald George Hatherley "suicide". Haigh slipped the noose around his neck, pulled away the small cupboard he was standing on and then pushed down on his shoulders to make sure Hatherley couldn't survive.

Prison officers say that after Julian Knight killed seven in Hoddle Street in 1987, Haigh fretted that he was no longer Victoria's most prolific killer - so he needed another victim.

For some time Knight wrote to me from prison, at first wanting a ghosted book, but mostly as part of a clumsy pattern of obtuse threats. Even now he writes to inmates informing them of anything I publish about them, one assumes to curry favour with them and build antipathy to me.

Knight claims he went on his rampage after he was bullied at the army's Duntroon officers college, where he was a failed student. But material published here for the first time would suggest he was having dangerous fantasies at least two years earlier.

"The Six Million Dollar Mouse", a cartoon Julian Knight drew while a pupil at Melbourne High in 1985. Photo: Supplied

A fellow Melbourne High School student recalls Knight as "bright, cheeky and funny but a bit of a weirdo. None of us anticipated he was capable of something like that (the Hoddle Street massacre)."

In 1985 Knight was in the school cadets and obsessed with weaponry. He also liked to dabble in cartooning, which gives an insight into his darkness. In one story, Seymour - The Six Million Dollar Mouse, a frail Seymour is shot several times while his military mates fly to his rescue.

Knight's use of the name Seymour in his cartoon may be a reference to his time growing up at the Puckapunyal Base in Seymour. Photo: Supplied

Knight's use of the name Seymour in his cartoon may be a reference to his time growing up at the Puckapunyal Base in Seymour. Photo: Supplied

"Seymour recovers with amazing speed, fighting injustice wherever he finds it." Knight's character (clearly based on him) then goes on a shooting rampage, killing 16 enemies in one frame.

That he picks an insignificant-looking mouse as the hero who exacts murderous revenge probably reflects the killer's self image. And as an adopted child in an army family, he grew up at the Puckapunyal Base - at Seymour.

Seymour the mouse guns down his enemies in Julian Knight's chilling high school cartoon. Photo: Supplied

Seymour the mouse guns down his enemies in Julian Knight's chilling high school cartoon. Photo: Supplied

In the final drawing the once skinny hero (reflecting Knight's own slender physique) has bulked up Rambo-style and is pictured with a machine gun surrounded by blood-soaked corpses. Two years later, Knight lived out this fantasy.

Prison officers say Knight sat chain smoking while watching reports on Martin Bryant, who in 1996 killed 35 people at Tasmania's Port Arthur.

The end of Seymour's shooting rampage, a grim harbinger of Knight's own massacre.

The end of Seymour's shooting rampage, a grim harbinger of Knight's own massacre. Photo: Supplied

"He couldn't take his eyes off the TV. When reports said the death toll was more than seven he stormed off and slammed his cell door. He sulked so long he wouldn't come out for meals," one said.

Triple killer Greg Brazel was capable of charm but would turn on a whim. "He is cunning and sly and could never be trusted. His moods change from friendly to violent instantaneously," police reported.

Brazel, the son of a NSW police detective, murdered Mount Eliza shopkeeper Mildred Hanmer in 1982 and in 1990 killed another two women - the second, police believe, when he knew he was under investigation. When arrested he smiled and said: "I look forward to doing battle with the homicide squad."

In prison he was responsible for at least 25 attacks, including stabbing three prisoners in separate incidents, breaking the noses of two prison officers, assaulting police, setting fire to his cell, cutting off the tip of his left ear, threatening to kill staff, pushing a governor's head through a plate-glass window and using jail phones to intimidate witnesses.

He always seemed to have access to a phone and in the early 1990s would often ring for a chat, always angling for a positive story. Unquestionably intelligent, his thirst for violence began as a teenager after a bike fall cracked his skull.

A CAT scan he underwent as an adult showed damage to the left temporal lobe - the part of the brain that controls impulses. Perhaps that explains why for years Brazel was Victoria's most dangerous inmate.

He went on a preposterous 57-day hunger strike, with his supporters claiming he was days from death - until, that is, prison officers found a store of Mars Bars under his bed, which indicated he was in greater danger from tooth decay than malnutrition.

Hugo Rich was another who could have been a successful businessman but became hopelessly addicted to violence. In a five-page letter of complaint to The Age, Rich made it clear he was no fan of this reporter. "John Silvester's defamatory claptrap is puerile and overblown fiction," he suggested in his well-argued and at times amusing critique.

Rich was convicted of a series of armed robberies (often wearing an expensive Trussardi jacket and a silk ski mask). His defence was damaged by testimony from security guards that linked him to the bandit's guns.

Hugo Rich robbing a bank in his ski mask.

Hugo Rich robbing a bank in his ski mask.

Smooth but violent, he betrayed his true nature in August 1995, when in court he turned on crown prosecutor (and later County Court judge) Carolyn Douglas: "One chance - one f---ing chance. Watch your back. Every time you turn the car on ??? I'm telling you, OK. I don't care how long it takes, 25 years, b----. I'll have a go at you. One go, that's all I want."

A decade later he returned to armed robberies. When he pointed a gun at security guard Erwin Kastenberger at the North Blackburn Shopping Centre, the guard handed over the bag containing $162,000. Yet Rich shot and killed him, police say to ensure Kastenberger couldn't give evidence as the guards had done a decade earlier.

Hugo Rich: an armed robber who turned to murder.

Hugo Rich: an armed robber who turned to murder.

Most killers act out of passion, some from dark impulses they can't control. Many of our most notorious were sexually and or physically abused as children. But the subjects of this story all came from middle-class backgrounds and all had the brains to succeed in the straight world.

And yet they chose to kill. They share more than the same dreary cells and lack of future. It is a lack of empathy - a failure to feel for anyone else. And no crime profiler will ever be able to tell us why.

This story Inside the minds of murderers first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.