Story transcripts

The Trials of Gordon Wood

Friday, April 27, 2012

Reporter: Liz Hayes
Producer: Steven Burling

It was a case that had it all, a flamboyant stockbroker, a beautiful model, murky business dealings and a deadly mystery.

And at the centre of it all was chauffeur Gordon Wood.

Everyone believed Gordon Wood had murdered his girlfriend, Caroline Byrne, that he'd thrown her off The Gap, a well-known Sydney suicide spot.

He was convicted and given a lengthy prison sentence. But Gordon Wood is now free after winning a sensational appeal.

He is an innocent man but it seems public opinion isn't swayed so easily.

On 60 Minutes, Gordon Wood tells his story.

Read the full Court of Criminal Appeal judgement here

Read Liz Hayes' blog on this story and have your say

60 Minutes will host a live web chat with Gordon Wood's lawyer following the show, at 8.40pm AEST. Join the chat here.

Full transcript:

LIZ HAYES: On a cliff-top at the edge of Sydney Harbour, Gordon Wood contemplates the past 17 years. This is The Gap – a notorious Sydney suicide spot where Gordon Wood’s girlfriend Caroline Byrne died and where he was said to have murdered her. And when you look at where Caroline died, can that ever leave your mind?

GORDON: I can’t look at it. I don‘t want to look at any of that.

LIZ HAYES: Just can’t do it?

GORDON: Mm-mm.

LIZ HAYES: Gordon Wood is now a free man – acquitted by the NSW Court of Appeal. And after three years in gaol he’s come home to his mother Brenda and sisters Jackie and Michelle.

GORDON: I always knew I would win and prove my innocence but being free still isn't natural – let’s say that. It doesn’t feel natural but it’s definitely right.

LIZ HAYES: There will always be people who will not believe you.

GORDON: Oh, there’s people who believe George Bush blew up the Twin Towers, there’s people who believe Lindy Chamberlain killed Azaria – it’s nonsense. The only thing that hurts me on a personal level is that anybody could even suspect me.

LIZ HAYES: Caroline Byrne’s tragic death was a saga that had it all – models, millionaires and even a high society matron. A story driven by salacious rumour, suspicion and innuendo. It began when Gordon Wood met Caroline Byrne in 1992.

She was the beautiful model, he was the economics graduate – working as a fitness instructor in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. And it was virtually love at first sight.

GORDON: Well, it sounds glib to say that “she was the love of my life” – but she was. I asked her to marry me within about three or four weeks. I just knew – it wasn’t something I had to think about, I just knew. And she said “yes” straight away and we never looked back from there.

LIZ HAYES: As they planned for the future, Gordon signed on as driver and assistant to flamboyant stockbroker Rene Rivkin and Caroline began working with society deportment queen, June Dally-Watkins. All the signs for their future were good. But then suddenly, on June 7 1995 on a cold, dark winter’s night, Caroline Byrne’s body was found at the bottom of The Gap. Do you recall the actual moment when you knew she was dead?

GORDON: I was at the top of the cliff – I imagine that was the realisation there was no getting Caroline back. They said they would tidy her up and if I would be happy to go to the morgue, maybe I could identify her there. But when I got to the morgue with my mum and sister they said “no” – it wouldn’t be good for me to see her like that. Yeah – they let me say goodbye to her in the morgue.

LIZ HAYES: Without seeing her?

GORDON: The lady took her hand out of the blue bag and she let me hold her hand –it was all I could say goodbye to.

LIZ HAYES: For months everyone accepted that Caroline’s death was a tragic suicide. But suddenly things changed. A coronial inquest failed to determine how Caroline died – and Gordon Wood found himself being investigated by Police who, like Caroline’s family, now believed he had a hand in her death. Gordon Wood’s nightmare was about to begin. I have to ask you, were you at The Gap that night with Caroline?

GORDON: Absolutely not.

LIZ HAYES: You did not murder Caroline?

GORDON: Of course not.

LIZ HAYES: You did not cause her harm in any way?

GORDON: Never. Not a single shred of evidence and again, it’s crystal clear in all of the evidence – every single piece of evidence backs me up.

LIZ HAYES: Have you told everything?

GORDON: That I know? Yes.

LIZ HAYES: Gordon says on the day Caroline died, she’d said she was unwell and spent most of her time in bed. He’d checked on her at lunch-time but when he came home that night, she was gone. He wasn’t worried though and fell asleep in front of the television.

GORDON: And then when I woke up in the middle of the night she wasn’t at home – that’s when it got really, really panicky and something was out of place.

LIZ HAYES: Gordon went in search of Caroline, driving to her father’s home to see if her car was parked outside – it wasn’t. Why didn’t you call her father’s house?

GORDON: Well primarily I guess because I didn’t know what had happened to Caroline. I wouldn’t call and wake anybody up in the middle of the night and cause alarm if I didn’t know yet that there was something for him to be alarmed at.

LIZ HAYES: He drove through Sydney’s east, scouring their favourite haunts and told police he found Caroline’s car parked near The Gap. When you saw the car, you said you felt sick

GORDON: Oh, yeah. I do remember wretching and feeling just my stomach just turning over with dread and – yeah.

LIZ HAYES: You were quoted as saying that Caroline’s spirit had “taken you there”.

GORDON: That’s nonsense, that’s nonsense. It saddens me to say the only evidence of that comes from Tony Byrne and he attributes it to somebody else who says it.

LIZ HAYES: Gordon had called Tony Byrne – Caroline’s father – and her brother Peter to help search for her after finding the car. Using a small torch borrowed from nearby fishermen, the three scanned the cliff’s edge. But police believed Gordon already knew where Caroline’s body was. It’s alleged that you said you saw Caroline’s feet and legs? Did you?

GORDON: No – that’s nonsense – you can’t. You actually can’t – I mean, every single allegation and nonsense that has been said about this case – from me finding the body to the spirit guiding me. The judges have said there is not a single piece of evidence to support that

LIZ HAYES: The prosecution claimed it was the killer point?

GORDON: If I had seen Caroline’s body and knew where it was – why, when all the police were searching before the rescue squad arrived with all their Maglites didn’t they go to where I said it was? Why didn’t they go to where I claimed it was? Because I never did!

LIZ HAYES: The other part of the killer point seemed to be that you knew what she was wearing on the night?

GORDON: Oh, they tacked that bit on later on – yeah they did try and throw that one in. If you read the police statements they asked me to go and find out what clothes she would have been wearing. So when I took Caroline’s dad and brother back, I had a look around to see what clothes were missing.

LIZ HAYES: How did you know her wardrobe so intimately to know what was missing?

GORDON: Well, I suppose because I’d bought most of it for her and she didn’t have a huge wardrobe. Everybody says “oh Caroline was a model and she had a huge wardrobe”. It’s nonsense, it is not true Liz.

LIZ HAYES: Caroline’s death and Gordon Wood’s alleged involvement was now being coloured by rumours – fuelled by his association with his employer, high-profile stockbroker, Rene Rivkin.

MICHAEL: Well the media drove it.

LIZ HAYES: Michael Bowe is Gordon Wood’s lawyer.

MICHAEL: It’s a good story, it’s got Rene Rivkin in it – it’s got politicians in it, it’s got actresses in it, it’s got a beautiful model in it – it’s got everything that makes television up and go.

GORDON: If I hadn’t worked for Rene Rivkin at the time Caroline died, Tony Byrne would never have come up with any of his theories. If I had still been involved in my fitness business or I ran a fish and chip shop, none of this would ever have happened.

LIZ HAYES: Rene Rivkin was making headlines of his own at the time. He’d surrounded himself with a group of young, attractive men – including Gordon. And he was being investigated over what was thought to be a suspicious fire at Offset Alpine, a printing business which returned an insurance payout in the tens of millions for its shareholders. Caroline’s father, Tony Byrne, believed the death of his daughter and Rivkin’s business dealings were somehow linked.

GORDON: It all came from the allegations made by her father about Rene Rivkin – and she was killed because of the fire or she knew too much about his business or that she was leaving me and if she left me and wasn’t tied to some secret inner-sanctum through me – that she would spill the beans.

LIZ HAYES: But why did they – I mean I still don’t get it, why?

GORDON: Well, I’d love to know the answer to that but all we can go by is what are the facts? And the facts are on the record that Caroline’s ex-boyfriend was a policeman at the time – he was a jilted ex-lover who drove the campaign to get her death investigated as a murder and I was clearly the target. I’ve got absolutely nothing to hide.

LIZ HAYES: In a bid to tell his side of the story Gordon agreed to this interview in 1998 – but when it was over, he said this.

GORDON: If you look at the interview, I’m there like a stunned mullet the whole way through it. And I’m on the defensive all the time – and at the end I’m like, “well...” – you know, I asked him the question. And of course the bit they don’t play later on is he says, “no I don’t think you did it” – but yeah.

LIZ HAYES: You clearly regret that moment?

GORDON: Yeah. That’s why I was so reluctant to have this conversation with you.

LIZ HAYES: What role do you think you’ve played in all of this?

GORDON: I think in terms of the public, I think being deeply private and intensely shy I have not presented myself in a particularly sympathetic manner in the public domain.

LIZ HAYES: While Gordon Wood’s public demeanour was being critically judged, what many people didn’t know was that Caroline harboured a deep secret – that for years, she’d battled serious depression. Why do you think that she didn’t tell you?

GORDON: I don’t know. I’ve sort of blamed myself at times that I may not have picked up on the signals that maybe were being given.

LIZ HAYES: Her mother had committed suicide in 1991 and shortly after, Caroline had attempted to take her own life. Two days before her death, Caroline had sought medical help and was to have seen a psychiatrist on the day she died. She never made that appointment.

GORDON: She only told me of her depression a day or two before she committed suicide and I’ve reproached myself for maybe not being sensitive enough at the time. I had no idea it was as serious as it was.

LIZ HAYES: Despite Caroline’s history of depression, Gordon was still being treated with suspicion. He left Australia – believing he could no longer get a fair go. Were you on the run?

GORDON: No, no of course not.

LIZ HAYES: Were you hiding?

GORDON: No, not from the police or anybody.

LIZ HAYES: Were you ever funded by Rene Rivkin?

GORDON: Never.

LIZ HAYES: While you were away?

GORDON: Never. I never, never had anything to do with him after I stopped working for him.

LIZ HAYES: It took 11 years before Australian police decided to charge Gordon Wood with murder. You had no idea that was coming?

GORDON: No – none at all. And I can remember that very clearly – every single ounce of moisture in my body just vanished. And I just, I couldn’t swallow, I was absolutely – I nearly fell over. I was giddy.

LIZ HAYES: So what made a murder charge now possible after all these years?

GORDON: Well incredibly, eight years into their investigation police decided they were wrong about where they’d found Caroline’s body here at The Gap and identified a new location. This second spot, they believed, meant that it was impossible for Caroline to have jumped. Physicist and police witness Professor Rod Cross set out to determine whether Gordon Wood could physically have speared Caroline off the Gap. But only this police officer in Professor Cross’s experiments was able to show it was possible – and he was 10cm taller than Gordon Wood, 25 kilograms heavier and had the strength to bench-press 120 kilos. When you heard this spear-throw theory, what did you think?

GORDON: Why – I mean, and Professor Cross himself asked the question – why would you do it? When you can, if you wanted to kill somebody off the cliff – surely when a push will do – why would you go to the trouble of picking them up and how would you do that if they didn’t want you to?

LIZ HAYES: Gordon Wood was tried for Caroline’s murder and found guilty by a jury. He was sentenced to 17 years jail. When you heard that guilty verdict, how devastating was that?

GORDON: I immediately had a drink of water and I remember – this is such a silly thing – is this stoicism in our family. “I can’t show my feelings, I just can’t show my feelings” and I remember being disappointed in myself that I picked up a glass of water to take a drink and it shook in my hand and I remember thinking immediately, “they’re going to say that in the press, they’re going to say I was shaking” and I was determined not to show my feelings. Isn’t that ridiculous?

BRENDA: I fell apart. You’re just not thinking – you know, you’re just reacting. It’s just an emotional moment.

JACKIE: It’s the worst nightmare. It’s like a sudden death of somebody cause they take them away and everything stops, from that moment on.

LIZ HAYES: Gordon Wood spent more than three years locked away – while his family and legal team worked to get him out.

JACKIE: The only way to get an appeal up is to find errors in the way the trial was conducted and to find fresh evidence – which is evidence that wasn’t available at the time of the trial that might have led the jury to come to a different decision, if they had been aware of it.

LIZ HAYES: So that’s where you stepped up?

BRENDA: Well, we did a lot of investigation. I mean, a part of it too was for our own sanity.

MICHAEL: We started to find out about certain things, certain parts of the evidence that wasn’t correct.

LIZ HAYES: Was there a ‘Eureka’ moment for you when you thought, “yes, we’ve got what we need?”

MICHAEL: I definitely thought when we found out that the 1996 photo which allegedly showed bush on the northern ledge was in fact, a 2003 photo – yeah, that had a sense of “Eureka” about it.

LIZ HAYES: This photo of The Gap was critical to the case. The prosecution had produced a grainy black-and-white version, claiming that this dark shadow was a bush. They argued the vegetation would have prevented Caroline from gaining enough of a run-up to jump and land at the spot that they say they found her. In other words, she could not have committed suicide.

JACKIE: But when you saw the full photograph, you realised the black, grainy black-and-white mass that was supposed to have been bush was in fact, sun shadow and there was the entire length of the rock, 5.6 metres which meant that just about every single one of Professor Cross’s subjects could have easily run and jumped and landed head-first in the hole.

MICHAEL: And what did you feel at that moment?

BRENDA: I went, “this is incredible. Why, where was this photograph, why did they produce this grainy black-and-white copy?” Secondly, the photograph was taken by the New South Wales Police – they had the original, why didn’t they produce it?

LIZ HAYES: The three Appeal Court judges cast doubt over many of the crucial elements of the Prosecution’s case. Gordon Wood’s team had argued there were nine grounds for an appeal and the judges agreed with eight of them, ordering Gordon Wood to be immediately released from Goulburn Jail. Tell me about that moment when you got the result from the Appeals Court?

MICHAEL: Oh well, for me it was fantastic. So I couldn’t wait for the chief judge to finish so I could get out to see Gordon and tell him.

GORDON: Everybody knew except me, basically. Everybody.

MICHAEL: So then I rang and said, “pack your bags, mate – we’re coming to get you.”

GORDON: I’ll never forget those words.

LIZ HAYES: For Gordon Wood, Michael Bowe and the legal team it was an emphatic victory. There’s no doubt the Crown has failed to prove their case against you.

GORDON: Unequivocally.

LIZ HAYES: But does that make you an innocent man?

GORDON: Of course it makes me innocent.

LIZ HAYES: Or does it just mean they didn’t have enough evidence?

GORDON: They didn’t have any evidence and it’s in the verdict, Liz. I’m found “not guilty”, I am acquitted. What that means in law and in English in reality is I am no more guilty Caroline’s death than you.

LIZ HAYES: I saw a quote from Caroline’s father saying that during the trial he had looked across at you and for a moment, felt that if you’d come and said “sorry” he would have forgiven you – can you forgive him?

GORDON: Of course – no hesitation. All my family forgive Mr Byrne. And he was and always will be my love of my life’s dad. I will never disrespect that.

LIZ HAYES: Clearly, he wants to continue to hunt you down.

GORDON: Yes, sounds that way.

LIZ HAYES: Does that worry you?

GORDON: No. I don’t think it causes us worry.

LIZ HAYES: Gordon Wood is now getting his life back together, spending most of his time with family and friends. He is now nearly 50 years of age and having to start again – from reapplying for his driver’s licence and passport, to finding a job. You are a free man now. How odd is that?

GORDON: Odd, very odd. No, it’s right. That’s it, it's right. But it feels difficult to adjust to.

LIZ HAYES: Did you think it would be this hard?

GORDON: No, no. I really didn’t. It’s caught me out. I’ve struggled with mentally adjusting and emotionally adjusting to life. I’ve missed out on a career. I’ve lost all my money. I spent all my money and my family’s money defending myself so I’ve got to make all that back. And I have a big responsibility to make it up to my family and to take care of my family for what they’ve been put through. That’s my response – I’m the man of the family and that’s my job. Not my job, but it’s my desire. And that’s what my life is about at the moment.

LIZ HAYES: And there may be yet another chapter to this long-running ordeal. Caroline Byrne’s father, Tony, is considering appealing to the High Court against Gordon Wood’s acquittal. The New South Wales Director of Public Prosecutions is not pursuing the matter.

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