When Vicki Cleary was stabbed to death by an ex-lover in 1987, her older brother Phil was racked by grief and guilt. But it wasn't until her killer's trial that the anger really kicked in. Garry Linnell talks to the former footballer and MP about the injustice that became his abiding obsession.
He has a question. When a killing takes place, everyone has questions. But if someone can provide him with the answer, then finally - finally - he might be able to bring this dark, haunting tale he has lived and wrestled with for 15 years to some kind of conclusion.
Of course, Phil Cleary figured out a long time ago that the answer might remain forever beyond his reach. But it still won't stop him asking the question again and again.
"How" he says," does a 25-year-old girl drive her car to work on a bright August morning, begin to park the car, only to be accosted by a man she's left three months before, and then find herself dragged to the passenger seat where he attempts to stab her numerous times?' Peter Keogh
Cleary is now perched on the edge of a chair inside his study. He rubs a hand across a face of white, wiry whiskers. His voice, a powerful instrument he has always prided himself on, a voice that has boomed through the halls of Federal Parliament and across crowded suburban football fields, is growing louder, angrier. He screws up his face as if tasting this outrage for the first time.
But we must go on. "Her hands are cut. The blade slices through her fingers. She's got a deep wound to her lip, running right down her lip and chin. She's completely traumatised. He then pulls her out of the passenger-side door and he stabs her another four, five, six times. Slices her liver and her lungs. Drops her to the ground. He walks across the road. Wipes the blade on a handkerchief or tissue. Puts it in a homemade scabbard and goes around the corner and has a cup of coffee."
All the old bile is back now, eating away at him like acid. This rage, it never goes away. "Tell me how, in a civilised court in Australia, that man got a manslaughter verdict, instead of murder, and [served] three years and 11 months. What ... is ... wrong?"
She was only young, this sister of his, when she was killed in 1987. A good, honest woman, too - but then, that hardly needs saying. Vicki was, after all, a Cleary. And in the northern Melbourne working-class suburb of Coburg, not one of the six Cleary kids had fallen off the rails or brought shame on a family with proud Irish Catholic roots.
Ron Cleary's butcher's shop, planted in the midst of a hardened housing commission area, managed to feed, clothe and educate his large family. He and his wife, Lorna, saved hard to buy a set of encyclopedias in a home built on generosity and education.
The Clearys were storytellers. Phil's grandfather had been a left-wing seafarer and spruiker for the working class, while the Cleary home in Dublin had been an IRA safe house in the 1920s.
In the early 1980s, Vicki, the oldest of Phil's three younger sisters, met this bloke, Peter Keogh, and he moved in with her. The Clearys didn't like Keogh. The boys, particularly, didn't trust him. They knew his type. He was 13 years older than Vicki, with a gallery of crass tattoos that were little more than crude advertisements for the man they covered. His elbows were wrapped in inky spider webs and he rarely looked you in the eye.
Keogh was working-class, too, but from "a substratum in the culture that we wouldn't piss on", says Cleary. He was sullen, moody, unresponsive. One time, Vicki brought him along to the football to see Phil play. In the clubrooms afterward, Keogh sat at a table, surrounded by empty glasses. Phil looked at him and saw his dead eyes. "He just had a look in his face and I thought, 'He's no good, this bloke.'
The family said nothing. Ron even gave him work in the butcher's shop. "It was that generosity, almost naivete, that let Keogh slip under our guard," says Phil Cleary. "Mum and Dad weren't fond of Vicki's relationship with him, but what do you do? History tells us you never win those battles. We never believed a man would do what he did. That's how he got under our guard. He needed a bit of old-style treatment. He needed the brothers to appear on the doorstep and say, 'F... off'. But we didn't."
No, they didn't. When it became clear after Vicki finally left him that Keogh couldn't let her go, that he would always be there to stalk and harass her, the brothers offered to pay him a visit. Their father Ron knew the truth of it. "She's never going to be free of that man until he's dead," he'd said one day. But Vicki, who never really told them how bad it had all become, always refused. Don't worry, she would say. It's under control.
There would be guilt later on, of course. Phil, because he was the oldest, would blame himself. He should have been there for his sister, protecting her. But what he and the rest of the family didn't know was just how violent and soulless Keogh was. "How could I know I was looking at a misogynist savage?" asks Phil. "This bloke made the Taliban look like Germaine Greer."
Long before he met Vicki, Keogh had been described by a judge as a "man of violence who committed outrageous indecencies" when he sexually assaulted a nine-year-old girl in 1975. In 1976, a parole officer described him as "a woman hater" - he'd once taken a female co-worker into the basement of a city building and repeatedly smashed her head against the wall. His past was littered with similar offences.
Of course, the Clearys have asked themselves another question over the years. Why was Vicki attracted to such a man? She was gentle, almost naive about some things in life. She took people at face value. When he'd first met her, Keogh had showered her with compliments. It was much the same with other women in his life.
When Vicki left Keogh in May 1987, Phil was content. "When she declared it was over, I thought, 'Yes, it's run its course. I've not even had to say a bad word about him or get into an emotional struggle about it.'" He remembers Vicki turning up to watch him play his 200th game for Coburg, cheering him on from the terrace. They were playing against Frankston that day, a far more talented and skilled team. But Coburg gave them a hiding and Phil Cleary, at 34, was among their best players. In the smoky, beer-drenched social rooms afterwards, he looked across at his sister. "I remember thinking, 'What an absolutely beautiful sister I've got. The last three or four years I haven't seen much of you because of Keogh...'"
But the relationship hadn't run its course. Keogh was outraged that she had left. He rang constantly, abusing and threatening her. On Wednesday, August 26, 1987, the morning after Vicki had failed to meet a demand by Keogh to visit him, he arrived outside the kindergarten where she worked, an hour before she was due to arrive. He was wearing bright yellow overalls and carrying a large knife, rubber gloves, another blade and masking tape. At his trial, he would tell the court he intended only to vandalise Vicki's car.
Read part II here...