Relaxing these days in Port Macquarie is a man who was at the centre of the State’s most disturbing deaths, disappearances and murders. Susie Boswell meets former NSW State Coroner Derrick Hand.
Derrick Hand, “The Coroner”, is investigating a mystery. We’ve been deep in discussion on his sunny balcony overlooking suburban Port Macquarie, soothing sights of spring all around us: koalas and kangaroos roam the area; this morning, kookaburras perch on power poles, multicoloured parrots suck nectar from bottlebrushes and a flock of ducks is waddling by – two adults, with nine fluffy little ones falling in behind, still finding their feet and walking gingerly, staggering from side to side like old men with bad knees, or worse.
Nothing much gets past the observant Hand: he rises from his deck chair, interrupting our talk to note that one of the ducklings that formed part of the platoon yesterday is missing, musing about what has happened to the tenth baby. Eels, snakes and other predators lurk in an adjacent swamp: they’re prime suspects.
The beautiful natural scene is a striking counterpoint to the subject of our chat: other than the families involved, Hand’s been closer than anyone to the harshness, brutality and evil of the human condition that thrives like some dark knight not only in Zimbabwe and Darfur but right amid our own civilised society.
As NSW Coroner he witnessed the aftermath of brutal rapes, savage murders, suicides and the sickening tragedy of people buried alive, dying imprisoned under tonnes of rubble. Just the names involved in a relentless string of events evoke instant recognition of the horrors: Anita Cobby, the Murphy brothers, Michael Hutchence, Kerry Whelan, Thredbo’s Stuart Diver among them.
He’s written a book that chronicles the most notorious cases of his near half-century in the legal system, 16 months of it on the Port Macquarie bench. The book’s just been re-released in a handy soft cover format, beautifully written, easy-to-read – and riveting.
It covers Hand’s presence at Thredbo where 18 people died when the ski lodges where they slept collapsed, and at Sydney’s Strathfield shopping plaza when seven victims were slaughtered. Hand sent to trial five men in relation to the murder of Anita Cobby and ordered ‘Granny Killer’ John Wayne Glover to face a jury for taking the lives of six women. He oversaw inquiries into the suspected death of millionaire’s wife Kerry Whelan and the mysterious hanging of rock star Michael Hutchence. Nine honeymooners and holidaymakers died in the Seaview air crash en route to Lord Howe Island; a crew of four vanished from a luxury yacht; two police were shot dead in Crescent Head.
Coroners, medical examiners and prosecutors are pop icons these days thanks to TV series featuring forensic science at the centre of solving crime and bringing criminals to account – shows such as CSI, NCIS and so on. Blunt force trauma, lividity, bodily fluids, Luminol … now we’re all experts! Actually, the fiction overwhelms the facts: DAs generally don’t hang about police interrogation rooms; forensic pathologists are mostly confined to malodorous stainless steel morgues; in reality, detectives still do the major legwork. It’s true, though, that advances such as DNA-typing greatly assist the effort and that law authorities are not beyond bending the rules, or an arm, to get results.
Whatever, Hand is not a stickler for facts when it comes to TV dramas. Allowing for what he dismisses as “poetic licence”, he enjoys the shows as well as anyone. “Sometimes they’re interesting, sometimes they’re over the top,” is Hand’s verdict.
In fact, he’s a very easygoing and well balanced chap overall, which seems remarkable for a man exposed to overwhelming evidence of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man. Does it affect or haunt him, does he despair, does he live life with greater gusto for having been reminded daily how fragile it is?
“Not particularly. We live our lives normally. I never got uptight about my work, I was able to walk away.” “We” are Hand and his wife of 50 years, Doreen, his sweetheart from their home town of Forbes. His book’s dedicated to her and she features prominently in it. Today she’s off with her women’s craft group. The couple “get around in the car a bit” and have just delivered Doreen’s 88-year-old Aunt Flossie, who’s been visiting, back home to the Central Coast.
“We travel a lot overseas. Our daughter Megan, who’s 40, lives in Singapore and has twin boys and our son John, who’s 45, has three daughters and is just moving from the US to Norway.” So, explains Hand, with both of their kids living abroad, the couple travels frequently to see them; now they’ll get a chance to tour Scandanavia as well.
He used to play golf and bowls till he broke a bone in his leg. Now he’s more an armchair sportsman, loves his cricket and football, but the days are full, all the same. “I always seem to be doing something,” he remarks. He’s a POM – member of an informal Port Old Men’s club that meets monthly for lunch, gives talks on the coronial process to groups like Probus, is on St Agnes’ care of the aged advisory council and patron of the local Retired Police Association, an active band of well over 100 former officers.
He has a soft spot for police: “I’m a firm believer the great majority do a great job, and they get criticised”. He made coronial recommendations that saw police better equipped with Glock pistols, bullet-proof vests, telephony and training, and sought gun-law review. But his recommendations have been wide-reaching, safer packaging of medicines and improved counselling of transsexuals – as a result of tragic cases – among them.
Hand’s been involved with police since he began as a court clerk, became a solicitor and was appointed a magistrate. He was really up close to them, once: his life was threatened and police guarded him and his family 24/7 for months. Doreen was a pre-school teacher at the time, Megan still a school student; the whole family was escorted daily and police slept inside at night.
Yet coronial work’s been fascinating. Hand recalls meeting the most famous death detective, LA “Coroner to the Stars” Thomas Noguchi, said to have inspired the early TV series Quincy. Noguchi oversaw autopsies for Marilyn Monroe, Natalie Wood, Bobby Kennedy, Sharon Tate, Janis Joplin, Bill Holden and John Belushi. Discussing methods with him pointed up differences between the US and Australian systems.
Unlike fictional counterparts, Hand picked which scenes of disaster he needed to visit. In the Cobby case, the body had been removed beforehand. But, while he’s used to it and says the natural death of the aged can be anticipated, sudden death is horrible, he believes, with no time to prepare for it. Called out at midnight when Thredbo happened, he was on site by dawn next day, but wasn’t sorry to turn away from the scene of the landslide and what lay below. Over 18 months, with 33 counsel and authorities denying liability, it was his longest running case. Those who worked to rescue survivors should have the highest bravery awards, he believes. “Heroes are made when a person acts instinctively: if we stopped and thought about the risks, there’d be fewer heroes.”
His own tangible rewards for years of dedication include a framed cricket memento of the tied Test, an OAM and the Police Commissioner’s Medal. Some people, he notes, work till they’re forced to retire and die soon after, because work was their whole life. He walked away on his own terms at 63 and thinks you enjoy it if it’s your own decision.
Anyhow, “it’s nice not to have to get up in the mornings and go to work,” he finds, reaching for another date slice and enjoying the calming bucolic outlook, broken only by warbling birdsong.