Anita Cobby 30 years on - the human need for justice does not fade

Garry Heskett sits in his Coffs Harbour study going over case notes from early 1986. This is not the first time he has had reason to reflect upon Anita Cobby’s murder and it won’t be the last. It is a case which affected him permanently. It's a case which affected all Australians.

And this man has seen a few things in his time. He’s a Vietnam veteran who would be permitted to grieve over his experiences in that conflict which scarred so many who served similarly. As an Ambulance officer, he attended the Granville train crash; the worst such event in Australia’s history. Then, as a homicide detective, countless investigations and crime scenes which are seared into his memory.

But one stands above them all – the Anita Cobby murder. 30 years have passed since that awful night. A night which profoundly changed this nation.

Garry Heskett, retired Homicide Squad Detective, reviews the old case notes in his Coffs Harbour study

“Australia changed forever then,” Garry reflected.

“Most cases of violence were between people who knew each other, but this was different.

“Those five men simply spotted Anita as she walked away from the railway station one night and decided to satisfy their sick lust.

"There was no reason for it; they just decided she was the one,” Garry added.

Over the next few hours, Anita Cobby was bashed, sexually assaulted, dragged through a barbed wire fence, assaulted all over again and left to die. But then, as the five men were about to leave the scene, one of them returned and cut her throat with a knife so as not to leave a witness to their horrendous crimes.

It was one murder among many in Australia, but it changed the nation. Anita was a beautiful person, inside and out, worked as a nurse and, as a beauty Queen, had raised money for charity. They could hardly have picked a more noble victim and the outcry was enormous.

It’s not that Australians figured anyone deserved to be murdered, not unless they were in a gang shootout or something as predictable as that; it was more to do with the idea that this could have been their daughter, sister or wife. Totally unprovoked, undeserved and saturated in a malice which seems, to this day, inhuman.

It was the beginning of the modern push to intervene in an ugly Australian reality - violence against women. Yes, there is violence against men and, yes, women are violent too. But when the details of Anita Cobby's murder came to light, the nation began to fight back. Five men against one woman for no reason. Enough was enough. The nation was finally prepared to face a terrible truth - our most vulnerable were not safe on the streets; not like we had imagined.

The following day, a farmer drove past his boiler (cow) paddock and noticed the animals were all huddled together in the middle, but didn’t think anything of it. After spending the day off site, the farmer returned in the afternoon and noticed they hadn’t moved. He walked over to the cows only to discover they had been licking the body of a woman, who lay face down in a pool of her own blood.

The farmer called local police, one of whom realised he knew Anita from school, and they immediately called Sydney’s Homicide squad. Garry Heskett was the one who took that phone call and attended the scene the following day; 48 hours after the murder.

1986: Garry Heskett (far right) leads one of the accused through the crime scene

“It’s something you can never forget,” said Garry.

“I can still picture her as though it was yesterday.

“She was beautiful, you could still see that, but she was covered in cuts from the fence and bruises from the repeated bashing.

“And when we turned her over, you could see the look of terror on her face,” he recalled.

It took three weeks for the homicide squad, with the help of detectives from the local Command, to round up and charge the five men. Only the one who used the knife on Anita pleaded guilty. He would be held for sentencing but the other four would go to trial.

Angry scenes outside Blacktown Court as the prisoners arrive for trial

What occurred outside the trial courthouse was almost unprecedented in Australia’s history.

Just under 20 years before, Australia had banned capital punishment. In that time, very few called for its return. But at the trial of Anita Cobby’s killers, the outcry for those five men to face the death penalty was deafening.

As the prisoners made their way into court, they had to be protected from an angry lynch mob. A group of nurses dangled a mannequin from a noose in a building opposite – hanging the men in effigy. On the streets and in the media the issue was discussed. Australia was changing.

The human need for justice

Christians have taken various viewpoints on the subject of capital punishment. Generally speaking (very generally) Australian Christians do not support the death penalty. This article is not so much about the merits for or against either position. (Personally, I can see how either side of the argument can be supported Biblically) But there’s a deeper issue.

Australians revealed en masse back in 1986 that we have an innate demand to see justice done. We have divergent views on exactly how that looks, but we are unified on the goal.

The Bible has some good news for us there. It teaches that there will be an ultimate justice which will satisfy every need. It’s a justice which will take into account every action, thought and motive. Nothing will have escaped God’s notice and no one will be spared.

In the parable of the persistent widow, Jesus spoke of this in general terms.

And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, Give me justice against my adversary. For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming. And the Lord said, Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth? (Luke 18:1-8)

What is interesting is that Jesus promises that this justice will not be delayed; yet that is exactly what we feel when we see crimes of such magnitude as Anita Cobby’s murder. In fact, we even feel it over the slightest offence against us!

Jesus taught that it is both right and pleasing to God that we might even pray for this day of justice. And we are given this outlet for our grief by God so that we would "not lose heart." We are not the judge, jury or executioner; that’s his job. We are victims (and, at times perpetrators) of injustice who long for Jesus to return to right all the wrongs. And that is something a retired detective like Garry Heskett can rest upon.

“You can say that again. If the man upstairs comes back and makes all the wrong things right, we will all celebrate,” he said.

Garry Heskett, today, at his Coffs Harbour home

What is a life worth?

In 1986 I moved to Penrith, in western Sydney, to take up a position as a radio announcer on the local station, 2KA. I lived and worked just a few k's from the murder scene. I had walked into a firestorm of community anger as those accused of Anita Cobby’s murder went on trial and were eventually found guilty the following year. Their files were marked, “Never to be released,” and, to this day, they haven’t been.

Anita’s parent have passed away now; grieving for their daughter until the end. And cars speed nonchalantly past the unmarked spot where she died; amongst the cows at Prospect in Sydney’s western outskirts. They got to see their daughter’s killers put behind bars, but that’s not justice. Not in the ultimate sense. Only God can deliver that. And for that day, we long.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. (Rev 21:1-4)

What is a life worth? What is your life worth? Jesus said it was worth dying for.