• Open Access

Murder on his mind: The untold story of Australia's abortion clinic murder

By Susie Allanson . Published by Wilkinson Publishing , Melbourne , June 2006 . paperback, 280 pages . ISBN 9781921203084 . RRP $24.95/NZ$34.99 .

Reviewed by Jill Astbury

School of Social Sciences and Psychology, Victoria University

The World Report on Violence and Health (2002) clearly established the need to prioritise all forms of interpersonal violence as a public health and human rights issue.

The consequences of every act of violence spread like a stain that marks individuals, families, communities and the broader society. ‘Murder on his Mind’ charts and analyses one such act and its fallout in a meticulous fashion. In doing so, it illuminates more universal concerns regarding the nature of good and evil, why reproductive rights continue to need protection even in high income countries like Australia and how health care professionals must be prepared to recognise and respond to those affected by violent victimisation in their day to day work.

On July 16, 2001, Steve Rogers, a security guard at the Fertility Control Clinic in East Melbourne, was murdered in what became known as ‘the abortion clinic murder’. At the time, the identity of the gunman was unknown as he refused to give his name or provide any other information about himself or his motives. This passively uncooperative stance persisted throughout the police investigation, the court case and his subsequent incarceration. His silence added to the torment and fuelled the continuing anxiety of the clinic staff in the aftermath of the murder. They did not know if he acted alone or if he had associates planning further carnage and they could not be confident that they were safe, that it was truly over.

More than two months after Steve Rogers' murder, the name of his killer, Peter Knight, was published on September 28, 2001. His address was the Killanbutta State Forest in New South Wales. His home was a rough shelter made from corrugated iron and rough hewn timber and this is where he developed and honed the details of his mission. Knight had plenty of time to think about what he wanted to do. He thought of everything he would need to ensure the success of his plan, namely to murder every abortionist; to eliminate every piece of ‘sewerage’ in Melbourne. The locals called him ‘the Yowie’. He was self sufficient, strong, fit and needed no one. Hadn't he dug his own metre high dam using just a shovel?

Steve Rogers was the only person to die on July 16, 2001. His actions and the actions of the two partners of patients at the clinic, Sandro and Tim, helped avert a massacre. Knight's objective that day was wholesale destruction. He carried with him a rifle concealed in his special bag, cut and fastened so he could use the rifle while it was inside the bag, another bag with gags, torches, ammunition, six containers of kerosene, three cigarette lighters, metal devices to jam doors shut, a change of clothes and a handwritten note. The note advised of a fatality that meant appointments had to be cancelled.

Much has been written about the banality of evil. What Susie Allanson does is to illuminate the ruthless underbelly of violence that springs from that evil and how it is critically informed by a uniquely arrogant clarity and fanatical ‘purity’ in the heart and mind of certain perpetrators. Knight is one of these. He is no ordinary person, beset by conflicting thoughts, messy human emotions and complex ethically demanding problems that have to be faced, such as the decision to terminate a pregnancy. The diverse and compelling circumstances that confront women contemplating this decision are presented in vignettes throughout the book. These all-too-human stories bring home, as no didactic argument ever could, why reproductive rights includin g the right to choose to terminate a pregnancy have to be protected and promoted if the right to health and a range of other fundamental human rights is to be realised. The vignettes act as a counterpoint and an eloquent reproach to the cold, certainties that define Knight's solitary psychological universe. He is someone buoyed by an implacable belief in the rightness of his motives and actions, someone who sees himself as an innocent, an idealist doing God's work. This belief makes him capable of seeing ordinary human beings making difficult decisions in the context of their own and other peoples needs as ‘sewerage’. Knight has cast himself in the role of God's nightman.

Susie Allanson is the clinical psychologist at the Fertility Control Clinic and her account of how this atrocity affected all those caught up in it succeeds on several levels simultaneously. It is a riveting story of a true crime with the pace and dramatic tension of a thriller and a first-rate forensic analysis of the psyche of someone determined to kill those who hold different views from his own. In exploring the wellsprings of Knight's actions, Allanson relies on her own vast clinical experience together with the limited available evidence on Knight's thoughts, intentions and attitudes to others such as those he revealed in the court case and how he lived his life prior to committing murder. His sense of self-importance and uniqueness emerges in the disparaging remarks he makes to witnesses and his contempt for his legal representative whom he dismisses. From all of this she constructs a compelling portrait of the man that unfolds in a chilling parallel world alongside the ghastly chronology of the traumatic real life events described in ‘Murder on his Mind’.

In addition to the murder that has occurred, Allanson underlines the barriers to reproductive health care that professionals providing such services and women accessing them have to face on a daily basis because of the brutal attentions of Right to Life protesters who harass, insult and intimidate everyone trying to enter or leave the clinic, even small children who are told their mothers are going to murder their baby brother or sister. The fear, humiliation, distress and impotent outrage engendered by this – there seems to be no legal recourse to prevent such tactics – exacerbates the immense psychological burden imposed by the killing of Steve Rogers and this group stalking is a form of violence worth investigating in its own right. But perhaps most of all ‘Murder on his Mind’ is a perceptive, first hand account of what it is like to experience trauma, how variously people respond to it and how differently individuals need to work to deal with its impress on their minds, relationships and lives as these pitch out of their familiar moorings.

For any health professional who comes into contact with people affected by trauma and that constitutes a very large proportion of the population, ‘Murder on his Mind’ goes beyond the identification of symptoms found in every inventory of post traumatic stress disorder. It creates an empathic bridge to understand in an almost visceral way, what the experience of trauma is like and how it transforms perceived reality and sense of self. Allanson's book demonstrates how the greatest human strengths of courage, compassion, kindness and commitment to continuing in a work place suddenly marked by deadly risk, can co-exist with the expression of human frailties and overpowering vulnerabilities more usually associated with violent victimisation. This amalgam of strengths and vulnerabilities shows why those who initially set up services for women affected by intimate partner and sexual violence such as the Centres against Sexual Assault, were correct in adopting the term ‘victim/survivor’ to describe those using their services.