Face of the Devil:  two fathers confront the man who murdered their girls

 

Caroline Overington 

The Age

 

 

LAUREN Barry, 14, and her friend, Nichole Collins, 16, went missing on October 5, 1997.

 

Their remains were found five weeks later. Both girls had been raped, and murdered. Lauren was drowned in a creek. Nichole was tied to a tree, stabbed in the chest, and had her throat cut.

 

The man who killed them, Lindsay Hoani Beckett, 24, faced court in Victoria, which is where he's from. He did not deny the charges, expressed little remorse and was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

 

The death of Lauren and Nichole had a profound effect on the beautiful, cheese-making village of Bega, where both grew up, and went to school.

 

Nichole's father, Graeme Collins, is the town veterinian. His wife Delma, works in the local day surgery. Their grief is as acute now, perhaps more so, as it was when she disappeared. 

 

Collins attended every day of Beckett's trial, but felt no satisfaction when the man who tortured his daughter went to jail. Instead, there was a profound sense of loss.

 

'I looked at him and I thought: how pointless this is. You've taken our girls, you've ruined your own life. You've bought dishonour to your family, and you'll spend the rest of your life in jail, and what, exactly, was the point? It just struck me as so futile,' he said.

 

 

Collins, his wife and two friends, and the Barrys, attended the trial for two reasons: first, they wanted to see Beckett; second, they wanted to hear what, exactly, had happened to their daughters between the time Beckett abducted, and then, eight or 12 hours later, murdered them.

 

"We were the first people in the public gallery," Collins said. "I was going to sit at the back but then I thought, no, I want to see him. Actually, I wanted to eyeball him, to say, look at me, I'm Nichole's father. Why did you do what you've done? He walked in very quietly, from a side door, and immediately, I knew who he was. I was staring, and I desperately wanted him to look at me. Then, for a split second, I looked straight into his eyes. He knew who I was, but I didn't get the satisfaction I needed. I would have liked to sit opposite him, to really question him."

 

Instead, the trial was a technical affair. The facts were given, but nobody really explained why Beckett had taken the lives of two young girls. In any case, of greater importance to Collins was the detail. However awful, he needed to know what happened in the last half-hour of Nichole's life. Tied to a tree, gagged with denim from Lauren's jeans, in a forest so quiet you could hear a pin drop, she almost certainly heard her friend struggle for life under the water. When the sound stopped, she almost certainly knew that she, too, was going to die.

 

"It was condensed into one page of testimony from Beckett, that last hour of her life," Collins recalled. "This might sound strange, but I was born and raised on a farm. I know how animals die. I thought I would be prepared, but . . . well, he slaughtered Nichole. I found that very difficult to hear. But I thought, however awful this is for me, it is nothing - nothing - like what she suffered, so it's irrelevant, how I felt. I needed to do it for her."

 

For the most part, the families were able to control their anger during the trial, except perhaps when Beckett told the court that Lauren, a virgin, had been cuddling him and seemed to enjoy being raped. It was clear to almost everyone that if young Lauren was responding to Beckett (and there is no evidence for this but his own), then she was using whatever psychological tools a 14-year-old can muster to try to save her life, desperately trying to convince Beckett not to kill her . . . but he just thought she fancied him.

 

After the death of their daughters, both the Collinses and the Barrys received thousands of letters from strangers, some of whom wanted to form a vigilante posse, to hunt down and kill Beckett in a forest, as he had hunted and killed. Both fathers certainly thought about it. That, or just five minutes in a locked room with him . . .

 

"In the courtroom, I had to use all my control not to lunge at him," Barry said. "I would have liked to kill him, I suppose, tear him to pieces, and physically, I think I could do that, but again, what's the point? I don't want to be at his level, and I don't think, in the end, it would make me feel any better. I see the need to have him in prison, to protect the community. Other than that, there is no way to punish him."

 

Both families were overwhelmed by support from the Bega community, so much so that there was virtually no time or space to grieve.

 

"We had people knocking on the door most nights, and the telephone never stopped ringing and while we appreciated it, I just wanted to lock myself in a cupboard," Collins said.

 

Twelve months later, people still reach for his elbow in the supermarket, or embrace him in the veterinary surgery, and he still cries. "I know why they are doing it, and I don't mind, even when I do cry a few tears," Collins said. "The alternative would be awful. Imagine if these two girls had been murdered this way, and nobody gave it a second thought? It sounds strange, but if this had to happen, I can think of no better place for it to happen."

 

At the same time, Collins acknowledges changes in the community, in his family, and in himself. Among his private struggles is the fact that, when Lindsay Beckett killed his daughter, he also took from Collins his right, as a father, to protect his daughter. And in fact, Collins was very nearly able to protect Nichole.

 

ON the night she died, he had intended to go to the camp site and play a scary game on her, rattle chains, throw pebbles on the tent, but the night before, it was Delma's birthday and they had been out with their oldest daughter, Lisa, until 2am.

 

"We thought, should we go?" Collins said. "Yeah, let's do it, it'll be fun, but then, in the end, we were so tired, we didn't go. That's been very difficult to deal with."

 

Harder still to accept is that he was not able to say goodbye to Nichole, whose body was not found for five weeks.

 

"My father died when I was 13, and a brother when I was 23 and I always regretted not seeing their bodies," he said. "I vowed that if anything ever happened to any other family member I would say goodbye.

 

'They wouldn't let us go to the scene and I understand that now, although I was angry at the time. Later, at the morgue, there was very little left of Nichole. Nothing to recognise. I'm not disappointed that I saw her. I would have been devastated if I hadn't. But there was just a skeleton."

 

Barry, too, has given some thought to the unanswerable question: why? He concludes that Lauren and Nichole were just extremely unlucky.

 

"You think, just a kilometre or two either way, and they would have passed right by, unharmed," he said. "There was a house with a light on just 50 metres way. But for some reason, they were singled out to die that way. I know that, as a family, we didn't deserve it, and that Lauren didn't deserve it."

 

Shortly before the girls went missing, Barry had split from his wife, Cheryl. The couple sold their home cheaply and Barry is living in a flat in Tathra, near where Lauren went camping that night. He has lost a lot of weight and, while still working as Bega's town planner, accepts that while the loss of his daughter obviously affects him, there are also professional concerns.

 

"They've gone very easy on me at work," he said. "They treat me softly, I know that. Shire planning is a tough game and you've got tough decisions to make but you can't fully turn it off. There is always something there. I'll be flat out in a meeting, with questions being fired at me, and I'll suddenly find myself back in it, deeply distressed, and I have to deal with it."

 

At the worst of those times, Barry would leave a meeting, go into the toilets, and howl. He is determined to recover. As a young man in the 1970s, he dabbled with meditation and Buddhism, and has returned to mind control techniques to soften his pain.

 

"The grief will never leave, but it will become easier to bear," he said. "At the moment, I can see a young girl in the supermarket, with similar coloured hair to Lauren, and it stabs me in the heart. At the flat, I have a little shrine to her, and we sprinkled some of her ashes at Tathra beach. When I swim, I have a sense that she is with me."

 

Changed also is Inspector Shane Box, the local copper on duty the night the girls disappeared and who, five weeks later, had to tell their parents the bodies had been found. Both fathers immediately requested time with their daughters, and it was Box who refused them, steeling himself in the face of their desperation. "I don't regret that for an instant," he said.

 

"There was nothing . . . young Lauren was in the water. Nichole . . . there was just . . . animals had been around, and they had been left out, in the warm weather, for five weeks. The parents said, we want to see them, and I said, no, you are not seeing them. They were angry with me. I accept that, but I made the right decision. I became very close to those families, and this was something I could protect them from, and I'm glad I did."

 

Reflecting on the crime he considers the worst he has seen, Box wonders why Beckett did not rape, then leave, the girls. "Rape is a monstrous thing, but he could have raped them and left them," Box said. "Their lives would have been destroyed, obviously, but at least the parents would have them near and they would have had their lives. Beckett gave his reasons but I don't understand them. I don't care about his reasons. I hope he suffers every day of his 35 years."

 

Beckett's uncle told the court that the man who murdered Lauren and Nichole never knew his father; that he was sired in the rape of his then 15-year-old mother.

 

Born in one of the poorest parts of New Zealand, he came to Australia as a teenager, spent some time breaking into cars, drinking, robbing and assaulting people, then met a young mother, Lauralee Tatt, at Griffith hospital, where she was recovering from assault. In six years of living together, Beckett regularly raped and beat Tatt, who bore him three children in three years: Ethan (born 1993), Annaleese (1994) and Leeanzia (1995). Tatt, now 22, (whose first daughter, Nikki, was born when she was 15) is expecting twins (not Beckett's) in November.

 

"He had a lot of violence in him," she said, and this is probably true, but Lindsay Hoani Beckett was not a master criminal. In fact, he was relatively easy to catch. On the night that Nichole and Lauren disappeared from Bega, Beckett was seen there, carrying a pink television set in the back seat of a car. Later, when he returned to Yass, the television was gone. Police, who already considered him a suspect because of his nasty past, quickly concluded that Beckett had taken the TV out of the car to make room for the girls.

 

Through the local media, they asked whether anybody had seen a pink TV in Bega. A council worker came forward: he had seen it on the side of the road, near where the girls went missing, picked it up, and taken it to the dump master. But the bin was overflowing, so he put it next to the bin. It was gone.

 

Police appealed to the public again: had somebody taken the TV?

 

A couple came forward: they had found it, taken it, painted it black and sold it, but they didn't know to whom. Another appeal: who bought the TV? A woman came forward and, to the relief of police, she still had it. The pink paint was showing through. The serial number matched the one Beckett was known to be carrying. Confronted with this and other evidence, Beckett confessed.

 

PERHAPS, if Beckett was a serial killer, one could understand his crime. If he enjoyed stalking, or the thrill of the chase, if he had left clues because he wanted to be the subject of an enormous manhunt, to have police mulling over evidence while he collected newspaper clippings, laughing at the pain and frustration he caused . . . well, that makes a strange, disturbing, criminal kind of sense. But Beckett was just a reprobate. What he did was pointless.

 

Acknowledging this, and in an effort to draw strength from each other, the townsfolk of Bega last year planted two rose gardens in memory of Lauren and Nichole.

 

The plaques say: "Lauren and Nichole. God has them in his keeping. We have them in our hearts."

 

It has been nearly 12 months, but the plants are struggling. The ground beneath is barren, dry.

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