Born into a loving family, Martin Bryant showed odd personality traits even as an infant. Later as a teenager, his behaviour was increasingly erratic.
Then came a bizarre relationship with an older woman. In an extract from their new book, ROBERT WAINWRIGHT and PAOLA TOTARO detail the making of Australia’s most notorious murderer 13 years after the Port Arthur massacre.
His entry into the world was as easy and manageable as his life would be fraught and uncontrollable.
Martin John Bryant – weight six pounds even (2.7kg) – was born on May 7, 1967, at the Queen Alexandra Hospital in Hobart after a labour lasting barely two hours.
His father did not pace nervously outside the ward or wait down at the pub, as so many fathers of his era would have done, but was by his wife’s side in the delivery room. Such was the ease not only of the birth but the entire pregnancy that Carleen, free of morning sickness and bloating – all baby and no fluid – had continued working in her job at a chocolate factory until she was within a few weeks of delivery.
The birth notice in The Mercury was unadorned: “To Carleen and Maurice. A bouncing boy. Thanks to doctor and staff.”
For Carleen, the first year or so as a mother passed relatively peacefully. She remembers her little boy as happy and contented and she appeared unfazed, even in hindsight, by a baby who rejected cuddles and any sign of physical affection.
It says much about Carleen’s own stoic nature that she also took his rejection of breastfeeding in her stride, explaining it away to his seemingly unquenchable appetite.
By the time Martin was 16 months old, however, he was not only walking but running, climbing – and escaping – and his mother was starting to find it difficult to cope.
If Carleen and Martin had difficulties bonding – and her recollections would clearly suggest this – she really began to struggle when he grew into a toddler.
He would disappear regularly from their house, his parents finding him in the strangest places, once on top of the chook pen next door or even further afield, playing quietly on a swing way across the other side of the railway line that ran north from Hobart along the Derwent’s western foreshore.
Martin Bryant was not the first toddler to love wandering, to show a spirit for adventure or levels of energy that could try a saint.
But his mum’s response was an unusual one: “I started to leave him on the house verandah, with a harness and lead to secure him, with plenty of toys all around him. Some person made a complaint about us tying him up like a dog. But of course as his mother, I knew he was happy and safe.”
For Carleen, Martin’s energy appeared unmanageable.
His father, Maurice, however, saw nothing abnormal – a disagreement and pattern of response to their son that began early and was to colour the couple’s parenting style throughout his life.
For Carleen, coping with Martin was a daily reality, a problem of strategy, logistics and survival. There would be little time for physical affection or for day-to-day nurture in such dire circumstances. Maurice’s fathering was different: hands-on, intense and, as time went on, driven by the desire to normalise the boy.
DECADES later, Carleen would recall, without bitterness, her disappointment and frustrations with her son, such as the day he swallowed a nail, the lack of cuddles, his slow speech development.
Other problems were appearing, too: while he ran and climbed and wandered the neighbourhood, his fine motor skills were impaired and he did not seem to be maturing.
By the time Martin was three years old, it was clear something was seriously amiss.
Enrolment at primary school only highlighted Bryant’s impaired development, sparking a cycle of rejection, isolation and solitude …
“He used to walk around with his face all squinted up, as if the sun was too bright,” one former classmate recalled, the imprint of Bryant’s oddness already heavy.
He stood out as a loner at New Town Primary in Forster St, not by choice but simply because he was so different that it would drive the others away.
Efforts to make friends were misinterpreted as aggravating, such as his “silly games” of creeping up and leaping on other kids as they walked home after school. The message was clear that he did not belong.
If he was caught in the chase through the laneways, Martin would cry and squeal as if he was being hurt: “We’d always let him go because we felt sorry for him,” one would recall.
As Bryant moved into his teens, the theatrical, high-voltage child of primary school was replaced by a high-school recluse …
Maurice had given his son an air rifle for his 14th birthday. It was the worst decision he ever made because it introduced Martin to the power of firearms.
It coincided with a marked change in behaviour. Martin took to hiding in a creek bed alongside the house and firing at passing traffic or wildly out into the bay at night.
There is a chilling story of the day he shot a parrot out of a tree, then walked up to the dead bird and fired several more slugs into its head.
He was also blamed for untying boats from moorings. It was around this time that his schoolmate, Greg, ended their friendship after Martin stuck the point of a spear gun into the top of his head.
On Friday, May 6, 1983, the day before his 16th birthday, Bryant left school …
The decision to take Martin out of school was vindicated in February 1984 when Maurice and Carleen took him to a clinical psychiatrist, ostensibly to assess him for a pension.
Dr Eric Cunningham Dax was an esteemed psychiatrist who had helped establish community mental health awareness services in Tasmania as well as a research unit.
Remembers Carleen: “It didn’t take him long to see that Martin had a problem. Martin was not able to concentrate on what Dr Dax was saying and interrupted him to talk about the age of the house and the fireplace in the room. After a few more consultations Dr Dax said Martin would be unemployable as he would upset and annoy people to the extent he would always be in trouble. He would have to be put on a disability pension.”
Cunningham Dax, who died in 2008, made an even more profound assessment and warning.
His surviving case notes state: “Cannot read or write. Does a bit of gardening and watches TV … Only his parents’ efforts that prevent further deterioration. Could be schizophrenic and parents face a bleak future with him.”
Under the constant care and vigilance of Maurice, Bryant passed the next three years uneventfully. Then, in early 1987, he met 54-year-old heiress Helen Mary Elizabeth Harvey, whose grandfather, David Hastie Harvey, had been general manager to George Adams, creator of the Tattersall’s gambling empire …
Helen Harvey did manage to hold down an office job with the Tasmanian Railways for a few years, according to all accounts, but at the age of 28, after the premature death of her father, quit to spend the rest of her life with her mother in the imposing family home, Wibruna, at No. 30 Clare St, New Town.
By the mid-1980s, Helen and her ageing mother were virtual recluses within the square white walls of Wibruna, a faintly art deco structure perched well above the street as if peering down on its less well-to-do neighbours but forever hidden behind a garden that was almost as neglected as the two women within.
The shopkeepers in the small collection of stores on New Town Rd regarded Helen as an eccentric but essentially harmless character; heavyset, missing a couple of teeth, with a whiff of body odour, combined with ageing clothes desperate for a wash and some air.
She loved to chat with them, often talking about her Hollywood “friends”, Errol Flynn and Rock Hudson, with whom she insisted she was in contact.
According to Carleen, it was Martin who found Helen one day in early 1987 while wandering the neighbourhood streets, as was his wont, during lonely afternoons while his father, Maurice, was at work.
Now almost 20, he was treading water but existing with an established routine of mowing lawns and vegetable rounds but always on the lookout for new customers.
He noticed the overgrown grounds through the iron fence and decided to knock at the door. The woman who answered agreed that he do some work for her, and a friendship was forged, almost on the spot.
Perhaps they had an intuition about each other, an echo that both struggled with the misunderstanding of the outside world.
Soon, Helen provided Martin with regular work doing the gardening and odd jobs such as feeding the 40 or so cats living in the garage. There were 14 dogs living inside the house. They had the run of the downstairs rooms while Helen and her mother seemed happy to live confined to the upper level of the house in two bedrooms on opposing sides.
The two misfits forged a bond. Martin had found someone who didn’t see the contradictions that turned others away; a good-looking young man with an easy grin who revealed his disabilities, social and intellectual, the minute he opened his mouth.
Much later, forensic psychiatrist Professor Paul Mullen asked Bryant about the relationship with Helen Harvey: “He describes Miss Harvey as having been his only real friend. He said from the outset they got on well together. It was not a sexual relationship.”
The tragic consequences of their relationship, however, began early.
As the friendship moved from employer-employee to friends and then constant companions, Helen’s mother Hilza was left increasingly alone inside what was fast becoming a filthy hellhole. She had been moved downstairs into the kitchen at some stage, and it was here that the old woman was forced to sleep, upright in a chair, writhing and wriggling in a bid to gain relief from an undiagnosed and untreated broken hip for most of the last two years of her life.
In June 1990, after someone made a report to the health authorities, medics arrived to find both Hilza and Helen in need of urgent hospital treatment with infected leg ulcers and living in squalor in the kitchen, surrounded not only by roaming animals, but unwashed dishes and saucepans and bowls with mould so high it was climbing out of the oven.
SEVENTY-nine-year-old Hilza Harvey was an abject horror of neglect, sitting untended with her broken hip and withering slowly in the kitchen on her chair.
As horrified as they were, the ambulance officers cast no judgment on the situation. Hilza’s deterioration was rapid. After several weeks in hospital, she was moved to a nursing home where she died at the end of July.
The RSPCA took away most of the animals while Helen recovered in hospital. A clean-up order was also placed on the house, and Maurice Bryant took it upon himself to take long-service leave and attempt to coordinate the job with his son.
It took three months to scrape the filth from the floors, walls and surfaces of almost every room. A dozen skips were filled with rubbish while Helen’s entire wardrobe had to be thrown away.
It was as if her previous life was removed, allowing her to start again in a pristine environment with a new live-in companion, Martin Bryant.
The strange couple spent days wandering the shops looking for new ways to spend money and add to the growing collections at home.
Their ventures were most often in the afternoon after a leisurely lunch in a local restaurant. Car dealers, in particular, loved the funny couple.
Registration records would show “The Tatts Lady”, as many of the shopkeepers referred to Helen, also collected and hoarded cars, buying 50 in her lifetime; some during a splurge in the 1970s but most in the few strange but happy years with Martin Bryant.
Some vehicles were kept a few months, others a matter of weeks and, occasionally, just a few days.
And yet, despite the friendship, Bryant was changing, his moods darkening and becoming more erratic. Behaviour that could previously be ascribed to his inept social skills and intellectual shortcomings was deteriorating: stupid pranks began to give way to outright threats and an increasingly quick-to-flare temper.
It was not to be his parents or Helen who would raise the alarm and insist that he undergo a new assessment.
Indeed, Martin Bryant may never have been reassessed at all had it not been for the requirements of the social security system – and even then, this chilling assessment that would allow him to remain on the disability pension was attached to his file and forgotten: “Father protects him from any occasion which might upset him as he continually threatens violence … Martin tells me he would like to go around shooting people. It would be unsafe to allow Martin out of his parents’ control.”
For Maurice, the ever-patient father, it was confirmation of his darkest fears.
The quietly spoken, unassuming Englishman knew Martin was getting worse as he grew up. It was he who had taken on the role of a restraint; he had become the human equivalent of the leash his wife had used to tie the child to the veranda and keep him under control.
Increasingly fearful and despondent, in November 1991 Maurice filed a will with the Public Trustee’s office.
The document, succinct and without emotional flourish, recognised that his son would find it difficult to manage life in the event of his father’s passing.
Maurice bequeathed the family home in New Town to Carleen or, in the event of her death, its division between his two children.
Martin would require extra resources and so he left him the proceeds of the superannuation fund held with Commonwealth Life Policy No. 10311246, worth more than $250,000.
Maurice must have told Helen Harvey about his will because three weeks later she filed her own, naming Maurice Bryant as a trustee.
She left her fortune to “my friend Martin Bryant for his own absolute use and benefit”. The phrase would be repeated four times in the paragraphs where she bequeathed her worldly goods, her livestock, her animals and birds, her Clare St mansion, a farm in Copping and her Tattersall’s income.
Martin Bryant, the increasingly unstable misfit, became a multimillionaire in waiting.
By this stage, Harvey and Bryant had moved to a rundown, 29ha property in Copping, a village halfway between Hobart and Port Arthur. The property, which they had named Taurusville, alleviated their frustration at no longer being allowed to keep animals at the house in Clare St. The first animals were bought within weeks of moving in.
The neighbours watched Bryant with growing concern, avoiding him at all costs and refusing the occasional eccentric offers of friendship.
He was unpredictable, erratic, changing from foolhardy schoolboy to temperamental spoiled brat – or worse – in seconds.
Some remembered a wild-eyed boy who appeared to take delight in firing his air rifle at tourists as they stopped to buy apples at a stall on the highway.
Bryant’s dress changed, too, from his preferred white overalls and red cardigan to the natty pretensions of the country squire, complete with cravat.
For some neighbours, his penchant for roaming the properties in the dead of night provoked a palpable fear as he was hardly ever seen but the dogs would bark madly, sensing an intruder, and then they would hear the sound of gunfire – the air rifle Bryant carried with him everywhere.
Home may have changed but the rhythm of life had not. Helen and Bryant still rose late, wandered listlessly, shopping and eating, often leaving their car full of animals parked in the local village.
The odd sight of a car with dogs, cats and even miniature ponies jammed in the back seat began to disturb locals.
Rumours about the couple abounded, fuelled by their habit of leaving cash strewn around the house, under books and secreted, in big rolls of notes, in odd places such as ice-cream containers.
What the odd visitor saw in the house only added to the couple’s mystique, although, in truth, much of what was left around the place was due to carelessness rather than strategy.
Martin had become a dangerous, potentially lethal passenger in a moving car.
Helen simply could not predict when the 25-year-old, who had still not learned to drive and would never attempt to get a licence for fear of failure, would reach across her and wrench the steering wheel.
It was the reason she had taken to crawling along the gentle but narrow country roads, never travelling above 60kmh. Twice she had run off the road while trying to fend him off, once running up against an embankment and the other time into a drain.
Martin’s was not a death wish but a sudden, childlike impulse, one he could neither control nor suppress. Worse still, he had no ability to understand the potentially fatal consequences of his actions. On October 20, 1992, he and Helen loaded three dogs into their Mazda 121 and headed north to do some shopping in one of the larger towns along the highway.
It was after 5pm when they started back for the farm. Sunset was still more than an hour away, but the light was fading as the sun lowered towards the hilltops behind Hobart.
As they entered a straight, uphill stretch of road just over a kilometre west of the town of Copping itself, something happened. There are those who believe that Martin probably succumbed to another impulse and reached over and grabbed the wheel, forcing the car to the wrong side of the road.
BRYANT himself told police that Helen had been distracted by dogs fighting in the back seat, and his last recollection was turning to look back at the dogs and Helen veering to cross the double white lines and straight into the path of an oncoming Ford sedan.
When police arrived at the scene, they found Helen dead behind the wheel, her neck snapped by the impact. One of the dogs lay dead in the back seat and another on the verge. The third had survived and would be found back at Taurusville a few days later.
Martin Bryant was in the passenger seat, barely alive with serious neck injuries: X-rays would reveal two fractured vertebrae.
The bereavement notice posted by Maurice Bryant in The Mercury newspaper a few days later was poignant in its simplicity:
“From quiet homes and first beginning
“Out to undiscovered ends,
“There’s nothing worth the wear of winning
“But laughter and the love of friends.”
Martin settled back into the family home to see out his long and painful convalescence. He had lost Helen, his best friend and maternal companion, and her loss had a profound impact.
Despite his father’s attentiveness, Martin began to regress, desperately seeking new relationships to replace the old. This time, he turned his attention to much younger children and began pestering kids as young as nine to join in their games.
“The kids were wary of him,” one neighbour would recount. “They understood instinctively that he was someone to stay away from. He was just a little scary.”
A few weeks after Helen’s death, Maurice had felt so low he had visited the family GP, Dr Bernard Mather, complaining about a sense of constant anxiety and encroaching sadness and depression. It was the second time in six months he had asked for help, unusual in a man usually so stoic.
Dr Mather prescribed Prothiaden, a tricyclic antidepressant.
In his burgeoning internal desperation, Maurice knew it was impossible for Martin to manage the fortune he had inherited without some help and feared he would fritter it away if he was not around to stop him.
Maurice decided that a court order, under the Mental Health Act, was the only way to take control of Martin’s financial affairs and have them managed independently. This way, his son would be given a stipend that he could spend as he wished, but the money would be doled out in a controlled way to ensure it lasted for life.
This was not the only arrangement Maurice was organising. Secretly, he had put his and his wife’s joint bank accounts in Carleen’s name alone and signed the bills for household utilities over to her.
A few days later, on Friday, August 13, 1993, Maurice Bryant drove to Copping for the weekend. Carleen didn’t question the time her husband wanted to spend alone but became anxious when he telephoned about 7.30 that evening.
He sounded particularly quiet and withdrawn: “Over all the years when any of us would travel to Port Arthur, we would always telephone to say we had arrived safely. On Friday evening Maurice telephoned and said very little other than ‘I love you’. At the time I was surprised, as he had not said that before when calling, and so I assumed he had had a few drinks.”
Maurice made another call that night, to daughter Lindy in Queensland to tell her he loved her. He did not make a call to his son.
The next morning a man came to the front door of the Copping farmhouse to answer an advertisement for a horse float. No one answered but pinned to the door was a note in Maurice’s handwriting: “Call the police.”
By mid-morning, police had scrambled to the property, bringing in 20 cadets and local rural fire service volunteers to help scour the hillside. It took two days to find the body. Maurice Bryant was lying face down in almost 3m of water in the dam at the back of the house.
His body was weighed down with Martin’s diving belt strung bandolier fashion around his neck and across his torso. There was a strip of the anti-anxiety drug Serepax in his pocket. Eighteen of the 30mg tablets were missing.
Martin Bryant’s loss was close to complete. Helen was gone and so was his father. He was now rudderless, floating without a goal or his dad’s gentle moral compass. As Stella Sampson, his former teacher, would later tell the media: “My personal view is that his dad kept him in check, and when he died he didn’t have that restraining influence any longer.”
He would appear at a suburban cafe for afternoon tea in the grey linen suit and lizard skin shoes of a roueá, sporting a rakish Panama hat. He would tell the sympathetic ladies behind the counter at the shopping- centre sandwich bar that he was carrying a briefcase because he had a job earning $400 a week.
There was also an unforgettable electric blue suit with flared trousers and ruffled shirt he wore to the North Hobart restaurant where he was a regular.
The owner, Chris Jackman, recalled the response: “It was horrible. Everyone was laughing at him, even the customers. I really felt suddenly quite sorry for him. I realised this guy didn’t really have any friends. He was like a child, trying to impress everybody. He struck me as a very eager sort of young guy, like a labrador puppy. Always having something to say, always trying to impress.”
In December 1993, flush with funds, he decided to venture outside the little world of Hobart and see what he might find elsewhere.
He had been paid his first regular stipend from the Tattersall’s coffers and bought himself an air ticket, first to Melbourne and then on to Singapore. He managed to stay away just three days before returning home. In April 1994, however, not long after selling the Copping farm, he went further.
This time he travelled to Melbourne, took a flight to Bangkok and continued on to London, Sweden and Los Angeles before flying back to Melbourne on May 7.
In the two years to the end of 1995, Bryant visited Europe six times and the US and South-East Asia three times, as well as New Zealand and Japan. The summary of his domestic travel over the same period would take three pages to list, travelling to Queensland and South Australia but most often to Melbourne, where he loved the zoo.
But had the travel filled the void? No, he would tell Prof. Mullen: “Mr Bryant stated that the best part of his international trips was the long plane journey. It transpired that the attraction of the long aeroplane journey was that he could speak to the people next to him, who presumably being strapped to their seats had no choice but to at least appear friendly. Mr Bryant became quite animated in describing some of what he regarded as the more successful interactions with fellow travellers. This account is confirmed by statements obtained by the police from passengers who found themselves seated next to Mr Bryant.”
Martin Bryant was not just a young man born with a personality disorder, intellectually impaired and struggling with autistic traits. His genetic load was the baggage he carried with him into life.
What occurred around him, a devoted and vigilant father who effectively managed him – and an heiress mentor and eccentric friend – were equally important, creating a cushion around him that for a long period of his life protected him from reality.
More importantly, they acted as constraints that impeded or at least diffused, and gave an outlet for, his most obsessive tendencies.
Once Helen and his father were gone, Bryant was left to his mounting frustrations, his angers, his resentment of rejection and social misunderstanding.