Arthur Freeman outside Supreme Court yesterday. Picture: Ellen Smith Herald Sun
MAD or bad? The appearance of Arthur Freeman at his murder trial supported either theory.
His locks, streaked blond, tumbled over the collar of the black suit he wore each day. Strands of hair, as though reaching for the sun, on his otherwise bare crown suggested a close relationship with a power plug.
His forehead looked to be carved with a hammer and chisel. As Freeman shuffled in each morning, shackles clanking, shoulders hunched, his body resembled a block of concrete, wide and thick. He would be likened to cartoon characters, mad monks and sci-fi aliens.
Sometimes, Freeman bared his teeth in expressions of pain. He whimpered and wept and guzzled water during evidence about the autopsy of his daughter, Darcey Freeman, the four-year-old he threw off the West Gate Bridge.
Mostly, he stared with wide eyes, like a zoo exhibit who could not grasp how he’d arrived where he was.
For 35 years, until January 29, 2009, “Ardie” was considered “harmless”. He was an IT geek who had shone as a database administrator in London.
He played tennis weekly. He kept busy, with bike rides and tinkering, as he always had as a boy. There were beers and skiing trips in a life led, from school onwards, under the radar. Ordinariness was his thing.
More than anything else, it seems, he wanted more time with his three kids who – for a stretch – he had cared for full-time. He played beach soccer with them. He would take his daughter to ballet. Darcey would seek him out for hugs.
Then Freeman tossed her off a city landmark – as though posting a letter, according to one of many witnesses. No single act of recent times has haunted us like the "West Gate Bridge girl".
No one could quite explain how this happened, not then, and not during his trial of the past few weeks. Not even the killer himself who, it was said, had no memory of the incident and who now, to keep busy, tends tomatoes in his prison garden. Apparently, the tomatoes are doing well.
Freeman’s trial has served to apportion blame. Yet in pleading not guilty – "mad, not bad" as his lawyer called it – Freeman’s case was doomed to skirt elements of context that may have helped explain the inexplicable.
A trial showdown of medical experts would throw up terms like "dissociative state" and "insane automatism". The jargon did much to bamboozle a lay audience who, nevertheless, were jolted anew each day with the realisation that a little girl who sang and danced wasn’t coming back.
Much weight was placed on a custody dispute settled the day before Darcey’s death, a resolution Freeman had planned to mark with friends on the following night.
Instead, that night, he would be trembling and dribbling, pasted in snot and curled in the fetal position, on a police cell floor. Even his parents couldn’t coax a word from him.
Freeman was there but he wasn’t there at all.
The court-room theatrics did not settle questions that may never properly be answered.
Why did Freeman, described by a close relative as "too nice a dad", damn his little girl at one of the busiest places in Melbourne?
How could he visit such terror upon someone so dear and so trusting? Was Arthur Freeman mad, or bad, or sad – or all of the above?
The confusing dynamics for Freeman’s trial were set from the first day. Freeman’s defence admitted he had committed a "horror", but argued he wasn’t culpable for it.
His plea committed a dozen or more ordinary people, who might otherwise have strived to forget their unwitting proximity to the tragedy, to brave the creaky stairs of the witness box.
The crux of the trial itself – was Freeman mentally impaired, or did his daughter die from his "conscious", "deliberate" and "voluntary" act? – was almost beside the point.
Throughout, at least for those witnesses who had spoken with Freeman before the event, the process felt spooked with unspoken "what-ifs" that may have spared a little girl who looked a lot like the dad who killed her.
What if Freeman’s father had driven the three children the day before, as originally planned?
What if he had convinced Freeman, as he tried, to allow him to accompany them that hot morning?
What if any of the five adults Freeman spoke to in the hours before Darcey’s death had said something to avert such a tragic course?
None of these people were to blame, of course. This was not their fault. No one, except perhaps Freeman, had any inkling of the doom ahead.
Even now, two years later, few of those acquainted with Freeman – especially his own family – appear to have shed the shock.
The numbness may also apply to the wider community. Media junkies can acquire a thirst for unthinkable atrocities, such as gangland executions. A law of the jungle framework cushions such fascination. Such things don’t happen to us – they happen to them.
Yet the tale of Darcey Freeman’s doom slipped through the usual filters of distance. Many people say they don’t want to understand. Yet the face of the girl – two weeks shy of five, on her way to her first day of school and one of life’s first big adventures – pops up in the thoughts of thousands of bridge commuters each day.
Even Justice Paul Coghlan, a man known to keep his reserve, extended touching kindnesses to trial witnesses. "Don’t blame yourself," he told one female witness.
Freeman’s own father, after finishing his evidence, looked to the judge.
"You know, I’ve lost my grand-daughter," he said.
"I’m a grandfather, too," Justice Coghlan replied. "I understand."
Such glimpses of humanity, as well as tears and gulps, leavened evidence that would repeatedly bathe Supreme Court room 11 in despair.
As Freeman stared at nothing in particular, his ex-father-in-law, Wayne Barnes, an old-school ex-cop, glared and grimaced and glowered at him. Barnes often looked set to vault the rail that separated them.
Freeman himself, at times, appeared overwhelmed. He pulled faces that contrasted with the composure of his ex-wife in the witness box, giving evidence about an ex-husband who doomed her daughter to a life unled.
Freeman’s mouth gaped, as though he was unaware of the movement, when his older son’s video testimony of the event was aired.
The son’s legs kicked back and forth during the interview. He plainly could not grasp, at the time aged six, the gravity of "Little Darce’s" loss. The poor kid has the rest of his life for that.
Freeman’s eyes would take on red rims. During an inventory of Darcey’s injuries to the brain, heart, spleen, to the blood in her ears and nose, he scrubbed at his face with a hanky.
"He’s about to start howling at the ceiling," one observer whispered. It’s said Freeman was at times reluctant to appear in court. Apparently, he stripped in the prison van en route one morning. One night, he was thought to refuse to leave his holding cell.
Yet the jury would never hear the words that may have softened Freeman’s de facto standing as a monster. They would not hear him say he was sorry.
The jury members filed in each morning to present as a panorama in grimness. They had been instructed to do the impossible, to get inside the head of an "excessively caring" father who fretted, in his absence, that no one would read his children bed-time stories.
A father who wanted to be a "huge part" of his children’s lives.
A father who killed his daughter for reasons that will never make sense and, in doing so, threatened to condemn all three of the fragile souls he helped bring into the world.
Freeman’s murder trial could never double as an examination of logic. There’s something in particular, too, it did not resolve. Was one death supposed to be three?
Freeman used plurals in phone threats to his ex-wife minutes before Darcey’s death. "Say goodbye to your children," he said. "You will never see them again."
Darcey’s older brother offered the only testimony of events in Freeman’s Toyota Landcruiser, driving from Airey’s Inlet to Melbourne that morning.
The two older children played games in the back seats. There were books and crayons. The two-year-old son drank from a bottle.
When the 4WD hit the West Gate Bridge, "we stopped". Freeman asked "Darce" to climb into the front seat. Freeman, according to his son, said "please". Then, "everything happened".
Freeman had been on the phone to his sister during the trip. He made no reference to ghastly thoughts. He instead fretted about the kids’ lunches.
He also spoke to Elizabeth Lam, noted in court documents as a romantic interest living in London, but named as a "friend" in the court room.
He told her, she said in teary evidence in the witness box, that he felt his children had been taken away from him.
Freeman cried during the call. He felt "helpless". He was preoccupied, it seems, with a custody settlement from the day before.
It seems reasonable to suggest the custody issues had consumed him for many months beforehand.
In November, 2008, according to a close relative, Freeman said his ex-wife would "regret it" if he lost custody. "That comment has gone through my head over and over," the relative told theHerald Sun this week. "I am not sure then if he intended to do what he has done, but it did suggest that he would make her life hell."
This tallies with comments, again offered on condition of anonymity, from the mother’s side of the family. Freeman was described as "calculating" and easy to underestimate. Further, he was a "control freak" who lost control after the marriage breakdown.
Freeman feared, rightly, that the shared care arrangements between the divorced parents – three days’ custody alternated with exchanges at Kew McDonald’s – would be altered. Freeman would now have custody one weekend a fortnight, with a few hours on alternate Thursday nights.
When he left the Family Court, he "appeared happy", according to his ex-wife. It’s worth noting the decision was a negotiated settlement.
Yet the next morning, on the phone, Freeman told Lam there had been "lots of angry women in the courts who weren’t very supportive of fathers".
Even then, perhaps 45 minutes before Darcey’s plunge, he offered no warning of the horror ahead. Freeman spoke about pursuing greater custody through the courts.
Her phone battery went dead, but Lam didn’t phone back. She assumed Freeman’s crying would help him reconcile his feelings to the reality of his situation.
"It didn’t even enter my head that he would harm anybody," she said.
Freeman’s distress at the custody outcome was also described by his father, Peter, in court.
Freeman had returned to his parents’ home, where the kids had stayed, about midnight the night before. He was "in a bit of a trance". Communication was difficult, but Freeman did express great dissatisfaction with a psychologist’s assessment that figured in the custody resolution.
Peter Freeman said his son believed he had been "sort of ambushed in the report and that the report was not unbiased".
He was cut short several times giving evidence, even by his son’s defence counsel. Mr Freeman wanted to read from notes. At one point, it appeared he wanted to query the approach of the psychologist in question, as he, his wife and Freeman’s sister had done in their police statements.
Her name is Jennifer Neoh. Her assessment of Arthur Freeman, based on interviews held three weeks before Darcey’s death, was summarised in the trial. Freeman "tended to be irrational and contradictory and demonstrated . . . passive/aggressive traits and seemed to cause chaos around him".
His behaviour on the interview day, firstly turning up late then reappearing before the scheduled appointment itself, distressed the children, Ms Neoh said in court. He hugged and soothed one of his upset children, she said. Yet he seemed oblivious to the chaos he created.
Freeman disagreed with the report. He thought the assessment unfair. Yet until a few minutes before he threw his daughter off a bridge, he indicated only that he would pursue legitimate channels of review.
The day before Darcey’s death, after the Family Court resolution, Freeman told a friend he planned to undertake a "personal development course" to counter the psychologist’s conclusions and fight for more time with his children.
Yet it seems apparent that Freeman’s mental health, from a layman’s perspective anyway, had been patchy since his marriage break-up to Peta Barnes in 2007, perhaps even before.
Barnes, in court, said her then husband had had mood swings and anger management issues. The mood swings were also described by another family member, who alluded to Freeman’s tendency to drive "erratically" when upset.
Ms Barnes’ police statement, taken two days after Darcey’s death, went further. She thought, in retrospect, Freeman may have been suffering some form of depression.
T he pair had married on millennium eve, in Perth, and then lived in Maida Vale, a nicer part of London, for more than six years.
This pairing, at first anyway, had seemed like a healthy match. He was an introvert. She was an extrovert said to drive him to do things he may not otherwise have done.
Yet on coming to Melbourne to live, Freeman, Ms Barnes said, showed he was rigid, inflexible, and struggled with change.
When she left him in March, 2007, she spoke to a Hawthorn GP about her fears.
There followed an ugly incident. The pair had talked. As Barnes stood to leave, according to her, Freeman grabbed their baby son. She feared he would throw the baby into a fireplace. She bit him. Her mother slammed a metal stroller on his back. The police were called.
The pair divorced in June, 2008, but Freeman kept wearing his wedding ring. A few months later, he went to England for three months to sort out UK residency issues. He stayed with friends who said in a police statement that he appeared "clearly depressed", "paranoid" and "obsessive".
It seems, from several unnamed sources, that Freeman feared his ex-wife would return to live in Perth – with the children. He believed renovations were underway to allow that to happen.
He was also unhappy with the financial split. He fretted he would not have enough money to house the children. Freeman was said to have been frustrated when his then wife, soon after the separation, was said to have suddenly transferred more than $300,000 out of a joint account.
There is little doubt, rationally or not, that Freeman felt bullied and threatened.
"I’d say she was the dominant figure," a family member says.
"Money didn’t mean that much to him. It wasn’t a big agenda at all."
In London, contact calls with his children got muddled. Freeman felt his ex-wife was sabotaging the contact. He was thrown by suggestions that being overseas while custody issues were in dispute could hinder his access claims.
When the friends’ three-year-old daughter played up during a museum outing, Freeman restrained the girl, prompting his friend to describe it as "over-reaction". The friend noted that Freeman was shaking.
Freeman also spent time in London with Elizabeth Lam. He helped care for her children. The pair discussed his marriage breakdown. Freeman was "very bitter" about his wife’s "behaviour towards him".
Was Freeman unraveling at this time, a few months before Darcey’s death? Other accounts add strength to the theory.
His father, Peter Freeman, in agreeing in court that his son’s mental health had suffered "severe deterioration" since 2007, felt Freeman had become paranoid. At times, he appeared confused, anxious and teary although Peter Freeman described an improvement that quashed any notion of advising his son to seek professional help.
Yet a strange disconnect had emerged. Freeman would be obsessive about collecting receipts concerning the children. He had developed systems for feeding and dishes. Yet his Hawthorn flat was a mess of clothes and toys.
Freeman, according to a close source, had fashioned the children’s beds and drawers, apparently to save money for the custody case. He had gathered washing machines to scavenge parts. He tinkered often, as though embracing a distraction from reality. His parents were always trying to tidy the flat’s spills of clutter.
Such disorder was what police and journalists discovered in the hours after Darcey’s death. A hand-written note was stuck to Freeman’s television. It’s not plain who wrote it. If it was Freeman, he referred to himself in the third person.
The note spoke of "keeping a clear head" and having a "big fight on your hands".
P opular opinion dictates that any parent who kills their child is insane. Such definitions are more technical in courts of law. Actions that qualify for everyday labels, such as "brainsnaps" or "meltdowns", must meet specific psychiatric guidelines to legally classify as "mental impairment".
Freeman’s murder trial heard references to the M’Naghten trial, which in 1843 codified a presumption of sanity unless the defence could prove otherwise, and "Falconer", a 1990 case when a woman’s conviction for killing her husband was put aside after some psychiatric evidence was disallowed in her original case.
Freeman’s lawyer, David Brustman, SC, argued his client could not distinguish between right and wrong when he killed Darcey. He was mentally ill at the time.
Freeman had no psychiatric history (or criminal record) before Darcey’s death. Only one of six psychiatrists to interview Freeman agreed with Mr Brustman’s assertions.
Professor Graham Burrows likened Freeman’s state to that of a sleep walker on the morning of Darcey’s death.
He was at the severe end of dissociation – "He really didn’t know what was going on".
Consultant psychiatrist Yvonne Skinner’s finding was more sinister. She has handled more than 80 cases of parents who kill their children. She concluded that Freeman’s actions fitted what is known as "spousal revenge".
This theory dictates that the child itself is not the cause of violent rage, but instead a weapon of retribution. Such conclusions serve to reduce the reasons for Darcey’s killing to something akin to collateral damage.
They also reflect the recent conviction of Robert Farquharson, for the second time, whose three sons drowned when he drove into a dam on Father’s Day in 2005.
Yet it doesn’t explain why Freeman chose Darcey, as the first or only victim, instead of one of his two sons. The older son reported no acrimony during the car trip.
One hint, which may or may not be important, may lie in Dr Neoh’s report.
She specifically mentioned that Darcey was close to her mother in Freeman’s absence, and that her "educational and social needs" were important factors in the custody resolution.
Five of the six experts agreed that Freeman was probably anxious and stressed during the drive, but not to degrees that constitute a "disease of the mind".
He was running late for Darcey’s school drop-off. Lunches hadn’t been made, her school shoes were too big, and some of her school uniform was back at Freeman’s flat.
The build up of tension invites comparisons with the mental unwiring of Michael Douglas’ character in 1993’s Falling Down. Freeman told one doctor he recalled feeling trapped on the bridge. He felt enormous failure that he would not get to St Joseph’s Primary School, in Hawthorn, on time.
He told another doctor he had no recollection of speaking with his ex-wife, but felt it plausible that she may have called and "berated me for not being there (at school)".
Professor Burrows said Freeman had been "tipped" by the psychologist’s report prepared for the custody hearing.
Professor Skinner said Freeman told her he had been "stunned" by the report, which he described as "scathing".
Yet she argued his ability to drive a car and make phone calls showed he acting consciously and voluntarily.
The prosecution emphasised that he turned on the 4WD’s hazard lights, as evidence for presence of mind, when he pulled over on the bridge.
"The sequence of his behaviour demonstrates an awareness of his immediate environment and of a purposeful execution of behaviour . . ." said Dr Douglas Bell.
Freeman wouldn’t be the first father to be devastated by a Family Court decision.
Some men feel stripped of their wallets and dignity. Some grow depressed and outraged. Some have been driven by vengeance to unspeakable acts.
A Family Court judge was once shot dead in NSW. Others have been threatened. Fathers have taken their own lives.
Only one upset father has tossed his daughter from a bridge soon after a Family Court hearing.
The least contentious medical point of view, perhaps, was contained in a report by Dr Lester Walton. "Precisely what Mr Freeman may have been thinking or feeling at the material time remains unknown," he said.
The expert arguments left little scope for popular perceptions. Freeman’s motives were either hopelessly deranged – or entirely evil. The jury went with the latter
Freeman was considered different from his first day at Newcomb High School in Geelong. No other boy in his year was called Arthur. Tormentors, always alert to a point of difference, exploited the weakness.
Paul Hogan had created a television character who sported zinc cream, a pot belly and an Esky. Freeman’s label may have been inspired by Hogan’s Arthur Donger. Another theory goes that Freeman used to smell.
Throughout school, he was called Ardie Dunger. Or Ardie Monster.
The mockery was not here or there. It was every day. Freeman spent six years at high school being terrorised. Bar the odd exception, he did not fight back.
When he did, people noticed, prompting the thought – and this from a close friend – that there was a "ticking time bomb" inside the kid who wouldn’t, or couldn’t, express himself.
"Part of me wonders whether he had mild Asperger’s (Syndrome) or something. He had a deep lack of any emotional intelligence . . . I never can recall him saying, ‘I understand how you feel’ or anything that would suggest or intimate that he did.
"Maybe if he had seen someone at that age maybe they could have diagnosed him with it."
Some kids were thrown in bins at Newcomb High School. Some had their jumpers pulled over their heads and got slapped around. Even Ben Graham, the year’s closest thing to a future rock star, was held down in about year 8 and zapped with stove ignitor switches.
Freeman was bullied in other ways. He was told to stand on a rock in the playground. He would be ordered to stand there indefinitely. When he went to move away, he would be reminded to stay where he was. And he would obey, sometimes for 20 minutes or more.
Peter Freeman, a father of four, was a teacher at another school.
There were many troublemakers at school, the sort who fashion ninja stars in metalwork to throw at fellow students. As one student observes, such bullies could scent weakness.
"You know what kids are like," he says. "They find the odd thing about anyone and they run with it. He copped it for his name, his look, and the way he acted."
School year books portray a Newcomb High fraternity that celebrated sporting and science successes, with satire and without pretence. Of 88 students in Freeman’s year, 22 went to university.
Biology did not present Ben Graham, the budding Geelong footballer, with the gift of height until year 9. Graham and Freeman would go to the same university, connected by a mutually close friend, yet their diverging paths speak to life’s unknowable squiggles. Less than a week after Freeman threw his daughter from a bridge, Graham played in an NFL Superbowl.
There’s something more that may place Freeman’s childhood in the equation. It’s only rumour, but it draws a faint arc in grasping the incomprehensible.
It’s believed Freeman himself, since he killed his daughter, has traced adult issues to a childhood that included a spell at a primary school for kids with behavioural problems.
Part of his problem, perhaps – and this is from a close friend – was that Freeman had "zero people skills". Freeman mumbled when he spoke, which wasn’t often. No one can recall any flirtations with girls who would not risk "reputational damage" by consorting with him.
It is suggested that later, when others had trekked paths of romantic exploration, Freeman remained unrounded in matters of emotional attachment.
When boys clustered in groups, Freeman would lurk at the edges of this or that gathering, never offering conversation that would open entry to a group. He was there, but he wasn’t.
He played football for a time and did weights.
Freeman would go on the annual school bike rides to Albury or elsewhere. Among a "power group" of boys, they would surge ahead on 100km day rides to arrive at their destination well before the pack.
He would "have a go at anything" says one peer, a trait later attributed to Darcey, who tried tennis and football.
Acceptance wouldn’t be found until university, when Freeman discovered alcohol and found two friends who, 15 years later, would be compelled to testify against him.
Freeman tinkered with Ford escorts, to prepare them for Autocross racing. His first car was a yellow Escort, many of its panels dinted and repaired. He would stay up until 5am on PlayStation, nap, then head to work at 8am. Later, when he met his future wife, Ardie would start to be instead called Artie.
By the time Freeman had qualified with a computer science honours degree, he had lost his hair at the crown of his head. He wore it then as he has at his murder trial – hanging long, looking weird. While married, his hair was short and neat. Visiting relatives were shocked to see his peculiar new hairstyle just before the trial began in early March.
One insight into Freeman’s formative thinking may lie in a poem he wrote in 1986, aged about 12. It was considered good enough to publish in the school yearbook.
Called "Feelings", Freeman described fear as "when you’re in a maze with a tiger behind you".
You run for your life
Then the tiger jumps you
The poem’s second stanza took on Dr Seuss cadences. The last four lines would acquire a weird prescience after Darcey’s death.
A forensic psychologist, on recently reading the poem, wrongly assumed that Freeman had been raised from a broken home.
It was written by a boy who later, as a man and a father, is said to have tried to write letters to his sons from jail.
But here comes your dad
So now you’re gald [glad] that you have a dad
Then he goes so you’re angry and mad
But you still love your dad
It may be tempting for his former school peers to write off Freeman as an aberration of nature. Almost every one appears to have done so. His single act defines him.
It hardly matters whether a court of law found Freeman insane or not. He didn’t just condemn his daughter and ex-wife. His own family is burdened with a grief – and stigma – that may not fade. The Freemans didn’t lose one family member. They lost as many as four.
One school peer, whose impressions were supported by others, spoke at great length to the Herald Sun. He was in Freeman’s grades several times, and liked him well enough to request a Facebook friendship years later, a few months before Darcey died (the offer wasn’t taken up).
"He was like a Martin Bryant type," the peer says.
"That look. He’d get that stare. Bloody Oath, it was scary. It was when he got bullied a bit and had had too much. But at the end of the day he was a likeable sort of fellow. They picked on him because he was harmless. But everyone knew he had that ability, that something inside him that could explode at any time.’
Newcomb High alumni hit Facebook to describe their shock and disgust at Freeman. One Facebook site sought members who wanted Freeman killed.
Yet for those who knew Freeman, Darcey’s death presented a conundrum. A close acquaintance wrote of twisted loyalties.
"I’m torn with my feelings," she wrote. "One part of me is angry and wants justice for Darcey and another part of me feels for Ardy who is a friend in need. The conflicting feelings are like a storm churning inside. Which should rate, my head or my heart? The more I hear, the more confused I get."
Two years later, Freeman’s high school peer keeps calling Darcey’s death an "accident", and keeps correcting himself. Finally, he settles on "incident".
He is sitting in a Geelong pub, nursing a beer. Rock music plays. Punters study the form for the next at Sale.
His mind veers off, to a cloudless morning and a metal railing where traffic has jammed and the city below, forever grey, is about to shimmer in a blast of heat and incomprehension.
Darcey’s final glimpses of life. Her panic? Her confusion? Such reflections mash the hardest heart. He has linked Freeman’s deed to his own children. He wants to shake and cry.
"This c—,’ he says, "threw his kid over the West Gate Bridge. "And for what?"
Freeman’s closer friend, too, pondered death penalties when, a few hours after Darcey fell 58m, he heard a radio report as he drove over the bridge.
Like all close observers, he feels a jolt of fresh shock each day, as though she died just this morning. Like all close observers, he anguishes over a simple question – what if?
For him, the question goes: What if their friendship had been rekindled?
This friend has also wondered whether he should visit Freeman in prison. He is uncertain if he would ask about Darcey’s death. Sometimes he wants to understand; other times, he does not.
Such curiosity may be moot. As far as the Herald Sun knows, Freeman talks tomatoes, but does not talk about his daughter’s death.
The old friend still cannot absorb Freeman’s deed. No one can, especially those at Freeman’s murder trial who concluded that the more they knew, the more they didn’t know at all.
Yet the friend is a man of faith. He believes that where there is justice, and justice must be served, there must also be mercy.