The Age

A deadly fantasy

The Age (Melbourne)
Thursday 30 November 2000

WHEN Caroline Reed Robertson was 14 she drew a picture of herself. Around the sketch were the words she used to describe herself: ugly, fat, stupid, obese, worthless, weird, unwanted, loser, deformed, boring, pathetic, selfish, jealous...

The teenager was full of self-loathing. She wrote voluminous lists of how she needed to improve herself ; a nine-week plan to achieve flawless skin, lose 20 kilograms and undergo plastic surgery on her "big" nose.

Robertson wrote pages of tortured letters to her father, David Reid. "I get teased badly at school. I get really really embarrassed. I told mum, but she hasn't helped. I really really really need HELP."

Another letter - "I feel like a troubled, tortured lost soul that's been thrown into an alien environment full of angels" - she signed Spotty Dotty, the nickname she had given herself because of her acne.

But none of the letters, tendered to the Victorian Supreme Court, indicated the 22-year-old was capable of the calculated murder of a teenage family friend.

Yesterday, Robertson was sentenced to 20 years' jail for strangling 15-year-old Rachel Barber with a telephone cord on March11 last year.

It is still unclear why Robertson did it.

Some of her teenage writings were simply those of an insecure teenager who felt she didn't fit in. There's an obsession with appearance and weight, and fantasies about being the pop star Madonna.

"I was always laughed at when I shared my dream of being an actor. All my life I have been told by people that I would never be anyone or anything."

Robertson, who took her mother's maiden name, came from a middle-class family in Mont Albert. She was the eldest of three girls whose parents, Gail and David Reid, divorced when Robertson was 16. Her writings tell of an angst-ridden relationship with her mother, who had suffered depression after Robertson's birth.

In one letter she asks: "Why didn't she just have an abortion? Sometimes it makes me sick to the stomach that I was produced out of her."

Elsewhere she writes: "I get depressed and feel horrible. You don't know what it feels like day after day after day."

Nobody really knew Robertson, least of all herself. What her letters do reveal is the anger welling in this young woman who wrote hate lists of family and friends: "I hate what I hate with a passion."

The Reed family lived across the road from the Barber family, who also had three daughters, Rachel, Ashleigh-Rose and Heather. Ashleigh-Rose was a good friend of Robertson's younger sister, Kate, until they had a falling out. Robertson, who was five years older than Rachel, baby-sat the Barber girls twice. What Robertson saw seemed, to her, the perfect home. She described Rachel as "white picket fence".

Elizabeth Barber, a warm and charismatic woman, had a house brimming with friends and visitors. Her daughters were slim, attractive and talented - Heather played violin, Ashleigh-Rose the flute and Rachel danced. The creative gene ran through the family. Michael Barber is a toy maker and painter, Elizabeth a writer.

The Barber family battled financially, but they had moved from the country so Rachel could pursue her dream and allowed her to leave school when she was 15. She was graceful and charming, loud and naive.

Robertson wrote of Rachel: "Strikingly attractive, dancer's body, very clear pale skin, hypnotic green eyes, wild free spirit, passionate, charming, moody, mysterious."

When Rachel was 12 she told a friend that Robertson, then 17, wanted to be her best friend. It seemed a strange thing to tell a girl who was so much younger and was, in hindsight, an early hint of obsession.

"It was simply not a happy family," Elizabeth Barber recalled in an interview with The Age. "She wanted to destroy her own family."

In his sentencing remarks yesterday, an emotional Justice Frank Vincent agreed, saying Robertson was motivated by envy of Rachel's family, beauty and personality because she believed Rachel would have "a happy and successful life of a kind that you (Robertson) anticipated that you would never experience".

"At one level it is possible to feel a considerable measure of sympathy and sadness for you as a young person whose level of self-esteem was so low and whose deep-seated and long-standing sense of self-hatred and envy of others was so intense that she was prepared to kill in order to achieve an unrealisable and unreal dream. But the incontrovertible and irrevocable fact is that you have killed and, in so doing, have created more than one victim."

Vincent found no indication in the evidence that Robertson ever thought about the significance of taking a life or the humanity of her victim.

"You appear to have been totally self-absorbed; concerned only with your own life situation, feelings and desires," he said.

As a young, middle-class killer of a girl, Robertson is unusual. Female murderers are rare, and most murder violent spouses or children, relatives and friends, in that order, according to recent research by the Australian Institute of Criminology. The average female killer is 29, usually unemployed, married or with a defacto, and from a lower socio-economic background. None of which describes Caroline Reed Robertson.

At 20, Robertson was an administrative assistant with a telecommunications company, had no drug or money problems or criminal history. She was also bright, calculating and dangerously obsessed. She plotted to kill the innocent Rachel and assume a new identity - using Elizabeth Barber's maiden name, Southall, and a fictitious first name, Jem, a name she would doodle all over paperwork, as if in a day dream.

A prolific note maker, Robertson wrote down her plan to lure Rachel with an offer of money to take part in a bogus pyschology study, then drug her, disfigure her and dump her body. For two days Robertson kept Rachel's body in a cupboard in her Prahran flat before she hired a van and buried her in a shallow grave in bush on her father's property near Kilmore.

A psychiatrist and two psychologists could only speculate on Robertson's motive. And despite his 140 murder cases, defence barrister Colin Lovitt, QC, was baffled by his client's behavior.

"I have certainly not come across a more frustrating or more irrational taking of human life. She ultimately decided, in the most illogical fashion that it beggars belief, that she would take the life of a child because she could then in some way become that child," Lovitt told Justice Vincent last month.

Psychiatrist Justin Barry-Walsh gave evidence at Robertson's plea that, while she was not legally insane at the time of the killing, she was a "disturbed and dysfunctional woman with marked disorder of personality".

At the plea hearing, Lovitt suggested Robertson had been sexually and emotionally abused, but he could not reveal more because Robertson would not allow it. While psychologist Jeff Cummins was in the witness box, Justice Vincent tried to delve further, but Cummins declined to elaborate because of client confidentiality.

"If it's placed in the context of a young woman who has been abused from a young age, and badly, then the evidence of lack of self-esteem, the nature of her own writings ... a great deal of the rest of it falls very much into place, doesn't it? Then there is no mystery?" Vincent asked.

Cummins agreed.

During her teens she wrote to her father: "David, I used to think of you as my friend. My only friend; then sometimes you used to hurt me so badly I wished I was dead ... I needed and still need someone I can talk to because I don't fit in anywhere in this crazy world because I'm ugly, obese, pizza face, white worm, massive nose and just plain weird. Now I've got no one to talk to because you've let me down by hurting me so badly inside. The explosion is just going to get bigger and bigger until there is nothing left inside me."

The contrasts between the two young women helped fuel that rage. Rachel was slim and attractive; Robertson saw herself as overweight and ugly. Rachel had an adoring family and friends; Robertson's family life was unhappy and she was a loner. Rachel was a dancer; Robertson wanted to be an actress. At 12, Rachel said to her mother, "Thank you for giving birth to me," while Robertson, in her teens, angrily wondered why her mother had not aborted her. At 15, Rachel left school to pursue her dream and become a full-time dancer; Robertson's parents broke up and she left school for a year, retreated to her bedroom and wrote endless words of painful self-abuse.

Rachel represented all the qualities Robertson wanted, and she felt "profound animosity and anger because of her own self-loathing", Barry-Walsh said. "It is possible that she thought she could somehow magically reinvent herself in the image of the victim."

Eerily, she has, to some extent, reinvented herself. In jail, she sees a psychologist and is studying Buddhism. Unusually for prison inmates, she has no enemies in jail. She has fitted into Deer Park prison so well there are fears she will become institutionalised.

"She finds it a better life than she ever found outside," Lovitt says.

Cummins assesses her as feeling "more at ease psychologically than she has ever done".

When first imprisoned, Robertson had a bout of severe self-mutilation and epileptic fits (which she has always suffered), but those appear to be behind her, though she still sees a psychologist each week. The turning point came after she made a full confession to a Buddhist monk, Greg Sneddon, who gave a moral philosophy lecture at the prison about two months ago. While she had confessed to police at the beginning, she had convinced her first lawyer, David O'Doherty, that two men were responsible for the murder - a story she later said was "bullshit". During her confession to Sneddon she had another fit.

"She told me that she had killed Rachel and that she was extremely sorry for having done that," Sneddon says. "It was incomprehensible to her now that she had committed such a crime."

Barry-Walsh believes Robertson is a very different person from the young woman that cruelly killed. Speaking outside the court, he says she has attained her goal of reinventing herself. "In destroying her, she recreates herself. That's exactly what's happened."

The visible change in Robertson is startling. At the remand hearing, she was a heavy girl. She sat in the dock, shaking and rocking as if in a daze, her hair tinged green, face pale, eyes glazed.

Eighteen months later, she has lost about 30 kilograms. At her plea hearing, her hair was a thick, curly brown, pinned back, and she looked almost serene.

Copyright The Age Company Ltd 2000.