On 28 March, Leabeater, Steele, Bassett and Deborah Gayle took the four Lesserre children — Trevor, Tonia, Lorraine and Robert — out on a picnic to Lake Broadwater after the children’s Sunday-school class. At some stage during the picnic, Steele took Deborah Gayle to the rear of the trailer they were towing and shot her twice in the head and also stabbed her. While Steele murdered Deborah Gayle, the four Lesserre children were seated inside the car.
Steele then placed the dead girl’s body in the back of the trailer and, with Bassett’s help, poured petrol over her and set fire to her. The pair then unhooked the trailer and drove off, leaving it sitting there. At the time that he murdered Deborah Gayle, Steele was under the delusion that she was pregnant with his child but a subsequent autopsy revealed that she was not in fact pregnant at the time of her death. When Robert Steele was later questioned about the girl’s murder he replied, ‘Well, don’t psychopaths usually enjoy killing?’ The trio then dropped Robert and Lorraine Lesserre off on the side of the Leichhardt Highway and proceeded to kidnap eleven-year-old Trevor and nine year-old Tonia.
By 29 March the shocking story was making headline news all over Australia. I remember reading a newspaper article about it on my way to work and thinking how good it would be to get a crack at these lowlife dogs. In the meantime I kept my fingers crossed.
Later that day the trio and the hostages travelled to Bakers Creek Falls Lookout in Armidale, New South Wales, where Leabeater and Steele shot dead Gordon Currell and Anthony Percival, both fifty years old. After killing the men, Leabeater stole their wallets and wristwatches while Steele and Bassett promptly disposed of the bodies by throwing them off the lookout. The bodies were later discovered by police at the base of the sixty-metre-high cliff.
The trio then began transferring their belongings into Gordon Currell’s Nissan sedan with the intention of stealing it. As they were loading up the car, another vehicle drove into the lookout car park and pulled up beside them. With this, Leabeater calmly walked around to the driver and sole occupant of the vehicle, thirty-eight year-old Robert Miller, and shot him dead. He then stole his wallet.
At 8 a.m. on 30 March the trio was spotted by the driver of a furniture truck in a rest area near the Mann River Bridge on the Gwydir Highway at Jackadgery, and the Grafton Police were subsequently alerted. Shortly afterwards, Grafton police officers located the wanted vehicle and as they tried to approach it, Robert Steele got out and fired several shots at them. As the Nissan sped off, the officers followed at a safe distance but eventually lost sight of it. A police helicopter spotted the vehicle a short time later, parked in front of the main homestead of the Hanging Rock Station, located off Combadgah Road, Cangai, approximately eighty kilometres west of Grafton.
Fortunately, when the trio and their hostages arrived at the homestead the occupants, Steve and Cathy Hill, weren’t home. Steve was out mustering on the property and Cathy had gone shopping in Grafton. Another local woman had driven past the trio as she crossed a bridge on her way back out to the Gwydir Highway and was told: ‘You better get out of here, lady. The cops are after us, there’s going to be a big shoot-out.’ Once the trio and the hostages had entered the homestead, they searched it and located another four rifles, two more shotguns and a quantity of ammunition.
As things were unfolding we were anxiously waiting back in Sydney at the Tactical Operations Unit Office for an update on the first confirmed sighting of the killers. As soon as it came through, we geared up and headed to Sydney Airport and boarded the chartered Lear jet that was on stand-by to fly us in.
By this stage of my tactical career I’d done hundreds of high-risk jobs and I’d learned from experience that there was no value in wasting too much energy on the way to the job. When you first start out you’re all pumped up right from the moment a job first comes in and you waste a lot of nervous energy before you even get there. I used to carry a weatherproof Sony Walkman and a selection of ninety-minute
tapes in my kit bag everywhere I went.
We often flew around the state to various jobs and it normally took several hours before we arrived on site. In the interim the part-time country tactical operators (the SPSU) looked after things until we arrived. Another reason not to get too whipped up beforehand was that we were sometimes called off in transit because the job had been resolved in the interim.
The team deployed to Cangai consisted of a tactical field supervisor, a six-man assault team, a perimeter/marksman team, a police K9 team and a negotiator. Once we were in the air we flew north out of Sydney and landed at Glen Innes Airport at approximately 10 a.m. Throughout the flight the pilots kept us updated on the situation as it was unfolding on the ground, and things didn’t sound too good.
The media had been alerted to the situation and were telephoning the homestead directly and speaking with Leabeater and Steele. This irresponsible action prevented the police negotiators from establishing contact with the homestead and therefore endangered the lives of the two young hostages. The live media interviews with journalists including Channel 9’s Mike Willesee were being broadcast throughout Australia, and this prompted the police state commander to issue a press release pleading with the media to stop interfering in the negotiation process.
The other interesting thing from our perspective was that Leabeater and Steele were quoted as saying they were going to shoot it out and kill as many police officers as possible. The killers also stated that it would be their last stand and that they were prepared to die. When you consider that they’d already killed five people and opened fire on the Grafton police officers, we had absolutely no reason to doubt their intentions or their capabilities.
As we taxied down the runway at Glen Innes Airport I could see a number of marked police cars waiting on the edge of the tarmac ready to transport us to the homestead. As soon as we got off the plane, things escalated rapidly and we quickly geared up in the middle of the tarmac, while the field supervisor briefed us. He then placed us in our teams so that as soon as we arrived on-site we could get straight down to business.
I was placed in the six-man assault team, call sign Alpha 1, and after donning double ceramic-plated ballistic vests and loading our weapons, we jammed into a marked police car and headed for the homestead. The journey down the Gwydir Highway took about an hour and as we raced along at breakneck speed we monitored the police radio transmissions that were coming in from the command post on-site. The highway had been completely blocked off to allow us to get there as quickly as possible and the former highway patrol sergeant driving our vehicle was putting in the performance of his life.
During the trip I mentally rehearsed my role, the team’s role and every conceivable course of action that the three killers had open to them, and what we would do to counteract them. As we approached the homestead I looked out the car window, took in the picturesque surroundings and thought to myself, ‘How could so much madness be happening in such a beautiful place on such a glorious day?’ It seemed unbelievable.
When we eventually reached the command post we relieved the SPSU team, and two members of Alpha 1 were deployed to undertake a ‘recce’ of the homestead and to formulate an emergency-action assault plan in the event that we had to go in and rescue the hostages. Within thirty minutes we were back at the command post briefing the field supervisor and running the KISS assault plan past him. Once the plan was approved, Alpha 1 moved to a stand-to location behind a shed, approximately thirty metres from the homestead.
Although we had a negotiator on-site, the job was actually being negotiated by telephone from our Sydney office, 600 kilometres away. Any relevant information was being passed on to us by the field supervisor via portable radio. As negotiations continued we remained in position and at one point a good-sized red-belly black snake slithered past within centimetres of our position. With the midday sun belting down, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the temperature was pushing 32 degrees Celsius, causing the sweat to pour out of our bodies. It soon became apparent that dehydration was going to need to be kept in check.
Around 12.30 p.m. we received a radio transmission from the field supervisor stating that the negotiators had arranged for the release of the two Lesserre children through Leabeater. As a result Alpha 1 went to a high level of alert in preparation for the hostage reception of the two children. At 12.47 p.m. Tonia and Trevor Lesserre were released from the homestead, and as they walked towards our position, we covered the windows and doors of the homestead in case the killers appeared and tried to shoot them in the back. There was no sign of the trio, however.
Once the two children had arrived safely at our position I dropped my slung MP5 and threw Trevor Lesserre over my shoulder in a fireman’s carry. Tonia Lesserre was assisted by a uniformed female cop who’d been escorted down to our position for that purpose. Neither of the children was wearing any shoes and, given the terrain, they both would have cut their feet if we had tried to walk them out to the outer perimeter’s position.
With the Lesserre children now secure in the outer perimeter, the uniformed female cop breathed a sigh of relief and headed back to the safety of the command post to resume her normal duties. I went straight back to Alpha 1’s position and anxiously waited for the next development.
At approximately 1 p.m. we received another radio transmission from the field supervisor stating that the negotiators had arranged the surrender of Raymond Bassett through Leabeater. Again Alpha 1 went to a high level of alert, and covered Bassett and the homestead as he walked towards our position. Once he was close enough I introduced him to the muzzle of my MP5 and took him into custody, handcuffing and searching him. While escorting Bassett back to the outer perimeter I quizzed him about the weapons and ammunition Leabeater and Steele had at their disposal and also about their present mindset. Bassett told me that the pair had plenty of guns and ammunition and, confirming what we’d learned from media reports, that they were prepared to shoot it out to the end and kill as many of us as they could.
Fifteen minutes after Bassett’s arrest an orange-coloured Kawasaki helicopter containing Channel 9’s Mike Munro disregarded the designated no fly zone, and flew in and began hovering over the top of the homestead. Mike was obviously on a mission but under the circumstances it could just as easily have been his very last television appearance, because the chopper was hovering so close to the homestead that Leabeater and Steele could have shot it out of the air at any stage. A short time later the chopper landed on the property, and Mike and the crew were escorted away from the scene by perimeter police.
Negotiations continued for the next four-and-half-hours until just on dark, when it was decided to place a number of floodlights around the inner perimeter to illuminate the homestead throughout the night. Alpha 1 was tasked with the positioning of the floodlights and generators, and once they were in place we activated them and returned back to our stand-to location, thirty metres from the homestead.
As negotiations continued, Leabeater and Steele were becoming more and more agitated, and told the negotiators that they were going to open fire on the police officers surrounding the homestead. With this we slightly adjusted our position and battened down the hatches in preparation for the incoming rounds. At 6.34 p.m. Leabeater and Steele opened fire on us from inside the homestead and I counted at least forty rounds fired.
We had no idea of where the rounds were going so we just held our position and kept our heads low, hoping for the best. Following the opening barrage Leabeater spoke to the negotiators and asked them why the officers hadn’t returned fire. The answer to that was simple. Our rules of engagement stated that we weren’t allowed to shoot back unless we could physically see them trying to shoot us or trying to seriously injure someone. Alpha 1 to a man was enormously pissed off that we couldn’t join in and rock ’n’ roll too, but in the end all it did was increase our resolve to nail the pricks should we eventually get the opportunity to do so.
As the hours passed and negotiations continued, the temperature began to drop dramatically. Instead of sweating like pigs we were beginning to shiver and shake. To make matters worse the double ceramic-plated ballistic vests we were wearing kept the moisture from our sweat locked into our drenched black CT overalls, and after a while I slowly started to turn into a ninety-kilo ice-block.
By midnight we’d been on the go for nineteen hours straight. This is the stage in big jobs when things really start to become difficult and the operators have to dig deep. The initial adrenaline hit has faded. It’s freezing cold and you’re shivering. You’re hungry and thirsty. There’s very limited food and drink available, and even less by the time all the backslappers and hangers-on have finished with it back at the command post. You can’t afford to drop your concentration for a moment, though, because at any second you may have to kill or be killed. And just to top things off, weather conditions turn against you again — in this instance it was a thick fog setting in and engulfing the homestead in the early hours of the morning.
At this point in an operation, you’re also aware that there’s no relief team being flown in because paying for a second charter flight and the extra overtime is not in keeping with a budget-conscious department’s work practices. This in turn means that you’ve got limited equipment to work with because the overloaded charter plane you flew up on couldn’t carry any more cargo.
With these thoughts creeping into their heads, there isn’t a lot motivating the operators other than their own safety — and their pride, commitment and professionalism. These factors are the main differences between good operators and second-rate ones. Good operators thrive on adversity, and the tougher it gets the harder they go at the ball. In their hearts and minds there’s never a question of failing or giving up, because they’re prepared to die for what they believe in if they have to. Their commitment and integrity are unquestionable.
As the morning sun started to rise, the fog slowly began to burn off and lift from over the homestead. It was a godsend and I breathed a sigh of relief as my freezing body slowly started to thaw out. At this point I was in the initial stages of hypothermia. The core temperature of my body had dropped and I was shaking uncontrollably. Even though I was wearing Nomex gloves, my hands had all but seized up. If the sun had risen another hour later, I would have temporarily pulled myself out of the operation, because I wouldn’t have been physically capable of operating my weapons if I had to, making me a liability not only to myself but to the rest of Alpha 1 as well.
Just prior to 6 a.m. we received a radio transmission from the field supervisor stating that the negotiators had arranged for the surrender of Robert Steele through Leabeater and once again, Alpha 1 went to a high level of alert in preparation. Leabeater repeated his threat that, once Steele was out, he was going to come out with all guns blazing and shoot it out with us.
At 6.04 a.m. Robert Steele walked from the homestead and as he approached our position we covered him and the homestead. As soon as he was close enough he, too, was introduced to the muzzle of my MP5 and then taken into custody, handcuffed and searched. Although Steele was compliant he was also a smart-arse, and it would have been easy to put him away there and then. On the way to the outer perimeter he informed me that inside the house there were plenty of guns, ammunition and a gas mask. He also repeated Raymond Bassett’s claim that Leabeater was going to shoot it out with us to the death.