Horror night lasts lifetime
It was dark, and the kidnap victims were held in chains by a madman. But there was a hero in their midst He is the thing that lurks in the dark, in the wind that rattles the windows, in the headlights coming up the drive too late, in dogs barking late at
SOME time during the terrifying night he has tried to forget for 40 years, Rob Smith asked the kidnapper to undo the padlocked chain so he could step away from the others to relieve himself.
Rob couldn’t escape then because the man “had a torch in one hand and a gun in the other.” But he knew about chains from chaining down logs on his truck: if you twisted a link so it didn’t lie flat, it seemed tight — but, once untwisted, it made a little slack.
When you are chained to a tree all night by a man prepared to abduct nine children and their teacher — then six more random adults — that tiny extra space could be the difference between life and death.
Rob shivered all night in the blue singlet he’d been wearing when the kidnapper had ordered him out of his truck at gunpoint 12 hours before.
He counted down the hours in the dark beside three other young men — his brother David, another truck driver, Greg Peterson, and a passenger. He couldn’t see the kidnapper but sensed dawn wasn’t far off: he had to make his move.
The other men whispered to him to stay in case he agitated the gunman. But Rob feared it would end badly if he did nothing. No one even knew where to search for them in all of South Gippsland. Against that was the possibility that if the kidnapper killed him, he might kill everyone including the children and two old women whose Kombi van he’d hijacked after crashing his Dodge ute into Rob’s truck in the hills.
Smith forced his left hand through the tiny gap, mashing his thumb on the chain. The pain was nothing compared with the fear. Carrying his boots, he inched past the dozing children, fearing he’d be shot any second.
“Once I got the Kombi between me and the camp I was better,” he recalls of an act of heroism that has haunted him ever since. He ran frantically through the bush to the track leading to the highway.
He reached a house as dawn broke but the old man there wouldn’t let him in, thinking he was a runaway from the nearby prison farm. Luckily, the man’s daughter had seen the news: nine kids and a teacher had been abducted from Wooreen school near Leongatha the previous morning, and a couple of log-trucks had been found abandoned in the hills. She called the police.
A dairy farmer, Matt Gay, owned the house the Smiths rented and he lived nearby. Two Yarram policemen handed him a rifle and asked him to come with them and the obviously distressed Rob, who had to steer them to the kidnapper’s hide-out.
As the police car nosed into the bush track, Rob crouched down, sure the kidnapper would try to shoot him in revenge. Suddenly, the Kombi was coming through the bush. The police driver pulled the car off the track to dodge the Kombi, then turned and chased the overloaded van with its driver waving a pistol and 15 terrified passengers chained in the back.
Police had put a roadblock on the highway towards Sale. Among those manning it was Bob King, from Rosedale, one of the best target shooters in Gippsland.
King routinely bent the rules by carrying his own high-powered rifle on patrol. As the van roared past he did what rarely happens in real life — he shot out a tyre. The van slowed and veered and two other policemen ran up to it, pistols drawn.
The driver shot at them and missed. A policeman named Ross Atkinson returned fire with his service pistol and hit the gunman in the knee. When a senior officer heard about this later, he dryly suggested that Atkinson needed target practice.
The gunman was Edwin John Eastwood, who had staged the kidnapping while on the run after escaping from jail. Worse, he had done it before.
Wooreen was the second tiny country school from which Eastwood abducted all the pupils at gunpoint. The first was in 1972 at Faraday, near Castlemaine. Eastwood, then only 22, and apparently fantasising about the on-screen actions of his namesake Clint Eastwood, had persuaded a fellow plasterer, Robert Clyde Boland, to join his mad scheme to hold schoolkids to ransom for $1 million.
It is part of Victorian folklore that Education Minister Lindsay Thompson and then assistant commissioner Mick Miller that night drove (with two armed policemen) to Woodend with suitcases of cash to meet the kidnappers, who failed to show.
Meanwhile, 20-year-old teacher Mary Gibbs kicked her way out of the van in which the men had left her and six little girls in bush near Lancefield, near a pit which she feared might become a mass grave.
Mary led the children to safety
and would later be awarded the George Medal for bravery.
Eastwood and Boland were arrested two days later. Eastwood was sentenced to 15 years with a minimum of 10, two years less than Boland. But despite Eastwood’s jailbreak and pulling off the second kidnap while on the run, he was effectively sentenced to barely an extra three years.
BULLETS don’t have to be fired to do harm. The ones Eastwood had in his pistol did not hit anyone but they did damage that has lasted a lifetime.
Forty years later, many of the hostages he took on Valentine’s Day 1977 have never fully recovered, especially those old enough to have realised what could have happened if Rob Smith hadn’t risked his life.
Heroes are only human. Staring down fear once doesn’t make you immune from it. Frayed nerves sometimes never mend.
As I type these words, Rob Smith’s wife calls from interstate to say her husband has been awake all night, sick with anxiety after speaking about the kidnapping the previous day.
She wants to disguise which state they live in, likewise anything that might identify family members. No one could blame her. Her husband might well have prevented multiple murders. The price he’s paid for that unrewarded, unrecognised act of bravery is to be haunted by the man with the gun.
No matter how often or how far they move, the gunman stays in his head. He is the thing that lurks in the dark, in the wind that rattles the windows, in the headlights coming up the drive too late, in dogs barking late at night.
Edwin John Eastwood is 66 now, a retiree with a new name and a bizarre past. But while he’s alive and at large, the man who legally changed his name to “David Jones” still looms over the lives of many people.
He was mad and bad enough to stage mass kidnappings twice in less than five years. While serving his time, he killed a fellow prisoner.
He was released in 1993 after refusing parole in 1991 but he could not stay out of trouble. In 2001 he was arrested stealing a yacht to sail to the Philippines with drugs and guns — another grandiose scheme from that most dangerous of criminals, an egotistical psychopath who insists on repeating his mistakes.
That’s why the Smiths are still wary of him — and they are not the only ones scarred by what Eastwood did. Gwen Peterson, mother of Rob Smith’s fellow truck driver Greg, still mourns her son’s early death. “He was only 25 but he looked like an old man when he got home,” she says. She believes the trauma caused the cancer that killed her son in his 30s.
Rob Smith was never hailed a hero or given a medal. The small compensation he got didn’t cover the damage to his truck, let alone his life.
“There’s no doubt I made the right choice — because we’re still here,” he says quietly. But what happened on that far-off summer still dogs him.
“It will until Eastwood’s six foot under.”
Opposite page, Edwin Eastwood in police custody, and the front page of
The Sun in October 1972. This page, clockwise from left, Robert Hunter and his pupils; then Victorian premier Lindsay Thompson with some of the Wooreen hostages; Eastwood pictured after his release from prison; Mr Thompson with teacher Mary Gibbs and pupils; Eastwood after the Wooreen kidnapping.