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

Sunday Herald Sun - - News - AN­DREW RULE

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.

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