I sur­vived the Black Widow

The Australian Women's Weekly - - Contents -

The sun­set cast a fiery or­ange glow across Queens­land’s More­ton Bay where wealthy in­sur­ance bro­ker John Asquith and his part­ner Pa­tri­cia By­ers were re­lax­ing on the deck of their lux­ury boat af­ter an idyl­lic Easter Sun­day on the wa­ter.

Ear­lier that af­ter­noon, en­gine trou­ble had forced By­ers, an experienced sailor, to an­chor the ves­sel in the shal­low wa­ters off Peel and More­ton Is­lands to see if she could iden­tify the prob­lem. While By­ers tin­kered with the en­gine, John fired up the bar­be­cue and rus­tled up din­ner. Af­ter­wards the cou­ple made love be­fore sit­ting on the deck with a drink to watch the sun go down on a per­fect day.

By­ers, 47, was still fin­ish­ing off her drink when John retired for the night, un­aware his per­fect day was about to un­ravel into an unimag­in­able night­mare that would leave him fight­ing for his life, and the woman he loved on the po­lice’s radar for mas­ter­mind­ing a chilling plot to mur­der him for his money.

Now, 25 years af­ter sur­viv­ing the cold-blooded shoot­ing that nearly claimed his life, John has emerged from hid­ing to tell The Weekly how he be­came trapped in the web of Aus­tralia’s “Black Widow”, and why the no­to­ri­ous killer should never be re­leased from prison.

“She looks like but­ter wouldn’t melt – but Tr­ish By­ers is the most ma­nip­u­lat­ing, ly­ing, con­niv­ing con woman you could ever meet,” ob­serves John, re­flect­ing on the seem­ingly harm­less in­sur­ance agent who set out to mur­der two part­ners in three years to swin­dle them out of a for­tune.

While the har­row­ing events that un­folded on board By­ers’ boat, Misty Blue, in the early hours of Easter Mon­day morn­ing in 1993 re­main a ter­ri­fy­ing blur, the first sign of trou­ble in par­adise emerged with a stricken SOS call that John, who was dazed and bleed­ing, made to the Queens­land Coast­guard re­count­ing a story so bizarre it de­fied be­lief. Ac­cord­ing to John, pi­rates had boarded their boat in the dark­ness, bru­tally at­tack­ing them and leav­ing them for dead.

Was it a rob­bery gone wrong, pon­dered the as­ton­ished coast­guards, try­ing to pin­point the ves­sel’s lo­ca­tion. John said he was not sure, but he had no­ticed a firearm ly­ing on the deck.

The no­tion of pi­rates men­ac­ing the sleepy wa­ters of More­ton Bay was be­yond com­pre­hen­sion, and for the res­cuers head­ing out in the dark­ness to find the sur­vivors, the story was al­ready sound­ing very sus­pi­cious.

“The truth is, I didn’t know what had hap­pened and had sat up in bed feel­ing warm blood trick­ling down my fore­head and think­ing I must have banged my head and wo­ken my­self up,” re­calls John, from an undis­closed ad­dress on Aus­tralia’s east coast.

In a daze, he had fol­lowed the sound of groans up­stairs and found By­ers sprawled on the deck say­ing she had been at­tacked by pi­rates, though she was vague about the de­tails af­ter suf­fer­ing a blow to the head.

When the coast­guards boarded the boat there wasn’t a mark on By­ers, though they found her part­ner gravely in­jured and bleed­ing pro­fusely from a wound on his fore­head.

“The truth is, I didn’t know what had hap­pened.”

“I was shocked when they got me to More­ton Island and a doc­tor no­ticed gun­pow­der around the wound and said I’d been shot in the head,” re­calls John, who was as­tounded that he could not re­mem­ber it.

While the gun­shot vic­tim un­der­went emer­gency surgery to re­move bul­let frag­ments from his skull, By­ers re­peated her out­landish story to the po­lice, who were im­me­di­ately sus­pi­cious.

Con­sid­er­ing the bru­tal­ity of the sup­posed at­tack, By­ers’ lack of in­juries wasn’t con­sis­tent with some­one who had been knocked un­con­scious. More dis­turb­ing, the firearm John had de­scribed to the coast­guards had dis­ap­peared be­fore they reached the boat. Some­one had been in a hurry to dis­pose of the in­crim­i­nat­ing ev­i­dence and the de­tec­tives con­cluded that “some­one” was Pa­tri­cia By­ers.

In­quiries quickly re­vealed a mo­tive for the bun­gled mur­der when it was dis­cov­ered that John’s sig­na­ture had been forged on five sep­a­rate life in­sur­ance poli­cies and that By­ers stood to col­lect more than $270,000 if anything hap­pened to him.

“I knew noth­ing about the poli­cies, though I didn’t want to be­lieve it when the po­lice sug­gested it was Tr­ish who had tried to kill me,” says John.

Warned not to re­turn home with By­ers, he was dis­charged into a rel­a­tive’s care and the po­lice con­tin­ued to dig. A foren­sic search of the cou­ple’s home in Yatala un­cov­ered wood shav­ings from a vice in By­ers’ work­shop which matched the sawn-off bar­rel of a ri­fle re­cov­ered by po­lice divers from a nearby river.

“The ev­i­dence proved cru­cial be­cause it showed the crime was pre­med­i­tated and that Tr­ish had short­ened the ri­fle be­fore shoot­ing me in the head at point blank range while I slept,” says John, who still has frag­ments of lead in his skull.

Mirac­u­lously, By­ers had used the wrong am­mu­ni­tion in the sawn-off firearm and the bul­let had shat­tered when she pulled the trig­ger – a mis­take which saved the life of the man who had once been her work men­tor.

Un­aware of the mount­ing ev­i­dence, By­ers re­sumed her mur­der­ous mis­sion, cal­lously watch­ing John con­sum­ing food and drinks she had laced with Val­ium. A con­cerned friend, ob­serv­ing John’s drug-af­fected state, urged him to see a doc­tor and blood tests re­vealed such high lev­els of the drug in his sys­tem that she was amazed he was still stand­ing.

By­ers was fi­nally ar­rested and charged with at­tempted mur­der and a string of fraud and forgery of­fences as part of her ruth­less plot to claim her part­ner’s life in­sur­ance and in­herit all his wealth.

In July 1994, in the Queens­land Supreme Court, By­ers de­nied ev­ery­thing, even ac­cus­ing her vic­tim of shoot­ing him­self in what she main­tained had been a con­spir­acy to de­fraud the in­sur­ance com­pa­nies out of a for­tune.

To John’s re­lief, the jury saw through the lies and she was sub­se­quently con­victed on all counts and jailed for 12 years. But as By­ers was led away, still protest­ing her in­no­cence, the pub­lic­ity sur­round­ing her trial prompted the fam­ily of her for­mer part­ner to con­tact po­lice, say­ing they had not seen or heard of him since his mys­te­ri­ous dis­ap­pear­ance four years ear­lier.

When ques­tioned about ma­rine en­gi­neer Carel Gottgens’ dis­ap­pear­ance, By­ers told the po­lice what she had

“I didn’t want to be­lieve it when the po­lice sug­gested it was Tr­ish who had tried to kill me.”

told his fam­ily and ev­ery­one else – that he had dumped her for an­other woman and gone to live in Thai­land. But in­quiries re­vealed that while Gottgens, 51, had pur­chased a plane ticket to Thai­land, he had not boarded the flight on July 6, 1990, and had last been seen a few days ear­lier when his boss dropped him off at the home he shared with Pa­tri­cia By­ers.

The miss­ing man’s for­mer em­ployer told po­lice he had been sur­prised when, out of the blue, he had re­ceived a printed letter from Gottgens re­sign­ing from his job and say­ing he was leav­ing By­ers for a new life over­seas. Cu­ri­ously, the letter re­ferred to By­ers in glow­ing terms, pre­dict­ing she would not be “on the shelf” for long be­cause she was too smart and good-look­ing.

“I re­mem­ber the night Carel sup­pos­edly left be­cause Tr­ish had called me in a state, ask­ing if she could stay over be­cause she was up­set that she had been dumped for an­other woman,” re­calls John. “The fol­low­ing day she went to work as if noth­ing had hap­pened and when I called around at the house in Yatala a week or so later, she had tradies there lay­ing a con­crete pa­tio and putting up a per­gola.”

Just as the letter had pre­dicted, By­ers was not alone for long. By 1992 the work­mates had be­come lovers and John had moved in to Carel Gottgens’ for­mer home, un­aware he was about to be­come the next vic­tim.

Since greed had been the mo­ti­va­tion be­hind John Asquith’s bun­gled mur­der, po­lice scru­ti­nised Gottgens’ fi­nan­cial his­tory, dis­cov­er­ing that his bank ac­counts had been ac­ti­vated since his dis­ap­pear­ance and that all his as­sets, in­clud­ing his lux­ury house and boat, had been trans­ferred into By­ers’ name.

In late 1994, four years af­ter his dis­ap­pear­ance, a foren­sic search of the miss­ing man’s for­mer home iden­ti­fied blood spat­ters on the walls of the master bed­room which matched DNA taken from Gottgens’ daugh­ters. It was also found that By­ers had pur­chased a new mat­tress af­ter Gottgens dis­ap­peared, which po­lice con­cluded had re­placed the one from the crime scene which would have been cov­ered in in­crim­i­nat­ing ev­i­dence.

For the second time in a year, By­ers was back in the head­lines – this time charged with mur­der.

“The DNA showed that what­ever hap­pened to Carel must have oc­curred in the bed­room I later shared with Tr­ish,” ob­serves John.

In 1999, Pa­tri­cia By­ers was jailed for life for the mur­der of Carel Gottgens, in what is still one of the most in­trigu­ing and com­plex forgery

cases in Aus­tralian crim­i­nal his­tory. Although By­ers main­tained her in­no­cence, the jury heard she had killed Gottgens be­cause she was bitter about the sep­a­ra­tion and had hatched a chilling plan to get her hands on his for­tune.

“If I hadn’t sur­vived that night, the po­lice may never have looked into Carel Gottgens’ dis­ap­pear­ance, and she might have got away with two per­fect mur­ders,” says John, who was re­lieved she had been given a life sen­tence.

He was in court again in 2006, when Gottgens’ daugh­ters won a lengthy le­gal bat­tle to re­claim the as­sets By­ers had swin­dled from their mur­dered father.

How­ever the story was not over and in 2009, the ma­nip­u­lat­ing By­ers wan­gled a trans­fer to a prison in South Aus­tralia to be closer to her son, a move many be­lieve was mo­ti­vated by Queens­land’s strict “no body no pa­role law”, which pro­hibits early re­lease for con­victed killers who refuse to dis­close the lo­ca­tion of their vic­tims’ bod­ies.

Iron­i­cally, in 2015, af­ter four failed pa­role bids, the same law came into force in SA. A year later, Pa­tri­cia By­ers fi­nally con­fessed to the mur­der of Carel Gottgens.

In what ap­pears to be an­other tall story, the killer told po­lice she had struck Gottgens on the head with a ma­chete dur­ing an ar­gu­ment be­hind the Been­leigh Ho­tel and that he had fallen into the Lo­gan River, never to be seen again. But while her son, Alan By­ers re­mains con­vinced his mother has falsely con­fessed to a crime she did not com­mit to se­cure pa­role, her sur­viv­ing vic­tim be­lieves she is guilty, but ly­ing be­cause it’s what she does best.

Now, brac­ing him­self for By­ers’ fifth bid for free­dom, John is urg­ing the pa­role board to keep the killer be­hind bars, say­ing her lack of con­science and re­morse makes her as dan­ger­ous as she was three decades ago.

“Ap­par­ently she’s a model pris­oner and has even got her­self a law de­gree at the tax­payer’s ex­pense,” says

John, who has re­ceived threats from the killer and fears what she might do if she is re­leased.

“She is a clever, con­vinc­ing con artist who is ca­pa­ble of anything and I’d be look­ing over my shoul­der if she got out,” he says.

To­day, the scar on John’s fore­head is a re­minder of the fate­ful night he al­most died and leaves him con­stantly won­der­ing whether he and Carel Gottgens were By­ers’ only vic­tims. He fears if she is re­leased, they may not be her last.

“So af­ter all the lies, I don’t be­lieve she’s telling the truth about what she did to Carel and, as I’ve re­peat­edly told the po­lice, I be­lieve he was mur­dered at Yatala and is still un­der the pa­tio there. It’s the only place they haven’t looked, but they should be­cause his fam­ily de­serve the truth – and they won’t get it from Tr­ish.”

“His fam­ily de­serve the truth – and they won’t get it from Tr­ish.”

John Asquith fears what his for­mer part­ner Pa­trica By­ers (below) will do if she’s re­leased from prison.

From top:John and Pa­tri­cia By­ers be­fore she at­tacked; a sim­i­lar boat to the one the cou­ple were on when she at­tacked; John shows his gun­shot wound – he still has frag­ments of lead in his skull; By­ers ap­pear­ing in court.

Clockwise from top: Carel Gottgen’s for­mer home in Yatala, as pic­tured in 2006; Carel Gottgens, By­ers’ first vic­tim; Ella Celon, one of Carel’s daugh­ters, at­tend­ing court.

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