MURDER MOST FOUL
Was religion the reason for the shocking way a “wonderful” farmer murdered his family? Paul Toohey investigates
Could religious fanaticism be the root cause of the brutal murder of an entire family
PETER Miles was by all accounts not a man of religion — even if the way he ended seven lives, including his own, carried some of the hallmarks of cult-driven evil.
In the community of Margaret River, three hours south of Perth, those who knew Miles, 61, call him a “wonderful” man.
But how does a wonderful man murder his wife, his daughter and his four grandchildren?
Did Miles plan to send his family to a peaceful afterlife destination? Or did he break down, finding this material plane too painful to endure? Did he think he was doing them a favour?
The motive behind the murders on the 12ha hillside property on Osmington Rd, a 20-minute drive from Margaret River, is known only to police — if they know it at all.
“I’m angry at the suggestions Peter was mad,” one of Miles’ neighbours said. “That’s why I won’t talk to the media.”
The media has not called Miles “mad”; rather, the restraint is extraordinary, given the magnitude of the atrocity — one of Australia’s worst massacres. The media exercised similar restraint in 2014, when Raina Thaiday’s sudden-onset psychosis caused her to stab to death seven of her children and a cousin in their Cairns’ home. In the name of God.
Police Commissioner Chris Dawson listened to Miles’ two-minute goodbye message to triple-0, made at around 5am on May 11, just before he took his own life. He has chosen not make the details public. However, two comments by Dawson stand out: one was that no other party was involved and, second, that police may never understand why.
Miles, a registered gun owner, somehow managed to execute his daughter Katrina, 35, and his grandchildren Taye, 13, Rylan, 12, Ayre, 10, and Kayden, 8, as they slept in their beds in an outhouse; and his wife, Cynda, 58, in the main home.
It was the deepest part of night but the fact the kids were supposedly found “peacefully” in their beds, it was as though they had been drugged — or Miles had moved with purposeful and brutal efficiency.
The common explanation is that Miles was taking a course of antidepressants that did not suit him and his mind had begun misfiring. It’s the answer most people prefer: it blames an external cause rather than the man himself.
It has been reported that the day before the killings, Miles’
wife, Cynda, sent a Face- book message to a friend saying his condition was getting “worse and worse”.
One person who does not accept this is Aaron Cockman, Miles’ sonin-law, the father of the four children and ex-husband of Katrina. “He has thought this through,” Cockman said. “He has not snapped.”
Miles had been a dairy farmer most of his life. In 2000, when deregulation hit the industry, he — like a lot of small-scale farmers — was forced off his farm southeast of Margaret River. He did not sell up, but leased his share to bigger interests. At the same time, he fell out with his older brother, Shirl, due to disagreements over the succession plan for the property — a problem that destroys many farming siblings. Peter and Cynda — herself from a longstanding southeast Western Australian farming family — bought a house in Margaret River township in 2001. They would soon be hit by grief when a son, Shawn, committed suicide by gunshot.
Ross Woodhouse, a former teacher and now one of the area’s biggest dairy farmers, knew Miles all his life. For years they shared a fence and he’d taught Katrina (“lovely kid”) and Shawn. Woodhouse said town life did not suit Miles. “I think his right place was on the farm. Deregulation didn’t help — it took the boy out of the bush.”
Miles taught agriculture at the local high school and was known to students as “Farmer Pete”. Cynda was a founding member of a local society dedicated to growing organic produce, believing that good food could help her grandchildren.
This was especially important to Cynda given that her daughter Katrina’s four children were autistic. The older kids had some minor early interaction at the local school but due to their special circumstances, Katrina had begun to homeschool them from 2009.
Shelley Cullen, who knew Cynda through the organic network, said the four children were “intelligent and well-liked. They were much loved by Peter and Cynda. They wanted to feed them organic food.
“They had some difficulties at school and they were helping Katrina with the homeschooling. They really were beautiful and not noticeably different to other kids. But the school system they found hard — they were very sensitive to sounds and stimuli and it was felt they were better in a quiet environment.”
Miles nursed deep worries.
According to Aaron Cockman, his oldest son Rylan was not expected to live beyond middle-age. Miles had already lost Shawn and now another son, Neil, was facing renal failure and needed a kidney transplant. Added to this, Katrina’s relationship with Cockman had disintegrated. Miles had taken over responsibility as the main male figure in the children’s life.
In late 2014, Miles activated the dream he shared with Cynda to get back to the land. He sold the farm for $1.35 million and put the Margaret River house on the market, which later sold for $560,000. They bought the Osmington Road property in December 2014 for $820,000 and quickly set about planting fruit trees.
Friends dispute that Miles was deliberately isolating the family. They say he wanted the grandkids to have peace — and to provide an escape for Katrina. In October 2014, just before she moved out to the farm, Katrina posted a poem on Facebook, telling of the fear of hearing a car arriving, of being hit and humiliated in front of her children.
Aaron Cockman referred to his family-law troubles in his extraordinary media appearance 48 hours after the massacre. He said he had never visited the kids on the new farm. “I have had so much anger ever since I was cut off from my kids, so much anger,” he said. “That was due to Peter and Cynda making sure I was cut off from my kids.”
Katrina, meanwhile, felt the farm was working for the kids. She reported to a homeschooling site that one of her sons, who had issues with fine-motor co-ordination and visual tracking, was making “amazing” progress. She said she was “just so proud of his achievements”.
Cockman said an independent psychologist’s report had allowed a court order to be recently varied so he could see his kids again, under supervision; and he refuted “accusations I was abusive and all that”.
The comments were both confusing and revealing — and caused a lot of conjecture. Cockman called Miles “an awesome man” who before the bitterness was “like my best friend”.
And there was this about Miles: “He didn’t snap, he knew what he was doing. He did it really well. If someone was going to do it, I trust he did it right and he did it right.”
There was no suggestion of Cockman’s involvement — Commissioner Dawson had said: “I wish to strongly emphasise police do not believe any other person is involved with these crimes.”
Cockman was raised by Jehovah’s Witnesses and though not an adherent, he maintained some of the beliefs (local Witness leader Ian Horner said Cockman attended the local Kingdom Hall only occasionally and “Katrina had a look many years ago but took it no further”).
Faith might explain why Cockman came across as both inconsolable yet accepting of the deaths, which he didn’t see as deaths at all.
He said that “the kids went to sleep and now they are nothing. But to them they are already in a new system.”
The New System is a belief held by Witnesses that there will be an Armageddon followed by a resurrection in which the good will rise from their tombs and live forever, while the bad will be judged and damned again.
Only the Witnesses will survive the end-times annihilation (the date of which they have wrongly foretold on several occasions). Those who have already left this life — such as the four Cockman children — are asleep in an emptiness without pain or pleasure. They will, according to the belief, live again.
Cockman had such limited contact with Miles in recent years, he was not in a position to truly know what was going through his mind. Of many questions that remain, you are left wondering whether there was any forethought in the decision to name this pretty little hillside property “Forever Dreaming”.
Peter Miles. Forensic police at the Margaret River farmhouse. Picture: Sharon Smith
The Miles family at the local agriculture show.
Katrina Miles and her four children Rylan, 12, Taye, 13, Ayre, 10, and Kayden, 8. Aaron Cockman at the funeral.
Aaron Cockman (centre) leaves the funeral of his children.