‘I tried to stop Bagh­dad shoot­ing’

Fi­nally, an in­quest opens into sol­dier’s mys­te­ri­ous death

The Weekend Australian - - FRONT PAGE - CHAR­LIE PEEL

The last man to see body­guard Chris Betts alive has re­jected the ac­counts of six for­mer col­leagues who re­called Sun McKay reck­lessly point­ing his gun at them.

The for­mer com­mando also de­nied he was “com­plicit” in the death of his Unity Re­sources Group col­league Betts, 34, who he said shot him­self in the head about 2.30am af­ter a night of drink­ing in Mr McKay’s room at the Aus­tralian em­bassy in Bagh­dad on May 12, 2016.

Dur­ing tes­ti­mony in a coro­nial in­quest in Bris­bane on Fri­day, it was re­vealed that Mr McKay had mis­led Aus­tralian Fed­eral Po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tors af­ter the shoot­ing when he told them he had not con­sumed al­co­hol that night.

The last man to see body­guard Chris Betts alive has re­jected the ac­counts of six of his for­mer col­leagues who re­called Sun McKay reck­lessly point­ing his gun at them.

For­mer com­mando Mr McKay also de­nied he was “com­plicit” in the death of his Unity Re­sources Group col­league Betts, 34, who he said shot him­self in the head about 2.30am af­ter a night of drink­ing in Mr McKay’s room at the Aus­tralian em­bassy in Bagh­dad on May 12, 2016.

Dur­ing tes­ti­mony in a coro­nial in­quest in Bris­bane on Fri­day, it was re­vealed that Mr McKay mis­led Aus­tralian Fed­eral Po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tors af­ter the shoot­ing when he told them he had not con­sumed al­co­hol that night.

Through­out the hear­ing, Mr McKay’s ver­sion of events ap­peared con­flict­ing and he said he could not re­call key events.

But he was adamant he had tried to stop Betts from pulling the trigger of the pis­tol, which both men al­legedly knew was loaded.

Mr McKay, who flew from Ade­laide for the hear­ing, re­called the mo­ment Betts turned the hand­gun on him­self.

“As he was leav­ing I heard him rack my Glock, which is to ac­tion up the weapon, so there is a round in the cham­ber,” he said.

“I hit the bed­room light, sat up and went, ‘what are you do­ing, mate’. He said some­thing like, ‘time to play clear or not clear’. “I said, ‘no, just f..king stop’. “I saw his fin­ger go onto the trigger, which is pretty se­ri­ous with a round in the cham­ber.

“He sat down and dis­charged the weapon.”

Dressed in a dark suit dec­o­rated with a red poppy pin, Mr McKay wiped tears from his face as he told the story in front of Betts’s par­ents, who sat in the court­room. He has told at least two dif­fer­ent ver­sions of events to the AFP and on Fri­day said he was still con­fused and shocked by what he had wit­nessed.

“He (Betts) would have known he put a round in the spout, def­i­nitely,” Mr McKay said.

He sug­gested Betts may have mis­taken the live bul­let for a drill round. AFP de­tec­tive sergeant Wil­liam Free­man told the in­quiry that DNA and blood-spat­ter ev­i­dence in­di­cated Betts’s death was self-in­flicted but could not de­ter­mine if the cause was sui­cide or mis­ad­ven­ture.

Sev­eral for­mer URG em­ploy­ees told the in­quest they did not be­lieve Betts shot him­self and spec­u­lated that Mr McKay pulled the trigger.

The Betts fam­ily’s lawyer Pa­trick McCaf­ferty QC told Mr McKay that Betts’s par­ents did not be­lieve he de­lib­er­ately con­trib­uted to their son’s death.

Mr McKay, who de­scribed him­self as “in­tro­verted”, broke down in tears and wiped his face with a tis­sue as he de­scribed the im­pact the death had on him and how it had fu­elled his use of drugs.

Dur­ing cross-ex­am­i­na­tion, Mr McKay said he did not trust the six for­mer col­leagues who had told the in­quest of in­stances where he had aimed loaded or un­loaded weapons at them while sky­lark­ing.

He de­scribed some of them as “clock-punch­ers”, “sales­men” and “use­less” and sug­gested they had been un­truth­ful or “mis­con­strued” their tes­ti­mony due to a “per­son­al­ity clash”. “I would never point (a weapon) at any­one and wouldn’t joke around,” Mr McKay said.

He crit­i­cised the pro­fi­ciency of his for­mer col­leagues and ex­plained his reg­u­lar weapons drills as a way to build “mus­cle memory”.

Mr McKay said he of­ten kept weapons with mag­a­zines in them on the ta­ble and desk in his room.

He told the in­quest he and Betts had been “great mates” who so­cialised of­ten dur­ing their six years to­gether at URG. They would also reg­u­larly drink to­gether, de­spite al­co­hol be­ing banned on the base.

Mr McKay’s ad­mis­sion that he had been drink­ing gin on the last night of Betts’s life con­tra­dicted an in­ter­view he gave to the AFP five days af­ter the shoot­ing in which he de­nied drink­ing that night.

He told the in­quest the dis­crep­ancy was be­cause he stopped drink­ing by 7pm, when it was still light in the sky. For­mer col­leagues told the in­quest Mr McKay was “ham­mered” and “stunk of booze” af­ter Betts was shot.

On May 13, 2016, fewer than 12 hours af­ter elite for­mer sol­dier Christo­pher Betts, 34, died of a gun­shot wound to his head at the Aus­tralian em­bassy com­pound, an email ar­rived in my in­box. “I’m guess­ing you’ve heard the lat­est from Bagh­dad. It’s a tragedy that cer­tainly could have been avoided. Stay safe, Mick.”

Michael (Mick) Schipp is a straight-talk­ing type, a for­mer po­lice of­fi­cer who spent 22 years with the North­ern Ter­ri­tory force, in­clud­ing the NT spe­cial op­er­a­tions and tac­ti­cal group, be­fore turn­ing to pri­vate se­cu­rity work.

He joined Unity Re­sources Group, the com­pany re­spon­si­ble for se­cu­rity at Aus­tralia’s Bagh­dad em­bassy, in Oc­to­ber 2007, just days af­ter two of its op­er­a­tives made in­ter­na­tional head­lines when they opened fire on a car, killing two civil­ian Iraqi women.

The in­ci­dent cre­ated a lo­cal furore. Iraqi of­fi­cials ac­cused the guards of “fir­ing ran­domly” at the women, who were mem­bers of a small Ar­me­nian Chris­tian church.

URG man­age­ment is­sued a state­ment of “deep regret” at the time, but no in­for­ma­tion about an in­ves­ti­ga­tion has been re­vealed in the pub­lic do­main.

Schipp weath­ered the storm that briefly en­veloped his new em­ployer. As a re­spected se­nior man­ager and 2IC team leader, he headed close-knit se­cu­rity teams (work­ing with Betts) un­til May 2015 when, worn down by un­prece­dented cost-cut­ting and wor­ried by in­creas­ingly dan­ger­ous lapses of safety and se­cu­rity pro­to­cols, he qui­etly left URG.

The se­cu­rity vet­eran, who has not spo­ken pub­licly un­til this week, soon found out he was not alone in his con­cerns. Just six months af­ter he left URG, The Aus­tralian re­ported that 67 of his for­mer col­leagues, many of them for­mer mil­i­tary or po­lice, had taken the un­prece­dented step of ac­cus­ing their em­ployer of risk­ing lives by slash­ing costs, scrimp­ing on med­i­cal equip­ment, pro­vid­ing per­son­nel with age­ing and in­fe­rior weapons and re­fus­ing pro­tec­tive equip­ment and in­sur­ance and ac­ci­dent cover.

So fear­ful were the per­son­nel of their em­ployer they col­lec­tively signed a de­po­si­tion that warned their griev­ances had be­come “so great and the pos­si­ble con­se­quences for the Aus­tralian em­bassy con­sid­ered so egre­gious” they were con­sid­er­ing strike ac­tion.

Breach of pro­ce­dure

The drive to cut costs had be­gun in earnest when the De­part­ment of For­eign Af­fairs and Trade made the de­ci­sion to award URG a new four-year con­tract, worth nearly $51m, to pro­vide per­sonal pro­tec­tion for em­bassy staff un­til 2020. Ten­der documents ob­tained by

The Aus­tralian showed URG had won the new ten­der by un­der­cut­ting it­self by 50 per cent when com­pared with the $101m it was paid to pro­vide se­cu­rity for the four years be­tween 2011 and 2015.

In the first week of Jan­uary 2016, when the new con­tract be­gan, more than 40 Aus­tralian pro­tec­tion spe­cial­ists — nearly two-thirds of the to­tal team — were flown out of Iraq af­ter re­fus­ing to work with URG. This forced the com­pany to em­bark on an 11th-hour emer­gency re­cruit­ment drive in Bri­tain.

As URG strug­gled to fill se­cu­rity and med­i­cal po­si­tions, The Aus­tralian made con­tact with op­er­a­tive af­ter op­er­a­tive who, al­ways on the con­di­tion of anonymity, out­lined in­creas­ing anx­i­ety, anger and frus­tra­tion about ques­tion­able in­ter­nal work pro­ce­dures, pro­vid­ing ev­i­dence and doc­u­men­ta­tion of pro­to­col lapses they feared would im­pinge not only on their own safety but those they were charged to pro­tect.

Start­ing with a front-page story on De­cem­ber 28, 2015, The Aus­tralian be­gan pub­lish­ing a se­ries of 17 ar­ti­cles re­port­ing se­ri­ous al­le­ga­tions against URG.

De­spite mount­ing ev­i­dence of pro­fes­sional mis­con­duct, URG and DFAT re­fused to an­swer ques­tions or in­ves­ti­gate, dis­miss­ing claims as the “griev­ances of dis­grun­tled for­mer con­trac­tors”.

Then on May 12 came the mys­te­ri­ous gun­shot death of Betts. An Aus­tralian Fed­eral Po­lice re­port dated July 2016 ruled the death was self-in­flicted but Betts’s par­ents, Rae and Colin, re­fused to ac­cept their son had com­mit­ted sui­cide. Even­tu­ally, af­ter a three year wait, Queens­land Coroner Terry Ryan agreed to hold an in­quest into the Queens­lan­der’s death and be­gan hear­ing ev­i­dence in Bris­bane this week.

A URG se­cu­rity project man­ager ad­mit­ted to the coroner that at the time of Betts’s death, he had di­rected staff to keep weapons in their room — a clear breach of stan­dard op­er­at­ing pro­ce­dures. Schipp could no longer main­tain his si­lence.

“He sug­gested this was be­cause there was an in­creased threat to the em­bassy,” he said this week.

“What is the threat? They had a force of armed, Chilean guards around them at night and CCTV cam­eras. What do you need arms in your room for?

“In the very be­gin­ning of the con­tract, I had brack­ets made, with locks and chains for weapons. Ri­fles could stand on it or a Glock would sit on it and a chain welded on would go through the trigger guard and it was pad­locked.

“Weapons were un­loaded and stored … the un­load­ing bins were out­side the ac­com­mo­da­tion block. But you have to en­force their use oth­er­wise blokes just put them on the bed, un­der the bed, on the floor.”

DFAT in de­nial

The AFP’s re­port into Betts’s death con­firmed the brack­ets were still there. Be­hind the scenes, Schipp was one of at least three se­nior URG staff who were so frus­trated by what they in­creas­ingly felt was a cover-up over Betts’s death that they turned whistle­blower, out­lin­ing their al­le­ga­tions in writ­ing and pro­vid­ing them for­mally to DFAT, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment and the op­po­si­tion. Again, none was fol­lowed up. One of the ear­li­est for­mal com­plaints was filed by Tanya Ferrai, the for­mer head nurse at URG who gave ev­i­dence to the coroner on Thurs­day. On Jan­uary 28, 2016, Ferrai pro­vided a de­tailed state­ment to DFAT’s re­gional se­cu­rity ad­viser, Tony Hughes.

The for­mer NSW po­lice of­fi­cer’s al­le­ga­tions in­cluded that the med­i­cal clinic was unin­sured, para­medic staff were un­qual­i­fied and “po­tent and life-threat­en­ing” drugs such as opi­oids, anaes­thetic agents and painkiller­s such as mor­phine, fen­tanyl and ke­tamine had to be re­moved from URG armed per­son­nel by nurs­ing staff.

A fort­night later, dur­ing an ap­pear­ance be­fore the Se­nate es­ti­mates com­mit­tee, then DFAT sec­re­tary Peter Vargh­ese made no men­tion of the in­ter­nal al­le­ga­tions, in­stead turn­ing his sights on The Aus­tralian. “In my view, the me­dia cov­er­age of this is­sue has been not only a beat-up, it’s been mis­lead­ing, in­ac­cu­rate and un­bal­anced,” Vargh­ese said.

“Patently, the de­part­ment puts the high­est pri­or­ity on the safety and wel­fare of its em­ploy­ees and the sug­ges­tion that we would run a cut-price se­cu­rity sys­tem is frankly quite of­fen­sive.

“In­deed, the only ad­di­tional risk that has arisen in this case has been the plac­ing on the pub­lic record of se­cu­rity de­tails by the jour­nal­ist in ques­tion, which does raise is­sues of risk to our staff.”

In­fu­ri­ated by Vargh­ese’s com­ments, Ferrai emailed Hughes the fol­low­ing day ask­ing what had hap­pened to her com­plaints and was told, in writ­ing on Fe­bru­ary 17, that “the pa­pers you passed to me have been for­warded to Can­berra. If you re­quire any in­for­ma­tion on this mat­ter, (DFAT of­fi­cial) Paul Mol­loy is the ap­pro­pri­ate con­tact in this case.”

Politi­cians sit on hands

In a sec­ond doc­u­ment, sent af­ter Betts’s death, Ferrai — who by then was the third head nurse who had quit URG in protest — re­it­er­ated her con­cerns, adding claims of se­ri­ous weapons-han­dling breaches and safe stor­age rules ig­nored by URG se­cu­rity staff.

“Weapons are of­ten left ly­ing around un­se­cured with am­mu­ni­tion un­locked and ly­ing in the open nearby. Man­age­ment was con­tin­u­ally made aware that a se­ri­ous in­ci­dent or death would oc­cur if all the above is­sues were not ad­dressed im­me­di­ately. Noth­ing was done to rec­tify or ad­dress these is­sues,” she wrote.

Schipp, too, was so dis­tressed when he heard of Betts’s death in May 2016 that he wrote a de­tailed let­ter out­lin­ing his con­cerns about URG, in­clud­ing the breach of al­co­hol and weapons safety pro­to­cols, and sent them to Julie Bishop, then for­eign minister, and her La­bor coun­ter­part, Tanya Plibersek. Nei­ther of­fice re­sponded, nor fol­lowed up.

Only in­de­pen­dent sen­a­tor

Nick Xenophon stuck his head above the para­pet and called pub­licly for an in­quiry.

AFP ticks boxes

The harsh re­al­ity is that we may never know ex­actly how Betts died. We know he was in col­league Sun McKay’s bed­room in the early hours of that tragic May morn­ing. We know Betts was due to go on hol­i­day that day and he was happy and up­beat, look­ing for­ward to the break and to get­ting back to Aus­tralia to see his fam­ily and spend time with his young wife, An­gela, who, dev­as­tated by grief, took her own life just a few weeks later.

Betts left no sui­cide note. There was no his­tory of de­pres­sion. Friends and col­leagues de­scribe him as quiet, easy-go­ing with a good sense of hu­mour. He liked a drink but was al­ways pro­fes­sional and cir­cum­spect in his han­dling of firearms.

We also know that in the cru­cial min­utes, hours and days af­ter the shoot­ing, McKay was al­lowed to shower be­fore any foren­sic tests could take place and was not breathal­ysed de­spite ear­lier ev­i­dence that the com­pany con­ducted such tests reg­u­larly.

The AFP re­port con­firmed the Glock hand­gun that killed Betts was cleared of am­mu­ni­tion af­ter his death. “Un­for­tu­nately, the per­son who cleared the Glock pis­tol has not been iden­ti­fied.”

In the af­ter­math, URG se­cu­rity man­agers told op­er­a­tives they were not to spec­u­late about the death, al­though guard Pa­trick O’Keefe told the coroner this week that URG be­gan de­scrib­ing the death “as a sui­cide be­fore Aus­tralian Fed­eral Po­lice ar­rived in Iraq to in­ves­ti­gate”.

In the days that fol­lowed, The Aus­tralian was told by a source close to events that within hours of his ar­rival in Bagh­dad, AFP lead in­ves­ti­ga­tor De­tec­tive Sergeant Bill Free­man ex­pressed the view the death was “self-in­flicted”. He told the coroner this week he could not con­clude whether it was sui­cide or mis­ad­ven­ture.

Ac­cord­ing to Schipp, Ferrai and other for­mer col­leagues, URG man­age­ment han­dled the hours af­ter Betts’s death in the same way they man­aged the long cri­sis over safety and pro­to­cols: “by cov­er­ing up”. The AFP in­ves­ti­ga­tion, they say, should have been open­minded as well as rig­or­ous but at best was per­func­tory and at worst “was cov­er­ing DFAT’s arse”.

Schipp, who was also a spe­cial­ist weapons in­struc­tor on Glock pis­tols for the NT po­lice, told The Aus­tralian this week the firearm can­not “ac­ci­den­tally go off”.

“When it is loaded, the mag­a­zine con­tain­ing rounds is in the weapon. The ac­tion is not cocked: (if there are) no rounds in the cham­ber, three safeties are en­gaged. To ac­tion the weapon, which is the next stage, you pull the slide back and as it moves to the front again, un­der ten­sion, it fixes a round and loads into the cham­ber,” he said.

“It doesn’t have man­ual safeties. It’s a pas­sive safety ... it can’t just ac­ci­den­tally go off — you have to pull that trigger.”

The coroner is un­likely to de­liver a fi­nal re­port un­til early next year. For now, based on what was said in court this week, all we can be sure of is that the now-de­funct URG — and po­ten­tially its em­ployer, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment — failed in their duty of care.

‘Weapons are of­ten left ly­ing around un­se­cured’ TANYA FERRAI FOR­MER HEAD NURSE, URG ‘What do you need arms in your room for?’ MICHAEL SCHIPP PRI­VATE SE­CU­RITY OP­ER­A­TOR

AAP

‘I saw his fin­ger go onto the trigger’ … se­cu­rity con­trac­tor and for­mer com­mando Sun McKay leaves the in­quest in Bris­bane on Fri­day

Chris Betts on hol­i­days with wife An­gela in South Amer­ica

AAP

Left, Rae and Colin Betts ar­rive at the Coroner’s Court in Bris­bane on Thurs­day; above, clock­wise from left, Chris and An­gela Betts; col­league Sun McKay; AFP lead in­ves­ti­ga­tor De­tec­tive Sergeant Bill Free­man

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