‘I tried to stop Baghdad shooting’
Finally, an inquest opens into soldier’s mysterious death
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
‘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
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