23 May 2018

Unsolved: the Brooks family murders, Deniliquin

Note: this is the third in a series published each Sunday until July, focusing on unsolved NSW murders. If you have any information regarding this or any other case, please call Crimestoppers on 1800 333 000).

Australia is a very safe country. Australia has fewer murders per year than Baltimore. Not per capita, just fewer. Violent crime is thankfully rare, and when the worst does happen, there's normally intense media attention. So you'd expect the the execution style murder of a family to make headlines. Not in this case though. Maybe everyone was just hyped for the Sydney Olympics instead and that's why the horrible murders of the Brooks/Willoughby family in 2000 slipped under the radar. Today we're taking a look at the Deniliquin family murders, one of the worst Australian crimes you've never heard of.

When Deniliquin local Barbara Brooks was found dead in her car in the Millewa State Forest, south east of the town of Deniliquin near the NSW/Victorian border on 17 March 2000, the scene was terrible enough. But shock turned to horror when police found the body of her 13 year old son, Stacie, in the boot of the car. Who would slaughter a child like that? Suspicions turned to Mrs Brooks' husband, Steven, naturally enough - most murdered women know their killer - until he himself was found in the nearby forest two days later, killed by a shot to the head from the same .22 calibre single shot bolt action rifle which killed his wife and stepson. Chillingly, Steven Brooks also had extensive gun shot wounds to the backs of his legs and feet. Was this used as a method of torture? Had these shots been some sick form of entertainment for the killers?

As the investigation got under way, talk turned to a possible drug link. Could it have something to do with the mysterious errand on the last night of the family's lives? On Tuesday, 14 March, Barbara Brooks left Stacie at home in Denliquin with his younger sisters to drop her husband at an undisclosed address. Her family didn't know where they went, apart from it was something about a final job, the couple were both unemployed and Mr Brooks had been selling marijuana - but they did recall that before leaving, Steven Brooks changed from his casual clothes into green overalls and boots. Barbara Brooks returned home 30 minutes later and took a call from her husband later that night. She was heard to exclaim "I'm not going, I'm not going" but Stacie replied "you have to, Dad wants to come home". Barbara left her younger children in the company of her mother and left the house with Stacie in the yellow sedan their bodies would be found in three days later.

But they weren't killed straight away. Police were able to confirm that Steven Brooks visited a Deniliquin hairdresser to change an appointment on Wednesday 15 March - and Barbara and Stacie were seen sitting in the car outside the premises, with an unidentified man in the passenger seat. Witnesses reported that none of the family seemed nervous; nevertheless, they drove away with the unidentified man, never to be seen alive again. 

Police were able to get a good description of the man in the passenger seat, and later a photofit image, at least; he was described as male, 35 to 40 years old, with dark hair, shaved with a number one or number two cut. He had dark eyes, a slightly tubby build and olive complexion. Police were able to identify part of a rifle found in the Millewa State Forest in late 2000 as being from the weapon used in the murders.

However, the case dragged to a halt as witnesses were reluctant to talk. Police investigated Steven Brooks' contacts - he had been a former street kid who was in and out of jail from age 14 before being released from Pentridge Prison in Melbourne, moving to Deniliquin and marrying Barbara Brooks. He was by all accounts a small time crook and on the warpath with everyone, having taken out 40 AVOs against various people in this life. But leads dried up, and an inquest was held in 2001. Deputy State Coroner Jaqueline Milledge heard evidence of a man who made 117 phone calls with the Brooks family in the three months before the murders, a man who bore an uncanny resemblance to an identikit image of a man seen arguing with Barbara Brooks in Deniliquin days before the murders.

This man, who I will call Gavin (not his real name), had known Steven Brooks in Pentridge. Gavin was tried and acquitted of the murder of a drug associate in 1983, instead received a 20 year sentence for handling the body and other drugs charges. Gavin kept a low profile upon moving to Denliquin after he was released from prison, but there was some talk that Brooks and Gavin were working together as standover men in the town. Hearing all this, Deputy Coroner Milledge stated police suspicions regarding the case were well placed but fell short of the evidence required for a conviction; Ms Milledge recommended further investigtion to gather evidence and strengthen a case for trial.

But after that, nothing. The Daily Telegraph wrote in a 2002 follow up how "a town's apathy killed a murder case: Why the murder of 13-year-old Stacie Willoughby is something this town doesn't want to talk about":
Some murders capture our imagination, nag at us with their sad cruelty and pointlessness. Pictures of the dead beg our attention from newspapers, we mourn collectively and demand justice in a similar fashion.
Others disappear quietly into the background, pass without a trace. As if nobody cared. As if a community shrugs its shoulders and says "oh well, you live a certain way you die a certain way."
On the fifth anniversary of the killings, in March 2005, NSW Police offered a $250,000 reward for information leading to an arrest; it was the second largest reward offered in the state at that time. Rewards for information are actually fairly useless, a topic I'll cover more fully in another post later on. Rewards are useful for generating publicity around a dormant case but are almost never actually paid out. In this case anyway, the reward did little good. No further useful information came to light.

The case has received so little attention in the annals of Australian crime that I - who always keeps a close watch on the news and true crime websites - had barely heard of it. It may be tempting to say it was just a drug related crime, but the loss of three lives - one of those a child - at the hands of violence is something we must bring to account. No crime is insoluble. There's still time.


Murder Timeline http://www.denipt.com.au/2017/03/25/4155/hans-rupp-lead-strike-force-rodi-set-up-to-investigate-the-murders-of-steven-and-barbara-brooks-and-barbaras-son-stacie-willoughby-in-march-2000

$250,000 reward for information into triple murder inquiry - Deniliquinhttps://www.police.nsw.gov.au/can_you_help_us/rewards/250000_reward/reward_for_information_into_triple_murder_inquiry_-_deniliquin

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