The Big Read: The cop, the beauty queen, the judge and the email

Alison Marie Lewis was murdered at the age of 19. Photo / News Corp Australia
Alison Marie Lewis was murdered at the age of 19. Photo / News Corp Australia

This is the story of a beauty queen who was murdered, a cop who had to make an impossible choice, an email that put him in an emergency ward and a judge who had his job on the line.

It is the story of how one decision might have cost a young woman her life and ruined the life of the man who made it.

And it is a story of whether receiving an email with bad news can qualify as a workplace injury.

And it all unfolded in an obscure decision in the New South Wales District Court by Judge Garry Neilson, a judgment that took almost two years to make because the judge himself was fighting for his job.

It is, in short, a very strange story. And so, naturally, it begins at the end.

An opened email

Last Friday, in what seemed to be a wholly unremarkable decision, Judge Neilson found that former police officer Steven Andrew See had injured himself while on duty.

The remarkable thing was that injury was caused by him opening an email.

The email was sent to See at 9.48am on the morning of April 8, 2009 - a Wednesday, for what it's worth - and its contents made him rush to a hospital emergency department with an anxiety attack. He never returned to work again.

The email was sent by See's own lawyers. See had been asking the Police Force to re-credit him for 934 hours of sick leave and 578 hours of annual leave - the equivalent of 189 eight-hour days.

His lawyers told him this had been rejected by the Police Commissioner's office and advised him to apply for medical discharge.

But why was Steven See so unwell?

For that we have to go back another 12 years to the early hours of Sunday, March 2, 1997.

The murder happened in the town of Lithgow, over the Blue Mountains from Sydney, in 1997. Photo / News Corp Australia
The murder happened in the town of Lithgow, over the Blue Mountains from Sydney, in 1997. Photo / News Corp Australia

Senior Constable See was shift supervisor at the Lithgow police station, just over the other side of the Blue Mountains from Sydney.

Senior Constable See should have had two car crews available to him that night - one based in Lithgow and another that serviced the nearby towns of Wallerawang and Portland.

As fate would have it, there was a debutante ball on in Portland that night - a nice charity event. However, there'd been trouble in previous years so the organisers had requested a police presence.

That left Senior Constable See with just one crew. And unfortunately that night he had two problems.

Between 3am and 4am Senior Constable See was faced with a moral, operational and numerical quandary.

The Lithgow crew had picked up a drink driver leaving a local nightspot and were processing him at the police station.

When asked why he was intoxicated, the driver replied "bloody women" - a reason duly recorded in the police report.

It was just another Saturday night in a country town where country cops were just doing their job - maybe with a bit of country humour.

But whatever had or hadn't driven the driver to drink had nothing whatsoever to do with See's other impending problem.

For during this period Senior Constable See also received two phone calls from a female taxi driver who told him she had picked up two girls who had been attacked near Lithgow swimming pool and was taking them to hospital.

This note was recorded on the General Station Pad as being from a Lithgow Radio Taxi driver: "I have just picked up a girl from behind the Lithgow pool. She is distressed and told me that she had been attacked. She is bleeding. I will take her to hospital."

The taxi driver later arrived at the police station and gave See a piece of paper with the name of a third girl, their cousin who they had been planning to meet at the pool. Her name was Alison Lewis. Given what had happened to them they were worried about her.

This presented a dilemma. The only crew See had was processing the drink driver, who could not be left unsupervised. And according to a directive by the patrol commander - or at least what See understood to be the protocol - the two officers could not be split up or sent out alone because of safety concerns.

What happened within this hour and exactly who was where at what particular minute was the subject of conflicting accounts.

Either way, the Lithgow crew were not dispatched to the hospital until 4.18am and did not go out searching the area around the pool until 4.25am - more than an hour after the taxi driver first called in.

The other crew had been called to the scene by See but he then called them off after both known victims were accounted for and at the hospital.

The following afternoon the body of Alison Marie Lewis was found in a nearby sandpit.

She had been murdered. She was 19 years old.

Alison Lewis' body was found in a sandpit. Photo / News Corp Australia
Alison Lewis' body was found in a sandpit. Photo / News Corp Australia

The fallout

It is probably impossible for a civilian to know what it is like to make that kind of decision and have that decision go bad.

In the days after the murder, Senior Constable See was interviewed repeatedly about his actions.

Critically, he was unsure of whether the Lithgow crew were still at the police station when the taxi driver came in or had already gone to the hospital a minute or two's drive away.

"I've tried to remember this, I've agonised over this," he said on March 13, 1997. "I just can't be sure whether they were about to leave or whether they had already left."

But the next day he told investigators he still stood by his decision: "Yes, with the information available, which was that there was no danger to the two girls who had been assaulted and that the offender had decamped. Then I was given information that Alison Lewis had arranged to meet the two girls near the pool.

"They were unsure whether she had really decided to stick to those arrangements or made other plans. They were very upset and it was very hard to get information from them. I got the opinion they were keeping some things back as if they were trying to cover their own backsides, probably that they were going to sneak a swim at the pool."

Needless to say, the crime shocked the town and generated huge amounts of media and political attention.

The press described Alison as a "beauty queen" and then-shadow police minister Andrew Tink ended up referring the police response to the NSW Ombudsman. A Current Affair was all over it.

The murderer was caught and eventually sentenced to 20 years' jail.

But the blowtorch was put on Senior Constable See's actions that night. Serious questions were raised about the options he had available to him and the choices he made.

The Ombudsman's findings were damning: "In my view, any reasonable police officer would have been aware that the matters reported ... required urgent action and would have acted accordingly."

The then-commissioner Peter Ryan had said in the weeks after the crime: "Police did everything they could, given the information available to them at the time."

After the Ombudsman's report that changed to: "I'm embarrassed on behalf of the Service. We could have acted better and I'm apologising for the fact we didn't act better."

Even in the days following, See claimed some of his colleagues told him "the best way I could assist the investigation would be to get a noose and hang myself".

Needless to say it wasn't long before See was a broken man. In the months and years that followed he was diagnosed by several doctors with anxiety and depression and was placed on restricted duties.

One psychiatrist in 2000 said simply: "He has been sick for a long time and he will be sick for a long time."

Judge Neilson added: "And so it came to pass."

Judge Garry Neilson had to rule on the case of the police officer 'hurt on duty'. Photo / News Corp Australia
Judge Garry Neilson had to rule on the case of the police officer 'hurt on duty'. Photo / News Corp Australia

Judgment questioned

This is unusual poignancy for a legal ruling on workers compensation and Judge Neilson is nothing if not an unusual man.

He too has suffered the blowtorch of the public eye and had his professional judgment called into question.

He made national headlines for bizarre comments during a 2014 case in which he suggested that a man having sex with his sister might one day no longer be taboo.

The case involved a man who was accused of raping his younger sister and in refusing to allow the jury to be told of the man's previous admission of sexually assaulting her, Judge Neilson pondered that "a jury might find nothing untoward in the advance of a brother towards his sister once she had sexually matured, had sexual relationships with other men and was now 'available', not having [a] sexual partner".

The jaw-dropping comments sparked outrage and Judge Neilson was referred to the Judicial Commission - which had the power to refer him to parliament for potential dismissal.

The contrite jurist said he was mortified at the way in which he had expressed himself and said "I was just thinking out loud". He also said: "I always approach law on a historical basis - going back to obtain principles."

The commission found his evidence "confused and confusing" and recommended he be banned from hearing sexual offence cases. However it allowed him to continue to serve as a judge.

And that was a lucky thing for Steven See, because it was his case that Judge Neilson was in the middle of judging when he was hauled before the Judicial Commission.

The hearings for See v Commissioner of Police were between February and April 2015 yet Judge Neilson's decision was not handed down until last week - almost two years later. In between came the fight of his professional life before the Judicial Commission.

Judge Neilson even appeared to allude to this in a paragraph marked "Apology" at the end of his decision, begging the indulgence of the two opposing barristers before him and seemingly making a wry reference to the infamy of the incident.

"I apologise to the parties for my delay in the delivery of these reasons. There were professional reasons for that delay. They have been explained to Mr O'Rourke. I am confident that a counsel as perceptive as Mr Hutchings will appreciate those reasons."

Alison Lewis was a beauty queen in the town of Lithgow. Photo / News Corp Australia
Alison Lewis was a beauty queen in the town of Lithgow. Photo / News Corp Australia

Finally, a decision

But it turns out Judge Neilson was right when he told the Judicial Commission he always approached law on a historical basis.

Because when considering what was meant by "workers compensation" in See's case he went all the way back to Otto von Bismarck, the Chancellor of the German Empire, who introduced the world's first workers compensation scheme in 1884.

"The real grievance of the worker is the insecurity of his existence; he is not sure that he will always have work, he is not sure that he will always be healthy, and he foresees that he will one day be old and unfit to work," von Bismarck said.

"If he falls into poverty, even if only through a prolonged illness, he is then completely helpless."

Certainly See's illness was prolonged. For years doctors had diagnosed him with various mental ailments such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression but the Police Force had denied liability for Hurt On Duty benefits.

However Judge Neilson found See had indeed been hurt on duty - not from the events on his shift the night Alison Lewis died in 1997 but by the fallout afterwards.

And the straw that broke the camel's back arrived in his email inbox 12 years later at 9.48am.

At 11.03am on that Wednesday, 8 April 2009, See went to the Blue Mountains Hospital Emergency Department, where the triage nurse made this note: "Patient states he has a history of anxiety. Has had stressful news today and has had anxiety problem."

Judge Neilson last week found that this was enough to qualify See for being Hurt On Duty, which would finally entitle him to a pension.

"Each stressor can be seen as a blow, a punch, to his psyche. Whatever psychiatric condition was manifest initially, eventually the certified infirmity was diagnosed, the condition progressively deteriorated as the stressors became more severe and there was a permanent altering of brain chemistry. This is properly categorised as a disease of gradual process. The last stressor was on 8 April 2009."

And with that Senior Constable See finally won a fight that had taken 20 years - a fight in which there are really no winners at all.

NSW Police says it is reviewing the decision.

And through the haze of time and the maze of claim and counter-claim you can still hear the ghost of Alison Lewis cry out from the park: "What about me?"

- news.com.au

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