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The Man who Threw his Daughter off a Bridge
The Westgate Bridge in Melbourne, Victoria, has had a long association with tragedy. The 850 metre bridge rises imposingly over the banks of the Yarra River and joins the Western suburbs to the City Centre and is used by thousands of commuters every day. To some however, the landmark structure is not so much a bridge as a sad memorial to the thirty-five men who died when the bridge collapsed during its constructiion in 1970.
It's also the place where, at 9am on January 29th, 2009, "Weekend Dad", Arthur Phillip Freeman, stuck in bumper to bumper traffic on the bridge, suddenly stopped in the left lane, got out of his car with his four year old daughter Darcey and threw her over the bridge, 80 metres to her death. Just minutes before, Freeman had rung his estranged wife with the threat,. "Say goodbye to your children...you will never see them again".
The story of Arthur Freeman's descent into ruthless, unimaginable violence is a shocking one and part of me didn't want to write it. Even today I'm still affected by it, perhaps because there is something so strikingly and gut-wrenchingly symbolic about that single, terrible act. A supposedly loving father threw his daughter away....picked her up and threw her away, forever.
Yet it's an important issue. Though the method may be unique, the intent is not and Freeman's act is not an isolated one. Late last year, another father, also separated from his family, was convicted of killing his two young sons by driving them into a dam on Father's Day in 2005 and there are reports every year of similar tragedies, apparently stemming form 'spousal revenge'. What drives a man to seemingly seek vengeance on his former partner by murdering their children? It's an impossibly heinous crime..yet it happens. Every year in Australia.
While it is true that women too, have been convicted of killing their own children, it is not usually because they are separated from them or their partners - there are whole other issues at play there that are the subject for another article. No, this is about a portion of men and their inability to cope with separation. What's going on...?
To the world at large, Arthur Freeman was a relatively normal, ordinary guy, - just like the millions of other guys who leave school, get a job, get married and acquire a mortage and children along the way. Perhaps he could be considered even a little more successful than many men; he was an IT professional who had excelled as a database administrator in London. Freeman took sking trips, played weekly tennis and superficially at least, appeared to enjoy his life.
Even after his marriage went pear-shaped, he carried on, at one stage looking after his three children, two young sons, Ben and Jack, aged six and two and four year old Darcey, on his own for a short period. Those who knew him emphasize that Freemon loved his children and wanted to be involved in their lives. He read them bedtime stories, played beach soccer and was described in court as "excessively caring", fretting about their welfare when he wasn't with them.
During the trial however, other, less endearing descriptions of Freeman emerged. The loving Dad was described as "calculating" and a "control freak" who lost the plot after his marriage collapsed. He had trouble accepting the situation and continued to wear his wedding ring even though it was all over. For a while he stayed with friends in London, who declared in police statements that he appeared "clearly depressed", "paranoid" and "obsessive".
Ex-wife, Peta Barnes said during the marriage Freeman had had "mood swings and anger management issues". Shortly after the divorce in 2008, he told a relative his ex-wife would "regret it" if he lost custody. Something anyone might say in a heated moment, yet after the events that followed, it has a terrible, prescient resonance.
January 29th was a typically hot summer day in Melbourne. The day before Freeman and his wife had been in court fighting a custody battle and Freeman's fear that he would lose the three day a week shared care that he had enjoyed since the break-up, was realised. A psychologist's report had gone against him. The report concluded that Freeman "tended to be irrational and contradictory... and demonstrated passive/aggressive traits and seemed to cause chaos around him". and significantly, it was specifally noted that Darcey was particularly close to her mother..a factor in the final decision. His time with the children was now reduced to one weekend a fortnight, plus a few hours on alternate Thursday nights. It was a 'negotiated settlement' and while Peta Barnes said Freeman appeared "happy" when he left the court, that was not his interior reality. Emotionally, the cuts were running very, very deep.
The evening after the court case, he returned to his parents beachside home, where his children had been staying. The next morning Freeman was frazzled - it was Darcey's first day at school and he had no time to make lunches for her and her six year old brother. Sensing his stressed mood, his father Peter offered to drive the kids but Freeman refused and strapped his children in the back seat of the car.
Along the way Freeman spoke to his sister and a lady friend in London, Elizabeth Lam, on his mobile phone. He was upset about the custody outcome and vowed to pursue the matter through the higher courts. Lam noted that he also mentioned that there had been "lots of angry women in the courts who weren't very supportive of fathers".
As usual the Westgate bridge was congested with peak hour morning traffic - Freeman's heavy, emotionally charged anger must have been building up with a volcanic force and as he waited in the slow traffic, he made the threatening call to Peta Barnes. Minutes later, he parked his four wheel drive in the left hand emergency lane, close to the highest point of the bridge. Coaxing Darcey out of the car he carried her in his arms to the top of the bridge and threw her over the rails. Darcey fell 80 metres into the dark, murky waters of the Yarra but did not die immediately. Water police tried desperately to revive her but she died a few hours later in hospital,
As Freeman drove away across the bridge, his six-year-old son Ben was distraught, begging his father to turn back because, “Darcey can't swim''. Ben's calls fell on deaf ears, as Freeman appeared to be a trance. He drove on to the CBD and tried to hand his two year old son to security gaurds at the Commonwealth Law Courts. Those who saw him later that day describe a wreck of a man - shaking and weeping uncontrollably and too distressed to communicate.
it's very hard to have any compassion for a man like Freeman, to not view him as a monster..an abhorration of what it means to be human. He is a monster, but a human monster, the creation of which needs to be dissected. Nor is he an abhoration, in so far as he is not alone in the severe psychological reactions that propelled him along a path of extreme violence with immeasurably tragic consequences. There is a small portion of men who, after losing the families which have defined them, get very angry..so angry, they kill. Sometimes they kill their former partners, sometimes their children, sometimes both and sometimes they kill their families and themselves. Freeman's state of mind and the conditions around his separation and relationship with his children needs to be understood, so that there is a chance that something, anything may be done to avert such a thing from ever happening again.
Arthur Phillip Freeman must now live with the incalculable misery he has caused himself and others - and if he really was a loving father - it's a misery that must permeate every cell of his being, every waking moment. The consequence of one moment's abandonement to extreme anger and vengeance. During his trial, Freeman's defence of madness was rejected by the Supreme Court and he was sentenced to life in jail with a non-parole period of 32 years. According to newspaper reports, he spends most of his time growing tomatoes in the prison garden.