Saturday, April 19, 2008

The trial of Gordon Wood

Rene Rivkin’s former chauffeur Gordon Wood has been granted legal aid for the murder trial of his girlfriend Caroline Byrne. The news comes six weeks his application for aid was rejected on the grounds his mother was funding his defence. Legal Aid NSW have now told Wood's solicitor, Michael Bowe that his client would now be funded "in a limited way." The former jetsetter Wood is alleged to have thrown Byrne off a cliff in Sydney’s Watson Bay in 1995.

The sordid story of Gordon Wood is one of the narratives which features strongly in Neil Chenoweth’s Packer’s Lunch, an extraordinary tale of the channels of money and power in Sydney in the 1990s. Wood was a minor player associated with the financial machinations of the mercurial stockbroker Rene Rivkin who was central to Chenoweth’s narrative. Chenoweth’s investigations sparked inquiries by several authorities, including ASIC's probe into the failed telco One.Tel and an ongoing examination of Swiss bank accounts and related business deals. It also touched on the long running saga of the inquest into the death of Caroline Byrne and the affairs of her boyfriend Gordon Wood.

Wood was born in 1962 in Bath, England and emigrated with his family to South Africa. In 1978 the Woods moved to Queensland. Gordon moved south to NSW where he gained a Bachelor of Economics at the University of Sydney. After graduation he had a variety of small jobs including bit parts in television, a stint as a ticket seller at the Opera House before becoming an aerobics instructor at Club World of Fitness in Sydney’s Castlereagh St. He also doubled as a personal trainer at nearby City Gym.

Wood’s tall, blond physique made him popular with female patrons. But while most people thought him good looking, some thought he was more interested in men than women. A colleague who worked with Wood later in the decade told Chenoweth he was very fastidious and always commenting on what the men wearing were wearing and never the women. Nevertheless Wood charmed the blonde model Caroline Byrne in 1992. She introduced her new boyfriend to her family on Christmas Day as a fitness instructor. Nevertheless, Byrne was cautious about Wood and insisted he take an AIDS test.

The relationship lasted until September of the following year. She complained to her father that Wood spent his time doing nothing and going nowhere. “There’s no future with Gordon,” she told her father. “He lies in bed until lunchtime [and] apart from a few gym classes he doesn’t work.” Although Wood was initially distraught over the break-up he quickly began a new relationship, this time with a man – Polish baker and part-time model Adam Baczynski.

Wood’s big break arrived a month later. Through his contacts at the gym, he heard that millionaire stockbroker Rene Rivkin needed a replacement for driver and gopher George Freris who was leaving to set up his own tattooist business. Wood got the job. It wasn’t a total surprise as he already knew Rivkin. Rivkin used Joe’s Café as unofficial office and the gym crowd also hung out here. The millionaire had taken half a dozen of them, including Wood, with him on a North Queensland holiday. Despite his rich appearances, Rivkin was deep in debt at the time to Rodney Adler’s FAI Insurance.

Rivkin’s “lucky break” came with the fire at the Offset Alpine printing plant in Sydney’s Silverwater after the Christmas Eve staff barbeque. The fire totally destroyed the premises, owned by Rivkin. Police found no evidence of accelerant or any sign the fire had been deliberately lit. The plant had been insured at replacement value ($53.2 million), more than three times its purchase price, and the share price skyrocketed from 70 cents to $1.85. As Kerry Packer (former owner of Offset Alpine) commented later, it was “a very good fire” for Rivkin.

A rising tide lifts all boats and Wood did well out of the affair also. With Rene’s advice, he successfully wooed his old girlfriend again and spent a second successive Christmas with the Byrne family. Once again the cautious Caroline insisted he be tested for HIV. The couple spent this New Year’s house-sitting the Rivkin mansion in Bellevue Hill while Rene and his wife were out celebrating.

Throughout 1994, Wood wrote a series of tacky love letters which were eventually published by Woman’s Day in 1998. In the letters, Wood described himself as “the packet of Tim Tams that never runs out” and called her “Miss All-Time Greatest and Most Beautiful Woman”. Rivkin also said he knew much Wood loved her. According to Rivkin, Wood “called her ‘Chicky Babes’ and she called him ‘Gordy’”.

Between them, Gordy and Chicky Babes had eased into the moneyed society of Eastern Sydney. Byrne resumed her modelling career and represented Australia in the Miss Asia-Pacific Quest in Manila. Meanwhile with the help of Rivkin, Wood was making his own foray into big business. He carried a share price pager and bought into the rejuvenated Offset Alpine at preferential rates. Wood told Byrne’s father the fire was a set-up and also had inside information the insurers would pay up, causing the share price to rise again.

He also convinced Rivkin to put down a ten percent deposit on a $270,000 apartment in Potts Point. He persuaded Tony Byrne (Caroline’s father) to lend him $150,000 with Rivkin then to provide the balance. But the affair went sour when Rivkin thought he was stumping up the 150 grand with Byrne providing the balance. This was an important distinction because if Wood got behind in payments it was the second lender who would lose out. Rivkin blamed Byrne who wanted nothing further to do with the deal and the whole thing fell through.

Eventually Wood persuaded Rivkin to provide sole finance so he would not lose his $27,000 deposit plus stamp duty. But Wood was now getting in very deep with Rivkin. The stockbroker was driven to despair as ASX investigators began to circle round him. Caroline worried that the failed deal with her father had influenced his mood. Several times Byrne complained to her father that Rivkin was trying to drive a wedge between the pair and said Rene wouldn’t come to the wedding if they got married. Rivkin was also worried by Wood’s possible indiscretion if his murky financial affairs were ever a subject of investigation.

In May 1995, both Rivkin and Wood received Section 19 notices from the Australian Securities Commission (ASC) requiring them to present for questioning. While Rivkin was grilled in depth, Wood’s interview was over within minutes. He claimed to know nothing of Rivkin’s Swiss shares and said nothing about the Offset Alpine fire being a set-up. Meanwhile Caroline was depressed and seeing a psychiatrist. She gave up her modelling and did not enjoy her new job in sales at a modelling agency. On Wednesday 7 June 1995, Wood rang her boss to say he was taking her to a specialist and she would not be in work the following day. This was the last day of her life.

Wood later told police Caroline was asleep at 1pm when he returned from work to take her to lunch. He said he noted five or six Rohypnol sleeping tablets missing from the bathroom, though an autopsy found no trace of the drug in her body. Wood left alone after ten minutes and met two friends for lunch. Wood never got to eat his meal. At the table, Rivkin phoned him and ordered him to pick him up immediately. However two Watson’s Bay restaurateurs would later claim they saw Wood and Byrne in their area at 1pm and again at 3pm.

Wood then told police he picked up his boss and his lunch partner and drove them to Rivkin’s office. The other man was former Labor powerbroker Graham Richardson. Wood then said he got a bite to eat and went home briefly at 4pm to find Caroline had left the house. He came home again at 7pm and fell asleep in front of the TV. He says he awoke at 12.40am concerned for Caroline’s whereabouts. Their car was gone so he took one of Rivkin’s and drove to the Byrne residence where there was no sign of the car. He then drove to Watson’s Bay where he spotted their car parked in a lane. The spot was near The Gap, a well-known Sydney cliffside suicide location.

He told police he ran towards the nearby clifftops calling out his girlfriend’s name. Earlier two fishermen who passed by Caroline’s car testified they heard a female piercing scream shortly after 11pm. They then said they saw Wood come by, asking if they had seen a young woman. When they told him about the scream, Wood said to them “Oh no, she’s done it, she’s done it” and ran off. Their timing of the incident does not align with Wood’s.

Tony Byrne received a call from Wood saying his daughter was missing. Byrne said he took the call around 1.30am. Wood picked up Byrne and Caroline’s brother and the three men returned to the cliff top using the fishermen’s torch as a searchlight. Wood thought he could see shoes at the bottom of a cliff. They called police who couldn’t immediately confirm the find. Eventually a rescue team spotted her body from a helicopter. Caroline was found nine to ten metres out from a thirty-metre drop. Her skull was shattered after she landed on a rock crevasse.

The death was initially written down as suicide. There was family history as her mother had also suicided in 1991 with an overdose of sleeping tablets after botched breast surgery. Caroline herself had taken an overdose that year. There was also the evidence she was due to see a psychiatrist on the day of her death. But there were also problems with this conclusion.

Firstly there was the conflicting testimony of the two restaurateurs who saw Wood and Byrne together near the site of her death that afternoon. Wood’s ability to spot his girlfriend’s body with a feeble torch was also noted as was the fact that he actually found her car at all in such a remote location. Wood would later claim he found the car due to a “spiritual communication” he had with Caroline.

Police also noted to the coroner how far out her body was from the cliff. Given that there was a fence on the clifftop, it would have taken a long jump of more than 2.5 metres in an onshore wind to land in that unlikely position. Sydney University experiments later concluded it was impossible for her to have jumped so far and they concluded that she was thrown by two men.

Wood told Rivkin the news of her death at 7.30am. Rivkin asked “who killed her?” and Wood replied that it was a suicide. In a police interview with Wood, they made the assertion that on the day of her death she had caught Wood and Rivkin in the act of sex. Wood said this was “absolute lies”. When the suggestion was reported by the Sydney Morning Herald and Channel Seven, Rivkin initially won $150,000 of damages from Seven. But when a jury dismissed libel against the Herald, the case ended up on appeal before the High Court which ordered a partial retrial. Rivkin finally dropped the action in 2004 after the extent of his Swiss frauds were exposed.

Three years after her death, the NSW coroner reopened the inquest into Caroline Byrne’s death. In a preliminary hearing Wood revealed his side of the story. At this point Neil Chenoweth revealed in the Financial Review that Byrne’s death occurred a day after Wood and Rivkin had been questioned by the ASC over a $40 million slush fund linked to politicians. Police canvassed the idea she was murdered because of what she knew about a financial deal. Days later Rivkin attacked Byrne’s character in a newspaper article saying she was “not a little angel” and was having an affair at the time of her death.

In 2001 Rivkin told Nine’s 60 Minutes he thought Wood might have been on the clifftop with her but suggested it was still more likely to have been an accident. He was also unable to shed light on Wood’s alibi that the two men were together that lunchtime. Graham Richardson also denied he was lunching with Rivkin that day and his diary had him elsewhere at the time.

Meanwhile Wood was trying to rebuild his life abroad out of sight of the media. He landed a $400,000 a year job at NatWest bank in the UK complete with a fictitious work history as a financial adviser. Wood got the job through an accountant named Glyn Harris who would not reveal who had recommended the Australian for the job. Wood got the reputation as a “shitkicker” and a “real bastard” and bought a chalet in the French Alps for one million pounds. But when he flew home to Australia for the millennium celebrations he was found out by the media forcing him to flee the country.

Detectives were closing in Wood after his Richardson alibi was found to be false. He disappeared in 2000. In 2004, the NSW Director of Public Prosecutions recommended that Gordon Wood be charged for murder. The Australian newspaper tracked him down to the French ski resort of Mageve. He was arrested in 2006 and extradited to Australia where he was formally charged with the murder of 24 year old Caroline Byrne. The trial is now expected to last three to four months.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It is strange how the basis of this story was circulated throughout Sydney immidiately after the death of Byrne.
1 the deliberate fire at Alpine
2 the discovery by Byrne of the affair with Rivkin and Wood.
3 the tossing of Byrne over the cliff.
Very little has been said about what Rodney Adler of FAI Insurance's role in the events and the very prompt settment of the massive insurance claim.
Also what happened to the investigation of the the three stake holders in the Swiss Bank Account that was formed from the proceeds from the sale of a large parcel of Alpine shares?