The killer story we could not publish until now
By Caroline Overington - The Australian
June 30, 2007
In August 1993, a little boy - John Ashfield, aged
6 - was beaten to death with a hammer to his head.
His mother, Gunn-Britt Ashfield, then 25, led the
assault; her boyfriend, Austin Allan Hughes, then 20, was a keen
According to evidence presented to court in
December 1993, Ashfield became enraged when she heard that John, who
was in Year 1 at East Nowra primary school on the NSW south coast,
touched his three-year-old sister in an inappropriate way. Her
boyfriend agreed the boy could not be allowed to "get away with it".
He didn't. Less than 24 hours later he died in
Shoalhaven Hospital, his tiny body covered in more than 100 bruises
from his parents's savage beating -- a beating that ended with Hughes
putting the Nowra telephone book against John's head, and hitting him
with a hammer.
They were each sentenced to 21 years in jail,
reduced to 19 years on appeal, with a minimum of 14 years.
Next Thursday, 14 years since she beat John to
death, his mother, who has changed her name in prison and now calls
herself Anjelic Karstrom, will apply for parole. Hughes has also
applied for parole.
His case will also be heard next Thursday.
In 2004, the NSW Parliament passed laws that made
it an offence for media outlets to publish the name of a dead child
who had been the victim of a crime, no matter what the circumstances.
This law prevented The Weekend Australian from
printing this story, ostensibly to protect the victim, John.
The newspaper's parent company, News Limited,
backed by groups including the NSW Homicide Victims Support Group, and
the Victims of Crime Assistance League, has lobbied against this law
since it was enacted, believing that it protects only the killers from
On Thursday night, the NSW Parliament passed a bill
amending the law, making publication permissible in some
circumstances, such as if the next of kin agrees. The changes come
into effect next Wednesday.
John's sister Melissa, 17, does not want her mother
released. "I have not seen my mother since I was 11," she said. "The
last time I saw her (in prison) I pulled her hair and slapped her. I
have flashbacks to what happened. She tried to blame me. She tried to
get us to help her bash John. She tried to say that John touched me.
He never touched me."
Melissa says she remembers the day John was beaten,
"clear as anything". When he swang in from school that day, August 5,
Hughes confronted him in the kitchen. He told police he kicked John on
the bottom with the side of his foot "the way you kick a soccer ball",
slapped him around the head and sent him to his room.
But that was not the end of it: Ashfield and Hughes
decided John needed to be taught a lesson. They went into his bedroom
and started beating him.
A frenzy soon developed: they punched him with
their fists, and beat him with the white aluminium rod that held up a
John was sobbing: "I'm really sorry, don't do this
to me, I'm sore, I'm sorry."
Hughes mocked him, saying: "You scream like a
When John continued to sob, Hughes took a girl's
dress out of the cupboard and shoved it over the crying boy's head,
forcing his arms through the sleeves.
"He started crying and carrying on," Hughes would
later say, in a statement to police.
"He was crying: 'Get it off, get it off, I'm not a
Death came slowly: Ashfield would later tell police
that Hughes had put the phone book against John's head, and repeatedly
beat him with a hammer, until John was limp and dazed, unable to sit
up on the bed.
When it became apparent that John had lost
consciousness, his mother dunked him under a cold shower, then a hot
Several hours passed before Ashfield took her son
to Shoalhaven Hospital. In the meantime, she told her other children
to tell police John had been beaten by a gang of teenagers while
walking through a park.
Her oldest boy, then aged eight, went on national
television to back up the story.
In a shaky voice, he said: "We were going to buy
milk and bread when four boys said, 'Come here. We want to bash you
The story was never going to stack up: John was
cold and bleeding from the nostrils when he was airlifted to Westmead
hospital in Sydney.
Doctor Barry Wilkins would later tell the court he
had more than 100 different coloured bruises, suggesting "repeated,
His small hands were swollen and bruised, which
suggested he had "attempted to fend off an assault". He had suffered a
very serious brain injury.
John died the next day, Friday, August 6, 1993. His
mother and her boyfriend were charged with murder shortly afterwards.
On the day of John's funeral, his natural father,
Brian Ashfield, wailed over the white coffin.
Brian is now dead but he told reporters at the time
of his son's murder that he had warned the NSW Department of Community
Services that his wife was violent, and that she intended to hurt the
children. In fact, DoCS had about 35 notifications that all was not
well at Ashfield's home.
Ashfield asked DoCS to take the kids away from her,
saying she "felt violent" towards them.
Melissa's life since her brother was killed has
been chaotic: she was fostered into the care of DoCS after her mother
went to prison but ran away at 11. She bounced around foster homes,
and was briefly placed in a nunnery in Grafton, until she fell
pregnant at 16, and lost the baby. She admits to "drinking alcohol,
doing crazy stuff" to deal with anger and grief but is trying to
steady her path. She now lives with her boyfriend, Jason, 33, and is
John's uncle, Andrew Ashfield, said the law banning
publication of John's story had "protected the people who killed him,
and the social workers who let it happen".
"DoCS knew that she was violent, and knew that she
was troubled," he said. "But they didn't take the kids until after she
killed one of them."
Wendy Campbell, who was Brian's fiance at the time
of John's death, wants the case to get media attention because she
"promised Brian, if they ever apply for parole, I will be there, and I
will stop it".
Boy Beaten For Hours, Court Told
Friday August 6, 1993
The death of six-year-old boy in Nowra has drawn
the attention of the nation this week.
The mother of six-year-old John Erik Ashfield,
Gunn-Britt Ashfield, appeared briefly in Parramatta Local Court
yesterday shaking and sobbing as she was charged with her son's
Dressed in blue jeans, a green parka and barefoot,
Ms Ashfield, 26, of Nowra, sat in the dock with her head bowed, her
long hair covering her face.
Her solicitor did not enter a plea nor apply for
bail. She was remanded in custody to appear at Nowra Local Court on
In Nowra Local Court yesterday, her fiance, Austin
Allan Hughes, 20, was brought into court under tight security. He was
also charged with murdering John Ashfield.
The police prosecutor, Sergeant Jeff Tunks, said Mr
Hughes participated in a "horrific and systematic beating of the
six-year-old boy over a period of more than two hours".
The child was flown to Westmead Hospital in Sydney
where he was admitted with critical head injuries, the court heard. He
was brain-dead on arrival and was placed on a life-support system.
Medical staff switched that off at 6.45pm on Thursday and pronounced
Sergeant Tunks said Mr Hughes took part in an
electronic interview at Nowra Police Station, where he gave a graphic
account of his version of Wednesday's events.
Mr Hughes and Ms Ashfield had concocted a story of
an assault on their son by four juveniles in Nowra's Lyrebird Park to
mislead authorities, the court was told.
No bail application was made on Mr Hughes' behalf.
He was remanded in custody to reappear on Monday.
Police said they feared for his safety if bail was
The NSW Department of Community Services said last
night that the family had previously come under its scrutiny.
The department said that John and four other
children had come to the attention of social workers before he was
brought unconcious to hospital on Wednesday.
The general manager of the department's southern
division, Mr David Sherlock, said the other children had since been
medically examined because of the injuries doctors found on John's
He would not reveal details of the examinations.
Police said the children ranged from 3 to 8 years old.
"The department has had previous contact with the
family but I cannot say any more because of the usual confidentiality
issues," Mr Sherwood said.
"We have submitted a care application to the
Children's Court regarding the further care of the other four children
(of Ms Ashfield).
"Cases like this are very tragic, there is no doubt
about that," he said. ``One can only wonder how they could occur.
There were near-riot scenes outside the Nowra court
yesterday as community outrage over the death spilled on to the
streets when Mr Hughes appeared.
One protester was arrested as police stuggled to
contain an angry crowd of about 150 people, many of whom hurled abuse
at and tried to get to Mr Hughes as he was taken to and from the court
in a paddy- wagon.
Local residents waving placards and shouting
crammed the footpath and spilled on to the road outside the court.
People had gathered from early morning outside the
court to catch sight of Mr Hughes.
Less than 24 hours earlier many had telephoned the
police station next door offering support and information after Mr
Hughes and Ms Ashfield had gone to the nation's media to appeal for
help to catch the alleged killers.
"We all feel used and cheated," a local resident,
Mr Kevin Talbot, said. "First we were told one thing, and now another.
The head of the children's intensive care unit at
Westmead Hospital in Sydney, Dr Barry Wilkins, said the boy's injuries
were consistent with having been punched and kicked.
He said John had bruises "on his back, his bottom,
his head, (and) his face".
The Mayor of Nowra, Mr Max Atkins, said the the
town was a favored spot for low-income families because of the
relative cheapness of beach-side rental accommodation. "I still think
there is a great sense of disbelief about town," he said.
Police looking for John Ashfield's father to inform
him officially of his son's death revealed that a warrant had been
issued for his arrest.
Police said the boy's father, who has not yet been
found, was wanted by police in relation to a separate matter.