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James Ryan O'NEILL

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

   


Born: Leigh Anthony Bridgart
 
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Rape
Number of victims: 2 +
Date of murders: February/April 1975
Date of birth: 1947
Victims profile: Ricky John Smith, 9 / Bruce Colin Wilson, 9
Method of murder: ???
Location: Tasmania, Australia
Status: Sentenced to life in prison 1976
 
 
 
 
 
 

James Ryan O'Neill (born Leigh Anthony Bridgart in Melbourne, Victoria 1947) is a convicted Tasmanian murderer serving a life sentence about whom allegations have been made that he murdered a number of children in several Australian states from the mid 1960s whilst he was still a teenager through to the murder that he was imprisoned for in 1975. He is currently Tasmania's longest serving prisoner for a single offence.

He was the subject of a documentary The Fishermen which was broadcast on ABC TV in October 2006.

 
 

James O誰eill has been imprisoned in Tasmania since 1975 for the murder of Ricky John Smith. Despite having murdered two children and being the longest-serving prisoner in Tasmania, O誰eill was almost unknown to the public at large until January 2005, when it was speculated that he may have murdered the Beaumont children.

1. About O'Neill

James Ryan O誰eill was born Leigh Anthony Bridgart, in Melbourne, Victoria, in about 1947 or 1948. Educated at Brighton and Caulfield Grammar and Scotch College, he began working in real estate. He then became a gun dealer and associated with members of Melbourne痴 underworld.

Between 1965 and 1968, Bridgart, working in the opal industry, travelled frequently between Melbourne and the South Australian mining town of Coober Pedy. He also travelled extensively in Western Australia where at one stage he worked on a cattle station; documentary makers found people in the Kimberley region of Western Australia who still remembered him, thirty years later.

In 1969, a business partner of Bridgart痴 was manipulating bullets in and out of a pistol and accidentally shot him in the head. Bridgart survived but the bullet, which entered his right forehead and came out of his neck, destroyed most of his sense of smell and taste.

In 1971 Bridgart was charged with 12 offences involving abductions and sexual assaults of four boys in Victoria. He skipped bail and fled to Western Australia. Eventually, in November 1974, he moved to Tasmania and changed his name to James Ryan O誰eill.

2. The murder of Ricky Smith

One day in February 1975, O誰eill was on his way to a hospital to pick up his wife and newborn child, when he came across Ricky John Smith. Smith, aged nine, had been sent to buy a carton of cigarettes. O誰eill murdered him and dumped his body in remote bushland.

O誰eill was one of many who offered to help in the search for the missing boy. In the meantime he was planning another murder. Over the space of two weeks, four or five children were abducted in separate incidents but managed to escape. O誰eill then abducted Bruce Colin Wilson, aged nine, and murdered him. Wilson's body was discovered near Risdon Vale, three months after Ricky Smith痴 disappearance.

The two murders were investigated by police, including Sergeant Richard McCreadie. Eventually O誰eill led police to where Ricky Smith痴 body was hidden.

O誰eill was arrested for both murders, but following the legal practice at the time he was only tried for Ricky Smith痴 murder. O誰eill pleaded insanity and said that he had been punched and that a gun had been held to his head, before Sergeant McCreadie and another detective took him to where Ricky Smith痴 body was hidden. Both policemen denied this. The defence, led by W.J.E. Cox, suggested that O誰eill may have had a personality disorder following injuries to his brain that had occurred when he had been shot in the head in 1969.

After deliberating for 3ス hours, the jury found O誰eill guilty of murder and he was jailed for life. He became eligible to apply for parole in 1986. In 1991 he applied for parole but was turned down.

3. Documentary idea

In the 1990s, a freelance journalist named Janine Widgery had an idea to make a documentary series about unsolved child murders. She approached retired detective Gordon Davie with the idea. Davie had been a detective with Victoria Police, with more that 20 years experience. He had been involved in a number of high profile investigations, including the Russell Street bombing and the Hilton Hotel bombing. He had also been a consultant to the televisions shows Phoenix and Janus and had won an AFI award for co-writing the script for the movie The Interview. He was now living in Tasmania.

Davie liked Widgery痴 idea but felt it had no natural starting point. In 1998, however, he was intrigued by a report he read in a newspaper about O'Neill. O誰eill had been transferred to the low security Hayes Prison Farm in the Derwent Valley in 1991, and was allowed to go fishing for trout in the Derwent River, accompanied only by his dog. The report said that O誰eill had had no criminal record before he committed the two murders for which he'd been jailed.

Davie thought this unlikely. O誰eill痴 fishing activities suggested a strong pattern of behaviour, and as Davie said later, 哲obody gets to 27 years of age and then begins a homicide spree.  He therefore wrote to O誰eill and asked if he could visit.

O誰eill agreed. Davie assumed that the meeting would last for about an hour, but found O誰eill fascinating and stayed for the whole day. He said afterwards:

It whet my appetite because Jim told me he壇 never been in trouble with the police before, never even got a parking ticket. I spoke to Janine, I said there痴 a story in this man because I don稚 believe a word he痴 telling me.

This was the first of many visits made by Davie to visit O誰eill, whom he described as being highly intelligent and immensely likeable. A friendship grew between the two men, based initially around their mutual love of fishing. However Davie began asking more questions about O誰eill痴 background and started making notes. Eventually, after several months, he asked permission to tape record their conversations. O誰eill gave him permission. Davie continued to visit and spoke with O誰eill for hundreds of hours over the next four years.

4. Other cases

The tapes of their conversations were transcribed and enquiries were made at places where O誰eill had said he壇 been. A pattern emerged. O誰eill, according to the documentary makers, had deliberately misnamed many of the places he壇 visited. Much more alarmingly, children had disappeared at seven or eight of them.

It became increasingly clear to Davie and Widgery that, using the interviews between Davie and O誰eill as core material, they would be able to make a documentary about O誰eill and the activities they suspected him of, including responsibility for unsolved murders in some of the locations around Australia they knew he had visited.

It was hard to reconcile this with the man they were interviewing. Davie said afterwards:

He is one of the most likeable men you would ever meet. On the first day of filming there were six or seven out there and at end of the day I said, 'What do you think of him?'

They all said, 'You've made a mistake, this bloke couldn't have done anything wrong', and I said, 'Don't ever forget what I said at the briefing last Friday. No matter what this man says or does, don't ever forget he's a killer.'

Some of the key figures at O誰eill痴 trial had gone on to greater public prominence since the trial. Among these was O誰eill痴 defence lawyer, W.J.E. Cox, who had become Governor of Tasmania; the junior officer for the Crown, Mr D. Bugg, was now Damian Bugg, QC, and had become Commonwealth Director for Public Prosecutions. The most important for the documentary, though was Sergeant McCreadie. Richard McCreadie was now the Tasmanian Police Commissioner.

McCreadie was interviewed for the documentary about O誰eill, and confirmed that in his opinion "He痴 got a real lust for kiddies. He痴 a multiple murderer."

5. Linked with the Beaumont children

Davie and Widgery agreed with McCreadie, and said that O誰eill was probably a serial killer. They believed they could link him with actual cases. McCreadie had the same suspicion and said:

We started to check on the background, about the places that he'd been. There were about seven or eight kiddies, who were almost copybooks, in various places around Australia, who had simply disappeared -- never to be found. That trail led through Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland, through Fitzroy Crossing and down into Western Australia. We found that he had come back through South Australia and through Adelaide at about the time that the Beaumont children had disappeared. I am not suggesting he was involved, but you couldn't discount his involvement.

Asked later to elaborate, McCreadie commented: "My personal view -- and I don't want you to say the commissioner says he's red hot for the Beaumonts -- but he could easily have been responsible for that".

Davie agreed. Being interviewed while promoting the documentary, he said: "I know O'Neill has told other people he was responsible for killing the Beaumonts, and I certainly wouldn't discount him being responsible." A station owner in the Kimberley, who remembered O誰eill from when he壇 been called Bridgart, remembered that Bridgart had said that he was responsible for the disappearance of the Beaumont children. Janine Widgery was even more convinced. Having spoken to O'Neill, she said she knew where the bodies of the Beaumont children were buried in country Victoria and wanted police to investigate.

Davie had asked O誰eill about the children but O誰eill denied having been in South Australia before 1966. Davie then asked him where the road from Melbourne to Coober Pedy went. This was a journey that O誰eill had told Davie he壇 made more than once between 1965 and 1968. According to Davie, when asked the question, O誰eill痴 head went left, his face went scarlet and he knew O誰eill was going to lie.

O誰eill denied murdering the Beaumont children. According to Davie, "He said, 'Look, on legal advice I am not going to say where I was or when I was there', and changed the subject." He refused to be drawn any further, leaving Davie to wonder about his involvement and reflect on the accuracy of McCreadie痴 remark that O'Neill "...was going backwards and forwards through Adelaide at a rate of knots at about that time."

Davie and Widgery痴 documentary, which was given the title The Fishermen: A Journey into the Mind of a Killer, was screened at the Hobart Summer Festival in January 2005. Offering as it did a completely new suspect for the disappearance of the Beaumont children, it achieved Australia-wide publicity. McCreadie痴 remarks about O誰eill, both to the documentary makers and to the police, were widely quoted. It is not often that a police commissioner describes a man as being a possible suspect for the disappearance for the Beaumont children, and says that he has "a real lust for kiddies."

6. Eliminated as a suspect?

The South Australia police were asked for their opinion. The officer in charge of major crime investigations, Detective Superintendent Peter Woite, confirmed that O誰eill had recently been interviewed. However, Woite said that "no evidence was found to support this person痴 involvement in the disappearance of the Beaumont children. While our investigation remains active on this matter, this person has been discounted from our enquiries."

The Hobart-based newspaper The Mercury applied for permission to interview O誰eill, but reported on 8 February 2005 that it had been rebuffed. Responding to the request, the prisons director, Graeme Barber, had replied in a letter on 7 February that while O誰eill was willing to be interviewed, "there is a longstanding protocol within the Prison Service that inmates, particularly those sentenced for violent or sensational crimes, are not made available for media interview."

Mr Barber said that the reasons interviews were not granted was because they could be distressing to victims, families and other people involved. They could also disrupt or hinder the safe running of prisons. The documentary team for The Fisherman had been given permission to interview O誰eill after stating that they would be making a documentary about the worm farm in the prison, and about O誰eill痴 passion for fishing.

7. Broadcast blocked on grounds of defamation

The documentary was scheduled for broadcast on ABC television on 21 April 2005. O誰eill objected. He had not appeared before a parole board since 1991 but said he was thinking of applying again. He said that the documentary, if shown on television, would harm his chances. He therefore sought an injunction to stop transmission, on the grounds of defamation.

The ABC rescheduled the broadcast for the following week, on 28 April. Meanwhile, the case, O誰eill v Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Roar Film Pty Ltd and Davie, was heard by Supreme Court Judge Ewan Crawford on 22 April.

The ruling by Mr Crawford was made public several days later. In a move that appeared to surprise the ABC and other media outlets, Crawford said he could "see no aspect of public benefit in the making public of allegations that the plaintiff was responsible for the disappearance and murder of the Beaumont children or that he is suspected of being responsible." On the grounds that it would defame O'Neill, Crawford therefore granted an interlocutory injunction against the broadcast of The Fisherman in Tasmania.

The ABC announced both that it would appeal the decision and that the documentary would still be broadcast in other Australian states. Commenting on the decision, the ABC痴 General Counsel, Stephen Collins, said that "Mr O誰eill is sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of a child. There is no stronger penalty that can be imposed upon any person in our society, and so it痴 difficult for the ABC to see that he has a reputation which can be tarnished."

The documentary was not broadcast on 28 April. There was a slight satellite overlap on Tasmania that meant that if the ABC had broadcast the documentary, around 500 houses in the north of Tasmania would have been able to receive the transmission. This would have violated the injunction against it being broadcast in Tasmania. The documentary was therefore pulled, nationwide.

On 29 August 2005, the ABC痴 appeal against Justice Crawford痴 decision was dismissed by a full sitting of the Tasmanian Supreme Court. The appeal was dismissed by a 2-1 majority. The court stressed that the injunction was a temporary one; however Justice Alan Blow said that if O誰eill痴 defamation action went to trial, it might be decided that the documentary defamed him and in this case a permanent injunction might be granted. This would mean that the broadcast of the documentary in Tasmania would be permanently banned.

The ABC announced that it would appeal this decision to the High Court. The ABC said it would file the application in Sydney, but it was understood that the hearing would be held in Hobart.

On 28 September 2006, by a 4-2 margin, the High Court quashed Justice Crawford's ruling and said that both he, and two other justices of the Tasmania Supreme Court, had erred. They had failed to take into account the importance of free speech, and the fact that if the program had been defamatory, the damages would have been nominal. They therefore overturned the injunction.

Following the High Court's ruling, Kim Dalton, the ABC's director of television, announced that the documentary would be broadcast on ABC television on 26 October.

8. Parole bid

While the legal wranglings over the documentary were taking place, O誰eill had decided to apply for parole. In Tasmania, the Criminal Code Amendment (Life Prisoners and Dangerous Prisoners) Act 1994 enables prisoners to be resentenced and given a fixed period of detention and a non-parole period. O誰eill had never done this but had the right to do so -- it was suspected that unless he did, he could not apply for parole. The parole board therefore adjourned O誰eill痴 case in May 2005 while it waited for advice from the Solicitor-General as to O誰eill痴 eligibility.

The Solicitor-General, Bill Bale, advised that O誰eill did have the right to apply for parole, even without applying for a resentencing under the Act. The parole board could not grant parole but it could make a recommendation to the Cabinet. When the parole board met on 24 June 2005 it considered O誰eill痴 case, but adjourned the hearing until 8 July. O誰eill appeared before the board at the July 8 hearing, however the board adjourned again so that psychiatric and pre-parole reports could be prepared.

Author's note: I am not aware of any further details about O'Neill's parole application.

So how likely is it that O'Neill was responsible for the disappearance of the Beaumont children? Below are the arguments for, and the arguments against:

9. The evidence for O'Neill's involvement

No less a person that the Tasmanian Police Commissioner, Richard McCreadie, thinks that O'Neill could have killed the Beaumont children. He thinks, as do others who know of O'Neill's past, that he has committed other murders that he has never been convicted of. He has demonstrated that he is willing and able to murder children. Acquaintances of his say that he has admitted to them that he killed the Beaumont children. He was also in areas where other children went missing and was often passing through the Adelaide area in the years 1965 to 1968. Interestingly, when questioned more exactly he denies ever having been in South Australia at this time.

10. The evidence against O'Neill's involvement

There is very little evidence to connect O'Neill with the Beaumont children disappearance. The South Australian police say that they have interviewed O'Neill in relation to the disappearance of the Beaumont children but that they have discounted him. Whatever he told them, it seems to have been sufficient to eliminate him from the enquiry.

That O'Neill is a murderer is in no doubt, and that he has committed more than one murder is also in no doubt, but there is only the barest of evidence to connect him with the Beaumont children -- namely that he might have been in South Australia in the year that they went missing and that he once boasted to someone in the Kimberley area of Western Australia that he had killed them. O'Neill is not the only person to have told someone else that he killed the Beaumont children -- Bevan Spencer von Einem, for one, has been said to have made the same boast.

Janine Widgery says that she knows where he buried the children in country Victoria, but why the presumed murderer would take the trouble to drive the three children all the way out of South Australia has never been explained. Also, both of O'Neill's known murder victims and the four children he was charged with assaulting in Victoria, were all boys. Only the youngest of the Beaumont children, four-year-old Grant, was a boy. Lastly, there are three other suspects for the disappearance of the Beaumont children, and logically they can't all have done it.

Beaumontchildren.com

 
 

Remember, he's a killer

TheAge.com.au

October 19, 2006

The ABC finally has legal clearance to air a portrait of a murderer. Paul Kalina updates the tale.

EIGHTEEN months ago, the ABC was forced at the 11th hour to pull from its schedule a program about Tasmania's longest-serving prisoner, convicted murderer James Ryan O'Neill.

O'Neill claimed The Fishermen defamed him and obtained an injunction in Tasmania's Supreme Court preventing the documentary's broadcast.

O'Neill's lawyer told the court that the program would impact on his client's reputation and was not in the public interest.

But last month the nation's highest court, the High Court of Australia, quashed the injunction in a 4-2 decision, saying the lower court erred in granting the injunction by failing to give enough weight to the significance of free speech.

Jurists and free-speech advocates aren't the only ones in Australia caught up in the intriguing case of the child-killer O'Neill, who was jailed for the murder of two young boys near Hobart in 1975.

Old-timers in the remote Kimberley remember O'Neill from more than 40 years ago when he passed himself off variously as a Vietnam War hero, a drover, a bush lawyer and even an ASIO spy. One explanation he peddled for a bullet wound in his skull was that his mother's boyfriend had shot him.

There were rumours that he'd paid for the favours of young Aboriginal girls. He boasted to one station owner that he was responsible for the Beaumont children, whose disappearance from an Adelaide beach in 1966 remains one of the most haunting unsolved cases in the country's history.

As a policeman's widow recalls in The Fishermen, there was "something not quite right" about O'Neill.

That was certainly the impression O'Neill left on retired detective Gordon Davie, who first heard about him after reading an article in a Tasmanian newspaper.

O'Neill, it was claimed, had been a "cleanskin" before murdering the young Hobart boys, but Davie wasn't buying it. "Nobody gets to 27 years of age and then begins a homicide spree," remarks the salty detective, whose 20 years on the force saw him assigned to the Russell Street and Hilton Hotel bombings.

In late 1998, Davie met O'Neill. He thought he'd spend an hour with him but ended up staying the entire day.

"It whet my appetite because Jim told me he'd never been in trouble with the police before, never even got a parking ticket . . . I said there's a story in this man because I don't believe a word he's telling me."

Over the next four years, Davie made frequent trips to Hayes Prison Farm and asked O'Neill if he could tape their conversations. With the assistance of freelance television reporter Janine Widgery, the tapes were transcribed and analysed and inquiries were made at the various places O'Neill said he'd been in the years before arriving in Tasmania. Alarming facts and patterns emerged.

Children had disappeared at seven or eight places O'Neill had been. He'd deliberately misnamed many of the places he'd visited. He'd jumped bail for serious crimes in Victoria in 1971. He denied having ever been in South Australia before 1966, yet had told Davie of trips between Melbourne and Coober Pedy from 1965 to 1968.

"I asked him one day, 'Where does the road run from Melbourne to Coober Pedy?' I knew his body language at this stage. You can read his body language very easily after you have spent time with him. His head went left and I knew he was going to lie. He said, 'I had to skirt around Adelaide,' and went scarlet."

Equally intrigued was the documentary's director, Steve Thomas, who admits to being "transfixed" when he met O'Neill. "You have this knowledge of what this person has been locked up for, but . . . across the table he seems to be a very intelligent man, quite formidable in fact, intelligent, articulate, well-read."

Widgery also fell under O'Neill's spell.

"When he's talking about fishing, and this is the whole angle of the doco, he's not talking about fishing. Everywhere he talks about fishing is where children have been murdered or gone missing. His sexual gratification is reliving it. He's a charmer, and that's the scary part. We got to like him."

Thomas's decision to use two cameras to film Davie's interviews with O'Neill goes to the heart of The Fishermen.

"For me it was really a matter of trying to record that conversation," Thomas says. "There was some stuff that we thought would be unwise to put to air for legal reasons . . . and some stuff that would have been too tabloid.

"We really tried as much as possible to confine it to this very intimate story of these two men sparring and this man on a journey to uncover the truth."

"He is one of the most likeable men you would ever meet," Davie admits. "On the first day of filming there were six or seven out there (Hayes Prison Farm) and at end of the day I said, 'What do you think of him?'

"They all said, 'You've made a mistake, this bloke couldn't have done anything wrong,' and I said, 'Don't ever forget what I said at the briefing last Friday. No matter what this man says or does, don't ever forget he's a killer.' "

 

 

 
 
 
 
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