Little boy lost

In an awful way, the whole scenario was the perfect media story. The plot involved a missing toddler, a pig’s head, bizarre family relationships and characters galore who were only too happy to talk on the record, to whoever would listen. What followed was one of the biggest searches for a missing person in Australia’s history.

The media frenzy that accompanied Jaidyn Leskie’s disappearance was not a new phenomenon in this country. Its most famous predecessor, the Azaria Chamberlain case, has returned to the headlines, with a man emerging who claims to have shot a dingo carrying a baby in its mouth in 1980.

The public imagination is captured by such stories. Our interest is fuelled on many levels: the element of fear, that it could have been your baby; the voyeur in us all, intrigued to get an up-close and personal view of other people’s lives; the hope that maybe the child will return safely; and again the fear, that a terrible end could be met by such a young child at the hand of another human being.

On Sunday, 15 June, 1997, Michael Gleeson was working as a crime reporter for the Herald Sun. He and a photographer were in Lakes Entrance on the trail of a rumoured drug raid, when he received a call from a contact with reports about a child missing in nearby Moe. It was the beginning of a big story—a nightmare for Jaidyn’s mother Bilynda, his father Brett, and their families. It was also a major turning point in Gleeson’s life. For the next few years, he would follow the case of 13-month-old Jaidyn Leskie, who went missing while in the care of his mother’s boyfriend, Greg Domaszewicz. The same night that Jaidyn went missing, a severed pig’s head was thrown through the window of Domaszewicz’s home. While that turned out to be an incredible coincidence, it proved to be just the first of many strange and unusual twists in the story.

In the ensuing months, the newspapers—along with the television and radio—were filled with the saga that surrounded Jaidyn’s disappearance. Gleeson attributes some of the public frenzy that developed to those involved, ‘… in the whole story, you had people who were only too willing to make comment and that’s sort of what fed it. That’s what fed the whole intrigue.

‘Yes, it started from the fact that there was a boy missing, and there were pleas for him to be found, and the public helped. But then the backdrop to that was you had the mixed family background ... his Dad married to his aunt, all those sorts of things ... then you had public brawling, everything that was said and done was all done through the media and there were deals with TV stations, was Bilynda for or against Greg, and ... it developed a momentum of its own in that way. It did, as a story, become bigger than a little boy missing.’

The media was roundly criticised for the way the Jaidyn Leskie case was reported. It was accused of being too judgmental.  One of the most common complaints was that the people involved in the case were painted as ‘white trash’. Gleeson admits that the way these people lived their lives was a major factor of interest in the story. ‘It was a world I’d never been close to. I think one of the most compelling things was partly because people in Melbourne and around Australia were opening their eyes to sub cultures and lives that day to day you don’t see evidence of in such detail. You know that people have drugs, you know that there’s high unemployment, you know that there are single mothers, you know that there are categories, but here was an illustration of a family that fell into all those categories, and how they dealt with it.’

The media also came under fire for becoming too much of a player in the story. The issue of detachment became significant as the journalists covering the story were living in close quarters with those involved—the police, other media, the family members and the community in the small town.

For Michael Gleeson this was a real issue. In addition to the professional and ethical issues, he had to contend with the ultimate fact that the story was about a missing toddler, who with every passing day seemed less likely to be found alive. ‘How do you deal with the death of a child? I don’t really know. It’s odd but I remember feeling sort of outside it. You can feel like that when you’re a writer, reporting on it, you felt sort of detached.’

There were also times he couldn’t remain separate to the action. He recalls being at Jaidyn’s funeral, held six months after he had disappeared. ‘Elizabeth Leskie [Jaidyn’s grandmother] turned and said “Oh Michael” and started crying on my shoulder,’ Gleeson says.

‘How do you detach yourself when someone turns and cries on your shoulder like that? You can’t just turn around and say “Hands off, I’m a journalist and I’m here to be independent”.’

As for the media and media involvement, Gleeson says nothing about the case was typical. ‘There was always someone that was going to talk to you—not necessarily the police but different parties involved.

‘You sound callous when you say this as a journalist but it was a great story to be involved in because it was high profile. When you’re involved in a case like this there is excitement and adrenalin involved in trying to get a story, trying to get an angle and chasing it, being involved you feel like you’re at the heart of it.’

The town of Moe was subject to a great deal of scrutiny as a result of the child’s disappearence. Assumptions were made about the way people lived in that part of the world, stories about locals wandering around town in their moccasins, unemployed and down and out were the norm. ‘The poor people of Moe suffered as a result—everyone has heard the jokes and the stories,’ Gleeson says. ‘I tried to say, to be fair, there is this one part of Moe [but] there are really nice parts. There are parts of Moe that are really poor, they’re a product of a whole lot of circumstances, not least of which is the privatisation of the power industry down there, the redundancies of thousands of people. Housing is really cheap … at the time you could buy a house for $20,000. There was that social differentiation and social conflict I suppose.’

The search for Jaidyn was very public. According to Gleeson, ‘The police were doing everything they could. And then it became clear that they were searching not for a boy, they were searching for a body.’ Jaidyn’s body was found on New Year’s Day, 1998, in Blue Rock Dam.

Greg Domaszewicz was the major suspect in the case. In October 1998, he was put on trial for the murder of Jaidyn Raymond Leskie. He pleaded not guilty, and,
in December, the jury returned with a verdict of not guilty.
 
Having reported the story on a daily basis for the Herald-Sun, Gleeson had an overall knowledge of the case, a perspective he felt was unique. He says he felt he had ‘a particular understanding of the case that put me in a position to be able to write the book.’ He wanted ‘to try to pull together all the strands of information and to untangle a lot of the mess.

‘I didn’t want to write a book that just said look this is what’s happened and this is what you must think and I’ll make a judgment against these people. I probably tried to be a bit more open … than perhaps they’ve been judged by the media generally.’

Gleeson’s book is titled simply The Jaidyn Leskie Murder. It is not an easy read; it is disturbing, illuminating and compelling. At the same time it repels you. It taps into our fascination with crime, perhaps an underlying desire to know something about the darker side of human nature. ‘It’s a good read but you almost feel bad for thinking that it was a good read,’ says Gleeson.

The coroner’s inquest has been adjourned indefinitely because the defence team is questioning the coroner’s jurisdiction over the case. The outcome of that protest will no doubt provide yet another chapter in what is an intriguing and disturbing saga.

Whether or not the inquest will provide closure for the Leskie family is not clear, but it might go some way towards determining what happened that night in June.

Michael Gleeson is planning to publish a revised version of the book once the decision about the coroner’s inquest has been made. He says the new book will go into detail of what has come up at the inquest, the re-examination of evidence, the examination of the prisoner’s statements. ‘At the moment, we are also waiting to see Greg’s evidence ... and then obviously tying in the coroner’s findings.’
The working of Australia’s justice system has been called into question by this case, according to Gleeson. He argues that  just when public interest is waning, the need for public interest in the legal processes behind the case is at its greatest. ‘There is a genuine wider criminal justice issue that is really important.

‘It was very much of the mind that Greg Domaszewicz should be asked to present to a court and that there should be a coroner’s inquest, a public inquest to find out what happened to Jaidyn. I think that I’ve got a fairly strong view of what happened but it’s an intriguing one because it’s now gone to the Supreme
Court to decide [if] should he be forced to give evidence.

‘Is it a case of the coroner second guessing justice [and] the criminal courts? What’s to be gained? Is it acknowledging that they don’t want a finding that points the finger at Greg when he is someone who’s been cleared by the courts? Because [the coroner’s and criminal courts] operate on a different standard of proof, you could end up with a system where Greg would be found not guilty by the criminal system and then have the coroner say, “Yes, but on this standard we think that he probably did it”. Does that hold the system up to ridicule? Perhaps it does but I think the system would hold itself up for ridicule if the court at no stage ever asks the last person to see a baby boy alive to stand up in a court and explain what happened.’

In the preface to the book, Gleeson says: ‘This book chronicles the evidence against Greg, it puts the case against him and helps explain why he was charged and why he was acquitted. It does not, nor can it hope to, explain who was responsible for killing Jaidyn. That is for you to decide.’

The only problem is that the public—the reader—should not be left to decide. The truth, presumably, is out there. Someone committed a terrible act against a little boy, and should be called to account for their crime. Whether the truth will ultimately be revealed, and whether justice is served, remains to be seen.  

Kerrie O’Brien is a Melbourne-based writer and editor.

 

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