The ultimate form of control
Until she lost her daughter, Sonia Anderson had no idea how common the act of strangulation was — or why so many could get away with it.
By TRENT DALTON
Ever since her daughter Bianca died she has choked on the S-word. Some warped physiological aftershock of loss. Eight years of grieving sucked up from her gut and through her heart and into a voice box that won’t spit that one awful word out.
Sonia Anderson stands in the place where her daughter, Bianca Girven, was murdered by her boyfriend, Rhys Austin, in 2010. Gertrude Petty Place at the foot of Brisbane’s Mount Gravatt Lookout. A lush lawn flanked by tall gums, too beautiful a place for too violent an act. “Too cruel,” she says.
She pads slowly to a bitumen car park. “The van was parked here,” she says. A white Mazda E2000 series van parked beneath late-night stars. The two 22-year-olds had been best friends since high school, in an on-again off-again relationship.
“Rhys said he had a secret he wanted to finally tell her. He said he wanted her to jump in the back of the van and he was going to tell her this secret.” Bianca hopped in the van and Rhys told her his secret. “He said, ‘You are going to die’,” Sonia says. “He wrapped himself around her so she couldn’t struggle and he said, ‘You’re not going to survive this’.”
And Sonia tries to say the S-word but it won’t come out. “Str…,” she says. “Str…,” she says. The strangest thing. She puts her hands to her throat; her neck. “This area here is always suddenly full when I say it,” she says. “It gets heavy.”
She cries, tries to laugh it off. She breathes deep. Just one awful word. “Strangulation,” she says, raising her eyebrows, feeling foolish and self-conscious for making such a big deal about a single word. “He slowly strangled her out for 10 minutes and he was saying, ‘You are going to die’. It’s such a horrible way to be killed. He admitted over 14 months later that he’d always wanted to kill a person and on that night, it was a full moon, conditions were perfect. Bianca was wonderful that night. She was beautiful. She was perfect. She was listening to him. She was trying to help him. Because that’s what she did. She helped people.”
Rhys Austin never went to trial for Bianca’s murder. He was found to be of unsound mind, telling psychiatrists he had a “mission to kill” driven by voices in his head. He was sent, indefinitely, to The Park psychiatric hospital in Brisbane for treatment for paranoid schizophrenia.
Sonia’s watched countless daytime talk shows, read countless magazine feature articles just like this one, where mothers of murder victims say they felt something at the precise moment their child was dying; some inexplicable and supernatural signal transmitted by a mother’s love. Sonia never felt a thing. She was asleep in bed at her home in Woolloongabba, Brisbane. “So was I not in tune with my daughter?” she wonders.
‘She would hop in her car in a kind of grief trance and drive to the Mount Gravatt Lookout.’
In the really dark nights about three years ago – those nights that don’t bear thinking about, when she was certain she would pack it all in and find Bianca some place far beyond her shrinking bedroom walls – Sonia would hop in her car in a kind of grief trance and drive from her home to the Mount Gravatt Lookout. “I would time myself,” she says. “What if I had received some message? Could I have gotten there in 10 minutes?” Speeding through suburban streets and neon-lit main roads, she would ponder just how many thoughts a 22-year-old woman could have in 10 minutes. She knows Bianca’s mind would have turned to her toddler. “Then was she wondering where I was. ‘Mum, why aren’t you helping me?’”
It takes about 13 minutes to drive from Woolloongabba to the Mount Gravatt Lookout.
Sonia’s soft hands rub her own neck. That invisible weight tells her she needs a break. That strange phenomenon of choking on the S-word tells her she has spent too much time in the past eight years changing the state of Queensland and not enough time changing her state of mind. She knows that legislative change always needs a face. She knows that Bianca’s story and her own willingness to tell it was a key reason the Queensland Government introduced national-first “non-lethal strangulation” laws two years ago that recognise “choking, strangling and suffocating in a domestic setting” as a serious criminal offence with a maximum penalty of seven years’ jail.
Almost 1400 people have now been charged under Section 315A of the Queensland Criminal Code and Sonia is sure Bianca can see the work she’s doing through the recently established Bianca Faith Girven National Institute for Strangulation Prevention, created to spread awareness of what we now know are the unseen dangers of this sinister act.
People strangled to the point of losing consciousness are at the highest risk of dying within 24 to 48 hours from stroke, blood clots or choking on their own vomit. Victims of non-lethal strangulation – even those with no visible signs around the neck – are more likely to suffer brain damage and die from heart attack months, even years, after the incident. Men who non-fatally strangle victims are so often the men who eventually fatally strangle them.
Domestic violence victims aren’t routinely screened for strangulation. “No visible marks on neck” is a common reason for police not pursuing strangulation charges. Victims downplay strangulations, even when they black out or see stars – a key sign of brain damage – in favour of focusing on noticeable injuries such as black eyes and busted lips. But in Bianca Girven’s home state, police are now being trained in identification, documentation and prosecution of non-lethal strangulation.
If Bianca can see all the good stuff that’s come from Sonia telling her story then she must be able to see all the bad stuff that Sonia is only now taking the time to face. Until recently she hadn’t even felt anger – one of the key stages of grief after losing a loved one. Now, she says, “If I imagine anger, the only way I can see myself letting it out is here on this mountain.”
This mountain. This beautiful place. She walks up this mountain some mornings and feels the anger building as she climbs to the summit. Lately, the anger inside her is channelled into a clear vision that frightens her. She’s on this mountain in the vision and she holds a large rock in her hand. She’s repeatedly bashing this rock into something in a blinding fit of rage and in the blur of violence her eyes fix on Rhys Austin’s shattered and bloody skull. But what frightens her most about this vision is the feeling it brings her. It isn’t guilt or shame or remorse, or pain or regret or loss. Sonia looks at the car park bay where her daughter was killed. “It’s joy,” she says.
A domestic crime scene in Alice Street, Brisbane City. A couple’s bedroom. Shattered glass. A pistol on the carpet. A pair of women’s underpants. Lipstick on a pillow. Traces of amphetamines on the furniture. A group of Queensland Police detectives kneeling at the scene. “All right, what happened?” asks Dr Bill Smock, visiting director of the Clinical Forensic Medicine Program for Louisville Metro Police Department, Kentucky.
A young female detective speaks up. “Well, obviously there’s been a struggle,” she says. “I believe there’s evidence of strangulation. You’ve got possible loss of consciousness, you’ve got wet underpants and the jeans have been disposed of.”
“Lipstick on the pillow?” asks Smock.
“Yes,” Smock says. “The loss of consciousness and urination suggests at least 15 seconds of anoxia [absence of oxygen]… always look inside her mouth for evidence. You may see impressions of teeth on the inner aspect of the lip. Good job.”
Smock looks to another huddle of detectives. “What about the note?” he asks. A letter from a man to a woman begging for forgiveness. “Murder-suicide,” says another female detective. “He’s been unsuccessful in strangling and suffocating her and he has shot her.”
Then a bubbly Californian breaks up the scene. “Well done everybody,” says Gael Strack, pacing through the middle of the mock crime scene elaborately staged in the corner of the conference room at Brisbane’s Royal on the Park Hotel.
Strack has transformed what the global police world knows about strangulation. A former prosecutor at the San Diego City’s Attorney’s Office, Strack co-founded America’s Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention to spread recognition of strangulation as a high risk and criminal form of domestic violence. Strack and Smock are in Brisbane today helping 160 Queensland Police officers, prosecutors and judges determine method, intent, signs and symptoms of non-fatal strangulation.
‘He flashes an image on a screen of a woman with black eyes and blood in her eyeballs.’
Police Sergeant Sean Francis, a seasoned domestic violence prosecutor, addresses the room. He flashes a graphic image up on a screen of a woman with black eyes and blood in her swollen eyeballs and purple finger marks across her neck. “This is what the jury expects to see,” he says. Detectives nod across the room. “But if you don’t see this, that’s when you start going for your signs and symptoms.”
Neck swelling. Bleeding in the ear. Nausea and vomiting. Droopy eyelids. Droopy face. Memory loss. Seizure. Tongue injury. Lip injury. Change in voice. Difficulty swallowing. Numbness in legs and arms. Vision changes.
“Probably about half the cases there will be no external marks,” Smock says. “But in the United States we are prosecuting these serious bodily injuries without any evidence of external injuries. That’s because… you can have brain damage in a non-fatal strangulation, without any evidence of external trauma. No bruises around the neck. No bleeding in the eyes. It’s about training police officers and prosecutors to understand the physiology of what happens when blood flow to the brain is obstructed.” The method, explains Smock, is unnervingly simple. “When you apply just five kilos of pressure to the neck you can block 80 per cent of blood flow to the brain,” he says. “It takes nine kilos of pressure to open a can of soft drink. That’s almost twice as much pressure as it takes to kill another human being.”
A person can become unconscious in 6.8 seconds. Between one minute and two-and-a-half minutes, brain cells begin dying. “At a minimum of 15 seconds of no blood flow to the brain, as your brain is beginning to die, as your body systems are shutting down, you will lose control of the ability to hold your urine and you will urinate over yourself,” Smock says. “At 30 seconds you will lose control of your bowel and you will stool on yourself. These are very important clues for the investigator, the doctor, the prosecutor, that you were so close to death.
“Somewhere between that one minute and two and a half minutes, you will get to the point where you will stop breathing. Far quicker than we previously thought. And it’s just so easy for one human being to put their hands or arms on another human being’s neck.”
In a rear corner of the conference room sit three seasoned Queensland domestic violence workers – Betty Taylor, Diane Mangan and Di Macleod. Driving forces in the introduction of the state’s non-lethal strangulation laws. “We’re the ‘Mongrel Matriarchy’,” laughs Mangan.
In 2004, Taylor was managing the Gold Coast Domestic Violence Centre when she invited Gael Strack to run a strangulation prevention workshop after countless women had presented with unprovable cases of strangulation.
“We said back then, we’ve got to do something about this,” says Taylor, who now runs Red Rose Foundation, a group operating on the premise that domestic violence deaths are largely predictable and, therefore, preventable. “Change the ending,” roars the foundation’s brilliantly succinct motto. “But people weren’t interested in attending anything on strangulation. It was, ‘Oh my God, strangulation’. Too dark to think about. But we kept chipping away at it. We just kept learning more and more about it.
“There were no laws that protected victims who had nothing to show they had been strangled. We weren’t doing the medical testing to say this person was still really badly injured even though they had no external injuries. The only cases that progressed were when the person was strangled to the point of near-death and they might have had a lot of external injuries around the neck.”
Pioneering University of Queensland domestic violence researcher Professor Heather Douglas had long identified a nationwide underplaying of the “red flag” severity of non-fatal strangulation. “Because [some] strangulation injuries leave no visible mark, or visible injuries may only become evident days later, police, doctors and victims often underplay the seriousness of the offence or do not connect the initial strangulation event with the injuries,” Douglas said in 2014. She called for the correct identification and naming of non-fatal strangulation on police and medical records: “It ensures possible injuries are identified and responded to and mitigates risk of further serious injury or death. In the US, most states now have strangulation offences – maybe this is what we need in Australia.”
‘Mothers of murdered young women could share their stories, publicly, with power.’
Taylor enlisted the voices of people like Sonia Anderson. Mothers of murdered young women who could share their stories, publicly with power and poise, about how so easily worlds can be torn apart by a pair of human hands. “Sonia has the presence and she’s able to put herself out there and tell Bianca’s story,” Taylor says.
By the time Dame Quentin Bryce came to head the taskforce that produced the Not Now, Not Ever report – a landmark 2015 document making 140 recommendations on domestic and family violence in Queensland – Taylor had the stories of Bianca Girven and countless others in the forefront of her mind. “One of the recommendations out of that report [asked] the Queensland government to consider a special offence on strangulation,” says Inspector Regan Carr, manager of Queensland Police’s Domestic, Family Violence & Vulnerable Persons Unit, speaking to the conference room’s trainees about how Queensland came to lead the way in non-fatal strangulation laws.
“We already had section 315 of the Criminal Code that was all around strangulation, but this was specific,” she says. “315A, which was looking at the intimate partner relationship.” A strangulation law applied in a domestic violence context. Carr reads aloud the official police prosecution definition of 315A. “It can be concluded that the element of ‘chokes’, ‘suffocates’ or ‘strangles’ is established when an offender interferes or stops a victim breathing by squeezing the throat using hands or an implement such as a cord or rope or by smothering. External compression on the front of windpipe is sufficient. Permanent injury or death is not required for the offence of section 315A to be committed.”
The room applauds that last line. It means officers can build a case from doctor’s reports, neighbour’s testimonies, multiple signs and symptoms in the absence of damning neck marks. “Before, the evidence had to be visual, a photo of a bruise,” says Taylor. “Now we can use that complex forensic evidence more to prosecute cases.”
Carr addresses the audience. “Victoria Police are looking at this as well,” she says. “I also know some of our counterparts in New Zealand are looking at this and also NSW. It’s getting quite a lot of momentum here in Australia, the seriousness of this offence.” Police officers nod across the conference room. “We must think about this from this day on. Every job we go to, every time you walk through a door you could be saving someone’s life.
“It’s an ultimate form of power and control. The perpetrator can demonstrate control over the victim’s next breath. It’s frightening when you think how often this occurs.”
She leaves them with a question to ponder over morning tea. “How many cases have we missed?”
All Renee* had left to communicate with were her eyes. She says her former partner had his hand around her neck for 10 seconds. “I’ll kill you,” he said. She’s a Brisbane mum of three in her early 30s. This moment occurred almost a year ago outside her house. Her ex-partner was on an access visit to his kids. She had her youngest daughter on her left hip and was approaching her son in the back seat of her ex-partner’s car. She wanted to say goodbye but he would not let her, suggesting the kids were now on his time, not hers. He pulled her away from the car, she pushed ahead. He pulled her away, she pushed ahead. Then, she says, his hand wrapped around her throat.
“He put that hand on my neck and I went into a state of shock,” she says. “I just froze. I didn’t know what to think or feel. I never in my wildest dreams thought he would have done that. He grabbed me hard but the only difference was he didn’t squeeze. I can’t even explain what that feels like but the look in my eyes was just, ‘Please… don’t kill me’. The look in his face when he was doing it… I’d never seen so much anger in him.”
Her neighbours saw the incident. They came to Renee’s aid and the ex-partner drove away. The neighbours took photos of red finger marks on her neck. She wanted to press charges. “I got to my neighbour’s house and phoned the police,” Renee says. “It took the police three hours to come to the house and in that time the red marks had gone down. We showed them the photos. I think if they’d seen the red marks up close it would be a different story. A female police officer saw the marks [in the pictures] and said, ‘Oh, they’re just thumb marks’, and they never spoke another word about [strangulation] again. I think they believed it did happen but they couldn’t prove it.” Her ex-partner was placed on a five-year domestic violence protection order, which he is appealing. “I should have gone straight to hospital and asked a specialist to put a camera down my throat,” says Renee, who believes damage to her airways was another piece of evidence overlooked. “But even a year ago doctors didn’t know to look for this stuff.”
Soon, Sonia Anderson says, Queenslanders in Renee’s situation will be able to visit one of two specialised strangulation trauma centres. “There’ll be one in Brisbane and one on the Gold Coast,” she says. Here, she says, victims can be medically and psychologically assessed for strangulation in safety and in private.
The “dominoes”, Sonia says, are falling. She sees states across Australia following Queensland’s lead. “We have to make non-lethal strangulation a crime in every state in Australia,” she says. “We have to do that.” She sees suburban GPs with strangulation signs and symptoms reference cards in their drawers. She imagines a vastly different world compared to eight years ago, when Bianca was alive and intimate partner strangulation was described as a “crime of passion”.
“What a disgraceful term,” she says. “It suggests there was love involved. There’s no love in murder.”
At the foot of Mount Gravatt Lookout, she walks to a tree near Bianca’s murder site. For years Bianca’s friends and family and complete strangers have “yarn-bombed” this tree in vivid purples and pinks and blues and greens. They’ve built rock gardens at the base of the tree in Bianca’s memory; laid out toys and poems and trinkets for her. Domestic violence victims come here regularly to contemplate their own situations; mull over their next moves, their futures.
Sonia’s here three mornings a week but there was a time when she couldn’t come to this mountain at all. “I thought everything to do with this mountain was bad. Evil. But I’ve made peace with the mountain now. I don’t let it be about the worst thing that happened here.” She tries to remember that it was one of Bianca’s favourite places. The summit view across south-east Queensland brought her great joy. And that thinking reminds Sonia to think less about the night Bianca died and more about the 22 years she lived. “She’s up there wondering why I keep thinking about that one moment that only lasted 10 minutes in her life,” she says. “When there was so much more.”
She hops into her car and drives up the narrow road snaking up to the lookout. From July 1, she is taking a long break from her business commitments managing two-way radio communications for major Queensland sporting and entertainment events. For eight years she thought her story after Bianca’s death was going to end with exhaustion or tragedy. She was going to work herself to breaking point and then she would collapse or simply drop dead and that would be doing justice to the memory of her daughter. That, she thought, would be a natural and appropriate ending.
But that awful vision about the rock and Rhys Austin’s head has given her something to think about. “I’ve got some healing to do,” she says. She knows that somewhere beneath all that anger and hate, somewhere deep and hard to get to, is acceptance.
She stops her car at the mountain summit and stares across south-east Queensland, warmed by an autumn sun. She smiles and breathes and loosens the airways in her voice box. “Change the ending,” she says.
*Name changed. For national 24-hour domestic violence support, phone 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732.