On 2 December 2010, the body of a 24-year-old woman was found at the bottom of the rubbish chute in the luxury Balencea tower apartments in St Kilda Road, Melbourne, twelve floors below the apartment she had shared with her boyfriend, Antony Hampel. Phoebe, it turned out, was a beautiful but damaged young woman who’d been in a fraught relationship with a well-connected and wealthy lover almost twice her age, who was related to the elite of Melbourne’s judiciary. The police investigation left many questions unanswered, so Phoebe’s grandfather Lorne, a former detective, decided to run an investigation of his own. And in December 2014, after a 14-day inquest, the Coroner delivered a finding that excluded both suicide and foul play, a ruling that shocked her family and many others who had been following the case.
My husband Clive and I have a long tradition of escaping town at Christmas every second year. That’s because I love the Christmas madness and Clive hates it! It was ‘his’ year in 2013, so we decided to go to Mallacoota. Our plan was to arrive the week before Christmas and leave on New Year’s Eve so that we’d avoid the holiday crowds and would be driving home against the throng heading for the beach.
Mallacoota is one of Victoria’s most isolated towns, 25 kilometres off the Princes Highway and about seven hours drive from Melbourne. It’s also the home of Phoebe’s grandmother Jeannette and mother Natalie, who was now working at the golf club, and I had plans to spend time with them over our ten-day break.
Watch the 60 Minutes coverage of the investigation into Phoebe’s death.
After Christmas Day, I went to visit Natalie. Her house was exactly as I had imagined it would be: hidden well back from the road, surrounded by trees and a bush garden, with a slightly hippie look. A gravel drive, pitted with big shallow basins (far too large to be called pots), led through the bush to the front of the cottage. Inside, it was cool and shaded, casually furnished and reminiscent of a 1960s beach house. The kitchen wasn’t the least bit modern and looked as if it had been the source of many lovingly prepared meals. Natalie had made us a platter of healthy food to snack on, and she suggested we sit upstairs on a balcony overhanging the back garden, almost in the treetops. Since then, I’ve always thought of her house as ‘the tree house’.
Phoebe’s presence was pervasive. Her drawings lined the walls, her poetry was stuck up on the smaller wall spaces, her sculptures were everywhere, and her journals were piled high beside Natalie’s bed.
Natalie was still in a state of deep grief. She hadn’t relinquished her relationship with her Tiger Cub and was a long way from putting Phoebe’s memory aside.
Her overwhelming sadness was a bit of a paradox when I considered the somewhat rocky nature of the last years of Phoebe’s life. Ever since Phoebe had run away from home at the age of 15, she and her mother had had quite a tempestuous relationship. As a mother myself, I wondered whether part of Natalie’s grief was her sense that it was now impossible to change that for the better.
Close friends of Phoebe had told me she was very private about her mother and rarely if ever said negative things about the members of her family. At the same time, she didn’t willingly slot into anyone else’s preconceived ideas about how she should be. Linda Cohen told me, ‘Phoebe was a wild child. She wasn’t troubled, she was just not ready to be tamed.’ And in the next breath she said, ‘Ant’s rules are Ant’s rules and they threatened the two things Phoebe valued most — freedom and independence.’
So here I was in the treetops, in a house Phoebe had loved, with the mother who’d loved her so much. We pored over her journals, which were full of childlike writing put down on pages every which way (she obviously didn’t like to stay between the lines, even in her journals). It seemed that Natalie thought that by immersing me in the Phoebe memorabilia I’d get to know her better and understand why she could never have committed suicide the way she did, or at all for that matter.
Natalie talked about Phoebe, Tom, and Nicolai growing up, how close they all were, what fun they had together, and again how Phoebe wouldn’t have killed herself on the eve of her brother’s birthday party.
She showed me an email exchange she’d had with Phoebe on 4 and 5 October, only weeks before her death. Natalie was writing from the Western Desert, where she was working on a photo shoot. In an email headed ‘Hullo My Tiger Cub’, she told Phoebe they’d climbed to the top of a mountain of rocks called Eagle’s Nest and taken photos for a catalogue with a Chinese audience. ‘Everywhere I go here, I feel an amazing energy from the earth. It is very still and you can sense the age of this amazing country of ours out here like nowhere I have ever been. It is absolutely silent apart from the sound of the wind through the spinifex. The wind seems to speak. I wish you could come out here one day. I think you would love the landscape.
Loads of Love, Your long way away Tiger Mother.’
Phoebe wrote back from Melbourne: ‘I would love to be able to come out there and see where u are and u know, I’d give any excuse to get outta here. I have been thinking about my 21st present [a return air ticket overseas] and I would like u to hang onto that for me, for there may be a time in my life that I need to get away without much notice and I would like to have an international flight available for me. I also ask that u don’t mention anything of this to anyone and I wont bring it up again unless I need it. I have thought long and hard about this and have made my decision, so if the offer still stands, would that be ok? I am very pleased that this trip is only an eight-week one and I hope we can have many more visits when you return, missing you and love you lots, xox.’
Despite all the negative evidence at the inquest about Phoebe’s state of mind — and Natalie had sat through all of it — she was still convinced that dark forces had been at work and that someone had killed her daughter.
I’d heard all the evidence too, and I wasn’t convinced that Phoebe had put herself into that chute. With an alcohol level of .16, she would probably have been too drunk to walk, never mind climbing in that opening. Sure, her grandfather Lorne had proved it was possible, but you needed to be fit and sober.
The emails I’d just read didn’t indicate depression or a desire to escape her situation by suicide. They were more of her resolve, having decided to make a change, take charge, and get away.
This is an edited extract from Into the Darkness: the mysterious death of Phoebe Handsjuk by Robin Bowles out now through Scribe ($35)