Mick Fuller, Headley Thomas, Teacher’s Pet and “the most egregious example of media interference’

At a Surry Hills restaurant on a chilly Friday in mid-2018, NSW’s then police commissioner, Mick Fuller, and four of his top men lunched with investigative journalist Hedley Thomas.

The lunch was a breakthrough for Thomas. He had been trying to engage NSW Police in his popular crime podcast The Teacher’s Pet which, he told his audience, had uncovered new evidence suggesting Sydney mother Lynette Dawson, who went missing in 1982, had been killed by her husband, Chris. He wanted to help police, and for police to help him, the NSW Supreme Court heard. But they had “stonewalled” him.

Just 10 days before the lunch, a recently published decision by Justice Elizabeth Fullerton said, police had issued a statement about their refusal to participate in which the head of homicide, Scott Cook, cited the importance of protecting the integrity of the investigation so it did not endanger any future prosecution.

Chris Dawson, left, and his brother Peter leave the Supreme Court, where Chris is on trial for the murder of his first wife.

Chris Dawson, left, and his brother Peter leave the Supreme Court, where Chris is on trial for the murder of his first wife.Credit:Dean Sewell

A key concern was that, amid so much public speculation, Dawson’s lawyers might argue that no trial could be fair. Under the worst-case scenario he could be granted a permanent stay, which would mean he would never be prosecuted. Cook’s statement said it was not in the interests of the “victim, her family, or justice for the NSW Police Force to make further comment at this time”.

Thomas, who has won multiple Walkley awards for his investigations, persisted. He asked the editor of The Australian newspaper at the time, Paul Whittaker, to email Fuller on his behalf. Little came of it. Then talkback radio host Ben Fordham intervened.

“He thought the police strategy was stupid and that they should be, you know, be talking to me, or at least having a channel open,” Thomas told Lynette Dawson’s sister in a recorded conversation presented to court.

Thanks to Fordham’s intervention, Thomas now had lunch not only with Fuller, but also with three more officers who were key to the investigation. There was the head of all the serious crime squads, State Crime Commander Mal Lanyon, Cook, and the detective in charge of the Dawson homicide investigation, Daniel Poole. Also present was Grant Williams, Fuller’s media adviser who had worked with Fordham at A Current Affair.

Dawson is now on trial for Lynette’s murder, in front of a judge alone. However, in 2020, Dawson’s lawyers applied for a permanent stay. During the NSW Supreme Court hearing on that matter, Poole said Fuller had directed the officers to attend the lunch. “From which I infer,” wrote Justice Fullerton in her July 2020 judgment, which can be reported after a non-publication order was lifted last month, “Detective Superintendent Cook was also ‘directed’ to reverse his position.”

In conversations presented to court, Thomas and Fuller discussed whether Fuller should lean on the Director of Public Prosecutions, Lloyd Babb, for information about time frames relating to the investigation. Thomas suggested Fuller should instead lean on Babb’s deputy, given Babb attended a school at which Dawson was the sports master in 1984 (Fullerton said Babb had acted with propriety).

“I guess [an arrest] gets closer, mate,” Fuller told Thomas, “I’ll feel confident in letting you know so you can put yourself in a position – where do we go from here?”

The men also discussed digging up the garden at the Dawsons’ old house at Bayview on the Northern Beaches. In Fullerton’s view, the podcast made “anecdotal, highly impressionistic and at times purely speculative suggestions” that further excavation would reveal the remains of Lynette Dawson.

Thomas asked Fuller, in one of the conversations presented to court, “Imagine if Bobby Gibbs [a former crime scene investigator] is right and she is still there?” Fuller replied that he had “spoken to [Fordham] about that, you know, saying that we, from a public perception, and from a credibility perspective, we have to do more.” Thomas agreed. “Well, Mick, I’m really glad we got back on the track and, you know, thanks to you and Ben [Fordham].”

Lynette, who disappeared in 1982, and Chris Dawson.

Lynette, who disappeared in 1982, and Chris Dawson.

In mid-September, 2018, there was a forensic dig in the garden. Fullerton said it was not clear whether this was on the recommendation of specialist police or “merely at the suggestion of Mr Thomas as part of his obsession with Lynette Dawson’s body being buried at the Bayview property, or both.” No evidence indicating she had been buried on the property was found.

When Dawson was arrested in December 2018, Fuller asked Thomas, “you must be pretty happy mate?”

At one point, Fuller was interviewed on the podcast. “The Commissioner’s public views were measured,” Fullerton said in her judgment. “His engagement with Mr Thomas by telephone was far less so.”

Lawyers acting for Dawson argued the murder trial should be permanently stayed, citing, among other things, the impact of pre-trial publicity on the fairness of any trial and saying Fuller’s involvement amounted to an abuse of process. Fullerton did not grant a permanent stay.

She did say if evidence had showed the police commissioner deliberately set out to influence the decision of the DPP by publicly engaging with the media, and the podcast in particular, “I would have no hesitation in finding that conduct grossly improper”.

However, Fuller was not called to explain whether he considered his public endorsement of the podcast might be interpreted as an attempt to influence the legal advice sought from the office of the DPP, so Fullerton was not prepared to make a finding of impropriety.

Having not heard from him, she was also unable to find Fuller “deliberately, or even recklessly, joined forces with Mr Thomas to ensure that the applicant was tried for murder, in disregard of the applicant’s fundamental right to the presumption of innocence and his right to silence”. If that finding was made, she said, it would “offend the integrity and functions of the court”.

However, she was of the opinion that the commissioner’s conduct in participating in the podcast was ill-advised, “if for no other reason than it gives rise to the spectre of an attempt by him to bring public pressure to bear on the decision-makers within the [Office of the DPP] when the independence of that office is paramount to the administration of criminal justice in this state”.

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Fuller stepped down from the commissioner’s role last January and is now a consultant with PwC. His decision to leave was not related to the Dawson case. In a statement to the Herald and The Age, he said, “I accept any criticisms from the courts in NSW. I would note, however, protecting eight million people [the NSW population] proved to be a bigger challenge than protecting one. Nevertheless, I always acted with integrity and [in] the best interest of the people of NSW.”

Fullerton was also critical of Thomas and his editors. No one who listened to the podcast, she said, would be left in any doubt of Thomas’ view that Dawson abused Lynette before killing her. She also said the podcast contained little new information about the case which Poole was not already aware.

Fullerton had no doubt the “unrestrained and uncensored public commentary about the applicant’s guilt, is the most egregious example of media interference with a criminal trial process which this court has had to consider in deciding whether to take the extraordinary step of permanently staying a criminal prosecution.”

Thomas told the Herald and The Age his podcast did contribute to the police case. Records show crown witness Robert Silkman, who said Dawson asked in 1975 if he knew anyone who would get rid of his wife, made his first statement to police in November 2018, a few months after the podcast aired.

“Dawson was charged with Lyn’s murder just weeks after this witness, Robert Silkman, made his allegations to police,” Thomas said.

If he had his time again, Thomas said he would do nothing differently. In his view, the criminal justice system had failed a missing mother for many years.

“It took a bold and exhaustive investigative podcast to highlight this, find new witnesses and urge action by prosecutors,” he said.

“As a direct result of our contact with Mick Fuller, homicide detectives got a raft of significant new information from me, and others, concerning key leads and crucial new witnesses.

“Many of the comments and criticisms in the judgment are in my view a powerful reminder to journalists why it is as important as ever to not take editorial tips from judges.”

Thomas also disputed the suggestion journalists should not investigate or report because a cold case was being reconsidered without charges laid.

“If taken seriously, the [Fullerton] judgment would represent a chilling restraint on journalists and unacceptable restriction on our role exposing injustices, crimes, and errors by the criminal justice system,” he said.

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