Saturday, 28 June 2008

Family was troubled: neighbours

Police and ambulance officers at the scene.

Neighbours of a man and his three children whose bodies were found in their driveway say it was well-known in the area that the family had problems.

Police found the bodies of the 18-month-old boy, five-year-old girl, seven-year-old boy and 44-year-old man in a car in the driveway of a remote New South Wales south coast property.

Officers believe the four had been dead in the car in Pericoe, west of Eden, for a number of days.

They say their investigation is in its early stages but they do not believe anyone else was involved in the deaths.

Police say the children's mother has been found safe and offered counselling.

Police believe Gary Bell, apparently unable to cope with the breakdown of his 18-year marriage, put them in his car and killed them with its exhaust fumes. The 44-year-old father died alongside his children - Bon, 18 months; Maddie, 5; and Jack, 7.

The family was known to police and the Department of Community Services. A spokeswoman from DOCS says there were reports on the family in 2005 and 2006.

A relative who asked not to be named said Mr Bell was arrested after being violent against his wife, Karen, early on Monday.

"Police picked him up about 3 o'clock in the morning, took him to jail. Karen put an AVO on him again. Then he was let out. I don't know how he ended back up with the kids. Karen was staying at her mum's in Bega."

DOCS said it had been informed in recent days of an apprehended violence order against the man. "DOCS staff subsequently made a number of attempts to contact the family to provide support but was unable to reach them," it said.

Neighbour Tony Boller has lived in Pericoe for 36 years. He says he is devastated by the incident.

"I knew there were problems with the family. Everyone did, I think," he said.

Mr Boller, who has also raised four children in Pericoe, says it is a difficult area for raising a family.

"We've never even had anyone die of a car accident out here in all this time," he said. "There's been lots of conflict as well but not a resolution like this."

Local Jeff Knight says the community is stunned.

"It's a real shock. Things like this don't happen everyday in your neighbourhood," he said. "It's just out of the blue, that's for sure."

Mrs Bell had no idea. She was receiving counselling last night in Bega, where she had moved after the breakdown in the relationship. The family had moved to Pericoe Valley three years ago.

Dianne Auld, who lives on a neighbouring property about a kilometre away, said Mrs Bell was her niece.

"She's been away but they are still together, as far as I know," Mrs Auld said. "I spoke to her for a little while today. She's devastated. Nothing brings them back. It is just a terrible tragedy for this to happen. I do not know the story myself."

The tiny town of Pericoe is nestled deep in the Yambulla State Forest, just 10 kilometres north of the Victorian border. Mr O'Hara said ambulance officers who stopped at his home in Fulligans Road seeking directions told him they had received a "garbled phone message from a child" about the deaths.

Mr O'Hara has lived in the area for 30 years. He said Pericoe was "a dot in the dense, tall timber mountain wilderness" with about 45 people living on isolated properties. "It's wilderness. It's rocks and big trees and very little dirt and very little water. There are three dirt tracks leading to it.

"Pericoe was the name given to a cattle station by a family that settled the area. About 30 years ago 15 partners came to the valley and established the commune on 1000 acres to go along with the flower era culture. Fulligans Road runs right through it. They called it Two Creeks but there aren't two creeks there.

"There was no set plan. Nothing was divided up, so people just picked their own sites and built what they wanted.

"The hippies didn't last, and other people have come and gone over the years. There are about 15 buildings there, from shacks to a few decent homes.

"People still live there. Most people over the years are single parents, men and women. A lot of the buildings at Two Creeks are derelict. You wouldn't know if there were people squatting or renting. It's a pretty fluid situation, people coming and going."

Crime-scene police from Sydney arrived at the property at 8pm yesterday and a guard was posted. The bodies were expected to be taken to a local hospital before dawn this morning.

A police spokesman said post mortem examinations would show how the father and children died. Police would not comment on whether they had been to the property before in response to domestic rows.

Families living in the area send their children to the primary school at nearby Towamba. But a spokeswoman for the Department of Education said the children did not attend the local school.

Police, who arrived at the house first, said they had difficulty finding the remote property. When they arrived they had problems communicating because mobile phone reception was poor.

Fulligans Road is a dirt track, cutting through a dense forest of tall gums and a carpet of shrubs and ferns. Kangaroos bound across it and, further along, are long-established caravans in which families live.

One resident, who did not want to be named, said that while people might recognise their neighbours' names on their mailboxes, some might never have met. "Pericoe itself is really just a couple of farms. There's only about 15 people living out here in private homes. It's not a community as such."

Two Creeks was no longer a hippie commune, she said. "It's some sort of company where they buy shares and they get an allotment of land. I know that there's a few people that own shares in that particular property and have done for years."

Forensic officers will examine the area.

A post-mortem is expected to determine how the four people died and a report will be prepared for the coroner.

Gary Bell was a heavy drinker

ONLY by his death has the secret life of Gary Mark Bell been revealed. The man who killed his three children and himself last week on their remote South Coast property was really named Gary Poxon, a moniker he left behind when he abandoned his first partner and several children.

Publicly, Poxon was seen as a family man, the adoring father of Jack, 7, Maddie, 5, and the son named after an AC/DC rocker, Bon, 18 months. Privately, he was prone to drinking heavily. He made his own spirits and beer at their isolated farmhouse in a former hippie commune west of Eden. People close to his wife, Karen, say he beat her for the length of their decade-long relationship and she had tried many times to leave him.

The Bell family, lost in grief, want him to be forever known as Poxon. He had adopted the name Bell from his wife in an attempt to avoid his responsibilities to his first partner, a woman he referred to as "the bitch from Bega".

Ms Bell's last attempt to leave him was late on the Sunday before last, when her best friend, Tracey Wilson, drove her 45minutes out of Pericoe to her mother's house in Bega. Poxon had kicked her out of the house after another fight.

"He's done that to her three times," Ms Wilson said. "Karen always knew she could come to me and that she was safe. Gary was a very jealous man. He wouldn't let her have many friends and he was cranky at me for helping her twice before."

Despite the attempts to flee the violence, Poxon always had a sadistic trump card to keep Ms Bell returning. "He'd always keep the kids so she'd come back to him," Ms Wilson said.

Tracey Wilson was with her fiance when they found the three children dead with their father. "All I could do was scream," she said. "I screamed for an hour. Into the sky, just screaming."

Mitchell Heffernan, Poxon's former boss at Wilton Engineering, said Poxon arrived in Picton from Bega and first took up work at General Engineering Phoenix at nearby Wilton between 1990 and 1994. He returned to Bega but moved back to Picton in 1995, and worked as a welder for three years with Mr Heffernan's company.

"They were his second family," he said."When he came here in 1995 he arrived in Picton unannounced and I understand he was running away from four or five kids to a woman he kept calling the bitch from Bega," MrHeffernan said.

"He was a good Aussie rules player and played AFL for Bargo, but as a person he was an aggressive little bloke in his attitude. He stood about five foot six, had a chiselled jaw and was not very pleasant, very uptight, a little bloke with little-bloke syndrome."

Mr Heffernan said he understood Poxon was on the run from responsibilities to his other family. "I remember it was pretty drama-filled at the time. That is why he left us in 1998, because he didn't want to pay a cent.

"I was his boss and he threatened me a couple of times to step outside when I had to pull him up for something he did wrong. I remember him always complaining that he could not survive and that he could not rebuild a better life because of the money he had to pay. That is why he left us.

"After he left my business he had delusions of grandeur about starting up a business and hung around Picton, but nothing happened. Then he left."

It is understood Poxon's relationship with his parents was strained.

"Gary was aggro," Ms Wilson said. "I got along with him but I told him he was an arsehole when he needed it."

She said Poxon did not hit the children, reserving that aggression for his wife.

While Poxon kept up a friendly persona when he went into town, he rubbed some locals up the wrong way. He big-noted himself in front of the other men at Pericoe and boasted about places he had been to and things he had done. "He was a motormouth legend, you know? I never liked him," said Ms Wilson's fiance, who did not want to be named.

Judging by the handwritten résumé Poxon presented to get the only job he ever had on the South Coast, his life started with promise. He earned a scholarship to Hurlstone Agricultural High School. He went overseas and had patchy employment; he was never in one place for long.

Damian Foat, Poxon's boss at Sapphire Coast Engineering in Eden, said the family had arrived with problems.

"He was a pretty heavy drinker. As soon as he'd knock off work, he'd have a beer in his hand," Mr Foat said. By the time he quit, just before Christmas in 2004, it was to patch things up with Ms Bell, who would "take off" when the pressures of living with an unpredictable husband would become overwhelming. Those were the same pressures that had led her to stay in Bega before ringing police in Merimbula on Thursday to ask if they would check on the children. Ms Wilson said they would not, so Ms Bell asked for her help instead.

Ms Wilson rang the police, again appealing for them to go out. "The police said to me they didn't want to upset Gary," shesaid.

So on Friday morning she called in at the property with her fiance and her youngest son Lachlan, 4.

"I couldn't find them anywhere. I went through the house. I didn't think to look in the car," she said.

But her fiance did and screamed at her: "Get the f--- back in my car!"

Crying and shaking, Ms Wilson said yesterday: "I said, 'They're dead, aren't they?' … I wanted to rip the door off the car and just cuddle the kids. I let those babies down. I was too late. I got there too late."

It was Ms Wilson who then had to give Ms Bell the news.

"She was waiting for me to ring her and say the kids are alive. I had to tell her they were all dead. This is the type of woman she is: she said sorry to me for asking me to go out there and check on the kids. I don't want her to feel guilt for that."

The children were already being missed in the broader Towamba community. Local schoolchildren had made a heart shape out of stones on a sandy island in the creek, with the initials J, M and B, with the word "love" spelled out underneath.

Ms Bell spent Saturday night in the care of family, including her brother-in-law, who said: "Those three babies will go to heaven and that bastard will rot in hell forever. Those babies will be protected and looked after now. Simple as that."

Alister, who asked that his surname not be published, also said: "Every time when I was there, me or my wife, he always seemed to portray himself as justa normal character. He wouldn't show his anger in front of anybody. He wouldn't do it in public.

"He was a piece of work. He managed to just hide everything from everybody. He was a very good liar."

Alister said he was shocked when he learnt that Poxon had decided to adopt the surname of his wife.

"He changed his name. He decided to take on the Bell name. Don't ask me why. We all thought it was a bit bizarre. It was his decision. I genuinely thought it was a bit strange."

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