Police say Melbourne’s “society killer” has admitted his guilt. Hugo Kelly looks at how the media helped them get their man.

His arrest on Saturday and his apparent confession to the murder of his mother and her invalid husband is a triumph of psychological policing and media manipulation by the Victoria Police.

Large sections of the media were complicit in the process “partners” in the investigation, aiding and abetting the police tactics of selectively leaking and suppressing information.

In the three weeks since it became clear this was a murder investigation, not a missing persons’ case, Matthew and Maritza Wales have been placed under intense pressure by police.

Direct pressure, when the homicide squad dug up their back yard early in the investigation and conducted a search of the house, then mounted overt surveillance of the property.

And indirect, but probably just as effective, pressure as some police apparently selectively leaked information to media outlets during the course of their investigation, helping to shape media coverage. Just enough information was revealed to let Matthew and his wife Maritza know they were on to them. But not too much they hoped to compromise their case when it eventually came to court.

The leaking game was a fine balance, and the media lapped it all up, as journalists and editors asserted their own role in a murder investigation that had the whole town talking.

The Herald Sun took the lead, quickly dubbing the killings “The Society Murders”, complete with their own dinkus, and devoting front page treatment to developments that pointed towards Matthew and Maritza as the suspects – like the police calling in Maritza for questioning on 6 May.

The electronic media followed suit. Last Tuesday, Channel Seven’s Claire Brady revealed an apparently significant piece of evidence. Matthew had hired a trailer from a nearby service station the morning after the disappearance. She interviewed the servo employee who conducted the $30 EFTPOS transaction for Matthew and his male friend. Police had impounded the trailer and were conducting forensic tests.

So how did Claire jag this yarn? Is it because she’s partnered with someone working at the Homicide Squad.

The story was followed up on the front pages next morning. The media drip feed must have felt like Chinese water torture to Matthew, Maritza and their uneasy consciences.

We’re happy to attribute the trailer scoop to Claire Brady’s investigative skills. But it’s most likely the leak came from police.

Senior homicide cop Charlie Bezzina is a smart operator not unknown to give judicious off-the-record briefings to reporters, and with links to Channel Seven reporters going back nearly 20 years when Seven’s legendary Lena Kaneva had the police beat sewn up. Charlie was one of the many aces in her flamboyantly-cut suit pockets.

And during this investigation, although police publicly and repeatedly refused to provide information on the record to the media, good journalists with established police sources were able to get information through unofficial channels.

These off-the-record briefings pointed in one direction only, and were reflected in media coverage. As Age editor Michael Gawenda testily told 3LO’s Jon Faine on Friday: “Some of the other media have clearly decided who is the guilty party in this murder. We have not decided. It is not up to us to decide.”

In response, Hun editor Peter Blunden told Faine this morning: “It’s interesting when the Age says it would never convict anyone through their paper. I suppose Geoff Clarke’s one interesting case to put that theory to rest.”

Faine: “The relationship your reporters have with the police. Do you think there’s anything improper? Do they go too far in working with the police virtually?”

Blunden: “Far from it. In fact, the police took out a suppression order on us last week from publishing quite a bit of information to do with this case…The police haven’t exactly set there and run a circus giving out information, quite frankly. They’ve gone about their job and we’ve gone about ours.”

Faine: “You singled out Matthew Wales for special attention as much as a week ago, didn’t you?’

Blunden: “Oh yes. Yes we did. Only because there was information worth publishing.It was very fair for us to run material on it. And everybody was given their chance to have a say and we reported it accordingly.”

Michael Gawenda would have also worried that the Hun was beating the Age to key developments in the story. On Friday, the Hun continued the trend, revealing the murdered matriarch’s lawyer had taken Supreme Court action to freeze her assets.

Meanwhile, after the discovery of the couples’ bodies, homicide squad head Inspector Brian Rix took an extraordinary step. With the Hun about to publish information about items found in the shallow grave containing the bodies, he sought, and obtained, a suppression order from the acting state coroner, Iain West, prohibiting the publication of details of evidence found with the bodies.

The media would normally be expected to raise a hue and cry about press freedom under such circumstances. Not so in this case. The Sunday Age’s experienced scribbler Paul Heinrichs wrote that the suppression order was obtained by police to “protect the integrity of their investigation”.

It was in line with the police strategy of selective leaking and censorship, aimed at placing their suspects under intense scrutiny, and flushing out a quick, clean confession.

Heinrichs wrote: “With only limited information available from police, some sections of the media began reporting evidence and interviewing witnesses independent of the formal investigation.”

“In the past week the media have mounted a virtual round-the-clock vigil outside the home of Matthew Wales.” Heinrichs reported police “have been surprised by the media interest”.

During the media frenzy, journalists tested ethical limits. On Saturday, one Sunday Herald Sun reporter trawled through Prudence Reed’s mail, reporting: “a card in the open letterbox indicated flowers had been left at a neighbour’s two days ago”.

With the Melbourne media going berserk on the story, interstate media took an interest, particularly since Margaret Wales-King’s sister is Sydney art dealer Di Yeldham.

In Sydney, the Daily Telegraph took a bold line, with headlines like: “Mourning and suspicion” plastered over page three. AAP’s Mike Hedge was by-lined in The Daily Telegraph writing as follows: “The family of a murdered Melbourne couple united in mourning yesterday as police continued to investigate one of the sons of victim Margaret Wales-King.”

By then, Matthew and Maritza could really have done with a spin doctor. Maybe the PR-flak-of-last-resort, Mike Smith, could have helped them massage their testy relationship with journalists and get their spin out. As the Hun reported on Friday: “Matthew appeared to glare at the media” after his mother’s memorial service.

As pressure mounted, police swooped, taking Matthew in for questioning on Saturday morning, then delivering him to a bail justice to be charged with murder just in time for the evening TV bulletins.

One can imagine what happened when Matthew Wales was taken to police headquarters. After placing him in a very public pressure-cooker for three weeks, experienced detectives probably only had to probe very gently before the hairdresser with a shaved head opened up to them.

Heinrichs wrote: “He is believed to have become emotional while questioned.” One imagines him desperately trying to avoid implicating his wife: Maritza, the older woman, the foreigner with dark exotic good looks. The mother of their young child, arrested last night, following Matthew’s confession, as an accessory after the fact, but bailed to go home for Mother’s Day.

So is the media’s complicity necessarily a bad thing? After all, according to police, “full admissions” to the crime have now been made.

Matthew and Maritza Wales’ fate will be decided by a jury. A jury that’s been subject to a media campaign cleverly directed in part by police that had a clear aim: pointing to the guilt of two particular suspects.

Maybe a tainted jury in a murder trial is the price of a free press. It’s a global village now, baby, and we can’t escape the media. But if sections of the media act in effect as arms of law enforcement agencies, at least we need to be aware of the competing agendas.

It’s been an interesting month for murders in Melbourne. In a sense, this is the tale of two killings. The juxtaposition of the Wales-King killings with the execution of gangster Victor Peirce two weeks ago is intriguing.

Peirce was one of four men acquitted of the 1980s Walsh Street murders of Constables Eyre and Tynan. Every police officer in Victoria believes Peirce and his co-accused did it except the jury didn’t buy it. Now Peirce joins in the grave two others police believe were linked to the Tynan/Eyre killings – Gary Abdallah and Jedd Houghton. Houghton and Abdallah were killed by operational police shortly after the Walsh St killings, back when Victoria Police shot first and asked questions later.

In the days following Peirce’s Mayday murder, senior police told the media they weren’t too upset by his death. The strong implication was they wouldn’t waste too many resources chasing down the killer of their enemy.

Police Commissioner Christine Nixon eventually stepped in and promised the force would investigate the Peirce shooting thoroughly.

But if the same resources that were marshalled during the Wales-King circus had been placed into finding the killers of Victor Peirce, would police also now be hot on the trail of his assassins?

Feedback to Hugo Kelly at [email protected]

Peter Fray

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