July 12 2003 - SMH
Something precious died the day they dug for long-dead Samantha Knight. Hope
for a closure on her parents' grief, writes Philip Cornford.
After a 17-year search, Samantha Knight's grave has been found and excavated
by police. But the young girl's remains were gone, lost forever, probably in
an unknown landfill. Her killer, pedophile Michael Guider, shocked
detectives by ending years of lies and evasions when he told them he buried
Sam in the grounds of the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron at Kirribilli on the
night she died in 1986. "I believe the probability is that police excavated
where Guider buried Sam and she was gone," her mother, Tess Knight, said.
Her father, Peter O'Meagher, said: "To me, she's there . . . there's part of
Sam in the soil." It was a sorrowful end to a long and painful journey for
Ms Knight and Mr O'Meagher, for the detectives who doggedly pursued her
killer, and the many people who were deeply troubled by the fate of a little
girl cruelly taken.
It was the second time nine-year-old Samantha had slipped away. Her parents'
dearest wish was to place her remains in consecrated soil with a headstone
on which they could focus their grief and memories, to find a closure to
mourning. But that hope is ended, her remains lost forever. Police believe
they were gouged from the harbourside grave by a giant excavator during
construction of a car park about 18 months after Guider buried her at the
squadron, where he worked as a gardener. Guider was 35 when he abducted
Samantha, whom he had secretly drugged and sexually abused for three years,
on Wellington Street, Bondi, on the night of Tuesday, August 19, 1986.
Charged with murder 16 years later, he agreed to plead guilty to a reduced
charge of manslaughter, claiming that he drugged Samantha with the sedative
Normison so he could take pornographic photographs, but accidentally gave
her a fatal overdose.
But even after he was sentenced to 17 years, Guider refused to talk about
Samantha's death or to give any further information, despite public appeals
by her parents for him to reveal what he had done with her body. The only
information police had were statements by former prisoners who said Guider
had told them he buried Samantha in Cooper Park, Woollahra, but dug up her
body 18 months later and disposed of it in a dumpster bin at the car park
construction site at the squadron in Kirribilli. Guider, a judge said, was a
manipulative liar, but police twice searched the park, in 1996 and 1999.
They discovered that the construction company building the car park had used
150 landfill sites, beyond checking. But they weren't going to give up.
Determined to recover Samantha's remains for her parents, Strike Force
Harrisville detectives Neil Tuckerman and Darren Sly repeatedly visited
Guider in prison. Aged beyond his 52 years, obese, with greying hair hanging
down to his shoulders, he refused to talk.
In March, they returned to Goulburn maximum security jail, where Guider is
kept in isolation, afraid he will be killed by prisoners who loathe child
molesters and who shout threats whenever Guider is escorted within view.
"He's isolated himself at his own request," a prison official said. They
were accompanied by Steve Leach, their Harrisville boss who had been in The
Hague for two years with the International War Crimes Tribunal. "Neil and I
found it hard to take much more of Guider," Mr Sly said. "Maybe he sensed
that and reacted to us. So Steve went in by himself." Mr Leach is a big man
with a soft voice and gentle manner disguising a tough mind. To his
surprise, Guider broke his silence. "Guider said two things," Mr Sly said.
"He said he met Sam that night by chance. He wouldn't say any more about how
she died. He said that when she was dead, he put her in his car and drove to
Kirribilli. "It was dark, the Royal Yacht Squadron grounds were deserted. He
was the gardener, access was easy. He chose a spot in a garden plot near a
gum tree. "He got his tools, the ground was easy to dig - it was soft
top-soil. He dug a grave, put her in it and covered her up, restoring the
garden. He was finished before dawn." Guider marked the grave's location on
a rough map for police.
"We don't really know why he decided to talk," Mr Sly said. "There were no
deals - we had nothing to offer him. Maybe it was Steve, seeing him again
after so long. But we believed that at last he was telling the truth. For
the first time, we had it from his own mouth. It went with what we already
knew. "When work started on an underground car park at the yacht squadron
late in 1988, Guider raised a big fuss. He wasn't working there then, but
was living in a boarding house a few blocks away in Upper Pitt Street. He
went down and complained they were destroying all his hard work with the
gardens and they had to stop. "We believe now he was frightened what they
would uncover. Sam's remains." Because of wet weather, they had to wait five
weeks. Soon after daybreak on Thursday, May 15, they began digging for
Samantha. Ms Knight and Mr O'Meagher were with the three detectives and
about a dozen police. The trees marked by Guider are still there, protected
by a conservation order. The garden is on the edge of an expanse of lawn
which slopes down a knoll overlooking the harbour. It is a beautiful,
tranquil place. Handlers from the dog squad extracted soil cores from a
number of spots. Each core was sniffed by a cadaver dog, trained to detect
decomposed flesh underground. Long after a body is decomposed, the stench
stays leached into the soil, and the dogs can smell it. "The dog was only
interested in one core," Mr O'Meagher said. "She laid down where it had been
taken from. The handlers said it was as positive a response [as] the dog was
capable of giving." Police dug. Each shovelful of dirt was sifted and put
apart. The process was slow and careful. The dogs remained positive, even
though the sifted soil yielded no evidence. They were anxious hours for Ms
Knight and Mr O'Meagher. "The detectives were careful not to arouse our
hopes too much, but still we hoped," Ms Knight said. "We wanted Sam to be
there." But about a metre and a half down, they hit bedrock. They had found
no remains. "The dog handler was surprised," Mr O'Meagher said. "He was sure
as he could be that a body had been there." It was dusk. Police closed the
dig, their hopes ended. "We believe we were in the right place, that Sam had
been buried there and her remains removed unknowingly by the builders," Mr
Ms Knight and Mr O'Meagher accept the detectives' verdict. Mr O'Meagher
said: "At least, it's a beautiful spot." Ms Knight said: "I am glad this has
meant a closure for three wonderful detectives, Neil, Darren and Steve, who
have been kind and who have done a brilliant investigation. I am glad for
them." But there is no closure for Ms Knight. Guider still guards his
secrets. And Ms Knight does not believe her death was an accident. "He took
her, he drugged her, he molested her. Then he was going to bring her home to
her mother. I don't think so!"
Perhaps Guider told Mr Leach part of the truth. What if Guider removed Sam's
body, fearing it would be uncovered during the car park construction? Her
parents both pose the question. In that case, there is still a chance that
one day Guider might reveal her final resting place. "What would bring
closure for me is for Guider to tell everything - the total, absolute truth
about what he did to Sam," Ms Knight said. "And that is something that I'm
not going to have."