Report by Wendy, Bacon And Tracy Pillemer originally published by Sydney Morning Herald, 24 October 2000.
The judge said she was either an evil woman or the victim of a terrible conspiracy. Wendy Bacon and Tracy Pillemer explore the truth about Roseanne Catt.
PETER Thomas had good reason to put his days in NSW behind him. A 21-year police career in NSW had culminated in a judge finding that he would use “fair means or foul” to heap troubles on an innocent accused.
When he left the police force, he also left the State and joined the private inquiry industry in Brisbane.
As reported in the Herald on Saturday, since 1992 insurance companies have hired him for hundreds of investigations, each paying thousands of dollars.
But there is one NSW case Thomas has not forgotten. Those who know him say even after he moved to Brisbane he continued to talk about Roseanne Catt, calling her the “lowest form of life” and “a bitch”.
Roseanne has spent the past nine years in NSW prisons. Thomas played a crucial role in her conviction. After a gruelling four-month trial in 1991, the jury was told by the NSW Supreme Court’s Judge Jane Matthews it had a choice: either Roseanne was an evil and manipulative woman or the victim of a terrible conspiracy between her husband, Barry Catt, and his friend Thomas, a former detective.
The jury chose the former and convicted Roseanne of an avalanche of offences against her former husband, including several assaults, threats to kill, possession of a pistol and spiking his milk with lithium, a drug he was taking to treat a psychiatric disorder.
Matthews gave Roseanne 12 years.
At the heart of the case was the acrimony between Roseanne and her husband, a Taree motor mechanic, and his alleged treatment of his four children by a previous marriage.
During their brief marriage, Barry was scheduled to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital several times, charged with assault and ordered by a court to move out of the house. He had been charged with sexually assaulting his children before he met Roseanne. In July 1989, Barry was committed for trial on the sexual assault matters. The Newcastle Family Court gave Roseanne temporary control of the motor repair business and custody of her stepchildren, although Barry would be ultimately acquitted of the sexual assaults.
But Roseanne’s life changed dramatically after Barry and a fellow motor mechanic and friend, Adrian Newell, met Thomas, who had spent many years in Taree before being transferred to the major crime squad at Newcastle. Thomas took up Barry’s cause with a vengeance. They knew each other well, having drunk in the same club for years.
As Thomas acknowledged in court, he disliked Roseanne. They had first met several years before she married Barry, when her delicatessen had burnt down in 1983. Thomas had charged her with arson, but the charge was later dropped by the then NSW attorney-general, Terry Sheahan, because of insufficient evidence.
After she was charged with arson, Roseanne met Errol Taylor, who was collecting a dossier on police in Taree after also being accused by Thomas of arson.
Roseanne took her complaints about Thomas’s behaviour in the arson case to the Ombudsman. Roseanne told the Ombudsman’s inquiry that before she was arrested for arson Thomas had acted in a sexual way towards her, assaulted her business partner and had suggested to people in Taree that he knew she was guilty.
The Ombudsman finally dismissed the complaints in 1988, but found that Thomas had acted inappropriately when interviewing Roseanne, commenting he could well lack “discretion and maturity”. He also found that Thomas had given false evidence to his inquiry.
Just a year later, Thomas took up the fresh inquiry that led to Roseanne being imprisoned.
Instead of using Taree police station for his inquiries, he used a deserted house, lent to him by Barry’s friend Newell.
Here Thomas and a fellow detective interviewed many of the witnesses, including friends of Barry, some of whom would later testify Roseanne had said she wanted to get rid of her husband.
One of the most serious charges against Roseanne resulted from some investigative work by Newell. He believed that Barry had been acting strangely, so Newell took some milk from the office fridge at Barry’s motor repair works, left it in his own fridge for some time and later gave it to Thomas for testing. Analysts found it contained high levels of lithium, but at her trial Roseanne denied she had spiked the milk.
There was also evidence that the same milk had been drunk by others who did not appear to be affected.
Thomas’s investigation closely examined the sexual assault charges against Barry for which he had been committed for trial. This was even though Thomas was not officially involved in the investigation that was being handled by the Newcastle police child mistreatment unit.
Two days before Roseanne’s arrest on the charges for which she is still in prison, Thomas wrote an unusual memo to police in Newcastle, which was subsequently tendered at the trial: “I fully investigated [the sexual assault allegations]. I direct that no action be taken as a result of those allegations. I accept full responsibility for the above direction and if any further allegations are made by Mrs Catt, that I be advised.”
Thomas also became involved in reinvestigating another matter that was partly heard by the courts.
In 1988 Barry had been charged with assault after he allegedly hit Roseanne during a family brawl. Barry, who did not deny hitting his wife first, received four stitches for a cut on his head. The cause of the cut was a major issue during Roseanne’s trial. Roseanne claimed Barry had been accidentally hit on the head by a rock thrown by his sister, Mary, during the brawl.
Barry told Thomas that Roseanne had hit him on the head five times with a 5.5-kilogram rock while he was being held down by her son by a previous marriage and an apprentice mechanic named Shane Golds.
On August 23, 1989, a day before Roseanne’s arrest, Thomas and another detective visited Golds. Golds told Roseanne’s trial that Thomas and the detective had come to see him at work and, without identifying themselves as police, had taken him to a deserted house.
He claimed they had said: “If you are telling lies [in the assault case against Barry] and we find out, you will be charged with perjury.” Golds then made a statement that fitted Barry’s version of events. He denied in evidence that he signed the new statement under pressure.
One month after her victory in the Family Law Court, and a year after the critical Ombudsman’s report, Thomas was ready to arrest Roseanne. On August 24 nine police raided her house and found a loaded pistol in the drawer in her bedroom. Roseanne later told the court she had never seen the pistol before, and no fingerprints were found on it. The Herald has spoken to two confidential sources, one of whom says Thomas has told them both Roseanne did not have the gun.
The other says Thomas told him the gun was planted. Thomas did not reply to Herald questions about these allegations.
Barry’s children were in Roseanne’s custody when she was arrested, but were under the supervision of the then NSW Department of Family and Community Services (FACS). The department’s staff became concerned when they heard Roseanne had been arrested, and the children were placed in the care of an important Crown witness, Newell.
The former district manager of FACS at Taree, Greg Baggs, would later record some concerns in a report to the Ombudsman in 1990. The report stated that Thomas initially refused to tell FACS where the children had been placed, accused FACS and the police who had charged Barry of “sloppy” work, and said that he was going to reopen the arson case against Roseanne and that the sexual assault charges against Barry would not proceed.
Baggs said Thomas spoke in abusive and threatening tones, was shouting and incoherent, threatened to “drag” him “to the court house”, and said: “Once the children are out of the situation they will change their sexual assault allegations.”
Baggs wrote that he had contacted his regional director concerning “the threat, continual intimidation, aggression and pressure on himself and staff”. A written complaint was lodged by the regional director with Charles Parson, assistant commissioner of police. Thomas denied in court that he had threatened Baggs.
A number of people involved in the children’s case say they were frightened. “I felt very, very scared,” says a FACS consultant counsellor, Sharon Cox. “We really didn’t know who we were protecting the children from. If we got too close to the truth what would be the consequences?”
Two weeks after Roseanne’s arrest and against Thomas’s wishes, Judge Colin Allen granted her bail. The judge said the case had to be seen in the light of a domestic dispute and that the Crown case did not appear strong. He expressed “some unease as to the objectivity of the investigating detective”.
Roseanne’s lawyer wrote to the police, complaining that Thomas was conducting a vendetta against her. “Certainly it is astonishing in the extreme that a detective with so patent a motivation to wish to seek revenge against Mrs Catt should be permitted ... to continue to conduct this matter.”
Barry was tried in the Supreme Court in Taree in November 1990. The court acquitted him of abusing his children. The prosecutor told the jury he did not think Barry should be convicted.
The following May Roseanne’s trial began. The Crown case was that she had either hypnotised or brainwashed the children into making allegations against Barry, that she had manipulated police and doctors in Taree into arresting and scheduling him to enter a psychiatric hospital on several occasions and that she had deliberately set out to take Barry’s business from him.
Barry, Thomas and Newell were the main prosecution witnesses. Dozens of other witnesses backed them up on minor points.
Much of the evidence was circumstantial and there were weaknesses and conflicting evidence in both the prosecution and defence cases.
An important defence witness for Roseanne was Errol Taylor, who gave evidence that Barry had fixed a truck damaged by Thomas in a car accident. Taylor told the court Barry told him a deal was done with the truck owner to accept the blame in return for getting an insurance claim of $12,000. “He said he had Detective Thomas in his pocket he had done him a favour.” Barry denied this conversation.
After Roseanne was convicted of assault, possessing weapons, threats to kill, perjury and fraud, a victorious Thomas told the media he was confident he would be cleared of fresh complaints she had made against him as a result of the case and that he might reopen the arson case.
Meantime, Barry, who had never been seriously injured, was back in charge of the motor repair business.
The children, who had given evidence for Roseanne, told the Illawarra Mercury that she had suffered only because she had tried to help them.
Two years later two of the children signed statements retracting their allegations of assault against Barry.
In 1995 the Ombudsman found that Thomas had wrongfully disposed of Roseanne’s Catt’s property, but that, because he had left the force, there would be no penalties. He could not determine where the truth lay in a charge of stealing money.
In the same year, Taylor and Williams took information on Thomas’s activities to the NSW royal commission on police corruption. Commission staff wrote to Taylor to say they were investigating. He never heard anything more.
Roseanne, meanwhile, with no money and physically and emotionally exhausted, sat in prison.
Roseanne’s lawyer, Bruce Miles, is writing to the NSW Attorney-General, Bob Debus, asking for an inquiry into Roseanne’s case in the light of information that has come to hand about the activities of Thomas.
Other stories about the activities of Peter Thomas appeared in the Herald on Saturday and yesterday, and can be found at www.smh.com.au.