24 February, 2010
"If I can't have her, no-one else will"
Josef Plevac was a Czech immigrant who arrived in Australia in 1977 with his first wife, and daughters Eva and Martina. They divorced one year later, and he married his second wife Dana in 1984. They separated in October 1988. He remained living at their former home in Bossley Park, while Dana and their 5-year-old daughter moved into a flat on the 14th floor of a building in Parramatta. The marriage had been a violent one, and although Josef claimed to be on good terms with his wife, she had taken out a restraining order against him. She was particularly worried Josef would take Natalie away from her, and return to the Czech Republic to live with his mother and other family there.
In February 1989 there was a fire at the Bossley Park home, which destroyed it completely. Josef suffered severe burns and was in hospital for some time, and continued to have regular treatment for his burns. He was initially charged with arson, but the prosecution was later abandoned.
Dana was getting on with her life - she worked as a paymistress, and through this she met Timothy Sullivan. Tim had been in WA looking for a new job and a new home, and Dana had gone over to join him for some time. She came back to Sydney in September to make arrangements for a final move over to WA with Natalie to join Tim. Josef, who worked as a milkman, had also begun dating again, occasionally seeing a woman named Betty Corbis.
At about 8:30am on the morning of September 22nd, Dana and Natalie left their apartment. Dana would take Natalie to school as usual, then head off to her work. As they were making their way to the lift, they were surprised by a man wearing a balaclava. Before they could move, he doused Dana in petrol and set her alight with a match. Screaming, Natalie ran to the closest apartment and was pulled inside to safety. Dana fell to the ground and crawled into the lift. The building manager, alerted by the alarm system that there was a fire on level 14, pressed the lift button. When it arrived at the ground floor, the doors opened to he saw Dana "was very much alight and screaming for help. She came out of the lift, she stopped and she fell over and the flames blew up ... and she was lying there. She was pretty much burning."
Still alive, she was rushed to Westmead Hospital. Before lapsing into unconsciousness, she said she did not know who the masked attacker was, but she was sure it was not her husband Josef, or her boyfriend Tim. She could not be revived, and died in hospital later that day, as a result of third-degree burns to 90% of her body.
A resident of a 2nd-floor unit was about to walk down the stairs when she smelled smoke, and heard a woman crying for help. She saw a man who was naked from the waist up running down the stairs. She saw burns on his back and a bandage on his arm, and he was carrying clothing. He continued running out of the building.
Josef was pulled over by police on Woodville Rd, Parramatta at about 4.20pm that afternoon. He immediately denied killing his wife, and told police he had bought some petrol at a service station that morning, then headed to Katoomba where he had a haircut, before returning to Sydney to visit a friend. He told police he had not seen his wife for several days.
However at his trial he agreed he was in her apartment building that morning. He claimed that Dana still did his ironing, and he had arranged to pick up some shirts from her that morning before going to work. Because he didn't want to be seen breaching his restraining order, he said Dana had told him to wait in the stairwell. He did so, and took his shirt off, so he could put a fresh one on straight away.
Josef said that while he was waiting in the stairwell he heard his wife and daughter screaming, and when he opened the door he saw a man "in black - in blue tracksuit, towel over head - over neck, on the left shoulder, jumping and running down." He saw a fire and panicked, running back to his car. Many witnesses saw a shirtless man running in the area near the apartment, and Josef did not deny that this would have been him.
He then headed to to Katoomba where he went to a hairdresser at about 11:30am. The hairdresser was interviewed, and said that she detected a sooty-like substance in his hair. An assistant at the salon also said he smelt like petrol. Afterwards phoned Betty, and dropped in to visit her at around 3:30pm. She immediately remarked upon his haircut, as she'd seen him the night before. He said he'd had his hair cut in Fairfield. While he was there, he asked her to phone Dana's work for him. She did so, and was told what had happened. When she told Josef Dana was dead, she said he looked shocked, and said "I don't believe it. It can't be"
The police noticed some burns on Josef, and he said these were old burns, from the fire at Bossley Park back in February. A medical officer was called, and gave his opinion that the raw, weeping burns he saw on Josef's upper arm and left side of his chest and abdomen had occurred within the last 24 hours. Josef then agreed that he had received those burns that morning. He said "I saw Dana, and how she was holding clothes - it must have been my clean clothes, it was in the fire. I jumped towards her because I got bandage on my hand. I pull everything out and I must have been burnt, I don't know, and at that stage I completely lost it. I know now, but at that stage I lost it, panicked and I ran. I ran to my car."
Further evidence began to emerge regarding the state of the relationship between Josef and Dana. Eva, Josef's daughter from his first marriage, had visited him in hospital shortly before September 22, where he was receiving continuing treatment for the Bossley Park burns. She said Josef had found out about Dana's relationship with Tim, and complained that he wanted his wife back. He said he felt she had rejected him because he was scarred and ugly and said he wished "she could feel one bit of the pain he was in." Josef agreed he made these comments, but said he was referring to emotional pain, not physical pain. "I was thinking about pain which was in my heart and how I was missing her, nothing else. I didn't kill my wife, I am innocent and if they do a proper job they will find the real killer. That is all what I think."
Garage-owner Antony Valenti knew Josef, who was a regular customer and chatted to him often. Josef had said on many occasions "I can't live without her. I wont let her stay without me. If I can't have her, no-one else will."
The console-operator of a local service station also knew Josef as a regular customer, and said he had called in at around 6:30am on the morning of 22 September and bought about 15L of petrol, but he didn't notice whether Josef put it into his car, or a container. 15L was more petrol than would have fitted into the container found at the crime scene.
Natalie Plevac gave evidence at trial, and said she remembered a man splashing something out of a bucket upon her mother and that she went up in flames. The man said nothing, and she saw him go out through an exit door close to the lifts. She ran to get help:
"Q: Can you describe that man any more than in the way you have described him?
Q: Are you able to recognise that person?
A: Well sort of.
Q: What do you mean 'sort of'?
A: Well I could tell it could have been - it was my dad because, well my mum was wearing high heels and he was about the same height was her, and because of the build.
Q: That is as far as you can say that it could have been?
A: Well, and there was a phone call the night before and it was my dad."
In cross-examination Natalie confirmed that all she could remember was that the man seemed to be dressed all in black and she could not see his face, which was totally covered except his eyes, nor could she see his hair:
"Q: Now, would I be right if I said to you that when you saw that happen on the day you did not know who that man was. Would that be right or not?
Q: And would I be right in saying that you did not know who it was because, well I guess you did not see him for long enough, would that be right?
Q: Would it be right that there was nothing about him that you saw that brought to your mind any person that you knew?
Q: See, was it the situation that when you saw him on that day and got yourself into the unit of these other people, that you did not know who that man was. Would that be right?
She confirmed that she told police that she did not know who the man was.
At trial the defence objected to any reference to the restraining order, submitting that it was not relevant to the case. Josef claimed that Dana had no fear of him, and that he had only agreed to the order because of her fear that he would take Natalie to the Czech Republic, which he said was completely unfounded. This was overruled, particularly in light of the evidence of several witnesses who had observed their relationship and testified that Josef had been particularly violent towards Dana. Josef stated "it is true that I called Dana by bad names, ill-treat her, but I was always sorry and apologised to her. I don't looking for any excuse because there is no excuse for my behaviour."
Tim Sullivan in particular gave evidence that Josef had previously tried to run him off the road. He said he was driving near Natalie's kindergarten, when Josef pulled up alongside him and swerved at him, causing Tim to mount the median strip to avoid a collision. The defence objected to his evidence, but was overruled by the Judge, who felt Josef's reaction, upon seeing Tim with Dana and Natalie, was relevant given Josef's statement that if he couldn't have Dana, no-one would.
Josef was convicted of murder, and sentenced to life imprisonment. He immediately appealed the verdict. In addition to the objections mentioned above, Josef claimed he had been denied a fair trial because a letter written by Dana had not been used in his evidence, apparently at the advice of his lawyers. He stated that his mother sent him this letter in August 1994, saying she had received it from an anonymous person in Australia. It was an undated, typed letter signed "Dana" and addressed to "Jitka". Josef said Jitka Klasek was a friend of his wife's who was now deceased, and that he recognised his wife's signature at the bottom:
And why am I writing to you? I am now having problems with Pepa [Josef]. He will be going to court in three weeks over the house fire and the problem is in that he knows who has done it and also has evidence. For this reason it would be good if you could extend your holiday stay until such time that Pepa's court hearings are over. He now runs wild, searching for more evidence. You do not have to worry. I talked to Robert [Jitka's son] today and he would visit me on Friday with his friend. They already worked out a plan how to stop Pepa and get him finally to prison. As you know, Pepa is presently alone and everybody is against him. However, he trusts me and therefore it will be no problem. The only problem is with Natalie who talks about Pepa all the time and wants to be with him. However, she will forget about him in time, the same way Eva and Martina forgot [Josef's daughters from his first marriage].
When you ring me on the telephone please be careful because I do not know what Pepa is doing now. Even Pepa's solicitor does not want to talk to me any more about Pepa's problems and it takes me a bit of time to learn everything.
Make the best of your holiday and do not worry at all as I and Robert have everything under control. On Friday I will write you another letter about the outcome of all this.
The 'court proceedings' referred to are the arson charges relating to the Bossley Park fire, which were abandoned after Josef received the life sentence for Dana's murder. Josef felt this letter was proof of a conspiracy by his wife to frame him for her murder.
The Crown submitted that the letter was a fake. The Appeal Court found that Josef's theory was "quite fanciful", and that the jury would still not have acquitted him if they had seen it. The Court confirmed his conviction and life sentence, confirming the Judge's view that this was a "callous, planned and appalling murder."
In 2004 Josef Plevac applied to have his life sentence re-determined under the new "Truth in Sentencing" regime, which was brought in to do away with the existing sentences of 'life'. These life sentences were now thought to be too harsh for human beings, giving them no prospect of release, no light at the end of the tunnel to encourage them to rehabilitate themselves. Previously, almost everyone convicted of murder received a life sentence (i.e. for the term of his/her natural life), unless significant mitigating circumstances could be demonstrated. Now, only a handful of extremely serious cases warrant a life sentence. The Anita Cobby killers are one example.
Josef's lawyers pointed out that by now Josef had spent 15 years in prison, and was 56 years old. During his incarceration he had been a 'model prisoner'. He had completed a manufacturing and engineering program through TAFE, and received good reference from the prison workshop. He was described as polite, co-operative, and a good worker. He also completed a Christian instruction program and had references from an Anglican chaplain and a Catholic priest. His daughter Natalie was being cared for by his first wife, and had minimal contact with him, although he knew she was at university.
Nonetheless he maintained he is innocent of his wife's murder, and that she was involved in arranging the fire at the Bossley Park house, and wanted him dead. "The more Mr Plevac was questioned about the offence, the more evasive he became. Eventually he stated that he knew the true facts about the murder but could not disclose them to a government worker."
A psychologist reported that "he does not seem to have any social support and may be quite lonely. He is grieving over the loss of contact with his daughter from his second marriage as she is now in the custody of his first wife... Furthermore, he has to live with the fact that he is serving a life sentence when he claims he is innocent."
The Crown opposed Josef's application, submitting that the life sentence should stay in place, but if the court was going to set a non-parole period, the remainder of his sentence should still be for life, so that he is effectively on parole forever. The Crown reminded the court that the killing was pre-meditated and planned, with little regard to his daughter's safety, and the fact that Josef had taken active steps to hide his involvement by going to Katoomba to have his haircut, in order to destroy incriminating evidence, as well as distance himself from the scene of the crime. He had shown no remorse for his actions, and there was a risk he could re-offend, particularly if he became involved with another woman.
The Court granted Josef's application. It set a sentence of 25 years, with a non-parole period of 19 years. He appealed this sentence as still being too harsh, but the appeal was rejected.
Josef Plevac was eligible for release on 21 September 2008.