A mother wakes to find her baby beaten to death in his cot, murdered by an ice-addicted stranger. Here, part one in a two-part series. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Tracing the path of teenage baby killer Harley Hicks

Casey Veal wears a T-shirt printed with the face of her murdered son Zayden.
Casey Veal wears a T-shirt printed with the face of her murdered son Zayden.

Had he visited the following night, he wouldn’t have found them. But he didn’t. He came on Thursday. As Casey Veal tells it, she went to bed that night a mother of two and by the next afternoon had no children. Casey lived with her partner, Matt Tisell, in Long Gully, Bendigo, and on June 14, 2012 was spending her last night in the house watching Law & Order. The next day they were moving. Most items were boxed. The bond money for the new rental was tucked inside Matt’s wallet on the kitchen bench.

The outrageous fortune that followed is pinched by this fact, that it was their last night there. Today, Casey can picture a cosmos of alternatives, each one possible had only the tiniest thing been changed. Mundane things – locks, dates, depth of sleep, barking dogs – are now charged with a miserable profundity. Casey lives with what happened, but also the near-infinite possibilities of how it might have been avoided. 

Casey was watching the crime show when Matt got home about 10 o’clock that night. He had been driving all day from Adelaide. The kids, Zayden and Xavier – of whom Matt wasn’t the father – were in bed. Zayden was 11 months old; “X-man” was nearly three. Their dog Tooki was also secured for the night, locked in the laundry. She was in heat and consigned to the tiled room to contain the blood. 

They’d have some tidying to do tomorrow. The backyard was spotted with cigarette butts and crushed Jim Beam and Cola cans, mostly refuse from when Matt had the boys over for drinks to acknowledge their work fixing Casey’s Commodore. The car was still on blocks, near a rusting Corolla, and a couple of mangy couches that Tooki slept on. But all that could wait. Matt was stuffed, and he had work the next day – he was a removalist, as it was. 

Not long before they went to bed, Zayden woke. It was about 1.30am. Casey fixed a bottle, pulled up the blankets and lowered his teddy bear into the cot. Zayden was wearing red and grey striped pyjamas. He quickly went back to sleep. Relieved, Casey shut the door behind her and went to bed. 

Xavier woke them around 6.30, jumping on their bed and demanding breakfast. Casey was groggy and sent her son out to play with her iPhone while she adjusted to daylight. She hadn’t had much sleep. Quickly, Xavier ran back. “Doors open!” he piped, excitedly aware of its strangeness, but innocently unaware of its significance. “Doors open!” Now five, he’s still only slightly more aware. It will be some years before the gravity finds him. 

Casey got straight out of bed and realised her son was right: both front and back doors were open. The back door was unlocked the previous night, had in fact always been unlocked – Casey later testified that the lock was broken and multiple appeals to the landlord had been ignored. She could not be sure about the front lock – had they employed it the night before? – and Casey rushed to Zayden’s room and peeked in. He appeared to be sleeping. She looked in Xavier’s room; that appeared untouched also. But Matt’s wallet was gone from the kitchen bench, bizarrely replaced with a block of cheese that she was sure had been returned to the fridge the night before. She looked out the back and saw the front doors of her Commodore open. There was no doubt: they’d been burgled. She yelled to Matt, who was still in bed, to call the police. 

Strange that Zayden wasn’t woken by all this commotion, Casey thought. He was such a light sleeper. But he was sick, the little man. He must be so tired. Casey revisited his room, this time noticing the baby monitor was unplugged. She pressed the power back in the socket and approached the cot. Casey noticed the blanket was pulled all the way up to Zayden’s nose, which wasn’t right. He hated anything being around his nose, plus “he was in a really weird place to where he normally slept because he always slept in the same spot”. Casey pulled the blanket back and gasped. Her baby’s face was grotesquely swollen and darkened with bruising. There was blood around his mouth and on the sheets. 

Matt was in the bathroom when he heard Casey scream. Xavier, who had silently come up behind his mother, saw his bloodied baby brother and he screamed, too. It was a sustained and shattering scream. Matt came running. He saw Casey cradling Zayden, saw that the child was blue, limp and severely bruised. Matt touched him, and felt that he was very cold, so he took him from Casey and carried him over beside the heater to warm him. Casey called for an ambulance. 

At 7.29am, paramedic Chris Dickson got the call on the radio. “Cardiac-respiratory arrest/death of paediatric.” He flicked the lights and siren and hurtled towards Eaglehawk Road. He arrived at 7.36. Matt was waiting at the front of the house, shaking with manic impatience. “Fucking hurry up, somebody’s broken in and bashed him!” he shouted, as Chris and his colleague Laura jumped out. It is not for paramedics to adjudicate these statements, not for them to formulate suspicion. But they knew the score, had attended scenes of domestic violence before. The family was almost always responsible. Beelzebub didn’t break into random homes and smash babies. 

The paramedics brought in a cardiac monitor, oxygen and airway bags. They saw Zayden on the floor of the lounge by the heater. Casey was crouched over him. They gently moved her aside and Laura knelt at the baby’s feet. They knew it was critical: their patient was motionless, dried blood fixed to his lips and teeth, and cyanosis was established – blood was no longer being ferried around his tiny body by haemoglobin, and its absence made his skin blue. Laura checked for a pulse. Nothing. The paramedics looked at each other. “Let’s load and go,” Chris said. Casey screamed again.

Chris and Laura raced Zayden into the back of the ambulance, and Casey and Matt followed numbly. Laura continued CPR, before cutting open Zayden’s pyjama top and applying defibrillation pads to his chest for the monitor. Still nothing. Zayden had an asystolic heart rhythm, which meant that there was none. They applied an oxygen mask, and another medical unit arrived. Paramedic Dale Prentice took Chris’s ambulance keys, and drove with Casey in the front passenger seat. Chris and Laura continued to work on Zayden in the back as they sped towards Bendigo hospital and definitive care. Matt stayed behind, wondering what weird and savage bolt had struck them. They were meant to be moving today. 

1 . Suburban mayhem

Evil lived unchallenged on Green Street, in a small house jammed with teenagers, an ex-con and a baby. Their number was swollen daily by friends chasing cones or crystal meth. There were three dogs roaming inside and out, and the occupants slept on couches or loose mattresses. This is what freedom looked like: a crowded rental, organised around drugs and the telly. 

Damion slept in the front room on the right. He’d just got out of jail, and a condition of his parole was a stable address. For the legal purposes of his release, “stable” was defined broadly,
its definition unthreatened by the psychic turbulences of a place filled with grubby excess. 

Josh slept in a back room with his pregnant girlfriend, Danni. Danni used to date Josh’s half-brother Ash, so Ash didn’t come over much anymore. “I didn’t want anything to do with them. I wanted to beat his head in,” Ash later testified. In the third bedroom slept Josh’s other half-brother Harley Hicks – Ash’s twin – with his girlfriend, Marty, and her baby Zali. Marty was pregnant with another child, though not to Harley. They’d only started dating two months prior. Harley was 19, the median age of the occupants. He was small and rat-like, though it’s easy to anthropomorphise the devil. He was thin, his gauntness a measure of the meth, and he got around in trackpants and T-shirts. A tattoo was inked on the right side of his neck, down his right arm and on his chest.    

Pinned above the front door of Green Street was an Australian flag, and rusting near it on the driveway an abandoned car that had been converted into a sort of garbage bin – a place to dump the miscellanea of a house like this. The material shabbiness of the place matched the interior lives of its occupants. Ash would later say: “Their house was just trashed. There was just shit everywhere. There’s just too many people … You barely breathe in that house, let alone move around.” 

We don’t know what was centrally important to the individuals of Green Street, other than the shared fact of having a place in which to be idle. For existential sustenance, Marty had Zali. Pragmatically, Damo had his parole home, however jeopardised by the drug sessions. Harley, though, wasn’t much interested in being a father figure to Marty’s kid. He was gone for long periods, either to score or burglarise homes. The putrid spectre that hung over Green Street was that the question of what was centrally important was either obscured by, or found in, their carnival of petty crime and drugged devotion to computer games. They knew little about each other; knew or cared less that their house was a Petri dish for evil. Their importance to each other was largely subconscious – to validate each other’s long drift. 

Neighbours would later express nauseated surprise – “that guy lived over there?” – but could never reconcile the horror with their annoyance at the noise and human traffic across the street. They should have. It was all there. The latency of evil is rarely found in dank caves, but in drab things closer to home. German political philosopher Hannah Arendt found the banality of evil in bureaucratic deference, but here it was in a home of parties, emotional inarticulacy and spastic visions of masculinity. 

2 . Surviving tragedy

Casey Veal, now 24, has moved to central Bendigo, but I won’t say where. She has been menaced by the Hicks family several times since the murder. When I arrive at her new house, I see her red Commodore parked outside. She has a new partner and, after five months in state care, Xavier has been returned to her. On the day of the murder, the Department of Human Services took him into protective custody. While police ruled out her and Matt early as suspects, Xavier could not be released until police had arrested someone.

It’s a modest house with a flyscreen door, set back from the street by a deep front lawn. Two large puppies, one salvaged from the pound only days earlier and showing ribs, leap around the couches. Xavier wrestles ebulliently with them. They’re fed well tonight, and the adopted puppy is gaining strength. He’s being well looked after. In this small room, with Friends playing in the background, their farts release a sweet malignance. The room is a shrine, and three of the four walls are ringed with photos of Zayden. In one shot, Xavier is kissing him. There are framed photos of Zayden on the mantelpiece, and a portrait of John Lennon on the wall to the right. The whole place is messy and crowded, but there’s love here. Casey’s new partner seems gentle and thoughtful. 

Casey is sitting on the couch wearing a white T-shirt with Zayden’s face on it. Her hair’s tied back. She seems tough, but her eyes are haunted. “If anything happened to Xavier now, I wouldn’t survive it,” she tells me. “If I didn’t have little man here,” she points to her son, “I probably would have died not long after Zayden did. There was no motivation to live for months, because Xavier was taken from me and Zayden was gone. To get out of bed, there was no point.” 

Her partner tells me: “Something is always reminding her. Every day she has to live through it.” 

3 . Life in the badlands

Between the fibro homes, filthy yards and dead streets is the low buzz of an angry melancholy. Between the generations is unemployment. There’s despair, grit and gossip – the place has the dulled expectations of Purgatory. 

You can find these badlands anywhere in Australia, on the suburban fringes, regional centres or more remotely. This one is in Victoria’s Goldfields, in a suburb of Bendigo, near the old sites of colonial striving. Back then, everyone was on the make and gold was a less practical commodity to exploit than the desire to find some. Our institutions and civility were larvae, yet to be matured by time, bloodshed and British precedent. Today, among the plasterboard and shopping malls, between our bright walls of progress, there still exists an easy barbarism.

In a country with the highest use of methamphetamine in the developed world, this patch of Australia is one of the worst. Certain parts are vivid with pipe heads; they ghost streets and stations. Ice roughly provokes the production of dopamine and serotonin, curating periods of intense, self-obsessed ecstasy, but it does this at the expense of the factory – it wants everything inside. Sustained use – and “sustained” is common for something diabolically addictive – vandalises the parts of the brain responsible for mood regulation, making it decreasingly likely it will produce anything unaided. The ice game is a short one, and in chasing acute pleasure, or temporary oblivion, a generation out here is making future happiness neurologically implausible. Police, doctors and nurses wax nostalgic for the days when heroin was king. Limited mental health services are pushing a great boulder up a steep hill. 

4 . A taste for ice

Harley Hicks was known to the law many times over. He had a taste for ice, an addiction. His past transgressions included assault and burglary. When he was a kid, he torched property and tortured animals. Things that might distinguish a kid, make him a pariah even, but not in circles where no questions are asked, where criminal excess is silently permitted. 

On the evening of Thursday, June 14, 2012, Harley Hicks did some shard. Suddenly the cold chambers of his mind were flooded with demented ambition, and his scheme of mass burglaries charged with a loss of inhibition. Harley Hicks’s id was woken, and psychosis probably wasn’t far behind. So it is with ice: it quells moral apprehension and boosts the vitality of self. This sense of indomitability is further aided by a diminished receipt of pain, which police will tell you makes it a lot easier to inflict it on others. 

About 7pm, Hicks returned from his drug dealer Trent’s house with marijuana. The house had been smoking all day, Danni and Marty after they went shopping at Bendigo Marketplace because, being a Thursday, they’d received their welfare payments that morning. When Hicks left Green Street that evening, he was both changed and reinforced by the drug. It’s difficult to parse the difference. He was a guy who already didn’t give a fuck, his furious nihilism was only pronounced by the methamphetamine. 

About 8pm, wearing dark trackpants and a grey hoodie, Hicks slung a bag over his shoulder and left Green Street in search of loot secured within the homes, sheds and cars of Long Gully. The bag contained a homemade baton – multiple strands of copper wire wrapped in black electrical tape – which had been used often as a chew toy for the dogs. Between roughly 8pm and 2.30am, in a spell of wired industriousness, Hicks burglarised at least a dozen premises. He placed some items in his shoulder bag, and stashed others at secret locations around the neighbourhood.

Novak and Jen lived on Duncan Street. It was about 10.30pm and they were preparing for bed after watching a movie. Both had work the next morning, Novak as a meat inspector, his wife in a post office. Jen went to check the back lock on the glass sliding door, and from there saw that the rear gate wasn’t shut. She called to her husband.

“Why’d you leave the gate open?”

“I didn’t,” he yelled back. 

Novak grabbed a torch and went out, noticing his shed door was open. He knew he had shut it. He approached its entrance and shone his light inside. There was no one there. He scanned his items, determining if anything was gone. Novak didn’t realise that Hicks was standing in the shadows beside the shed, hood pulled over a head that was filling with noradrenaline, the chemical that triggers the flight or fight instinct. Hicks was nearly, not quite, cornered and he weighed his options. He decided on flight, bursting from the darkness and running past Novak towards the gate. Novak, temporarily flat-footed, yelled salty demands for him to stop. Hicks didn’t, so Novak followed, “chasing him in me moccasins”. Novak gave chase until Bolt Street, but Hicks had a lead and speed and he vanished. As Novak returned home, he discovered Hicks’s two sneakers and his torch, lost in flight. All would later be used against him as evidence, and the fact that he chose to flee rather than fight, against a greater threat than his most egregiously punished victim, used as proof of his cowardice and his mad, inscrutable motive. Shoeless, Hicks continued his spree. 

Hicks got to Eaglehawk Road early in the morning, and came in around the back. He saw the Commodore and tried the handles. Open. He rifled through the glove box, throwing its papers on the ground around the car. Then he tried the back door. Open. He moved through the house unheard. He saw Matt’s white, Quiksilver wallet and picked it up. Nearby were Matt’s sunnies, bought only the day before from a servo while he was on the road. Elsewhere, Hicks found a set of electronic scales and grabbed them, too. 

Hicks crept into Zayden’s room. He could see the bright LED lights on the baby monitor, which sat on a dresser pointed towards the cot. It was motion activated, and Hicks unplugged it before triggering it. Elsewhere in the room were bare cupboards, emptied in readiness for the move. Standing there, Hicks loomed over the child. He brought down his baton repeatedly. Giving evidence in his trial, a pathologist said there were gradations of force for blunt trauma. She put what happened in Zayden’s room at the “severe” end. Hicks struck the baby boy about 25 times, leaving the left side of his skull fractured in two places. The right side suffered a depressed fracture, pushing a part of the skull’s plate towards the brain. Zayden bled from his mouth and ears, and received bruises and abrasions to his face, chest, thighs and scrotum. 

Hicks went to a mate’s place. Alan Smith had known Harley since he was a kid and was something of a mentor to him. He volunteered at the local church and now lived with his mother as her carer. Alan wasn’t in great shape either – his prostate had been removed and he was frequently waking in the night when his bladder involuntarily emptied itself. 

About 3am, Alan woke to knocking on his back door. He wasn’t surprised to see Harley standing there, he’d told him to come over whenever he needed help, but he didn’t normally drop by at such times. Alan let him inside. The previous evening, Alan had made a large batch of sausage rolls and left them out on his kitchen bench to cool. Harley asked for one, and Alan obliged. As Alan watched him eat it, the young man spoke. “I need a lift home.”

Read Part two.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 7, 2014 as "Tracing the path of a teenage baby killer".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s associate editor.

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