Part two of The Saturday Paper’s report on the brutal killing of 11-month-old Zayden Veal-Whitting, and the court case that followed. (Part one.)By Martin McKenzie-Murray.
Catching teenage baby murderer Harley Hicks
Casey Veal had met her baby’s killer before, had counselled him in fact. She tells me this between reaching to tickle her surviving child, Xavier, 5, and angrily chopping vegetables in the kitchen.
It happened about eight years before Harley Hicks crept into her Bendigo home and, without motive or explanation, beat her 11-month-old to death in his cot. They were both about 14 when Casey saw Harley slumped alone on a hill at the school where they were students. He was crying. “He’d been beaten up. Again. He was this little scrawny kid and I told him to come down and sit with my friends. I asked my male friends to look after him, make sure he didn’t get beaten again. I felt sorry for him. He had a bad family life. All of that’s public now. Then he disappeared about a year later. Got expelled. I never heard from him again until this happened. He doesn’t remember me, guaranteed. He looks at me now and … nothing.”
Harley Hicks finished a sausage roll in Alan Smith’s kitchen. It was 3am on the night he killed Zayden Veal-Whitting. Nothing was said about what had happened. Smith had no idea a child
had just been murdered. Harley looked up at the church volunteer who had become a mentor of types and asked to be dropped home.
Back inside his Green Street house, Harley dumped his loot on the bench, then lit a cigarette with his half-brother, Josh. They smoked in the lounge room. Awoken, Harley’s girlfriend, Marty, got up, too. She later testified of this moment that Harley seemed “excited” – a wild product of meth and murder – and that Josh mixed a blend of tobacco and marijuana. It was never not the time to get high.
Then Harley realised: he’d left his bag in the back of Alan’s car. The one with the baton, the implement of his evil. He called Alan immediately, waking him for the second time that night, and demanded he drive back over with it. Alan demurred. “I’ll drop it off later.”
“No, I need it now,” Harley told him.
“It’s got my mull in it.”
Alan wasn’t impressed, but he got out of bed and drove back to Green Street. When he came inside he found Harley watching TV with Marty. He dropped the bag on the floor and walked out of the dishevelled place, which was filled with cigarette smoke. As he drove home he questioned the wisdom of his unerring support for the kid. He got back to his bed and sausage rolls, not knowing he had just couriered a murderer’s weapon back to him. He would question that wisdom again when it all came out later.
Next morning, before anyone was up, Marty went to the doctor to check on her pregnancy. When she returned before lunch, her housemates were all still asleep. So it was. Despite the density of bodies there, there was isolation and indifference. No one went with her. Probably no one thought to go with her. When they finally rose, they began to go through the loot on the table – an Xbox, sunglasses, mobile phones, an electronic scale – and made dibs on the items.
Harley knew the heat was on. He wanted out of Bendigo. He and Marty were due in Gisborne on Sunday – some 100 kilometres from town – for Marty’s family dinner. It was a birthday, actually – Marty’s sister’s husband, Peter. That bought him an excuse. They should go early, he told Marty. Like, today. They could stay at Marty’s sister Brooke’s place tonight and tomorrow because they weren’t due back from Brisbane until Sunday. Marty agreed.
Before they hit the road that Friday, Harley bleached his hair Eminem blond. As they left town, in Marty’s small blue Barina, Harley wore the sunglasses he had stolen from Casey’s house and a pair of motorbike boots he’d lifted the night before. Harley Hicks, outlaw.
Casey knows a lot about the Hicks family – much more than she’d like to. Until recently, when the trial for her son’s murder resolved this April, Casey was gagged from speaking about what she knew, or how she felt, lest she be found in contempt. “It was beyond frustrating,” she tells me. The Hicks side was less circumspect, regularly publishing claims of Harley’s innocence, or Casey’s deceit, on social media. It got so bad that Victoria Police issued a statement asking people not to discuss the case publicly. Commentary shifted to less controversial statements of support for the accused. On April 9, Harley’s twin brother, Ash, posted this: “My dearest brother my best friend my rock my twin I love you from the moon and back and beyond no matter what happens keep ur chin up we will fight this we are fighters and believe me matey we will raise the roof and fly once more my little man.”
Casey’s tongue is freed now, and she’s rapidly voicing her anger to me. The trial of Harley Hicks slumped often into sour farce because of the agitations of the accused’s family. They were, however, gamely monitored by a jury who brought examples of collusion, coaching and intimidation to the judge. Much of this is bloodlessly recorded in the transcript, but when Casey recounts it she looks like a prizefighter steeling herself in the corner. “They yelled abuse at me. Or sniggered at me. Or they sat there kicking the backs of the chairs in court. Detectives had to tell them to act as adults. Leaving court one day, Ash and Jodie Tansley – Harley’s fiancée – started up at me. It was along the lines of, ‘You’ll get your day, you fat bitch. You’ll get what’s coming to you, you lying piece of shit.’ Then cops said to them: ‘Shut your face, scumbags.’ The cops were supportive.”
Harley never took the stand. Nor did Jodie, who proposed to the killer while he was awaiting court, but she was an agent of mayhem during the trial. By this point, Marty, Harley’s former girlfriend, had long left the state, partially from fear. Jodie was a vulgar and petulant presence, abusing media outside the court and intimidating witnesses within. Jurors noted her leaving the courtroom immediately after witnesses were excused, and sometimes following them into toilets.
Jodie was also seen passing notes to forthcoming witnesses. Her Facebook page featured a banner photo of her beloved, taken back when the meth kept him thin, and scrawled with saccharine declarations of love. During the trial, detectives would joke with Casey that theirs would be a long engagement. “They have a sense of humour,” she says now of the police. “They have to. We have to.”
And Jodie wasn’t the only one drawing attention to herself. Upon taking the witness stand, Harley’s father, John, winked at his son. He was subsequently cautioned by the judge. After which, John Hicks’ testimony was smudged by incongruous flippancy. The prosecution asked him about the evening of June 14, 2012. “Did he [Ash] come home and did you watch the football?”
John Hicks replied: “Sure did. With disgust.”
“With disgust, ’cause Carlton lost.”
Harley’s mother was rebuked for taking photos in court, while Harley himself was cautioned for coaching his twin brother with a series of unsuccessfully clandestine gestures. Harley argued that they were not deliberate, but the involuntary tics of mental anguish. “I’m not doing too well,” he told the judge, but the jury were awake to the pattern of subterfuge and were later congratulated by the judge for their attentiveness.
The Hicks family’s contempt for court and Casey was most fierce outside. When she tells me the following, Casey sits on the edge of her couch and fixes her dark eyes on me. “Before the committal hearing, I had an altercation with Josh when he had his kid with him. I walked past him and he said something to me and I turned around and called him a junkie. He and his lovely toothless girlfriend decided that they would start calling me a rat or a dog and I lost it. I had Xavier with me at the time and I lost it. I dropped the c-word on them. And then I really lost it when they picked up their kid and he [Josh] told me, ‘At least I’ve got this. You don’t have this, do ya?’ I wanted to break him, but Xavier grabbed my hand and said, ‘Don’t say naughty words, let’s get a coffee’, and I snapped out of it. But that’s the kind of lovely people they are.”
Casey tells me that on another occasion, during a trial break, the Hickses sent over a family member to hassle her. “I wanted to flatten that guy so bad. I was so angry I walked away from the media around the corner and punched a wall. He literally came over and said to me: ‘This is crap, he didn’t kill anyone and what does it matter, it’s just a baby.’ I let it go and let it go, but after five minutes of him ranting and raving, I told him to shut up with a few swear words. He called me a liar.
“I’ve also had them come into my workplace – his identical twin brother or Josh. It became that regular… I thought initially it was an accident, but they actually came in one day and stayed in my department for 20 minutes. They had their kid with them, too.”
Casey’s partner is nodding furiously, and breaks his silence. He had been with Casey every day of the trial. “‘Feral scumbag junkies is the best way I can describe his family. We were standing outside court in the middle of the rain, in the freezing cold, and they’ve taken the blankets off their babies to shield Harley from the media cameras, even though the internet is full of pictures of him. Wouldn’t you think that you would protect your baby and keep them warm than preference the fucking guy who killed a baby? That’s the sort of logic they use.”
On the run
Harley and Marty got comfortable at Brooke’s place, he indulgently and haphazardly dumping items and clothes around the house, just like at Green Street. Then he began cutting up his trackpants with scissors, the ones he had worn the night before, and dumping the pieces in their street bin. That evening they went into Brooke’s bedroom, where Peter had linked their computer to the big television, to watch a movie. They selected Men in Black 3. But Harley couldn’t watch it all the way through before wanting to Google himself. He needed to know if police knew. He needed to know if he was a suspect.
Stopping the film, Harley summoned the web on the television. Marty could see what he was doing, she was sitting beside him watching the words he typed appear on the screen. Harley wanted to bring up the local paper, and began typing, “Bendigo Ad…” Google apprehended his intention, and the link to the news site came up. Harley clicked, and there he was. Marty could see the headlines, too. There were stories on burglaries and the murder of a baby. And there were photos of Harley. Marty didn’t say anything, though, and they eventually went back to watching Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones destroy computer-generated aliens.
Marty stayed with Harley until August, two months after the murder. Was it wilful denial? Did she sense the score, but was terrified to speak up? Or was she so mindless, so myopic, that she didn’t suspect anything? Was their relationship so attenuated, so cold and unknowing, that Harley’s behaviour sparked no interest, no questions? Whichever way you look at it, it’s deadening.
Casey tells me that Marty has been in contact with her. Casey says she is filled with regret, tells me that Marty has said the reason she stuck around so long was twofold: fear and a need to draw a confession out of Harley. “She’s very happy to tell people that the baby is not Harley’s,” she tells me. “Very happy … She knows what the Hickses are like. She had to get away from them all.”
Police close in
An arrest warrant was issued for Harley Hicks. His brothers had told him the cops were looking for him, and using Marty’s phone he texted them back asking for the stolen Xbox to be stashed in the rusting car out front. Harley went to Sunday dinner at Marty’s mum’s caravan and ate lamb. Then on Monday he fled, sleeping the night on a footy oval. This couldn’t go on. He called his dad to pick him up, but police were now surveilling John.
On the Calder Highway, Victoria Police made an intercept. When they opened the car, they found Harley in the back seat under a blanket. He was arrested for theft and burglary, but not yet for murder. Detective Tom Harper, who knew Harley – had dealt with him many times before – came up beside the police car. Harley was handcuffed in the back. Harper fetched Harley a cigarette, opened the door and gave it to him. Then he lit one for himself and crouched beside the door. “We’ve known each other a long time, Harley,” he told him. “And you’re in a bit of strife. We need to know what’s happened – a baby has died.”
From that point, right until he signed an affidavit nearly two years later rescinding all of the statements, Harley Hicks pinned the murder on an old rival, Aiden Kirby. Kirby, Harley told police, had been with him on the night of the murder, had helped do the burgs. But Aiden hadn’t seen Harley for two years, and had a rock-solid alibi for that evening. Police quickly ruled him out. He would later post on his Facebook page: “I had fuck all to do with Harley hicks an his retarded dog family I really hope you get got with that tooth brush with a razor in the end hahaha getting kicks to the face an head that’s jus the beginning wait till ya start feeling worm water ruin down ya neck haha have fun with the big boys Harley there gun eat you alive no matter were you go you’ll have alot of funn in the bone yard doggg hahahahahaha.”
Harley’s lies didn’t surprise Casey’s partner. Nor did he think much of him running his mouth. “He opened his mouth straight away. You watch any of the old gangster movies, any of the old drug movies, anything like that, they don’t say anything, man. Same in real life. Tupac’s last words to the police were ‘fuck you’ because he wasn’t a snitch. He [Hicks] started talking straight away. He’s full of shit. And that’s the way it’s been for two years.”
Fear and frustration
About two months after the murder, while the Department of Human Services still had Xavier in state custody, Casey made a bonfire. Pure catharsis. “I burnt that cot. Broke it down, then burnt it so that no other child would ever lie in it again. There was nothing wrong with it, but it was bad omen. And it made me feel good, with the rage I had, just to burn it. I was frustrated because I didn’t have Xavier. We had a massive bonfire with it. I burnt a heap of DHS orders, too, to try and get rid of all that stress. It made me feel a bit better for a while.”
Casey and her partner hoped Harley Hicks would get life with a minimum of 25 years served before parole. During the sentencing hearings, the Crown evoked “evil” as if it were a talisman against the mystery of it. It seems perverse, but an explicable motive would tamp the horror a little for those involved. Harley had the chance to beat others, but fled. The only person he struck that night was the baby he killed. He was sentenced on Friday to life in prison.
This week Hicks received a life sentence, and will serve a minimum of 32 years in jail before parole. His time inside will not be kind. During the trial he was often kept in a protective unit after being threatened by other prisoners. Now convicted, he might try telling others that he didn’t do it, that the coppers stitched him up. It won’t matter.
Casey and Xavier aren’t in a good spot, either. Casey fears the day when Xavier’s old enough to hear street whispers about him when he walks past; is anxious about him finding out details alone on the internet. I ask her if she wants to leave Bendigo. “I don’t really get a choice. I’m stuck here, in this hole. I hate it. It’s an ice-filled hole.”
If nothing else, Casey’s soul is at least soldered by the belief that nothing worse could happen. The murder of her youngest son has stiffened her with fatalism. It’s an intense, and probably necessary, fatalism. Casey’s lot in the badlands.
Read Part one.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 14, 2014 as "Catching a teenage murderer". Subscribe here.