How did the extravagant life of Melbourne interior designer Stuart Rattle end with his murder by partner Michael O’Neill? By Jan McGuinness.

What drove Michael O’Neill to murder Stuart Rattle?

Michael O’Neill arrives on Tuesday at the Supreme Court of Victoria.
Michael O’Neill arrives on Tuesday at the Supreme Court of Victoria.

A second summer of ruminating over the fallout from 2014’s most intriguing social scandal will occupy le tout Melbourne following Justice Elizabeth Hollingworth’s postponed sentencing of Michael O’Neill, 48, for the murder of his partner Stuart Rattle, at a plea hearing in the Supreme Court this week. 

Sentencing will happen as a priority when the court resumes in early February. Meanwhile, the two-day hearing at least made some sense of a case that has angered many, divided friends of the couple, saddened those who have lost two friends, devastated the lives of Rattle and O’Neill’s families, and continued to shock and surprise as the story dribbled out over the course of the year. 

And what a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction saga it is. Since Melbourne awoke to the news of Rattle’s death on December 9, 2013, in a suspicious house fire at the couple’s apartment above Stuart Rattle Interiors in Malvern Road, South Yarra, followed by O’Neill’s arrest two days later, the central question has been what prompted this sad and brutal end to a seemingly happy 16-year relationship.

Rattle, 53 at the time of his death, was Melbourne’s and arguably the country’s pre-eminent interior designer with a client list of the extraordinarily wealthy and well connected. He and O’Neill were a good-looking adornment to the social and art worlds, and chatelaines of an enviable country estate, Musk Farm. So why, as it emerged at O’Neill’s committal in September, did he hit Rattle on the head with a pan, strangle him to death and attempt five days later to disguise the crime in a house fire? O’Neill pleaded guilty to murder and arson but could provide no motive for the murder. 

As the Supreme Court heard this week, what it comes down to is that Rattle provided both the strength O’Neill’s dependent and submissive personality craved, and the criticism his narcissistic traits rebelled at – a conflicting recipe of needs that boiled over under extended pressure. And while there were many pressures simmering beneath the couple’s outwardly perfect existence, the breaking point for O’Neill was his sexuality.

Rattle was the more sexually driven and demanding of the two, the court heard, while O’Neill was conflicted and ashamed. So when Rattle called him a “frigid bitch” and “selfish” for refusing sex on the morning of December 4 last year, O’Neill snapped and hit Rattle with the pan he’d fetched to prepare breakfast. While Rattle was dazed he picked up a dog lead from the floor and strangled him until he was dead. O’Neill’s barrister, Ruth Shann, said her client told psychologist Dr Matthew Barth, “I felt so angry and demeaned, I was in a rage. It was always about what he wanted. I was just so run down and sick of it all. He would never listen.”

Remorse kicked in immediately and, as revealed at his September committal hearing, O’Neill proceeded to apologise to Rattle’s body, encased it in a sofa bag and propped it up in a re-made bed, and served the recently deceased a cup of tea. This performance continued for five days, with O’Neill seeing clients downstairs while making excuses for, and checking on, the “unwell” Rattle. He described ordering takeaway and pouring wine for two. Even tilting the television set for the deceased’s benefit.

The insouciance with which, between the murder and the fire, O’Neill began to plan Rattle’s funeral, kissed and hugged his family, contacted and dined with old friends, fulfilled social obligations and covered his tracks by texting friends and clients as Rattle from Rattle’s phone, fits with a lifelong coping mechanism of lying, shame, avoidance and repression, the Supreme Court heard this week, and is rooted in childhood taunts over his sexuality.

Friends, clients and suppliers to the interior design business the couple ran build a picture of someone who would lie even when the truth would do, and particularly when he felt inadequate. While acknowledging Irish origins, O’Neill made it known he was high Church of England, wanting to be thought Anglo-Irish, in keeping with other allusions to a privileged upbringing. But during the almost 17 years the couple was together, Rattle never met O’Neill’s parents – whom O’Neill claimed to have no contact with – while being heavily involved with Rattle’s parents, Jill and Ken. In fact, O’Neill was in frequent contact with his mother and, as Ruth Shann told the court, she visited Musk Farm over the years but only in Rattle’s absence. 

1 . The Talented Mr Ripley

Michael O’Neill is the second youngest of four boys and a girl born to working-class parents Anne and Mick O’Neill, who emigrated from Ireland when he was four. At first they farmed near Terang, a country town in Victoria’s Western District known for producing racehorses, AFL footballers, the Noble Prize-winning immunologist Sir Macfarlane Burnet and social commentator Bernard Salt. When the boys started secondary school the family moved into town, where Mick worked as an agricultural mechanic and repairman at an abattoir. 

In the Supreme Court this week, O’Neill’s youngest brother, Colin, described the Terang of their youth as a rural and socially conservative community of some 1200 people based around dairy farming, with limited, mostly sporting, pastimes for young people. In that environment, his brother’s childhood was difficult, he told the court.

“Michael was always different from a typical country boy, in that he was rather effeminate. He was always immaculate in his appearance, even as a child, and his interests weren’t typical of the majority of kids in town. He was more interested in cooking, fashion, et cetera.” 

As a result he was the target of bullying and name-calling, and not only at school. When O’Neill was about five, two older brothers joked he was turning into a girl and gave him the nickname Shelley, short for Michelle, as a feminisation of Michael. He never sought comfort and from the age of about 10 was stoic in the face of verbal and physical abuse, of which his teachers and parents were unaware. In adulthood, Colin O’Neill said, his brother never disclosed to his family that he was gay and his personal life has always been a closed book. 

O’Neill’s habitual lying, a coping mechanism, derived from not wanting to disappoint people. Combined with inflating his self-esteem to deal with early emotional wounds, it earned him another disparaging nickname in Rattle’s world, where he was referred to as The Talented Mr Ripley. 

Rattle was also a country boy from an ordinary background whose father moved out of building houses to farming near Swan Hill. But by the time the couple met in 1997 he was, as Ruth Shann said, everything that O’Neill wasn’t – strong, confident, capable, successful, and a creative genius whose career was on the rise. O’Neill, a waiter at Caffe e Cucina in South Yarra, was swept quickly into Rattle’s orbit via a job he organised for him with the late society florist Kevin O’Neill (no relation). 

“He was a bit lost and hated being a waiter, was on antidepressants which Stuart slowly got him off, and known in that crowd for dealing drugs,” artist Robert Doble, who knew Rattle from the early 1990s when they shared a house together, told The Saturday Paper. “He really pushed himself into Stuart’s life and pursued him, calling and sending flowers. All the old friends were a bit uneasy but we didn’t expect it to become a full-blown relationship.”

It did, Doble believes, because Rattle was pleased that someone had come along who slotted comfortably into his lifestyle of social networking and client dinners. And fit Michael did. Combining dark, Irish good looks with charm and a sense of humour, he could also be more outgoing than the sometimes withdrawn Rattle.

“Socially he was a lot of fun, naughty and loved a laugh,” remembered Mark Freeman, a friend and client for whom Rattle decorated three properties over 20 years. “My kids loved him. When we visited Musk for dinner, he’d set them up with a DVD and lollies and was like a genuine uncle to my two daughters. In some ways they liked him more than Stuart, who they’d known since they were babies, because he was more engaged with them.” 

Rattle was not unaware of O’Neill’s carelessness with the truth, says Freeman, often correcting him or commenting, “Oh, Michael’s just a liar.” But the effect of this and Michael’s other frailties was not good on the business into which he moved to take orders and liaise with clients and suppliers in 2000. At first all was well, more or less. Friends and clients claim that O’Neill clashed with Rattle’s mother Jill, but she ran the business with extreme efficiency, such that every bill was invoiced and paid and everyone knew where they stood. 

When Jill retired and sold out of the business in 2006, O’Neill was bound to disappoint in a role for which he was not trained or qualified. In fact, he exceeded in this respect. 

“Staggeringly inefficient,” is how Kim Moir described him to The Saturday Paper. Moir, who made almost all the period furniture for Musk Farm and pieces for Rattle’s clients over many years, describes jobs that weren’t ordered, alterations that weren’t relayed, delivery trucks that didn’t turn up and bills that went unpaid. 

“Some fabric houses wouldn’t deal with Michael. They wouldn’t even take the call because he’d forget he’d ordered something which had changed and he hadn’t updated the order,” says Moir. 

“He wasn’t so much dishonest – he just lied a lot. In his mind he wasn’t telling a lie but what the truth would be in five minutes when he’d fixed whatever it was he’d lied about. Then something else would happen and he’d forget, so that everything snowballed. He was so busy trying to cover up all the inefficiencies  – and he did want to take on a lot, because he was trying to prove all the time that he was worthy, which he wasn’t. So he was taking care of crises that were self-inflicted but he didn’t see it that way. He wasn’t stupid but he had this quirk of loving a crisis and fixing it.”

Moir says he first gave O’Neill electronic notepads for Christmas a decade ago, which he refused to use. “The business would have to bear the cost of his mistakes but you wouldn’t hear about it because Stuart protected him. But you’d hear it from others. Stuart was always very tired and working hard to keep it all under wraps from the customers. People would say, ‘I love Stuart but I can’t work with his office.’ They’d ring to tell me this, so had obviously tried Stuart and not got much of a hearing. ”

Indeed, Rattle was known to turn on those who criticised O’Neill, but behind the scene Moir says he sacked him many times. Friends speak of Rattle’s ability to find and go for the Achilles heel, and Supreme Court depositions report that during arguments Rattle would often threaten to send O’Neill back to where he came from, reminding him that when they met all he had was a mattress and a broken-down washing machine. 

“He’d say, ‘You’re fired. Fuck off, you lazy poof.’ He called him that all the time,” says Moir. “Then Michael would beg forgiveness, they’d set up a new system and he wouldn’t follow it. Stuart was worn out and long suffering, but he would say it was because of the clients who were all smiles and long talons, who paid a lot and expected a lot.”

2 . Lifestyles of the rich…

This is a world peopled by those who call their manicurist from overseas in a panic over a hangnail, who dress their beach houses with stone from 17th-century French churches, who spend without setting budgets because money doesn’t matter. They include those who run up enormous sums but are disinclined or unable to pay, especially during and after the GFC. And O’Neill was an ineffective debt collector, says a tradesman who worked with Rattle on many projects. 

With O’Neill mucking up orders and lacking the wit to deal with tricky clients, there were cash-flow issues, the tradesman says, even though the business was profitable and successful. In fact, there was a gaping cash-flow deficit and it wasn’t all O’Neill’s doing, Ruth Shann told the Supreme Court. The couple was leading a decadent, spendthrift lifestyle, mismanaging and dipping into their superannuation fund and spending $600,000 to $700,000 annually while taking the equivalent of about half that in salary and dividends. It was, says Shann, a dance they both engaged in. Rattle was told of the financial shortfalls by his bookkeeper, Katrina Holley, but seemed uninterested. He knew of O’Neill’s incompetence but kept him in the business.

What this crumbling edifice supported was not just the lie surrounding the Rattle brand but Musk Farm, which they bought together in 1998 for $85,000 and into which they poured $2.5 million, transforming an 1871 single-room schoolhouse into a miniature English-county-meets-New-England pastiche surrounded by two acres of garden. This bijoux property and adjoining acreage on which they worked every weekend was the setting for a BBC documentary on outstanding international gardens, local fundraisers and vice-regal visits, making Rattle and O’Neill both prominent and much loved in the surrounding area of gentrified old goldmining and spa towns. 

After a hard day’s gardening, which was Rattle’s passion, and tending to their British White cattle, which were O’Neill’s, the couple would shed the wellies and work gear for what they referred to as their house clothes – lounge pyjamas specially imported from Brooks Brothers, New York’s leading menswear supplier – for supper in the drawing room on individual trays set with fine china and glassware. 

Of his approach to design, architect Nicholas Day told The Saturday Paper, “Stuart lived it, loved it and understood it… Stuart told me once that if he ordered Chinese takeaway he would eat it out of a Ming bowl.” 

3 . Fantasy unravels

Fantasy in all its imaginative, fanciful, inventive and dark manifestations lies at the heart of this story, and it quickly unravelled. In a country fair atmosphere last May, complete with a tea tent, yo-yos and scones, and attended by the permanently tanned, dressed from a Ralph Lauren catalogue and disgorged from vehicles that transformed surrounding lanes into a luxury car yard, Musk went under the hammer for $1.590 million. It sold to a couple from East Melbourne with the means to maintain it, who also bought much of the contents, which went for an astounding $712,000 against an estimate of $300,000. O’Neill is said to have withdrawn three paintings and a set of Louis Vuitton luggage. Everything else was ticketed, including cake trays, a box of Christmas decorations, and an empty Laurent-Perrier jeroboam doorstop. More than 400 people vied for a piece. 

Rattle dreamed of working very little in about five years’ time, but meanwhile he wanted to take the pressure off, get money in, and put the business and the relationship back on track, says a tradesman who collaborated on jobs with Rattle.

“He’d realised that in our business you’ve got to get family out and the professionals in. Michael thought he would be pushed out. It was in his mind in the weeks leading up to what happened, and he was back on antidepressants. But Michael was struggling with all aspects of life in the weeks leading up and was not in a fit state to pass judgement on anything.” 

Shann submitted that there was no trigger event preceding the crime, other than the sexual taunt, but the tradesman and others from the couple’s inner circle tell The Saturday Paper of a massive row following a visit to Portsea. The tradesman saw Rattle and O’Neill the day before the murder, prior to their departure to oversee final deliveries at an important client’s beach house there.

“Michael was in an absolute panic to complete the house, but when they got there Stuart had to apologise for things that weren’t finished and hadn’t turned up. I’m told there was a mood of complete animosity and he was barking at Michael, who was running around behind him taking notes. Stuart could be an absolute handful, he knew how to bare his teeth and he was on the warpath. A week later, there was a housewarming at the Portsea house to which all the tradies and suppliers were invited. Michael had been charged the day before. It was surreal.”

The downside to fantasies is that they can be realised in ways one never imagined. Doble says Rattle dreamed of seeing a marquee on the oval at Musk for a grand occasion. What he envisaged, however, was not a stickybeak’s day out at which his world was dismantled and auctioned off, but a costumed Elizabethan birthday feast. 

Behind the fantasy, Rattle was someone more recognisably human than the saintly paragon he was portrayed as in the aftermath of his death. O’Neill is in jail, still awaiting sentence, remorseful and reportedly unable to sleep without Rattle, the most important person in his life. Musk is occupied by new owners, and the South Yarra apartment refurbished by the insurers for auction in the New Year. 

Those awaiting an outcome and some sort of closure must continue to do so, including Jill Rattle. The most satisfaction she got, if it can be described as such, was to stand staring unflinchingly for a good 20 seconds at the man who “Stuart loved so much”. Under her gaze, O’Neill, 20 kilograms lighter, gaunt and drawn, waited to be escorted from the court. He did so wringing his hands and averting his eyes.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 20, 2014 as "Interior motives".

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Jan McGuinness is a Melbourne journalist and author.

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