Reporting Robert Xie’s murder of Brenda Lin’s family
From court reports, we knew that prosecutors had emphasised two motives for the murder of Brenda Lin’s family in 2009: her uncle Robert Xie’s bitter feelings of resentment and inferiority within the family, and his sexual obsession with his niece. The court had sealed the details of the latter because Brenda Lin was under-age, however, and journalists rarely conjectured on Xie’s hidden feelings.
In an interview with Channel Seven’s Sunday Night this week, Brenda said how impossible it seemed at the time that her uncle, the closest family she had, could have been guilty. Hindsight can be cruel. “I was very insecure, didn’t know what I was doing,” she said, “and he read it very well.”
Xie’s quiet demeanour, his lack of outbursts in police interrogation or in court, had somehow deflected prurient interest in him, and media reports throughout the years between the murders and his conviction focused on the material details of the event. In the past week, some media have dwelled again on pictures of blood-spattered walls and happy photos of the two boys he bludgeoned to death in their bedrooms. The fact that Xie’s wife, Kathy Lin, has steadfastly stood by her husband, insisting on his innocence to the point of rupture with her niece, has also been of only passing interest.
It was on July 18, 2009, that Kathy Lin and Robert Xie received a phone call saying that her brother’s newsagency had failed to open that morning. They immediately went to her brother’s house in Sydney’s North Epping, just across a park from theirs. Audio of Kathy’s call to 000 is harrowing. She is crying, distraught, saying in heavily accented English, “I think someone is dying…” You can hear the operator calmly trying to clarify.
When the police arrived they found a terrible scene. Min and Lily Lin, their two sons, Henry, 12, and Terry, 9, and Lily’s sister, Irene, were dead. At first they didn’t see Min’s body, which was hidden under a quilt beside his wife’s. For a brief while, police presumed he had committed the crime and absconded.
Brenda, then 15, found out about the crime a few hours later. On a school trip to New Caledonia, she saw a news link a friend had posted on Facebook. Someone in the school community rang Susan Bridge, the principal of Cheltenham Girls’ High, who acted immediately. Brenda took the next flight home to Sydney where she was met by police. She told Sunday Night it wasn’t until her crying Aunt Kathy folded her in her arms, in a room set aside at the airport, that she realised it all was really true.
The story was sensational and the forensic details were combed through at the time. On July 29, Kathy Lin and Robert Xie made a public appeal for information that might lead to the arrest of the killer. The pathos of the public funeral – the five coffins smothered in white flowers, the procession of orange-robed Buddhist monks, the grief of the Lin grandparents, the impassive stoicism of the sole survivor – was covered intensively.
Then the story slowed. Public conjecture about the murderer had yielded no substance. Brenda had gone to live with her aunt and uncle, as would be expected, and the investigation seemed to be fading into a cold case. But within six months, the police, led by Detective Sergeant Joseph Maree, were working on a theory that the quietly spoken Robert Xie was the killer. The murderer clearly knew his way around the house, which had gone dark after the electricity was cut. Footprints showed he had not entered Brenda’s room, presumably because he knew she was away. Those bloody footprints matched the brand and size of running shoes Xie was known to wear.
The police placed electronic surveillance on his house. They saw him shred a shoebox of the same brand and flush the pieces away, after the NSW Crime Commission fed information about them to his wife. The clincher came when an overlooked bloodstain in Xie’s garage, lying hidden under a chest of drawers, turned out to contain DNA from four of the murder victims. On May 5, 2011, Robert Xie was arrested and charged with five counts of murder. Several subsequent bail applications were refused.
In video of police questioning soon after the murders, Xie seems more confused than concealing, mumbling brief answers to questions. He said he had tried to protect his wife from the horror of it but, in video of her interrogation, Kathy’s memory of what she saw is vivid and her descriptions calm and clear – even though it came out in evidence later that she had apparently been drugged the night before the murders so her husband could slip away.
Xie and Kathy Lin took over running the Epping newsagency that Min Lin, a popular local identity, had made a success. They were made Brenda’s legal guardians. In February 2012, Brenda’s family home was put on the market.
Brenda’s school principal, Susan Bridge, had become close to her young charge in this time, and shared with police her unease about interactions between Brenda and her uncle. She persuaded Brenda to speak to a lawyer. Patrick Parkinson quickly came to share Bridge’s feeling that Xie was implicated in the murders.
The trial, which began in May 2014, after a series of legal delays, forced Brenda to confront the evidence. She told Parkinson that her uncle had been sexually molesting her since before the murders and had repeatedly sexually assaulted her while she was living with him. She said she wasn’t sure it was relevant to the murder trial, but Parkinson informed the court. Justice Peter Johnson declared a mistrial.
In Xie’s second trial, which began two months later, the jury heard evidence of a sexual motive for the murders. Six weeks later this trial, too, was aborted when Justice Johnson fell ill.
Xie’s third trial began in February 2015. Ten months later, after deliberation, the jury told Justice Elizabeth Fullerton it could not reach a verdict. After four-and-a-half years in jail, Xie was allowed bail. “I’m grateful to be home,” he told reporters, “and I’ll continue to fight for my innocence.”
The fourth trial began at the end of June last year. On January 12 this year, Xie was finally convicted. Submissions on his sentencing were heard in court on February 10. Never charged with the sexual assault of his niece, he was sentenced to five life terms for murder on February 13. He will never be released.
Both Robert Xie and his wife were impassive in court, but afterwards Kathy told reporters they would continue to fight to prove her husband’s innocence.
Kathy is another victim of the saga, another woman left alone and isolated, having lost her brother’s family, as well as her surviving niece. Her father, Min Lin’s father, Yang Fei Lin, told reporters in Mandarin, “Heaven’s vengeance is slow but sure justice has long arms, the court has administered the punishment of the criminal by law finally.”
In her sentencing remarks, Justice Fullerton said of Brenda, still referring to her as the anonymous AB: “She has difficulty sleeping. She is dealing with an array of mental health issues and is experiencing some trouble with her tertiary studies. I acknowledge the profound grief she has suffered and continues to suffer. I also commend her for her strength and dignity, and her courage as she faces the future without parents, siblings or a loving aunt.”
The toll this must have taken on Brenda, now a university student in her 20s, is unimaginable. She told Channel Seven that the support she received from friends and others, including her high school principal, had buoyed her through the dreadful proceedings.
The poignancy of the long Sunday Night interview was affecting. But Brenda Lin drew a line. Asked whether her uncle had sexually abused her, a rather redundant question after all the court testimony, she replied, “Yes, he did.” She would not, however, elaborate. “That’s something that I’m very private about,” she continued, “and it’s something that at this point in time I don’t feel comfortable talking about … I hope people can respect that.”
She seemed to be speaking to Sunday Night host Melissa Doyle as well as the broader public. For all the past traumatic symptoms Justice Fullerton referred to, Brenda had the psychological strength to resist.
Asked then, how the past seven years had made her feel, Brenda Lin replied, “I don’t even know how I’m meant to feel about this, or how I’m meant to describe how it has affected me.”
Despite the intimacy and the tears of other heartbreaking moments in the interview, that seemed one of her most telling judgements.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 4, 2017 as "Family tatters". Subscribe here.