Ben Hills

It was standing room only in Ms Judith Fleming’s court at Waverley last Thursday, with police, lawyers, witnesses and people accused of various crimes and misdemeanours milling around waiting for their case to be called on.

Twice the magistrate asked her clerk to call out “Julie Page”, the name of the complainant in proceedings seeking an apprehended violence order, and twice the clerk reported “no appearance, your worship” before Ms Fleming struck the case out and moved on to the rest of her crowded list.

A few minutes later, in the foyer outside, a stocky man with a black moustache and carrying a bag approached the Herald’s reporter, apparently mistaking him for a lawyer involved in the case, and introduced himself as Mr Michael Panopoulos, an employee of the Melbourne packaging company Visy.

“Has the complaint been withdrawn?” he asked anxiously. “I have a sum of money for Julie but only if she has withdrawn her complaint.” It was only when he was asked whether the money was in the bag that the penny dropped that he was talking to a reporter, and Mr Panopoulos backed away with a stricken look.

He found the missing Ms Page in the crowd, and the two of them accompanied by Ms Page’s mother decamped in a taxi to a cafe in Bondi, where $10,000 in cash was handed over.

Mr Panopoulos then departed for the airport to catch a plane back to Melbourne, mission accomplished.

Behind that chance encounter is a strange tale involving a billionaire businessman, his mistress, their child, her nanny, and a large sum of money handed over in the vain hope of suppressing the story.

The businessman is 65-year-old Mr Richard Pratt Mr Panopoulos’s boss chairman of the Visy group and ranked by Business Review Weekly as Australia’s third-wealthiest man, with a personal fortune of $2.4 billion. He and his wife, Jeanne, 64, have three grown-up children and are major patrons of the arts and charities in Melbourne.

The mistress is Ms Shari-lea Hitchcock, an attractive 30-year-old blonde who two years ago gave birth to Mr Pratt’s child, whom she called Paula, after Mr Pratt’s mother. She lives in a $3 million mansion overlooking Centennial Park, and is supported by Mr Pratt in an opulent lifestyle.

Ms Julie Page, a 36-year-old single mother, had been employed as a nanny to look after the child, living in a granny flat behind the mansion.

On February 29, according to circumstances outlined in a complaint she filed with the police and at Waverley Court, Hitchcock abused and swore at her, pushed her, swung her around, and pulled her hair.

According to the statement, Ms Hitchcock had accused Ms Page of stealing her car, cash and underwear and had said: “I am going to have you followed by Richard Pratt’s [defendant’s boyfriend’s] private detectives.”

Waverley Court confirmed that an interim apprehended violence order was made against Ms Hitchcock who was not present ordering her not to “intimidate, stalk, assault, molest, harass, threaten or otherwise interfere with” Ms Page, her mother, or her daughter. A full hearing of the case was adjourned until last Thursday.

Meanwhile, Ms Page was approached by Mr Panopoulos, a former Australian Federal Police officer now working for Visy, who had drawn up a contract in which Ms Page agreed, in exchange for money, to drop the proceedings, vacate the granny flat, and not to discuss anything she had seen in the house.

Ms Page had contacted The Sydney Morning Herald and The Daily Telegraph offering to sell her story, an offer the Herald declined.

Ms Page said $23,000 in “hush money” eventually was agreed on. Of this, $13,000 was handed over two weeks ago, and was banked by Ms Page’s mother. Last Thursday, after the proceedings were dismissed, the second instalment of $10,000 was handed over.

Ms Page, however, now says that she had not wanted the complaint withdrawn she had not appeared in court because she had been consulting a Legal Aid solicitor at the courthouse and had not heard the case called.

She says the contract is invalid because she signed it under duress, and has sought independent legal advice.

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Wednesday 15 March 2000
Edition: Late
Section: News And Features
Sub section:
Page: 1
Word count: 462
Classification: People/Name/Pratt/Richard/Businessman
Caption: Claim and counter-claim …
1. Nanny Julie Page, left
2. Mogul Richard Pratt
3. His mistress, Shari-lea Hitchcock.