Ben Hills 

Even at six o’clock on a winter morning, Caroline Byrne would turn heads. Tall, blonde and well-built, she had just come from a casting session at her modelling agency and was looking “marvellous”, her father recalls, when they met at the apartment block near Sydney’s Chinatown where he worked as the building manager.

They had some family business to transact, papers to sign relating to a $2 million family trust set up by Tony Byrne for his four children. Caroline’s share would be $500,000. Rich, attractive, successful, the only hint of gloom in Caroline’s life that morning was a call on the mobile phone from her live-in lover “Gordy” Wood, whom, she said, was “in a shitty mood”.

In was May 31, 1995, an otherwise uneventful day. There was certainly no clue that this was the last time Tony Byrne would see his daughter alive. Eight days later a police helicopter would airlift her shattered body from rocks at the foot of a 30-metre cliff near the entrance to Sydney Harbour, “a terrible waste of such a beautiful young life”, as Tony Byrne later wrote to police investigating the death, in a letter on file at the Coroner’s Court.

Two and a half years later Byrne is still full of grief and anger: grief at his daughter’s death, and anger because no-one has been brought to account for what he believes was not a suicide but a cold-blooded killing. Caroline, he wrote, was murdered by a contract killer because she knew too much, the most extraordinary of all the theories yet to come to light about her death. The inquest which was held earlier this month only threw more fuel on the bonfire of speculation.

After hearing and reading statements from dozens of witnesses (including Byrne), examining a cache of forensic evidence and ordering a fresh, more thorough, investigation by the police, the Coroner, John Abernethy, was unable to determine how Caroline Byrne had died.

He left open three possibilities: suicide, murder or an accident. In other words, she jumped, she was pushed, or she simply slipped and fell to her death some time between 3.47 pm on June 7, when the records show she (or someone who knew her PIN number) withdrew $50 from a Westpac auto-teller machine in Vaucluse, and 3.30 the following morning when her body was found at the Watson’s Bay Gap, a popular suicide spot. SUICIDE. Superficially, Caroline Byrne was a woman with everything to live for. “I found her to be a very calm person, a very well-balanced individual. She was a role model for all of our students … [and] at no time showed any signs of depression,” stated her former boss, Carol Clifford, manager of the famous June Dally-Watkins modelling school where Caroline had taught “deportment and parade” part-time for three years.

Aged 24, she had been brought up on a farm the family once owned near Camden, and had an arts degree with a major in psychology from Sydney University. At the age of 17 she was crowned “Miss Spirit” at the Campbelltown Ghost Festival, and she began modelling professionally when she was at university.

Her relationship with Gordon Wood also appeared to be serious and stable. They met at a gym where Wood, now aged 34, was working as a trainer, and had been living together on and off for 2 years. In one of his statements to police, Wood said they planned to marry and have children, and added: “We were very much in love with each other … I considered living with Caroline as a dream come true.”

During a three-month separation from Wood in 1993 she went out with an older man; her medical records show that she had two (negative) HIV blood tests.

She was fit and active and didn’t drink alcohol or do drugs. When pressed, Wood admitted to police that just once they had shared an “eccy” (ecstasy) tablet and that Caroline had had “three or four puffs” of marijuana.

So why would she kill herself?

There was one dark chapter in her past of which Wood was aware. At Easter in 1991, Caroline’s mother had checked herself into a Kings Cross hotel and killed herself with an overdose of drugs and alcohol, apparently as a result of depression which began with a silicone breast implant which went wrong.

Nine months later, Caroline herself, mourning her mother, tried to commit suicide by taking sleeping pills and lying in a bath full of water. That attempt failed, as (according to Wood) did a later attempt to jump off a building. Caroline had consulted a psychiatrist and been prescribed medication.

Nor, according to her family and friends who disapproved of him, was her relationship with Wood entirely blissful. Caroline’s father said: “Gordon would not let Caroline out of his sight. It was not uncommon for him to call her 10 times a day. He always knew exactly where she was.”

Detective Senior Constable Brian Wyver of the Homicide Unit South, who was in charge of the re-investigation, reported: “All her friends … express doubts about Gordon Wood. They describe him as unusual. It would appear that he was obsessed by Caroline Byrne, and the view seems to be that even though he was living in a de facto relationship with her, he in fact stalked her.”

Adding strength to the suicide theory, Caroline went to her GP, Dr Cindy Pan, two days before her death complaining that she had been feeling depressed for a month, and particularly in the previous week. Pan referred her to a psychiatrist (the appointment was for the afternoon she went missing), saying that the cause of the depression was unknown, but insisting that Caroline had “no thought of self-harm”.

The cause of her depression remained a mystery until police interviewed Wood. According to him, Caroline was unhappy with a new, full-time job in sales and promotion for June Dally-Watkins; so unhappy that the two of them concocted a story for her boss that Caroline was seriously ill, and were planning to take a week-long “sickie” for a trip to the Blue Mountains.

In a 14-page posthumous case analysis, psychiatrist Dr Neil Schultz weighed the odds of suicide thus: “On face value [the evidence of Caroline’s father and friends] the risk of Ms Byrne committing suicide is low. It rises to moderate on Dr Pan’s evidence, and to high [accepting] Gordon Wood’s version [of events].”

Caroline skipped an appointment the afternon before her death (“totally out of character”, said a modelling friend) and was, again unusually, still in bed a bit before 1 pm the following day when Wood returned to their apartment in Pott’s Point to take her for lunch. Wood said she told him she had taken one of his Rohypnol (a sedative) tablets – he thought there were five or six missing from the packet – and did not want to get up. That, says Wood, was the last time he saw his lover alive. He went back to work – he had been chauffeur and “executive assistant” to the celebrity stockbroker Rene Rivkin for nearly two years – returned that night to an empty apartment, and did not raise the alarm until after midnight when he awoke after falling asleep in front of the TV to find her still missing.

On this version of events, Caroline drove her white soft-topped Suzuki Vitara 4WD through Sydney’s eastern suburbs that afternoon. At 3.32 pm (according to a credit-card receipt found in her handbag) she stopped at a Caltex service station in Oxford Street, Paddington, where she spent $7.75 on petrol and what might have been her last meal, two chocolate Freddo frogs.

She then drove to The Gap, parked her car in a narrow lane, and took a running jump off the cliff. How do we know it was a running jump? Her body was found nearly 10 metres out from the base of the cliff, which would have taken a “fairly good run-up”, according to Sergeant Mark Powderly, the police rescue expert who recovered the body.

Either that, he testified, or it was “not inconceivable” that someone threw her off. MURDER 1. Initially, the case was written off as just another suicide at The Gap. In his report, Constable Craig Woods of Rose Bay police, who conducted the original investigation, concluded: “I believe the deceased was suffering from depression and that she could no longer cope with this and has attended The Gap some time after 3.45 pm on June 7 and has taken her own life.”

However, after pressure from Tony Byrne, who wrote complaining that the initial investigation was inadequate, the Coroner ordered police to reopen inquiries, and the case was put in the hands of Sen Const Wyver, who focused on a number of inconsistencies in the evidence of various witnesses.

Wood, for example, had denied ever being near The Gap that afternoon, but the police found two witnesses who, while on the balcony of the Bad Dog cafe at Watson’s Bay, had spotted a woman with a “very striking appearance, like a model” walking and chatting with two men. In the foyer of the Coroner’s Court, they identified Wood and a Melbourne model-booking agent named Adam Leigh, who also knew Caroline, as the men.

When Wyver tackled Wood about this, and about a sighting of Rivkin’s green two-door Bentley in the area that day, he said: “It’s entirely possible, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t [go there].”

He said that Rivkin had 14 cars, including a Rolls-Royce Corniche, a Bentley and a Ferrari. Because they were not used much, one of his duties was to drive them around to charge up the batteries, and this might have been what he was doing with the Bentley.

Wood and Leigh “trenchantly denied being with Ms Byrne” that afternoon, said the Coroner, but he found it “truly coincidental that both men strongly identified as being with Caroline knew her very well indeed, so well as to be material witnesses to this inquest”. Abernethy described this as a “telling inconsistency” in the evidence.

Police, and Caroline’s relatives, were also puzzled by Wood’s behaviour after he awoke in front of the TV to find her missing. He picked up Tony and Peter Byrne (her brother) and drove to The Gap where, after searching for some time, he said he spotted her leg and sandshoe by the weak light of a torch he borrowed from two rock fishermen.

When Wyver questioned him about this, he said he had been led to the body by “some kind of spiritual communication”. The Coroner described Wood’s account as a “glaring inconsistency” and found “another anomaly” in the way Wood later lied to a number of Caroline’s friends, telling them that she had been killed by a car.

An interview tendered as an exhibit during the inquest showed one possibility the police were exploring. The transcript reads:

Wyver: Now, I have been informed that on the day of Caroline’s death she did not in fact attend work, but she made surveillance of you and in the course of this surveillance she caught you and Rene [Rivkin] having homosexual intercourse. What can you tell me about that?

Wood: Absolute lies.

Wyver: OK, and then I have been informed that as a result of that an argument between her and you ensued. Is there anything …

Wood: No.

Wyver: … and that you went to The Gap and you threw her over The Gap.

Wood: No, that’s not correct, not correct.

Wood worked for Rivkin from 1993-96, starting as a “driver-gofer” and becoming his “executive assistant”. He travelled extensively in Australia and overseas with Rivkin, regarded him as “a father as well as a boss”, and was learning about “stockmarkets and trading” from him. Rivkin bought the apartment Wood and Caroline lived in at Potts Point, and paid for a car, clothes and furniture.

Wood, who now describes himself as a stockmarket trader, said that he had left Rivkin in 1996 “because I had this dream of getting myself financially set up to take care of Caroline and the family we were planning to have, and when she died that sort of died with her”.

He said in the interview that Caroline, with whom he was living in what he described as a “loving, happy relationship”, was “suspicious” of Rivkin. Asked why, Wood said: “… [Rivkin] used to hang out with a whole stack of people at the cafe which, I am sure, you probably discovered has a reputation for being a hangout for ex-drug dealers … Joe’s Cafe …

“Some of Rene’s closest cronies are … have certain criminal backgrounds or are rumoured to have it. And the fact that Rene is … has a high degree of interest in good-looking young men … so she [Byrne] certainly expressed concern about his intentions towards me.”

But Wood denied he had ever had a homosexual relationship.

He said in his opinion Caroline had committed suicide by jumping off the cliff.

Neither Rivkin nor Wood would return telephone calls from the Herald. Wood was not questioned about this allegation during the inquest, nor was Wyver asked the source of his information.

Rivkin, who is married with five children, was not called as a witness and did not make a statement to police apart (says Wyver) from a brief “door-stop” outside one of his haunts, Joe’s Cafe in Darlinghurst, several months later when he said he could not recall whether Wood had been driving him the day Caroline died. MURDER 2. The most sinister theory about Caroline’s death is her father’s belief that a “contract killer” was hired to do away with her. In his letter to police and the Coroner, Tony Byrne says his daughter was “knocked unconscious a short distance from where she was found, and thrown over the cliff”.

Byrne makes an extraordinary series of allegations about people he claims were behind the murder. The motive? He had found out about “a very serious crime” from which they stood to benefit, and they feared she was about to blow the whistle.

He has offered to put up a $100,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of her killers. He says her death shows “how easy it is to make a murder look like a suicide”.

The police investigation did not take into account Byrne’s theory, no statements were taken or witnesses called, and Abernethy does not mention the allegations in his official finding.

As far as the police are concerned, Wyver says, the file remains open.

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Wednesday 25 February 1998
Edition: Late
Section: News And Features
Sub section:
Page: 11
Word count: 2381
Classification: Health/Death/Suicides People/Name/Rivkin/Rene/Business
Geographic area: NSW Sydney
Caption: Three illus:
Open verdict … Caroline Byrne, her boyfriend, Gordon Wood and his former employer, financial guru Rene Rivkin