William Stadiem

Everything about William Stadiem. Author, Screenwriter, Lawyer.

Death on the Rocks

Source: Telegraph Magazine, UK

[View in PDF: DeathOnTheRocks_TelegraphMagazine.pdf ]

It seemed to police an open-and-shut case: depressed model leaps to her death at notorious suicide spot. But behind Caroline Byrne’s denise there lurks a mystery that has gripped Sydney for the past six years. William Stadiem on the story of the beauty queen, her lover and the flamboyant stock market tycoon.

Noo two cities in the world are more frequently compared than San Francisco and Sydney. Indeed, they have a great deal in common – beauty, climate, charm, a vivid gay scene and, perhaps most emblematic of all, spectacular precipices from which people choose to plunge to their deaths.

Although the Sydney Harbour Bridge is a no less photographed wonder of engineering than San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, Australians have a more favoured, and more dramatic, lovers’ leap. This is the Gap, a truly fatal shore of vertiginous. wave-lashed 300ft sandstone cliffs that constitute the lower jaw of the vicious orifice that is the mouth of Sydney’s serene inner harbour.

When Alfred Hitchcock arrived here to promote Psycho in 1960, the Gap was the first place he visited. He brought an umbrella, ‘just in case I decide to float over the edge’, marvelling that the location would be ideal for one of his thrillers. If the master of suspense were alive today, he would find at the Gap a chilling real-life mystery story made to order.

Real life for the blonde model Caroline Therese Byrne ended on a dark and cold autumn night in 1995. At 4.45am on June 8, a police helicopter spotted the long legs of her athletic body wedged in a rock crevice into which she had plummeted, head first, from the towering cliffs above.

When a corpse is found at the bottom of the Gap, the immediate presumption is suicide. But Caroline Byrne, at 24, had far more to live for than her good looks. She had a wholesome farm upbringing, capped with a degree in psychology from Sydney University. She was the beneficiary of a $500,000 trust fund set up for her by her father, a successful property manager. And she had romance. Caroline had a remarkably handsome live-in boyfriend of three years’ standing: Gordon Wood, 32, who had a glamorous job as the globetrotting right-hand man of Sydney’s most successful, flamboyant and high-profile stock market wizard, Rene Rivkin.

In contrast to the lightning-fast career trajectory of Wood (from personal trainer to nascent mogul), Caroline Byrne had realised that at 24 she would never become a supermodel, and had taken a full-time job teaching ‘deportment and parade’ at a top Sydney modelling school. Two days before her death, Caroline had visited her doctor complaining of depression.

Depression had a tragic precedent for Caroline Byrne. In 1991, her 40-year-old mother had committed suicide with an overdose of drugs and alcohol in a seedy hotel in Kings Cross (the Soho of Sydney). Mrs Byrne had been troubled by the unnatural hardening of silicone breast implants she had had when she was l8. She had been too embarrassed to consult a doctor about her problem. Shortly after her mother’s death, Caroline, while at university, tried to end her own life with sleeping pills while lyng in a full bath. The attempt failed, but the precedent was there.

Several weeks after Caroline’s death, Constable Craig Woods of the police department in Rose Bay, one of the elegant ‘eastern suburbs` that le tout Sydney – from Packer to Murdoch to Kidman – call home, filed his report: ‘l believe the deceased was suffering from depression and that she could no longer cope with this and has attended the Gap some time after 3.45pm on JUne 7 and has taken her own life.’ Case closed.

Not for Anthony Byrne. Caroline’s 59-year-old father, a lanky, courtly gentleman with sad, blue eyes and a headmaster’s tweedy mien. Tony Byrne was having trouble accepting that his daughter was suicidal. He believed that she had exorcised the specter of her mother’s death, and that she had never been stronger or more positive. Tony Byrne was also having trouble with the basic physics of the case. Caroline’s odd was found 30 feet from the base of the cliff face, a distance that would have required a powerful running jump to propel the body that far outward. A chest-high fence three feet from the cliff’s edge would have required a high hurdle as well as a long-jump – an Olympic performance on the part of the deceased.

What Tony Byrne was having the most trouble wilh was his almost-son-in-law, Gordon Wood. Byrne was never sure what kind of a man Gordon was, from the time he saw his business card describing him as a ‘fitness consultant’. The card featured a photograph of a super-musculatcd headless torso, presumably that of Wood himself, in the skimpiest ‘slingshot’ briefs. What a long way Wood had come from the World of Fitness gym where he  had met Caroline. That this journey had ended al the gilded portals of Rene Rivkin also proved discomfiting to Byrne. and to his dead daughter.

‘People call him mad… because he is mad,’ Rivkin’s fellow tycoon, Rodney Adler, once said of his dear friend.

‘Rene Rivkin is an obsessive-compulsive who’s continually washing his hands,’ said Brent Potts, a prominent Sydney stockbroker who for a decade was Rivkin’s busincss partner. ‘Rene worried about anything dirty.’

Then 52, the portly, bearded, lupine Rivkin could have easily been viewed as a Mephistophelean character, a repository of worldly temptation. A Shanghai-born white Russian Jew whose wealthy family escaped Mao’s China and settled in Australia in 1952, Rivkin – who had a wife (his former secretary) an five children – could never be described as conventional. He had a fleet of Ferraris, Rolls-Royces, Cadillacs – even an amphibious car. He had a yacht with its own helicopter, on which he made a cameo appearance on Baywatch. After surviving a brain tumour in 1987, the brilliant, now-agnostic Jew – who was never without his solid-gold worry beads – began supplementing his conventional high finance with racier enterprises: nightclubs, cafes, boutiques, jewellery shops, cigar companies and the like. A self-confessed manic depressive who sang public paeans to Prozac, Rivkin became known for his entourage of the most spectacular-looking young men in a city famous for them – men such as Gordon Wood. Like Wood, most of these fabulous men had fabulous girlfriends. Nevertheless, a quiet man like Tony Byrne was unaccustomed to the beyond-Hollywood showmanship of an unquiet man like Rene Rivkin.

Byrne wasn’t sure what to make of Wood’s account to the police of Caroline’s final day. Wood had reported that Caroline had skipped the new job she had told him she didn’t like and taken several of Wood’s Rohypnols (which later became known as the ‘date rape’ drug, but which Wood used as a sleeping pill). Byrne thought this was odd. To his knowledge, Caroline studiously avoided drugs and alcohol.

Wood told police he had found Caroline asleep at lunchtime, but she was gone at 7pm when he returned from his rounds with Rivkin. Claiming not to have been concerned, he fell asleep in from of the TV news and woke up at 12:40am, June 8. Now worried by Caroline’s absence, he somehow divined his way directly to the Gap. He spotted their Suzuki Vitara parked in a back lane near the cliffs and claimed to have spied Caroline’s shoes on the rocks far below. It seemed an unlikely sighting, but by dawn, Gordon Wood was proved to be dead right.

Claiming to be honourng a request by Tony Byrne.,Wood told everyone he knew that Caroline had died after being hit by a car. In a series of letters to the coroner’s court, Byme denied making such a request. The letters, outlining all of Byrnes misgivings about the case and the suicide theory, proved effective. In February 1996, eight months after Caroline’s death, the coroner reopened the case, and a full-scale investigation was launched.

Detective Brian Wyver: ‘Now I’ve been informed that on the day of Caroline’s death she did not in face attend work but she made surveillance of you and in this course of surveillance she caught you and Ruthken[sic] having homosexual intercourse.’

Gordon Wood: ‘Absolute lies.’

Wyver: ‘OK. And then I’ve been informed 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 area with her and you threw her own the Gap.’

Wood: ‘No. That’s not correct. Not correct.’

This interchange was the bombshell that would rock Syndey when the report of the coroner’s inquest into Caroline Byrne’s death was published in February, 1998. The top-secret inquiry had actually taken place nearly two years before, as Detective Senior Constable Brian Wyver, the man in charge of the case, grilled Wood as well as dozens of other acquaintances of Caroline Byrne. Wyver was very, very curious about Wood’s relationship with Rivkin, who was not questioned during the inquest.

Wood described Rivkin as a ‘father as well as a boss’, who was teaching him the secrets of the stock market. Rivkin had bought Wood the apartment in trendy Potts Point, near King’s Cross, where he and Caroline lived. He had also bought him the Suzuki Vitara Caroline had left at the Gap, as well as clothes and furniture.

Pressed on what led him to the Gap to find Caroline’s body, Wood replied that it was ‘some sort of spiritual communication.’ After her death, he said he had consulted a psychic healer to arrange a ‘spiritual rescue’, to unleash her still-earthbound spirit which was haunting him.

Wood was rudely brought back to earth by the emergence of two witnesses who testified that they had seen him, accompanied by Caroline and a man with dreadlocks and leather trousers, at the Gap on the afternoon Wood claimed to have been chauffeuring Rivkin and Rivkin’s close friend, Labour Party power broker Graham Richardson, to appointments in Syndey’s Central Business District. The deadlocked man was alleged to be Adam Leigh, Caroline’s booker at the Gordon Charles Modelling Agency.

Craig Martin and Lance Melbourne, partners in the Bad Dog Cafe next to the Gap, claim they saw the trio twice on that fateful afternoon. They also said they saw a green Bentley, a relatively rare car in Syndey. Rivkin owned one; Wood frequently drove it. Both Wood and Leigh ‘trenchantly’ (according to the coroner) denied being at the Gap, separately or together, with Caroline. Each man claimed he barely knew the other.

Armed with Det Wyver’s conclusion that ‘[Wood’s] version of events doe snot seem to be correct’, that ‘Wood has not been completely honest’, and that ‘he has not disclosed all that he knows’, coroner John Abernathy, who himself cited ‘glaring inconsistencies’ in Wood’s ‘bizarre’ testimony, announced in February 1998 an open finding – that is, Caroline Byrne’s death could have been a suicided, an accidental fall, or murder. He closed his report by opening a can of worms: ‘With an open finding, the police can assure you, we are still very interested – and will be seeing whether they can take the matter any further.’

In controversial act of checkbook journalism, Wood went on the offensive by appearing on Channel 7’s Witness programme, which paid him a $20,000 interview fee, purportedly the largest payment ever given to a non-celebrity on the Australian news show. The half-hour event was headlined ‘Key witness in mystery death breaks his silence’. On it, journalist and host Paul Barry pressed Wood about Caroline Byrne’s alleged suspicions regarding him and Rivkin.Wood replied, ‘She probably didn’t trust him. Why was this guy so generous?’

Barry also repeated Wyver’s allegation that Wood had killed Caroline. ‘Utter garbage,’ insisted Wood, who then made the mistake of letting his guard down once he thought the show had finishing taping. He turned to Barry and asked, totally ingenuously, ‘So, do you think I did it?’ The cameras were still rolling. It became one of the classic moments of the Australian small screen.

The Witness show had Sydney tittering about the allegations surrounding the private life of its leading financial guru, who had just launched the wildly successful Rivkin Report, a $600-a-year weekly market letter that amassed a circulation of more than 30,000 (and an annual gross for Rivkin of $18 million).

Now a new and even darker storm front emerged in the form of an article in the Australian Financial Review (Sydney’s answer to the FT). The long feature by journalist and author Neil Chenoweth, entitled ‘It’s a bad business’, appeared on February 21, 1998, a week before the taped Witness show was to air. It raised the possibility that an Australian Securities Commission (ASC) interrogation of Rivkin and Wood that occurred on the day before Caroline Byrne died ‘may have contributed to her depression`.

The interrogation followed a three-week trip to Switzerland and London that the pair had taken, and the subject of the investigation was a printing company called Offset Alpine. In October 1992, Offset Alpine was bought by Rivkin’s investment company, Stroika Ltd. from Kerry Packer’s company,  Australian Consolidated Press. Packer – the billionaire polo player and mega-gambler who dropped a reported $20 million in one weekend at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas (‘I like to have a bet every now and then.’ he told The Australian  newspaper) – is widely considered to be one of the most powerful men in Australia. In any  event, Rivkin, who had worked on a number of deals involving Packer’s interests, bought Packer’s printing company for $15.8 million.

In mid-Dccember 1993, Offset Alpine, now controlled by Rivkin. had floated a $1.6 million share offering at 65 cents per share. On the Christmas Day following the flotation, Offset Alpine’s printing plant was destroyed by a fire. By February 1994, the shares of Offset Alpine had caught fire themselves, more than doubling from 77 cents before the Christmas blaze to a staggering $1.70. What was so great about a burnt-out printing company?

The answer came the following month, when Offset Alpine informed the Australian Stock Exchange that the scorched printing equipment, valued at just $3 million on Offset Alpine’s books, had been insured at a replacement value of $42 million. By June, a syndicate of insurance companies paid out a full claim of $53.5 million.

Offset Alpine’s largest shareholder was one of these very insurance companies, FAI, which held 20 per cent of the company’s stock (Rivkin owned 12 per cent). FAI was controlled by Rivkin’s friend, fellow high roller and eastern suburbs neighbour Rodney Adler. Adler, 43, made a fool of himself last year when he was photographed resplendent in gold chains and skimpy bathing trunks at a smart tropical resort, just as his newest insurance company was placed into liquidation, $2 billion in debt.

Back in 1993, Adler had a magic touch, particularly with Offset Alpine. As Rivkin commented at the Offset Alpine annual meeting in 1994, ‘l think FAI [Adler’s company] made more out of being a shareholder than they lost from their insurance payout.’ The fire was investigated by the insurance syndicate, but no charges of arson have ever been made. Still, the jokes continued. Rivkin himself marvelled at his own good fortune, referring to it on a television show called Money, Money: Offset Alpine, he said, was ‘my best investment, which I bought from Kerry Packer for $15 million, of which Kerry lent me $5 million. I sold it two and a half years later for $72 million, which was fun.’

What presumably wasn’l fun for Rivkin was being called before the ASC. The Commission wanted to know the identity of the shareholders in now-booming Offset Alpine, 38 per cent of whose stock was being held in Switzerland by two holding companies that refused, under Swiss secrecy laws, to reveal any Australian names. At the hearing on June 6, the day before Caroline Byrne died, Rivkin told the ASC that he had no idea who the secret shareholders were. (Kerry Packer, when asked at his own annual company meeting why he sold Offset Alpine to Rivkin for $15 million and why the printer got $53 million in insurance, explained that he had got the best price he could at the time, replacement value being vastly higher than book.)

Neil Chenoweth did not suggest that Caroline knew or suspected anything about Offset Alpine or what went on during the Rivkin and Wood took to Europe. All he did was to lay out the dates of the trip, the ASC hearing and Caroline’s death.

Rivkin was incensed at what he believed to be the implications of the article. He called it ’fairy tales’ and ‘the most convoluted connection between the death of a girl and a share trade you could imagine.’ He added that he ‘would nominate the journalist for the Booker Prize for the best fictional short story.’ Rivkin even went on the attack against Caroline Byrne. He said she was ’not a little angel,’ and claimed she had been carrying on an affair at the time of her death. He retained Tom Hughes, widely regarded as the greatest lawyer in Australia. ‘The Prince of the Silks,’ as Hughes was known, commenced a defamation action on Rivkin’s behalf against Fairfax Newspapers, publisher of both the Australian Financial Review, which had run the Chenoweth story, and the Sydney Morning Herald, which had run a piece recounting Det Wyver’s in flagrante query to Gordon Wood, as well as Tony Byrne’s suspicions about the death of his daughter.

By July 1998, when the defamation action had come to trial (it would take three years to resolve), the Sydney media coverage of the Gap mystery had come to a grinding halt. Amid the silence, a new witness came forward. A 47-year old Irish artist, John Doherty, having watched the Witness programme, claimed he had seen Gordon Wood before. Doherty lived in a studio near the Gap. On the evening of June 7, 1995, he recalled, he had been distracted from his painting by ‘a fierce argument’ in the street outside. He remembered a tall blonde woman moaning loudly, her head in her hands. He remembered a tall blond man in a black leather jacket shouting at her. Down the road another man was standing in the shadows.

‘I have one very distinctive memory and that was of the big guy crossing the road to the woman,’ Doherty told police. Some hours later, he heard a woman’s scream, but he was lost in his art and remained oblivious. After all, this was the Gap. Screams and suicides were part of the atmosphere.

Doherty may have been just the goad the police needed. After several months of inactivity following the release of the coroner’s report, the police reopened the Byrne case. In April 1998, a special unit known as Strike Force Irondale was assembled. Meanwhile, Gordon Wood left Australia. He sold his Suzuki Vitara, the gift from Rivkin and the car Caroline had left at the Gap. He vacated his flat in Bondi Beach, terminated his mobile phone number and left his two boxer dogs with his sister. Having ended his formal employment with Rivkin in February 1996, during the heat of the coroner’s investigation, Wood had spent months in Cuba and in Europe. He had described his profession as ‘share trader’,  but he now also abandoned his office space in the trendy Paddington district. On April 7, he flew to LA, whence he continued to Barbados and later Florida, to escape the ‘stress’ of what had become a media circus. Meanwhile. police made a deliberate statement that Wood was under no obligation to inform them of his movements. He was not a formal suspect.

After several months in Florida. Wood came to his native England, where he got a high-pay-

ing job at a print technology company – ‘A far cry.’ the Sydney Sun Herald noted, ‘from his job driving Mr Rivkin to appointments.’ While Wood remained in England. Strike Force Irondale was presumed by the public to be working intensely. It was also presumed that in December 1999, when Wood returned to Australia after 18 months, the Strike Force would want to see him. ‘Gap death model’s lover back’ trumpeted the Sun Herald‘s headline of December 19.

Two weeks later, the Sun Herald revealed that after spending the holidays with his mother in Adelaide and his sister in the Sydney suburbs, Wood flew back to London on January 2, 2000, without having been questioned by police.

But as the defamation cases slowly made their way to court. the Irondale team, five years after Caroline Byrne’s death, finally questioned Rivkin about Wood’s whereabouts that June 7. Wood had claimed, specifically, that he had picked up Rivkin and his Friend Graham Richardson from Alfie’s, a restaurant in the Italian ghetto of Stanley Street. He dropped Rivkin off in the Central Business District, and then Richardson – either at Australian Rugby Headquarters or at Kerry Packer’s Australian Consolidated Press, where the former Labour minister then worked.

While it was not reported what Rivkin told police, Richardson – who was also questioned for the first time – denied Wood’s account. His diary, he said. showed him having lunch not with Rivkin at Alfie’s, but with Peter ‘Bullfrog’ Moore, a rugby league administrator, at the San Francisco Grill of the Hilton Hotel. Moore had recently died, so could not corroborate the recollection of Richardson, who declared it ‘remarkable’ that the police had taken so long to interview him.

When asked why he himself had not come forward to refute Wood’s allegations. Richardson replied. ‘I did not think to look in my diary. I didn’t until police asked me…’ Even though no one was talking on record about Rivkin in connection with the Byrne case, the self-styled ‘media nymphomaniac’ was by no means out of the public eye. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation ran a documentary on Rivkin entitled The Fortune Teller, which opened with him teaching a group of Aboriginal artists the joys of eating sushi on his yacht. ‘Take the street sweeper in lndia.’ Rivkin postulated. ‘What’s the point – to survive until you die?’

Such publicity was great for the Rivkin Report. In a country that loves to gamble, an inordinately large percentage of the population owns stock. ‘Rene Rivkin is the public hope,’ sniffs a Sydney banker, ‘and he makes a lot of money on that hope [through sales of his newsletter].’

When Rivkin’s defamation case against the Fairfax papers finally carne to the Supreme Court in April 2001, most people in Australia expected Rene, true to form, to win hands down. His lawyer, Tom Hughes, certainly came out swinging. (In an address to the jury that lasted two days, he said the Herald should have ‘included a paragraph that removed any suggestion that Rivken was in any way responsible for Caroline Byrne’s death. Wouldn’t that have been easy? But there’s not a word to that effect.’)

But after deliberating for only 50 minutes, the jury threw out the 17 defamatory meanings alleged to have arisen from the articles. Furthermore, Justice Carolyn Simpson awarded all legal costs against Rivkin. ‘Flabbergasted’ was Rivkin’s word for how he felt, before being whisked away in a green Bentley, similar to the one witnesses claimed to have seen Wood driving that fateful day at the Gap.

A month later, in the trial against Channel 7, Rivkin, who this time was not in court for the verdict, received another blow. A different jury took seven hours to conclude that the Witness programme did not imply Rivkin was involved in Caroline Byrne’s death. However, the jury did find that the show was defamatory, in that it implied Rivkin had had homosexual intercourse with Wood. This matter will be dealt with at a future date.

When l arrived in Sydney last July to research this story, I hoped lo interview Rene Rivkin himself. l had access to two of his chief ‘gatekeepers,’ whom I met through Australian journalists. One was Roz Reines, the society columnist for the Sydney Sunday Telegraph and author of a book about Sydney’s most famous legal bordello. Reines was working with Rivkin on his autobiography. The other was Jackie Milijash, whose eponymous Bondi Beach restaurant is the watering hole of the city’s beau monde. Milijash, who has cinematic aspirations, was producing a pilot called Rivkin’s World, a Lifestyles-of-the-Rich-and-Famous-style syndicated show.

At our meeting was delayed because of Rivkins recuperation from colo-rectal surgery. His assistant, Chris Kelesis, eventually set up a second meeting, a week hence, at Rivkin’s  headquarters. An hour before the lunch, Kelesis called to cancel. Rivkin was still in pain from the surgery. Kelesis apologised. He couldn’t sit in a chair without being in agony. Numerous discussions with Kelesis ensued, but no meeting. Waiting for Rivkin was like waiting for Godot.

I was invited to a private screening of The Bank, an anti-financial thriller. The event drew many of Sydney’s leading financial players, including Rodney Adler and Robert Whyte, a powerful investor and one of the Packer inner circle. While Adler, besieged with litigation, exiled early, Whyte was friendly and accessible. When I called him at his office wanting to talk about Rivkin, his tone changed. ‘I have to ask Rene’s permission,’ he said and never returned my call. This scenario, with other financial leaders, would repeat itself nearly two dozen times, with the phrase ‘I have to ask Rene’s permission’ and then silence.

By the autumn, Rivkin had recovered from his colo-rectal surgery and was on the front pages once again. It was another run-in with the Australian Securities Commission, which charged him with insider trading over a parcel of Qantas shares. Although Rivkin’s profit in the allegedly tainted transaction amounted to a mere $400, the charges carried a maximum penalty of five years in jail or a $200,000 fine. Even worse, a conviction could jeopardise his right to publish the lucrative Rivkin Report. A trial is scheduled for the spring.

Gordon Wood was in the papers as well. Last August, two Strike Force lrondale officers arrived in London to question him. They were able to locate him in a new flat in the exclusive Chelsea Village complex at Stamford Bridge. They brought him into Kensington police station for three hours of questioning, the transcript of which remains confidential.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, ‘it is understood Mr Wood is likely to be recalled from abroad sometime next year to a further hearing before coroner John Abernathy’. Soon afterwards, however, Wood told neighbours that he was off on a world cruise. He has not been seen in England since last September.

Meanwhile, at the Gap, a plaque has been installed on the fence that separates sightseers from the abyss, a sharp line between life and death. On the plaque are two numbers, one for Lifeline Counselling, another for Salvo Crisis Line. A few feet away is the giant rusted anchor from the Dunbar, the ship that in 1857, at the end of a harsh 81-day journey, crashed on the rocks below, killing 121 of the 122 passengers on their way to a new life. Before the Caroline Byrne case, the Dunbar was the Gap’s most famous tragedy. Until her mystery is solved – and much of Sydney will not be satisfied unless it is – the mystique of this case can only continue to grow more haunting.