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23rd Nov, 2005

Every now and then there is a story so strange I have to grab it.


Photo: Jason South

The Age, 22 November 2005

By Stephen Moynihan.

She stood in the witness box with her head bowed, strands of long dark hair shielding her tear-streaked face. Her legs trembled and her manicured fingernails gripped the wooden railing.

Zarah Garde-Wilson was terrified. Not only had she refused repeated requests to answer questions from a Supreme Court judge, she had done so in front of the two men on trial for the murder of her boyfriend Lewis Caine.

Garde-Wilson yesterday learned the consequences of that silence. Justice David Harper convicted her of one count of contempt of court after she refused to testify last month during the trial of Keith Faure and Evangelos Goussis. Both men were charged over the shooting death of Caine, whose body was found slumped in a Brunswick lane in May last year.

When she appeared in court on October 7, Garde-Wilson was torn. Although she wanted the men who killed the love of her life to be brought to justice, she claimed Faure had threatened to kill her. Garde-Wilson later admitted her refusal to answer questions was "so I don't get my head blown off".

Garde-Wilson's encounter with the Supreme Court is the latest twist in Melbourne's underworld war, which has now moved from the streets to the city's courtrooms.

Tracking the movements outside court of defendants, witnesses and their highly paid barristers has become a ritual in itself. Solicitors, being more anonymous types, are normally spared this media notoriety. But not Garde-Wilson.

At 27, she is something of an enigma within Melbourne's legal fraternity. From her chambers in Little Bourke Street she runs the firm Garde-Wilson and Caine - the latter a tribute to her slain partner.

She is a favourite with photographers, typically teaming silk blouses, tailored suits and big sunglasses with a constantly changing hair colour. It's often a contrast with her clients, whose sartorial taste tends to lean more towards designer sportswear for their court appearances. In Melbourne's fashion-conscious underworld, Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren are hard to beat.

She has been known to greet police at her office with a python draped around her neck. At home she keeps company with a pit-bull called Tazar.

Police claim that the young solicitor has joined one of the feuding tribes in the gangland war and has crossed the line in her duty as a lawyer. So much so that some police believe her refusal to testify was in line with the crook's code of never being a dog and ratting on your mates.

She acts for many of the city's biggest names including Carl Williams and alleged drug lord Tony Mokbel. Carl's wife Roberta, his father George, and Sean Sonnet - who was infamously involved in the "trial from hell" when a bag of excrement was thrown at a jury - are also on her books.

Her critics say she's inexperienced but more than one police officer has been impressed by the quality and quantity of subpoenas she has issued to build a defence case for a client. Whether it's through hard work or luck, Garde-Wilson runs one of the city's busiest criminal law firms.

Garde-Wilson came to prominence on the legal scene following the demise last year of the law firm Pryles and Defteros, where she was a solicitor.

She is originally from rural NSW but a drop in wool prices saw her family close its 6000-head merino farm near Armidale and move to Queensland, where she completed high school while boarding at Fairholme Ladies College in Toowoomba.

She crossed the country to complete a law degree at the University of Western Australia, then landed a job as an articled clerk with Pryles and Defteros' Perth office before being relocated to Melbourne. She met Caine when she represented him on a driving charge.

He'd served 12 years in jail for bashing a man to death outside a Melbourne nightclub and was seen as violent and untrustworthy. He still had his mates, including a few female acquaintances, but it was Garde-Wilson he reportedly planned to marry.

They fell in love and lived together in a city apartment. In a rare interview this year, she told The Age of the deep and spiritual connection she had with Caine.

A psychologist's report presented last week at the Supreme Court plea hearing revealed Garde-Wilson's "first intimate relationship was with Lewis Caine and her comments showed she remains romantically attached to him even though he's deceased".

She still hopes to father his child and has his sperm on ice. Garde-Wilson will have to apply to the Supreme Court for permission to use the sperm to fall pregnant - a move that, if successful, would create a legal precedent.

Among the professional references given to Harper during her plea hearing last week was a letter from Lea Weaver, of the Fitzroy Therapeutics Botanical Emporium.

She wrote that the pair's relationship was "one of integrity and love". Weaver, a shiatsu and oriental therapy practitioner, instructed Garde-Wilson and Caine on reiki - a method of spiritual healing that claims to draw on one's life force energy - to a level where the couple becoming qualified healers.

Caine went a step further, becoming a shiatsu practitioner. Weaver wrote that Garde-Wilson: "Does not judge people on their immediate expression but looks for the heart of the person." She said Garde- Wilson had told her that there was always a story behind anyone accused of crime.

The Garde-Wilson story, however, is closely guarded and she refused repeated requests to speak to The Age. She is estranged from her family, lacks close friends and told the court she had been out socially only twice since Caine's murder. Caine was her life, a crook who supported her vocation in the law. But if the pain from his death had subsided, it came back with full force when she was called to give evidence at the Faure and Goussis trial.

Garde-Wilson had given a police statement in the days following Caine's death. She was convinced of a threat to her life from Faure who had allegedly told her then boss George Defteros for her to "keep her mouth shut" and if she didn't he "would hold Mr Defteros personally responsible".

At the time, officers from the Purana gangland taskforce realised her life was in danger. They increased foot patrols outside her city apartment building and offered to put her up in a hotel.

But during her contempt of court hearing on October 18, an officer said that while there was evidence of a threat, it had all but disappeared following the arrests of Faure and Goussis.

Garde-Wilson gave evidence that she had received threatening calls from Barwon Prison despite no voice being heard on the other end of the line.

This added to her fear and increased her resistance to testifying. Garde-Wilson wanted to enter the witness protection program and underwent medical and psychological examinations, but ultimately Chief Commissioner Christine Nixon refused.

So it followed that Garde-Wilson refused to answer questions before Justice Bernard Teague last month. With Faure and Goussis looking on, she climbed the stairs to the witness box, took the oath, stated her name and began to tremble.

In a soft voice that echoed through the cavernous courtroom, Garde-Wilson said: "I refuse to answer questions due to fears for my safety."

Later, on November 3, Faure and Goussis were found guilty of Caine's death without her testimony. Yesterday Harper said it was only with the benefit of hindsight that it could be said that Garde- Wilson's refusal had no impact on the verdicts.

Police say Garde-Wilson could have offered important evidence relating to Caine's wealth, talk of purchasing a car and his final movements before he died.

Garde-Wilson's lawyer Stephen Shirrefs dismissed the request to question her as nothing more than a "proofing exercise" and a distortion of the trial process.

Two weeks after her refusal, Garde- Wilson faced the embarrassment of watching her crime as it was played on video during her contempt hearing.

She suffered more shame when an officer told the court she was involved in an "off again and on again" sexual relationship with Mokbel. At one point, she refused to answer questions about Mokbel, stating: "I'm waiting for my counsel to object to relevance."

A police source told The Age, Garde- Wilson has engaged in unethical behaviour and claimed she travelled with Mokbel to a Queensland casino and collected his winnings. She is also alleged to be passing on briefs of evidence and witness statements to third parties with criminal connections.

It is now up to the Law Institute of Victoria to decide to investigate the matters against Garde-Wilson, which could ultimately see her lose her practising certificate, an outcome a recent psychiatric report said could tip Garde-Wilson over the edge.

A senior Purana officer told The Age: "I think she's just a lonely person and doesn't have a lot of close friends." So isolated is she privately - this line of thinking runs - and so committed is she professionally, that her two worlds have merged in ways most lawyers would find unthinkable.

She has employed as a cleaner the sister-in-law of one of the city's most prominent underworld figures, while the mother of a notorious criminal is her parttime secretary. She lived in Roberta Williams' home while Williams was serving time for drug offences. The Williams clan are devoted to the solicitor but a police source says the family are just using her.

"(To her) everyone is innocent, and I think she really believes it," the police source said.

But what is true is that Garde-Wilson is devoted to her job and is regarded, according to professional references tendered during her plea, as a polite, decent solicitor with intelligence and an impressive work ethic.

Melbourne barrister David Grace, QC, wrote: "I have been concerned with the predicament in which she found herself as a result of her relationship with Lewis Caine. I believe Ms Garde-Wilson to be impressionable and to have been overborne by the circumstances in which she found herself."

In a little more than 18 months, Garde- Wilson has lost her partner, created one of Melbourne's busiest criminal law firms, been charged with possessing an unregistered firearm, defended a series of criminal identities and now faces the possibility of losing her practising certificate. Also hanging over her are charges of lying to the Australian Crime Commission.

But for all the gossip and innuendo, several police and lawyers who spoke to The Age admire Garde-Wilson's strength and determination to fight the good fight for her clients.

As she said outside court recently, "It'll take a bullet in the brain to stop me."


Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
communicator
23rd Nov, 2005 12:49 (UTC)
Do you think the system is picking on her as a beautiful, successful and sexually active woman? It kind of sounds like it to me.
hawkeye7
23rd Nov, 2005 21:06 (UTC)
That is certainly the case as far as the media and the legal community goes. Woven into this is the Police, who are approaching from a different angle; they don't like lawyers who defend crooks - I've seen them go after male lawyers like this. The fact that she is closer to the underworld than most only makes them more determined.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )