The long road to justice

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA- MAY 17, 2009 : Photo of Cecil and Launa Russouw at the announcement of a $100,000 reward for information on the death of their son James Russouw at the police centre in Melbourne May 17, 2009.  THE AGE/ LUIS ENRIQUE ASCUI
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA- MAY 17, 2009 : Photo of Cecil and Launa Russouw at the announcement of a $100,000 reward for information on the death of their son James Russouw at the police centre in Melbourne May 17, 2009. THE AGE/ LUIS ENRIQUE ASCUI

It is to be the last roll of the dice in a murder investigation that looks destined to remain unsolved. Thousands of hours, hundreds of interviews and dozens of leads have led to nothing, so it is time to pony up with a giant reward offer.

The victim, James Russouw, 24, was a young man with an impish grin, a wide social network, a warm personality and a secret life selling cannabis to friends. In the scheme of things his crimes were minor, but the consequences deadly.

Now, eight years after the March 2008 drug-related ambush, police announce a $1 million reward in the hope of finally finding the truth.

For Senior Detective Simon Hunt, this is more than a cold case he has inherited from an ageing file. He joined Homicide just weeks after Russouw's body was found in his burnt-out Jeep Cherokee at the East Burwood Reserve, his throat pierced in a planned execution. This was not a crime of passion or a one-punch explosion but a cold-blooded murder where the victim was lured to his death.

Friends and family told police Russouw would never let a stranger into the car and so investigators always believed the killer was someone he knew and trusted. Hunt (who became lead investigator in the case in 2010) has come to know the Russouw family - decent, hardworking, close and devastated by the brutal death of their son and brother.

The cold case detectives know the reward will be their last chance to generate new information and decide to release some grainy CCTV images taken of a man making a call at 10.54pm to Russouw from a public phone at the Burwood East Kmart complex, just one kilometre from the murder scene.

While police concluded that man is the likely killer, the footage is so poor it is seen as having little evidentiary value. The decision to release the footage is to make the reward announcement a little more newsworthy.

"We wanted something fresh to attract media attention," says Hunt.

It does more than that. It leads them to the killer.

Within a few days a call to Crime Stoppers nominates Christopher John Lavery, who - like James - is a former Whitefriars College student.

The caller, also an ex-student, recognised Lavery's slightly rolling gait and saw the figure was wearing long, ill-fitting pants, bunched at the bottom in a way favoured by his former friend.

Lavery was on the periphery of James' social group, a few years younger and not a close mate, but as phone records show that they talked on the day of the murder, he was interviewed by police.

It turned out the two had more than a school in common - both were of South African heritage and had taken to dabbling in the lucrative cannabis market.

Lavery told detectives he was at the movies at Forest Hill Chase shopping centre at the time of the murder and had a witness to prove it. Sure enough, his mate confirmed they watched the late screening of Rambo III.

The movie started around 9pm and finished just after 11pm. As James was captured on CCTV driving into the Reserve at 11.03pm with a passenger who must have been his killer, that cleared Lavery. That is if the alibi witness was telling the truth.

And so cold case detectives, armed with the Crime Stoppers tip, knocked on the witness' door without warning, before he could rehearse his answers. "He was vague at first but he soon said that he'd been holding onto some information for years that he wanted to tell us," says Hunt.

The man, later to be known as "Witness A", said Lavery paid him $150 to lie and later threatened that if he ever told the truth he and his family would be murdered.

In his latest version of events he said they went to the movies but Lavery slipped out 30 minutes later.

Phone records showed the alibi witness rang Lavery at 10.59pm and the call went unanswered. So why ring the bloke sitting next to you at the movies in the last five minutes of the film?

Police would allege he could not answer because he was about to hop into Russouw's Jeep on the way to the reserve. Lavery would counter he dropped his phone in the cinema and asked his friend to ring so he could locate it.

This new statement made Lavery the key suspect but it was hardly a compelling case, as it relied on a shifting story. And with a new $1 million reward it would be easy to argue Witness A was motivated not by conscience but greed. (However he did not approach the police after the reward announcement - they went to him.)

The real key was the one solid piece of forensic evidence police had kept secret for years. The killer sprayed petrol on the body and the car from a Decor drink bottle, then left a five-metre fuel trail to set alight.

He would have assumed the bottle would melt in the fire but it survived, revealing an unidentified palm print. Lavery had moved to Cairns - where he was fingerprinted after a drugs caution - and it would prove to be a match.

And so in April 2016, just over one month after the $1 million reward was offered, the arrest was made.

At the five-week trial the background of victim and accused are ruthlessly examined, although Russouw is not there to defend himself. The jury is told that he was heavily involved in the music industry, took to selling cannabis to friends and, as he became more active, used a St Albans couple to satisfy his demand for kilos rather than grams.

When they were busted Russouw was not savvy enough to quit while ahead. The drug dealing had become his major source of income and he broke his own rule of only dealing with people in his circle of trust.

The police case is Lavery was also a dealer (although not as big as Russouw) who promised a new supply link. And so they were to meet on the night of March 7, with Lavery to introduce a new supplier who would sell Russouw more than two kilos on the spot for around $13,000.

They say Lavery made the phone call from Kmart at 10.54pm and that his distinctive white Honda Legend was caught on camera leaving the shopping centre two minutes later.

They met, the jury was told, in a nearby street and drove into the reserve. Lavery then hopped into the back seat of the Jeep, leaving the passenger seat empty for the non-existent supplier to make the exchange. Then, from behind, Lavery produced a WiltshireStaysharp knife and stabbed Russouw in the neck "without the slightest warning".

The jury deliberated for nearly four days before returning a guilty verdict.

It is hard to comprehend that this young man, brought up in a comfortable middle class environment and with no criminal record, was prepared to kill another young man for the price of a second-hand car.

On the day of sentence, two families are present. They sit metres away from each other in padded green seats in the wood-panelled court, perfectly decent people brought together by life-altering violence. Years earlier they may have passed each other in the corridors of Whitefriars, not knowing their worlds would one day collide.

Just before 11am Chris Lavery, 31, enters the court and is escorted to the dock. He has put on weight in the 18 months since his arrest but still has the same distinctive rolling gait identified by a former friend on the CCTV from the night of the murder. He smiles, mouths a greeting and blows a kiss to his family.

As Justice Mark Weinberg enters the court Lavery, now attuned to court protocol, rises, buttons his grey suit jacket and bows respectfully. Justice Weinberg covers the details of the case, weighing the cold-blooded nature of the crime against the offender's lack of criminal history and his chances of rehabilitation. He sentences him to 25 years, with a minimum of 21.

Cecil and Lorna Russouw outside court on September 28.

Cecil and Lorna Russouw outside court on September 28. Photo: Eddie Jim

Later, in their comfortable eastern suburbs home with their grey nomad caravan in the drive, Lorna and Cecil Russouw reflect on the horrible nine-year journey from the day they learnt of their son's murder, which exposed his double life, to the ultimate conviction of his killer.

"There is no closure. We hate that word, there is no such thing. It never leaves you," Lorna says.

"Every birthday, every family gathering is always tinged with sadness," adds Cecil.

They say they have learned that Lavery went to their son's funeral - apparently crying inconsolably in the car on the way (they believe it was an act in front of witnesses to strengthen his alibi).

"This was all done for the dollar, I can't get my head around that," Lorna says.

A member of the Lavery family says the jury has convicted an innocent man: "We honestly feel for the Russouws but the trial threw up more questions than answers.

"He was convicted on inference and not firm evidence. Why would you do this for $13,000? It doesn't make sense."

This story The long road to justice first appeared on The Age.