Childlike, then a look of pure evil: My time with Martin Bryant
Former police officer Phil Pyke was handed the grim task of guarding Australia’s worst mass murderer Martin Bryant in the hospital after the Port Arthur massacre in 1996. He had met Bryant before and been shocked by his callous attitude to the death of his father.
But it was watching over the killer in the hours after the tragedy that he gained a unique insight into Bryant’s evil nature. These are his never-heard-before thoughts from that time:
The cover of the spiral-bound notebook is plain with my handwritten notes scrawled across nearly 22 pages. For nearly two decades, these pages contained my observations on the largest incident I ever participated as a Tasmanian police officer – the Port Arthur massacre.
The notebook also details my interaction with the Port Arthur gunman, Martin Bryant, several years before when his father committed suicide and the days after the massacre when I guarded him in the burns unit of the Royal Hobart Hospital.
In mid-August 1993, I was undertaking my Tasmania police recruit course at the Rokeby Police Academy. Given the course was larger than the average with 25 members, we often were called upon to assist Search and Rescue on searches for missing people.
Over the year, my course searched for missing German backpacker, Nancy Grundwalt, on the State’s east coast and a missing 10-year-old south of Hobart.
In mid-August we assisted at a property on the Arthur Hwy at Copping where a 60-year-old man, Maurice Bryant, had gone missing. It was there in strange circumstances, I first met Martin Bryant.
The previous day, members of the local fire brigade had assisted in the search of the property. However, as a shotgun was missing from the property and Maurice may have used it in self-harm, we were sent in.
Initially we searched up the hill in light scrub towards the back boundary. With no sign of the missing man, the search swung back down towards the weatherboard house and outbuildings.
Approaching the house, I first noticed a man with long blond hair watching us intently from the fence-line. I found his attention towards us rather unusual, particularly towards the female recruits on which he strongly focused his attention.
“That’s the son of Maurice,” the sergeant replied when I asked who the man was. “I think his name is Martin and he lives here.”
With the land-search now completed, we remained near the house. The vehicle of the missing man was parked in a shed and I could see large sums of money inside. A note saying “Get The Police” was hanging on the door of the house.
Martin hung around our group, seemingly unconcerned about the whereabouts of his father. He kept moving towards several female members attempting to ask them out on a date. His manner caused the girls to quickly move away, feeling uncomfortable at the unwarranted attention.
Police divers located Maurice’s body in a small deep dam beside the highway.
Dunalley officer, Constable Garry Whittle, took Martin down to formally identify his father – a requirement under the Coroner’s Act. He stood there for several moments looking down at his father before nodding to Constable Whittle.
I couldn’t hear what Bryant said but was amazed to see him walk away almost laughing. Initially from his behaviour and speech, I believed Martin was handicapped in some way but noted he was completely disconnected from the death of his father.
We viewed Maurice’s body as part of having part of the Coroner’s Act explained to us. For the younger members of the course, this was their first deceased person and they struggled with knowing how to react. I remember the weight belt across Maurice’s body.
Martin wandered over to the local water carrier who arrived to fill the household tanks. He engaged the water carrier with jokes, laughing loudly while ignoring the activity down near the dam.
One of the police divers later described the conditions in the dam to me.
“The dam sloped away quickly and dropped down to around three-five metres,” he said as they packed their gear away.
“We dived down and found several sheep carcasses before locating Maurice at the bottom with a weight belt strapped across his body like a bandolier.”
Some years later I realised, having grown up on a farm, sheep don’t drink from water-courses in a Tasmanian winter or spring and rarely fall in. To this day, I firmly believe the sheep had been thrown into the dam.
We returned to the outbuilding for lunch with Martin coming back over to attempt to again invite some of the female officers out. He was ignored but remained watching until we left on the Academy bus.
After the massacre, guarding Bryant in hospital was a hard job, especially after experiencing the events down at the Port Arthur six days before. In my mind I couldn’t change what had occurred and there was still much work to be done.
I commenced at 0600, with two members from the Prosecution Section and another from the Radio Room. Bryant was asleep in the end ward with the burn section locked off with all external doors secured.
Hospital security, assisted by police, staffed the locked entry doors. Untrained for this type of situation, they were very nervous.
The prison officers sat at the entrance to Bryant’s room – a large room with normally four beds now only housed this alleged killer. As Bryant had been formally charged and detained, he was in the custody of the Justice Department not Tasmania Police.
Looking around the corner, my first view was of a huddled figure under brown sheets, his head a mass of burnt hair.
In the darkness, I couldn’t tell if he was asleep or awake and watching us. The room smelt of burnt skin, which I could thankfully only faintly detect due to having a limited sense of smell.
Our briefing said Bryant previously had made threats towards the nursing staff, making shooting motions with his hands. The lights of the room came on as the relief shift for the prison staff arrived, pulling back the sheets to check his handcuffs.
His severely burnt body was covered with the netted bandage commonly used for burn victims. Looking at Bryant lying in the bed, I wondered how I could protect him if anyone forced their way into the ward to harm him. We had received un-validated reports on people flying from the mainland to try and kill him. Suspects had allegedly made a reconnaissance of the area – two making application for security positions at the hospital.
I made up my mind to protect the prison officers and nursing staff but not Bryant. If anyone came through the door with firearms, they could have him. Perhaps this decision wouldn’t have been sound judgment but with 26 hours sleep over five days, I was sleep deprived like many others.
Bryant had no liberty including bathroom access, defecating on a sheet that was quickly removed and replaced with another. This was the best of care given his notoriety. However, I saw his behaviour change from being completely childlike to that of an evil killer many times over the day – with one incident in particular involving me.
As I chatted with one of the prison officers who lived in my hometown, I was aware Bryant was watching me intently. Looking towards him, Bryant slowly closed his eyes as if he was falling asleep. When I looked away, he fixed me with a stare I described as pure evil. This was the killer – the person I knew was capable of having carried out those murders. It was at that point there was no doubt in my mind he had committed this crime.
After going through the past few days and remembering the Mikac girls [young victims Alannah and Madeline], I pulled my stool towards him. As he opened his eyes and again fixed me with that evil stare, I tapped my fingers on the outside of my holster, saying, “if you get out of those handcuffs Martin, this is for you as I fight back unlike your other victims,” After this engagement, he no longer held any eye contact with me.
I heard Bryant described his love of action movies, especially those with Steven Seagal – which linked in with my observations inside his house on the morning of 29 April.
When asked about certain people, I heard Bryant say “I hated the Martins. I did it because they were the worst people in my life.” As I know now, the owners of Seascape were killed first in the chain of events of April 28.
Bandage changing was hard as the badly injured Bryant was in pain. After one session of nursing staff changing the bandages, Bryant said in his childlike voice, “thank you for looking after me and treating me so kindly.” The nurse fled the room in tears, personally struggling to show compassion to this spree killer.
His voice was often regressed to quiet and childlike too. When he wanted something, it was always “please could I have something to eat.” “Please I need to go to the toilet.”
Bryant was always childlike with the ability to instantly switch into the killer with a look of pure evil. Knowing him before, having worked at the scene, observed inside his house and now at the hospital, it is my belief Bryant saw himself as an action hero of some nature
Having been heavily involved on many levels over this incident, I know Bryant undertook this act of violence alone and the trigger was his perceived hatred for the specific people in his life.
For me personally, I witnessed after effects of the Port Arthur massacre just over a year later when a mentally ill father slashed the throats of his four daughters (aged 10-18) because he didn’t want them to grow up in an evil world. I was the second police officer at the scene and this event, along with Port Arthur and its victims, remains constantly with me even today.
For me, there remains no logic in the madness and evil which took place at Port Arthur nearly 20 years ago.
* Phil Pyke served as a member of Tasmania Police 1993-2008. The aftermath of the tragic events of April 28, 1996 saw him later transferred to the Tasmania Police Media Office. These events were the commencement of his career in strategic communications, which has taken him around Australia and the world with the ADF as a Reserve public affairs officer. He now works as the Business Development Manager in the Tasmanian agriculture sector.