On January 20, 2017, James Gargasoulas committed one of Australia’s worst mass murders of recent times. It came after years of warnings.
James Gargasoulas was different to the other kids in the dusty, dug-out opal mining town of Coober Pedy.
Some say he was “crazy” even back then and he was often picked on. That’s why at age 14, he decided to smuggle explosives to school.
“Jimmy was just Jimmy … He was just an eccentric sort of crazy kid. That’s why he was a target,” his former classmate Martin Grava said.
“I remember he said something like, ‘I’ve had enough of this and I’m going to do something’.
“About a week later the school was shut down. We’re in school and they’re talking about a bomb being brought in — and it was Jimmy with a whole heap of detonators.”
Court documents would later say Gargasoulas displayed sociopathic tendencies from an early age.
He and his brother Angelo were raised by their single father in Coober Pedy. Angelo says it was a tough childhood.
“[It was] just one big massive trauma,” Angelo said.
Angelo says his brother had problems from a young age.
“Jimmy was always a ‘special’ kid. He did special ed in school, so we always knew there was a bit of an intellectual disability with him,” he said.
But there were more worrying signs about his brother’s behaviour.
“But when it started getting noticeable and out of control was when he started smoking weed with his mates and started stealing my dad’s cars.”
His behaviour was set to get much worse.
By the time Gargasoulas was in his early 20s, he was using ice and, according to his friends, he’d become a drug dealer in Coober Pedy, selling marijuana, ice and anything else he could get.
For kicks, Gargasoulas and his friends would sometimes head to the outskirts of town and film themselves doing burnouts.
Gargasoulas would then post these videos and other, more bizarre antics on his YouTube channel.
Coober Pedy local Johnboy Jelcic remembers a disturbing conversation with Gargasoulas in which he asked if he would ever kill someone.
“I said no … He said he’d have no problem,” Mr Jelcic said.
Back then, his associates say he was never aggressive towards his mates — but if you were a woman it was a different story.
Angelo says Gargasoulas was extremely violent and often women were the target.
“[His relationships] were the most turbulent things I’ve ever seen — if you want to call them relationships. It’s ruined relationships for me forever,” he said.
“I’ve seen him drop a woman onto the floor, drag her by the hair, knock a woman unconscious, completely.”
In May 2016, Gargasoulas deliberately crashed his car into his girlfriend’s car because he thought she was cheating on him. She spent 23 days in hospital with spinal injuries.
When Gargasoulas moved to Melbourne in late 2016, his criminal record was 20 pages long and included driving while disqualified, reckless conduct causing injury, affray, assaulting police, resisting police and escaping custody.
On October 31, when his girlfriend was 19 weeks pregnant, he had another terrifying outburst while they were driving, again accusing her of cheating.
She later told police he “flipped out”:
No-one was safe from Gargasoulas.
In a confrontation with Angelo in St Kilda, Gargasoulas hit him with a gun and then threw a tyre iron, smashing a taxi window.
Angelo spoke to police at the scene.
“I was like, you have to find this guy. He’s f**king ruthless,” he said.
Police chased Gargasoulas that night with sirens blaring but he sped off onto the wrong side of a major Melbourne road, forcing police to give up the pursuit.
It was tactic Gargasoulas would regularly employ.
Just before Christmas, police received another warning about Gargasoulas after he picked up a street sex worker and told her he had a gun.
She spoke to Four Corners anonymously:
“He was driving very erratically, almost hit a car, almost hit a tree as he swung into a side street,” she said.
“He cut into traffic, just driving like an absolute maniac, and that’s when I realised it was probably ice that he was on and my safety was at risk.
“He boasted to me that he had run from the police the night before on three occasions, that they had engaged in a chase on three occasions, and he said each time he was able to get away because he knew if he drove on the wrong side of the street or aimed at people, they had to disengage the pursuit.”
She made an excuse to get out of his car, took down his licence plate and called police. A sergeant was sent to see her but no action was taken.
On January 14, 2017, police were called to Gargasoulas’s mother’s apartment, where he had been threatening her and brandishing a knife.
He was arrested and taken to St Kilda Police Station, where he joked around with officers as they listed the 23 charges he was facing.
One of the police questioning him that night was Detective Senior Constable Murray Gentner, a local cop he had met before and who would ultimately stay in contact with Gargasoulas right up until the time of his January 20 rampage.
In police video from the night, Gargasoulas sounded paranoid and delusional as he answered the officers’ questions.
Gargasoulas was charged with 23 offences and police opposed bail, but because it was after hours, a volunteer bail justice was called to decide whether or not he should be released.
Victoria is the only state that uses volunteers without legal qualifications to hear bail applications. This one was a teacher and — in a decision that shocked police — he decided to grant Gargasoulas bail.
Four Corners has obtained the statement of the bail justice in which he claims police did not discuss Gargasoulas’s escalating mental health problems and failed to provide his 20-page criminal history.
The police contradict some of the bail justice’s account. They argued strongly against the granting of bail.
The Gargasoulas case would eventually prompt a review by retired judge Paul Coghlan into the bail system. One of his recommendations was that there be a separate inquiry into the bail justice system itself but the Victorian Government has yet to do this.
Senior Constable Gentner was certain Gargasoulas would reoffend. He had already emailed his bosses telling them so and again he raised his concerns with his superiors, recommending a “discreet probe” into the bail justice.
That same day, Gargasoulas went to St Francis Catholic Church in central Melbourne, where he spoke to Father Graeme Duro in the churchyard.
“He said, ‘I really want to talk to you about a revelation I’ve had from God. The world is going to end in a month’s time, or sometime next month’,” Father Duro said.
“His eyes were quite piercing and he did say at some stage to me, ‘look into my eyes when I speak to you’.
“I turned to go back into the monastery and he made a comment that I can’t quite recall the exact words, but I think it was something along the line of ‘look at you, you’re a disgrace, you’re the devil’.”
Gargasoulas then entered the church and began to rant from the pulpit about terrorists.
Police were called and they came and spoke to Gargasoulas, but he soon took off. When they ran a name check, they were told he was not wanted for any outstanding warrants and so they did not pursue him.
Four hours later, police were called once again, this time to the unit block where Gargasoulas’s mother lived.
Once there, Angelo says Gargasoulas asked his mother’s boyfriend, Gavin Wilson, if he could have his car keys but when Mr Wilson refused, Gargasoulas attacked him, setting fire to a Bible, smashing it in Mr Wilson’s face and trying to gouge out his eyes.
Before police arrived, Gargasoulas sped off in Mr Wilson’s maroon Commodore.
This was the car he would ultimately drive all the way to Bourke Street, in Melbourne’s CBD.
That night, Gargasoulas called triple zero repeatedly.
Operator: “Hello caller. What address do you need police to attend?
Gargasoulas: “I don’t need an address, I want to um, make a state emergency that, oh, well, a worldwide emergency, that there’s a comet in the sky and that NASA should take a look at that because it’s gonna hit the Earth.”
He had been using large quantities of ice and was in the grip of a drug-induced psychosis.
Gargasoulas: They’re trying to kill me, so my brother can rule the world after this has f**king hit!
And all the rich people will go underground, and yeah, blah, blah, blah, f**king work that out, you dumb f**k!
Well, you’re not dumb. You need to f**king understand what the f**k is really going on.
Why do you think the world is f**ked up? Why do you think there’s all lies and deceiving? Yeah, I’ll be dead after this. And hopefully not.
Operator: Why will you be dead, James?
Gargasoulas: Why? Because the comet will take me out because I have no safety.
Just after 1:00am, Gargasoulas went back to his mother’s apartment with his new girlfriend.
Angelo was there.
“He started asking me questions about how much I knew about the comet that’s coming to hit Earth and how much I knew about the bunkers and where they are and why am I not telling him where they are and if I don’t tell him, we’re all going to die,” he said.
Just after 2:00am, Gargasoulas and Angelo walked out of the apartment.
As they reached the gate, Gargasoulas pulled out a large kitchen knife.
“I saw my brother coming and basically just go at it, at me, and I remember losing consciousness, and my head was against the front of the car tyre and the horn was going like crazy,” he said.
“I realise my lung has been stabbed and at this point I didn’t realise the knife had gone right through, but my lung was making a blow-off kind of sound.
“He picked up the knife again and picked me up by the scruff of the hair and just went at it like a pineapple.”
Four the fourth time in nine hours, police were called but by the time they arrived at the apartment, Gargasoulas had fled.
Angelo was rushed to hospital and placed in an induced coma.
At 4:30am, a sergeant urgently requested help from the Critical Incident Response Team (CIRT), emphasising how dangerous Gargasoulas was.
The sergeant later told the Homicide Squad that the CIRT team refused to attend, as the case did not fit its criteria.
“I expressed my dismay to the response I received,” the sergeant said in his statement.
“[I was told] there was nothing we could do about it.”
That morning, Gargasoulas was due to face court.
The stabbing of his brother and the subsequent manhunt had made the news.
Angelo was fighting for life as Gargasoulas drove up behind this Channel Nine crew reporting on the assault.
He says: “That’s me they’re looking for.”
Gargasoulas was driving through South Melbourne — still in the car he had stolen from his mother’s boyfriend — when he realised police were following him.
He had kidnapped his girlfriend who was begging him to stop.
He pulled over, but as the officers got out of their car, he accelerated rapidly.
He told his girlfriend: “If they catch up to me, I’m going to run down everyone in the city.”
A Critical Incident Response Team did manage to catch up with him and officers approached with firearms drawn, but he pushed his girlfriend out onto the road and escaped again.
In keeping with Victoria Police pursuits policy, a local sergeant ordered members not to chase or intercept his car and to “maintain covert observations from a safe distance”.
Greg Davies was the victims of crime commissioner at the time of Gargasoulas’s rampage and was also a former Police Association boss. He says too often police on the ground are left powerless.
“I think James Gargasoulas and subsequent incidents like that Bourke Street tragedy are the inevitable result of 20 years of pushing decision making from the geographical location of incident that’s occurring in front of people who are witnessing it, all the way up to someone in an office somewhere else miles away from where it’s happening,” he said.
By midday, Senior Constable Gentner was on Gargasoulas’s tail and sent him a text message:
After again losing his police tail, Gargasoulas stopped at a building site in suburban Yarraville, where he attracted the attention of contractor Trent Schmidt.
Mr Schmidt was so concerned by Gargasoulas’s behaviour he dialled triple zero:
Operator: “Emergency services. Thank you, Telstra, hello, where do you need the police?
Mr Schmidt: “Ah, well, Drew St, Yarraville.”
“There’s a guy, he’s sitting in the car, we were doing some work there, he’s babbling on about the end of the world and …”
Operator: “Right. So possible mental health? Or he’s on drugs, or …”
Mr Schmidt: “Yeah, either or …”
Operator: “What does he look like?”
Mr Schmidt: “He actually looks a bit like Nick Kyrgios, probably mid 20s early 30s.”
Operator: “I’ll let the police know, we’ll get the police there as soon as possible.”
The police helicopter was sent, but before officers on the ground could arrive to intercept him Gargasoulas sped away again.
Gargasoulas had headed into the CBD and was continuing to text with Senior Constable Gentner:
Over an hour and 19 minutes, the detective and the fugitive texted 33 times, with Senior Constable Gentner repeatedly asking him to pull over.
By now, Gargasoulas was doing burnouts in the heart of Melbourne, in front of Federation Square. Dozens of videos of his antics would soon be uploaded to social media.
Senior Constable Gentner’s final text messages to Gargasoulas were ignored.
With police tailing him, Gargasoulas kept driving down Swanston Street, picking up pace and mounting the footpath.
He screeched around the corner into Bourke Street, where Josh Baldacchino was finishing his lunchbreak.
“There’s this thud, thud, thud sound. In my vision comes James Gargasoulas,” he said.
“He’s got this calm, surreal look on his face. He’s got his two hands on the steering wheel, with a cigarette, either it’s just been lit, or it’s unlit, and it’s drooping out of his mouth. And he’s just expressionless.
“He hits these people and continues up the hill.”
Luke Winter was one of the people Gargasoulas hit on Bourke Street.
“When I got up, there was just carnage. There were other people who’d been hit strewn along the ground,” he said.
“All that was left in that section of Bourke Street, along the way back to work, was just debris and bodies.”
In the 55 seconds he was on Bourke Street, Gargasoulas hit 33 people before being tasered and shot by police.
Six people were killed, including a three-month-old baby and a 10-year-old girl.
Former Victoria Police commissioner Christine Nixon was on Bourke Street that day and narrowly missed being hit.
“I think the police did as best as they possibly could. They will question everything in their mind. They will wake up at night and say, ‘could I have, should I have, how could I have done things differently?’” she said.
Gargasoulas has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and in February he was sentenced to life in prison.
A coronial inquest will begin later this year to investigate what Victoria Police knew about Gargasoulas, how it dealt with him in the lead-up to the Bourke Street massacre and why he was out on bail.
Mr Davies believes the attack was preventable.
“He was allowed to travel from the suburbs into the centre of our capital city without being stopped. And we now know the outcome of that,” he said.
“Now, that’s certainly not the fault of any individual police officer who was involved in that operation on the day. It’s a culmination of bad policy, remoteness of decision making, and we’ve now all got to live with that.”
Angelo has recovered from his stabbing injuries but still questions why his brother was not locked up sooner.
“It could’ve saved so many lives. It could’ve saved so much drama,” he said.
Watch Louise Milligan’s investigation, Time Bomb: The making of the Bourke St murderer, tonight on Four Corners at 8:30pm on ABC TV and iview.
Reporter: Louise Milligan
Digital producer: Brigid Andersen
Design: Georgina Piper
Producer: Jeanavive McGregor
Researcher: Lucy Carter
Additional image credits: Fairfax, AAP