Australia’s brutal comic book killer
Today comic books rule the entertainment industry, thanks to billion-dollar blockbuster film franchises like The Avengers, Spider-man, Batman and Superman.
But while these superheroes are all American, Australia lays claim to having produced the world's most horrific real-life comic book villain: Leonard Lawson.
Leonard Lawson was born in 1927 in Wagga Wagga. His parents, Keith and Eileen, were both just 18 when they married and had him. Keith was a local celebrity because he was a talented boxer known as the Wagga Walloper.
Young Leonard - known to all as Len - was a gifted student, topping his classes. But his real talent was art. The boy could draw like nobody's business.
In the early 1940s, the Lawson family moved to Manly. There, at age 15, Len scored his first commercial success as a comic book artist when he won a national competition run by artist and publisher Syd Miller, himself famous for co-creating the iconic Chesty Bonds character.
Len's comic told a war story set in the Pacific and was included in an anthology published by Miller. On the back of that success, Len started studying art in Sydney.
By February 1945, he had published a full-length adventure comic called Peter Jury, which was included in Syd Miller's Monster Comic publication, whose subtitle was "For Australian Boys".
"Len is only 17 years of age and has promise of becoming one of Australia's leading comic artists," reported Wagga Wagga's Daily Advertiser.
Len was precocious personally as well as professionally. Just like his own parents, Len was 18 when he married Betty Jamieson, also 18, in September 1946.
The following month, Len got his biggest career break when he wrote and illustrated all the stories in the very first issue of Action Comics, published by H.J. Edwards Pty. Ltd.
Readers were thrilled by the science fiction tale of Spencer Steele, who was exploring the universe in the far-off future of 1956. Then there were the thrills of speed racer Johnnie Star and the adventures of detective Michael Justus.
But the second issue of Action Comics debuted the character who'd become Len's most famous. The Lone Avenger was a white-hat-wearing cowboy named Paul Nicholls who fought baddies and saved ladies while keeping his identity secret behind a red mask.
Action Comics had been an anthology but The Lone Avenger soon took over the entire book and would continue his crime-fighting run for 13 years. Kids all over Australia, New Zealand and Fiji joined the fan club and bought Lone Avenger toys and outfits.
Len produced other popular characters for Action Comics, including another cowboy dude, this one called The Hooded Rider, and a wild jungle babe in Diana: Queen of the Apes. But The Lone Avenger had the biggest following, selling 70,000 copies per issue.
LEN THE VILLAIN
By the early 1950s, Len was doing brilliantly. He had a successful career, a happy marriage that had produced three children and he was earning £70 a week, which is the equivalent of $2400 a week now. He seemed to have it all. Except something dark and twisted lurked inside Leonard Lawson.
On the May 7, 1954, Lawson hired five Sydney models. Two were aged 15, the others were 18, 21 and 23. Lawson wanted them, he said, for a calendar he proposed to publish. He picked them up from the studio at 9:30am and they stopped in St Leonards to buy some sandwiches, for the day's supposed picnic ambience.
Lawson drove them to Terrey Hills and they walked from the car through thick bush. "Of all the beautiful places in Sydney, I don't know why you had to pick this place to take photographs," one girl said.
"I am paying for this day's work," Lawson responded, "and you will do what you are told."
This sunny day soon took a dark turn. "When this calendar comes out, I won't be here," Lawson told his young friends gravely. "I have cancer."
The models were horrified and saddened. Lawson told them he was planning to commit suicide rather than endure an agonising death. "I am thinking about putting a bullet in my brain," he said.
He took a sawn-off rifle from his backpack, loaded it and declared he was going to kill himself there and then. Scared and crying, the girls pleaded with him not to. Lawson abruptly turned the rifle on them, telling them to all lay on their stomachs. He was going to tie them up, he said, so they couldn't stop him from shooting himself. He tied their hands and wrists and used sticking plaster to cover their mouths.
Then his true purpose became clear.
Lawson began removing or cutting off their clothes. Telling them they'd each get a bullet through the head if they resisted, he raped two girls, tried to rape a third and indecently assaulted and intimidated the other two.
"I don't know why I picked on you decent girls instead of street women," he said remorsefully when he was done.
Lawson untied his victims, paid them each their £6 fee and drove them to Gordon because one girl wanted to go to a chemist.
It was as if he thought what had happened was no big deal. Once inside the pharmacy, the girl called her parents and the police, who descended and arrested Lawson while he was still sitting in his car outside.
In the days to come, Lawson gave seven confessions. But when the case against him on rape charges was heard from 24th May, he pleaded not guilty.
The girls testified against him at length, providing chilling detail of how he'd manipulated them before unleashing his full savagery.
Not true, Lawson's lawyer said. The girls had all been willing participants in a "burlesque on the theme of rape". Testifying, Lawson said he'd had sex with some of his accusers but it had been consensual. He did feel guilty - but only because he'd betrayed his wedding vows.
The jury didn't need to deliberate for long. The Sun's front page headline simply screamed "Guilty!" over a portrait of Lawson.
Found guilty on two charges or rape and on a further charge of sexual assault, the judge sentenced Lawson to death. This was the first time in NSW that the capital punishment penalty had been handed down for rape in more than 50 years. The judge also said he fervently hoped the sentence wouldn't be commuted by the NSW government, as was then standard practice.
CRAZY OR CRIMINAL?
Betty divorced Len and moved to Queensland for a fresh start.
Lawson cut a quiet and lonely figure at Long Bay Jail as he awaited Cabinet's decision on whether to commute his death sentence. One question had to be answered: Was he sane? A government-appointed psychiatrist found that he was but even so Lawson's death sentence was commuted to 14 years' imprisonment.
Leonard Lawson was a model prisoner at Goulburn Jail. He found religion, painted religious images, taught a younger prisoner to read, write and draw. His exemplary conduct led to him being released on parole after serving just half his sentence.
A FREE MAN
On 24th of May 1961 Lawson was again a free man. He rented an apartment in Collaroy on the northern beaches and bought a car with money his mother gave him. Lawson had numerous sexual liaisons with women he met casually and prostitutes he picked up on the street. But they couldn't satisfy his dark appetites, with the violent fantasies that had secretly sustained him in prison now increasingly occupying his mind.
Lawson roamed south, to Moss Vale, where on 20th June he went to the Church of England Grammar school and introduced himself to the headmistress, Miss Jean Turnbull. He was, he said, an author writing a St. Trinian's-style novel and would love the opportunity to observe the girls. She invited him to lunch in the dining room and gave him a tour of the school. Lawson visited the school again once or twice, attending chapel and again lunching with the students.
Back in Manly, in late September 1961 Lawson met and befriended a 16-year-old girl named Jane Bower. He charmed the teenager and her family, telling them he wanted to paint Jane's portrait. She posed for him several times.
At 5pm of Monday November 6, Lawson picked her up at the city art shop where she worked. They then collected her mother and Lawson drove them all back to the Bower house in Manly, where they shared an early dinner.
Trusted by the family, Lawson was allowed to take Jane to his apartment so he could again sketch her. There he made advances on her: but she rebuffed him.
But Lawson was prepared. Before bringing Jane back to his apartment he'd filled a sock with sand and readied pre-cut lengths of rope.
With Jane sitting on the lounge, Lawson went to the bedroom, got the sock and swung it hard into her head, knocking her out.
Lawson tied her wrists, took off her clothes and raped her. Seeing Jane was coming around, Lawson started to strangle her. When she struggled, he grabbed a hunting knife and plunged it into her chest. Using an eyebrow pencil, he wrote on her torso: "God forgive me, Len."
Jane's parents were anxious when she didn't return home. They enlisted her cousin to help in the search and visited Lawson's flat but no-one answered. After a night of searching, they came back about 7:50am the following morning. There, Jane's cousin broke in and found her body.
About 9am at Sydney police headquarters, plans were being drawn up for a statewide search. But that wouldn't be necessary. Within minutes, the fugitive's whereabouts were known.
The previous night, Lawson had fled the Collaroy flat murder scene in his car. He'd driven south to Moss Vale, arriving around 2:30am, and parked on the side of the road and sat. He wrote a letter to his parents.
"Dear Mum and Dad," it read. "I have done a shocking and dreadful thing. Whatever this monster that moves into my body is, it did it with a vengeance this time."
He said he was sorry and that he was going to kill himself. But that wasn't what he was going to do.
At 8:30am, he drove to the Church of England Grammar School that he'd scoped out months earlier. He had a .22 Remington rifle, 167 rounds of ammunition, the knife he'd used to kill Jane and pre-cut lengths of rope.
Just after 9am, 150 students, were in the school chapel, under the supervision of headmistress Jean Turnbull. Through the windows, some of the girls saw a man approaching across the lawn. Suddenly Leonard Lawson - the author they'd met months earlier - was in the doorway of the chapel brandishing a gun.
He told everyone to be quiet and to not move. "If anyone tries anything silly, one of the girls will be shot," he said.
"What do you want?" asked Miss Turnbull.
"I'm going to hold the girls as hostages here until 12'o clock," he said. "I have killed someone already and I want to speak to three people."
Lawson allowed Miss Turnbull to return to the front of the chapel and continue the service. To distract themselves from their terror, the girls sang hymns loudly.
Meanwhile, Lawson gave a piece of paper to another staff member, Miss Brooks, who left the chapel with it.
"To whom it may concern," it said. "Read this carefully before any attempt is made to contact the police - lives depend on it. By now the police will be hunting me for murder so I am going to hold the girls as hostages for a few hours."
He told police to obey his instructions and that if anyone came within 100 feet of the chapel, he'd shoot a girl.
"I am not bluffing - I have killed once, so now I have everything to gain and nothing to lose by killing more - it's the same penalty I must face."
Bizarrely, the three people he wanted to speak to were a nun who'd visited him in prison, reigning Miss Australia Tania Verstak, and Olympic athlete Marlene Mathews.
Meanwhile, Miss Turnbull surreptitiously wrote her own note and threw it out the window. "A man is holding us up in here with a shotgun," she wrote. "Get lots of police - he is threatening to shoot the girls."
Lawson was edgy, with the teachers and girls sure he was about to start shooting.
"If you are going to shoot, why not shoot me or one of the staff?" the headmistress asked. She was backed up by the old French teacher, Madame Sherman. "We have lived most of our lives," she said. "They have most of their lives still to live."
Police arrived and approached the chapel. Lawson saw them through the window.
"Here come the police," he said, near the door. "Now I am going to shoot."
Miss Turnbull jumped into action, grabbing the gun, trying to keep it aimed away from the students, some of who also rushed Lawson.
Lawson started firing.
Five shots rang out.
Miss Turnbull and Lawson fought for control of the rifle, while students grabbed at him. Seeing this through the chapel door's glass panel, a police detective and constable tried to get inside. But Lawson had secured the door with a cord.
The police constable smashed the glass panel and Miss Turnbull managed to thrust the rifle barrel through the frame. The constable grabbed it and pulled the gun free. Now he and a detective burst in and subdued the still struggling Lawson.
Miss Turnbull had painful powder burns on both hands and a hole in her dress where a bullet had passed through the fabric. Fifteen-year-old Wendy Luscombe - a popular red-headed student - lay on the floor, hit in the chest by a bullet. She died in the arms of a friend, the bullet having passed through her heart.
BACK BEHIND BARS
Lawson was taken to the Moss Vale police station. Interrogated by police, he said he'd never meant to harm anyone - despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary - and claimed to have been overtaken by temporary insanity.
When Leonard Lawson faced court in December 1961, charged with the murder of Jane Bower, he pleaded not guilty. Should the case against him fail, he'd then be tried for the death of Wendy Luscombe.
There was a delay while he was psychiatrically assessed. When the case resumed at Sydney's Central Criminal Court in late February 1962, the only defence witness was a psychiatrist - and he testified that Lawson was sane when he killed the girl.
Lawson spoke to the court: "I can't explain what made me do this terrible thing, because I don't know." He professed he was sorry.
On April 4, 1962, it took the jury 17 minutes to find him guilty of Jane Bower's murder. With a life sentence a certainty, Leonard Lawson wasn't tried for the death of Wendy Luscombe.
In 1962 Miss Turnbull awarded an MBE for her bravery. The police who'd wrestled him also received commendations.
Back behind bars, Leonard Lawson again became a model prisoner.
But he had one more outrage to perpetrate, one more life to destroy.
HIS FINAL VICTIM
On June 18th 1972 a concert was held in the chapel at Parramatta Gaol to entertain the prisoners. Afterwards, the entertainers, including three dancers, were invited to have some light refreshments, put on by the arts and crafts committee, of which Lawson was secretary.
Prisoners and performers mingled in a rec room under the gaze of Lawson's undeniably accomplished portrait paintings. Sharon Hamilton, a 23-year-old dancer, was admiring his portrait of President John F. Kennedy when Lawson tapped her on the shoulder and asked her to sign the visitors book.
She did and complimented him on his art, saying it was beautiful.
Soon after it was announced the visit was over. Standing beside Sharon Hamilton, Lawson was called on to give a speech of thanks. In an instant, her grabbed her and put a knife to her throat and another to her back.
"Everybody leave the room but her," he said. "Don't anyone move or I'll let her have it," he said.
But this time Lawson wasn't dealing with frightened schoolgirls or models he'd lured into the bush. He was in a room with criminals, none of whom wanted to see a young woman hurt.
Two prisoners lunged at Lawson. One punched him in the face. Lawson staggered back. A prison guard stepped in to grapple with him while the other prisoner pulled Sharon Hamilton free.
Lawson dropped one knife and another was ripped from him by a second guard who helped to contain him.
Sharon Hamilton was left bleeding. She had small cuts on her neck, hand and on her back. But her main wounds would be emotional and psychological.
Lawson faced court in August 1972 and was sentenced to another five years.
Sharon Hamilton served a sentence in her own psychological prison. She found it hard to work, to go out, to socialise: everywhere she looked she saw Lawson.
What she appeared to be suffering from was post-traumatic stress disorder, which was still a few years from being defined and recognised. From 1974 to 1976 Sharon was treated for her psychological problems in a private hospital. Unfortunately, that hospital was Chelmsford, where destructive deep-sleep and electroshock therapy was practised, leading to the deaths of 43 patients and an eventual Royal Commission.
In 1976, Sharon won a payout from the state government of nearly $100,000, admitting their negligence had led to Lawson's attack on her. But life didn't get any easier for Sharon. She had tumultuous relationship with a doctor and suffered depression. In 1978 she took her own life.
AUSTRALIA'S LONGEST-SERVING PRISONER
Behind bars, Leonard Lawson continued to paint, donating his art works to charities and raising tens of thousands of dollars. In 1994 the possibility of parole was raised for Lawson. But Wendy Luscombe's brother - along with several of the women who'd survived the school siege - protested loudly. The government listened, sanity prevailed and Lawson remained in Grafton jail.
In 1999, Lawson, now Australia's longest-serving prisoner, was interviewed for 60 Minutes. He presented as a kindly old codger who just wanted the chance to feel the grass under his feet one more again before he died.
No-one was prepared to be fooled again.
He died on November 29, 2003, aged 76, and was missed by no-one.
- Michael Adams is the author of Australia's Sweetheart, about forgotten movie star Mary Maguire, which is published by Hachette on 29 January, and he is the creator of the podcast Forgotten Australia, where you can hear more unknown Australian true stories.
• If you or someone you know needs help, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14. If you need help with depression, please see Beyond Blue for a list of organisations that can help.