At the beginning of December in 2001, Phoebe Handsjuk’s body was found in a garbage chute – she’d plummeted from her twelfth-story apartment. A mismanaged police investigation wrote off the death as a suicide. The coroner’s report labeled the death as a freak accident, taking a toxicology report into account that revealed Phoebe’s blood alcohol level was 0.16 and that she had ingested Stilnox. But true crime author and PI Robin Bowles sensed that there was much more to Phoebe’s death and the investigation surrounding it – her bizarre discoveries are detailed in her new book, Into the Darkness. We asked Robin how and why she took on this case.
You’ve written a number of true crime books, including Dead Centre: The inside story of the Peter Falconio Mystery and Taken in Contempt: When parents abduct their own children. Which writers or books had you hooked on crime?
I started on Agatha Christie aged 12, much to my mother’s distress, reading about murders under the bedclothes after lights out with a torch kept going by batteries bought with pocket money. I moved onto biographies, histories, WWII holocaust stories, books about royal families of Europe and the French Revolution in my teens – and became an avid reader of true crime. Ann Rule was my favourite writer.
Why do you think people become intrigued by the fates of strangers?
I think we are all voyeurs to a greater or lesser extent, peering into the windows of other people’s lives, perhaps sensing a little relief that awful thing has not happened to us, but I believe part of the fascination of true stories is the ‘Wow! That could have happened to me!’ factor.
What first captured your attention regarding the death of Phoebe Handsjuk?
First spark of interest was the circumstances of her death – a beautiful young girl down a dirty rubbish chute. A bizarre way to commit suicide. Then The Age stories about the case by Richard Baker. It was unusual for the media to write about suicide, so I guessed there might be more to the story.
Was there a specific moment or discovery that motivated you to dedicate an entire book to the story and circumstances surrounded Phoebe’s death?
After the inquest was announced, I decided to attend it every day. The book is quite long, around 100k words – and that’s after editing! The story is so complex and intriguing it could not have been told as a short story. Not by me, anyway.
Is understanding a deceased person’s character important for investigating their death? What was Phoebe like?
Yes. Good question! In particular in this story, Phoebe’s character and temperament was vital to trying to discern how she died and if, in fact, she could have deliberately killed herself, committing suicide by rubbish chute. Unique in Australia! Phoebe was many things to many people, as best I can divine. Her mother’s tiger cub, her father’s beautiful, troubled daughter, her brothers’ adored sister.
I’m not threatening and can use the ruse of being a bit ditzy to get more information.”
All her friends loved her; she was life of the party, beautiful, loving, all the nice attributes. But she had a dark, troubled side and a self-abusive nature at times. She was very creative, drew, wrote poetry, played different roles as she thought she was expected to. I never met her, of course, but she came across to me as beautiful, complex and a bit self-destructive. She experimented with social drugs and alcohol, neither of which did her any good. Maybe she was destined to die young, still gorgeous, like James Dean.
What skills have you developed as a private enquiry agent, and what forms of investigation proved the most valuable during the writing of Into the Darkness?
My most useful skill from my PI days is knowing how to ask the right questions. To find out information you need to do a fair it of preparatory research before you interview someone, so you know what questions will provide the most illuminating answers. Also skills I learnt about deciphering body language, analysing responses to questions, for example certain uses of pronouns or tenses in speaking can provide much more information than just the words. I can usually tell when someone is lying. As a middle-aged woman, I’m not threatening and can use the ruse of being a bit ditzy to get more information. A major factor is trust. If the subjects you are investigating don’t trust you, you are usually wasting your time.
In reality, the law rarely delivers justice.”
Why do you think that it’s important to return to cold cases, or revisit cases where an official decision has already been made?
Often fresh eyes see things differently. People die, so that others don’t feel bad about coming forward after their deaths. Advances in investigating techniques and forensics generally can provide new results. A decision already made is not necessarily the correct decision, and a big proportion of my books and stories are based on unsafe convictions and redemption with a new culprit (the right one) being identified down the track, sometimes years later. It’s my experience that people in prison who continually proclaim their innocence long after they have exhausted all their avenues of appeal and refuse to ‘admit’ their crime and say sorry for a crime they say they did not commit, in order to get early parole, are quite likely innocent. 1% to 3% of people serving prison sentences in Australia right now did not commit the crime they are doing time for. Not that many, you might think – unless you are one of them!
One of your books is titled Rough Injustice: Unsafe Outcomes from Australia’s Courts. Do you think the justice system is flawed?
Sometimes. But it’s the best one we’ve got. There are all sorts of things wrong with ‘a jury of our peers’: the adversarial system, expert evidence, sleepy judges, semantic arguments, I could go on. People from an ordinary every day way of life suddenly become embroiled in a legal situation start off as very trusting of the system and believe they will achieve ‘justice’. In reality, the law rarely delivers justice. The law is a set of rules designed to administer the laws and statutes of society. Justice is a subjective, ephemeral thing which tends to elude most people who find themselves caught up in legal wrangling.
In your experience, is truth stranger than fiction?
Yes, definitely! I LOVE true stories that show humanity and human nature in all its twists and turns. You couldn’t make up a fraction of the stories I’ve written and heard about. I think I’d need another book to tell you all the bizarre crimes I’ve come across, the co-incidences, the outright funny things and sad things: human nature at its best and worst.