The Last time I Saw Dean Alive
Dean and I were best of friends as well as brother and sister. We joked about the things we’d still be doing together in our old age. We had a strong bond and love for each other that meant a lot of things. We’d
shared our upbringing and we understood our childhood like no-one else could. We could joke about our parents and their shortcomings while also giving each other sound advice regarding family issues. It meant that we could argue, be angry, or disagree with each other and beneath it all was a shared desire to find some kind of resolve to bring us back together. Whether that meant explaining yourself until the other person could understand your point of view, or taking something on board to think about, or just agreeing to disagree, there was always a coming back together. We were bonded by love and mutual respect. I felt it was awesome to have him in my life. At rare times when I was sinking and couldn’t see the woods for the trees, he could sum up my situation and illuminate the obvious path. His advice made all the confusion disperse and gave me courage to take action.
Dean and I had talked for years about going to the Byron Bay Blues Festival and finally we were doing it together. We had planned to meet up at the quaint little beach house where I usually stayed each year. Dean and Amanda had taken their time and camped at some of the beautiful remote beaches along the coastal drive from Sydney to Byron Bay. After spending their first night with me at the Blue Iguana Beach House, we left the next day without any accommodation booked during the busiest period in Byron Bay, which caused me stress but was an adventure to my brother who lived by the ‘no fear’ motto. He pulled me into his positive way of thinking making it a fun escapade. As luck would have it there had been a
cancellation so we could pitch our tents at Broken Head Beach Caravan
Park which was not far from the festival.
It was now Sunday evening, and around us the music resonated through the big tent at the Festival. We were right in amongst the gig, down at the front taking it all in. Onstage Chris Wilson, one of Dean’s favourites, was performing, but I had decided to leave during the set to get a good position down the front of the Mojo stage to see Ben Harper. Saying our goodbyes I remember him standing with his body facing the stage, his arms folded, his head turned towards me, looking at me with his warm smile and being relaxed and comfortable. He was in his element and enjoying himself. It was such a normal and ordinary event that in any other situation it would have probably disappeared from memory by now. If only I had known that this would be the last time that I would see him alive.
“See you at the Ferris wheel. See ya,” Dean said.
“See you at the Ferris wheel,” I said back to him.
The Ferris wheel was our meeting place during the four day long festival. A place to get back together again after we had gone our own way or gotten separated. After the Ben Harper gig, that is where we would catch up again and head back to our campsite.
When I got to the Ferris wheel after the Ben Harper gig, Dean’s girlfriend showed up without Dean.
Constable Jack King, from Coolangatta Police Station, called me on my mobile. He told me my brother Dean, had been in an accident and that he had been taken to Tweed Heads hospital. That afternoon I had been trying to contact my brother and was beginning to wonder as to his whereabouts, since I had called him but a stranger had answered his phone. Now that the police had called me I felt relieved thinking that he had been involved in a minor car accident and he was going to be okay, but the Constable continued talking. He said Dean had gone over the edge of a balcony at a shopping plaza and never regained consciousness. He had passed away two hours later from massive head injuries sustained in the fall.
Hearing those words “he passed away at 6.15pm” created a surreal moment that shattered my world. I let out a piercing involuntary scream that sent my parents running up the stairs in 2 seconds, fearing something had happened to me.
“He’s dead, Dean’s dead!” my words rung out in shock. My parents stared at me with petrified eyes as I spoke the worst news of their lives.
My mother collapsed in a heap, face down on her knees on the bedroom floor. She was pulling at her hair, crying and pleading “why” in Greek. “Yiati, yiati, Dino, Yiati.” Dad was kneeling at her side, crying uncontrollably. Like me, neither could do anything but react to the shocking news.
I could not believe what I had been told. That my brother was dead was an impossibility. It could not be true. Words can not describe the feeling of unreality I had. It seemed a preposterous idea. We all know that these types of calls happen but it’s still something that you never expect and never want to hear. You never expect a cop to call you and tell you your brother is dead. It was the biggest shock of my life and something so unpredictable, that I felt I had lost all control and I was powerless. A life promise had been broken and stripped from me. My brother was dead, and there were no grounds for negotiation about it, no going back, no second chance. It was done and it was final.
I knew that my brother had been involved in a minor car accident and left the scene. I knew this as I had called Dean’s mobile phone and it was answered by a security guard of the shopping centre where the car had crashed in the car park. What I did not know was why Dean would leave the driver’s door wide open, his mobile phone on the ground and his bag containing important personal items, like his Cassiopeia and his wallet, on the car seat? What could have happened that would cause him to just walk away leaving things like this? After speaking to the security guard I was dreadfully worried and confused. I phoned one of Dean’s friends, Romeo, and he also found the situation so strange that we felt compelled to arrange to fly to Queensland to see if we could find my brother. I didn’t know what had happened but I knew he needed help.
Soon after the police had contacted me, Romeo called back to give me our flight details. I told him what had happened and that Dean was dead. “What a waste!” he said. A response that upset me. I didn’t believe that a cool, disconnected reaction; a level headed and flatly delivered cliché, was the right reaction for this dire situation and their 20 year long friendship. I put my thoughts aside knowing it wasn’t how he really felt. We all react differently and just like me he would not have been prepared for this news. I had to focus on what needed to be done.
I needed to get to the airport and I knew in my emotional state I could not drive, so I called my cousin William who lived nearby. I told him what happened to Dean, and that I needed a ride to the airport. I told him I needed to go right now and I asked him to tell his father and our grandmother what happened and to tell them to come to my parents’ house, as my parents would need them.
I was all nerves, my stomach and body were feeling incredibly tense. I went to the bar in the billiard room, opened a bottle of whiskey and drank more than a mouthful. The whiskey burned from my throat to my base which brought me back into my body and made me intensely aware of my insides. It also helped numb me a bit to my feelings. My parents and I knew I had to go identify Dean and find out exactly what happened to my brother. We also knew mum and dad would have to stay home. Despite the shock of what had occurred, we knew what we had to do. I started getting ready for the trip. I wrapped a cotton scarf around my neck, then I put a jumper and toothbrush in my handbag. I didn’t care to take anything else. I couldn’t see any further into the future. We were going through the motions, there was no feeling of frenetic activity or rush, we were doing what we knew needed to be done.
Ten minutes passed, taking forever as my mind could not move itself from Dean and wondering what had happened to lead to this. William hadn’t turned up so I called him to find out where he was. He said he had to sit down and have a beer, and that he couldn’t believe what had happened. He was in shock. I understood his need to get his head around the news, but I was going to miss my flight if he didn’t get here right away, so I spurred him into action.
When William arrived I took a bottle of beer from the bar fridge and got in his car. I talked about Dean and repeatedly burst into tears all the way to Sydney airport. For some reason I could not stop talking, the situation had turned me into a motor-mouth. When I got there Romeo was already waiting out the front of the domestic terminal. We hugged and cried. I don’t know how long we were there or what all the other people who were bustling past may have thought, but we were in a world of our own.
Boarding the plane, I burst into tears as I walked to my seat. The flight attendant asked me what was wrong. I told him my brother was dead and we were on our way to identify his body in the hospital. He was compassionate and kind, helping us get settled. He offered us complimentary drinks. I didn’t want to drink too much but I wanted something to calm my nerves. I knocked back two bourbons with coke, which helped me get through the flight.
By the time we arrived in Brisbane, organised a hire car and drove to Tweed Heads Hospital to meet the police, it was after midnight. The nurses were kind to us, they must have seen this situation many times before. We sat in an empty hospital waiting room and filled in forms in the large, quiet, sterile room.
It did not seem long before the police arrived and took us through the hospital corridors towards the mortuary. We walked together, without speaking, as they lead us along. I knew where we were going and while I needed to see Dean, part of me also did not really want to reach our destination. Seemingly suddenly we stopped walking and turned to the left. In the wall of the corridor was a large glass window. Immediately in front of the window, I looked down and saw my brother lying on a metal table. He was covered with a green sheet up to his neck. I identified his body through the window for the police officers. Even with this confirmation I was still finding it hard to believe what I was seeing in front of me.
My mind was still reeling from the shock and what it meant. I don’t think my mind was willing to trust even my eyes. Was there even the remotest chance he was not really dead? Surely this could not be true? I wanted to enter the mortuary but the police and hospital staff were hesitant, trying to dissuade me but I was adamant that I was going in to see my brother and touch him, reluctantly they acquiesced.
Going into that room made it more real and yet I could still hardly believe what I was seeing. My brother dead. Laid out on a silver metal table. Lying naked beneath a green sheet, in a hospital morgue. His eyes were bruised black, like raccoons and he had tiny bits of blood on his face. His head was heavily bandaged up. Looking at him, his face seemed swollen. His hands had been rested on his abdomen and I reached out to hold his right hand which was closest to me. I needed to make contact, whether it was to comfort me or Dean, I do not know, but I needed that physical contact.
That contact with my brother triggered a reaction in me that I couldn’t control. I began to wail, loudly and unselfconsciously, driven by my state of shock and horror at seeing my brother this way. It was a basic and instinctive reaction that I had been bottling up, but which could no longer be contained. I was inconsolable. Everyone and everything else disappeared. I put my hands on his still body and pressed my head on his chest. I held his body and I wept. I began touching him and wishing he wasn’t dead, wanting to bring him back to life, wanting to make him wake up. Romeo put his arm around me and I became aware of him standing next to me. He looked dreadfully sad seeing his dear friend like this. His eyes showed that he shared my pain and understood my weeping. He gave me time to lament and to be with Dean, then sadly but kindly, he walked me away from that room.
When Romeo and I left the hospital morgue, we headed to the shopping plaza in Coolangatta and walked into the darkened and quiet courtyard. There was nobody around and the shops were all closed up. There was not a trace of evidence to show what had occurred there that afternoon, but I knew instinctively where Dean had fallen. I stood in that spot and looked up at the balcony and night sky above, feeling bewildered and numb.
It was close to 3 o’clock in the morning by the time we got to the hotel and checked in. I hardly slept at all before we had to go out again. I remember standing under the shower stream and bawling, the heaviness in my heart weighing on me.
No matter what happened, the one thing I did know was that Dean would not have suicided. The truth is I will never know for sure 100% what happened to my brother. I wasn’t there and we never found the people who had been travelling with him to talk to. Even if I was there and saw everything that happened, I could never be certain what was going on in his mind. I knew in my heart of hearts that my brother would not take his own life. Not now. Not where he was in his life. He loved life and he loved his sons. I believe the fact that he died on his son’s birthday is proof enough that it was an accident. He would never take his life on his son’s birthday.
It did not add up. He had hired a small car in Byron Bay and was on his way to visit his sons while they were staying with their grandmother during the school holidays. He had gifts for them in the car. Besides, who would attempt suicide by jumping roughly eight metres into a shopping plaza courtyard? Why would he seek the help of others if he was intent on suicide? It just didn’t make sense. I had to get to the bottom of the story. I had to find out exactly what happened to him. Whilst I couldn’t believe that he would commit suicide, I still could not be sure that I was not just in denial as his sister. Did I not want to hear the truth or was the truth out there, but no one else would look for it?
After leaving the police station the next morning having given a statement and collecting Dean’s belongings, Romeo and I went to the scene of the accident at the plaza to retrace my brother’s steps. We interviewed any witnesses we could find that had contact with him on that dreadful day. It was an extremely emotional experience, with Dean’s death still very raw. Talking to these strangers triggered my grief on numerous occasions. At times, I had to have a private moment to cry, then I had to pull myself together before entering another shop or office to talk to more people. Wanting to get to the bottom of what had happened to Dean was driving me to continue, despite my grief making me want to sit down and cry. It was good that I had Romeo there, on my own I probably would not have been able to cope with going through the process. Romeo felt just as strong-minded and motivated as me about getting to the truth.
We spoke to the hotel concierge who saw Dean emerge from the car park ramp. We spoke to shop keepers and the people who worked in the offices who had direct interactions with Dean. People were kind and sympathetic towards us. Two of the women who worked in an office on the floor where Dean jumped from, took us for a coffee. They were of the opinion that Dean may have been having a psychotic episode. At that moment, I didn’t know what to think. I knew that he smoked marijuana and it may have triggered something, but I’d never seen him have an episode before. At that stage, we didn’t have all the information and my emotional responses were driving me from one speculation to another about what had happened.
The man who had the last contact with Dean before he went over the railing would not talk to me. He remained behind closed doors in his office, too troubled to see me as a result of what had occurred. His wife spoke to me and told me what happened. She told me how Dean had tried to embrace her husband, but because they thought he was either crazy or on drugs they had pushed him away and locked him outside their office. She told us how sorry they were for what happened, but at the time they were afraid. She cried while Romeo and I stood there and listened to her story and I realised Dean’s death impacted a lot of people, not only his family and friends.
All these discussions did not tell me what I really needed to know; why was Dean acting that way? Romeo and I placed a wreath in the plaza’s courtyard garden near where Dean fell. I felt it was the right thing to do. I wanted people to know my brother was loved and he was someone special. He wasn’t just an “unknown male” as written on his hospital and police files. To those people in the shopping plaza he was a stranger who had come into their space acting weird, and had an accident. I wanted those people to know that Dean was someone who was cared about, a normal person.
Over the next couple of weeks I spoke to everyone in Byron Bay who had spent time with my brother. The taxi driver who picked him up from our campsite, the beach house manager where Dean stayed after he left our campsite, new friends we had made in Byron Bay and musicians Dean spent time with from the festival.
I believe some crucial information came from Jamie, the beach house manager in Byron Bay where Dean had stayed the night before his death. On that night Dean received a blow to the head from a man that took offence to something Dean did. Dean was acting drunk and danced on the table in the outdoor barbeque area. I’d never known Dean to be in a fight, not ever in his life, except for maybe a school yard kafuffle when he was a teenager, so getting hit was an unusual occurrence for him. A short while later Dean had a fit, frothing at the mouth, and then passed out on the lounge room floor. Jamie called it a white out. The manager called for an ambulance but while he was on the phone, Dean recovered consciousness, stood to his feet, said he was okay and went to bed. The ambulance was cancelled.
The manager said that the following morning, Dean was sorry for his behaviour and felt embarrassed. Before Dean left, the manager said to Dean “let me call Anna” but Dean turned his phone off and wouldn’t listen to Jamie. Dean was tearful and left the beach house. I was already back in Sydney at this stage. I wish the manager had called me.
Deidre, our friend from the beach house told me that Dean said he felt free and liberated. They’d been to the art gallery and pub for dinner and he seemed normal. Dean had met several musicians from the festival and been invited to various get-togethers during the last days and after the festival. He’d made some plans with musicians and it sounded like he was having a ball. One of the musicians, whose house Dean had been at with a group of other musicians one night, told me that Dean was calm and relaxed, not intoxicated, and one of the most interesting people he’d met.
One piece at a time I began putting together the events and circumstances that lead to the final outcome. I made notes from all the witnesses we interviewed at Coolangatta and the conversations with people in Byron Bay and others back in Sydney who had spent time with Dean at Byron Bay. I had the autopsy explained by the scientific forensic professionals, who were generous with their time. I spoke to medical professionals to get an explanation of what the autopsy showed and to try and work out credible explanations of his symptoms and actions before his death. We acquired Dean’s medical and police records. All this took many months and the waiting for documents, and some clear explanation, dragged on.
All of this investigation showed that something was happening to Dean before he went over that railing. Dean’s symptoms and behaviour, including his inability to speak coherently, his state of mind, bumping into walls and the manner in which he jumped over the railing, indicate something was wrong. The walking backwards and forwards and walking into objects, such as the low wall of the car park ramp and the concrete column, show this confusion. All of his actions in the shopping plaza support that something was wrong with his condition. He could not talk coherently, but some words were understandable.
At the time of Dean’s death, some relatives, friends and acquaintances formulated theories and drew their own conclusion. They talked about him having a psychotic episode, being a drug user, and that he committed suicide. One of the medical professionals I spoke to was the senior forensic toxicologist who analysed the specimens from Dean’s autopsy. He told me that according to the thorough and complete tests that they undertook, my brother was not on drugs. I was told that based on the test results he had not smoked marijuana on that day. THC, the active chemical in marijuana, is quickly metabolised. His reading was very low, meaning he’d consumed marijuana in the recent past but not that day. This conversation was a relief to me and my family, as it ruled out one possible cause: drugs. The only drugs present were the pain killers administered by the hospital after he was admitted. However, while I searched for answers and I waited for this report, even I pondered that he may have been on some mind altering drug because I just couldn’t understand why he jumped over the railing. And we still had no idea who the people with him were and what they may have been encouraging him to do.
What happened to Dean the night before he died is possibly very significant information as to what I believe did happen. The blow to his head at the beach house may have caused an aneurysm, causing bleeding on his brain. The way he was acting at the shopping plaza illustrates typical symptoms and would account for the subsequent events that followed on that dreadful day. Indeed a Frenchman, a backpacking traveller, punched my brother in the head and that action may have contributed to his death. I felt disgusted with this unknown person, who because of his anger at how my brother was behaving may well have taken my brother away from me.
Our own blood is toxic to the brain, causing synapses to misfire which effects proper functioning. If the punch from the backpacker triggered an aneurysm in Dean’s head to burst, this would account for his collapse and the fit he suffered later that evening. If it was bleeding as he was driving through Coolangatta, the way he was behaving aligns with the symptoms of that bleeding and brain injury. I recall a news report in 2010, where a teenage boy died the day after he was punched in the head. The boy went home, posted on Facebook, went to sleep and never woke up.
Later when I was having counselling it was explained to me as follows. Imagine a brick wall with one loose brick. The wall will remain standing strong, however, should that one brick be knocked out, it could bring down the wall. So that punch to my brother’s head set in motion all the bricks to come tumbling down. Without that punch, he may not have had the bleeding in his brain and he may still be here today. With his brain sending him the wrong messages, disorientated and confused from the responses of people from whom he sought help, Dean was looking for where next he could get help. His brain was telling him to just jump over a small barrier. It was not telling him he was 8 metres above the ground. Upon entering the plaza from the street, there were stairs leading down to the lower level and there were stairs leading up to the balcony where Dean stood in his final moments. Having stood in the same spot as my brother, the split level design of the plaza gave the illusion that could have been interpreted as ground level being closer than it actually was and thereby only a small leap away. I could see how he could have thought that in the moment.
Seven months after my brother’s death I received a letter which helped me put an important part of the matter to rest in my heart and mind. I sobbed when I received the letter from the State Coroner. It expressed empathy and understanding on a level I hadn’t received from any other professional source during the investigations. In the letter the Coroner wrote: “You stated in one of your letters that you and Dean were much closer than other siblings and I can appreciate that from the effort and commitment you have shown seeking to have the investigation widened. It appears from what I read that you were close in life and remain that way even now.” The final sentence was the key element of the letter for me: “I am satisfied that there is no evidence to suggest your brother intended to take his life.” Even though I knew this truth, I felt it was important to have it in writing, because I would have a letter to show Dean’s children one day. I wanted something concrete to show his boys that their father’s death was an accident. I knew that when the boys were older they would have questions and they would want to know about their father and they might come to me looking for those answers.
Through my investigations I was able to piece together the following series of events that occurred around my brother’s death.
He must not have felt right as he drove down the ramp into a shopping centre car park. Going down into the car park he did not stop in time and ran straight into the wall, passing over the concrete bumper of the car space in the process. He dialled 000 on his mobile for assistance but he couldn’t speak to the operator. The phone call, whilst shown on his mobile phone records, was never registered in the emergency system, and so no response came.
He was unable to speak coherently and was acting as if he was disorientated. He was seen walking backwards and forwards when he emerged from the car park and he walked into the low wall of the car park ramp as if he didn’t see it properly. He also walked into a concrete column. As he crossed the street heading towards a shopping plaza, he keeled over in the middle of the street, and clutched his abdomen, yelling in pain.
Inside the shopping plaza he entered a travel agent, but based on his behaviour they shoved him out. He walked up the stairs in the plaza to the area where there were various offices. He was approaching people, but they were locking their doors and turning him away. They couldn’t understand him, they were afraid he may be dangerous and so they did not help him. His speech was impaired and incoherent and he seemed disorientated. I imagine he may have felt a sense of panic because he didn’t know what was happening to him.
Dean paced up and down, he tried to speak and some words came out, some of the ones people could understand were swear words, which probably did not help with how they were viewing him. He was also heard to say “music” and “Romeo”. He walked into another office and attempted to communicate with a man who worked there. The man couldn’t understand what he was trying to say and then Dean embraced him in an effort to plea for help. The man freed himself from the hug and pushed Dean out of the office, locking the door behind him.
Dean stood there on the balcony, the blue sky above and a paved courtyard roughly eight metres below, but this is probably not what he saw. He was looking out to the street level. He pushed down on the railing with his hands and swivelled his hips over the railing like how a boy jumps a school fence expecting to land on his feet. He landed on his back in the courtyard below and never regained consciousness. He died in hospital two hours later from his head injuries.
While knowing what had happened, I still needed to make sense of what happened to my brother. I needed to find out as much information as I could to try and understand what lead him to leap over the balcony. The police reported my brother’s death as suicide, without suspicious circumstances. I felt the police had let me down. I had been brought up to believe the police were here to serve and protect the community. What happened following Dean’s death made me feel differently, and I felt betrayed.
In my state of shock giving a statement the morning after Dean died, the constable kept asking me loaded questions, implying Dean had domestic issues and used drugs. I didn’t realise until later that I had been coerced, in a sense. In my shocked and weakened state I was lead through a series of responses that painted the picture they wanted to see. The police were not interested in any of the contributing factors that played a part in Dean’s final demise. They dismissed his symptoms; his behaviour; the car crash and were not interested in talking to the two people we believe were travelling with him in the car. I felt they just wanted to dispense with the matter and not spend any more time on it.
We believed that there were other people in the car, probably two others, with Dean. While Dean was driving he had left a phone message with Romeo and Romeo had said that he could hear other people in the background. Dean was not alone on that day as he travelled. There were three pies in the car and one of the witnesses told us that after Dean had fallen a man and a woman had kneeled close to him and were encouraging Dean to get up. They used his name. The police would not let me see the CCTV footage of the incident, which I desperately wanted to see to try and identify who had been with Dean. I was very disappointed that the police did not seem interested at all in following up this lead or helping us find these people. They were in reality the last people to be with Dean. They clearly knew him and would be the only ones who could explain what was happening in the time leading up to Dean getting to the shopping plaza. Try as I might, I never found anyone who could tell me who they were.
I found the level of response to my brother’s position by the various emergency services disappointing. Several calls were made, by people at the plaza, to the police reporting the commotion. The police recorded eight phone calls and yet they did not attend the scene until more than 40 minutes had passed. The ambulance arrived before the police and that was 18 minutes after Dean’s fall. That seems a long time for an emergency. When you link this to the 000 emergency call never logged, it seemed to me as if the system had failed to protect, in actuality, my brother but also those others who felt unsafe because of his behaviour.
Dean's sister, Anna.