Sunday, April 8, 2012

A father killed, a daughter lost

Michael Duffy | SMH | April 6, 2012

For 19 months a family has fought for tighter gun laws, so others won't suffer the grief they must endure. Michael Duffy reports.

When Carmen Fernando went into the house that Sunday there was a message on the answering machine from her daughter Shamin. ''Dad: I need help to load some software now, please ring me back.''

It was a surprise. Shamin, who was 43, was mentally ill and had harboured paranoid fears of her father Lalin for a long time: they'd had almost no contact in three years. Carmen then returned to the garden and told her 70-year-old husband the good news. He was delighted. He went inside and had a shower while she made some lunch for him.

Shamin rang again to make sure he was coming: the job seemed urgent. At 2.40pm, believing he was about to be reconciled with his daughter, he drove to her flat in Glebe.

Once there, she sat him in front of the computer where he began to load the software disks. Saying she had to go to the toilet, she left the room and picked up a pistol hidden beneath the doona on her bed. She came back to the room where the computer was, aimed the gun at the back of her father's head and pulled the trigger.

The gun failed to fire and Lalin, his attention on the computer screen, noticed nothing. Shamin returned to the bedroom and corrected the problem with the pistol, then went back to the other room. This time the gun worked. She shot her father many times, pausing once to reload. At 3.14pm she called the police to tell them what she had done. It was August 22, 2010.

Like most tragedies, Vincent Lalin Fernando's death had many causes. One was the mental illness of his daughter, whose medical treatment seems at times to have been less than ideal. Another was the incompetence of officials of the Sydney Pistol Club, from where she stole the pistol that day.

And finally there was the political cause: the Labor state government's support in 2008 for a Shooters Party bill that watered down gun control. In particular, it removed the need to check the background of unlicensed shooters at gun clubs.

This enabled Shamin to obtain the training, the ammunition and the gun to kill her father, who she believed was orchestrating a deadly conspiracy against her. Despite his death and the change in government, the 2008 change to the Firearms Act still stands.
Shamin Fernando was born in Sri Lanka in 1967 and came to Australia with her family four years later. The middle of three sisters, she was a happy and active child, who enjoyed primary school and had a normal childhood.

She had a psychotic incident when she was 21, and for the next decade life became more rocky but not overly so. She had relationships and jobs, and completed a degree in communications at the University of Technology, Sydney.

The first time her parents knew something was really wrong was after a Mother's Day party around 1998. ''She stayed behind afterwards,'' her mother Carmen recalls, ''and told my husband and me she was very upset that he hadn't helped her with some disagreement she'd had with Telstra.''

Carmen and Lalin were amazed, they knew of no disagreement with the phone company. ''Then she drove off very quickly,'' Carmen says. ''I told my husband to follow her and he did, but she was driving so fast that he lost her. And anyway, what could he have done?''

From then on, everything changed. Shamin suffered from depression, unstable schizophrenia and paranoid psychosis. She believed she was under surveillance and the subject of a global conspiracy, engineered by a former university teacher and, later, her father.

She was treated by psychiatrists and eventually put on the anti-psychotic medication Clozapine, but was reluctant to take it. She once told her mother: ''If I accept that I have got this illness, I will never be able to trust my own judgment again.''

Although in hospital for short periods of time, Shamin generally lived an outwardly normal life, dealing with her finances and often working. She received a great deal of support from her family. Her relationship with her father varied: around 2000 she began to believe that he was part of the conspiracy against her.

Lalin would drive Carmen to Shamin's flat and wait in the car outside. ''I'd feel guilty about that,'' Carmen says, ''but he would say: 'If that's what needs to be done for her to feel better, I'll do it.'''

In 2003, she began taking high doses of Clozapine and her relationship with her father improved. Then, as she approached her 40th birthday in 2007, she decided she wanted to experience her next decade ''medication free''. Her younger sister Michelle says she cut back her dose and became more unstable.

Carmen and Michelle are critical of some of the care Shamin received from her doctors. On one occasion Lalin wrote to a psychiatrist about disturbing behaviour he had been told of. The doctor showed the letter to Shamin, leading to a breakdown in the relationship with Lalin.

Later, Michelle says, one of the doctors was aware Shamin was frequenting gun clubs. ''They should have treated her better and had her scheduled [committed to an institution],'' she says.

Carmen says Shamin is not a criminal. ''She's a victim, just as we are,'' she says. ''This happened because she was inadequately treated and because of the access she was given to a firearm despite being seriously mentally ill.''

After 2007 Shamin had almost no contact with her parents, with Lalin becoming a focus of her paranoia. ''They had been very close, but because he was the strong parent, he naturally got identified by her as the person who was being bossy,'' Carmen says.

''That got fitted into her schizophrenic feeling of being controlled. And then he became this mysterious and powerful figure and there was nothing she could do to escape him.''

By all accounts, Lalin Fernando was a man of strength and compassion. ''I think he was desperately sad when Shamin rejected him,'' Michelle says.

''I'd ask him how he was going with it and he would say: 'I'm glad it's me because I can handle it and I understand that she's ill. I'll never give up on her.'''

Until that last day, he never did.

Shamin had planned to kill her father for months. For a long time she believed she was living in what she later called ''a pseudo reality-style TV show and that it was being produced by my father and also there were a lot of sinister aspects to that. The biggest one was that I had several serious terminal illnesses, and if I couldn't extradite myself from the show I was going to die''.

The belief had been with her for years, she told a forensic psychiatrist after her arrest, but started to intensify in June 2010: ''I thought I had AIDS, thyroid cancer, Alzheimer's and really bad diabetes that would require my legs to be amputated. The only way I could get out of the show and save my life was to kill him.''

She approached three gun clubs, where she was allowed to shoot despite not having a licence. This was possible due to the introduction of Section 6B to the Firearms Act in 2008. To shoot at a club, you no longer needed a shooter's licence, for which a background check is required. Had such a check been conducted on Shamin, it would have shown police were aware of her mental illness.

Starting in late June 2010, Shamin did two safety courses at the Sydney Pistol Club at La Perouse, first completing a form called a P650 that asked if she had ''any mental illness or other disorders that may prevent you from using a firearm safely''. She said no. She gave the same answer on a form provided by the Woollahra Rifle Club, where she shot targets in July.

By August she was a probationary member of the Sydney Pistol Club, and on August 22 turned up to shoot at the complex the club occupies inside the Botany Bay National Park. She was given one of the club's pistols to use, a .22 Ruger semi-automatic, and told to carry it around the premises in her bag, as was standard procedure. She was sold 100 bullets by the club's duty officer, George Petas, a firearms dealer, to use in the match.

Once it was over, she walked out with the pistol and 30 unused rounds of ammunition in her bag.

As the club's regulations required, the pistol had been signed out to Shamin. When the day's activities were over, the club's gunkeeper, Patrick Slavik, noticed the weapon had not been signed back in, but assumed this was a clerical error and the gun had been returned. It was only when he got home and went to put the guns in a locker that he discovered the Ruger was not there.

Slavik called the club captain, who called the secretary, who found Shamin's details and at 2.42pm tried to call her. At 3pm Lalin arrived at Shamin's home.

At 3.12pm the club captain called the police to tell them Shamin had stolen the gun. By then Shamin, using the training she had been given at the club, had fixed the problem with the pistol and was firing bullets into her father's body as he lay on the ground.

Several things happened after Lalin's death and the arrest of Shamin that afternoon. The NSW Commissioner of Police tried to suspend all shooting activities at the Sydney Pistol Club, but was stopped by the Administrative Decisions Tribunal. The tribunal noted the club had tightened its regulations and a shutdown would hurt its 150 members and put its survival at risk.

Petas and Slavik were prosecuted. Petas was found guilty of selling ammunition to an unlicensed shooter, but no conviction was recorded, as he pleaded guilty and a conviction would have meant the loss of his firearms licence. Slavik was found guilty of failing to supervise Shamin and failing to keep a firearm safely. He was fined $1000 for the first offence and $1500 for the second.

Earlier this year, his appeal was dismissed in the District Court after a lively exchange between his barrister, Glen Miller, QC, and Judge Michael King. At one stage Miller referred to the system of supervision in place on the day the pistol was stolen.

''Would you call that a system?'' the judge said. ''It was a bit likeDad's Army or the Keystone Kops.''

When Miller asked for the fines to be reduced, the judge said: ''Due to the incompetent way in which this club was run, I'd expect they'd pay the fine.''

''They won't,'' Miller said.

Judge King reduced the fines by half, saying: ''To some extent the court sees Mr Slavik himself as something of a victim of an amateurish and inadequate operating procedure.''

Last December, Shamin was found not guilty by reason of mental illness of murdering her father. The judge directed she be detained in an appropriate place for an indefinite period - she is now in the Forensic Hospital at Long Bay.

After the judgment, Ian George, the president of the Sydney Pistol Club, wrote to members of the ''unimaginably sad consequences'' of the murder for the Fernandos, although the family says the club has not contacted them.

George told the Herald he did not wish to talk about the family due to the prospect of legal action against the club, but added: ''I don't feel the 6B system is workable in the present manner … no club has any way of knowing the truth or otherwise of the answers received on the P650 form.''

Last year, the Fernandos began a campaign to have the law changed. They believe 6B was introduced due to an arrangement between the ALP and the Shooters Party, whereby each supported the other's legislation.

Does such an arrangement exist under the Coalition? Last June, the Premier, Barry O'Farrell, wrote to the Fernandos: ''I must stress that the NSW government has no intention of doing any deal with the Shooters Party.''

In August the family met the Police Minister, Michael Gallacher, who said he was considering their request to have 6B removed. The minister's office told the Herald this month he is still considering the request, because the issues involved are ''complex and require detailed examination''.

It is 19 months since Lalin Fernando died. In the Legislative Council, the Coalition does not depend on the Shooters Party as much as the Labor Party did. Provided it attracts the support of the two Christian Democrats, it is assured of half the votes in the upper house plus the casting vote of the president - enough to get legislation through.

But the Greens MLC David Shoebridge says the Shooters and Fishers Party still has an ''unhealthy degree of influence in NSW politics''. He has given notice of a private member's bill to repeal section 6B.

No one responsible for the change to the law would talk. The former premier Morris Iemma and the former police minister David Campbell did not respond to efforts to contact them. The former Tamworth independent Peter Draper, who said the bill ''will have no impact at all on public safety'' when he introduced it into the Legislative Assembly, declined to comment: ''I'm really out of that now. It was another life.'' Members of the Shooters and Fishers Party would not comment.

The man who introduced the bill to the Legislative Council in 2008 was the Shooters' Roy Smith. He assured the honourable members the amendments had been ''carefully drafted so as to ensure that they do not … negatively impact on public safety''. One of the reasons they could be sure of this was that unlicensed shooters would have to sign a declaration that they were eligible to be issued a licence.

Like Lalin, Smith died in 2010, in his case while asleep. On hearing the news, Gallacher, the Coalition's leader in the upper house, said: ''I worked a lot with Roy on a number of pieces of important legislation … Roy was a pleasure to work with and his considered contributions and passions for the Shooters Party will be sorely missed.''

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