Apr 25, 2023
Kathleen Folbigg story uncovered: A life dogged by false accusations
Wondering whether she was “her father’s daughter”, Kathleen Folbigg captured
Wondering whether she was "her father's daughter", Kathleen Folbigg captured years of guilt, revulsion and pain in one sentence.
By Jordan Baker
Kathleen Folbigg reunites with friend Tracy Chapman after her release from prison.Credit: NINE
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Kathleen Folbigg's life was doomed to trauma before she took her first breath. Her father, Thomas John Britton, was a criminal and a brute; he worked as an enforcer for underworld figures such as Lenny McPherson, and was known for capping knees, breaking legs and putting his hands to his co-workers’ throats. After being deported back to Wales, he bragged about killing a man.
With women, he was worse. He slashed his first wife's neck – she survived – and fatally stabbed his second wife, Kathleen Donavan, 24 times with a carving knife. "I’m sorry darling," he said as he cradled his wife's bleeding body on an Annandale street. "I had to do it."
Thomas John Britton, a murderer, standover man and the father of Kathleen Folbigg.
Donavan was Folbigg's mother. The little girl was 18 months old when she was all but orphaned, and shuffled between relatives and homes until she was fostered, aged three, by a couple in Newcastle. For years, she did not even have a fixed name. She was Liza Platt when she briefly lived with an aunt, who found her too difficult. A psychologist who assessed her as a toddler suspected she had been abused by her father. Another suggested – wrongly – that she was intellectually disabled because she was so inattentive and detached.
Back then, there were few specialists to treat children like Kathleen; she was left to wrestle with her past alone. When, as an adult, she wondered in her diary whether she was "her father's daughter", she captured years of guilt, revulsion and pain in one sentence.
Those words, written in one of the "babble book" journals she’d begun in her teens to process her trauma, helped seal her fate at her 2003 trial over the deaths of her four children. The diaries were handed to police by her former husband, Craig, and became the smoking gun at her trial, providing what prosecutor Mark Tedeschi, QC, described as a "close, intricate insight into her mind". They added fuel to his other key argument, now discredited, that the only reason four babies from one family could have died of unknown causes was that their mother killed them.
Experts in psychoanalysis say diaries, particularly those of women, are often figurative; an unfiltered stream of thoughts in which emotion, imagination and fact are entwined. "Here we are looking at someone's journal, where [she is] feeling guilty because she couldn't keep her kids alive," says Neil Schultz, a psychiatrist and lawyer who helped Folbigg's supporters. "It doesn't mean that she bears real guilt." The 2003 jury, and another inquiry in 2019, disagreed.
Folbigg's words also set a horrified public against her. "In essence," Tedeschi said in his closing remarks in 2003, "the diaries contain ramblings about her weight, desire to be watched by men at discos, desperate wish to exercise and lose weight ... and her frustration and restrictions placed on her life by having children." She was found guilty and sent to prison for 40 years, spending much of her time in solitary confinement for fear of what other inmates might do to the woman dubbed Australia's worst female serial killer, but who has now been pardoned after an inquiry found her convictions were clouded in reasonable doubt.
Folbigg's friends see no trace of the woman they know in the monster depicted by the prosecution in 2003. "She has always had a huge laugh," says Megan Donegan, who became firm friends with her in year 7 at Kotara High School and remains so, four decades later. "She saw the fun in whatever she could, which is probably because of everything she’d been through." Billi-Jo Buckley, also a friend at high school, described her as "fun and easygoing. She was very protective; I had a couple of bullies and she protected me from them."
Tracy Chapman, who has been the face of a campaign to free Folbigg, was also a member of the Kotara High gang. She arrived at the school later than the others due to a brief stint at a Seventh Day Adventist college linked to pastor Michael Chamberlain, whose wife, Lindy, was jailed for killing their baby daughter Azaria, then freed when a jacket worn by the little girl, and described by Lindy, was found near a dingo's lair. The story has drawn comparisons with Folbigg's (Michael has died, and Lindy declined to comment for this story).
Lindy and Michael Chamberlain, inset, and Kathleen Folbigg, who has been pardoned for the murder of three of her children and the manslaughter of her firstborn son.
Folbigg spent time at Chapman's home, too. "She loved my family," Chapman says. "She often said, ‘I wish you could adopt me’." Her two foster siblings were much older, "and my family were all close together ... a big, noisy family she wanted to be part of. She was always hanging out at my place. When we were 16, and I wasn't even home, and Dad tells me Kath turned up at the house with a suitcase. She wanted to move in." Chapman thinks that was the day Folbigg had been rocked to the core by a caseworker, who had revealed that she wasn't adopted, but fostered.
During an interview with psychiatrist Michael Diamond in prison, which was published during the 2019 inquiry, Folbigg said she had been a distracted, disengaged and disconnected child, and said her foster mother, Deidre Marlborough was "controlling to an excessive degree". Marlborough would hit her with a belt, feather duster and wooden spoon, according to the report. Her foster father was a "shadow in the background", and an even harsher disciplinarian. Folbigg buried herself in books, and got lost in "detached fantasy". She feared sharing her feelings would lead to dire consequences.
In Folbigg's final year of school, she had a fight with her foster mother, who died in 2015. She was increasingly suffocated by Marlborough's control. Folbigg wanted to quit school but was told if she did, she would have to move out of home. So she left, got a job at an Indian restaurant, and lived with Buckley. "Things weren't going well with her parents because they weren't really her parents in the end, and I think she was struggling with all of that," Chapman says. "[She and Buckley] go out dancing one night, and she meets Craig."
Craig was a charismatic, car-mad clerk at a local mining company who was six years older than Folbigg. He, too, was from a big family. "She was so over the moon [when they met], I think she fell instantly in love with him," Buckley says. "I think she just felt special with him. He was so funny, he was entertaining, he’d seemed genuinely caring and protective of her. He was a charmer. Everything seemed really good. They moved in together quickly."
In 1986, they became engaged. At their wedding a year later, he wore a powder blue bow tie and a carnation in his lapel, and she wore white taffeta with billowing sleeves. Folbigg's parents refused to attend. Still, "it felt happy," Buckley says. "She’d found someone to love her, who could love and appreciate her for who she was. So we thought."
When Folbigg became pregnant in 1988, she improved her diet and stopped Craig smoking. "When she told me, [I heard the] joy in her voice," Buckley says. Folbigg wept with happiness when Caleb was born in early 1989. He died 19 days later. In June the following year, Patrick was born. He suffered from epilepsy, and a seizure when he was about four months old left him blind. Donegan remembers Folbigg becoming involved with the Royal Blind Society. "She was explaining to me she’d have to teach him to feed himself with a spoon and a fork and a knife, but he wasn't at that stage yet," she remembers.
Patrick died at eight months. Both losses were put down to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), a catch-all for the unexplained death of a baby. Folbigg told the psychologist that she became depressed, withdrawn and preoccupied with thoughts of how she’d failed. "She believed she had lived a life of failure," Diamond's report said. "She believed she was not good enough. She recognised these feelings as existing since childhood. She felt she was not a good person."
Diamond noticed, during his extensive interview with Folbigg, that she would dissociate when she spoke about the children's deaths. At one point, while talking about Caleb, she "lost composure", he wrote in the report. "She became quiet and silent. She pointed to a packet of tissues I had placed on the desk. There were few tears. She appeared to be detached and stunned." Later, she spoke about her sadness that her babies never met, then quickly changed the subject. "In keeping with her pattern of emotional numbing when distressed, Ms Folbigg digressed to talk about external material," Diamond wrote.
They moved towns. Craig became a car salesman. Folbigg became pregnant accidentally; Sarah was born in October 1992, and died 10 months later. They moved again. Folbigg's diaries, published by the inquiry, become fulsome a few years later, about 1996, and talk about her weight, monitor the temperature of her relationship, in keeping with someone with an abandonment wound – whether Craig is happy, how much he flirted, the ways he annoyed her, the ways she annoyed him – her anxieties about a decision to become pregnant again and her reflections on her own thoughts. "Am I strange or is this behaviour normal?" she writes.
Laura was born in August 1997. Folbigg's diaries are full of the kind of thoughts common to mothers with young babies; sleep, food, exercise, complaints about her husband, reflections on her own lack of patience. But her references to Sarah show how the diaries became so central to her trial and the 2019 inquiry. "I think Laura is beautiful compared to Sarah — she was cute but Laura has a special look about her," Folbigg writes. "Sarah was boyish looking. Laura has definite feminine features, they are chalk & cheese. And, truthfully, just as well. Wouldn't of handled another one like Sarah. She saved her life by being different."
Laura died in 1999, aged 19 months. Folbigg was arrested two years later. Craig eventually testified against her during her trial in 2003. The husband's testimony was the key difference between Folbigg's case and other examples around the world in which multiple siblings had died, their mothers had been suspected, and were later exonerated, said Emma Cunliffe, whose 2011 book Murder, Medicine and Motherhood was the first to raise questions about Folbigg's conviction. "In most of the other cases, family had stood by women who were charged," she says. "I do think that was a significant factor."
Chapman had little contact with Folbigg over the decade when her babies died. She did not like Craig, and she had her own troubles. She feels guilty now, that she wasn't there for her friend. "I didn't think about [her] much," she says. "And I’m ashamed to say that." Chapman remembers being in hospital, and waking to chatter from nurses about Folbigg's arrest. "She’d just been convicted for 40 years or whatever," she says. "I just remember tears running down my face. ‘I know this person, that person will never do this’."
Chapman re-established contact. They have corresponded for 20-odd years, and the letters helped Folbigg continue her habit of self-reflection through writing (understandably, she no longer keeps a diary). In one of the earliest letters, Folbigg addressed Chapman's questions about some of the more damning passages she wrote in her journal. "I’ll agree, some of my entries ‘sound’ atrocious," she wrote, but the diaries were used to "‘dump’ every negative emotion, feeling, thought I’ve ever had ... I thought I was to blame. Try to imagine from that point of reference when reading them."
Folbigg had to be protected in prison, where inmates are hostile to those accused of harming children. She told Diamond her early experiences were distressing – she had been physically threatened and assaulted – but she coped by relying on her old habit of being aloof and emotionally numb. She presented, he wrote, as a well-groomed woman, who "wore some makeup and had attended to her eyebrows, although her nails were bitten". She veered between being "emotionally blunted" and deeply distressed.
Throughout her time in jail, the Kotara High network has been her greatest support. They would go through the long process of being fingerprinted, eye-scanned, sniffed by dogs and patted down to sit with her on metal chairs that were nailed to the floor, and eat chips and mini Mars bars from the overpriced vending machine. Sometimes the visits got raucous – "The screw came past and said, ‘you’re having too much fun ladies’," Donegan says – and sometimes they were sombre.
Her final years in custody were spent at Clarence Prison near Grafton, which was harder for some of the women to visit. But they chatted to her on the phone. Chapman, who lived relatively close, visited often. Folbigg lived in a prison house with other inmates; they can shop and cook their own food. When she allowed herself to think about tasting freedom, she thought about having a bath and eating steak and vegetables. After 20 years of instant coffee, Donegan planned to bring her a Gloria Jean's French vanilla latte when she finally walked out of prison.
As they waited for the former judge presiding over the latest inquiry, Tom Bathurst, to decide whether there was reasonable doubt over the conviction, neither Folbigg nor Chapman allowed themselves to hope. As Folbigg told Cunliffe in a letter after the professor's 2011 book, "I’ve learnt in prison that hope can destroy as much as enliven." Says Chapman, "I can't even begin to explain how much it hurts when it doesn't happen."
Kathleen Folbigg after her release.Credit: Nine News
Now that she's released, and living in a flat on Chapman's property, Folbigg's challenges will not be over. But Associate Professor Janine Stevenson, who gave evidence at the most recent inquiry, said Chapman was an important relationship for Folbigg. "Tracy is going to take her out into the country, away from everyone," Stevenson says. "I think that will help her adjust. She was 35 when she went into prison, and she's 55 now. The world has changed in 20 years. That's the other thing that happens with people who’ve gone through the sorts of thing she has, they don't have any trust. But I think she's learnt to trust Tracy."
This masthead contacted Craig Folbigg, who lives in the Hunter Valley. When asked about his wife's pending release, he said, "I really have nothing to say."
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