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“I miss him so much some days I can barely move”: Danielle Stewart, now 37, was released from prison in 2010 after serving four years for the manslaughter of her husband. Photo: Tim Bauer
The box arrived, an unremarkable cardboard carton. It sat sealed for days that turned into weeks in the corner. I couldn’t bring myself to open it. I knew that inside that inoffensive-looking box was a world of pain.
The person who’d sent the box admitted she was “glad to be rid of it”. The suffering and sadness it contained told her story – and it wasn’t a pretty one. I’d recently met her for the first time in Sydney and liked her a lot: she was vibrant, witty, charming, warm. A woman with a big smile … and scars on her wrists.
It was the worst moment of my life. In one instant, my entire life had changed and Chaim’s had ended.
Danielle Stewart, 37, seems to captivate everyone who meets her. Seeing her, drinking in her confidence and physical attractiveness, it seemed almost impossible to fathom that she’d only recently finished a prison sentence. The contents of the box, which she was temporarily entrusting to me, were the legal documents used during her long and harrowing trial.
Early days … Danielle Stewart (at right) aged about five, with her mother, father and younger sister Laura.
Danielle Stewart does not remember stabbing 55-year-old Romanian-born Chaim Kimel in the belly twice with a foot-long ornamental dagger on the night of August 23, 2006, after a ferocious domestic argument in their fourth-floor apartment in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. Recovering from a near-lethal cocktail of the anti-psychotic drug Seroquel and alcohol that had caused her to spend three days comatose in St Vincent’s Hospital, Darlinghurst, she came to in a prison cell, calling out for her husband. “I saw my name on the board and it had ‘Murder’ written next to it,” she says. “It was the worst moment of my life. In one instant, my entire life had changed and Chaim’s had ended.”
One day, she was living in fashionable Rose Bay and studying for a communications degree at University of Technology, Sydney (UTS); the next, she was an inmate of Mulawa Correctional Centre at Silverwater, in the city’s west. During a recorded phone call with her father on August 29, made while she was in custody, Stewart said, “If I could swap Chaim with me right now, I would do it immediately. There is no way I meant to kill him.”
On September 17, Stewart wrote in a letter to her friend Angela Batley of her “horror” at what had happened, how much she loved Kimel, her “shame” at the damage she’d done to his children, Amber, then 27, Fred, 25, and Jordan, 16: “There is not a single part of me that wants him dead,” she wrote. “I want my life back. I want our life back. I miss him so much some days I can barely move.”
Indian adventure … with Chaim Kimel at the Taj Mahal, the day before they married, in September 2004.
But there were those who, having observed the marriage, were not surprised by the tragic turn of events. “It was never going to end well,” says friend Victoria Bergin, who has known Stewart since she was 14.
In an early prison telephone conversation, Stewart’s ex-boyfriend Jason Gooden told her, “This was going to happen, Dan. You’ve been under too much stress for too long. It just didn’t surprise me when I heard it, you know.”
But, says Stewart now, if anyone was going to end up dead, “I thought it would be me. I tried to commit suicide multiple times in that relationship. I think with the Seroquel overdose, that is what I was doing. I didn’t want to die, but I knew there was no way out, that mentally I was never going to be able to escape”.
Father figure … Chaim Kimel, who ran a catering company with Stewart. Photo: Jim Rice
After finishing high school and a brief period studying performing arts at Melbourne’s Monash University, Stewart moved to Bondi in Sydney to share a flat with her stepsister, Myfanwy Thompson, who was a year younger. Jason Gooden, in a statement he made to police about her during this time, said, “When we were together, Danielle was the fittest person I ever met. She never took drugs, except for prescription drugs, and was a manic trainer who exercised all the time and was obsessed with dieting. She rarely consumed alcohol socially, but was okay on a couple of drinks. There were several times when she had more than a few drinks and became seriously distressed. She would get a wild, terrified look on her face.”
She also, said Gooden, became distressed on the “many” occasions that her father failed to show up for a dinner arrangement. “On one occasion, she became highly distressed and hysterical and I had to comfort her all night while she lay curled up in the foetal position. Danielle had this constant hope that her father might do something for her.”
In 1998, Thompson died suddenly after falling off a cliff in Bondi while under the influence of ecstasy. “She was gorgeous, my best friend,” says Stewart. “Her boyfriend had got into dealing ecstasy. I couldn’t handle seeing her wasted all the time, so I’d moved out with other friends.” Then, three years later, Myfanwy’s younger brother Tristram died of an aneurysm after earlier being diagnosed with schizophrenia.
It was in a state of intense emotional fragility that Stewart – by now 24 and drifting from one menial job to the next – met 50-year-old Chaim Kimel in a nightclub in late 2000. “He was very charismatic, very gregarious, very charming, very generous, strong and creative,” she says now. “He loved his children and they loved him.” Quickly, she went to work for him in his furniture retail outlet, Eclectica, in Mosman. “We got along, even though I was this little girl from Canberra and he was this older Israeli Jew. We had a common interest in books and art, music and food.”
Kimel introduced her to his family, to whom he was exceptionally close, and offered her a security she’d never experienced before; the couple started living together. Says his daughter, Amber Rubenstein, now 34, “When I first met Danielle, we quickly became friends. [At first] I respected her intellect, her humour, her confidence, her maturity, and I liked her obvious affection and care for my father.”
“He was the father figure she’d been missing,” Stewart’s grandmother and closest ally, Elaine Craker, tells me.
Elle O’Brien is less circumspect in her summing up. “I was always disturbed when she was with him,” she tells me. “She wasn’t herself, she lost her strength. She was a beautiful, smart young woman with a great future, but he treated her like a little girl and told her what to do. He treated her like a possession and she was under his spell. He was a very egocentric man.”
Admits Stewart now, “I loved him. I still do. It is a love-hate thing and it won’t ever go. With those types of personalities, there is that level of attention, you become their entire focus.”
“He was very personable,” says Craker carefully, “but he [could also be] demanding and overpowering. He would take over.”
No one disputes that Kimel was a big drinker who often indulged in cocaine. His relationship with Stewart was passionate, volatile, often fuelled by alcohol and prone to sudden, destructive turns. And now Stewart was drinking immoderately at the same time that she was taking powerful medications for depression. There were noisy fights; the police were called. On one occasion, Kimel was jailed for a night for breaking an AVO.
“I’d moved into temporary accommodation and Chaim came after me,” explains Stewart. “He broke into my room and stole my laptop and wallet. The police busted him on the way out and took him to jail for the night.” Kimel, who was drunk, informed the police with exaggerated politeness that Stewart had called him, telling him she’d taken 14 Valium tablets.
When Stewart drank, her pain, fear and anger would surface. “I’m fine when I’m not in an emotional situation,” she says, “but when I’m under threat, the flashbacks can be extreme.”
Jordan Kimel, who’s now 23, lived with his father and Stewart from the age of 10 to 16 and was in the Rose Bay apartment the night Kimel died. “There were multiple occurrences where Danielle was destructive,” he remembers. “She would break prescription glasses, cut up $10,000 worth of business suits, delete important documents from my father’s computer. Once, she punched through a glass bathroom window and slashed her wrists. And she’d punch my father, too.”
And yet there were some periods of tranquillity. In 2004, Stewart enrolled at UTS to begin her communications degree. Together, she and Kimel started an online catering company, Epicurean, using a $30,000 loan from Craker and, later that year, eloped to India, where they became husband and wife at the Taj Mahal.
“Part of the reason I married Chaim was because I was worried about my grandparents’ money,” she tells me. “If I left him, there’d be no legal recourse for me to get it back. He took it without shame; he never planned to pay it back.”
Because of that money, agrees O’Brien, “[Stewart] was trapped.”
In the seven years they were together, Stewart left Kimel seven times. Once, in 2005, after fleeing their apartment, she told Gooden that Kimel often came home drunk and frightened her. Craker believes that “she was suffocated and unhappy. She left him once and came [to Eden]; she didn’t know what to do. He’d ring and she’d go back. I’d tell her I didn’t understand why and she’d say, ‘I love him.’ ”
“I was never taught how to function as an adult,” says Stewart. “I never developed any life skills, so I was really utterly dependent on him. I kept leaving Chaim because he was a narcissistic alcoholic whose only concern was his own welfare. While he could be caring, it was undermined by his desire to keep me enslaved to him. When I left him, he’d follow me and get me back. When your sense of self-esteem is so low and a learnt helplessness has set in, you don’t feel able to support yourself. My friends had dropped off because they couldn’t stand him. The only times I responded with violence were when I was trying to leave and he’d try to stop me. He’d hide my wallet, phone, computer, passport. Those times always ended with me being in hospital, not him. I never tried to kill him: I tried to kill myself.”
Indeed, the cardboard box contains records of at least six admissions to hospital because of overdoses taken by Stewart during the marriage. Long before her trial, she repeatedly told doctors her husband was controlling, he’d smashed her head into a door, and she had nothing to live for.
A report by psychiatrist Dr Rosalind Foy describes “chronic feelings of unworthiness”, “depression, anxiety, inability to trust people”. She describes Stewart as “terrified” of losing Kimel. Foy diagnosed a borderline personality disorder related to childhood trauma.
Amber Rubenstein, by now concerned for her father’s physical and emotional wellbeing, told him repeatedly to stay away from Stewart. “He told me he’d made a commitment to be there for her and loved her unconditionally,” she recalls. “He was convinced unconditional love would cure her.”
In 2006, while separated from Kimel, Stewart met Melbourne university professor Joeri Mol and moved to Victoria to be with him. Quickly, she discovered that she was pregnant with Mol’s child. In a statement Mol made to police on December 13, 2006, he said, “Danielle was in a complete panic over what she had done by giving up her life in Sydney. She did not want to raise the child with me and she did not want to be a single mother.”
A week later, she returned to Sydney. Kimel had said he’d take her back – providing she terminated the pregnancy. She had her second abortion in six months – the first had been to Kimel – an event that sent her spiralling into a deep depression.
By this time, Stewart – apart from studying at UTS and running Epicurean – was working part-time at a Sydney ad agency, Holy Cow! “I was also trying to manage Chaim and my escalating cocaine addiction. And the alcohol dependency,” she says. “I was working like a dog, paying the bills, trying to keep the family together. He never did any work.”
On August 9, 2006, Gooden met her for a coffee on campus. “She ordered a small bottle of champagne,” he says. “She seemed withdrawn, unsettled – at the end of her tether. She told me she was getting some money together so she could escape once and for all.”
Two weeks later, on August 23, she and Kimel went for dinner with friends to Rose Bay restaurant Pescador. “Both Danielle and Chaim seemed to be in good spirits,” said Angela Batley, who was present, in her police statement. “Everyone was in a good mood.”
After dinner, everyone apart from Stewart went back to Batley’s house, where they carried on drinking. Stewart insisted she had to go home first, but when she turned up some time later, Batley noticed she seemed “moody”. At 11pm, the couple said goodbye; Stewart drove home while Kimel decided to walk. Some time later, Batley says she felt an unaccountable need to phone Kimel. She asked if Stewart was okay. “He said, ‘She’s on the computer; she’s drunk. I have to go.’ ”
“I had an assignment due, I had to study [that night],” Stewart tells me. “I went home after dinner because I wanted to work. [Chaim] kept calling me and saying, ‘Come and pick me up.’ I’d taken a packet of Seroquel and kept saying I didn’t want to pick him up because I didn’t want to drink. Finally, he convinced me [to drive to Batley’s].” (Why Kimel chose to walk home that night given that Stewart had gone there with the express purpose of giving him a lift remains unclear.)
Jordan was at home when the couple got back to the apartment on New South Head Road. He described the ensuing events in his police statement as follows: “Danielle said to me, ‘I shouldn’t have gone to Angela’s house. I’ve had too much to drink.” She started playing loud music through the computer. When his father arrived, he asked her to turn it down before the neighbours complained. A silly, drunken argument followed where she would turn the music up and he would turn it down. Finally, said Jordan, his father turned off the computer.
“They were both yelling for about 15 minutes,” stated Jordan. “All of a sudden, I could hear them in the corridor outside my room. It sounded like someone was being hit or punched and I heard my father say, ‘Why are you being violent and attacking me?’ They kept fighting and I heard Danielle fall to the floor and scream. Soon after this, I heard my father say in a tense voice, ‘What are you doing? Are you crazy?’ I heard my father scream three times. I saw [his] white shirt was covered in blood all up the left side from underneath his ribs towards the middle of his torso. Danielle was standing about two metres away and she had our antique knife in her hand.”
Eyewitness reports of the scene describe Stewart as alternately lucid and disorientated with no memory of the traumatic events that had occurred. Later, it would be revealed that her blood alcohol reading was five times the legal driving limit.
Chaim Kimel died that night on the operating table at St Vincent’s Hospital of two stab wounds to the anterior abdomen. Stewart was arrested and charged with his murder on August 24; she pleaded not guilty on the grounds of self-defence. She was granted bail, but her father John was unable to agree to the 24-hour surveillance condition attached to it. Instead, it took Elle O’Brien’s mother, Amrit Turnbull, nine months to secure her release. From there, Stewart went to live with her grandmother. Facing 25 years in prison, she attempted to end her life twice more. One of the attempts involved taking an overdose of her prescribed medication, Seroquel.
“When I took that Seroquel, I went into psychosis,” she says. “It was an out-of-body experience where I thought the nurses were talking about me even though they weren’t. I was watching myself from afar. It was crazy, crazy shit. I am sure that is what must have happened on the night Chaim died.”
The trial, which began in July 2008, was an ordeal. By now the charge of murder had been downgraded to manslaughter. “I couldn’t defend myself in any way because I had no recollection of what had happened,” says Stewart. “It was like I was on stage without a script. I might as well have not been there.”
Danielle Stewart was sentenced to six years in prison for the manslaughter of Chaim Kimel; she served only four in Berrima Correctional Centre “There’s no doubt that jail saved me,” she says. “It prevented me from harming myself with alcohol and drugs. I wouldn’t recommend it, though.”
Stewart walked out of prison, a free woman, on June 24, 2010 and is still rebuilding her life. Her dream, she says, is to move to Spain and live in a house on the country’s south coast – “where I can see Africa from my bedroom” – and realise her ambition of becoming a professional writer. She has done her time, she says, albeit not as long as Chaim Kimel’s children would have liked.
She lives in Sydney, where she has a lease in her name alone for the first time in her life, and she’s back at UTS, finishing her degree. She asks for neither clemency nor sympathy: she is talking to Good Weekend because “I want to raise awareness of domestic abuse and help others. I want to be a good person and to make something good come out of the chaos and harm.”
It has taken courage to speak out. She is mending her relationship with her father. “Dad contacted me at Christmas and cried, apologising for not being there for me and saying he’s always loved me,” she tells me. “I love him and I know he loves me.”
But there is deep vulnerability, too. “I’ve paid for what has happened and I’ve done all I can to fix the issues within myself that contributed to Chaim’s death. I see both a psychiatrist and a psychologist, both of my own volition, nothing to do with parole directives. I don’t drink. I don’t take drugs. I take responsibility for my actions. I write when I can. I try to love my friends and family. I try to see beauty in the world and I’d like to hope, one day, that I can contribute to that beauty. Still, I love. I still love Chaim. I still love my father. In the end, love will be all I have.”
* Names have been changed.
This article originally appeared in Good Weekend. Like Good Weekend on Facebook to get regular updates on upcoming stories and events – www.facebook.com/GoodWeekendMagazine
One of Stewart’s poems published while she was still a teenager in her anthology, I for Icarus
when i am old,
i know i shall be afraid
to look in the mirror,
and will only be able to do so
by hanging it from a string
and spinning it around,
so i receive only
images of myself –
for i will be afraid i look like my mother.
when i was young
the only thing i wanted to be
was like my mother.
now i am neither
and she has gone,
i only wish
she was here for
me to either look like