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The Age, Victoria
December 9, 2012
by Richard Baker and Nick McKenzie
The body of Phoebe Handsjuk was found at the bottom of a garbage chute in Balencea Apartments in 2010.
The death of Melbourne woman Phoebe Handsjuk two years ago was ruled a suicide, but her family is not convinced.
THREE weeks before Christmas, a beautiful but troubled young Melbourne woman was found dead, having plunged 12 storeys down the garbage chute of an upmarket St Kilda Road apartment building. It was a bizarre way to die. Police had never seen anything like it. But there is plenty about Phoebe Handsjuk’s death two years ago that is curious.
Homicide squad detectives arrived shortly after Phoebe’s body was found in the garbage room at the basement of the Balencea Apartments building around 7pm on December 2, 2010.
Within five days, homicide detectives determined her death was not suspicious. Suicide was considered the most likely cause given Phoebe’s recent battles with depression, alcohol and prescription drugs.
The case was passed to the local South Melbourne police station, where Detective Senior Constable Brendan Payne was directed to prepare a brief for the coroner. But Phoebe’s family believe the homicide squad was premature in reaching its suicide conclusion and had conducted a flawed initial investigation.
On Wednesday, lawyers for the family asked coroner Peter White to hold a full inquest into Phoebe’s death because they said there was sufficient evidence to suspect she had been murdered.
White reserved his judgment on this point and asked Payne for more information about some of the odd events that occurred in the lead-up to Phoebe’s death.
The family’s belief that Phoebe’s death was suspicious is based largely on an investigation undertaken by her maternal grandfather, Lorne Campbell, a 71-year-old experienced former police detective.
Campbell’s investigation raises many questions that have yet to be answered, and some of the information he has asked police to examine is now being sought by the coroner.
Some of the troubling aspects of this case are as follows:
How did 24-year-old Phoebe manage to get herself feet-first into a small garbage chute on the 12th floor of the Balencea Apartments when she had been drinking heavily and was affected by prescription medication?
Tests carried out by Campbell with two sober and athletic women of a similar size and age to Phoebe showed that extremely good co-ordination, balance and strength was required for them to independently climb into the garbage chute – the entrance to which is more than a metre off the floor. The opening of the disposal hatch measured only 37.2 by 22 centimetres.
Then there is the unresolved question of how Phoebe’s body was able to pass through the garbage chute’s powerful rotating compactor blade without being cut into pieces.
The manufacturer of the garbage chute system, Neil Bone, told Campbell that he thinks it would have been impossible for this to happen and that the only way Phoebe could have passed through the chute without her body being more badly damaged is for another person to have changed the chute’s setting from automatic to manual and then back again before her body was discovered by a cleaner.
Here, some facts are not disputed: the police have never conducted a test using the chute and a shop dummy or mannequin, nor did the homicide squad take a statement from Neil Bone.
Campbell is also troubled by the fact that all of Phoebe’s emails appear to have been deleted from the computer in the apartment, the discovery of her blood on her computer mouse and elsewhere in the apartment (one police investigator has suggested that before she died she may have trod on some broken glass, cutting her foot and leaving blood on her hand), and a piece of paper found in her jeans pocket with a mobile phone number written on it that was later found to have been registered in a false name.
Campbell believes that through some of her friends, Phoebe may have got to know people who were involved in drug trafficking. Does that explain the false number?
In a review of the case requested by coroner White, senior homicide investigator Sol Solomon found no evidence suggesting the involvement of any other person in her death. But it is understood that in his report, Detective Solomon states that he is puzzled by the tragedy, saying that in all the years he has been investigating deaths he has never seen a similar case and that perhaps the answer lies in Phoebe’s taking of the drug Stilnox, which some experts say can cause erratic and irrational behaviour.
Campbell, though, says it is impossible to rule out the involvement of another person.
”There are too many peculiarities and unexplained aspects surrounding Phoebe’s death to justify writing it off as a suicide,” Campbell says.
”The homicide squad missed a lot at the start and that’s not been helpful. We want an inquest and we are hoping someone can come forward with information.”
‘HI FAMILY, I am in bed about to sleep and when I WAKE I will transform into the most incredible human bein [sic] you’ve ever seen! … (not) I will go to hospital. It’s safer there and I hear the special tonight is tomato soup … Delicious! Nutritious! I love you all very much but not enough to send an individual text. Sorry about that but time is sleep and I must b on my way … Merrily, merrily, merrily. Life is but a dream. Xo.”
This was the strange text message sent from Phoebe’s mobile phone and received by her immediate family at 10.33am on Wednesday, December 1, 2010. Another recipient was Phoebe’s boyfriend, Antony Hampel, with whom she shared apartment 1201.
A public relations executive, Hampel is from one of Victoria’s most well-known legal families. Hampel, 45, is the son of former Supreme Court of Victoria judge George Hampel and stepson of Country Court judge Felicity Hampel.
Unsurprisingly, the nature of Phoebe’s text message triggered concern within her family. Her mother, Natalie Handsjuk, was about to board a flight in Alice Springs when the message came through. So she called her mother, Jeannette Campbell, and asked her to check on Phoebe.
Jeannette Campbell called Hampel and asked him about her granddaughter’s welfare. According to Jeannette Campbell, Hampel said he had checked and had found Phoebe asleep.
Hampel is believed to have been concerned about his girlfriend’s drinking and the effect it was having on her mental and physical health in the weeks leading up to her death.
Police have never regarded Hampel as a suspect and Fairfax Media is not suggesting he was involved in Phoebe’s death.
Hampel and his apartment cleaner were among the last people to see her alive.
At Wednesday’s directions hearing, Hampel was represented by Melbourne barrister Elizabeth Brimer.
Brimer disagreed with barristers James Isles and Chris Dane, QC – representing Natalie Handsjuk and Phoebe’s father, Leonid Handsjuk – saying a full inquest was not necessary because there was no basis for the court to be satisfied a murder may have occurred.
Brimer, who was Justice George Hampel’s associate between 1997 and 1999, declined to discuss the case with Fairfax Media this week, and Antony Hampel did not return calls.
According to Campbell, toxicology reports showed strong traces of alcohol and the controversial sleeping drug Stilnox in Phoebe’s blood.
There are many anecdotal reports of the bizarre behaviours that can occur when these two substances are mixed, including instances of sleep-driving.
For the homicide squad, the combination of alcohol and Stilnox and Phoebe’s recent depression are the most likely explanation as to how she ended up in the building’s garbage chute.
Detective Solomon’s report is believed to call for pharmacology experts to conduct further inquiries into the effects of Stilnox, particularly when it is used in combination with alcohol and other medications.
No one in Phoebe’s family denies she was a young woman grappling with depression. Indeed, she had been seeing a psychologist and had even called her for help in the days before her death.
But Campbell and Natalie Handsjuk believe the combination of alcohol and Stilnox would have made it impossible for Phoebe to co-ordinate entry to the garbage chute without the aid of another person.
”The testing I carried out showed it to be extremely difficult for two very fit, sober young women of Phoebe’s size to climb into the chute,” Campbell says.
The homicide squad did not do this test before determining Phoebe’s death was not suspicious. This was acknowledged by Solomon, one of Victoria’s most experienced homicide detectives, who reviewed Phoebe’s case file at the request of coroner White. But Solomon’s report also highlights the difficulty a third party would have in placing a body into a garbage chute.
ANOTHER aspect of the case puzzling Phoebe’s family is the whereabouts of her mobile phone in the days before she died. Campbell says police were initially told that the phone had been taken to a repair shop on December 1, 2010.
But this could not be right as the phone was used to send the troubling text message to members of Phoebe’s family that morning. CCTV footage from the apartment building last records Phoebe leaving shortly before midday but returning shortly afterwards. The reason for the quick exit and return turned out to be a fire alarm. Police were later told that the phone must have been taken to the repair shop a day later, on December 2.
No investigator has been able to explain the presence of a piece of paper found in Phoebe’s jeans pocket with a phone number written on it which had been disconnected and registered to a false name and address.
remain over the presence of bruising on her neck, upper body, wrists and arms, and whether it was caused by her garbage chute plunge or beforehand.
Campbell is also concerned by a long delay in police retrieving information from a computer used by Phoebe inside the apartment. Again, this computer was not seized or examined by the homicide squad.
Follow-up inquiries by Detective Payne, including arrangements for Google headquarters in the United States and the police force’s own computer experts to retrieve and examine Phoebe’s email messages (which had been deleted), have been frustrated by the homicide squad’s decision not to classify the death as suspicious.
For grieving families, cases such as Phoebe’s are always confounding because of the lack of answers.
”Nothing about it makes sense,” says Natalie Handsjuk. ”I had been working interstate and spoke with her on Skype a few days before she died. She had been enthusiastic about my return and getting together with the family to help prepare for her brother’s 18th birthday party on the Friday.”
Coroner White on Wednesday acknowledged Phoebe’s case has several unanswered questions.
He directed Detective Payne to find out what time Hampel arrived back at the apartment on the day of Phoebe’s death and whether he used a key to enter the apartment.
He has also asked for more clarity on the whereabouts of Phoebe’s phone at the time her bizarre text message was sent out to family and friends. White also asked for extra CCTV from the building’s security cameras to be gathered if possible.
Phoebe’s family and their lawyers now have two months to prepare submissions to White to articulate why a full inquest into her death is necessary.