Danger without warning: the life of a paramedic

Danger without warning: the life of a paramedic

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When a homicide investigator is called out, they know what lies ahead. They are briefed on the scene and when they open the door, they may be dismayed but they are usually not shocked.

But first responders open the door on events that may well shape their lives without warning.

Paramedics are often first on the scene of crime and tragedy.Credit: Paul Rovere

“Paul” spent 37 years as a paramedic and loved his job, only retiring when a long-term medical condition left him unable to remain operational.

Very early on, he found that the call for help did not always match the reality at the scene. More often than not the emergency was exaggerated, either through panic or a desire to jump the queue and get priority treatment.

But sometimes paramedics arrive unaware they have wandered into the equivalent of a war zone.

As a young ambulance officer, stationed at his country home town, Paul [not his real name — “ambos don’t want the limelight”] was bored. He had just finished a week without being called out to a job. “I was all trained up, and we didn’t turn a wheel [leave the station].”

And so he decided to transfer to Melbourne for experience — a classic case of being careful what you wish for.

“It was my first night shift, and I was stationed at Preston when we got the call to an assault. It had already been a busy night,” says Paul.

The “assault”, probably called in by a neighbour, turned out to be a double murder carried out by one of Victoria’s most prolific hitmen.

“My partner and I were first on scene,” Paul recalls.

Dorothy Abbey and baby Damon.

“The female victim was on the couch, [the husband] was in the shed. Nothing could be done.

“The woman was sitting upright on the couch. Her throat was cut and she was shot. I think he used a moccasin to silence the shot because I saw a moccasin on the ground with a hole in it.

“There were three kids in the one bedroom. They said dad was outside, and we thought he may have done it.”

Paul, believing the gunman was probably still at the scene, recalls “we grabbed the kids, loaded them in the ambulance and called the cavalry, not knowing where the perpetrator was.

“And did they arrive! It seemed like in just a few minutes, there were police all over the place, with the chopper overhead.”

At first, it was a live crime scene, as police were not sure if the killer remained on the property. But he was long gone. It would take more than 20 years to find and convict him.

“Police told us the husband was dead and there was nothing we could do,” Paul remembers.

That was 36 years ago this week — July 27, 1987 — and the scene was in West Heidelberg, at the murders of Ramon and Dorothy Abbey.

The killer was hitman Rod Collins, who in 2009 was sentenced to life with a minimum of 32 years for the murders. They were not his first killings and would not be his last. He died without ever standing trial for the remarkably similar murders of Terence Hodson and wife Christine, shot dead in their Kew home in 2004.

He was allegedly paid $150,000 by drug dealer Carl Williams, who acted as a go-between to ensure Hodson was silenced before he could give evidence in a trial involving corrupt police.

When the Abbey case was reactivated, Paul was asked to make a statement about that night and the scene in the house.

The police case was that Collins, with two accomplices (now dead) all wearing police uniforms stolen from a dry cleaners, went to the Abbeys to rip off Ramon, who Collins believed was hiding cash and drugs. He was, in fact, broke.

Collins was vindictive, violent and a brooding hater. He believed Abbey was a police informer, had not returned a stolen police badge and had reneged on a promise to be part of an armed robbery crew. He also claimed Abbey had not paid him for a second-hand car. Collins was hardly the type to take this sort of dispute to mediation.

He knocked on the door and Dorothy let him in, believing he was a police officer. He took Abbey to the back shed and shot him three times. Police were told that after the victim cried out his killer’s name, Collins walked back into the house, shot Dorothy twice and then cut her throat — with the three young children, Elicia, Stacey and Damon, in the bedroom next door.

“I saw Rodney Collins twice in court proceedings,” says Paul. “He was a weedy, skinny-looking fellow who looked like he needed a good wash.

Rodney Collins, also known as “The Duke”, after he was arrested for murder in 1982.Credit: Supplied

“I often wonder how those kids are going. They were very lucky. Did he show them mercy or did he not know they were in the bedroom?”

When asked why he had killed Dorothy Abbey, Collins said: “Dead men tell no tales.”

Police believe this is why, when hired to kill Terence Hodson, Collins went on to kill his wife, Christine. This time, he bragged to Williams of his own efficiency: “Quick, hey?”

Nobody is really sure how many people Collins killed, although his first confirmed murder was in February 1983 at a St Patrick’s Day party in Reservoir when he became bored with the jokes of young Irishman Patrick Coghlan and shot him dead.

When host Ronald Longmuir protested, Collins shot him in the leg.

Collins was charged with murder but when Longmuir died of complications from the gunshot wounds, the case died with him.

Police believe Collins, with prison escapee Russell Cox, were the hit team who shot dead underworld heavy Brian Kane in 1982, in Brunswick’s Quarry Hotel.

His name has always been mentioned in connection with the murders of Mike “Lucky” Schievella, and de facto wife Heather McDonald, killed in their St Andrews home on September 16, 1990.

They were tortured, and their throats slashed in a drug rip-off. The killers have never been found.

He is also a suspect in the 2006 hit on lawyer-turned-gangster Mario Condello, shot outside his Brighton home.

On the outside, Collins, who died in 2018, often preferred his own company, spending time with a pet parrot he taught to say “I hate coppers” and “not guilty”.

On the inside and without guns, he was largely disliked, once being bashed for using someone’s toothbrush in maximum security. It is a place where the most dangerous cavities are not dental but cranial, often created with a homemade icepick.

Paul would regularly be called to Pentridge prison to deal with slashings, bashings and self-inflicted wounds.

His was the first ambulance crew to attend the 1987 maximum-security Jika Jika fire, which killed five inmates — Robert Wright, 32, Arthur Gallagher, 29, David McGauley, 30, James Loughnan, 37, and Richard Morris, 23.

The prisoners lit the fire as a protest against prison conditions, believing they would be able to breathe air from pumped-out toilets. They were wrong.

But they were posthumously vindicated. Jika Jika, known as “the electronic zoo”, was found to be cruel and dehumanising and was closed.

Paul said the prisoners had stuffed mattresses against the hydraulic doors that left them trapped: “There was nothing that could be done.”

Paul later transferred to Bendigo, where he was again the first to a deadly scene. It was in October 1999, when they were called to what appeared at first to be a minor disturbance at Kangaroo Flat.

“A bloke [aged] about 30 had assaulted his dad. He was pretty angry as we were treating our guy, who said his son had some guns in the house.

“We called it in, but the message got scrambled from he had guns to he had weapons.

Police at the Kangaroo Flat siege in 1999.Credit: Ken Irwin

“We took the dad to the hospital. A couple of hours later, we were called back. We parked outside the house next door and there were two detectives who had been shot, and they were hiding in a road drain.

“We heard some shots — we were hiding behind the ambulance. The inspector got shot in the abdomen and another policeman was shot in the foot.”

Sergeant Peter Lukaitis, the officer shot in the foot, made it to safety then went back, risking being shot again, to rescue Inspector Ulf Kaminski. “It was the bravest thing I have ever seen,” says Paul.

“He [the offender] wasn’t trying to shoot us, but I think he wanted to shoot the inspector in the head to finish him off. We backed the ambulance up and put [Kaminski] in the back and took him to the Bendigo hospital.”

The offender, John Watson, shot himself after a siege that lasted 19 hours.

Paul, who retired in 2018, says: “I loved everything about the job. We were very close-knit, and you felt you were in charge of your jobs. You worked with good people. Now they are finding it difficult to fill all the shifts.”

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