Frank Arkell: How a vicious murder unmasked a city’s darkest secrets
WARNING: This story contains graphic details that readers may find disturbing.
It was the death that could have pushed Wollongong over the edge.
In the late 1990s, the New South Wales city had become a cesspool of corruption and abuse involving civic leaders and Catholic priests, and was in the grip of a heroin epidemic, its streets littered with needles.
Then, 20 years ago on June 26, 1998, the gruesome bashing murder of former Wollongong lord mayor and state MP Frank Arkell helped break the curse that had dragged the steel city to its darkest depths.
Known as Mr Wollongong, Arkell, who was lord mayor from 1974-1991, had proudly coined the phrase ‘Wonderful Wollongong’ to describe the place he loved to work and play.
To many in high places he was the city’s saviour, but to others who knew his dirty secrets, including his predilection for young boys, he was a ‘rock spider’ who deserved what was coming to him.
‘I wanted to kill someone that day’
Arkell’s murder at the age of 62 came exactly a fortnight after the garrotting and decapitation of 59-year-old gay man David O’Hearn.
O’Hearn happened to live a few houses away from 19-year-old unemployed man Mark Valera — who was found guilty of both murders — in Albion Park, south of Wollongong city.
Police evidence revealed Valera posed as a gay man to gain access to Arkell’s West Wollongong home.
Once his quarry turned his back, Valera picked up a lampshade and hit his victim over the head with it more than 40 times.
Valera, who was wearing work boots, also kicked Arkell hard in the ribs, attacked his head with a glass ashtray, and strangled him.
Once the former mayor was dead, Valera punctured Arkell’s cheek and eye with badge pins found inside the home.
O’Hearn’s murder had been similarly brutal, verging on satanic.
His head had been cut from his body and his arm sawn off and used to draw a pentagram and an inverted cross in blood on the wall.
His body was cut down the front with a knife and his intestines removed.
“I had it in my mind that I wanted to kill someone that day,” Valera later told police. “I was really angry.”
A ‘very horrible’ man’s sickening demise
When asked later why he killed Arkell, Valera said he knew he was a paedophile.
“He is a very, very horrible man,” he said.
Southern Highlands-based police inspector John Klepczarek was an acting sergeant at Lake Illawarra at the time and remembers going to both crime scenes.
“The O’Hearn murder is by far the most gruesome I have ever come across in my career in the NSW Police,” he said.
“Considering what kind of tragedies and murders we have seen in the Illawarra, that is saying something.
“The mental state of the person who committed those crimes I can’t even begin to imagine. The time and effort to commit those crimes, it was absolutely horrific.”
Valera was found guilty of the murders and sentenced, in December 2000, to two consecutive terms of life imprisonment, never
Dirty old town
Steen, a proud gay man who today runs a tea shop and theatre company in Wollongong, knew Arkell “quite well”.
“Being in the arts and community sector we came across Frank all the time and I have to say when you meet Frank, [he was a] charming, lovely person to talk to, very good at hiding what he was up to in his private life,” he said.
“You can’t deny Frank did a damn good job at promoting the town, but you can’t deny that he also did a good job at smudging its name on the way out.”
For Steen, Wollongong in 1970s and ’80s was a dangerous place.
“I myself was beaten over the head and left for dead in a creek bed just for what I was wearing, so you kept quiet and you kept everybody else’s secrets,” he said.
There were well known gay beats operating where hoons would turn up to bash so-called ‘poofters’ for fun.
In a city peppered with many Catholic Church-run schools, there was also the dark scourge of child sexual abuse, which authorities all too often turned a blind eye to.
“I can tell you as an absolute fact that it did happen in one school because I was a victim of it, and I was only eight at the time,” Steen said.
“And all they did was just move the priest to another school where he did exactly the same thing all over again.
“Thankfully he is behind bars now.”
The royal commission that broke the stranglehold
Well before the recent Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse came the Wood Royal Commission into Police Corruption, which was extended to investigate paedophilia.
It was a massive undertaking.
Starting in June 1995, it ran for 451 hearing days with evidence from 902 public witnesses, and cost an estimated $64 million.
The royal commission investigated claims Arkell and retired judge David Yeldham were potential paedophiles.
Arkell’s secret life preying on young boys did not become public until five years after he left public office, when state MP and anti-paedophile campaigner Franca Arena effectively outed him in state parliament.
She asked whether Arkell was W1, who was under investigation by the Wood Royal Commission for having sex with underage boys.
It set off a spiral of controversy that turned Arkell from a man who could do no wrong to a person widely despised and verbally attacked.
Yeldham took his own life in November 1996, while Arkell, who denied the allegations, was virtually forced into hiding before he had the chance to clear his name in court.
“Once the Franca Arena allegation became public, the charges then became public,” said Glenn Mitchell, honorary senior fellow in history at the University of Wollongong.
“Had he not been murdered in June 1998, some time in 1998 between June and December he would have been before a judge and jury in Wollongong Court defending the allegations and the charges against him.”
Probe uncovered rats’ nest
Some of the other names associated with paedophilia in Wollongong at the time included former mayor and businessman Tony Bevan, alderman Brian Tobin, parish priest Father Peter Lewis Comensoli and former Edmund Rice College principal Brother Michael Evans.
Bevan — reputedly known in paedophile rings as ‘Commander Hook’ — was investigated by the Wood Royal Commission three years after his death from cancer in 1991.
Tobin killed himself just two hours after being interviewed by investigators from the Wood Royal Commission paedophile team in 1996.
Evans also took his own life in Rockhampton in 1996.
“It was a sad time, a dark time, and with what was being uncovered in the Wood Royal Commission there was a feeling the place was pretty well evil,” current Wollongong Mayor Gordon Bradbery said.
Current mayor counselled ‘delusional’ Arkell
After the Arena bombshell, Arkell’s life started to rapidly slide downhill.
“Several graffitists had put ‘W1 equals wanker’ and other words that I can’t repeat painted on his front fence,” Dr Mitchell said.
“He was the subject of several prank calls, one of whom was Mark Valera, his eventual murderer.”
It was around this time a new Uniting Church minister assigned to work in Wollongong’s Church on the Mall and its associated food kitchen catering for those living rough met Arkell.
That minister, Gordon Bradbery, who is now the mayor, said he found the retired politician “delusional”.
“I sat with him for quite a while and was convinced he was heading towards full-blown dementia.”
The Mayor said the Catholic Church had had an immense influence on the city when he arrived in 1996.
“There were locations in Wollongong where we had intense power in the Catholic Church. It could control the narrative,” he said.
He said the shackles of the past were thrown off in part by the Wood Royal Commission, but also the later ICAC inquiry into sex for development at Wollongong Council and the growing influence of the university.
Path to redemption
The city’s transformation, brought on by the necessity to progress past a narrow reliance on ever-shrinking industrial base, opened Wollongong up to greater scrutiny from the outside world.
“What I think probably opened it up more than anything else was the work of the university, just the fact that people were coming in here and asking questions and expecting a higher standard of accountability, transparency and good government,” Cr Bradbery said.
This extended to the moral behaviour of its citizens, with murder and paedophilia scandals doing little to enhance the image of Wollongong as a desirable location.
The Wood Royal Commission and association media publicity helped bring the skeletons out of the closet, but many still feel even now it remains a work in progress.
“[Royal commissions] are a wonderful part of the process, but unfortunately I don’t think they go far enough, because there are still people at the top covering their tracks,” Steen said.
The murders of Arkell and O’Hearn at the hands of Valera were not the only murders going on at the time — they were simply the worst of a very bad lot.
A bizarre additional chapter of the double murder played out when Valera’s sister, Belinda Van Krevel, pleaded guilty in 2003 to soliciting her boyfriend Keith Schreiber to murder her father Jack Van Krevel while she was pretending to sleep in the adjoining bedroom.
Schreiber, now imprisoned for life, was also the best friend of Valera.
The murder triangle serves as a reminder of how things have changed for the better and the need to remain vigilant against secrecy and complacency.
For Dr Mitchell the journey has been a difficult but necessary one.
“We have come along a very gut wrenching and torturous journey, but I think the destination we have reached is probably a better destination than anyone could have dreamed of,” he said.