Two teenagers involved in luring Canberra real estate agent Peter Keeley to bushland on the NSW South Coast where they bound, gagged and beat him up have been found not guilty of killing him.
The boys, both aged 17 at the time of the bashing so legally cannot be named, faced a judge-alone trial in the NSW Supreme Court in May.
Justice Michael Walton delivered his verdicts on Thursday (16 June), finding the teens not guilty of murdering the 56-year-old on 2 February 2020, but convicting them of aggravated kidnapping charges.
He said the first of the teenagers on trial had used the gay dating app Grindr to “lure” Mr Keeley from Canberra to Broulee with the “promise of a sexual encounter”.
Mr Keeley left his apartment early in the morning, drove to Batemans Bay where he messaged the teen to say, “I’m in the Bay now I’ll be about 10 minutes before I leave”, while he also talked to a friend in Canberra about borrowing money to book a hotel.
Meanwhile, the teen searched the phrase “does holding a metal object in your hand make a difference to your punch” on the Internet.
He met up with the second teen and they discussed a plan, allegedly with a third boy as well, to tie up and bash Mr Keeley outside town.
The first teen met Mr Keeley at Broulee’s tennis courts, then they drove to a powerline easement to the south-west of town, arriving at about 3:30 pm when the second teen, and allegedly the third, came out of the bush.
Justice Walton said together, the boys tied Mr Keeley’s wrists and ankles, taped his mouth with packing tape and assaulted him.
“It may well be that he was on his hands and knees and some stage during the assault,” he said.
He said Mr Keeley was dragged to the place where his body was found and, given that his hands were tied behind his back so he could not do it himself, one of the boys tore the tape that had been across his mouth.
The second teen said he “rolled” Mr Keeley onto his side “so he wouldn’t choke on his tongue”. He could hear their victim “just sort of groaning”, although “he wasn’t saying anything”.
An autopsy report by forensic pathologist Dr Bernard I’Ons found Mr Keeley had multiple blunt force injuries and lacerations to his head, including a fractured nose, as well as a mild brain injury that would likely have resulted in a concussion. He also had dirt and sand in his nostrils and mouth.
Videos were played at the start of the trial, in which the first teen could be seen lying in bed when police entered his room on 13 February 2020 and told him he would be arrested for murder.
The teen broke down in tears when he was taken into a living room. He was hugged by a man and could be heard sobbing, “I’m so sorry, Dad”.
The second teen was arrested the same day and told police he thought Mr Keeley had been a paedophile, but under questioning, he admitted that was “just word of mouth”.
“[The first teen] just mentioned that he was going to meet him and he wanted to intimidate him, scare him because we were under the impression that he was a paedophile,” he said.
Justice Walton said the contested issue at trial was whether the Crown prosecution had proved Mr Keeley died from craniofacial trauma and airway obstruction, as well as if it was reasonable to exclude the possibility he died from methylamphetamine use.
During closing submissions of the trial, Crown Prosecutor Nerissa Keay argued Mr Keeley died with methylamphetamine in his system, not from methylamphetamine.
However, barrister Carolyn Davenport SC, appearing for the second teen, claimed Mr Keeley was a “regular ice user” and the findings of a toxicologist didn’t differ substantially from that of Professor Johan Duflou, a forensic pathologist with 40 years’ experience, that drugs could be a cause of death.
Justice Walton found the autopsy report was based on the “flawed premise” that the tape had been over Mr Keeley’s mouth when he died, while Professor Duflou said if Mr Keeley survived the period when he was gagged, he wouldn’t die simply because his mouth had been covered at some point.
Dr I’Ons and another expert argued that death from heavy doses of methylamphetamine itself was uncommon.
But Professor Duflou said there was enough of the drug in Mr Keeley’s system to cause death, the level of it was typical of those who died from overdoses, and in the absence of another definitive cause of death, it was reasonable to conclude that was what killed him.
Justice Walton said he preferred the professor’s opinions over those of Dr I’Ons because there was no convincing challenge to them.
The two teens will return to court for sentencing on their kidnapping charges at a later date.
The third teen alleged to be involved in the incident was not part of this trial.