When Jack Newman (aka Rory Jack Thompson) was found in September 1999, hanged in his cell at Risdon Prison at the age of 57, it was the end of a remarkable and tragic life.
Remarkable, because Dr Rory Thompson was a very clever and successful scientist; tragic, because people who had never heard of him as a scientist knew him as the man who ‘murdered his wife and flushed her down the toilet.’
Everyone in Tasmania has an opinion about ‘Rory Jack’ -and many of the opinions are based on the media coverage of his trial and confinement. His own opinion, too, is worth considering. His book, Mad Scientist, tells his life story in his own words.
Rory’s early life was in San Diego, California. He was born in 1942 to an American father and a Canadian mother.
At school, he had a difficult time and gave his teachers a difficult time. He didn’t start to really achieve at school until Grade 11, when he was taught by a ‘real’ mathematician/scientist and was grouped with other very bright kids in the honours chemistry and maths classes.
His father had always been distant and his mother turned steadily into an alcoholic, and would eventually try to kill herself. When they split up, he was moved around from place to place-staying with family friends, with his mother, or with his father. Rory already had some trouble socialising due to his quick and often abrasive intelligence, and he now had a fractured home life.
But Grade 11 did a lot for him. He was winning academic prizes, he had friends of similar intellect, and he took up folk dancing and learned to be good at it. He met his first wife Luella through folk dancing, and they were married when he was 17.
Interestingly, even then he was considering emigrating to the Southern Hemisphere because it seemed a safer place in a nuclear war!
His science and maths prizes brought work and scholarship offers from the Navy Electronics Laboratory. He was to work for them while attending San Diego State College, where he graduated in three years, rather than the usual four, by more than doubling his workload in the final year.
He simultaneously left Luella and picked up his doctoral studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (He would eventually receive a PhD in Fluid Dynamics.) However, he showed an interesting mixture of sex drive and naivety in agreeing some three years after their divorce to have a child with Luella-a daughter, Nuala.
While he was assistant Professor at the University of Oregon, he was beaten up and received serious facial injuries. His anger at the police’s attitude and his continuing anger towards his assailant stayed with him, and, he believed, culminated in the death of his second wife, Maureen.
When he went to work at the world-famous Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts, Luella pursued him there, even persuading him to drive her car from Oregon to Massachusetts for her.
His ‘passivity’ (his own word) with women is at odds with his direct attitude to people in general. For example, during a seminar on the Isle of Man, he got so bored with the speaker that he opened a window and jumped 2½ metres to the ground. He never seemed to care much ‘what people thought’. He slept out under the stars whenever he felt like it; he danced with the Hare Krishna people in the street; he was a Morris dancer; he once told a litterer he was being ‘asocial’; he made his first daughter wear a helmet whenever there was any risk of her falling; and his conversational style was direct and sometimes confrontational. He seemed to have no empathy with other people.
Eventually he shook off enough of his passivity to run off to San Diego, where he met Maureen, then a teacher (and according to him, $6000 in debt) at a folk dance in 1974. He was to become her fourth ‘husband’.
Rory and Maureen were not legally married when they came to Australia, although they had exchanged vows. He had temporary work at Monash University and an offer of a tenured position at the University of New South Wales. They landed in Australia arguing already over which job he should take, and she prevailed on him to take an untenured job at the University of Western Australia, because she thought it would have a more pleasant climate. At this time they drew up a legal agreement, which stated among other things that if they ever separated he would have custody of any children they might have.
Around this time, too, Rory began to fantasise about murdering Luella and getting Nuala back from her, which he later claimed was the onset of insanity.
After his time at the University of Western Australia, Rory and Maureen went to Norwayso that he could teach at the University of Bergen. They were married in Bergen and their first child, Melody, was born in Norway in 1976.
They had a disastrous visit to the USA, in the course of which he tried to take Nuala away from a ‘fat grey woman he didn’t recognise’ (Luella). His comment: ‘Okay, I was unbalanced’. He also fell out with Maureen’s family and attempted to leave their house–‘.. .too bad I was not more assertive. If I had left, Maureen would still be alive; I would be working, Melody would have grown up where she lives now, but with her mother…’
Back in Australia, Rory landed a job he liked, with the CSIRO division of Oceanography. He and Maureen began to have serious fights while trying to buy their first house; he felt that she had no grasp of the idea of budgeting, and he was constantly irritated by her readiness to spend more than they could afford.
After a three-month stint as Professor at Florida State University (just so he could say he ‘had been a full Professor’), he returned to Australia and the CSIRO.
Their son Rafi was born in 1980, but their relationship was in a bad way. Rory felt that Maureen was behaving irrationally (and she felt the same about him). In 1982 he hit her during a row, and counselling followed. In their whole marriage, he said, he recalled hitting her twice.
A significant incident happened before they came to Tasmania. Over a period of time he killed five of the next-door neighbour’s noisy roosters, and got rid of the evidence by burying them… which caused him to fantasise about burying Maureen.
They arrived in Hobart in January 1983, and moved into rented quarters at 234 New Town Road. For the first time in their lives, they now had enough money in the bank to pay cash for a house, and Rory was looking forward to settling down. A Senior Research Scientist with the CSIRO’s Division of Oceanography, he was earning enough to pay 60% income tax. However, they still weren’t getting on -arguing about money, careers, caring, children, self-esteem and all the other things married couples argue about – and once again they drew up one of the notarised agreements that characterised Rory’s relationships with women. Under this agreement he paid her $105 a week for ‘babysitting’. (Effectively they were now living separate lives a lot of the time, while sometimes coming closer together.)
While he was away at a conference in Perth, Maureen moved out, taking the children to ‘a rather dark and small house’ she had rented in Hill Street, West Hobart. He believed she had planned this from the start – their furniture had never arrived at New Town Road, but did make it to Hill Street.
Rory now found that although her demands on his money had dropped, she had taken legal steps to make sure he could not spend the money he had in the bank. He felt under attack now. He was accused of domestic violence; Maureen’s lawyer had written to Melody’s school telling them not to let him visit her there; his visitation rights were under threat; there was an impending court battle for custody; and he often thought of’making Maureen vanish.’
One Saturday night, when the children were staying with him, he set off (jogging) from New Town Road intending to kill her and bury her, but when in sight of the house he turned around and ran home again to snuggle up with his son.
By now he was sleeping badly and taking a lot of sleeping tablets. He had always tended to read between the words of what people were saying, and this tendency now became more obvious. He felt that lots of people were against him – especially that Maureen was not keeping her signed word about custody, and had perjured herself in having the court order taken out against him. In addition, he and Maureen were simultaneously enduring a lot of stress – a change of job, a move to another state, separation, the death of his mother, a new relationship and the threat of a house move. (Now that there was no longer a ‘family’ living at New Town Road, the CSIRO wanted it for another family to use.)
When he bought half a sheep to see if he could flush its pieces down the toilet, the end was in sight. The final trigger, according to Rory, was a trivial argument after a trip to the pictures with the children. It seems more likely that the impending court case was what really caused him to act. He tried calling Lifeline, but believed that if he mentioned the temptation to murder, his call would be traced. While in Sydney to give a talk, he bought a hacksaw and various other tools to dispose of the body. Upon returning to Hobart, he then called Maureen and asked her to put off the court hearing, but she declined. On 10-11 September 1983, he had the children to stay at his house, and once they were in bed (and locked in) he set off for Maureen’s house, dressed in a wig and wraparound skirt to conceal his identity, and carrying a bag of tools and a stick. He waited in her garden until she had gone to sleep, then went in to kill her. She woke up; there was a brief struggle in the course of which each hit the other with the stick, and then he strangled her. He believed that she lost consciousness within five seconds of waking up.Then began his attempt to get rid of the body-to make her disappear. (He later felt that flushing her body parts down the toilet was symbolic and childish. Surely a person with a PhD in fluid dynamics should know that it wasn’t going to work.) Having spent all night at this ghastly task, he took the parts he couldn’t deal with into the bush above Pottery Road, Lenah Valley, and buried them.
After taking his children swimming the next day, he went to work on Monday and finished a paper-his 50th scientific publication. (He was to have two more published while still in prison.)
When a finger turned up at the sewage works, the police began to close in on him. Even at this stage they appeared to view him as unstable, saying in an interview things like ‘Perhaps the bad Rory did such-and-such…’
At first he tried to have the charges dismissed. This in itself would show that he was out of touch with reality, given that over 80 pieces of human tissue had been recovered from Hill Street alone.
He eventually confessed to manslaughter, and at his ensuing trial for murder he started off defending himself. (While he was in remand, Maureen’s sister Kathleen and her husband Terry arrived from the USA to take the children and to assure him of their forgiveness.)
At his trial, Rory was to find out for himself the truth of the adage ‘a man who defends himself has a fool for a client.’ As he had met and been impressed by Pierre Slicer (the duty lawyer at the time, and one whom he considered ‘not as slimy as the others’), he asked him to take over the defence.
The verdict of the jury was that he had committed the act as charged but was not guilty by reason of insanity. He was then ordered to be detained in a special institution-the hospital attached to Risdon Prison.
While he was in prison, he was very upset by the attitude of the media towards him. He believed that he was being portrayed as a habitually violent man, a torturer and a mass murderer-none of which he had been charged with. He didn’t deny what he had done, but he resented the additional baggage being loaded on him.In 1990, after he had been in prison for six years, the Mental Health Review Tribunal recommended his release on the grounds that he was no longer insane. Five months later, State Cabinet rejected this decision. Within a couple of months psychiatrist Dr Russell Pargiter resigned from this body, saying that his conscience would not allow him to remain a member of a legally constituted tribunal which had unwittingly become the vehicle of injustice. (The same week, according to Rory, another wife-killer was released as no longer insane. He had also been in prison for six years after stabbing his wife 50 times and trying to throw her body off a bridge.)
Several psychiatric appraisals early in Rory’s time in prison showed that although he had a significant personality disorder, he was not mentally ill.
Rory Thompson (or Jack Newman-he changed his name by deed poll in 1994) was recommended for release several times, but was always refused. He was very upset by this, and sought solace by planting a garden of flowers and vegetables at the prison. He was eventually allowed to work unsupervised on his garden outside the prison gates.
On 5 July 1999, in what he described as a ‘foolish escape attempt’, he walked away from the prison, made his way to Hobart airport and used his credit card to buy a plane ticket. He was arrested on the plane, returned to the prison and refused permission to work unsupervised on his garden.
Finally, after writing a will and transferring money to various members of his family, he hanged himself with a shoelace in his cell on 18 September 1999.
It seems fitting to end with a comment from the final pages of his book-‘I am glad to have been alive, though sorry Maureen is not.’