Rory’s Story

From  Philip & Mary Blake’s book “Secret Tasmania
ISBN 1 86436 735 0

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.’

12 Responses to Rory’s Story

  1. Alexis Dalley says:

    I lived in the same neighbourhood as Maureen and Rory in 1978 until they went to tasmania. He was crazy then and people steered clear of him. Maureen was a lovely friendly woman. I don’t see how Rory could have been her 4th husband??? (As this article says) because I think she would have been no older than 30 in ’78. He wasn’t nice to maureen- he use to make the little boy wear a bike helmet everywhere – he would dress the little girl in a pinafore type sun dress on a freezing Sydney winter’s day!!!! Go figure eh….
    His next door neighbour (lovely family) asked him about mowing his lawn too early and waking his kids – so Rory (every morning for so long) he would crank up the mower at the crack of dawn and mow up and down up and down up and down along the neighbour’s fence line – outside the neighbour’s kids bedrooms naturally……
    Dysfunctional man? – God yeah!

  2. samsarch says:

    I agree, she was very nice and I meet her on a few occassions.
    I was contracted with the CSIRO Bass Point, Cronulla for 12 months, my position was to work in the fisheries Lab measuring Fish etc, I moved to work with Rory in his Office which over looked Bonnie Vale and Bundeena. I’d arrive at work to see Rory rowing his little dinghy accross the entrance of the Port Hacking to the dock at the CSIRO, in nearly any weather.
    I was interested in working with him, comparing Water temprature readings of east coast Australia with grey scale satalite photos and entered those into a very advanced computer at the time for analysis, I didn’t experience an issues with Rory at the time other than being an intense academic person focused just on work but he did speak about his family often but couldn’t understand why people liked to go shopping or the general necessity for having anything,…

  3. brunsden says:

    I was working for Rory’s group at CSIRO (John Church was my supervisor at the time) in Hobart when this happened. I was the most junior member (I was a programmer for the group) and never worked at the Cronulla facility (which I heard was described as a cross between Shangri-La and the Marie Celeste). He was definitely very strange, though we always got along well. After the split up with Maureen (she was indeed very nice as I remember) he tried to get his love life going by going to a Lithuanian folk-dancing group. He would tell me about it as we waited for the bus after work. The day the cops arrested Rory, they arrested him in the office – marched him out in front of everyone. It was totally unnecessary and made everyone feel very, very strange indeed.

    • Richard Thompson says:

      My brother was an ardent folk dancer which he took up in Balboa Park in San Diego when he was 15 (he was pudgy before that). Yes he liked Lithuanian folk dancing and in particular English Morris dancing. He must have seen the Krishnas as dancers rather than devotees, per se. It was said of Scipio Africanus that he danced in the presence of his enemies — and was not afraid.

  4. This is now quite some time ago, and I think the Tasmanian justice system did not treat Rory right. (Maybe because the CSIRO would have had to reinstate his employment if he was declared sane and released from jail?) But he was an antisocial, dangerous person, who considered himself part of an elite class of people far above the ordinary man or woman, although I did not expect it to come to murder.

    I worked at the CSIRO in Cronulla and was the staff representative for the staff union at the time. Colleagues would come to see me and apologize for the anonymous postings around the place that said something like “How can you elect a communist radical as your staff representative?” – they all came from Rory. He held far right views and was convinced that laws only apply to the average person.

    For years he drove an unregistered car with a photocopy of a Victorian number plate. (The copy was hard to detect, as Victorian number plates can be black on white.)

    At the critical time Rory and I attended a meeting in Sydney. It struck me then that he sat and listened quietly to the speaker without saying a word – usually he would dominate the proceedings of any seminar, no speaker could speak for more than 5 minutes without being interrupted by him.
    When the news came the following day that Maureen was missing, my wife said without thinking twice: “He must have killed her!”
    I tried to argue that he would not have done such a thing, but it soon turned out that she was right.
    She knew him better than I, who had worked with him for years.

    Two years later one of my PhD students told me that he had received a letter from Rory advising him against being supervised by a radical leftie and finding another supervisor. He must have kept his hatred for lefties while in jail.

    • Richard Thompson says:

      Thank you for your comment about CSIRO employment rules. I believe he was declared insane for workers comp; alternatively, that he went insane because he was punched in the face by a troglodyte while hitch hiking near Corvallis, Oregon and presumably that he should seek comp from Oregon State University (I know about this sucker punch with a brass knuckle, because I met him at the airport and drove him straight to UCLA surgery). Our household read The Realist (a satirical magazine). He would look straight at me and say: “Dishonest motives are rife.” “One of my PhD students…” — does that mean you were on the academic faculty? Eleanor Roosevelt came to our house once. Dad was an AFSCME shop steward. I corresponded with Maureen.

  5. I came to know Rory/Jack through being secretary of an Amstrad PCW user group (the kind of word processor he then used) to which he sometimes wrote to order items like printer cartridges, As I came to know about his history I then joined the campaign lobbying the attorney general not to free him but rather to commute his indefinite sentence to some specific duration – but Tasmanian cabinets of all parties feared the backlash (especially from feminist groups) from any kind of mitigation, as recommended by their own review boards.
    I visited with him at Risdon in early 1999 when he proudly spoke of the prison garden he’d created. He was depressed by both the obdurate approach of the state government; and the greater media focus transferred to Martin Bryant, in the same wing. He was desperate for attention, which I think drove his silly attempt at escape later that year, and then his suicide. The coronial report on how Risdon prison guards responded to his hanging reflects no credit on that state or its prison supervision.

    • The girl at the bus stop says:

      I was the woman at the bus stop that talked to him and left to call prison authorities about his escape
      I remembered him to be a nervous man and he was talking to me about several issues . Keeping calm and claiming that I had left my purse at home – my 5yr old child and I quickly retreated home to make that call

    • Danny Johnson says:

      I know for a fact that he used to play several games of chess against several inmates (he played them simultaneously) and he never had a Chessboard…he had it all in his mind. Also, while in prison, he once ran around and around and around the prison oval…on a 32 degree day, pushing a lawn mower. True story!!!

  6. Christopher Hill says:

    I was a student at Oregon State University (the reference above incorrectly states the University of Oregon which is about 45 minutes south of Corvallis) around 1969-1970 when Rory came with his newly won PhD from MIT to teach Fluid Dynamics in our fledgling Atmospheric Science Department. He gave us a ton of homework the first day. The next class we each had to go to the black board and work on a problem of his choice. A student who had missed the first class but came to see if he wanted to audit the course was summarily ordered to the black board and solve a problem, which he could not do, sending Rory into a tirade. He often showed up to lecture in a tuxedo or alternately, jeans and tee shirt. He threw erasers and chalk at anyone who asked a “dumb” question and had little patience for those of average intellect. Once I went to his office to request tutoring on the derivation of some equations but all he wanted to do was go play tennis as it was a pleasant spring day. I think I did learn some meteorology from him. It was evident he was kind of strange, but hey it was the 60s. There were lots of “characters” on campus at the time.

  7. Andrew Meyers says:

    I went to high school with Rory in San Diego and had several classes with him. We were part of a trio that became finalists in the US National Merit Scholarship program. The notion that he somehow blossomed socially a bit in the 11th. grade is untrue. In retrospect I remember him as totally isolated in school. At the time it was totally uncool to show that you were smart and I and the other finalist (K) managed to create a “one of the boys” facade while Rory was not able to do so.

    Rory would do eccentric things such as playing his violin outside the classroom. In gym class he was uncoordinated and did not wear a supporter so that often his junk would be flopping in view. Consequently, in conformist 1958 America, and especially among the other kids, he was socially shunned. In any attempt at conversation he would often answer in non related way that may have had deeper substance if anyone had attempted to relate. However he was branded as weird and I am convinced that his high school years were miserable.

    With age it is one of my deeper regrets that I did make more of an effort to befriend him. However I was so busy in trying to fit in that there was little room for compassion.

    Rory was brilliant, far ahead of myself and K, the National Merit trio. However he was severely lacking in in what might be called social intelligence. When I try to see the world with what I imagine would be through his eyes, it would be a strange and irrational place. This might provide some context for the way his life turned out.

    It is only recently that I became aware of what happened to Rory. I have ordered his book and perhaps that may give me some more insight of him – however a half century too late.

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