The crime - strapping what proved to be a fake collar bomb to a terrified Sydney schoolgirl – was bizarre in the extreme, and so was the “explanation”.
Paul Peters, a former investment banker, claimed he was suffering psychiatric problems and had confused himself with a character in a novel he was writing.
The judge, Peter Zahra, was unimpressed, and said Peters must have known he was inflicting unimaginable terror” on 18-year-old Madeleine Pulver, who was studying at home alone when he broke into her house in August last year. Peters, whose lawyers had argued he was in the grip of a mental breakdown precipitated by the failures of his marriage and career, was jailed for a minimum of 10 years.
Ms Pulver, whose family lives in Mosman, one of Sydney’s wealthiest harbourside suburbs, had to wait 10 agonising hours before police established the device was a fake. Peters, who was wearing a multi-coloured balaclava and wielding a baseball bat when he broke in, left a note claiming it contained powerful plastic explosives and demanding an unspecified sum of money.
The entire operation was bungled, the court heard, with the 52-year-old originally intending to try to extort money from the beneficiary of a multi-million-dollar trust fund. Arriving in Mosman, he bumped into the Pulvers’ next-door neighbour, a businessman whom he had met in Hong Kong. That person became his new target - but on the day of the attack Peters broke into the wrong house.
One psychiatrist told the court that Peters appeared to be acting out the role of the chief protagonist - an “avenging villain” – in his own novel, set in Hong Kong. But Mr Zahra, sitting in the Sydney District Court, said he was “not prepared” to accept that version of events, noting: “He would have appreciated the enormity of what he was doing and the impact on the victim.”
The prosecution called it an act of “urban terrorism” fuelled by financial greed. The Crown Prosecutor, Margaret Cunneen, SC, said that Peters – who fled to the US immediately afterwards – was angry at losing his wealth and status, and had decided to “get it all back in one go”.
Outside court, Ms Pulver, now 19, expressed relief at knowing “he will not reoffend”. And in a eference to the headlines which the case generated around the world, she said: “I can now look forward to a future without Paul Peters’ name being linked to mine.”
Peters, who was based mainly in the US at the time, was tracked to his ex-wife’s home in Kentucky a month later with the help of the FBI, and extradited to Australia. In March this year, he pleaded guilty to aggravated breaking and entering and detaining Ms Pulver for advantage.
Defence lawyers said he was suffering from bipolar disorder and major depression after his marriage broke down and he lost custody of his three children. He was also drinking heavily. Wandering through Mosman, he sought to “relive scenes in [his] book”, and came to believe he was his own character John Chan.
When he attached the collar bomb to Ms Pulver, it was to exact “dual revenge: one for John and one for me”, he told doctors. After the petrified teenager alerted police, bomb squad experts worked into the night to remove the device – only then discovering that it was a hoax.
The judge noted that Peters’ expressions of remorse had been “qualified and guarded”. Ms Pulver said she and her family were still dealing with the trauma of the incident, “but we’re all making good progress”.