Family's fight set to earn 'killer' pardon 60 years on

One of Australia's worst miscarriages of justice – the conviction of an itinerant sheep shearer for the murder of a man whose body was not found until 70 years later – is about to be righted, thanks to a campaign by his family.

Fred McDermott, a heavy drinker with a record of minor crimes, was found guilty of killing William Lavers, an English-born storekeeper who disappeared just after dawn on 5 September 1936. McDermott was arrested a decade later and convicted in 1947 on flimsy evidence. He spent five years in prison before being released after a royal commission discredited the prosecution evidence.

But he was never formally exonerated and died a broken man in 1977, according to his second cousin, Betty Sheelah. It was not until Lavers's remains were found on an isolated farm in 2004, and an inquest was held two years later, that the family saw any hope of securing justice.

Last week the state Attorney-General, John Hatzistergos, referred the case to the Court of Appeal, which will examine transcripts of the 1947 trial, the 1952 royal commission and the inquest, then decide whether to quash McDermott's conviction. Mrs Sheelah, 72, who lobbied the government to reopen the case, wants the record set straight. "It needs to be put into the history books that he was innocent," she said.

Lavers, a 46-year-old who had four children, vanished early one Sunday morning. His wife, Mary, found blood and hair on a petrol pump outside their roadside store, near Grenfell, in western New South Wales. McDermott was charged in 1946 after a witness claimed to have seen him in a car which police believed was used by the killer to flee the scene.

McDermott had allegedly boasted to his girlfriend, Florrie Hampton, of killing Lavers, cutting up his body and burying it in some sheepyards in the vicinity. The 37-year-old was found guilty and condemned to death, a sentence later commuted to life in prison.

Mrs Sheelah, who lives in northern New South Wales, said he never recovered after his release. "He was ill when he came out of jail, and because he was still considered to be a murderer, he couldn't find work," she said. "He ended up more or less a derelict, and he died in an old men's home of leukaemia. It totally ruined his life."

The real killer was never found. But nearly 30 years after McDermott's death came a dramatic development. Ted Markham, a farmer, was working on his property, a couple of miles from the site of Lavers's store, when he came across a skull lying under a tree. The farmer later found other bones nearby and DNA tests established that the remains were those of Lavers.

The discovery demonstrated that the sheepyards story was nonsense. (McDermott told police he invented it because his girlfriend was baiting him about Lavers's disappearance.) At the inquest the coroner ruled that the shearer was the victim of a "gross miscarriage of justice".

The Court of Appeal is expected to re-examine the documents next year and Tom Molomby, a Sydney barrister who wrote a book about the case in 2004, believes the chances of the conviction being quashed are "overwhelming". He said: "The evidence against McDermott has been completely destroyed."

McDermott was the cousin of Mrs Sheelah's father. "Freddie worked hard in the [shearing] sheds all week, then drank hard at the weekends," she said. "He was very close to my father, and I can imagine the two old fellows sitting up there on a cloud, saying: 'Good on you, Betty, you get stuck into them.'"

She said the family never doubted his innocence: "He was a gentle man. My mother used to always say: 'Freddie McDermott couldn't kill anyone because if there was a log of wood in the fire with ants on it, he would take the log out so the ants wouldn't burn.

"The whole thing was trumped up, and I'm determined to clear his name. The Australian justice system has to put it right."

News
Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmReview: A week late, Secret Cinema arrives as interactive screening goes Back to the Future
Travel
travel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
artCultural relations between Sydney and Melbourne soured by row over milk crate art instillation
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago
filmBlue Is The Warmest Colour, Bojack Horseman and Hobbit on the way
Arts and Entertainment
Preparations begin for Edinburgh Festival 2014
Edinburgh festivalAll the best shows to see at Edinburgh this year
News
Two giraffes pictured on Garsfontein Road, Centurion, South Africa.
i100
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleBenidorm, actor was just 68
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
News
people
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features playground gun massacre
News
i100
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Consultant - Bristol - Computer Futures - £18-25k

£18000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Computer Futures are currently...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Real Staffing - Leeds - £18k+

£18000 - £27000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Sales - Trainee Recruitment Co...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Manchester - Progressive Rec.

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Progressive Recruitment are cu...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Huxley Associates

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Huxley Associates are currentl...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices