Lonely, troubled man with a long history of violent behaviour

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The Independent Online

Robert Long had gone to the quiet backwater of Childers for the same reason as his victims: to earn money picking fruit and vegetables in the fertile fields surrounding the town.

But the lonely, troubled man with a history of violence and mental problems was a misfit at the Palace Backpacker Hostel. There he was surrounded by younger people, many of them well-educated and from affluent, middle-class backgrounds. Long drank with some of the travellers and joined in their barbecues but, according to evidence given at his trial, he loathed and resented them.

Despite having a bed in one of the dormitories, he preferred to sleep on the couch in the television room, where he started the fire in June 2000. Survivors and locals testified that he made threats, both general and specific, against the backpackers. He harboured a particular dislike for an Indian man, Vishal Tomar, whom he threatened to kill on two occasions.

Born in Sydney, he was adopted by Norma and Sid Long, a self-effacing couple who sat quietly in the public gallery, heads bowed, for much of the 19-day trial.

Long's first encounter with the police came while still a boy, when he was caught stealing women's underwear from clothes lines. He became involved in petty crime and drifted from place to place. As the years passed, the charges became more serious, and in 1991 he was found guilty of assault and malicious damage.

The following year, he was sentenced to six months in a maximum-security prison after assaulting his common-law wife, Christine Campbell, with whom he had a daughter, Kirra. The couple became estranged, and in 1993 he was jailed for four years for child abduction and assault after kidnapping Kirra and trying to strangle her.

After his release in 1997, he tracked Ms Campbell to Darwin and tried to set fire to her caravan while she and her three daughters slept inside.

In Childers, Long boasted to the backpackers about his criminal record and claimed to be on the run. Working alongside them in the fields, he swigged rum from a bottle.

Darren Cameron, from Brisbane, said: "During the first few weeks, I used to drink with him. I thought he was really friendly. After a while, you could tell he was mixed up with different personalities. He was a different person every night."

A small, bearded man, Long became a familiar figure in the town's pubs and befriended a barman in the Hotel Childers, opposite the hostel. It was there that he left one of two suicide notes that he penned in an apparent attempt to draw attention to himself. "I'm going to take my own life due to the fact that I've got cancer of the lungs," he wrote in one, using red ink.

Relations soon soured between Long and his fellow workers; he was abusive to them, and was overheard by one Englishman, Keith O'Brien, saying that he planned to burn the building down. One English couple said he warned them to leave their door and windows open.

He told Kerris Rex, a Childers man with whom he occasionally drank, that "if the locals didn't start bashing some of these backpackers to drive them out of town", he would oblige.

Long was the prime suspect from the moment that Queensland police began interviewing shaken survivors of the fire that gutted the two-storey wooden building. Although he had left the Palace a week earlier, he was seen in and around the hostel that night.

He fled the town and was arrested five days later in bushland a few miles south of Childers after being tracked by police with dogs. A struggle ensued during which police shot him in the arm after he lunged at one officer with a knife.

Believing himself fatally wounded, Long told police: "I'm dying anyway. I started that fire." One of the officers scrawled the confession on a 10-dollar note.

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