Man’s death: ‘Had fear in his eyes’
FOR a while, as he slept in a dilapidated caravan, Jeffrey Brooks kept a shotgun by his bed.
Life had turned serious for this jokester, this "sky couldn't be bluer" optimist who'd lived to make others laugh.
But by 1996, Jeffrey was a different man. His friends noticed it in the way he spoke.
"He had fear in his eyes," one of Jeffrey's best mates, Paul Martin said.
He'd taken on a job at The Beenleigh Crayfish Farm - a venture started by three enthusiastic businessmen from New South Wales who'd dreamt of supplying the seafood buffets at hotels along the Gold Coast with Redclaw - a freshwater variety.
Business should have been good. Hotels were keen to buy. But crayfish were disappearing from the farm's 41 Olympic-sized ponds and the owners couldn't work out why.
So Jeffrey, an aquaculturist who'd done his thesis at the farm, was engaged on a six-month contract to complete a feasibility study. If he could find a way for the farm to make a profit, they'd keep him on. If not, they'd be shutting it down.
He'd met one of the owners, John Pick, at the property early on, with a plan to undertake some bird eradication.
The owners - and initially Jeffrey - thought the crayfish disappearing from the ponds were falling victim to hungry cormorants and other predatory birds.
The young scientist's new co-workers were a German couple - the manager and his wife - and a farmhand. And it soon became obvious that Jeffrey wasn't a welcome addition to the staff.
"I'm sure that they resented him and they certainly told us at various times that they weren't happy with him being there," another of the owners, Greg Milham, said.
"There was all sorts of things. I think at one stage they changed the locks, changed alarm systems. Didn't give him information that he needed to complete his work, just playing stupid little mind games with him."
Jeffrey had started off sleeping onsite in an old caravan. But as things became more hostile at work, Jeffrey asked to be put up somewhere else. The owners agreed. Their scientist was now at a point where he didn't even feel comfortable making phone calls in front of the others. He would ring headquarters in NSW only when his colleagues weren't around.
Jeffrey had been confiding in a few friends about his worries at work - one of them was an old uni mate, Mark Austin.
"The German gentleman … I know there was a fairly major issue with him," Mr Austin said.
"He did talk about the German guy causing him a lot of grief and not liking him very much."
In fact, Jeffrey had discovered the real problem behind the farm not making any money.
His colleagues had been taking the crayfish and selling it for cash. A private investigator would later discover the German couple made $6800 in one month selling stock on the side.
Paul Stewart, the company's sales manager, would recall visiting hotels to pitch their product - only to discover they were already buying it.
Neighbours said a sign on the gate, offering crayfish for sale for cash, was a regular feature at the property.
Jeffrey, who had been raised in a Christian household, with Christian values, told friends he'd confronted his colleagues about the cash sales and they'd threatened him.
His brother, David, was one of the people he'd confided in.
"He'd been threatened by these people," David said.
"He said, 'they told me if I didn't be careful they'd kill me'. He actually said that to me."
Mr Austin said in the weeks before his death, Jeffrey put a proposal to him for the two of them to take over the farm. Jeffrey said he'd been speaking to the owners about running the business himself. He wanted to bring Mr Austin in as a biologist.
He said Jeffrey had also spoken to him about a new shotgun he'd bought to use at the farm.
"It was a Remington pump action shotgun and we were talking about it there one day and I said that it was a good shotgun and used by the military and so on," Mr Austin said.
"And Jeff sort of commented back to me … that it may come in handy with the way things were at the farm - and he was referring to the conflict he'd been having with (the) German man."
It was Jeffrey's wife Nicky who called not long after to break the news of his death.
"I just couldn't believe that a guy who always treated firearms with such respect could have possibly shot himself," Mr Austin said.
"I often re-live that phone call. Nicky called me at probably one o'clock in the morning and told me about what had happened.
"She sort of said there'd been an accident and went on to talk about how Jeff had been found near the vehicle. I said, 'Is everything OK, is he going to be all right?' and she said, 'No, he's dead'.
"Just a terrible, terrible phone call, the sort of thing that you never want to get in the middle of the night."
Greg Milham got the call at headquarters on the afternoon of March 13, 1996. It was the farm manager.
"There has been an accident. Jeffrey is dead," the German man had said.
Mr Milham, in his statement to police, said he was too shocked to speak. He'd hung up the phone. He called police as he and sales manager Paul Stewart had driven towards the farm, after learning the young scientist was dead. He said to them: "Treat this as a homicide."
Mr Stewart had spoken to Jeffrey that afternoon. Little more than an hour before they'd got the call to say he was dead.
Jeffrey had been calling from the farm's shed. He told Mr Stewart he'd found a cash book - a record of the farm's cash sales. But less than a minute into the call, he'd said he had to go.
"Someone's coming," he'd said. Then: "Curiosity killed the cat."
That night, as Mr Milham gave a recorded interview, he tried to impress on police the tensions that had been building at the farm.
He recounted a meeting that had happened the evening before, when the farm manager and farm hand, upon learning they were to be made redundant, had asked for money for overtime they'd worked.
Mr Milham had refused and the men had stormed out, vowing never to return.
The farm manager had made threats too, things he would do should he ever lose his job. He felt the farm, which he'd helped set up, was his.
"That if he gets sacked, or has to leave the farm, he makes sure something happens to the farm so that nobody gets any stock or money out of it," Mr Milham told police.
"Now, (the manager) knows the farm backwards. He helped build it. Now it is very, very easy for him to sabotage the pump. Or put poison in the water and kill the crayfish, which is an extremely large concern for my partner and myself. I mean, we have had these standover tactics now, going on, you know, for a year or two years and my partner and I just aren't prepared to take it anymore."
Mr Milham told police he was so concerned that he'd called his wife and told her to leave, to go to Sydney.
Police investigated and concluded Jeffrey had been killed by an old gun - a gun he refused to touch - when it went off as he pulled it out of a farm car towards his body. Coroner Trevor Anders delivered an open finding, saying Jeffrey's death was either murder or an accident.
Jeffrey was a licensed gun owner and experienced hunter. His father Lawrie had taught the Brooks children to take great care with firearms, to treat them with respect.
Jeffrey had no respect for that gun. It was old, rusted, falling apart. Dangerous. A 1901 Harrington and Richardson. An antique that was held together with radiator clamps.
Jeffrey told John Pick, one of the owners, he was crazy, that he had no intention of using that old gun.
And it's a determination that made something the farm manager told them seem very chilling.
"Normally when I grab the gun, I watch the barrel very carefully," he told police.
"Because my father shot himself in the stomach, oh, decades ago. He was a hunter back in Germany and when he pulled the gun out of the back seat of the car he shot himself in the belly. But he could be saved. So I know from this incident that I have always kept the end of the gun away from me."
And even more chilling was this, from John Pick to police: "Jeffrey stated that he was afraid for his life. That he was scared of being shot while undertaking bird predation control and that they would try to make this look like an accident."
The farm manager, his wife and the farm hand have all denied any involvement in Jeffrey's death.
- Kate Kyriacou's podcast, Dead Wrong, is available for download for free on iTunes and other podcast platforms. Visit couriermail.com.au/deadwrong