The Man Who Wasn’t There: investigating the disappearance of the boss of Barwon Prison
In 2010, one of Australia’s most notorious crime bosses, Carl Williams, was murdered at Victoria’s Barwon Prison. A little over a year later the prison’s general manager, David Prideaux, disappeared on a hunting trip. His body has never been found. In this piece, from the Incarceration Issue of VICE, Julian Morgans investigates the disappearances.
On a Saturday morning on June 4, 2011, 50-year-old David Prideaux left his wife and two kids at home in Melbourne’s west and headed up the Hume. It was an average, shitty Melbourne sort of day, but David was feeling good. He’d packed his Landcruiser with camping gear, some bottles of shiraz, and supplies for an antipasto to spend a weekend hunting with his brother-in-law.
Rob Dale is married to David’s eldest sister, Janine, and the two men regularly bonded over the outdoors. They drove from opposite sides of the state to meet in Mansfield, where Rob put his stuff in David’s Landcruiser, before they headed out with pies from the bakery.
By 1:30 PM they were in Mansfield State Park, a somewhat mutilated chunk of forest on the southern end of the Victorian Alps. The park is far enough from the city to feel wild, but close enough to fill up with weekend dirt bikers. Swaths of trees were clear-felled in 2002 so the regrowth is dense, scabby, and probably in need of a back-burn. The men made their way through to Tomahawk Hut, a small log cabin deep in the hills. There they joked about David’s fancy gear and ate dinner, before going to bed early. It was a very normal night.
They were up at six the next morning. David shifted all his stuff into the back of the Landcruiser, insisting dirt bikers would pinch anything left out. Rob, who worked in equipment distribution and didn’t manage a maximum-security prison, left his belongings in the hut. Then they left at 7:45 AM to scout for hunting spots.
About 100 metres from the hut the road hits a fork. To the right, a muddy track scales a hill and disappears over a saddle. To the left the road passes a gate and winds gently along an escarpment. To prevent any chance of accidentally shooting one another, Rob went over the saddle and David took the escarpment. They were wearing camouflage thermal gear, carrying rifles and backpacks – each pack stocked with energy bars, a thermos of coffee, ammunition, and a UHF radio. David also carried a GPS. The last thing Rob recalls David saying was how comfortable he was in his new thermals. ‘I’m warm as toast,’ he said. ‘I might even get hot.’
Those who knew him tell me David was a slick operator. When Carl Williams, Melbourne’s gangland ringleader, was beaten to death with the seat-stem of an exercise bike, David was one of the first on the scene despite being on secondment at the time. He initiated emergency procedures, cordoned off the crime scene, and ensured all staff were isolated for questioning. And although a guy named Nicholas Selisky had become general manager in his absence, David resumed control in the wake of the murder. As a colleague said of David at his memorial service a year later, ‘Every member of the group saw him be the one whom others turned to in difficult times.’
And this is exactly the reason two of David’s brothers, Paul and Stephen, believe that whatever happened next on the mountain, David didn’t get lost. ‘He was the most capable person I’ve known,’ Steve says over the phone. ‘The story doesn’t fit, and especially not with the Carl Williams stuff.’
The last thing Rob recalls David saying was how comfortable he was in his new thermals. ‘I’m warm as toast,’ he said. ‘I might even get hot.’
What is known is that after David and Rob parted at the fork, David was never seen again. Rob recalls scaling the hill, only for the wind to blow his scent down the gully and foil his hunt. So instead of wasting energy, he decided to sit and see if his smell would flush out any deer. This is why he was quiet enough to hear two dirt bikes heading towards the hut around mid-morning. Realising David would never shut up if they stole anything, Rob stayed quiet and listened. The bikes paused at the turn-off before the hut, and then buzzed away up the ridge. Rob says there was no other sound that afternoon.
At around 11:30 AM Rob was back at Tomahawk, relieved to see nothing was pinched. He ate lunch, considered going out again, and instead decided to cut firewood while he waited for his hunting partner to come back. That’s when he realised the chainsaw was in David’s 4WD, and David had the keys. Feeling a little apprehensive, Rob began collecting fallen wood. He figured David had cornered a deer and was closing in. ‘A good hunter can spend hours moving just a few yards,’ Rob would later say. It’s like chess, all strategy and slow moves. Blasting the UHF was a bad idea. So rather than ruin David’s hunt, Rob figured he’d light a fire and wait.
At 4:30pm Rob got out the radio and set it to ‘scan.’ They’d agreed to set their channels to eight, but there was only static. Another channel picked up some distant, incomprehensible chatter – likely some background noise from Mansfield. With the whole mountain silent, Rob headed up the road, calling for his friend. He checked his phone but there wasn’t a signal, and it was getting dark. When he finally couldn’t see he headed back to grab the torch and fresh batteries for the UHF.
When the clock hit 6 PM, Rob started to panic. He left the hut again and went back up the hill, calling and flashing his torch. Finally, about three kilometres up the track, he got a bar of reception on his phone and called David. No one picked up and the call went to message. Rob told the prompt he was ‘fucking worried’ and that he was giving David two minutes before he called triple zero. Neither the call or the warning would make any difference; David’s phone was eventually found locked in the Landcruiser.
By the time the Mansfield Police arrived at 9:45 PM the weather had soured. Bursts of wind hammered rain through the trees and snow was forecast down to 800 metres. When the single police unit wound its way up the Buckland Spur Track with lights flashing, it found Rob setting up torches around the hut. After asking why he hadn’t called earlier – ‘What would I say? He didn’t come back for lunch?’ – the police decided Rob should fire his rifle to attract attention.
This was the first in a series of procedural errors that would continually mar the investigation. Rob told the police that he hadn’t yet fired his gun that day and asked them to check it, so as to avoid any suspicion. Instead of checking, the officers said they believed him. So Rob went ahead, firing into the night. Meanwhile, down in Melbourne, David’s family were being notified of his disappearance. A full search would begin at first light.
Local search teams were on the mountain by 8:15 the next morning, followed by member of the Search and Rescue Squad from Melbourne. The Police Air Wing combed the trees from above, while volunteers from the State Emergency Service and Bush Search and Rescue Victoria pitched in from the surrounding areas. By mid-afternoon, Tomahawk Hut had become a command-centre, with maps, a stockpile of GPS trackers, and UHF radios. Volunteers set up tents and swags around the camp as the temperature dropped. By the middle of the week volunteers would be searching in knee-deep snow.
The search was called off five days later. Canine teams from both Corrections Victoria and Victoria Police had found nothing. Between hundreds of volunteers and professional rescue teams, the only shreds of possible evidence found were a new price tag for $59.95, seemingly from a camping store, and a boot mark the same size and make as David’s. Another search was launched later in June, then again in September, October, and November. Sporadic searches have continued in the years since, including one after a bushfire in 2013 that cleared the underbrush. Nothing conclusive has ever been found.
It’s now four years later. I’ve come to the story after an extensive investigation by the Mansfield Police, followed by a peer-review orchestrated by the homicide squad in Melbourne. Finally, in July 2014, a coronial inquest found ‘Mr Prideaux is deceased, with the cause of death unknown.’ It seems that if anything were to be learnt about David, it would have come out by now. But I’m captivated, which is why I travel to Tomahawk Hut on the fourth anniversary of David’s disappearance with Stephen and Paul Prideaux.
The Prideaux family once consisted of nine siblings. As the second youngest, Stephen is baby-faced, affable, and has the aura of a man who’s making a lot of money. Paul is the second oldest. He’s so tall you’d notice him in the street; a little bit nuts, he used to rob banks in the 1980s. They’re an odd pair but they’ve formed a sort of DIY media unit since David vanished, much to the chagrin of everyone else in the family. It seems the Prideauxs have always had their problems, but David’s disappearance cleaved them into two distinct groups. The Stephen/Paul faction believes their brother was murdered and wants the world to know. The rest thinks David had an accident and wants to be left alone.
There is one part of the narrative on which they all agree, and that’s David. As we slosh up the mountain in a pair of 4WDs, Stephen tells me over and over how David, or ‘Hubble,’ was the smartest guy he knew. ‘Nothing got past him. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a photo where he faced the camera. He was always watching the people next to him or behind. He was always observing.’
David was born into the family as the third child on October 7, 1960. At that time the family lived in an L-shaped weatherboard in Melbourne’s east. His father worked for Toyota and his mother did night shifts at various factories. Peter, David’s older brother, was a warden at Pentridge Prison’s H Division—the equivalent of today’s supermax. At the age of 25 David was working as a locksmith, and Peter got him a job maintaining Corrections locks.
Up on the mountain, as we sit around the fire, David drifts in and out of the conversation as though he’s alive and still their slightly annoying brother. Paul describes how he’d always light giant campfires – ‘didn’t matter how hot it was, he always had a bonfire.’ Both men describe him with words like shrewd, ambitious, single-minded, and vigilant. They laugh at how over-prepared he always was, and how he never took risks. And that naturally drifts back to how if he’d fallen or got lost, there wasn’t anyone more prepared.
Victoria Police, the State Coroner, Corrections Victoria, and the majority of the Prideaux Family believe there was nothing untoward about David’s disappearance. As Peter Prideaux told me in a somewhat terse conversation, ‘I know in my heart that David’s body is still up there on that mountain. He had a heart attack or something, so just let him rest there.’
This is, of course, the most reasonable explanation, and it’s also not without precedent. In 2010 two hikers in Banff, Canada, found the body of an American man who had been missing since 1989. He’d been covered by snow and ice for 21 years, which explained why he hadn’t been found. Then there was a similar case in 2014 when the body of a French mountain climber was found on the Mont Blanc massif. In this instance the man had been missing since 1982. People do disappear on mountains, just not so often in Victoria’s comparatively innocuous Alps.
When the Search and Rescue Squad arranged the initial search, a matrix was laid over a topographic map of the mountains, and searchers with GPS trackers ticked off every coordinate for a radius of nearly five kilometres. On top of that, a lattice of roads and 4WD tracks traverse the mountains, making it pretty hard to get lost. Every dirt biker and hunter I spoke to agreed that the area’s accessibility was one of its selling points. Then there was the fact that it was all scoured by canine teams. ‘He’s not there,’ said a member of the dog squad who didn’t want to be named. ‘If the scent was there, the dogs would have found it.’
And then finally there was the bushfire that swept through the area a few years back, revealing any holes or cliffs searchers might have missed. Unlike Banff, Mansfield State Park has no glacial ravines to hide bodies in, nor the high-altitude seclusion of the Graian Alps. It just doesn’t seem like the sort of place you could hide a body through a search, and especially not a four-year one.
A theory that’s put to me several times is that David’s hunting partner and brother-in-law, Rob Dale, accidentally shot him and dumped the body before raising the alarm. Rob could have grabbed the keys from David’s pocket, driven his body off the mountain, and returned to Tomahawk, all in a few hours. David’s 4WD was never analysed for blood. During the first day of the search, the Mansfield Police broke into the car to search for clues, and the vehicle was then used to ferry searchers up and down the mountain over the following week. This was another error in the investigation, and one that could have hypothetically been Rob’s saving grace. As Rob had never made a public comment, I figured I’d ask him about the theory myself.
I drive slowly, thinking of polite ways to accuse a man of murder.
Rob lives in the north of the state, about three hours further up the Hume. I drive slowly, thinking of polite ways to accuse a man of murder, and wondering if I’d even find the house. I’ve got a rough description but not a street name or number. It’s hard to think of him enjoying a nice Saturday on the farm, oblivious that I’m closing in to rub accusations in his face.
When I get to town I’m surprised how easy it is to get an address. I head for the house, which sits a few kilometres out, under a hill. Parking in the driveway, I wait; Rob appears half an hour later. He’s aged since he was in the newspapers, but in many ways he still looks like a big kid. He’s small and nuggety, with dark eyes, an open face, and large, comical gumboots. I explain the situation and try to look harmless. Rob paces around the driveway before reluctantly inviting me in.
‘I looked up to Hubble,’ Rob says in the kitchen. ‘He once told me I had more common sense than anyone else, and it was about the nicest thing anyone’s ever said.’ Rob describes how they met through Janine—David’s eldest sister and Rob’s wife—and how they became friends over a love of the outdoors. He describes their trips four-wheel driving, hunting, camping, exploring Australia’s interior, planning future trips, and how he could talk to David in a way he couldn’t with others. And he describes how David’s career took it out of him. ‘In the last few years he was always busy and I know he was fed up. A few months before the trip he said to me, ‘I just want to go hunting again.’ So we did.’
When I ask him if he had something to do with David’s death, he doesn’t hesitate to answer. It was like he was expecting the question, and glad we’d finally got to it. ‘No,’ he says curtly. ‘And the police asked me the exact same thing. I told them that if I’d shot Hubble I’d have been the first in Mansfield turning myself in.’ I ask him why I should believe him and he tells me it’s because he’s honest. ‘I took my wife from another man,’ he says. ‘And I told that man what had happened to his face. Just because you need to be honest.’
The peer review organised by Victoria Police confirmed that Rob Dale was an unlikely suspect. Phone records match the account Rob provided, and he didn’t call or receive calls from anyone else that day. Most compellingly, senior police members told me Rob never altered or complicated his story. In years of dealing with guys trying to lie their way out of trouble, they all agree Rob was telling the truth.
So if David didn’t get lost or have some kind of accident, and if Rob didn’t shoot him and dispose of the body before calling the police, what happened to him? One of the remaining theories is that David Prideaux fell afoul of the Carl Williams murder, and subsequently disappeared.
Williams, who was Melbourne’s infamous gangland kingpin of the 2000s, headed the country’s largest drugs cartel and defended it with semi-regular shootings. This secured him life in prison in 2007, at which point he became a police informant to lessen his sentence. And this is why, when he started snitching on associates of a fellow inmate, he was murdered.
On April 19, 2010, Johnson attacked Williams while he sat with his back turned at a table. After the killing, Johnson waited 27 minutes before telling prison staff, ‘Carl’s hit his head.’ The immediate question is how this could happen in a prison filled with closed circuit cameras, while Carl Williams was under informant protection. Stephen and Paul Prideaux believe Williams was allowed to be murdered, and David—whether complicit or innocent—became a potential leak worth containing.
The most compelling parts of this theory are an unlikely series of oversights leading up to the Williams murder. These were chronicled in the 2012 Ombudsman’s report, which found the trail went back as far as 2009, beginning with a single email. Rod Wise, who was then Corrections Victoria acting commissioner, sent Department of Justice secretary Penny Armytage an email warning of the potential threat Matthew Johnson posed to Williams. According to Rod Wise, everyone in the prison knew Carl Williams was informing for police, which would make him a target for the people he was incriminating. The email was dismissed, which is one of several reasons why Penny Armytage resigned her position two months after the release of the Ombudsman’s report.
The other major oversight was the ineffectiveness of the prison’s CCTV camera. There were 37 cameras in the section of prison where Williams was being held, monitored around the clock by prison staff. However, as the Ombudsman’s report later detailed, it was far from a perfect system. According to the report, one junior officer was responsible for watching three live monitors screening vision from 37 cameras around the unit, each on a four-second rotation. At the time of Williams’s murder, this officer was watching another prisoner being escorted to and from a phone call. It’s standard practice to observe staff when they’re with prisoners, and this is why no one noticed Williams lying in his own blood for nearly half an hour. The vision would have been on an unwatched screen for four seconds, before disappearing for the next 40. As the Ombudsman’s report noted, ‘It’s difficult if not impossible to monitor the first and second monitors and take in all the information they display.’ While this system sounds inadequate, it doesn’t seem deliberately so.
The final conspiratorial allegation is that David Prideaux came into possession of a CD-ROM containing statements made to police by Carl Williams. Getting this CD would have supposedly created a motive for underworld figures to kill David, as insinuated by early media coverage of his disappearance. But David’s wife, Joanne, rubbishes any notion the CD ever existed, as does every police member I spoke to.
Sure, Melbourne’s gangland thugs dealt in slayings, but their methods were crude and lazy. Cars and houses were sprayed with bullets, and no one ever tried to intersect an armed hunter three hours from the city.
But what kills the conspiracy theory for me is the Alps. For a murder site, they are far from convenient. Sure, Melbourne’s gangland thugs dealt in slayings, but their methods were crude and lazy. Cars and houses were sprayed with bullets, and no one ever tried to intersect an armed hunter three hours from the city. Also, the chances of missing David on the track, or getting lost or bogged, are so much greater in a state park. Mansfield police also recorded no scuffle marks on the track on June 5, and nor was there any blood. It seemed like David was neither murdered there nor taken away.
Which brings us to the final theory: David manufactured his own disappearance. This seemed to hold some water in 2012 when it was reported one of his former colleagues saw him in line for an ATM in Broome, WA. Unfortunately the bank was an outpost operation with no CCTV cameras, and Peter Prideaux insists a family member made the claim, simply to reignite interest in a cooling case.
Regardless, the coronial inquest dismissed ‘manufactured disappearance’ as fiction. As the report discussed, David hadn’t touched his bank account, Medicare card, his email account, or any casino or Tabcorp accounts, nor had his licence or passport been used at any airports. If David faked his own disappearance, he did it masterfully.
The bulk of the Prideaux family didn’t want this story to be written. I was told it’d only stir up trouble and lend fuel to conspiracy nuts. But Paul and Stephen say they’ll keep looking. It seems to give them purpose, but even they admit they’re doing it less and less. ‘I’ve started to hate this place,’ says Stephen, gesturing to the trees around the dying campfire. ‘I’ll never understand why they came to Tomahawk at all. If someone had drawn up an old map of this place, over the area David disappeared, they’d have written, “here be dragons.”’