Never-before-seen documents show how the slaying of Dr Margaret Tobin changed SA forever.
Never-before-seen documents show how the slaying of Dr Margaret Tobin changed SA forever.

Secret docs reveal how brutal killing changed state forever

Government buildings in Adelaide's CBD were "pretty much an open door" until former head of mental health services Dr Margaret Tobin was gunned down at work by a deregistered psychiatrist out for revenge.

Cabinet documents recently obtained under FOI laws by The Advertiser show how the former Mike Rann government grappled with limited time and scarce resources to come up with a plan to completely overhaul the state's security measures in the immediate aftermath of the killing.

South Australia would never be the same after the assassination, as the state "woke up" to the fact the world around it had changed. Recently speaking to The Advertiser, former premier Rann remembered what public security was like in the early 2000s.

"In many places, people could just walk off the streets, get into a lift, and end up in someone's office even if there was no reason for them to be there," he said.

And, that's exactly what Jean Eric Gassy did on October 14, 2002.

Police at the scene of the murder of SA mental health director Dr Margaret Tobin at Hindmarsh Square, October 14, 2002.
Police at the scene of the murder of SA mental health director Dr Margaret Tobin at Hindmarsh Square, October 14, 2002.

As Dr Tobin stepped out of the elevator on level eight at the Citi-Centre building in Adelaide's Hindmarsh Square, she didn't know Gassy, armed with a pistol, was just metres behind.

He fired into her back four times, but enough life was still in her to cry the words: "I've been shot, I've been shot!"

She was rushed to the Royal Adelaide Hospital but died just 25 minutes later while Gassy escaped authorities and began the long drive back to his home in Sydney.

Dr Tobin was Gassy's supervisor at Sydney's St George Hospital in 1994 and he blamed her for his deregistration, which was cited as the motive for the callous execution-style murder at her workplace.

He was eventually arrested and sentenced to life in prison in 2004, and again in 2009 after a lengthy retrial.

The murder would change SA forever. Mr Rann called for a complete overhaul of security in government buildings across the state just one day after Dr Tobin died.

The effect was immediate, with chief executives asked to implement additional safety measures at government buildings, while police also conducted an instant assessment of security risks.

Former chief executive of the Department of Premier and Cabinet Warren McCann was picked to lead a wide-scale review of safety in more than 1000 government facilities across the state.

It took him just over a month to deliver his findings to the Premier, with the final recommendations approved by Mr Rann in April 2003.

 

Murderer Jean Eric Gassy at Sydney Airport under police escort being extradited to SA in November 2002.
Murderer Jean Eric Gassy at Sydney Airport under police escort being extradited to SA in November 2002.

Much of the review document has been redacted, as the finer details are still deemed too sensitive to release publicly, more than 15 years on.

But, the report reveals an in-depth analysis of all the sites was not possible due to the short time frame and limited resources.

An initial $2 million was allocated to implement new measures - but each government department had to come up with its own analysis and cost estimates.

"A consistent response from the Departments is that funding these costs is an issue that will need to be adequately addressed," the report reads.

Police operations were also reviewed, and in 2008 Protective Security Services officers were given extra powers to detain and search suspected offenders.

It was a direct response to the murder of Dr Tobin and the reason why one may see many police security officers carrying firearms today.

When contacted by The Advertiser, Mr McCann declined to comment for this story, but in the review document he wrote: "Life is inherently risky".

"Its uncertainty, variability and unpredictability is one of its most wonderful features. But, this also entails that it is impossible to eradicate all risk from life. Probably the only certainty is the fact of the lack of certainty".

In many ways, October 2002 was the month South Australians realised they were not immune from danger and random violence.

It is a month that is "seared" in Mr Rann's memory.

"Margaret's death woke South Australia up that the world had changed and that we had a duty of care to those serving in the community, our public servants," he said.

 

Former Premier Mike Rann (c) at scene of the murder on October 15, 2002.
Former Premier Mike Rann (c) at scene of the murder on October 15, 2002.

He said the SA Premier was the last in the country to have police protection at public events, despite threats of violence.

"We had been proud that we didn't need it in South Australia. We thought of ourselves as somehow different to other states, let alone overseas."

The shooting of Dr Tobin was a sucker punch to the state, coming just two days after the horrific Bali bombing massacre, which killed more than 200 people, including 88 Australians.

Among those killed were Sturt Football Club player Josh Deegan and trainer Bob Marshall. Nineteen players from the team were injured as they celebrated their recent SANFL premiership at the Sari Club.

Mr Rann first heard of the terrorist attack while hosting former prime minister Gough Whitlam in Adelaide.

As reports on the scores of dead bodies continued to worsen, Gassy was beginning his journey to SA to actualise his own murderous intentions.

Parliament sat on October 14, 2002, the Monday immediately following the bombings in Bali's popular Kuta district, with Mr Rann calling a condolence motion.

"When the speeches were concluded there was a brief break. During that break I was briefed that there had just been a shooting in the Human Services building in Hindmarsh Square," he told The Advertiser.

"There were reports of a shooter at large in the city. Government buildings were in lock down.

"Even Parliament was locked down for a while and the front doors on North Tce were closed. Police asked for me to be locked in my office."

While Dr Tobin's assassination and the Bali terror attack have no connection whatsoever, the two incidents will always be inherently linked.

Many victims returned to Adelaide to receive top-level treatment at the RAH Burns Unit - but Mr Rann knew the attack would have profound psychological impacts for survivors and the bereaved.

"So, we asked Margaret Tobin, the head of Mental Health, to lead the support efforts and put together counselling teams to offer assistance," Mr Rann said.

"She was a strong, dedicated woman determined to make a difference in mental health - she cared deeply about disadvantaged people."

Author and journalist Melissa Sweet documented Dr Tobin's actions in the wake of the Bali bombings in her book Inside Madness. "Once news of the Bali bombing broke, Margaret kept half an eye on her emails for the rest of the weekend," Ms Sweet writes.

On the day of her death, Dr Tobin was engrossed in her work, making initial preparations to help those distressed by the Bali tragedy.

Rushing back to work after lunch, she stormed through the foyer of the Citi-Centre building - where security was so relaxed that anyone could walk in and catch a lift.

Her co-workers remember her being in a buoyant mood that day, clearly relishing the challenge of a high-pressure situation. Ms Sweet, in her book, writes Dr Tobin was so immersed in conversation with another clinical psychologist that she didn't notice the two men who followed her into the lift. One, a bureaucrat co-worker, and the other, her deranged assassin.

The immediate security review ordered by Mr Rann laid the foundations for better safety practices that keep our government workers safe today.

In Mr Rann's words: "Some people complain about security in government offices being too tough. Welcome to the real world".