Sister’s murder inspires Phil Cleary to battle for justice 33 years on

Vicki Cleary in Broadford in 1986.

BY LAUREN DUFFY

Vicki Cleary was a young woman with her life ahead of her.

The kindergarten teacher had not long left a four-year relationship with a man by the name of Peter Keogh.

They had bought a house together in Broadford, close to where Vicki’s adoring parents had relocated to after raising their family in Coburg.

But Vicki knew in her heart of hearts that things were not right with Keogh or their relationship.

Aged 25, she made the brave decision to leave.

But on August 26, 1987, Vicki was murdered, just metres from the front gate of her workplace.

For her brother Phil Cleary, well-known in football circles and a former federal politician, it has sparked an ongoing crusade to raise awareness about violence against women, and the unjust treatment to female victims in the court system.

Keogh was acquitted of murder and found guilty of manslaughter on the grounds of provocation, which is when a person is considered to have committed a criminal act partly because of a preceding set of events that might cause a reasonable person to lose self-control.

The provocation law has now been abolished, thanks largely to a continued push by Phil and his family.

Following Vicki’s murder, the Cleary family’s experience of the court system was unjust to say the least.

Keogh was sentenced to eight years, with a minimum of six years. He was released after serving three years and 11 months.

Making matters worse, Keogh was not a saint – he was a man with a criminal history, including several assaults. He later took his own life in 2001.

“I looked at the courts and I said this is a misogynist narrative, this is a misogynist discussion, this is a misogynist treatment of women,” Phil said.

“These laws are rooted in the idea that women are property. What? Vicki couldn’t leave this man without triggering provocation as a defence.”

Having never experienced violence against women, Vicki’s death not only came as a shock to the Cleary family but it broke their hearts.

Vicki Cleary’s first day of school, standing with her brother Phil in Coburg.

Phil, who had studied at La Trobe University, was well-versed in women’s rights and feminism, but knew little about the evil side of misogyny.

In his working life as a secondary school teacher, he has worked alongside countless female teachers, and as he puts it ‘surrounded by women who were making their mark on the world’.

“In my world, women were a man’s equal,” he said.

“Vicki’s murder was heart-breaking, it was staggering – all I could feel was total disbelief.

“How could a man do this to a woman?”

Despite it being more than 33 years since Vicki’s murder, like many families who have lost a loved one to murder, the pain is still very real.

“Because I’ve been campaigning around Vicki’s life and death, that’s meant that I’ve re-visited her life again and again, with people who have known her, with my own memories and with my mum and dad and my siblings,” he said.

“You know – she could light up a room. She was diminutive, she was bursting with energy. Anywhere she was she was lively, gracious, engaging. She wasn’t one to take the mickey out of anyone, she was one to laugh and enjoy the moment.”

One of the last times Phil saw his sister was after his 200th game for Coburg Football Club in June 1987 – Vicki was murdered just months later on August 26, 1987.

“I remember her that night. I described her as spreading love like confetti at a wedding, that’s how I thought of her,” he said.

“The Thursday before she was murdered, I was going off to training at Coburg and I had my daughters with me … we’re walking through the carpark at Coburg and their mum was going to pick them up. We were walking across the carpark and I hear this voice, ‘Phillip, Phillip!’ and it was Vicki.

“She ran over to us, she put her hands on her hips and she started talking to my daughters Sarah and Beth. She said was on the tram on Sydney Road and she saw us crossing so she jumped off the tram.

“I just remember standing there, watching her with my daughters and thinking ‘aren’t we lucky, what a beautiful sister’.

“And of course, what was critical was that she was free of Keogh. She had left him three months earlier.”

Phil said he hadn’t liked Keogh since he first met him, and had only seen him three or four times in Vicki and his four-year relationship.

“He kept away from me. He knew that if he spent time with me, I would soon gauge that he had history and form. He was playing his cards,” he said.

Maternal bond

Vicki was Lorna and Ron Cleary’s first daughter after four boys.

“Her and mum were two peas in pod. They just loved each other’s company and just got on famously,” Phil said.

“When Vicki was born, it was so celebrated in the clan that Mum’s mother wrote this beautiful three-page letter. Mum’s mum Gladys sat down in Brunswick, minding me and the boys, and wrote this letter to mum. I’ve got the letter and it says, among other things, Gladys says ‘my heart is so full. I’ll have to wait until I see her (Vicki) and Lorna, I love you, you have been rewarded for your goodness’.”

After raising their children in Coburg, Lorna and Ron Cleary moved to Broadford where they lived for about 15 years.

Phil spoke about the pain that particularly his mum endured after Vicki’s death.

“Let’s face it, Mum was a changed woman after Vicki’s death. She went on but in the letters she wrote to Vicki posthumously she talked about how hard it was to go on, even having a great family, she said but I miss you Vicki,” he said.

“Nothing was going to bring Vicki back. But maybe if that court had treated her respectively, and treated Vicki’s rights respectively, it might have comforted Mum at least.”

The family found Mrs Cleary’s diaries following her death in 2011.

“The diaries are absolutely heartbreaking. They are not long letters, but every month, especially Vicki’s birthday and the day of her murder, mum wrote little notes to her daughter. And then we found a whole letter that she had written to Vicki. It’s heartbreaking,” he said.

Vicki and her sisters Lizzie and Donna and their mum Lorna Cleary.

Phil said he often talked to his siblings about what it must have been like for his parents to experience the murder of their child.

He reflected on his premierships with Coburg Football Club and how Vicki had inspired him in his life.

“As a brother, it was devastating and still is devastating, because I miss her. There are times when I think ‘God, how important she would be in my life’, what a shame she wasn’t with me in some of my big moments,” he said.

When Vicki was murdered, the Cleary family received a stream of condolence cards, which, along with all of Vicki’s life documents, Phil still has and treasures.

But it still eats away at Phil that his family never received an apology.

“No one in authority, no one in power, picked up a phone and said ‘Lorna Cleary, Ron Cleary, we’re really sorry about what happened to your daughter and we’re really sorry about what happened in a court room, we’re really sorry that he was found not guilty of murder and he went to jail for only three years, 11 months, we’re really sorry’,” Phil said.

“It’s still painful. Because all these years later, we’ve still not had an apology.”

“What happened to Vicki – she was terrorised in the street outside her place of work by an armed man who had waited for nearly an hour to assassinate her.

“When you line up the facts of what happened to Vicki in the street, what happened to her in a courtroom, it is staggeringly painful. You live with that.”

Sorry Day for women

“I’m of the view that historically we have failed women, and we continue to fail them – as in we don’t stop violent men after a separation,” Phil said.

“Overwhelming, the killing of women occurs in the context of separation – that’s what the facts say.

“We’ve got to acknowledge that we have failed so many women. Hannah Clarke in Brisbane should have been saved. No one can tell me that you couldn’t predict he was going to do her harm.

“Why didn’t we have a plan to protect Hannah Clarke?”

Phil spoke about the killing of Fiona Warzywoda outside her solicitor’s office in Sunshine in 2014.

“It’s no good people saying to me that Vicki’s murder was 33 years ago, well Fiona’s wasn’t and nor was Hannah Clarke. In both of those cases, there was plenty of evidence that the men in those women’s lives were dangerous and potential killers,” he said.

Phil said it was time for authorities and governments to say sorry for failing women in both life and death.

“Part of the sorry needs to be the promise to treat the protection of women seriously,” he said.

Phil described it as a ‘national scandal’ that so many men could continue to harass and kill women after separation, and an apology will send a message to all men that authorities treat the matters seriously.

“I’ve heard so many stories from women, and their stories have reinforced what I learnt from Vicki’s murder and the court case, and the court cases I’ve studied since then,” he said.

Vicki and Phil Cleary on a family holiday in 1967.

Phil has poured over a raft of research and court cases involving female victims of violence.

“They all read the same, all about victim-blaming,” he said.

“What’s really uplifting is that women everywhere are now resisting and are challenging the victim-blaming, and are challenging the failure of the state to protect women, and the way men use the courts.

“The silver lining here is that at least people now are talking about violence against women.

“Enough people accept that there is a dark history of violence against women in this country, and across the world. And that women have every right to point it out and demand strategies at government level to give them equality, not just in the workplace and in the family, but in the community.”

Phil said there needed to be a better examination of the killing of women to improve the understanding of what type of men perpetrate the violence.

He was critical there was no data to inform the public of how many women are murdered by men in the past 30 years, whereas the statistics on road fatalities were widely available.

“Let’s say to the government, start counting, give us the details, build a database, tell us what kind of men are killing women, and tell us how we failed – where did we get it wrong,” Phil said.

“During COVID, Dan Andrews was talking each day about the numbers and about wanting to get to zero. We need politicians to be saying we want the killing of women to go to zero.

“I want governments to start talking about accepting that they failed women by not protecting them after they separated.”

Phil said better resources, and more funding, were needed to better protect women.

“Have all the discussions about gender equality and women’s rights, but tell us what you are going to do to protect women when they separate from men, like Fiona Warzywoda, like Hannah Clarke, and tell us that you have learnt from the past,” he said.

“One part of the discussion that is missing is how we are going to put in serious safety plans.”

Phil called for the safety of women following relationship separation needed to be one of the highest priorities for the State Government in the anti-violence campaign.

“That would be sending a message to men – that we’re really serious about this, and you blokes that think when a woman leaves you that you can harass and stalk her, we’ve got news for you,” he said.

16 Days of Activism

Phil travels across Victoria, speaking at many events at sporting clubs, and he is a strong believer that if violence against women is going to be stopped, it needs to start in the heart of the community.

“It has to be an alliance of organisations and people – that means your sporting clubs, schools, councils, libraries – we want all organisations to declare their hand and commit to changing the culture that gives rise to violence against women, and dealing with those men in the community,” he said.

“Strong men, progressive men have got to keep an eye out and got to be prepared to tell men that are walking the wrong path that it’s not a path they should be on, and if they are on the path, they are not going to have any friends.”

Phil said younger people needed to see women in leadership roles in sporting clubs to imbue the community with better attitudes.

“Sporting clubs have to implement respectful relationships, and gender equality strategies,” he said.

“It’s going to be challenging. A local football club who doesn’t embrace women, doesn’t offer the opportunity for women to have leadership roles within their club, is not the modern club, it’s a club that is not going anywhere.”