Suicide, And The Killing Is Over

Sydney Morning Herald

Wednesday March 31, 1993

By NICK PAPADOPOULOS and STUART WASHINGTON

A three-day manhunt which followed a trail of killing and kidnapping across two States ended yesterday when a heavily-armed gunman - the last of three fugitives - shot himself dead.

Police confirmed yesterday that Leonard Leabeater, 41, who defied besieging police in a remote farmhouse near Grafton for 26 hours, shot himself in the head some time yesterday morning.

When emergency response police burst into the Hanging Rock farmhouse at Cangai at 11.30 am, they found his body lying on a mattress in the kitchen.

Next to him lay cigarettes, a can of beer and a shotgun aimed at his head with a piece of string tied to the trigger.

The other gunman, Robert Steele, 22, had surrendered shortly after 6 am. Police said Steele walked calmly from the house with a cigarette in his hand.

Along with Raymond Bassett, 25, Steele and Leabeater allegedly murdered five people during a nine-day killing spree in NSW and Queensland. Bassett -who surrendered to police on Tuesday - and Steele, both appeared in separate courts yesterday, each charged with three counts of murder.

Yesterday, as detectives began preparing briefs for court and the coroner, a picture of Leabeater - who admitted in chilling media phone interviews during the siege that he had killed five people - began to emerge.

It appeared that in the end, he chose to die rather than face allegations of sexual assault in South Australia, his most recent home where he lived with Bassett and Steele from July last year.

According to those who knew him in the small South Australian town of Bute, Leabeater was a quiet man who kept "pretty much to himself."

The Bute District Council Clerk, Mr Greg O'Connor, said: "No-one knew about their backgrounds. We had no reason to ask ... He seemed like a reasonable sort of bloke - they all did."

However, in a telephone interview during the siege, Leabeater said he would rather die than go to jail on the sexual assault charge.

The Bute Hotel owner, Mr Philip Elliot, said: "They kept pretty much to themselves. We rarely ever saw them. They just worked around the house. They never caused any trouble. Then about a month ago the three men just left town."

Before Bute, Leabeater had been living with Bassett and Steele in a run-down boarding house in Mayfield, Newcastle.

All three were familiar with the Hunter region. Bassett had attended school at Muswellbrook; Steele went to Forster High School.

And, according to the Mayfield boarding house owner, Leabeater had appeared from time to time in Newcastle over the past four years.

The man, who preferred not to be named, said he knew Leabeater well. He had discussed with him his failed romances and two failed business ventures - one with a Muswellbrook petrol station, and another working as a local hotel manager.

According to Mr Bill Stevenson, the caretaker of another Mayfield boarding house where the trio lived for a time, they were well behaved and caused no trouble.

"When they left here, they were going up to Glen Innes," he said. "They were going to try to clear a farm."

Last October, Mr Stevenson received a letter from Leabeater in South Australia, saying that he was planning to return to Newcastle. But, Leabeater never arrived.

In the past year he made at least three trips to Dalby, Queensland, with Steel and Bassett, looking for work.

The Dalby caravan park manager, Mr Bob Daley, knew him well.

"They would stay two or three days then say they were heading north or south but nowhere in particular, Mr Daley said. "They never caused us any problems."

Leabeater's mother lives in a unit in Sydney but when contacted yesterday by the Herald, she declined to be interviewed.

Last Sunday, Leabeater, Steele and Bassett allegedly stabbed and shot 14-year-old Deborah Maree Gale before setting her body alight in a car trailer on a property south of Dalby.

They also allegedly abducted four children from the Dalby caravan park, later setting two free and taking two others - Trevor Lassere, 11 and his six-year-old sister Tonia - hostage.

The children were held for two days before being released unharmed on Tuesday.

Police have also alleged that on Monday the trio shot dead three men from Armidale - Gordon Currell, 50, Tony Percival, 51, and Robert Miller, 38 in the northern NSW mining town of Hillgrove. They were also wanted for questioning in Queensland in relation to the murder of 27-year-old helicopter pilot Mark Barlow. Mr Barlow's body was found lying by a road 70 kilometres east of Mt Isa on March 21.

Steele was refused bail when he appeared in Glen Innes local court yesterday where he was charged with the murders of Mr Percival, Mr Currell and Mr Miller.

He also was charged with maliciously discharging arms with intent to prevent arrest at Jackadgery on Tuesday, and with stealing a car belonging to Mr Currell.

Bassett, on the same murder charges, was refused bail when he appeared in Armidale local court.

The gunmen took refuge at the Hanging Rock homestead after their car was spotted by a caravan park owner who called in the police. The station owners were both out when the gunmen stormed their home.

Post mortem results on the victims are expected to be released today.

© 1993 Sydney Morning Herald

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