Bourke St rampage: How James Gargasoulas became a killer
Even as a young school student James Gargasoulas was thought of as a bit “crazy” and strange.
The man who rammed down pedestrians in Melbourne’s Bourke St, killing six people, had a long history of criminal behaviour dating back to his high school days.
Gargasoulas and his brother Angelo had a difficult childhood defined by violent punishments from their single father in the opal mining town of Coober Pedy.
In a profile of Gargasoulas aired on ABC’s Four Corners it was revealed that some thought Gargasoulas displayed sociopathic tendencies from an early age.
According to his brother, they had a difficult upbringing and Gargasoulas struggled at school. He was in special education classes and was picked on by other students.
At age 14 Gargasoulas smuggled explosives into his school to get back at those who had been picking on him. His behaviour spiralled out of control after he started smoking weed. By the time he was in his early 20s he was also using ice and possibly even dealing drugs in Coober Pedy.
Angelo also described Gargasoulas as capable of extreme violent, especially towards women.
“I’ve seen him drop a woman onto the floor, drag her by the hair, knock a woman unconscious, completely,” Angelo told Four Corners.
In the wake of the Bourke St rampage, Angelo, who was also stabbed by his brother in the hours leading up to the attack, questions why his brother was not locked up sooner.
“It could’ve saved so many lives. It could’ve saved so much drama,” he said.
Gargasoulas had numerous run-ins with the police in the year before the rampage on January 20, 2017.
Less than year before attack, Gargasoulas deliberately T-boned his car into his girlfriend’s vehicle because he thought she was cheating on him. The accident left her with spinal injuries and she spent 23 days in hospital.
By the time he moved to Melbourne in late 2016, Gargasoulas had a criminal record 20 pages long for offences including driving while disqualified, reckless conduct causing injury, assaulting police and escaping custody.
On October 31 he “flipped out” and repeatedly punched his girlfriend in the face while she was 19 weeks pregnant because he thought she was cheating.
Angelo tried to warn police about his brother after Gargasoulas kidnapped one of his friends and later hit Angelo with a gun and threw a tire iron into a taxi window.
Angelo told Four Corners he warned police: “You have to find this guy. He’s f**king ruthless. “This is not just a matter of my safety, or whoever he hates’ safety.
“It’s gonna be … random people.”
Police were also called to his mother’s apartment six days before the rampage after Gargasoulas threatened her with a knife.
In a fateful decision, even though Gargasoulas was arrested and charged with 23 offences he was granted bail.
His application for bail was heard after-hours and it was granted by a volunteer bail justice, a role that can be filled by someone who does not have any legal qualifications.
Victoria is the only state that uses volunteers to decide bail applications and the one who heard Gargasoulas’s application was a teacher.
Police did oppose bail but the bail justice allowed Gargasoulas to be freed. There are conflicting reports about how much information the police put forward about Gargasoulas’s past criminal behaviour.
Retired judge Paul Coghlan, who reviewed the bail system after Gargasoulas’s case, recommended an inquiry into the bail justice system but the Victorian Government has yet to do this.
Gargasoulas’s behaviour escalated again once he was released.
Police were called when he began to rant about terrorists from the pulpit at St Francis Catholic Church in central Melbourne. He ran off and because a name check did not come up with any outstanding warrants, they did not pursue him.
Four hours later, police were called to Gargasoulas’s mother’s unit block in Windsor, after he set fire to a Bible and smashed it in his mum’s boyfriend’s face and tried to gouge out his eyes. The attack came after the boyfriend refused to give Gargasoulas his car keys.
Gargasoulas managed to get the keys and sped off in the stolen maroon Commodore before police arrived. It was the car he would eventually use to kill six people.
Two days before the rampage Gargasoulas’s behaviour became even more erratic and he called triple-0 repeatedly.
In one call, broadcast by the ABC, he told the operator that there was a “worldwide emergency”.
“There’s a comet in the sky and that NASA should take a look at that because it’s gonna hit the Earth,” he said.
In another conversation he said: “They’re trying to kill me, so my brother can rule the world after his has f**king hit!”
At this point Gargasoulas had been using large quantities of ice and was in a drug-induced psychosis.
The night before the rampage, Gargasoulas showed up at his mother’s apartment with this new girlfriend. It was 1am and his brother Angelos was also at the unit.
“He started asking me questions about how much I knew about the comet that’s coming to hit Earth and how much I knew about the bunkers and where they are and why am I not telling him where they are and if I don’t tell him, we’re all going to die,” Angelos said.
Just after 2am the brothers left the unit and were walking to the gate when Gargasoulas pulled out a large kitchen knife and started stabbing Angelo.
“(He) picked me up by the scruff of the hair and just went at it like a pineapple,” Angelo said.
By 4.30am police were urgently asking for help from the Critical Incident Response Team — heavily-armed officers who respond to high-risk incidents involving dangerous or armed offenders — but a sergeant later told the Homicide Squad that the request was refused as it did not meet its criteria.
Gargasoulas continued to drive around South Melbourne with his girlfriend, who was begging him to stop. Police followed him at times but he kept evading them. Eventually, he did release his girlfriend but managed to lose the police cars tracking him.
Police had been ordered not to chase or intercept his care but to maintain covert observations from a safe distance.
By midday Detective Senior Constable Murray Gentner was sending Gargasoulas text messages, asking him to call him and to pull over.
But Gargasoulas made his way to Melbourne’s CBD and began doing burnouts in front of Federation Square.
With police following him, he started driving down Swanston St, accelerating and driving up on to the footpath.
As horrified shoppers watched, Gargasoulas drove into the pedestrian mall on Bourke St leaving a trail of destruction behind him.
He hit 33 people in 55 seconds, killing six. Among those dead included three-month-old baby boy Zachary Bryant and a 10-year-old girl Thalia Makin. He also murdered Jess Mudie, 22, Yosuke Kanno, 25, Bhavita Patel, 33, and Matthew Si, 33.
This year Gargasoulas, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, was sentenced to life in prison. He will be eligible for parole in 46 years.
In a statement released through their lawyers, Gargasoulas’s victims said the sentence was “not harsh enough”.
“There is no excuse for murder,” the group wrote. “If you are a danger to society you should never be allowed to roam freely. The sentence is not harsh enough.”
This year, a coronial inquest into the police handling of Gargasoulas before and during the deadly attack will begin on October 21.
The family and friends of those who were injured or killed are hoping it will provide answers.
“He wasn’t stopped and he was allowed to travel from the suburbs into the centre of our capital city without being stopped, and now we know the outcome of that,” then-victims of crime commissioner Greg Davies said.
“That’s certainly not the fault of any individual police officer who was involved in that operation on the day. It’s a culmination of bad policy … remoteness of decision making, and … we’ve now all got to live with that.”
Originally published as How James Gargasoulas became a killer