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Every Parent’s Nightmare

May 2013

  • Julie Landvogt

You go out to dinner and have a few beers. As you walk home, you see a group of youths harassing a member of a minority group; they have been drinking. You intervene on instinct – after all, it is many against a few.Things go awry; the scuffle turns into something much more complicated, the sequence of events is not clear, and at the end one person is dead, the man at the centre of the original fracas has vanished, and you are under arrest.

The story of Jock Palfreeman begins in familiar territory; a bumpy adolescence in Sydney, a time of travel, a decision to settle and make a career that would let him continue living abroad – for Jock, that was with the British Army which actively recruits young people from Commonwealth countries. While he may not always have been easy to live with, Jock seems a young man of principled instincts; from his early years incidents demonstrate his impulse to side with the underdog, regardless of his own safety or wider consequences. At school he was the one to challenge in class about issues like capital punishment, in the playground when he perceived bullying, in public about the detention of asylum seekers. His parents sent him to elite private schools; at fifteen he joined a Socialist youth organization.

But this is not fiction, and it’s not finished; now 26, Jock  has been found guilty of unprovoked murder and is serving 20 years in a Bulgarian jail. Belinda Hawkins’ careful discussion of the legal and police processes, and her attempt to unravel the events of that night, make chilling reading.

Stop now. Think about Bulgaria, a country emerging from Soviet domination towards democracy. What does that suggest to you? Empty shops? Poorly tended footpaths? Baffling Cyrillic alphabet? KGB thugs?

Or do you think of summer cities on the young traveller’s EasyJet route, party weekends of cheap travel, accommodation and alcohol?

Perhaps your image of Bulgaria includes the cities of Serdica (now the capital, Sofia) and Philippopolis (now Plovdiv), key stops on the Via Diagonalis, one of the great roads traversing the Roman Empire. You may have seen the remains of ancient theatres or know that here have been found human remains dating back more than 40,000 years. This is a country that supplied wine to the Trojans.

Jock Palfreeman’s experience of Bulgaria spans all these elements, but he was no short-term visitor, passing through for a week; he came, he stayed, he lived in a village and had a job. He had local friends and was beginning to learn the language. He had an understanding of how things worked.

The strength of Hawkins’ telling of the events that began with that December night in 2007 is that she never falls into the trap of Bulgaria = Bad, Aussie lad = Good. Truth is rarely so simple. It seems clear that there are valid concerns about the conduct of proceedings – about missing evidence, evidence inadequately explored, seemingly selective witness examination and more. Key Bulgarian figures as well as Australian lawyers question both the fairness of the legal process and the findings. But a young man is dead, and Jock had a knife.

Why was Jock carrying a knife? It was a matter of chance, not habit; and Australian readers need to know that carrying a knife of this kind is not illegal in Bulgaria. Yet it was not his knife, and not his custom; he had been attacked before and knew the need to take care, but his preferred protection was pepper spray, also readily available and legal. On this night, however, there had been no opportunity to buy spray, even if he had anticipated trouble; Jock had returned to Bulgaria only briefly and at the last minute to spend the army Christmas break with friends. On this night, his preference had been to stay in; it had been a long day, it was cold, and home was comfortable. But it was his friend’s send-off, and he agreed to go to the city. A knife his friend had bought on a whim and used around the dilapidated house, lay next to his Army ID on the kitchen table; at the last moment he put it in his pocket along with the ID.

Hawkins is an award-winning journalist whose style suits an account needing thorough, disciplined investigation to provoke public discussion. She doesn’t take sides; her role is to examine the facts and piece together a chronology. The story is told slowly, reporting rather than lecturing; occasionally this feels almost like a thriller, where we are warned to pay particular attention because more will unfold about events or characters. But suddenly the voice shifts from narrative to analysis and we remember that this is far from holiday reading.

Hawkins’ interest was sparked by her connection, as a mother of children of similar age, with the parents on both sides of this tragedy. “I knew my children would go travelling as soon as they finished school, just as I had done,” she told me when I caught up with her in Melbourne. “Indeed when I was 19 I caused my parents no end of anguish as I disappeared hitch-hiking around the United Kingdom and France, at one point working for some  Gypsies who travelled from fair to fair selling confectionary.” Indeed while this is Jock’s story, it is also Everyman’s. An increasing number of young Australians head off on gap years in search of adventure and experience. Anyone of them could wind up in trouble, due to misfortune or a lack of judgment. It can be a short step from dream journey to traveller’s nightmare, parent’s nightmare.

If adult children are in trouble, what is our role? Is it incumbent on parents to believe from the outset that their child is innocent? Simon Palfreeman, Jock’s father, makes many trips to Sofia to support his son, and finds himself playing an active part in his son’s defence. The role does not come easily; he is a reserved and quiet man, with a pathologist’s forensic attention to detail. For a long time he assumes that the activation of legal processes equates to fair and complete examination of evidence, and that Jock’s sentence would reflect that; but he comes to understand that for his son to have even a chance that the available evidence will be fully considered, he must fight.

Hawkins writes carefully of both the tensions and the love as their relationship grows through immense strain from father and son to something much more equal – both able to bear differences, both able to understand strength and weakness. Their growing respect for one another as human beings, their understanding of their different perspectives, is moving. On the other side, Hristo Monov, the dead boy’s father, takes every opportunity on national media to seek a harsher sentence; he uses his reputation as a psychologist with a special interest in youth violence to condemn Jock as a wastrel, a deliberate murderer likely to kill again, and to tell the story of his high achieving son, his only child. His loss is palpable.

The number and range of people whose voices inform this narrative is astonishing. But not everyone wants to speak to journalists, and the book has gaps; we don’t hear much from Jock’s mother, or from the parents of Andrei Monov.

“Together with Bulgarian journalist Boryana Dzhambazova, I contacted most of the witnesses and experts who gave testimony to get their firsthand accounts of the incident and its aftermath,” explained Hawkins who hired Dzhambazova as an interpreter and research assistant. “I also secured interviews with the prosecutor, the police investigator and some of the judges. But Andrei Monov’s father flatly refused to talk to anyone who came, as he said, from a country that produced a ‘monster like Jock Palfreeman’. Near the end of my research, Andrei’s mother agreed to meet with me and the experience was an emotionally wrenching one for both of us. She agreed that I could write in her voice about the experience of losing a child. But in that meeting she was more concerned with lambasting the accused and the head of the Bulgarian human rights organization who believed his version of events, than with helping me understand her son.”

Such absences serve to remind us that many people hold part of this story, and no one holds it all. The Every Parent’s Nightmare Facebook page and website post updates on key individuals as well as on the political climate in Bulgaria; this tale is far from over.

This book should be read to draw attention to the plight of a young man incarcerated far away, for a crime of which he is perhaps innocent. But that is not the only reason. While Hawkins’ intention is to explore carefully the events and their consequences, in order better to understand what occurred that night and how the legal system came to its decision, her book raises wider questions. If you see a person being beaten by a large group, what is the right action to take? To what extent should one work within an existing legal system, if it appears to act in contravention of principles of fair process? How might such systems be most effectively challenged?

Inside jail, Jock Palfreeman continues to stand up for what he sees as right. Hawkins’ book challenges us to ask if we should be doing the same.

Postscript (Belinda Hawkins): Having lost all rights of appeal in Bulgaria, the Palfreemans now want Jock transferred to an Australian prison where he would serve his sentence closer to family and educational resources. Both Australia and Bulgaria are signatories to the International Transfer of Prisoners Scheme. It is now up to the Federal and NSW government to work with Bulgarian officials to make that happen. To date there have been long delays on all sides. 

In the meantime Jock has successfully sought court approval to establish the first Bulgarian union for convicted prisoners and his working with a human rights group to take cases of injustice to the European Court of Human Rights. It is likely that this work has placed Jock at greater risk of meeting with ‘misadventure’.

Every Parent’s Nightmare by Belinda Hawkins is published by Allen and Unwin, RRP $29.99

Dr Julie Landvogt is an Honorary Fellow in the Faculty of Education at the University of Melbourne, and an independent education consultant.


Images: Belinda Hawkins




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