John Maddison Tower, Sydney Australia.
As I walked away from the the John Maddison Towers court complex on Thursday afternoon, I tried to make sense of what I had just observed during the official New South Wales coronial inquest into the deaths arising from the Lindt Cafe siege.
It was the final day of live evidence from the actual hostages. Some had escaped earlier, others had endured the siege for most of the time, some were there to till the very dramatic end.
During recent days of evidence we have heard from Selina Win Pe, barrister Julie Taylor and Louisa Hope.During all three testimonies, one very clear message became apparent and that was the sheer bravery and courage of Lindt Cafe manger Tori Johnson, who according to the evidence thus far presented, was shot to death by siege gunman Man Haron Monis at close range. Through testimonies given this week, a picture was painted of Tori’s demeanor from start to end and it was nothing short of heroic. His actions throughout the siege appeared calm, professional and that he made sure everyone in that awful situation was cared for.
During Selina Win Pe’s evidence she described the final moments leading up to Tori Johnon’s death in dramatic terms. Win Pe said she heard Monis yell at Johnson saying “Get down, get down, get down on your knees” Win Pe then said she heard a “strong, deep Australian voice”. Asked by counsel was it possible she heard gasping and drawing for breath, Win Pe replied “They definitely were the words I heard. It was an absolutely fearful yet, “Help me God this is it. A very dire, sad frightening last cry for help”.
Another witness who gave compelling evidence was barrister Julie Tayor. Ms Taylor who was pregnant at the time of the siege and was fortunate enough to have escaped in the final moments, has shied away from the public spotlight. She did not appear on either major TV network Lindt Cafe Siege specials broadcast by Channel 7 and Channel 9’s 60 Minutes program where many hostages gave accounts of their experience.The only public appearance she had given prior to her inquest testimony was at siege victim Katrina Dawson’s memorial service at Sydney University in December of 2014.
During her evidence, Ms Taylor came across as a very competent barrister with a matter of fact personality.Her answers were clear, concise, unemotional and proficient. She described Tori Johnson’s efforts throughout the day of the siege and noticed Monis was extremely wary and displayed aggression towards him and threatened to shoot Johnson if he were lying about questions asked by Monis such as the cafe doors being locked. When asked by counsel how had Tori Johnson been handling the threats, Ms Taylor said ” Tori was very, very calm and he was able to placate Monis. I’m sure it must have been terrifying for him but he didn’t show it”.
When asked by counsel did she ever meet Tori prior to the siege, she said she had no recollection. It was at this point that Julie Taylor become emotional. Ms Taylor summed up Tori Johnson’s efforts during the siege by the following words “Tori was what I would describe as a model citizen.He showed amazing bravely and was very calm”. Ms Taylor then began to weep. Wiping the tears from her eyes with a tissue, Ms Taylor concluded her summation of Tori Johnson by saying “I believe he could have got himself out of the cafe safely. I admired that he didn’t do that. It must have taken an enormous strength of character not to have taken those opportunities”.
The final hostage witness who managed to survive the final harrowing, violent ending of the Lindt cafe siege, Louisa Hope, was also full of praise of Tori Johnson. Louisa and her 72 year old mother Robyn were in the Lindt cafe till the very end of the siege.
Ms Hope said, she had never met Johnson prior to the siege, but her first recollections of first seeing Johnson was when he was seated with Man Haron Monis at the beginning of the siege in the morning. When asked by counsel did she see Monis and Johnson talking she responded by saying “Yes, I noted them sitting together. They seemed to be an odd couple sitting together”.
Later in her evidence, counsel asked Ms Hope about Tori during the siege. Ms Hope said that Monis’s manner to Tori was aggressive, “He was trying to provoke him.Tori remained calm and answered questions directly. He said as least as possible”. Counsel asked did “Tori Jonson sit with you and your mother when the first lot of hostages escaped?”, to which Ms Hope replied, “Correct”.
Counsel then asked Ms Hope about Tori Johnson’s placement during the final mass escape of 6 hostages “At the time of that escape, I was at the same side of the bench with my chair flush against Martin Place direction, with my back towards Martin Place. Tori was seated in between my mum and me. I was going to follow the others (who had escaped via the Martin Place foyer door exit), but I looked back and noticed Tori and mum and they were not moving. Tori and mum were sitting on the bench and noticing that mum wasn’t moving. I couldn’t leave her”.
Ms Hope then said after the hostages had escaped she laid on the floor. Counsel asked “What made you decide to do so?”, Hope replied “I decided to lie on the ground, the sooner I got settled the less likely he’d (Monis) randomly shoot. I thought I didn’t want him to have the pleasure of randomly shooting me. Monis grabbed me by my dress and bra strap, He (Monis) asked “What are you doing there” Hope said it was a struggle for her to have gotten up “He’s pulling me up and he was directing to me to stand up. He was trying to position me on a chair and changed his mind and he tried to position mum on a chair”. We (myself and mum were very close to Monis). We were standing in a row shuffling and moving with Monis saying keep your eyes closed and you wont get hurt and he was shuffling around the space. As he moved us closer to the front door he called Tori, “You come over here,” indicating with his gun and said “You kneel down with your hands on your head”.
Ms Hope told the inquest that with Tori Johnson kneeling on the ground in front of Monis, Monis became frantic, and was scanning” He (Monis) was scanning back and forth with his with gun, moving left and right, scanning the cafe with his gun. His back pack was knocking me on the shoulder”.
Louisa Hope then described the final moments before Tori Johnson was shot by Man Haron Monis “He (Monis) went through this ritual. He started to breathe heavier kind of like he as psyching himself. He did that then he stopped doing that and he did the scanning and shuffling time was going and Tori was there and Monis was continuing to scan. He went through the process again of huffing and puffing and shaking his shoulders. You could almost say like an athlete in preparation for an event. That went on for a few seconds and then he shot Tori. I felt the gunshot as he (Monis) bounced back then hit me as his body (Monis) moved. Tori fell forward with his hands still at his head”.
Ms Hope said “Then there were minutes and Monis sort of like kind of shook himself down adjusted like physically, then he resumed his scanning. He did not say a thing. Counsel asked Ms Hope “did you understand what had just happened?” to which she replied, “Yes” She was asked by counsel “Did you hear anything from Tori?” to which Ms Hope replied “No I heard no words” The only words Hope heard soon afterwards from Monis was “Keep your eyes closed and you wont get hurt” Counsel asked Ms Hope..”When he had you did you keep your eyes closed, to which Ms Hope said “No”.
Counsel asked Ms Hope had Tori said anything from the time of moving to the bench (as directed by Monis) to kneeling to which she replied “I could hear Tori crying but I could hear no words”. Again counsel asked “Are you able to say whether Tori uttered words?” Ms Hope replied “I can say I did not hear any words from Tori if he had he uttered them, he had calmed himself”.
Ms Hope told the inquest she recalled hearing another shot but was unsure “I could have but my head is a bit spun,I think it’s because when I think about Tori it fills my heart and my head”.
When asked by counsel had she heard Tori say words to the effect “Help me God this is it” Ms Hope replied ” I had heard Tori, he was distressed, he stopped crying, he composed himself
I am quite confident, 100% confident that he didn’t say that”. Ms Hope also revealed that her mother, Robyn Hope who has been ill and unable to give evidence was keen to do so to speak on behalf of Tori Johnson’s efforts. Johnson was sitting holding hands with Robyn Hope late on the night of the siege. Louisa told the inquest that she had asked her mother what did Tori say to her after the final batch of hostages had escaped “My mother told me, “I said why didn’t you and Tori run out with me” I (Robyn Hope) said to Tori with her elbow “You go, You go and Tori said I’ll stay I’ll stay”. Lousia Hope was full of praise for Tori Johnson for “staying with my mother, and I’m grateful”.
The other incredible revelation to come out during Louisa Hope’s testimony was compelling CCTV footage shown to the inquest of where she is seen standing upright in the Lindt Cafe as NSW Police stormed the building. Ms Hope can be clearly seen as flash bang grenades and gunfire fill the LIndt cafe.
And that was the last of the hostage testimonies. There are no doubts this week’s component of the inquest has been harrowing, compelling and has provided a dramatic insight into a siege that gripped Sydney, Australia and the world. We have heard that at the very beginning of the siege Man Haron Monis stated “Australia was under attack by the Islamic State”. If this was the case how did Australians react to this attack?
We are asked many times by many observers and pundits what does it mean to be a “true Australian” is it that of a happy go lucky jolly swagman with an array of dangling corks on a hat to keep away the flies?, is it the bare faced courage of those young ANZACS who ran to certain deaths across the Nek at Gallipoli?. Is it the bravery of solo 16 year old yachtswoman Jessica Watson who was the youngest person to complete a solo southern hemisphere circumnavigation? Is it the way Cathy Freeman dealt with a nation’s pressure on her shoulders and completed a defining win in the women’s 400 meters final at the Sydney 2000 Olympic games? In the John Williamson song “True Blue”, Mr Williamson asks in his tune “Is it standin’ by your mate when he’s /she’s in a fight” or can the essence be sourced from the New Testament of John 15:13 “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”
All of the above characteristics you could well argue Tori Johnson had in spades..we were told he was heard crying then stopped and steeled himself before the madman Monis shot him at close range and then fell forward, his life stolen, his hopes, his ambitions, his dreams and the people that loved him lost him in a tragic instant..
With any death, it is us,the living who carry the memories of the departed.I’m hoping at some stage there is a trust or foundation set up named after Tori that encourages professional leadership and compassion.
Without belittling the efforts of the other hostages or police / authorities actions, it’s become patently clear that Tori Johnson was the real hero of this awful crisis. He was extraordinarily courteous, selfless and truly, truly an Australian we should all never forget and he epitomized what it means to be an Australian.
In a world gone utterly mad I pray we have more people of the likes of Tori Johnson in times of crisis and trouble.
The inquest which is being presided over by State Coroner Magistrate Michael Barnes and is assisted by Counsel Jeremy Gormly SC, Sophie Callan and Jason Downing will continue next week
For further information regarding the Lindt Cafe Siege inquest visit: Inquest into the deaths arising from the Lindt Café siege
Header photo credit of Julie Taylor picture: Ross Schultz