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How verbal abuse of Tara Costigan escalated to murder

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Tara Costigan did everything by the book. But within a day of filing for a domestic violence order against her ex-partner, she was dead.

Tara Costigan holding her baby daughter.

The security beeps echoed through the foyer of the ACT Magistrates Court as Tara Costigan entered with her seven-day-old baby.

It was February 2015 and she was there to apply for a domestic violence order (DVO) against her ex-partner Marcus Rappel. Ms Costigan wanted to protect herself and her family.

Family and domestic violence support services:

You can hear their newborn cooing in the audio recording of the hearing.

"I'm constantly getting abusive messages and there's been a lot of verbal abuse throughout our relationship and I'm fearful that he could come to my house at any time and be abusive," Ms Costigan told the court.

She said the violence wasn't physical, it was verbal and emotional — Rappel didn't hit her, but he did threaten her.

The next day Rappel forced his way into Ms Costigan's house and murdered her with an axe in front of her two sons, aged nine and 11, while she was cradling their newborn.

Ms Costigan had done everything right. She'd followed advice and taken all the steps the system designed to protect her had laid out.

But she still died at the hands of her abusive partner. What went wrong?

A court recording of Tara Costigan making a DVO application in February 2015.

The aftermath

Tara's death shocked and angered the Canberra community. She had deep connections through her work as a carer, her children's school and social media mothers' groups.

Some 4,000 people marched against domestic violence in a "Walk for Tara" after her murder.

Deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek told Parliament Ms Costigan was a woman "our community, our legal system, our governments have failed".

A man shows off two fish he caught.

Crown prosecutor Shane Drumgold described Tara's approach to managing the abusive relationship as a "text book".

She warned Rappel the DVO was coming while remaining "compassionate" and making it clear he could see his daughter.

But she still died.

"If the combined resources of our community couldn't keep her safe, that's worthy of us looking at this situation," Mr Drumgold said.

"That's worthy of us looking at the resources that might be available to somebody who might not be as rational and logical as Tara, or who might not be as intelligent as Tara."

So if Ms Costigan did everything right, how did she still fall victim to such an untimely death?

The relationship

According to the couples' families, in the beginning Rappel was a loving and attentive boyfriend to Ms Costigan.

She was devoted to him but the relationship was also marred by problems.

Tara Costigan's aunt, Maria Costigan, at her home in Canberra.

Ms Costigan's aunt Maria said Rappel's anger would manifest in night-time rages directed at Ms Costigan, revealing his insanely jealous and paranoid bent.

Her sister Rikki saw the escalation of Rappel's behaviour first hand when she moved in with Ms Costigan a few weeks before her death.

"One fight he was cracking his knuckles and he said along the lines of 'if you don't stop talking that'll be the last thing you do'," Rikki told ABC's 7.30 after the murder.

Rappel's rage was fuelled by drugs. He became hooked on steroids after taking them for back pain. Later he also used ice.

Ms Costigan tried desperately to get help for Rappel, enlisting his sisters and mother who were also deeply concerned. But nothing worked.

The week he killed her, Rappel had been using again.

The advice

The signs were all there. A midwife and social worker at the hospital where Ms Costigan gave birth both noticed Rappel's treatment of her.

Ms Costigan sent Rappel a text message confirming the advice the counsellor gave her. It was read out in court.

A photo of Tara Costigan and her sister Rikki on their aunt, Maria Costigan's fridge.

"Yes, I said I would put a DVO on you as well if you came near me. It is what I have been advised to do by a social worker at the hospital because you scare the hell out of me," the text read.

The question is, was there any kind of risk assessment carried out on how Rappel might react to a DVO?

There were indications that Rappel would respond badly.

Rappel had made no secret of how upset he'd been when a previous girlfriend had taken out an order against him. Ms Costigan knew a DVO would open old wounds.

The police

Ms Costigan was reluctant to apply for a DVO. But a text Rappel sent to her grandmother tipped the balance.

"Jingle Bells, Nanna smells, Marcus flew away. Forgot to stick his cock in a sock and now one's on the way, you conniving old bat."

The pair had already split up. Rappel was back together with his old girlfriend and she was pregnant again. The text message was referring to the pregnancy.

Tara Costigan's aunt, Maria Costigan, at her home in Canberra

In the end, Ms Costigan went to her local police station for advice on how to deal with the aggressive texts and verbal abuse.

Maria Costigan said the police officer advised her niece she had enough grounds for the DVO to be granted, and that she needed to do it for her own safety and the safety of her children.

"It was something she desperately didn't want to do … she just didn't want to hurt him. He'd had a DVO on him before, she didn't want to upset him," Maria said.

But it was the conversation with the police officer which sealed her decision to apply for the DVO. Maria said the police officer asked Ms Costigan how she thought Rappel would respond.

"And she really wasn't 100 per cent sure how he would react. She didn't believe he would react physically," Maria said.

The expert

A perpetrator's rapid escalation — from non-physical coercive and controlling behaviour to murder — is actually a common pattern in family violence, according to Mirjana Wilson from Canberra's Domestic Violence Crisis Service.

In fact, a review in 2016 of family violence deaths in the ACT found many of the people killed had not experienced any physical abuse in the lead-up to their deaths.

But spotting the pattern is something domestic violence specialists are trained to do.

Domestic violence crisis support worker Mirjana Wilson at her office in Canberra

That same review also found that most victims had contact with some sort of health professional in the lead-up to their deaths, but not specialist domestic violence services.

Another report that year, the Glanfield Inquiry, highlighted feedback from health staff that workers had little idea of how to respond to possible family violence situations.

It also noted "many frontline workers were reluctant to ask questions or raise matters that may lead to a disclosure".

Had Ms Costigan made contact with the specialist sector, Ms Wilson said, they would have done a risk assessment.

"I do really strongly believe in that you cannot suggest to someone that they take action against a person who is their abuser without having that next conversation, which is 'what's it going to be like when you tell him'.

Marcus Rappel and Tara Costigan

"I think that we probably, if we had that conversation, would have suggested that if she was able to identify that there was some clear safety concerns around how he might react — she may not even know that — we would have offered for her to be somewhere else in that intervening time."

But her aunt doubts Ms Costigan would have taken that advice.

"I'm not sure whether she would have actually chosen to do that because I don't believe that she thought she was in the danger she was in. I don't think any of us ever thought that it would ever have come to that, never," Maria said.

It's impossible to say what would have happened. But in the hands of a specialist domestic violence counsellor, Ms Costigan may have understood the danger she was in more clearly.

The changes

In June 2016, the ACT Government set aside $770,000 to train frontline workers across community and emergency services, health and education.

But none of that money has been spent yet.

ACT Minister for the Prevention of Domestic Violence Yvette Berry.

The ACT Minister responsible said it's been difficult to work out what training is actually needed.

For example, ACT Health has confirmed social workers at the Canberra Hospital are trained to deal with family violence situations but they are set to get more training under the new strategy.

"What we want to make sure is that it's not a one-off training," Yvette Berry, the ACT's first Minister for the Prevention of Domestic and Family Violence, said.

But there have been many other policy changes in the ACT since Ms Costigan's death. The law was changed to broaden the definition of family violence to cover emotional, psychological and economic abuse.

Nationally, a domestic violence order scheme allows for DVOs to apply across state and territory borders.

The ACT Government is also moving to bolster early intervention, including a live-in program for men who use violence and want to change their behaviour.

The outcome

These changes are all too late for Ms Costigan. But would anything have been enough to keep her safe?

Maybe not, according to Mirjana Wilson.

"Because the bit that is really difficult here is that no victim can control some other person's behaviour ultimately," she said.

Prosecutor Shane Drumgold who worked on the Rappel case agrees.

"Marcus Rappel could have stopped Marcus Rappel, there is certainly nothing that Tara Costigan could have done to stop Marcus Rappel," he said.

But Ms Costigan's death has been such a catalyst for change. Those working in the sector are determined a new approach will make a difference to victim's lives.

Her two sons and now three-year-old daughter are by all accounts doing well.

Rappel pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 32 years and two months' jail for killing Ms Costigan, injuring her sister Rikki and assaulting Rikki's partner.

He will be eligible for parole from 2041.

Credits

  • Reporters: Susan McDonald andElizabeth Byrne
  • Executive producer: Alice Brennan
  • Producers: Brendan King and Jess O'Callaghan
  • Digital producers: Laura Brierley Newton,Tom Joyner and Elise Pianegonda

Original Article

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