Schooled by class Klansman


Questions remain about a teacher's influence on a young murderer

ANTHONY Rowlingson was 16 years and 10 months old when he got into his father's gun safe. It was a chilly winter's day at Pittsworth, two hours' drive west of Brisbane, and the simmering tension between the young man and his older brother, Robert, had reached a shocking denouement.
Anthony walked outside with the rifle. His 19-year-old sibling never saw him coming: perhaps mercifully, Robert was looking the other way when Anthony fired a .243 calibre bullet into the back of his brother's head. A second shot rang out after Robert slumped to the ground, killing him.
The story of what brought the brothers to this deadly juncture can only be told now, nearly three years after Anthony was jailed for life for murder, with the sentencing yesterday of the man whose hand had reached into events leading up to and immediately following the shooting.
Graeme Frederick McNeil, a former teacher at Rowlingson's high school in Pittsworth, was sentenced to eight years' jail and will spend a minimum of three years' behind bars after being convicted of being an accessory to murder.
The slim and bearded maths and physics instructor was the person Rowlingson turned to after killing Robert on July 15, 2007. Having used a forklift to load the body into the back of a car at the family farm, he got on to McNeil, who agreed to help him dispose of it. Together, they threw Robert's remains off a bridge into a floodway just a few kilometres from Pittsworth.
McNeil was more than someone Rowlingson regarded as a friend and mentor: according to submissions by Rowlingson's lawyers, the veteran teacher admitted to police he was also a ``chaplain'' of the Ku Klux Klan, making him an ``imperial officer'' of the white supremacist group
The prosecution made no mention of this at McNeil's sentencing yesterday in Toowoomba, saying only that he was a reverend in a body known as the ``Cross of Christ Assembly''. No such organisation is publicly listed in the Pittsworth area.
The question of how much sway McNeil may have held over Rowlingson came up at the young man's own sentencing and subsequent appeal proceedings, but was given little weight by the judges concerned.
Rowlingson pleaded guilty to murder and, at his sentencing in September 2008, the crown argued that his cold-blooded actions were in the worst category of the crime and sought life imprisonment. Justice Margaret White threw the book at him, branding the killing as cowardly and unprovoked.
Rejecting his application to reduce the life sentence, the Queensland Court of Appeal later found there was no suggestion Rowlingson had ``acted under the malign influence of others''.
He was certainly a deeply troubled young man, who had been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and oppositional defiance disorder as a boy. His relationship with his big brother was found by the court to have ``been marked by conflict''.
Their family life, however, on a cattle and grain farm outside of sleepy Pittsworth, was described as loving.
Evidently, Rowlingson's fixation with what he termed as the KKK became an increasingly bitter issue between the brothers. Scott Harden, a psychiatrist who interviewed Rowlingson for a pre-sentencing report for Justice White, said Rowlingson had confided that Robert had ``wronged him'' by intimating to others that he had had contact with someone ``who was allegedly in the Ku Klux Klan''.
Rowlingson's father, John, can now see how the seeds of tragedy lay in a Sunday night dinner at the homestead. Robert, Anthony and their young sister were at the table when an ``altercation'' broke out between the boys. A third-generation farmer, he remembers Robert confronting Anthony about the Ku Klux Klan material he had discovered in the younger brother's room. McNeil's name came up, and Robert told Anthony, in no uncertain terms, to break off his relationship with the teacher or he would go to the police.
Rowlingson, according to his father, had previously confided to friends that he wanted to do something to Robert. He was jealous of his older brother's dexterity with farm machinery and chastened by Robert's off-handed treatment of him.
Anthony concluded his brother was in a position ``to threaten things'', and this justified the murderous violence he would unleash, Harden would later tell the Queensland Supreme Court.
Believing he had ``an understanding'' with McNeil, Anthony asked him for help after the shooting. Harden said Rowlingson told him how McNeil, whom he trusted, came over to the farmhouse.
``I told him that my brother was in the boot. He didn't object, we didn't talk about it much,'' Harden quoted Anthony as saying.
Harden said the young man believed that he had ``an understanding'' with his teacher, after McNeil allegedly outed himself to him as a member of the Klan.
``He reported that they had some philosophic agreement about being critical of the government with regard to the services . . . provided,'' Harden said in his report.
Another psychiatrist who interviewed Anthony, Michael Beech, said the murder could be explained in part by a ``toxic mixture'' of his longstanding resentment towards Robert -- the more popular of the boys at school and around town -- coupled with a heightened sense of grievance on Anthony's part and a ``limited capacity for personal relatedness''.
Yet that was not the whole picture, as Beech saw it.
In his report, quoted by the Court of Appeal in 2008, Beech wondered about the influence of McNeil over Anthony.
``I cannot with any certainty comment on to what extent his involvement with the teacher was a factor in the actions of Anthony,'' Beech reported.
``It is alarming that a teacher with connections to the Klan would allow, at the very least, his computer with Klan material to be placed in the hands of a student.
``It seems to me to be singularly alarming that a teacher would assist a student in disposing of a corpse. At interview, Anthony downplayed his involvement in the Klan, and also the role of his teacher.
``He denied that the teacher held any sway over him. His parents are less certain of this.
Anthony would, I believe, have been susceptible to influence by the teacher and this could have fostered an interest in the Ku Klux Klan . . . any influence would not have extended to a point where Anthony would have been unaware of the wrongfulness of his actions.
``It may have acted to distort his beliefs about his justification in acting as he did.''
Anthony said he had been thinking about killing Robert for weeks before he picked up his father's gun. Robert, for his part, seems to have been aware of the danger, telling his parents on the weekend before he was killed how he had spotted his young brother watching him through the telescopic scope of a rifle.
Anthony admitted to police he had resolved to murder Robert on at least one prior occasion but ``it just unnerved me . . . it was sort of a situation like that where it wasn't quite right''. On that black Sunday in July 2007 the then 16-year-old shrugged off the last of his inhibitions.
Robert was working on his car in a shed behind the homestead and Anthony said to himself: ``Right, sweet, let's go.''
Later, he told Harden he felt no particular regret at killing his brother, ``and that if he faced the same circumstances he would do it again''.
Initially, he tried to to lie his way out of trouble with the police, telling them he had been with a girlfriend at the time Robert went missing from the farm.
Then, when that was exposed as implausible, he told the police he had been confronted by three men in balaclavas at the property, who bashed him and asked where his brother was.
At the end of the fruitless interview, detectives appealed to the boy. ``If you know where Robert may be, it may help to put some peace in Mum and Dad's mind,'' they told him.
``Help us find Robert,'' they pleaded, so he won't be left in the bush for the ``feral animals''. Anthony laughed.
The interview ended, and he was arrested.