The Hoddle Street Massacre

As part of my visit to Melbourne, I naturally went on the Melbourne Crime Tour (who could pass up a name like that?),  Along with visits to various memorable scenes of gangland killings and famous murders, we made a stop at a nondescript spot on Hoddle Street in the Clifton Hill suburb of Melbourne.  Nondescript now, but things were very different on August 9, 1987.  That was when it became the site of one of the bloodiest massacres in Australia's history.

Julian Knight was a nineteen-year old former army cadet who had recently been expelled from the Royal Military College in Canberra.  Adopted into an army family at a young age, Knight's fascination with guns and the military seemed unremarkable.  He joined the army cadets at the age of fourteen and was part of the army reserve while still in high school.  Entering the Royal Military College at the age of eighteen seemingly marked the beginning of the military career he had always dreamed of having.  Unfortunately, Knight did poorly in all of his courses (except for weapons training) and was expelled after a bar brawl in which he stabbed a fellow soldier.  The disgrace of his expulsion and being plunged  back into the civilian life for which he was poorly suited left him deeply depressed.  Not only was Knight unable to find a job but there seemed no real home left for him (his mother had turned his old bedroom into a sewing room and he was forced to sleep on her couch).  His girlfriend had moved on as well and was involved in a new relationship.  

There were no warning signs when Julian Knight applied for a shooter's license which was granted three months later.  His collection of guns, including a 22 calibre Kruger rifle, a 12-gauge pump action Mossberg shotgun, and a Norinco M14 military rifle (all legally obtained) hardly attracted attention either. It's hard to say what triggered the deadly rampage of August 9.  All that could be determined afterward was that Julian Knight spent much of that night drinking at a local pub.  After about ten pots of beer (a pot is traditionally 425 milliliters although the measure can vary), Knight collected his gun and over one hundred rounds of ammunition before positioning himself on a raised platform behind a billboard at the corner of Hoddle and Ramsden Streets.  Why he chose that particular location was never made clear (although the position was easily defended).  Then the shooting began.

Bystanders were thoroughly confused at first over what was happening.  Some thought a vehicle was backfiring or stones were hitting their windshields.  When they realized their danger, motorists quickly took shelter at a local gasoline station where staff called police.  When police arrived on the scene, locating where the bullets were coming from took time and more bystanders were killed or wounded over the course of the next three hours. After a massive police response (including a police helicopter flying overhead), Julian Knight was finally forced from his hiding place and led the police on a half-hour chase.  He had kept one bullet in his shirt pocket to use on himself although this was somehow lost as he fled. 

Knight fired indiscriminately at the police, the various squad cars, and the helicopter (which was forced to land after a bullet ruptured its fuel line).  After running out of ammunition (and realizing that he lost his suicide bullet), Julian Knight was arrested without incident.  His rampage had killed seven people and wounded nineteen others, including police officers. When asked by police afterward why he killed innocent people, Knight replied: "I dunno, I'm not sure".  Newspaper journalists besieged family members and former friends of the shooter searching for clues to his rampage.  Details about Knight's solitary nature, his fixation on guns and the military, and his insistence on being nicknamed "SOF" (short for "soldier of fortune") became front page news.   Although there was speculation that the rampage was his way of acting out his combat fantasies or to make his father proud of him for "killing communists", Julian Knight's actions defy real explanation.

As arresting detective Graham Kent later said of him,  "Knight was like a young kid who had been on an adventure and been caught doing something naughty.  He seemed to be interested in what was happening to him but not concerned.  For a nineteen-year old, he seemed very immature".  Despite questions surrounding his lack of apparent remorse, Julian Knight was found fit to stand trial and was later given seven consecutive life sentences with a non-parole period of twenty-seven years.   The sentence remains controversial given the option of parole although sentencing judge George Hampel continues to defend the decision given Knight's age at the time of the shooting and the possibility of rehabilitation.  Julian Knight will be eligible for parole as early as 2014 although representatives of the Victorian government have stated that it is unlikely he will ever be released.  

Not surprisingly, the Hoddle Street Massacre (as well as a copycat shooting rampage in Melbourne later that same year) has led to stronger gun laws in Australia although gun control organizations argue that more stringent requirements are still needed.  The Victorian government also established the Victorian Community Council Against Violence (VCCAV) to investigate ways to prevent future violent outbreaks.   As for Julian Knight himself, he remains incarcerated at Port Philip Correctional Centre near Melbourne.  In the years since he was first imprisoned, Knight has earned a university degree with additional training in law.  His name remains in the news due to a series of legal challenges launched against the Victorian government surrounding prison conditions and Knight's failure to be granted rehabilitation programs that might improve his chance of parole.  He has also been denied the right to correspond with the families of his victims to express his regret over his actions.  In February 2003, it was determined that Julian Knight's various legal challenges have cost the Victorian government over AUD $250,000 with additional costs for legal aid consultations.

on October 19, 2004, a judge declared Knight a vexatious litigant which effectively bans him from pursuing any new cases for a ten-year period.  Although Knight has challenged the ruling, it has since been upheld.  As only one of only thirteen vexatious litigants in Victoria's recent history (and the only inmate to receive that declaration), he still makes news headlines (often commenting on issues of gun control following new shootings). The Hoddle Street Massacre continues to be the focus of books, news articles, and television documentaries.

Like other spree killers before him, Julian Knight's case often raises more questions than answers.  As new incidents occur, the few lessons learned from this rampage seem more relevant than ever.


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