THE last time Madeleine Pulver sat in the same room as Paul Douglas Peters, it was that terrifying day in August last year.
Today in the Sydney District Court, she watched the man who terrorised her in her own home for 10 hours get jailed for at least a decade.
Sentencing Paul Peters to a maximum of 13 and a half years behind bars, Judge Peter Zahra described the crime as “heinous” and said the terror instilled in Maddie was “unimaginable”.
Then 18, Maddie was alone in her Burrawong Avenue home in Mosman when, armed with a baseball bat and wearing a rainbow balaclava, Peters, then 51, entered the closed but unlocked door.
What happened next set a precedent for crimes in Australia and made headlines around the world: Peters strapped a black metal box to the schoolgirl’s neck with a bike chain while she sat crying on the floor, fearing for her life. He left a note on the device demanding money and told Maddie to, “Count to 200, I’ll be back … if you move I can see you, I’ll be right here.” Peters then fled.
After a 10-hour ordeal, the device was confirmed to be a fake.
Soon a strike force, headed up by the robbery and serious crime squad, was established. Police had begun looking into the Gmail account left on the extortion note and with assistance from Google, detectives were able to track where the account had been set up and accessed from. They seized computers from Kincumber Library on the NSW Central Coast and from an Avoca Beach video shop. CCTV footage and registration details of a gold Range Rover, together with a credit card used to buy a baseball bat from an Erina Rebel store, led police to the home of Peters’ ex-wife Debra in Louisville Kentucky, where he was staying. They had their man.
Peters was extradited back to Australia, charged and pleaded guilty to aggravated break and enter and detain for advantage, meaning Maddie would not have to give evidence in court. This also meant Peters would receive a 25 per cent discount on his sentence for sparing the court a lengthy and costly trial. The maximum sentence Peters could have received was 15 years, as opposed to 20, had he not entered a guilty plea.
During sentencing hearings, the District Court heard Peters had begun writing a novel – one half of his job, he told detectives – and tracking down the beneficiary of a multi-million dollar US trust, known as the James M Cox Trust, who lived in Mosman. He had intended to extort money from this person and not from the Pulver family, the court was told.
While researching this beneficiary, Peters came across a man he had known from his time in Hong Kong and changed his target.
But on the quiet afternoon of August 3, Peters “simply got the wrong house” in a crime Crown Prosecutor Margaret Cunneen described as “an act of urban terrorism”. He didn’t appreciate the layout of the respective houses, the court heard.
Peters’ defence barrister Tim Game, SC, argued that the attack on Ms Pulver was the result of a delusion he was the lead character in the novel he was writing, and a combination of bipolar disorder, heavy drinking and depression. Peters told psychiatrists he had deliberately planned the crime poorly so he could be caught and be given treatment, the court was told.
But Judge Peter Zahra rejected this, saying that Peters planned and implemented the attack with precision and knew exactly what he was doing.
“At the time of placing the device he had prepared around the neck of the victim he would have appreciated the enormity of what he was doing and the terrible effect and consequence of his conduct upon the victim,” Judge Zahra said. “He proceeded regardless.”
“The victim was vulnerable. She was on her own studying for her trial Higher School Certificate examinations. She was entitled to the sanctuary of her home.”
Paul Peters, a father-of-three and once a wealthy businessman, wept in the dock as the judge recounted his life, from the breakdown of his marriage to the loss of his career and large sums of money.
Maddie and her parents also sobbed as the judge handed down his sentence before a packed courtroom, which included the detectives who arrested Peters and constable Karen Lowden, one of the first police officers on the scene who risked her own life to sit with Maddie and provide emotional support to her during the ordeal.
Outside court, accompanied by her parents Bill and Belinda, a brave and composed Maddie faced a throng of journalists who attended the sentencing.
“I am pleased with today’s outcome and that I can now look to a future without Paul Peters’ name being linked to mine,” Maddie told reporters.
“I realise it is going to take quite some time to come to terms with what happened, but today was important because now the legal process is over,” she said.
“For me it was never about the sentencing, but to know that he will not reoffend, and it was good to hear the judge acknowledge the trauma he has put my family and me through.”
“It has been a surprise to me that this year has been much harder than last year, but I am lucky enough to have a wonderful family and friends and we are all making great progress.”
“Looking forward, I’m heading to Sydney University next year and really looking forward to it,” she said. Asked what she will be studying, Maddie replied: “I’m not really sure yet but I’m thinking a Bachelor of Arts.”
With time already served in custody, Peters will be eligible for parole in August 2021.
He never offered an explanation for his actions.
– Evan Zlatkis