Pen pals: One’s in prison, the other is with his daughter in hospital
By Dan Box
Each letter had to get past prison authorities, who would stamp it with a single word in red ink: Vetted.
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Before turning to write this story, I wrote to my friend Zak, who’s been doing time for murder in a Northern Territory prison. I wrote about his upcoming parole date; he’d sent me a letter saying, “Hmm parole … I know, NO lifer has ever got that first time.” In other letters, he’d written about getting a “little/medium size house in the middle of nowhere” and finding a “brunette pocket rocket” if he gets out. I encouraged him to keep his head down and focus on the things he’s looking forward to after he gets out, rather than bucking the system and risking his release.
I also wrote about my daughter Poppy’s cancer diagnosis and treatment. For three years now, these same few things – life, death, the future and what threatens it – have been tied up in what we’ve written to each other. “I can’t pretend to know how you are feeling,” I wrote to Zak. “Except that every part of you must be screaming to get out now.”
Like all our letters, I wrote by hand, this time in black ink on coarse, lined paper torn from an A4 notebook. I covered five sheets only – any more and the prison authorities would refuse to accept it. Folding the pages over three times to fit inside an envelope, I felt its squidgy thickness. You forget, in an age of emails, the anticipation of receiving a fat letter like this; of squeezing it between your fingers before opening it, of knowing there are words and worlds inside to escape to. We have both needed this in recent years.
“Living in dorms filled with sex offenders,” Zak wrote in his last letter, in August. “This place has fully f—ed my headspace.” He says he’s not a killer, and even the judge who put Zak in prison said he didn’t believe the then 19-year-old was there when the murder was committed on the night of October 23, 2011. “I take no pleasure in this outcome,” Justice Dean Mildren said when handing down his sentence in January 2013. It was the way the mandatory sentencing laws were written in the Northern Territory, he said, “which inevitably bring about injustice”.
It was that line, which I read in Good Weekend in 2014, that set me on the trail of trying to understand what Zak did or didn’t do on the night in question. I followed the twists and turns of his involvement in the murder of Ray Niceforo, first as a reporter seeking to highlight this injustice, then later as a friend, after Zak and I started writing to each other. That was in 2017; following Poppy’s cancer diagnosis in 2020 at the age of nine, it was with Zak whom I shared my hopes and fears – as if, facing his own life sentence, he might understand them. That was when Zak saved me.
I addressed my most recent letter with his full name, Zak Grieve, his prisoner number and the prison’s PO box, then sent it north to Darwin.
There are two versions of what happened to Ray Niceforo and who took part in his killing. In one, given in court by Zak and his friend, Chris Malyschko, Zak was a kind of innocent living in the isolated Stuart Highway town of Katherine. When Malyschko offered him $5000 to help get rid of someone, Zak said yes, though he wasn’t sure what getting rid of someone meant. Maybe it meant kicking their head in or forcing them out of Katherine.
Zak learnt he’d misunderstood when he and Malyschko were preparing to drive to their victim’s unit, a single-storey slab of brick and cinder blocks, with junk piled up around the front door, backing on the Victoria Highway on the edge of Katherine. Zak realised that Niceforo, a mean, balding man in his early 40s who’d beaten and abused his fiancée – Malyschko’s mother – wasn’t going to survive the night. “I can’t go through with this,” he told Malyschko. “I can’t help you.”
Zak Grieve and his mum, Glenice,who petitioned the NT administrator for mercy. “I need your help,” she wrote.
“I understand,” Malyschko replied, saying he’d drive Zak home. A third man had also agreed to take part, in return for a share in the $15,000 that Malyschko’s mother was paying to be free of Niceforo. The third man told Zak, “You’re a pussy.”
According to the second version, given in court by this man, Darren Halfpenny, Zak didn’t pull out of the murder. In this version, all three men busted into Niceforo’s place, where he was alone for the evening. Zak went in first and helped hold the victim down while Malyschko beat him to death. [Zak refutes this version.]
It’s easy to see why Malyschko might have lied about what happened: to protect his friend Zak. But Halfpenny’s account gets more complicated when you learn he lied to police about his own actions, including insisting he burnt the clothes he wore that night on the old abandoned airstrip in Katherine near the cemetery, only to backtrack later and admit that he hadn’t.
The police knew that Halfpenny, 22 at the time, was a liar before the case went to the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory but the prosecution still
relied on him as a witness. “It’s not that I don’t care if I lie, it’s just when I lie, it just comes out,” Halfpenny said under cross-examination. Despite there being no forensic evidence linking Zak to the killing, the jury found him guilty.
In the Northern Territory, the law says you’re guilty of murder if you agree to take part in one then pull out, unless you try to stop the killing. Zak didn’t do that. Instead, after Malyschko dropped him home, he went to bed and tried to pretend it wasn’t happening. In our early letters, Zak kept asking how long I thought he should have received: “In your opinion, what do [you] think I would/should have gotten?” I tried to avoid answering directly, afraid to commit to judgment.
As the years passed, the question of his guilt or innocence seemed less important than other things. I started to think more about how young Zak was, his complicated family story, how he smoked a lot of weed and loved video games, preferring their fantasy worlds to the reality of life in Katherine. He did something stupid. Eventually, I told him he did deserve some jail time. Four or six years; maybe 10. Short enough for him to one day put it behind him.
But in the Northern Territory, life means life, with a mandatory non-parole period of 20 years.
The first time I drove into Katherine, my car radio stammered back into life again after the long silence of the three-hour journey south from Darwin. It was 2017 and a politician was tub-thumping about rising crime, demanding police do more to stop it. “Are things getting worse?” the interviewer goaded. “A lot of people tell you it is getting worse,” the politician answered. “People tell you it is the worst it has ever been.”
As I drove over the Katherine River, which wraps itself around the west of the town, brightly coloured shopfronts started replacing the muted reds and greens of the bush I had left behind. A group of Aboriginal people sat cross-legged outside the shopping centre where Zak’s parents ran a store selling sunglasses. A toddler stood in a nappy, waving. White people hurried past pushing shopping trolleys, fiddling with their phones, not waving back.
A postal game of noughts and crosses between author Dan and Zak.
Inside her shop, Zak’s mother, Glenice, a Jingili-Mudburra woman, stood behind the counter, twisting her bleached-blonde hair around her fingers. At first she seemed defensive, untrusting of this white reporter who’d turned up from Sydney. Later, over repeated visits and long phone calls, her guard dropped. Glenice told me how she’d nearly lost Zak when she was pregnant and the doctors told her she was miscarrying. How she’d walked out of hospital, gone home and had a bit of a pray, telling the big man upstairs, “Don’t do this, don’t you do this to me. Don’t you dare take him.” The big man didn’t.
Zak was mixed-race, his mother told me; his dad, Wal, was white. Zak’s skin was so pale he’d joke he was the Albino Aboriginal; she told him he must commit to his culture. She said he had a blue-tongue lizard dreaming because Wal had cracked open a nest of baby blue-tongues while driving a grader when Glenice was pregnant. As Zak came out, the umbilical cord got wrapped around his neck and his lips and tongue went blue-purple, just like that lizard. Her third child, he was a sickly kid, suffering from asthma and an eating disorder. She breastfed Zak until he was six.
Glenice said her son went to jail because he was Aboriginal. She claimed that the NT government got federal funding according to the numbers held in prison, meaning they made money out of locking up her people. “Blackfellas are enterprise to these people,” she told me, meaning NT politicians. I asked different people from the NT government about this; they all said it wasn’t true. But when you look at the official figures, Glenice’s explanation makes as much sense as any other.
First Nations people make up a minority of the NT’s population (26 per cent) but a majority of its prisoners (84 per cent). The proportion of its population who are jailed is more than three times higher than any other Australian state or territory; it also incarcerates a higher proportion of its peoples than do the US states of Georgia, Arkansas and Oklahoma and is on par with Mississippi and Louisiana. In hungry prison system terms, that makes the NT Australia’s Deep South.
It was tough for everybody. Glenice used to visit Zak in prison, making the long bus journey north to Darwin to see him. Wal was doing fly-in, fly-out work a long way from anywhere, and would visit when he had time. Zak’s parents separated after he went to prison.
Few of Zak’s old mates from Katherine stayed in contact. At first he wrote them letters but they tended not to write back. Most of the other prisoners would say hi to him, however. “I know at least 500 out of the 1000, and I say hello to all of them,” he told me in one letter. But it was hard to find real friends in prison, where people are always coming and going without warning and sometimes in the space of a few months.
Letter from Zak to Dan: “Have you seen a kids show called Bluey?”
Zak’s letters constantly surprised me. In one, he asked about my favourite Disney movie and which my kids preferred. His was a toss-up between Treasure Planet and Hercules. The saddest Disney movie, Zak wrote, was Up: about an old man who wants to break free from his life after his wife dies, so ties a cloud of coloured helium balloons to the house they bought together and floats away from the world below him.
Glenice, who does not own a computer, asked me to write letters for her, dictating them in person or over the phone while I typed. “I’m a mother who’s looking to you to find some sort of mercy. I’m appealing to you as a parent, as a father,” she dictated in one letter, which she asked me to send to the then administrator of the Northern Territory, John Hardy. Her son was given a life sentence under the NT’s mandatory sentencing legislation, Glenice said, which meant politicians set the punishment for murder, not judges. Even the judge who oversaw the trial said he did not believe Zak was there when the murder was committed. Glenice was crying softly as she
dictated the words: “How would you feel if this happened to your child? What would you do? I need your help. Please help me.”
“What’s the matter?” my wife asked. I couldn’t answer … I wrote to Zak then, seeking friendship.
After receiving that letter, John Hardy announced he would consider cutting Zak’s non-parole period from 20 years to 12, under an archaic power called the prerogative of mercy. Zak’s lawyers then got involved and in 2018 the decision to cut it to 12 years was formalised by Hardy’s successor, Vicki O’Halloran. Zak becomes eligible for parole this month.
By 2018, I’d left Australia for the UK, quitting my job as a newspaper reporter and moving across the world with my wife, Nell, and our then two kids. I’d landed unemployed in a new country where the weather was cold and the nights come in early. I felt hollow. For days, my clothes remained unpacked in a wheelie suitcase I’d bought from Kmart to carry around the volumes of transcript from Zak’s murder trial when I’d been reporting on it.
One evening I sat on the bed, head in my hands, listening to the ringing laughter of our daughters as they played downstairs. “What’s the matter?” my
wife asked. I couldn’t answer. Outside, the dark street was empty. I knew no one in Hathersage, the English village we’d moved to. I wrote to Zak then, seeking friendship.
Later, I would write to him during my two-hour commute to and from Manchester for a job I hated. It could take weeks and sometimes months to get a reply, partly because each letter had to get past prison authorities, who would stamp it with a single word in red ink: Vetted.
“Personally, I’m not good at advice,” Zak wrote. “But I do like to weigh up my options. What bugs me is the travel time it takes you to get to work. If you had to work there 1 or 2 days a week for the next 3 years that’s roughly 156 to 312 hours lost when it comes to spending time with family.” Zak knew the value of lost time, I figured. I quit the job.
In other letters, Zak described his own day in prison: “Walking outside the sun is bright in the sky with no clouds to be seen with strong winds holding a dry chill and blowing red dust everywhere.” The darkness around me began to recede a little.
I was walking in the sunshine along a footpath leading out of Hathersage when my wife called to say our eldest daughter had cancer. A doctor took the phone from my wife, who’d driven Poppy to hospital that morning after noticing a strange bump on her tummy. The doctor had a soft voice. She said they didn’t yet know what kind of cancer it was or how serious it might be. She’d later tell us their scans revealed a tumour the size of a grapefruit. Poppy was nine. Somehow, we’d missed it earlier.
Dan Box with Poppy at the start of treatment. Writing to Zak helped him give voice to his darkest thoughts.
On our first visit to the paediatric oncology clinic, I looked at the other families nursing children with no hair and with tubes running into their noses, and thought, “This isn’t us. We’re not like them, surely?” The doctors called us into a room and sat there looking compassionate, saying it was neuroblastoma, a cancer of the nerve cells. Poppy had a less than 50 per cent chance of surviving the next five years, they told us.
Our life became a slow turn of chemotherapy, surgery, stem cell transplant, more chemo, radiotherapy and immunotherapy; days and weeks and longer spent in hospital; nights filled with beeping hospital equipment; watching our daughter getting sicker. During one of those nights, Glenice called and told me to buy Poppy a pink crystal for healing. That I should put it under her pillow, so the crystal would absorb the bad energy, which could then be washed away. I did.
I wrote to Zak, putting down on paper the things I couldn’t always bring myself to talk about in person to those around me. “Truly buddy, it’s good to hear as it is/was the first time we had actually written about it,” he replied. I was able to give voice to my darkest thoughts, then send them away to someone who knew how easily the life you expect can be taken from you.
Counting the days in the isolation ward where Poppy spent a month undergoing chemotherapy.
As I write this, Poppy is defying the odds, and due for more surgery. Zak, meanwhile, is hoping to be released on parole. I recently sent him some proofs of the book I’d written about him and me, splitting them between several letters so there was no more than five pages in each envelope. I told him the last chapter would be the hardest. That’s the one he would have to write when he gets out of prison.
“Hmm, by the way, I liked your ending,” Zak wrote back. “Thanks mate. I felt we had/have a genuine friendship. And, I don’t think this is the end of ‘this’ story, either.”
Zak said he’d spoken to his dad about the pages I sent him. Wal had told him, “It felt very Ned Kelly.”
“I see that,” Zak wrote. “‘Such is Life.’”
The Man Who Wasn’t There by Dan Box (Ultimo Press, $37) is out now.
To read more from Good Weekend magazine, visit our page at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Brisbane Times.
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