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IT’S a case that rivals the most well-known miscarriage of justice in Australian history: the 1982 imprisonment of Lindy Chamberlain for the murder of her baby daughter, Azaria, and her subsequent acquittal three years later.
Nine years earlier, a carpenter and joiner from Queanbeyan was sentenced to life in jail for a crime it would be proved, after almost two decades, he did not commit.
November 2 marks a most inauspicious anniversary – 43 years since Johann “Ziggy” Pohl, 36, was found guilty of the strangulation murder earlier in 1973 of his 34-year-old wife, Kum Yee, otherwise known as Joyce, in an unassuming cottage overlooking the peaceful surrounds of the Queanbeyan Golf Course.
No physical evidence linked Ziggy to the crime, but details including the estimated time of death – 9.45am, approximately 15 minutes after Ziggy confirmed he had briefly called into his home but not seen his wife – and a letter written a month before the murder suggesting Joyce was considering returning to Hong Kong, were enough to warrant the conviction.
An appeal 12 months later failed to overturn the original finding, the verdict noting that Ziggy’s account of having simply arrived back from work a few hours later to find his wife dead, “highly improbable”.
The former West German immigrant, who arrived in Australia in 1958, had an unblemished record and continued to vehemently proclaim his innocence. These claims went unheeded, but after serving 10 years, Ziggy was released for good behaviour.
He would only ever set foot in Queanbeyan on two other occasions: one, for the funeral of his brother, the other in the most bizarre of circumstances when a formal inquiry into his previously closed case was called.
In a twist almost too difficult to believe, on the evening of September 8, 1990, a lean, moustached man with shoulder-length red hair presented himself at the Queanbeyan Police Station to confess that he had murdered Joyce Pohl on that fateful day 17 years earlier.
Roger Bawden, then a 41-year-old father of three living in Melbourne, admitted that alcohol, drugs and gambling debts were the reason he broke into the Pohls’ home and, when startled by Joyce who screamed, he attempted to silence her. He also declared, apparently without a trace of irony, “ever since I killed her, I’ve had nothing but bad luck”.
According to Sen-Sgt Paul Batista, keeper of the Queanbeyan Police historic record, this revelation was at first met with disbelief, but quickly descended into confusion: a man had already been charged and served time for the crime – what they were supposed to do with Bawden, the authorities were without a clue.
“Essentially, he remained here in a cell, but we couldn’t charge him at that point and he came and went from the confines of the station as he pleased,” says Sgt Batista, of the highly unusual situation.
During this fraught period, despite Ziggy not wanting to do so, the husband and his wife’s killer also met face-to-face in an engineered, highly sensational TV interview arranged by news program “60 Minutes”.
It would take another two years before Ziggy was cleared of any wrongdoing, and he eventually received a paltry $200,000 in compensation. Bawden went on to serve less time than the man wrongfully accused – just eight years.
If NSW still had the death penalty, this may well have been Ziggy’s fate. As it turned out, it essentially was, and earlier this year, he passed away after an unwinnable battle with cancer, a sad footnote to one of the most tragic stories Queanbeyan has ever known.
More than the injustice and historic aspects of this case, my interest in it also stems from recollection as I, too, crossed paths with Bawden.
Still a university student, I was working at the local newsagency when early the Sunday morning a week after his “60 Minutes” appearance, Bawden walked in to buy a paper. I recognised him immediately and, young and alone, I was both terrified and yet mesmerised by his apparent ordinariness.
But then, Ziggy, too, was an ordinary man.
Nichole Overall is a Queanbeyan-based journalist and historian. She is currently producing a series of regional mini-documentaries including one on the case of Ziggy Pohl.