Photographer: Dan Peled/AP
The day before Hannah Clarke and her children were killed, her husband called a counseling service to ask about behavior change programs for men at risk of domestic violence.
He then told the counselor, “I’m not the one with a problem.”
The Queensland coroner’s court is investigating the deaths of Clarke and her children: Aaliyah, 6, Laianah, 4 and Trey, 3.
The inquest was told that Rowan Baxter, Clarke’s estranged partner and the father of the three children, murdered the entire family and committed suicide by setting his car on fire in the Brisbane suburb of Camp Hill on the morning of 19 March. February 2020.
In her opening remarks Monday, assistant state coroner’s attorney Jacoba Brasch told the court that video footage showed Baxter visiting a local hardware store in the preceding days. She walked the aisles looking for lawn mower fuel and finally bought a jerry can, zip ties and a surface cleaner.
That afternoon, Baxter made two separate phone calls to services that offer behavioral programs for men.
Related: Queensland’s ’tiling’ response to domestic violence has clearly failed, says police veteran
Brasch said “chilling audio” of Baxter’s call to one of those services, in which he said he had no problem, would be played at the investigation next week.
“Sixteen hours later, he did the unthinkable,” Brasch said on the opening day of the investigation.
The deaths of Clarke and her children brought significant public attention to the use of coercive control by domestic abusers. Queensland is considering making coercive control a criminal offence.
The first witness in the investigation was a Camp Hill resident, Michael Zemek, who was washing his car in front of his home on the morning of February 19, 2020.
“I heard screaming, a hysterical scream,” Zemek told the investigation.
“Very quickly, this car had its front right wheel lifted basically in the driveway. And Hannah was…essentially yelling ‘call the police, call the police, she’s trying to kill me, she’s poured gasoline on me.’
“Baxter had his hand around her in a big bear hug, both arms around her. He was sitting in the front seats.
“His behavior was controlled. He didn’t seem to be really crazy and aggressive and trying to do something like hit or something like that. It was just a restrictive hold. My impression was that he had a more resigned look on his face.”
Zemek went to the window as Baxter turned on the car light.
“It just blew up, a flare just went by. It was a bang and a blackness hit my face. I turned my head briefly. When I got to look up, the entire inner front was on fire.
“My instinct was… I have to get her out. And at that point I don’t know if Hannah went out alone, that’s a blank for me.
“When Hannah came out, she was totally on fire from head to toe. She was on fire. I just grabbed the hose and tried to roll it on the ground to try and extinguish the flames.”
Zemek also told the inquest that he did not know until later that the children were restrained in the back seat of the car.
Another witness, Samantha Covey, recalled Hannah Clarke’s panicked words before she died.
“My kids, somebody get my kids,” Clarke was heard saying, Covey told the inquest.
“I can’t believe he did this. Where are my babies? Where are my children? How could he do this?”
Covey recalled hearing Clarke tell an off-duty police officer what had happened.
“She said she was going to take the kids to school, he got in the car and he had a jerry can.”
A neighbor, Kerry Fernandez, said she grabbed a fire extinguisher and tried to put out the fire.
She told the investigation that Baxter appeared to be “almost protecting the car” and was moving back and forth in an apparent attempt to prevent her from using the fire extinguisher.
Fernandez said Baxter’s expression was “deadpan, nothing.”
“Then someone tapped me on the shoulder and politely told me he was armed. I dropped the fire extinguisher and ran into the house…the [same] A woman came in and said ‘it’s over,’” Fernández said in the investigation.
“I looked at him, he was still in that hunched over position…he had stabbed himself.”
Brasch said that later in the investigation, friends of Clarke and Baxter would testify about his “appearance, his behavior, his concerns” and “Hannah’s concerns that he might kill her.”
• In Australia, the Lifeline crisis support service is on 13 11 14 and the national family violence advice service is on 1800 737 732. In the UK, the Samaritans can be reached on 116 123 and the The domestic abuse helpline is 0808 2000 247. In the US, the suicide prevention line is 1-800-273-8255 and the domestic violence hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). . Other international helplines can be found through www.befrienders.org