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Ben Roberts-Smith hired private investigator to spy on girlfriend at abortion clinic, court hears

·6-min read
<span>Photograph: James Gourley/AAP</span>
Photograph: James Gourley/AAP

Ben Roberts-Smith hired a private investigator to spy on his girlfriend at a Brisbane abortion clinic after they had agreed to terminate a pregnancy, a woman he later allegedly punched after a dinner at Parliament House, a court has heard.

He also later commissioned the same private eye to find the home addresses of former comrades whom he believed were behind a “whispering campaign” to the media discrediting him.

Victoria Cross recipient Roberts-Smith, giving evidence in his defamation trial against three newspapers, was asked in court on Tuesday about a woman known as Person 17 – her name has been suppressed out of concerns for her security – with whom he was in a relationship for seven months over 2017 and 2018.

It is alleged by the newspapers that he was in an extramarital relationship with Person 17, and that he punched her in the face after a dinner at Parliament House in Canberra.

Related: ‘Nightmare’: Ben Roberts-Smith says reports he murdered unarmed civilian are ‘outright malicious’

Roberts-Smith maintains that his relationship with Person 17 was conducted while he was separated from his wife, and he told the court he never struck the woman, that she fell down the stairs after drinking too much at the dinner.

Roberts-Smith’s now-estranged wife, Emma Roberts, will give evidence later in the trial, as will Person 17.

Roberts-Smith told the court he met Person 17 in mid-October 2017 having separated from his wife “towards the end of September” that year, even while staying, occasionally, in the granny flat of his marital home.

The court heard details of the tempestuousness of the relationship, including allegations made by Roberts-Smith that Person 17 had threatened suicide when he sought to end the relationship, and that Person 17’s husband telephoned him to discuss the relationship.

“He thought Person 17 would be better off with me and his children would be better off with me. It was quite a bizarre phone call,” Roberts-Smith told the court.

Roberts-Smith said he wanted to end the relationship when she told him she had fallen pregnant. The former soldier told the court he was mistrustful of Person 17 so he hired a retired policeman, John McLeod, to spy on her as she went to an abortion clinic in Brisbane.

“Mr McLeod had put himself forward to me as a private eye so I assumed it would be quite simple,” Roberts-Smith told the court. “I felt I was being manipulated and I didn’t feel the situation transpiring was real.”

McLeod filmed Person 17 attending and leaving the clinic and sent the video to Roberts-Smith.

Roberts-Smith told the court he did not believe Person 17 had had a termination that day – “she was able to pick up her own bag”, he said in evidence – and spoke with her at a Brisbane hotel. She told him then she had earlier had a miscarriage.

On 28 March 2017, Roberts-Smith and Person 17 attended a dinner at the Great Hall of Parliament House for the prime minister’s veterans employment awards. Roberts-Smith sat at the head table, alongside the then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, while Person 17 sat at a different table.

In the newspapers’ defence to the statement of claim – their response to Roberts-Smith’s claims of defamation - it is alleged Person 17 became intoxicated and fell down stairs as she was leaving the function. The pair went to a room at the Realm Hotel in Canberra, where an argument ensued “as Roberts-Smith was angry with Person 17 due to her behaviour at the function and his fear that she may have exposed the affair”.

“During the argument Person 17 said to [Roberts-Smith], in substance, “my head hurts”. [Roberts-Smith] responded, in substance, “It’s going to hurt more” or “I’ll show you what hurt is” and punched Person 17 hard in her left eye with a clenched right fist.

“Person 17 sustained a black eye as a result of this punch.”

On 30 May 2018 – two months after the dinner – Person 17 made a formal complaint about the alleged assault to the Australian federal police.

Roberts-Smith rejected this version of events as “simply false”. He told the court he and Person 17 began drinking at lunchtime and she was heavily intoxicated by the end of the dinner.

He said that as he was arranging for a Comcar to take them back to the hotel, a staff member told him Person 17 had fallen down the stairs.

He said Person 17 had a “significant bump at the top of her left eye”.

“She looked extremely intoxicated,” he told the court. “She wasn’t really coherent, she couldn’t string words together.”

Roberts-Smith said he did not believe Person 17 needed to go to hospital, and he took her to the hotel room where he undressed her, put an icepack on her head, and put her to bed. He said he checked her respiratory rate and pulse and stayed awake all night checking she was OK.

Roberts-Smith said he photographed Person 17 asleep in bed and also went through her handbag looking for medication he believed she had taken. He said he flicked through a notebook in her handbag and read notes “that pertained to me specifically”. The detail of those notes was not revealed before the court.

Roberts-Smith told the court the allegation he committed an act of domestic violence was devastating. He said he found domestic violence “deplorable” and a “disgusting act of cowardice”.

“That particular allegation, coupled with being called a war criminal, ruined my life. I found it hard to leave the house. I have such disdain for those types of people, and to be labelled that, and to have to wear that, was just very difficult.”

Roberts-Smith told the court when journalists began contacting him over war crimes allegations, he feared soldiers with whom he had had strained relationships – or who were jealous of his Victoria Cross – were talking to the media about him.

He hired McLeod to find the home addresses of six former comrades he believed were behind a “whispering campaign” of allegations against him. He said it was never his intention to threaten anybody.

He told the court he wanted to establish whether the soldiers were talking to the media, and “to provide that information to defence [the ADF] so they could take the appropriate action”.

Roberts-Smith said he believed the soldiers may have been in breach of the secrecy provisions of the Crimes Act.

Court documents show McLeod is alleged by the newspapers to have posted a threatening letter to a former SAS soldier – known as Person 18 – on instruction from Roberts-Smith, who allegedly authored the letter and asked McLeod to post it on his behalf.

Roberts-Smith denies writing the letter or instructing for the letter to be posted.

McLeod has also been subpoenaed to give evidence in this trial.

Roberts-Smith is suing the Age, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Canberra Times for defamation over a series of ­reports published in 2018 that he alleges are defamatory because they portray him as someone who “broke the moral and legal rules of military engagement” and committed war crimes including murder.

The 42-year-old has consistently denied the allegations, saying they are “false”, “baseless” and “completely without any foundation in truth”. The newspapers are defending their reporting as true.

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