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She had everything to live for


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24-year-old Caroline, a successful model and a beautiful girl, had a dream life but it was brutally cut short

Caroline Byrne loved playboy Gordon Wood and was frightened of shady financier Rene Rivkin, but many believed it was Gordon Wood she should have feared.

But in the summer of 1994, 24-year-old Caroline seemed to be having the time of her life as a member of Sydney's smart set, a successful model and a beautiful girl who turned men's heads whenever she walked along an Australian beach or into a crowded room.

She had met 35-year-old English-born Wood the year before and had been captivated by his looks and charm and his tales of big game-hunting and pearl diving in the Pacific.
 
He was, he said, a traveller and adventurer but now he wanted to settle down in Australia and make some big money. Caroline was impressed. She liked the thought of a boyfriend with big money.    

She was less impressed when she found that her new partner had become involved with Rene Rivkin, a flamboyant Australian financier, who had recently finished a jail-term for $4 million worth of insider trading, but was now once more involved in big-league financial wheeling and dealing. He claimed that within months of leaving jail he was once more a millionaire.

He took on Wood as his assistant and negotiator and soon Caroline was warning her lover that Rivkin was a rogue who should not be trusted.

She urged him to "get out while you can" — a warning that was not heeded, and soon afterwards Wood and Rivkin were investigated by an Australian government inquiry into irregular share trading.

Wood was to tell a friend that he feared "Caroline knows too much about what has been going on and is likely to spill the beans about what Rene has been doing."

But she didn't, because early on the afternoon of June 8, 1995, Caroline's body was found at the bottom of a 100ft cliff at The Gap, a popular tourist spot on the southern headland of Sydney Harbour. First reports were that she had committed suicide.

Her family refused to believe it. They said Caroline was a happy healthy successful young woman with everything to live for. There was no reason on earth why she should take her life.

Further investigation by police came to a similar conclusion. Her body had been found "wedged like a spear" among rocks at the bottom of the cliffs and had no injuries to her legs and torso — unlike 20 other suicide victims recovered from the area in recent years.

At an inquest Wood claimed he was nowhere near the Gap at the time of Caroline's death but was lunching in downtown Sydney with two business associates, who confirmed his story.

He said he was then asked by Rivkin to take a political lobbyist to a business appointment. He said that he then went back to the flat he shared with Caroline and while waiting for her to return fell asleep in front of the TV.

When she was still missing he became alarmed and telephoned friends and colleagues but without success. At this point he was contacted by police and told that his girlfriend had committed suicide.

A Sydney inquest returned an open verdict but Caroline's father, Tony Byrne, was far from satisfied and campaigned tirelessly for a further investigation — which was eventually held.     
           
The results created a sensation: Expert opinion was that Caroline could not have jumped to her death. She could only have landed in the way she did if she had been hurled 30ft clear of the cliffs by a strong assailant ... and Gordon Wood was a bodybuilding enthusiast.

But Wood could not be questioned by the investigators — he had disappeared from Australia and his whereabouts were unknown. From then on, the case was regularly examined in the Australian media as one of the nation's most celebrated unsolved crimes. Certainly it had all the ingredients of a classic whodunit — the death of a beautiful model at one of Sydney's most notorious suicide spots, the connection to the notorious Rene Rivkin... and now the disappearance of the main suspect.

In fact Gordon Wood had travelled through the US and Europe before changing his identity and finding work in London as a business consultant for a high street bank using fictitious qualifications.

It would be nearly a decade before Australian police had enough evidence to mount a serious search for Wood and apply to have him extradited from the UK. When he was arrested, police discovered he had a one-way ticket to the US and was planning to leave the next day.

Police believed they had finally been able to catch up with Wood because he was no longer under the protection of the man who had helped him evade justice since 1995...

Rene Rivkin had committed suicide the previous year at the age of 61 after being banned for life from financial dealing. Rivkin had only recently been released from jail after serving another nine months for fraud and insider trading, much of it spent in the prison's psychiatric hospital.

But even from there he exerted a malign influence on police efforts to solve the Caroline Byrne murder case, confirming the view that the model had been murdered because she knew too much about Rivkin's private and professional life and had been preparing to spill the beans to the police in return for Wood's immunity from prosecution.

Rivkin had recently moved to a remote mansion at Darling Point, home of his elderly mother and it was there that he died from a drug overdose leaving a brief suicide note.

It was not until July 2008 that Gordon Wood, now 46 and described as a British-born playboy, appeared in court in Sydney  before Justice Graham Barr and a jury, pleading not guilty to the murder of Caroline Byrne in a hearing which was to last a record three months.

Prosecuting, Mark Tedeschi QC repeated the state's belief that Wood had killed his girlfriend on Rivkin's instructions to prevent her reporting his illegal business dealings.

Among over 70 prosecution witnesses was Professor Rod Cross of Sydney University, a leading expert on fall dynamics, who told the court he had conducted experiments which proved that Caroline Byrne couldn't have jumped unaided to where her body was found but must have been thrown.

The defence case, conducted by Terence Terracini QC, was based on the claim that Caroline Byrne had committed suicide and had a history of psychiatric problems. The jury heard that her mother had committed suicide and Caroline had made an attempt on her own life in 1992.

Caroline's doctor, author and TV personality Cindy Pan, said that she had been treating her for depression for two years. The condition had worsened about a month before her death and Dr Pan had last seen her patient only three days before she died.

"She told me she could not put her finger on exactly what she was unhappy about but that she had had the same thing three years earlier and had been put on medication which had helped."

Dr Pan said that Caroline "denied having thoughts of self-harm but I decided to refer her to a psychiatrist. The appointment was made for June 9, but she died the previous day".

In court Gordon Wood again denied that he was anywhere near the death scene and had a watertight alibi, but the jury didn't believe him. After five days of deliberation Wood was found guilty of murder and jailed for 17 years.

But he only served just over three. In 2012, 16 years after Caroline's death, Wood successfully appealed against his sentence and was released, a free man.

Today the case is still open as police yet again probe the death of a beautiful girl who, according to her family and friends, had everything to live for.

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