The story of the runaway homeless man who surrendered after 29 years on the run | Sydney

SSix weeks before Darko “Dougie” Desic surrendered to Dee Why Police, he shared his dilemma with one of the few companions he trusted in his adopted country. The 64-year-old had spent 29 years on the run after one of Australia’s most daring prison escapes.

The dilapidated house he called home – so dilapidated he and his roommates placed an umbrella over the outhouse – had been sold as property prices in Sydney Northern Beaches peaked during the pandemic, making Desic homeless.

After three decades of living in plain sight in the suburb of Avalon, Desic has decided to go to confession to a companion. For understandable reasons, the unlikely priest who goes to confession wishes to remain anonymous.

“Two years ago, I invited Dougie over for Christmas lunch,” his companion said. “I bought him a present, a new guitar. He had picked up an elder from the council clean-up and had learned to play on his own. So I bought him a voucher. Two weeks later he came back with a song he said he wrote for me.

“Dougie said he’s never been invited for a Christmas or a birthday in 30 years. He also said it was the first gift he had received since his father gave him a plastic Daffy Duck when he was a child in Croatia.

Darko Desic later revealed that he escaped from Grafton Prison in 1992 and has lived under the radar ever since.

Darko Desic surrendered to police nearly 30 years after escaping from Grafton Prison, telling a friend, “I committed the crime, so I’m going to deal with it.” Photograph: New South Wales Police

The reason he walked or took a bus for each job? Because he couldn’t apply for a driver’s license.

Why had he pulled out his teeth with pliers? Because he had never been able to register for Medicare. Or Centrelink, a bank account, credit card, local RSL membership, passport, or anything that implied proof of identity and membership in contemporary society.

“The six weeks before Dougie surrendered were terrible,” said his companion, who offered him a spare room for a few weeks. “’Dougie, you’re 64,’ I said. “We have to come up with a survival plan. “

“But Dougie said, ‘Dude, I committed the crime, so I’ll take care of it.’ Around many cups of tea he said, “All I can do now is be honest. I’m going to turn myself over to the police, but I don’t want anyone in trouble for knowing me.”

Desic left his temporary accommodation to live in the tramp camps in the thick bush above the sand dunes of Avalon so as not to involve his companion. Before leaving, he practiced staying in his room for hours.

“I need to get used to a small space again,” he told his companion. “I have been there once and it is a difficult thing to do.”

The day before his surrender – Sunday, September 12 – the journeyman said he would drive Desic to Dee Why police station.

“I offered to offer him a last meal of freedom, but I could see in his eyes that his decision was made.

“There were a few tears when I dropped him off at the main Avalon bus stop. But he insisted that none of his friends should be blamed for his misdeeds.

A parable of this global pandemic

When Darko Desic appeared in Sydney Central Criminal Court from a police cell in Surry Hills on September 14, his extraordinary secret life made headlines not only in Australia but around the world.

Why did a fugitive who made such a daring prison escape and escaped recapture for three decades – living in one of Sydney’s most picturesque and expensive suburbs – suddenly decide to surrender?

His story seemed like a parable of this global pandemic, Covid-19 claiming another victim. After 29 years of keeping their heads down, moving from one paid job to another, barely staying above the poverty line, living in a series of dilapidated shared excavations and never letting people s ‘get too close to him for fear of revealing his past, he seemed Darko Desic had reached the end of his tether.

sign saying "free doggy"
The revelation that a prison escapee lived in Avalon divided the community. Some think a criminal shouldn’t be backed, while others say Desic should get a second chance. Photograph: Steve Meacham / The Guardian

Being locked up was better than being unemployed and homeless in lockdown. As a police source told AAP: “He surrendered to have a roof over his head. ”

The power of the Desic saga has sparked arguments from publishers and filmmakers. After being sentenced to three and a half years for cultivating marijuana, he was afraid of being deported at the end of his sentence to his homeland. Yugoslavia was collapsing into a civil war which is now considered the last genocide in Europe. He then made the decision to escape from prison.

When news broke in Avalon on September 15 that the fugitive who had been accused by detectives of “escaping legal custody” was a local, dismay reigned.

“Does anyone here know Dougie?” Shouted an enterprising Channel Seven reporter inside the town’s Miter 10, assuming that as a handyman he would have visited the local hardware store often. As it turned out, few in Avalon knew him – which is exactly what he wanted.

And although he is a self-taught and highly esteemed stonemason specializing in fireplaces and walls, Desic has never been able to afford his own tools for his livelihood and the occasional wad of $ 200 a day.

Since 2015, Rob Hornibrooke, fencer and deck builder, lived next door to Desic. “We would chat from time to time, but he was rather reclusive. He helped one of our tenants move out and was very nice to her.

The community of Avalon is divided. Some people think that “he is a criminal – why support him?

Others say he should get a second chance – illustrated by a hand painted sign on Avalon Road.

It reads: “Free Dougie”.

“I don’t deserve this support”

Avalon businessman Peter Higgins, co-founder of Mortgage Choice, was at Avalon Beach “on this beautiful Sunday” when Desic visited.

Like most local adults, Higgins did not venture into the native forests on the dune ridge where the escapee spent his last two nights at liberty.

Higgins, 61, heard about Desic’s plight alongside his daughter, Belle – a psychotherapist like his mother, Rebecca.

“Belle said, ‘Dad, why don’t we start a Go Fund Me campaign to help this guy? We have a voice, he doesn’t.

Her the target was initially $ 30,000, but with $ 26,000 already raised, she increased the stake to $ 50,000.

Originally, the funding was to cover legal fees and the eventual reintegration of Desic into the community of Avalon.

However, Higgins was able to use his business contacts to secure the pro bono services of a leading criminal enterprise, McGirr & Associates. Principal Paul McGirr and his partner Simon Long visited the prisoner at the Silverwater Correctional Complex for an hour last Tuesday.

“He had no idea of ​​the community support behind him,” says Long. “He was completely upset and humiliated to the point of saying, ‘I don’t deserve this support.’

“Darko told us that he had always tried to be honest and hardworking since his escape from prison, but that he always kept people at bay for obvious reasons.

“He was very worried about the interest of the media. Apparently he had told friends that he knew his story would end up in the headlines. He worried about it. But at the same time, he wanted people to know both why he had escaped from prison and why he had surrendered, ”Long said.

On September 28, Darko Desic will again appear via audio-visual link from his cell in Silverwater Prison.

His legal team is hoping to persuade the court to downgrade “escape from detention” – which can result in a maximum jail term of up to 10 years – to a non-custodial sentence doing meaningful work in his adopted community.

Anthony Desic, 29, had no idea his cousin was still in Australia until he saw the news last week and thought, “Wait, it’s Darko. He’s supposed to be in Croatia!

Desic was sponsored by Anthony’s father Nikola Desic to come to Australia in 1975 from what was then Yugoslavia. Both had grown up in Jablanac, an Adriatic port now part of the Croatian Republic.

Young Darko was an engineer, working on ferries from Dubrovnik and Split on the Dalmatian coast to Venice. Then he was drafted into the Yugoslav army.

“But then he deserted,” said the companion he confided in, “came to Australia and knew he could never be deported there as a deserter once Yugoslavia descended into the Balkan wars. “

Nikola Desic, his uncle, becomes his mentor. “They worked on the same farm in Argents Hill, near Nambucca, NSW, and helped each other a lot,” says Anthony, Nikola’s son.

Anthony is too young to remember Desic’s visit to his father when he escaped prison using, it seems, a pair of bolt cutters. “But Dad had only good things to say about him, saying he had a warm heart, worked hard, and helped people whenever he could.

“He also told me that Darko visited him after the prison break and told me that he was going back to Croatia. This was the last time we heard it.

“I never met him,” Higgins says, “but I’m pretty sure he never knew the police stopped looking for him, or that he was granted Australian citizenship in 2015.

“The community support for him has been incredible. Locals gave him a house, a job and at least $ 26,000 to get back on his feet. No longer a family that wants to reconnect.

“I look forward to the day when he can walk the streets of Avalon with his head held high, shoulders back, and able to say, ‘This is who I am!

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Daniel Lange

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