Second review of Aiia’s tragic story

David Hickie, former editor-in-chief of the Sydney Morning Herald and Sun-Herald, looks beyond the headlines in the coverage of crime

BOOK REVIEW: Murder in Melbourne: The untold story of Aiia Maasarwe by Alex Mitchell (2020)

David Hickie

DAVID HICKIE WRITES: Over Xmas/New Year I read Kate McClymont and Vanda Carson’s forensically detailed tome Dead Man Walking: The murky world of Michael McGurk and Ron Medich.

By far the most intriguing elements are provided by all the new and additional descriptions of the background histories, from childhood, of each of the eventual criminal players.

In the same vein, Alex Mitchell’s probe beyond the obvious headlines into the background histories of the individuals tragically climaxing in the horrific murder of Aiia Maasarwe provides readers with an interest in the fields of criminal sociology, psychology and psychiatry with much food for thought. Always there is almost unbearable grief, anguish and distress for the victim’s loved ones; but there is also a trail of similarly disturbing cataclysm remaining for the perpetrator’s clan. And for the professional criminologists, the same question always remains: how did it come to this?

The great value in books like Mitchell’s and McClymont/Carson’s is that they provide so much more evidence to be assessed – beyond that available in day-to-day media coverage – in understanding the disturbing forces behind the how, when, where and why which eventually came together with such calamitous results for the victim, his/her family, the relatives and friends, the investigating authorities and society in general.

I know well the background dilemmas which digging beyond the headlines trigger: 30 years ago, wishing to probe the forces which may explain the deep criminal psychology behind the career of an admitted multiple murderer, I spent four years tape-recording the often blood-curdling story of Chow Hayes, Australia’s most notorious gunman and gangster of the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

Chow Hayes: troubled childhood

Hayes was aged three when his father left for World War 1; badly injured, his father then spent six years in hospital overseas, before returning home to die soon after. Hayes was reared by his mother and grandmother, and with no male influence in the house, avoided any schooling before age seven and then managed to have two schools each believe he was at the other until he was 11.

At that point the authorities struck, and he was taken from home and sent to Guildford Truant School – his first stint in enforced detention as part of a population of 120 social misfits, all aged between 10 and 14.

Inevitably by age 16 Hayes took the next career step to a stint in Gosford Boys Home (for pushing a bundle of newspapers off a tram) and as he noted: “All the kids up there later became heavy criminals and many ended up being killed in underworld activities. Of the boys at Gosford, I finished up seeing 99% of them again at Long Bay Jail later on.”

Hayes detailed committing many horrendous acts of violence and multiple cold-blooded murders in his standover career (including several for which he evaded conviction); it was an abhorrent tale of a social pariah of the most heinous variety.

But at the end of the book, I posed the classic criminologist’s conundrum: “The observer, perhaps seeking an explanation for Chow Hayes’s brutal, violent, largely wasted life, is left to ponder one nagging, overwhelmingly simply question: did a fatherless young boy – whose shocking crime was to skip a spot of school – really need to be sent away and locked up in a state institution at 11 years of age?”

The reader is left with so many of the same troubling perplexities after reading Mitchell’s description of murderer Codey Herrmann’s background story.

In the end, I was left with the assessment that innocent victim Aiia Maasarwe was a genuinely inspiring individual, and the enduring never-to-be-repaired tragedy remains for her heart-broken family.

But Codey Herrmann’s backstory – like those of Chow Hayes, and of Michael McGurk and his criminal cohorts – raises so many layers of ‘below the surface’ potential inquiry for those seeking insight into the mysterious, often unexplained motivations which compel an appallingly deviant criminal psychology.

David Hickie is a former editor-in-chief of both The Sydney Morning Herald and The Sun-Herald, and former investigative journalist on The National Times.


In January 2019 21-year-old Aiia Maasarwe’s brutally murdered body was found near a tram stop in Melbourne. A 20-year-old Aboriginal man, Codey Herrmann, is now serving a 36-year sentence after pleading guilty to the terrible crime.

Many unanswered questions remain. In this compelling book, veteran journalist Alex Mitchell investigates.








  1. This little book added important aspects to my awareness of this terrible event, which I discuss below. My interest in reading it was because of one thing that I found so sad at the time, which was reported in the media and repeated in Alex’s book. The murderer Codey Herrmann said he wanted to be in jail because “I’ve gained a safe place to sleep. I get fed three times a day. I have a shower and I’ve also gained a sense of hope that maybe one day, if I behave myself in custody. I might get to go to a prison that has good programmes.” That he lived in close proximity to others in a Melbourne suburb for most of his life, yet was so unloved and alienated from his surroundings, is profoundly depressing. The book gives much of his background which suggests his statement can be taken at face value.

    It raises a wider question. How is it that our capitalist society, in the name of individual freedom, allows such damaged and lost souls to float freely for so long? But he was not unnoticed: Herrmann had a long history with the welfare sector, but no priors for anything at all. Until, that is, he commits one unspeakable act against another person, and is sent to prison for 36 years. The unreported big picture here is the low bar set by the welfare state for helping him deal with life – keeping his nose clean with the law is good enough to leave him alone. Alex wants a wider discussion about the justice system, but in fact he documents here its pervasive middle class superiority and conservative bias. Herrmann’s lack of worth resonates with the recent WA case of an orphan abused by the Christian Brothers, whose barrister argued for a lower level of damages because the “child did not come from a well-off, middle-class family with professional parents and great prospects.” I suspect a more useful and fundamental question is how we get our self-described “community” to absorb and give meaning to its outsiders.

    His sibling’s account of their early life, and Herrmann’s recent personal history, is also provided here. Mysterious aspects of the case are discussed, namely his Facebook entries and another incident the night before, which was officially unrelated. Other important aspects are highlighted, including the generous and dignified response from the victim Aiia’s family. Also, the official Israeli response which only showed interest in citizenship status, ignoring her Palestinian identity. The Australian media, suborned to Israel’s interests for so long, echoed this denial of her humanity, which was noticed here and abroad, but it is no surprise that Gay Alcorn is noted as an exception.

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