Laura and Colleen Irwin were assaulted and killed by William John Watkins, who had a long criminal history. Photo: Facebook
WA Police will gift a pair of police handcuffs to the parents of two Melbourne women who were raped and murdered in one of Australia’s most heinous crimes.
In an extraordinary move that is believed to be a West Australian first, senior police have granted permission for Victorian couple Shirley and Allan Irwin to be given the handcuffs – a symbolic token the couple says represents their bond with the policeman who shot dead their daughters’ killer.
Shirley Irwin has formed a special bond with policeman Shane Gray. Photo: Simon Mossman
The Irwins’ two daughters, Colleen, 23, and Laura, 21, were sexually assaulted and killed at their unit in Altona North, in Melbourne's western suburbs, in January 2006. Their killer, William John Watkins, 38, fled Victoria and was shot dead by WA policeman Shane Gray three days later after he attacked the officer in a routine traffic stop near Karratha in WA’s Pilbara region – 5000 kilometres from Melbourne.
Since then, the Irwins have forged a close bond with Sergeant Gray and his family, ever thankful that he spared them the heartache and stress of a protracted court trial. They also share a special friendship with another WA police officer Jon Groves, who assisted Sergeant Gray in the aftermath of the shooting.
The handcuffs, which were carried by Sergeant Gray on the fateful day in 2006, have been mounted in a frame with a plaque engraved: “Two families forever linked in love and support” and will be presented to the Irwins later this year.
WA Police makes provisions for retiring police officers to keep their equipment and accoutrements, including the baton and handcuffs. But this is believed to be the first time special dispensation has been granted for police equipment to be presented to someone outside the force.
“The handcuffs belonged to Shane on that day and when I heard about them, I asked what happens to them now? I asked if I could have them,” Shirley Irwin told Fairfax Media in an emotional interview.
Mrs Irwin said she had been touched by the symbolism of the handcuffs, which she believes represented the strong links between the Gray, Irwin and Groves families. She wanted them forever locked as a symbol of the ongoing love and friendships shared by the families.
“The significance of those handcuffs not being used on that day, for some reason, I got such a feeling, such an unbelievable feeling,” she said.
“I was blown away. To me, the meaning of them not being used on that day was the meaning that that bastard was dead. If those handcuffs had been used, he would still be alive and probably out [of jail] now. For us, what happened was the best outcome.
“To me, I felt that he [Watkins] will never hurt anybody again.
“I see our friendships as a bond that will never, ever be broken. And while these handcuffs are locked together, that’s the way I feel about Shane [Gray] and Jon [Groves] and their families.
“These are such special friendships that you just can’t describe. It’s something that is so within your heart, it’s incredible.”
Mrs Irwin said she planned to put the handcuffs on display in her Toolamba home in Victoria’s Goulburn Valley, alongside a portrait of Sergeant Gray and his framed bravery award, which has held pride of place for several years.
Similarly, photographs of Colleen and Laura are displayed in Sergeant Gray’s home along with a framed letter from the Irwins – heartfelt words from grieving parents struggling to comprehend the agonising and terrifying last hours of their beautiful young daughters.
"We know you were doing your job and what you were trained for, but we don’t think you know just how much everyone that walks this earth thanks you," Shirley and Allan Irwin wrote to Sergeant Gray in early 2006, days after their daughters were killed.
"Your strength and courage...has taken the fear away...You have made sure that there will be no future victims and families to ever suffer the enormous pain that we are living with now. What a wonderful person you are."
Sergeant Gray said he was not surprised at the Irwins’ interest in the handcuffs, citing that Mrs Irwin was a spiritual woman.
“It’s a symbolic link between the families and the girls. They are the handcuffs I had on the day,” he said.
“We see this as the link between us all now. It’s quite remarkable how it has all unfolded.
“Shirley is an amazing woman...and she’s very much into that symbolic stuff.
“None of us can understand how they live with such a loss. You can imagine it but how you’d actually deal with it I just don’t know.”
The families visit each other at least once or twice a year and keep in daily contact by phone.
Sergeant Gray said he had never heard of special dispensation being granted so a civilian or victim of crime could have police equipment.
“There’s precedent for me when I retire to get my equipment retired with me, so the handcuffs and baton framed, but I’ve never heard of it being done for a civilian before,” he said.
Sergeant Gray’s wife, Mandy, has previously said the support and friendship from the Irwins had helped her family’s recovery after the shooting and she kept in almost daily contact with Mrs Irwin.
At a coronial inquest into Watkins’ death in 2007, WA Coroner Alistair Hope found that Sergeant Gray had acted in self-defence in shooting the fugitive.
But the coroner said the case highlighted the need for urgent reform and recommended the abolition of single officer patrols and a national database so police could immediately check histories of interstate criminals.
Watkins, an estranged husband and a father of two, had a long criminal history dating back to 1985 and a hefty list of convictions for serious assaults, dishonesty and burglary. In May 2000, he was jailed for rape, aggravated burglary and theft and was on parole at the time of Colleen and Laura’s deaths.