A policeman demonstrates the use of capsicum spray. Photo: Jason South
GREGORY Caulfield appeared barefoot on the balcony of a ninth-floor apartment. A police officer looking up at the ageing commission tower thought he seemed like a crook trying to escape.
Seconds later, Caulfield broke through the treetop, his body almost hitting a group of police officers. He landed at the base of the twin towers that loom over Nicholson and Palmerston streets at Carlton North in Melbourne.
Senior Constable David Caridi watched from his motorbike and became the only witness to the death of the 34-year-old father of two from Bendigo. ''He looked frantic,'' Caridi wrote in a police statement.
Kylie Mitchell and her father John Caulfield at the spot where Gregory Caulfield fell to his death. Photo: Pat Scala
Caulfield had a history with illicit drugs and had been arrested more than 50 times, but none of those had gone like his confrontation with police on November 16, 2011.
Caulfield and his mate had broken into an apartment to retrieve some belongings when the police burst in, the Coroner's Court heard. A female officer released capsicum spray into the crowded apartment entry, hitting Caulfield, her target, and also three officers who were trying to arrest him.
As the police ran out to get air and chase another suspect who made a break for it in the commotion, the door locked behind them.
Before anyone could get back inside, Caulfield had plunged to his death. Detectives were arriving at the scene, and the officers involved were separated to give statements.
A coroner will make findings into the death in coming months. But already Caulfield's family are asking questions - they want to know if he is dead because police used inappropriate force in the arrest, why negotiations were not tried, and how a man affected by spray came to be left alone on a balcony nine floors up.
Victoria Police has since abandoned spraying for a more precise capsicum delivery method following concerns about secondary exposure in cases such as Caulfield's, among other issues.
The decision has been followed by a case in the Federal Court in which an Australian Federal Police officer based in Canberra is appealing against his sacking from the AFP for allegedly using capsicum spray on a man before putting him in a headlock and then into a police vehicle.
The Australian Federal Police Association is financially backing the officer's case because its national president, Jon Hunt-Sharman, said a dangerous precedent would be set by sacking an officer who used a non-lethal tool.
In Melbourne, Caulfield's sister, Kylie Mitchell, said her brother was terrified of capsicum spray. ''He would have panicked,'' she said.
Caulfield was an active father, son and brother who ended every conversation with his two young boys by saying, ''I love you bigger than the world.'' That phrase is now echoed by his sons nearly two years later. ''To his kids and his family, he was a big somebody,'' Mitchell said. And John Caulfield chuckles as he describes his eldest son's ability to light up a room. ''Greg had a way of making everything seem OK,'' he said.
Shortly before his death, Caulfield volunteered to be a prosecution witness in a high-profile murder case. He had rejected the reward for evidence that could assist police, telling his family he wanted to see peace for the family of the young murder victim.
''They wouldn't have seen that side of Greg,'' John said. ''He was the first person to help anyone.''
The day he died, Caulfield was back on drugs and preparing for a court appearance over a string of stealing charges he had told his father would mean another jail term. A post-mortem toxicology report revealed evidence of amphetamines, phentermine and clonazepam in his system.
When he was in the Nicholson Street building, Caulfield was said to be helping a friend, a man called Jesse Gane, recover his mobile phone from an acquaintance. Nobody was home when they arrived at the man's door. A tenant across the hall called 000 at 2.09pm and reported two men attempting to break into the apartment, armed with a crowbar.
The radio call went out for a ''hot burg'' and the first responders were a North Melbourne unit made up of Senior Constable Lindsay Lee and Constable Nathan Gurney; and a Fitzroy unit made up of Constable Rasmus Christensen and Constable Lucinda Saunders.
Gane was halfway through a large hole in the bottom half of the door when the police stepped out of the lift on the ninth floor. He muttered something like ''this is not what it looks like'' as they handcuffed him. Gurney and Christensen were the first to enter the one-bedroom apartment, where there had been a report of a disturbance the night before. Gurney found Caulfield in the bedroom hiding against the bed and shouted ''Mate, get the f--- up'', the inquest heard.
Caulfield got up, and Gurney reached for his arm.
''Before I could tell him he was under arrest he started to resist,'' Gurney said.
Caulfield was not described as throwing punches or brandishing a weapon in the police accounts of what happened. ''It wasn't punches being swung, but it was resisting and I guess I'd best describe it as swinging his arms,'' Christensen said.
After a short struggle, Caulfield and three officers moved into the entryway of the apartment as Saunders stepped forward from the door and released her spray. Caulfield dropped to the ground, his hands reaching up to cover his face, his body coiled into the foetal position, the coroner was told.
''I thought he was debilitated enough that he wasn't going to get back up,'' Gurney said. ''I could feel the [spray] starting to affect my eyes and my breathing.''
Christensen looked up through the mist to see Gane making a break for it in the corridor, he told the inquest. He yelled something like ''he's getting away'' and the two female officers chased him. Gurney said the other officers left the apartment ''to avoid the remaining [spray] in the room''.
''There was enough that it was stinging my hands and my arms and stinging my eyes and I was coughing,'' he said.
Caulfield was left in the room. Neither officer considered taking him as they left, the inquest heard.
As the last officer left the room, the door closed and locked behind him. A detective who inspected the locking mechanism months later believed it must have been manually locked, and the implication was this was done by Caulfield.
With the benefit of hindsight, Saunders said she should have warned her colleagues before releasing the spray, but responded ''no'' when asked if she would have done anything differently.
Senior Sergeant Matthew Hargreaves from the Centre for Operational Safety said officers were trained in persuasion, without the need to ''become physical'', but there was ''no clean line'' on when to abandon talk for action.
An internal police review of the death found the response by the four officers involved had been ''appropriate and in accordance with training''.
''Four police were dealing with two suspects who were non-compliant and attempting to evade arrest,'' Superintendent Graham Kent wrote in the report. The review and a debrief ''did not reveal anything of material concern to Victoria Police''.
Standing on the spot under the tree where his son died, John Caulfield said he would never believe what happened inside the ''scummy place''.
''I'm just hoping the coroner will make some recommendations so it will never ever happen again,'' he said.
He has finally ordered a headstone for his son's grave, more than 18 months after his death. ''Much loved son, loving father, brother and uncle,'' it says.
And right down the bottom of the stone, it reads: ''Love you bigger than the world.''
Deputy State Coroner Iain West has invited written submissions and is expected to hand down his findings into the death by the end of the year.