Six weeks before Darko “Dougie” Desic handed himself in to Dee Why police, he shared his dilemma with one of the few mates he trusted in his adopted homeland. The 64-year-old had spent 29 years on the run after one of Australia’s most audacious prison breaks.
The dilapidated house he called home – so rundown he and his fellow tenants placed an umbrella over the outside loo – had been sold as Sydney’s Northern Beaches property prices peaked in the pandemic, making Desic homeless.
After three decades living in plain sight in the suburb of Avalon, Desic decided to confess to a mate. For understandable reasons, the unlikely priest taking his confession wishes to remain anonymous.
“Two years ago, I invited Dougie for Christmas lunch,” his mate says. “I bought him a present, a new guitar. He’d picked up an old one from the council clean-up and taught himself to play. So I bought him a proper one. Two weeks later he came back with a song he said he had written for me.
“Dougie said he’d never been invited for a Christmas or a birthday in 30 years. He also said this was the first present he’d received since his father gave him a plastic Daffy Duck when he was a kid in Croatia.”
Darko Desic later revealed he’d broken out of Grafton gaol in 1992, and had lived under the radar ever since.
The reason he walked or caught a bus to every job? Because he couldn’t apply for a driving licence.
Why had he pulled out his own teeth with pliers? Because he’d never been able to register for Medicare. Or Centrelink, a bank account, credit card, membership of the local RSL, passport or anything that entailed proof of identity and being a member of contemporary society.
“The six weeks before Dougie handed himself in were terrible,” says his mate, who offered him a spare room for a few weeks. “‘Dougie, you’re 64,’ I said. ‘We need to come up with a survival plan for you.’
“But Dougie replied: ‘Mate, I’ve done the crime, so I’ll deal with it.’ Over many cups of tea, he said, ‘All I can do now is be honest. I’ll hand myself into the police, but I don’t want anyone getting into trouble for knowing me.”
Desic left his temporary accommodation to live in the hobo camps in the thick bushland above Avalon’s sand dunes so as not to implicate his mate. Before he left, he practised staying in his room for hours on end.
“I need to get used to a small space again,” he told his mate. “I’ve been there once and it’s a hard thing to do.”
The day before his surrender – Sunday 12 September – the mate said he’d drive Desic to Dee Why police station.
“I offered to buy him a last meal of freedom, but I could see in his eyes his mind was made up.
“There were a few tears when I dropped him off at the main Avalon bus stop. But he was insistent none of his friends should be blamed for his misdeeds.”
A parable of this global pandemicWhen Darko Desic appeared before Sydney’s Central Criminal court from a police cell in Surry Hills on 14 September, his extraordinary secret life became headline news – not just in Australia but around the world.
Why did a fugitive who pulled off such a daring prison breakout and eluded recapture for three decades – living in one of Sydney’s most picturesque and expensive suburbs – suddenly resolve to hand himself in?
His story seemed a parable of this global pandemic, Covid-19 claiming another victim. After 29 years of keeping his head down, moving from one cash-in-hand job to another, barely keeping above the poverty line, living in a series of rundown shared digs and never letting people get too close to him for fear of revealing his past, it seemed Darko Desic had reached the end of his tether.
Being locked-up was preferable to being unemployed and homeless in lockdown. As a police source told AAP: “He handed himself in to get a roof over his head.”
The potency of Desic’s saga has brought pitches from publishers and film-makers. After being sentenced to three-and-a-half years for growing marijuana, he became afraid he would be deported at the end of his sentence back to his homeland. Yugoslavia was collapsing into a civil war that is now regarded as Europe’s last genocide. He then made the decision to escape from prison.
When the news broke in Avalon on 15 September that the fugitive who had been charged by detectives with “escape from lawful custody” was a local, there was consternation.
“Does anyone here know Dougie?” shouted an enterprising Channel Seven reporter inside the town’s Mitre 10, surmising that as an odd-job man he would have often gone into the local hardware store. Few Avalon residents, it turned out, knew him – which is exactly the way he wanted it.
And despite being a self-taught, highly regarded stone mason who specialised in fireplaces and walls, Desic could never afford his own tools on his subsistence and occasional $200-a-day wad of cash.
From 2015, Rob Hornibrooke, a fencer and deck builder, lived next door to Desic. “We’d chat now and again, but he was pretty reclusive. He helped one of our tenants move out and was very kind to her.”
Avalon’s community is divided. Some feel that “he’s a criminal – why support him?”
Others say he should be given a second chance – exemplified by a hand-painted sign on the road into Avalon.
It reads: “Free Dougie.”
‘I don’t deserve this support’Avalon businessman Peter Higgins, co-founder of Mortgage Choice, was at Avalon beach “on that beautiful Sunday” when Desic handed himself in.
Like most adult locals, Higgins hasn’t ventured into native woodlands on the crest of the dunes where the escaper spent his last two nights of freedom.
Higgins, 61, heard about Desic’s plight alongside his daughter, Belle – a psychotherapist like her mother, Rebecca.
“Belle said, ‘Dad, why don’t we start a Go Fund Me campaign to help this guy? We’ve got a voice, he hasn’t.’”
Her target was initially $30,000, but with $26,000 already raised she’s upped the ante to $50,000.
Originally the funding was to cover legal costs and Desic’s eventual rehabilitation into the Avalon community.
However Higgins was able to use his business contacts to secure the pro bono services of a top criminal firm, McGirr & Associates. Principal, Paul McGirr, and associate Simon Long visited the prisoner in Silverwater Correctional Complex for an hour last Tuesday.
“He had no idea of the community support behind him,” Long says. “He was completely overwhelmed and humbled to the point of saying, ‘I don’t deserve this support’.
I’m pretty sure he never knew the police had stopped looking for him, or that he had been granted Australian citizenship in 2015“Darko told us that he had always tried to be honest and hard-working since his prison escape, but he’d always kept people at arm’s length for obvious reasons.
“He was very apprehensive about the media interest. Apparently he’d told friends he knew his story would end up on the front pages. He was concerned about that. But at the same time, he wanted people to know both the reason he broke out of jail and the reason he turned himself in,” Long says.
On 28 September Darko Desic will again appear by audio visual link from his cell in Silverwater prison.
His legal team hope to persuade the court to downgrade “escape from custody” – which can carry a maximum prison sentence of up to 10 years – to a non-custodial sentence doing useful 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: “Hold on, that’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.
The young Darko was an engineer, working on ferries from Dubrovnik and Split on the Dalmatian coast to Venice. Then he was conscripted into the Yugoslav army.
“But then he deserted,” says the mate he confided in, “came to Australia and knew he could never be deported back there as a deserter once Yugoslavia descended into the Balkan Wars.”
Nikola Desic, his uncle, became his mentor. “They worked on the same farm in Argents Hill, near Nambucca, NSW, and helped each other a lot,” says Nikola’s son, Anthony.
Anthony is too young to remember Desic visiting his father when he broke out of prison using, reportedly, a pair of bolt cutters. “But Dad only had good things to say about him, saying he had a warm heart, was hard-working and helped people whenever he could.
“He also told me Darko visited him after the prison escape and said he was going back to Croatia. That’s the last we heard from him.”
“I’ve never met him,” Higgins says, “but I’m pretty sure he never knew the police had stopped looking for him, or that he had been granted Australian citizenship in 2015.
“The community support for him has been amazing. Locals have offered him a home, a job, and at least $26,000 to set himself back on his feet. Plus a family which wants to get back in touch.
“I look forward to the day he can walk through Avalon’s streets, holding his head high, his shoulders back, and able to say: “This is who I am!”