The lover of Stuart Rattle has been sentenced to a 13-year minimum jail sentence for his murder.
THE lover of murdered interior designer Stuart Rattle could serve just 13 years behind bars despite treating him like a prop out of the black comedy A Weekend at Bernie’s.
Michael O’Neill, 48, made cups of tea and watched episodes of Dr Who with his dead lover, who he murdered in their South Yarra home by cracking him over the head with a frying pan and strangling him with a dog lead.
The grim charade went on for five days as O’Neill carried on his day-to-day life pretending Mr Rattle was alive, buying him food and wine.
He eventually burnt down their home and made it loom like an accident.
Justice Elizabeth Hollingworth today sentenced him to a maximum of 18 years in jail, with a 13-year minimum, on charges of murder and arson.
Stuart Rattle’s family at the Melbourne Supreme Court including sisters Diane Newlands and Katrina Lewin and mother Jill Rattle. Picture: Nicole Garmston
Michael O’Neill arriving at the Supreme Court this morning. Picture: Nicole Garmston
A 1998 portrait of Stuart Rattle.
In handing down her decision, Justice Hollingworth said she accepted O’Neill killed the respected interior decorator in December 2013 in a snap decision and did not plan to profit from his death.
“I accept that you killed Mr Rattle in the heat of the moment, without any forethought, for reasons which are deeper and more complicated than those suggested by the prosecution,’’ she said.
But Mr Rattle’s sister Katrina Lewin said her family was “shattered” over the jail sentence handed down.
“We are very disappointed by the meagre sentence that has been imposed,” Ms Lewin said.
Stuart Rattle’s home office displayed his stylish sensibilities.
“We miss him everyday. Stuart was a very special person, he was very talented, charming and generous.
“It’s a waste of a beautiful life.”
Justice Hollingworth described O’Neill’s crime as “toward the lower end’’ of her sentencing range.
“Mr Rattle’s behavior in no way justified your killing him. But the circumstances in which you killed Mr Rattle, including the history of the relationship and your fragile psychological state, mean that the sentence imposed for murder must be towards the lower end of the range for that offence,’’ she said.
The court had previously heard O’Neill killed his partner of 16 years after he ridiculed him for refusing sex.
“He was stunned, and I got the dog lead and wrapped it around his neck,’’ he told police during his record of interview.
One of Rattle’s luxurious interiors in Toorak. Picture homesoftherich.net
“I pulled it into a tight knot and he said to me, ‘Michael, don’t do this’. That’s all he said.”
“I made him a cup of tea.’’
O’Neill said he washed Mr Rattle’s bloody face before tidying up and placing him in a bag on the bed.
He continued to live his life as normal, taking the couple’s fox terriers for walks and catching up with friends.
“I did everything – two of everything,’’ he told police.
At one point he even sat by Mr Rattle’s body in bed and watched a Dr Who DVD, adjusting the TV as if to give the dead man a better view.
And he texted a friend from Mr Rattle’s phone, pretending he was still alive.
O’Neill said he sat and talked to Mr Rattle’s corpse.
Justice Hollingworth said the argument that led to Mr Rattle’s death was a repetition of the controlling and belittling behavior that had characterised their relationship.
“This was certainly not the first time he had called you a ‘frigid bitch’ for refusing his sexual advances. But this time you snapped … You finally had enough.’’
Ms Hollingworth said she took into account O’Neill suffered from a personality disorder and depression and was likely to do hard prison time.
She also took into account his early plea of guilty, clean criminal history and genuine remorse.
Designer Stuart Rattle at his beloved Musk Farm in Daylesford.
THE first Malvern Rd tram of the day had just trundled by when Michael O’Neill rose from his bed, went to the kitchen, selected a saucepan, and clobbered his long-time partner.
Stuart Rattle was barely awake at the moment of the solitary blow: now groggy and bleeding, he asked O’Neill to stop as his lover wrapped a dog lead around his neck and pulled tight.
The scene made little sense, nor did what followed – as described by the murderer, who “loved” the victim as “a good person” who had been “so good to me”.
O’Neill mopped up the blood – Rattle didn’t like mess, he later explained. Unsure of what to do next, O’Neill steered a belated course for civility. He made his victim a cup of tea.
Over the next five days O’Neill would apologise to his deceased partner, who he lay in their bed. He would cry for his loss and pretend that Rattle, 53, wasn’t dead at all.
O’Neill, now 48, prepared meals for Rattle and shifted the TV so they could watch shows together. Yes, it sounded “very strange”, he later admitted.
“There’s something psychopathic about it all,” one of Rattle’s closest friends told the Herald Sun soon after O’Neill’s arrest, “but I’m not sure he’ll ever give a reason why he did it.”
Stuart Rattle’s home office after the fire.
When Rattle’s body was discovered after a fire, the friend was instantly suspicious. O’Neill blamed a candle, yet Rattle was terrified of having open flames inside. The friend led a hushed chorus of suspicion. He “knew” then that O’Neill was being untruthful because “he couldn’t even look me in the face”.Slipperiness punctuated a police interview O’Neill gave soon afterwards. For five hours, O’Neill danced around the truth about the suspicious death. Once he finally confessed, he repeatedly said that he had killed Rattle for no good reason at all.
Then, he had lived with his victim and made his excuses. Then, he had botched the cover-up (which he explained as an attempt to offer his decomposing friend some “dignity”). O’Neill’s version of these events stands alone – the only other witnesses were the couple’s three fox terriers.
The police interview of last December was released last week during O’Neill’s committal hearing. It depicted a twitchy subject who lapsed between the past and present tense. O’Neill asked for wine and declined an offer of food because he doubted the police could offer anything he would like.
It was the denouement, if you believe others, after months of emotional struggle for O’Neill. One telling features O’Neill, suffering crying fits and bouts of hysteria, having to be hidden at times from Rattle’s interior design clients.
O’Neill had been a waiter at an upmarket Italian bistro when he and Rattle met in the late 1990s. Rattle’s renown as an interior designer was reaching full bloom. His talent would later shine most publicly at his beloved Musk Farm near Daylesford, yet his gifts extended to painting.
A great source of pride between the couple, it’s said they had confided, was that their initial bond had produced one almost instant tangible effect. O’Neill was in love – and off the anti-depressants.
Late last year, after 16-odd years, O’Neill was back on the prescription medication, according to one story told by friends. The drugs, say observers, were not working. O’Neill was manic, more “flighty” than usual, and always in a rush. He seemed mentally “unwell” and was making mistakes – well, even more mistakes than usual.
The day before Rattle’s death, at a Point Nepean Rd mansion in Portsea, O’Neill apparently botched the deliveries on the final day of a two-year project. The arguments, or “sh–fight”, flared throughout the day. The assumption among Rattle’s friends is that Rattle, finally, wanted O’Neill gone, at least from the business, if not the beds they shared as well.
‘In some ways you can see it all unfolding, when you look back on it’ – a friend of Stuart Rattle
This tallies with the closest O’Neill came to a motive during his police interview, a week after he killed Rattle. In response to the 1565th question put to him in a seven-hour interrogation, he said: “I was frightened and scared I’d lose him. I couldn’t face that.”
During the interview, O’Neill had offered up lies that could never survive scrutiny. That Rattle had died in the fire. That so-and-so had seen Rattle on days after Rattle had died. He later said “there wasn’t any, like … discord” between the pair. Indeed, he said, they had been “very happy”.
It seems, however, there was much heat between the pair when Rattle died. There had been for months. The trappings of their lifestyle projected success from afar. They drove a Range Rover. Rattle avoided champagne that was not French.
Yet the shininess did not paste over the fissures of time. Rattle had been noticeably vocal in his frustration with O’Neill, who was increasingly unable to cope with the pressures of running Rattle’s high-fuss business.
“In some ways you can see it all unfolding, when you look back on it,” says someone who knew Rattle for decades. “But the horrendous result just seems absolutely unimaginable. Michael must have just snapped.”
STUART Rattle was feeling low. One afternoon, a couple of years’ back, he took a bottle of wine to a friend’s, a fabric house owner, and sat down for a chat. He had a simple question. Why aren’t I as big as Thomas Hamel?
Hamel, from Sydney, is considered Australia’s most feted interior designer. Some experts, especially south of the border, felt Rattle was more talented.
Rattle lacked naked ambition: he’d rather perfect a garden than conquer the world, and he had, by then, tired of rich clients and their absurd demands. He’d prefer to stare at shades than study balance sheets. Yet the fabric house owner, it’s said, had a simple answer to the simple question: “Because of Michael.”
A magazine spread featuring Stuart Rattle’s work.
O’Neill was chatty, whereas Rattle, outside the fields of his expertise, tended to shrink in a crowd. Against this, the world was offered many images of Rattle, the brand name, whereas next to no photos exist of O’Neill. Rattle was said to be “Mumsy”, yet O’Neill was almost entirely off the public stage. For years, it worked. Their private teaming oozed charm and happiness.O’Neill was vague about his past: he had arrived from Ireland, via Terang. Any reticence he showed about broadcasting his origins was not unusual: many in high-end circles are said to thrust forwards without a nod to the past.
O’Neill was comfortable, over a cup of tea, talking classics or history or literature. Observers agree he had a wicked sense of humour that at times belonged in a skit show series. “He was very knowledgeable about a lot of things, which surprised us, because he could be so useless on another level,” says one.
Furniture maker Kim Moir used to speak to O’Neill almost every day. Moir had supplied Rattle for decades: they were so reliant on one another that they had agreed to retire at the same time.
Before his death, Rattle told Moir that he couldn’t afford to retire. He was open about his love of finer things, and the spending that such tastes demanded. “French champagne costs the same in the country as it costs in the city,” Rattle told Moir, who – as Rattle had often joked – would make Rattle’s coffin.
Moir says he didn’t want the every day contact with O’Neill, but that he had learned long ago that O’Neill would otherwise mess up the latest shape, size, order or delivery. He was “incompetent”; worse, he “refused to believe he was incompetent”.
O’Neill’s forgetfulness and “perpetual lying” cost a lot of money. “You can’t go to the customer and say we’ve made a mistake, we’ll have to order another $40,000 worth of fabric,” Moir says. “You just wear it and you have to order it again. It drove us nuts. It drove Stuart nuts.”Rattle had told Moir that he had sacked O’Neill many times. O’Neill had promised not to make the same mistakes and to adhere to new systems and turn up to daily meetings. Nothing worked.
Crises erupted regularly. O’Neill took great pride in solving what he had created. “It was all about trying to get around Michael and trying to get Michael to toe the line,” Moir says.
Plainly, Rattle tolerated such problems for a long time. He was known to describe O’Neill, with affection, as “f—— lazy”. But there had been recent shifts: Moir was frustrated to be with-held payments from Rattle’s business, considering the intimacy of their business relationship over many years.
Armadale antiques dealer Graham Geddes first identified “something wrong in the camp” several years ago. The growing complexities of the business were beyond O’Neill’s abilities, he says, and the pressures buckled Rattle and O’Neill’s personal relationship.
O’Neill had become more disorganised in recent years. Money owed to Geddes, who had first befriended and mentored Rattle more than three decades earlier, was not getting paid.
“I believe that Stuart was trying to pull the pin on the relationship,” he says. “That was definitely the go. Stuart had mentioned to me that he couldn’t cope with Michael and that he was incompetent.”
Another supplier, Hans Unger of Renaissance Parquet, says Rattle’s business faced the universal pressures of being owed money. “Towards the end, Michael was making horrible mistakes daily and I think that’s what put them into a real s—fight that day in Portsea,” Unger says. “I don’t think he was coping with the pressure of everything around him. It was all getting a bit too much.”
O’Neill himself volunteered the subject of mistakes during his police interview. He said Rattle always forgave him. O’Neill also admitted that he tried to cover up his mistakes, “almost like something a five-year-old does”.
He had recently tried a therapist, he said, because it had been a continuing issue. Yet the treatment hadn’t worked. He “couldn’t cope with it”.
“I sometimes create my own little bubble and pretend things don’t happen,” O’Neill said.
What was said on the final night of Rattle’s life? Did Rattle withdraw years of habitual forgiveness and trigger a dreadful choice described by Geddes as a “psychiatric problem”?
According to O’Neill, in his police interview, it had instead been a night of physical intimacy.
THE Malvern St shopfront still bears Rattle’s name. Untended, it is an indictment to Rattle’s vibrancy. The blinds are drawn. Spiders have set up home. Dogs no longer trot and growl behind the window.
It’s said shrines to Rattle are better kept in private surrounds, where grief-struck clients know not where to turn. One woman has resorted to endless cups of tea and mournful reminiscences with a passing parade of home improvers who can never substitute for Rattle.
A while back, unable to source Rattle’s materials, she grew desperate. Someone with a black sense of humour suggested two options – a seance, to ask Rattle, or to try writing to Michael in jail.
The woman opted for the letter. Word is she got a helpful reply.