Len Lawson was a comic book artist, multiple rapist and dual murderer who became one of Australia’s longest-serving prisoners
The old Grafton jail in northern New South Wales is sitting empty after the opening of a huge new facility nearby but eerie reminders of one of its most notorious inmates remain.
Multiple killer and rapist Len Lawson spent the last 15 years of his depraved life behind Grafton’s walls and died in one of its cells after almost half a century in custody.
Before Lawson embarked on the first of a bizarre series of violent crimes in 1954 he had been a successful artist and photographer, creating and drawing popular comic books.
He was 26 when he escaped the hangman’s noose and 76 when he dropped dead alongside another monstrous murderer.
Throughout his two stints in prison – the last for 41 straight years – Lawson continued his obsession with art, painting canvasses and later adorning Grafton jail’s walls.
While Corrective Services NSW does not know what will happen to the abandoned prison, it has declared Lawson’s murals will be preserved along with other heritage items at the site.
The signed murals include what appears to be a cougar watching over a valley, an island sunset, and a marlin breaching the ocean in front of a couple fishing from a boat called Bluebird.
Works by other inmate artists will also be maintained but it is Lawson’s paintings that have sparked online discussion about whether he should be remembered at all.
‘Not one shred of evidence this man ever existed should be left for the public to admire,’ one Facebook user wrote. ‘His fingerprint on earth should erased.’
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The old Grafton jail in northern New South Wales is sitting empty after the opening of a new facility nearby but eerie reminders of one of its most notorious inmates remain. Multiple rapist and killer Len Lawson painted murals on prison walls including this big cat looking over a valley
While Corrective Services NSW does not know what will happen to the abandoned Grafton prison, it has declared Lawson’s murals will be preserved along with other heritage items at the site. This Lawson painting features a marlin and a couple fishing from a boat called Bluebird
Len Lawson first went to prison in 1954 after raping at least two of five models he lured to Terrey Hills. In 1961 he raped and murdered a 16-year-old girl at Collaroy and the next day shot dead a girl, 15, at Moss Vale. He is pictured outside the Coroner’s Court on January 25, 1962
Another asked, ‘Why should we preserve anything done by this oxygen thief, money would be better spent on youth programmes or homeless for example.’
A third said: ‘D grade artist who shouldn’t have been given paints. A length of rope would have been more appropriate.’
The artistic merit of the works is debatable but they will forever be a reminder of one of the most infamous violent sex offenders in Australian criminal history.
Leonard Keith Lawson was born in Wagga Wagga in the NSW Riverina district in 1927 and grew up to be an accomplished artist and handy photographer.
By his mid-20s Lawson was a well-known illustrator, earning £70 a week for producing the Action Comic’s characters The Lone Avenger and The Hooded Rider.
Lawson was living with his wife Betty and three young children at the beachside northern Sydney suburb of Manly when on May 7, 1954 the 26-year-old lured five young women to Terrey Hills for a modelling assignment.
Before Len Lawson embarked on the first of a bizarre series of violent crimes in 1954 he had been a successful artist and photographer, creating and drawing popular comic books. His best-known work was illustrating The Lone Avenger (pictured)
Len Lawson spent a total 48 years in prison, the last 15 behind the walls of Grafton jail (pictured). The prison closed after 127 years of operation on August 5 following the opening of the 1,700-bed Clarence Correctional Centre at nearby Lavadia on July 25
What followed would outrage the nation and lead to Lawson becoming the first man in NSW to be sentenced to death for sex offences since 1897.
Lawson supposedly explained his actions in a police statement later tendered to court.
‘I told the girls they were to model sports clothes and swimsuits but my real reason for taking them to Terrey Hills was to have intercourse with them,’ he said.
Lawson claimed he picked up the models, aged 15 to 22, from the city and drove them to Terrey Hills where took photographs of them before and after they all had lunch.
‘Then I went to my brief case and took out a .22 sawn-off rifle and said to the girls, “I am suffering from cancer and I am going to do away with myself”,’ he told police.
‘If you behave yourselves no harm will come to you.’
Len Lawson spent his last 15 years in the minimum and medium security sections of Grafton jail. He is pictured reading a true crime book – which featured a chapter on his own appalling offending – in his cell at Grafton four years before he dropped dead aged 76
Works by other inmate artists will also be maintained but it is Lawson’s paintings that have sparked online discussion about whether he should be remembered at all. One of Lawson’s paintings at Grafton jail is pictured
Lawson bound the models’ hands and feet with sash cord, gagged them with adhesive plaster and stripped off their clothes. He raped at least two and sexually assaulted the others.
The next month Lawson faced trial in the Central Criminal Court at Darlinghurst where his lawyer attempted to portray his victims as promiscuous liars who had consented to sexual intercourse.
After three days of sensational evidence and two hours of jury deliberation Lawson was convicted of two counts or rape and one of assault with intent to commit rape.
‘No court case perhaps in Sydney’s history, and certainly none since the war, has aroused such great public interest,’ Truth newspaper reported.
Justice John Clancy condemned Lawson to death, telling the prisoner, ‘I accept the law as it is, and think it is a proper and just law.’
‘In your case, I think there is no reason why the law should not be be carried into execution.’
By his mid-20s Lawson was a well-known illustrator, earning £70 a week for producing the Action Comic’s characters The Lone Avenger (pictured) and The Hooded Rider
Attacks on the victims’ character continued with the parents of one 16-year-old violated by Lawson reporting she had been persecuted with anonymous mail posted to her and dropped in the family’s letter box.
One letter included a photograph of the girl pinned to a picture of Lawson along with the note: ‘This body cost a man his life. Is there no shame?’
Len Lawson: A timeline
1927: Leonard Keith Lawson is born in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales
May 1954: Lawson takes five models to Terrey Hills in northern Sydney where he rapes at least two and assaults the others
June 1954: The 26-year-old is condemned to death but the sentence is commuted to 14 years.
May 1961: Lawson is released after serving just seven years
November 1961: Rapes and murders 16-year-old Jane Bower at Collaroy. Shoots dead 15-year-old Wendy Luscombe at Moss Vale. Subsequently sentenced to life in prison
June 1972: Takes 23-year-old dancer Sharon Hamilton hostage at knife-point at Parramatta jail
November 2003: Dies at Grafton jail
Lawson’s death sentence was commuted to 14 years in prison, only half of which he served.
While authorities refused to allow Lawson to draw comics in prison he claimed to have embraced Catholicism and painted religious iconography.
Released in May 1961, Lawson befriended 16-year-old Jane Bower who he took to his northern beaches apartment at Collaroy on November 6 on the pretext of sketching her.
Instead, when she refused his sexual advances he knocked Jane out with a sand-filled sock, tied her wrists, took off her clothes and raped the girl.
As she was regaining consciousness Lawson strangled her then plunged a knife into her chest. With an eyebrow pencil he wrote on her torso, ‘God forgive me, Len.’
Lawson fled the murder scene and drove 160km south to Moss Vale where he wrote a letter to his parents.
‘Dear Mum and Dad,’ the note read. ‘I have done a shocking and dreadful thing. Whatever this monster that moves into my body is, it did it with a vengeance this time.’
Later that day Lawson stormed the Moss Vale Sydney Church of England Girls’ Grammar School campus and took students hostage in the chapel.
In an ensuing siege he shot dead 15-year-old Wendy Sue Luscombe and in April 1962 was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Back inside jail Lawson seemed to be a model prisoner, teaching other inmates to paint, but had one more outrage against women left to go.
In June 1972 he tried to take 23-year-old dancer Sharon Hamilton hostage at knife-point after she had performed in a concert in the Parramatta jail chapel.
Other inmates helped free Hamilton but she never recovered from the attack and in February 1978 committed suicide.
At Lawson’s trial for the Terrey Hill rapes his lawyer attempted to portray his victims as promiscuous liars who had consented to sexual intercourse. Two of the models are pictured on the photographic assignment before Lawson pulled a gun and bound and gagged them
Lawson received a further five years on his sentence and continued to paint, producing portraits of prison officer’s families and pets from photographs and donating works to charities.
Portraits were his speciality and it was once suggested he could enter the Archibald Prize but that idea was shelved because the competition required painting a live model.
Lawson spent his last years at Grafton where he was unable to explain the origins of his criminality when interviewed by 60 Minutes in 1999.
‘Whatever happened to me mentally, I’m damned if I know,’ he told reporter Liz Hayes.
‘Because I had a normal upbringing, I had a great family life. Just something happened up here and I went haywire. I just completely lost the plot.’
Lawson had been a resident of Unit C4 in the minimum security Area B of Grafton for 15 years when John Heffernan was appointed the prison’s governor in late 2003.
Portraits were Lawson’s speciality and it was once suggested he could enter the Archibald Prize but that idea was shelved because the competition required painting a live model
Some of Lawson’s illustrations featured buxom beauties. Former Grafton jail governor John Heffernan says he remained ‘a dirty old bastard’ until the day he died in November 2003
‘He was a dirty old bastard,’ Mr Heffernan told Daily Mail Australia. ‘Even in his later years he was still a sexual predator.’
Mr Heffernan said when Lawson attended the prison’s medical clinic he would unzip his fly in front of female staff, and enticed younger male inmates into his cell to sexually assault them.
John Heffernan was the governor of Grafton jail when Len Lawson died in his cell
Lawson’s final acts of sexual deviancy were covered in detail in Mr Heffernan’s book The Last Governor.
‘On taking up duty at Grafton one of the first issues to be brought to my attention was that Lenny Lawson had recently been discovered involved in some “inappropriate” activity”,’ Mr Heffernan wrote.
For some reason which was never explained to Mr Heffernan the lifer had been allowed to have a video recorder in his cell.
Lawson had used that machine to painstakingly record graphic clips from SBS movies and splice them with small segments of children’s shows such as Sesame Street and even footage from women’s tennis events.
‘Altogether he had created a collection which would later be described by a psychologist as “voyeuristic sexual fantasies” and “sexual perversion”,’ Mr Heffernan wrote.
A decision was made to transfer Lawson to another prison but before that could happen he was to be moved into Grafton’s medium security section.
Artworks (pictured) created by inmates other than Lawson will be preserved at Grafton jail along with other features deemed to be of heritage value
Mr Heffernan went into Lawson’s cell one morning to explain what was about to happen to him.
‘The first thing I noticed was the smell,’ he wrote in The Last Governor. ‘It was a musty odour borne from poor housekeeping mixed with the distinctive aroma of painting oils and old canvas.’
Mr Heffernan wrote the cell was like a time warp, crowded with old paintings, drawings and photographs.
‘When I eventually turned my attention to Lawson himself I was surprised to some extent.
‘Even into his 70s Lawson still had the good looks from years past; with grey hair falling down over his collar he had grown a beard all, no doubt, designed to contribute to at least trying to appear like the artist he once dreamed of becoming.
‘He moved as you would expect a man of his age to move, slowly; while his small dark eyes though hidden behind glasses seemed piercing, almost as if he was looking through you not at you when he spoke.’
Lawson showed Mr Heffernan around his cell, knowing the purpose of the governor’s visit.
After Lawson was found making inappropriate videos of footage spliced together from SBS films, children’s programs and women’s tennis he was moved to a the more secure part of Grafton and put into a cell with Allan Baker, (pictured) an even more notorious inmate
In 1973 Allan Baker and Kevin Crump (pictured) raped and murdered 35-year-old mother Virginia Morse in Queensland after kidnapping her from north western NSW and shooting dead farm labourer Ian Lamb. Both men were sentenced to life and are still in jail
‘As he proudly showed me his artwork it seemed all too apparent that his talent had been wasted,’ the retired prison officer wrote.
‘Lawson was a truly gifted artist, it was just a pity that such a gift had been bestowed into the body of a demonic, sex crazed murderer.’
Eventually the pair got to talking about Lawson’s imminent prison transfer, as Mr Heffernan recounted.
Mother-of-three Virginia Morse, 35, was kidnapped, raped and murdered in 1973
‘”Mr Heffernan, this is going to kill me,” Lawson said in emotional voice, “Do you have any idea how many years I have been here?”‘
‘”Sorry, Lenny,” I replied, “but you’ve blown it. The decision has been made and you will be reclassified and transferred.”‘
Mr Heffernan wrote that Lawson followed him out of the cell and repeated, ‘This is going to kill me.’
Orders soon came for Lawson to be moved to a more secure part of Grafton and Mr Heffernan put him in a cell with Allan Baker, an even more notorious inmate.
In 1973 Baker and Kevin Crump had raped and murdered 35-year-old mother Virginia Morse in Queensland after kidnapping her from north western NSW and shooting dead a farm labourer.
Baker had been in prison 40 years when Lawson joined him a cell in 2 Wing. Neither of the reviled inmates was happy to be living with the other.
On November 29, 2003, after about four days of the new arrangement, Mr Heffernan received a call at home to say Lawson had been found dead in the cell.
Mr Heffernan went to the prison and spoke to Baker who appeared to be ‘quite shaken’.
Lawson was unable to explain the origins of his criminality when interviewed by 60 Minutes in 1999 (pictured). ‘Whatever happened to me mentally, I’m damned if I know,’ he told reporter Liz Hayes
Corrective Services has engaged the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment’s Housing and Property Group to consider what to do with the old Grafton prison (pictured)
‘Baker explained that Lawson and he both got out of bed that morning at around the same time,’ Mr Heffernan wrote. ‘Baker started to make some breakfast while Lawson sat on a stool to watch.
‘In the middle of preparing some cereal Baker asked Lawson if he wanted some to which Lenny readily agreed.
‘Baker had his back to Lawson when he heard a thump and when he looked back Lawson had fallen from the stool, most likely dead before he hit the floor.’
Former Corrective Services Commissioner Ron Woodham did not lose any sleep over the death of rapist and murderer Len Lawson
A post-mortem examination found Lawson had severe coronary disease and had likely died of a massive heart attack.
Several months later Mr Heffernan received then Corrective Services commissioner Ron Woodham at Grafton for an inspection of the jail.
The two men were having morning tea in the sunshine of an outside garden when Mr Heffernan said to his boss, ‘Looks as if Lenny was pretty right when he said that move was going to kill him.’
‘Woodham’s face went a bright crimson and took on a thunderous look as he spun around on his chair to face me,’ Mr Heffernan wrote.
‘”And do you think I lost any f***in’ sleep over that!” he spat.’
Grafton jail closed after 127 years of operation on August 5 following the opening of the 1,700-bed Clarence Correctional Centre at nearby Lavadia on July 25.
Corrective Services has engaged the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment’s Housing and Property Group to consider what to do with the old prison.
‘No decisions have been made regarding any future uses for the site,’ a departmental spokeswoman said.
Murals including those painted by Lenny Lawson will be preserved along with ‘other heritage elements’.