The Snowball Effect: how mateship turned to murder

The tale of how Noel Joseph Ingham came to be decapitated and buried in the Tasmanian bush.

Cadaver dog Bryson found Noel Ingham's remains in the bushland at Dulverton.

Cadaver dog Bryson found Noel Ingham's remains in the bushland at Dulverton.

The Burnie Lodge was the quintessential highway hotel. In the 1970s and '80s it was a hub for Tasmanian travellers of business and pleasure alike. The Scandinavian archway above the driveway spoke of an opulence and an entry to the wilds of North-West Tasmania.

But in 2014, 30 years and several ownership changes later, it was now a shelter for men at risk of homelessness. And that was where Noel Joseph Ingham met his murderer.

Noel met Darren Ward Gale in mid 2014, and the pair remained friends until Gale killed Noel and beheaded him to hide the evidence. They were both middle-aged, Noel was in his late 50s and Gale about 10 years younger. Noel was an alcoholic who was known to drink a cask or two of wine per day, and Gale was never far behind him.

FRIENDSHIP

By 2016 they had both moved out of The Lodge and into properties managed by Housing Choices, a not-for-profit organisation which provides affordable housing for low income earners.

They were both unemployed, though Noel had a habit of telling anyone who would listen about the many tens of thousands of dollars sitting in his superannuation fund. He would access that fund, withdrawing about $10,000 at a time, on medical grounds with a doctor's approval.

A lifetime of drinking and hard living had also given Noel a handful of serious health issues; he was blind in one eye, his bones were weak and easily broken, and he had liver cancer.

Gale was on a Newstart allowance and through Centrelink had completed an eight week carer's course before moving in to Noel's West Ulverstone unit on July 15, 2016 to be his live-in carer.

And by the end of that month, Gale had murdered Noel Ingham, decapitated him and buried his headless remains before throwing his head off the Victoria Bridge and into the Mersey River. He drowned his two little white bichon frise dogs, Boofhead and Kim, and discarded their remains alongside the burnt out remains of Noel's Jeep Cherokee.

He then started what would become a three year series of lies in which he would first deny knowledge of Noel's location, and then what his involvement in Noel's death had been once police charged him with murder.

An artist's sketch of Darren Ward Gale.

An artist's sketch of Darren Ward Gale.

At the end of a seven week trial in the Supreme Court in Burnie, a jury of eight women and four men unanimously found Gale guilty of Noel's murder after just four hours of deliberation.

The Crown prosecution painted Gale as a calculating and methodical liar, capable of changing his story to suit the circumstances and colouring it with enough detail to remain plausible, but the jury saw through his version of events and the absurd reasoning for his actions.

It was a surprise to many in the courtroom when Gale took the stand in the sixth week of the trial to tell the jury his story; an attempt to endear himself to their sympathetic nature.

Aside from occasionally swearing under his breath as he shook his head or cast a wide-eyed stare around the courtroom during the evidence of witnesses he disagreed with or disliked, Gale had been silent and reserved throughout proceedings.

And his defence lawyer Greg Richardson had declined to put Gale on the stand just days earlier when prompted by Crown prosecutor Jackie Hartnett.

But get on the stand he did, and proceeded to admit to many lies and horrendous acts; but he ultimately claimed he was not guilty of murder.

Noel's death was an accident, he said.

MURDER

Noel was a drinker, Gale said, and he would often drink a cask or two of wine each and every day. He took no care of himself, it was obvious, though he was clearly smitten with the two he regularly paid to have groomed. He also spent thousands of dollars on home and garden maintenance, and during the trial many neighbours appearing as witnesses told the court his garden was the tidiest in Colac Court.

But he took no care of himself.

Neighbours from Colac Court told the jury this as well, and the court heard Noel would often sit up late each night drinking and listening to country and western records so loud they could be heard around the cul-de-sac.

On the morning of July 28, 2016, Gale woke up about 3.30am to Noel's country music, and went to join him in the living room and began drinking. For about four-and-a-half hours the pair sat in the living room drinking cask wine and talking about country music before Gale passed out. In his story, Gale woke up some time later to Noel prodding him in the groin with the handle of an axe.

"F--- off, you old p---," Gale said to Noel.

Forensic scientists investigate the Colac Court residence where the two men lived before Gale murdered Noel.

Forensic scientists investigate the Colac Court residence where the two men lived before Gale murdered Noel.

"I thought he was only f---ing around, and I put my hand over my lap so he couldn't hit me," Gale explained to the court. Noel responded by beginning to hit Gale on the knees with the axe handle, first softly and then harder and harder.

On one of Noel's swings, Gale said he reached up with his right and caught the handle as it came down. The two men were standing now, facing each other with both hands on the axe handle. A brief struggle ensued, and Gale said he looked up and realised Noel was bleeding from a minor wound on his temple.

Collecting himself, he said he pushed Noel back down on the couch and walked out of the living room and back towards his bedroom.

"I thought 'I've had enough of this, I'm gonna pack my stuff and leave'," Gale said.

He claimed the pair had not often argued, and no witnesses claimed otherwise, but there had been a tension in the Colac Court unit in the two weeks since he had moved in.

Search crews roam the Dulverton bushland in November 2016.

Search crews roam the Dulverton bushland in November 2016.

An acquaintance of Noel's told the court she often spoke with Noel over the phone, and in late July 2016 she recalled Noel had said to her he regretted having Gale move into the unit.

Crown prosecutor Jackie Hartnett argued this regret stemmed from Gale's insistence on being Noel's carer, though Gale claimed Noel was the one pushing for the arrangement.

And it was this issue that had caused Noel to lash out with the axe handle on that morning, as he claimed Gale had not been doing the things a live in carer should be doing.

It was that issue that caused Noel to throw the axe handle at Gale's back as he walked down the hallway, where it hit him and bounced off, putting a hole in the drywall, Gale said.

Moments later, Gale says he heard a crash, and returning to the living room he found Noel had collapsed onto the fish tank and was now laying dead or dying from a serious head wound.

LIES AND EVIDENCE

Gale told the court he checked Noel's vital signs and began to panic.

"He was laying slumped across the couch with his head smack on top of the fish tank," Gale said.

"Everything was going through my head. 'What am I going to do' I thought; 'they're going to blame it on me. He's got two wounds in the side of his head'.

The first thing I thought was 'I'm gonna be blamed'.

Darren Gale

And that panic led Gale to commit those heinous acts which police told him on November 30, 2016, they could prove. It was four months since the last image of Noel was captured on CCTV leaving an Ulverstone medical clinic, and since Noel's Colac Court neighbour Victor Jamieson last saw him alive.

After the verdict, Ms Hartnett asserted Noel likely died from traumatic blunt force head wounds Gale inflicted. She said Gale decapitated Noel after death and disposed of the head to hide evidence of injuries which he could not explain.

Once I had started doing what I done it was like a big snowball. It got bigger and bigger and worse and worse and I didn't know how to stop it.

Murderer Darren Ward Gale

He responded that he did so to hide the injuries because he did not cause them, and also to prevent the body being identified.

But the cause of death, which has never been ascertained as Noel's head has never been found, is one of only a few places in this trial where the defence and prosecution differ in their version of events.

As Mr Richardson repeatedly said throughout the trial, much of the evidence brought forward by the Crown as evidence of Gale's guilt was not in dispute.

"You will not hear me challenge one word of evidence," Mr Richardson said. "There will be no challenge that he lied to the police."

Gale said he lied to cover up Noel's death. He said he lied to prevent someone falsely accusing him of murder. He told friends, family and neighbours Noel had gone to Hobart to undergo medical tests and he did not know when he would return. He kept Noel's mobile phone and sent text messages to himself from it to make it appear like Noel was still alive.

He left a note on the door of unit for the Housing Choices manager Glenda Kelly who was visiting to do an inspection, and signed it with Noel's name. And when Ms Kelly reported Noel Ingham as missing in October 2016, Gale lied in a statutory declaration to police.

"Once I had started doing what I done it was like a big snowball. It got bigger and bigger and worse and worse and I didn't know how to stop it," he said in court.

Still, they began to suspect him, and across the course of the next month would build a wealth of evidence against Gale with the use of vehicle tracking technology, covert surveillance cameras, phone tapping and a myriad of forensic evidence.

And the Crown wagered that when presented with this evidence alongside an accused murderer portrayed as a talented liar, a jury would see that Noel Ingham's death was not accidental, and Darren Ward Gale was responsible for his murder. And the Crown was right.

A sentencing hearing has been adjourned until June 28.