Kidnapping inspires community service

AUSTRALIA Day was an opportune time for Ray Argento to reflect on the inspiration for his service to the community.
The South Gippsland Shire councillor told the gathering at Mirboo North’s Australia Day service on Friday he had sought to repay the community who helped him and other victims of the Wooreen Primary School kidnapping on February 14, 1977.
Ray was just nine at the time.
“It probably set me on the path of wanting to give back to the community,” he said.
Ray has since served many roles with the Country Fire Authority and last year was mayor of South Gippsland.
He recalled how the nine students and headmaster Robert Hunter were kidnapped at gunpoint by Edward John Eastwood, who was on the run from Melbourne Remand Prison where he was serving time for a similar kidnapping of students from the Faraday school.
Mr Hunter thought the kidnapping was a practical joke, an initiation given he had started in the role days earlier.
Eastwood tied up Mr Hunter and taped his mouth, chained the students, and forced them all into a truck. Eastwood left a note on the school door saying the teacher and students had gone on a nature walk and would be back in half an hour.
At Mirboo North, Eastwood posted a ransom note demanding the release of 22 inmates, $1 million and a sizeable amount of Latin cocaine, or threatened to kill his hostages.
The letter was sent to the editor of the Sunday Observer in Richmond, addressed to the education minister. Eastwood continued on to a hideout he had prepared in the Mullungdung State Forest near Yarram.
Eastwood’s plan began to unravel when he collided with a log truck on Grand Ridge Road, leaving his truck perched precariously on the edge of a steep drop, only held up by posts marking the roadside.
He forced two men from the log truck and ordered them to lie in the drain, along with Mr Hunter and the children, who had experienced motion sickness en route. Given his mouth was taped, Mr Hunter had to swallow his vomit. Ray sustained a blood nose from the impact of the crash.
Another log truck arrived on the scene and Eastwood also held its two occupants hostage, along with two elderly ladies who later came by in a campervan.
The hostages, now numbering 16, were taken to Eastwood’s forest hideout in the campervan, equipped with food stolen from the Woodside General Store.
That night, the boys slept in the campervan, the ladies and the girls outside, and the men remained chained to a tree.
“We did not even know where we were,” Ray said.
Back at Wooreen, parents contacted police after waiting for their children to arrive from the so-called nature walk and the community joined the search.
“That says to me a lot about Australia Day because the community rallied around to search for us,” Ray said.
Sergeant Brian Malone was notified of the missing truck drivers and stumbled across the crashed truck and the van with the school children’s bags inside. He then knew of the foul play at hand, but still the children waited for help.
It was not until one of the truck drivers, Robin Smith, escaped that night, ran five kilometres to a farm house and raised the alarm, that police knew where the children were.
“We owe him (Robin) our lives because without Robin’s help, who knows what would have occurred,” Ray said.
Sgt Malone arrived at the farmhouse early in the morning but unarmed as he had forgotten his gun. Robin directed him to the site, but in the meantime, Eastwood realised Robin had escaped.
He bundled his hostages into the campervan and drove past Sgt Malone, waving his gun at him. A chase ensued and the campervan entered the South Gippsland Highway and Eastwood turned for Sale.
Oncoming drivers flashed their vehicles’ lights to warn him of the impending police roadblock, unaware of who he was. Eastwood rounded the blockade, shooting at police and the officers returned fire.
At a second roadblock, a police officer risked his life to shoot out the rear tyres of the campervan, bringing it to a stop, as Eastwood fired at him.
Eastwood demanded pepper from the ladies with the intention of throwing it in the eyes of the police and jumped out of the van, only to be shot in the ankle by police and be arrested.
Ray, in the front seat, learnt a bullet had been lodged in the door next to him.
Sgt Malone flagged down a passing milk delivery van and ordered the driver give the children bottles of milk, saying they deserved it.
That driver was Bernie Brewer of Toora, who still tells Ray he owes him for the bottle of milk, plus interest.
Eastwood had originally planned to kidnap the students of Allambee South Primary School but had become lost and stumbled across the Wooreen school instead.
Eastwood was released after 16 years in jail and is now a truck driver in Bendigo. Ray noted he was not one of his Facebook friends.
Eastwood wrote a book about the ordeal but its sale was banned in Victoria.

Touching speech: Australia Day Ambassador to Mirboo North, Jason Yeap OAM, philanthropist, with South Gippsland Shire Councillor Ray Argento, who was among the children kidnapped from Wooreen Primary School in 1977.

Short URL: http://thestar.com.au/?p=23962

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