On August 5, 1993, in the city of Nowra in the New South Wales state of Australia, Gunn-Britt Ashfield drove one of her five children, John, 6, to the Shoalhaven Hospital. She told hospital personnel that a teenage gang had attacked John while the family was walking through a park.
John’s older brother, then 8, was interviewed on TV about the attack. His voice trembled as he said, “We were going to buy milk and bread when four boys said, ‘Come here. We want to bash you up.’”
John had indeed been “bashed up.” Bleeding from his nostrils, his hands swollen, his small body covered with more than 100 bruises, doctors at Shoalhaven determined that he needed more extensive treatment than was possible at their hospital. A helicopter airlifted the beaten child to the Westmead Hospital in Sydney. By the time John arrived at Westmead, he was brain dead. He was placed on a life-support system which was switched off at 6:45 p.m. the next day and he was pronounced dead.
Many Australians were deeply sympathetic to this family and outraged by the horrors they had seemingly suffered at the hands of a bunch of brutal adolescents. People telephoned the police station offering their sympathies to the victimized family as well as offering information they thought might help catch the nefarious gang of teenage monsters.
However, the family’s story soon unraveled. It was learned that Gunn-Britt Ashfield, 25, believed that John had inappropriately touched his sister Melissa, 3, in her private area. Exactly why she believed this has never been definitely determined as Melissa has denied making this accusation against her brother.
Gunn-Britt told her live-in boyfriend, Austin Allan Hughes, 20, about John’s supposed bad behavior. Austin said John should not “get away with it.”
Austin confronted the child in the kitchen. The man kicked the boy’s bottom, slapped him, and ordered him to his room.
Gunn-Britt and Austin soon went into that room and began punching and kicking the boy. They also beat him with an aluminum curtain rod.
John’s four siblings watched this horrifying and bizarre punishment. The other children were ordered to help beat John. Two of the older boys complied. One of John’s brothers refused and was himself beaten.
As he was beaten, John sobbed and said, “I’m really sorry. Don’t do this to me. I’m sore. I’m sorry.”
Austin taunted, “You scream like a little girl.”
As John continued crying, his stepfather pulled a girl’s dress out of a cupboard, shoved it over John’s head, and forced his arms through the sleeves.
“Get it off, get it off,” John begged. “I’m not a girl.”
Then a phone book was put on John’s head and his mother and stepfather took turns beating on the top of the phone book with a hammer. Finally, after being brutalized for a period of from three to four hours, the boy lost consciousness.
Gunn-Britt picked up the limp body. She took John to the bathroom where she ran a cold shower and put the child under it. Then she switched to a hot shower.
It was several hours before she took him to Shoalhaven Hospital. Before doing so, she instructed the other children to tell the story about John being attacked by teens in a park.
Both Gunn-Britt and Austin were charged with murder.
John’s four siblings, who ranged in age from three to eight, were taken into the custody of the local Department of Community Services (DoCS).
Dr. Barry Wilkens, head of the children’s intensive care unit at Westmead Hospital, reported that John’s injuries indicated he had been repeatedly slugged and kicked. He explained that John had bruises on “his back, his bottom, his head, [and] his face.”
During John’s funeral, his father, Brian Ashfield, wept bitterly over the small white coffin.
In interviews with reporters, Brian Ashfield complained that he had warned the DoCS that Gunn-Britt was hot-tempered and violent with the children. Indeed, the DoCS had received no less than 35 reports that there were special problems at the Ashfield and Hughes residence.
John’s uncle, Andrew Ashfield, complained to a reporter, “DoCS knew that she was violent, and knew that she was troubled but they didn’t take the kids until after she killed one of them.”
Gunn-Britt appeared in court on August 6, 1993, the same day John died. Barefoot and wearing blue jeans and a green parka, Gunn-Britt sat in the dock with her head down. She tried to cover her face with her long blonde hair. She shook and sobbed as she was charged with murdering her son. Her attorney did not enter a plea and did not apply for bail. The judge remanded her into custody.
Austin was also brought into court and charged with murder. No bail application was made for him and he was also remanded.
The brutality of the child killing, together with the initial attempt to mislead people with the concocted gang attack story, left much of the public outraged against the diabolical duo. A crowd of over 150 people gathered on the street before the courthouse to express their anger toward Gunn-Britt and Austin. “We all feel used and cheated,” angry local resident Kevin Talbot told a reporter. “First we were told one thing and then another.” Some people waved placards and some shouted insults at the arrested couple.
Both Gunn-Britt and Austin were convicted and each was sentenced to 21 years in prison. Each appealed and their sentences were reduced to 19 years with a minimum of 14 years to serve behind bars.
Authorities announced plans to parole Austin in 2009. Several of John’s relatives attended a hearing in hopes of preventing the parole. John’s father Brian Ashfield had died but Brian’s fiancée Wendy Campbell read a statement written by John’s sister Melissa. That statement said, in part, “It is very hard every time parole comes up. We are forced to bring back the flashbacks. I will never be able to see my brother. I will never be able to get to know him.” The statement elaborated that while Austin “wants to get out two years early” Melissa “never got those two years with my brother.”
Despite public opposition, Austin was paroled from prison in December 2009 after serving 16 years. Banned from working with children, he was reported to plan to reside with relatives at a farm.
In 2011, the New South Wales Parole Authority announced plans to parole Gunn-Britt, who had changed her name to Angelic Karstrom. The first name appears oddly ironic as her cruel conduct toward her own child makes her seem anything but “angelic.”
Much of the public was outraged by the parole. However, authorities pointed out that they would have to release her in 2012. Paroling her before then would make it possible to monitor her conduct and see how she behaved under parole restrictions. Electronic monitoring was one of her parole conditions.
The woman’s daughter Melissa, 17, spoke out against paroling her mother. “I have not seen my mother since I was 11,” Melissa stated. “The last time I saw her [in prison] I pulled her hair and slapped her. I have flashbacks to what happened. She tried to blame me. She tried to get us to help her bash John. She tried to say that John touched me. He never touched me.”
Melissa told reporters her life has been haunted by John’s tragic death. Immediately after it, she went into foster care. She ran away from one home shortly after being put in it. Then she shuffled between foster homes. She was briefly placed in a nunnery. She got pregnant at 16 and miscarried. Melissa recalled “drinking alcohol” and “doing crazy stuff” to try to deal with her confused feelings. However, at the time she was interviewed in 2011, she made a point of saying she was in therapy and trying to straighten out her life. She said that she could never reconcile with her mother. “I can never forget what she did,” Melissa explained. “I will never forgive her and I will always hate her.” Melissa continued that she had a son of her own so she had to concentrate on the present and future. “I have to put it behind me and focus on my family,” she related.
Like Melissa,Wendy Campbell publicly spoke out against the parole saying she had “promised Brian” that she would attempt to block parole for either of those who killed John.
Appearing before the NSW State Parole Authority, Melissa called her mother “a sick and twisted woman.” Melissa also yelled at her mother who appeared in the room through a video link. “I’d say to Angelic Karstrom to rot in hell!” Melissa exclaimed. “She’s not remorseful.”
Nevertheless, Angelic Karstrom was paroled on August 15, 2011. She had been in prison for 18 years when she walked out of the John Maroney Prison dressed in black pants, a black jacket, black boots, and a white shirt. Escorted by parole officers, she was taken to a residential facility to serve a year on parole. She clutched a single blue garbage bag filled with belongings.
Neither Austin Allan Hughes nor Angelic Karstrom has made any public statement about their heinous crime.
Sources on following page.