Comic book artist, murderer and rapist, longest serving prisoner

Updated: Jan 4

It is hard to believe that someone with such creative talent could be as evil as comic book creator Leonard 'Len' Lawson.


By the time he died in Grafton Gaol, he had been incarcerated for 41 years, one of the facility's longest serving prisoners....for good reason.


Born in Wagga in 1927 to Keith and Eileen Lawson, Len had a normal, happy childhood and upbringing. He first came to prominence when he created The Lone Avenger, an Australian comic book hero, first appearing in the second issue of Action Comics in 1946. The comic ran for 13 years and sold up to 70,000 copies. He also created the characters The Hooded Rider and Diana, Queen of the Apes and Peter Fury.


The cover of one of Len Lawson's comics.


He had married Betty Jamieson at the age of 18 in September, 1946 and they would go on to have three children as his career continued to grow successfully. Then in 1954 a sinister side to Len revealed itself.


On May 7 Len hired five Sydney models from the June Dally-Watkins agency aged from 15 years to 23. He stated he wanted them for a calendar he was planning to publish. The atmosphere for the day was laid back as Len picked the girls up and stopped at St Leonards to buy sandwiches. He then drove them to Terrey Hills towards Sydney's northern beaches area and walked them through thick bushland.


It was there he took a sawn-off rifle from his backpack, loaded it and threatened the girls. He tied them up and removed their clothing. He raped two girls, tried to rape a third and indecently assaulted the other two. He was soon arrested and found guilty of the charges against him.


Len was sentenced to death and it was the first time such a verdict was deliberated in NSW for rape in more than 50 years. At this time Betty divorced Len and moved out of NSW. His death sentence was commuted to 14 years imprisonment and he was sent to Goulburn Gaol.


After seven years and exemplary conduct he was released on parole. It was to be one of the worst mistakes made.


On June 20, 1961 Len visited the Church of England Grammar School in Moss Vale, introducing himself to the headmistress Miss Jean Turnbull as an author writing a St Trinian's style novel and would love an opportunity to observe the girls.


Len Lawson. Copyright Handout.


Meanwhile Len had befriended 16-year-old Jane Bower and her family, saying he'd like to paint the young girl's portrait. Having gained their confidence, they let Jane go to Len's apartment where he knocked her out, tied her wrists and raped her. He then stabbed her with a hunting knife.


As the Bower family were hunting for Jane, Len had left the body at his flat and drove south to Moss Vale. He arrived again at the Church of England Grammar School with a rifle and over 160 rounds of ammunition. There were 150 students in the chapel along with headmistress Jean Turnbull. He held them all hostage, demanding to speak to three people.


The people he wanted to speak to included a nun who had visited him in prison, the reigning Miss Australia Tania Verstak and Olympic athlete Marlene Mathews. Miss Turnbull bravely offered her life to save her students and when he went to shoot, she jumped at him, grabbing the gun, trying to keep it aimed away from the young girls.


Five shots rang out as the headmistress and Lawson continued to fight for control of the gun. Students were also trying to stop him. The brave teacher finally got the gun off Lawson and threw it through the window where the police had by this time gathered. They subdued the artist shortly afterwards. One victim, 15-year-old Wendy Luscombe lay dying on the floor with a bullet to her chest. She died in the arms of a friend shortly afterwards.


The school and chapel are now deserted, a play area for explorers and vandals. Lawson was found guilty of Jane Bower's murder but wasn't tried for the death of Wendy Luscombe. Jean Turnbull received an MBE for her bravery.


Ten years later Len Lawson's evil side had another chance to come to the fore. A concert held at Parramatta Gaol saw three dancers mingling with prisoners after their performance. Len took the opportunity to grab dancer Sharon Hamilton and hold a knife to her throat. He was quickly overcome by other prisoners. He was sentenced to another five years prison, but Sharon would later take her own life, suffering post traumatic stress over the incident.


Interestingly, Len continued with his art, some of his murals are on the walls of the now closed Grafton Gaol. He also donated many of them to charities, raising thousands of dollars. By the time of his death at 76 years old in 2003, he had earned the title of Australia's longest serving prisoner having served 48 years altogether.


References


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