The Tragedy of the ‘Chadstone Sniper’
This article deals with suicide. If you need support, help is there for you by calling Lifeline, 13 11 14.
On a chilly August day in 1984, a scruffy-looking young man with longish dark hair entered Clayton Firearms.
“He said that he wanted a .22 calibre rifle,” the sales assistant told police later. “I asked him if he wanted to shoot rabbits and things like that, and he said yes.”
The two negotiated the sale of a Sterling .22 calibre bolt action repeater, on sale that day for $128, including a scope. The young man produced a valid gun license acquired 12 days earlier and, since he seemed like a good bloke, the sales assistant threw in some ammunition at a discount.
“He appeared to be alright to me, just a bit vague,” the sales assistant said.
The next night, while watching the evening news, the sales assistant recognised the rifle being carried by a detective on screen. According to the TV report, a young man armed with it had spent the afternoon on the roof of Chadstone Shopping Centre, occasionally firing off shots. Eventually the siege ended when he took his own life.
“I thought it could have been him,” he recalled later. “But if I had any doubts about him, I would not have sold him the weapon.”
Not your regular suburban young man
For 18-year-old Dean Wright, 1984 was not an easy time to be a Marxist. Fiercely intelligent and exceptionally well-read for his age, Dean believed in Karl Marx’s ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’ and his other teachings on the values and goals of socialism.
But in 1984, the world was moving in a very different direction. US President Ronald Reagan was overseeing widespread economic deregulation, cutting taxes for the wealthy, and investing heavily in American defense. This had caused an escalation in the Cold War with the Soviet Union. ‘The march of freedom and democracy will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history,’ Reagan told a disbelieving British Parliament in 1982. Meanwhile, the Australian economy boomed. The floating of the Australian dollar the year before helped men like Alan Bond, Christopher Skase, John Elliott and Robert Holmes a Court – the ‘corporate cowboys’ – live the capitalist dream; reaping rich profits and feeding a growing climate of economic greed and consumption.
To Dean, living in suburban Melbourne, the Americans were the root of the world’s problems, not the Soviets. Reagan’s presidency and Australia’s turn towards capitalism and neo-liberalism distressed him greatly.
“He had strong political views against political aggression,” his father William said. “He believed that Russia wasn’t really that bad and was trying to do the right thing. I couldn’t argue the point with him because he just knew so much about it and believed it to be true. I left it be and hoped he would get over it.”
“Dean had no time for the church,” his close friend M [name suppressed] said at the time. “He believed that everyone should be equal. He believed in the communist principles and ideals and he disliked the American and Australian political system.”
“As far as I’m concerned,” she continued, “Dean was far too intelligent for our group. He should have finished HSC and gone on to University and met people who were of the same intelligence as he was.” She and his teachers had tried to persuade him to stay in school but he had left in the first term of Year 12, claiming it was too easy. Three weeks before he ended his life, Dean had finished a casual job delivering telephone books.
“I don’t think Dean could come to grips with what is happening around the world,” his Dad told police sadly. “I make that comment without really knowing but it’s the only thing I can think of.”
An Ordinary Day at Chadstone
Patricia Campbell was strolling the Mall of Chadstone Shopping Centre on the afternoon of Wednesday 15 August when she heard a loud bang. “It must have been very loud as I am deaf and use two hearing aids,” she said. Then she felt a sharp blow to her left lower leg and a stinging sensation on her left cheek.
“At first I thought it could have been a stray spark from the drilling the workmen were doing nearby,” she continued. “Then I felt a warm sensation on my cheek and realised my face was bleeding. That’s when I noticed there was a hole in the window of Clothes Circuit, the shop next to where I was standing.” A passerby took Patricia to the Centre Management Office where a doctor cleaned her up.
As you can see from this picture, Chadstone Shopping Centre in 1984 was nowhere near the size it is now. The four-storied Myer building, the cornerstone of the shopping mall, was fully covered but the smaller shops in the inner mall were ground level and uncovered. Patricia had been wounded by bullets whizzing past her in the uncovered section of the Mall.
Inside Clothes Circuit, two young men looking at clothes at the front of the store had dived for cover as glass showered over them. Not realising the front window had been shot out, a shop assistant rushed to the front of the store.
“I looked up to the roof and I saw a guy getting up, he was on the roof of Myers,” he said later. “Then he waved ‘hi’ to me and lifted up binoculars to his eyes. That’s when I realised he was staring straight at me. I saw him drop the binoculars and pick up what appeared to be a gun. He waved it around and held it on his hip with the barrel pointing to the sky. It was then I took off.”
It was 2.25 pm when a construction worker ran into the police room at Chadstone Shopping Centre. “A man is on the roof of the Myer building firing shots,” he announced.
Constable Geoffrey Carthew placed a call to the Malvern Police Station advising them of the situation and he and his colleagues ran outside to see for themselves. A youngish man with dark hair was indeed on the roof of Myer, waving his rifle around.
To get to the roof, the gunman needed to merely travel to the fourth floor of Myer, climb a flight of stairs and break the padlock on the heavy metal fire door. Obviously very familiar with Chadstone Shopping Centre’s layout, the gunman had planned accordingly and brought a pair of bolt cutters with him for this purpose. To get to the uncovered section required a ladder between the Myer building and the lower-level roof. Centre Management kept a ladder up there for just this reason. The gunman had used it to walk over to the open-air section.
Carthew ran back to the police room and grabbed a whistle. He told his colleague to notify Centre Management and began quickly pacing the Centre Mall, blowing the whistle and informing shoppers to clear the area. A passerby came up to him to advise about the two shots fired through the window of the Clothes Circuit store. Carthew circled back to Myer and ordered the store to be locked down. Then he headed up to the roof to see if he could talk to the gunman.
I called out, “Police, look what’s the problem mate? Do you want to talk about it?”
“Would you like to throw the rifle down and I’ll talk with you?”
Then a voice responded. “No, the only person I’ll speak to is M___.”
“No worries, look I’ve got some problems too, have you had an argument with M, would you like to talk about it?”
Eventually, Constable Carthew managed to coax a first name out of the young man.
The siege begins
Over the next few hours, Dean Wright was observed sometimes carrying the gun, other times not. Sometimes he could be seen reading. Police had locked down the Shopping Centre and ordered everyone out of the carpark, leaving their cars behind.
“He appeared very vague and agitated,” Sergeant of Police Paul Evans reported. “He would not engage with us except when the helicopter passed overhead, he told us to make it go away.”
Dean repeated his request to speak to M but he could not tell police her exact address, only that she was receiving unemployment benefits and lived in South Yarra. Eventually, they tracked M down and she arrived at 5.12 pm.
In recent months, M and Dean had not been as close as they once were. The last time she had seen Dean – at Chadstone Shopping Centre of all places – he had seemed dispirited. But never would she have thought that the police would come to her with an incomprehensible story that her old friend was on the roof with a rifle shooting at shop windows.
‘Dean always used to say to me that I was the only good in the world and I was the only one that ever understood him,’ M said later. Now under these terrible circumstances, Dean’s belief in her became a heavy burden for the 18-year-old. How could she be expected to single-handedly end a carefully planned siege by a depressed Marxist at Melbourne’s greatest monument to capitalism?
Not only that, but Dean had also spoken to her before about suicide and ‘going out in a grand style’. Always a deep thinker, M realised Dean knew exactly what he was doing.
‘You should see all the press here and the people. They are having a field day, that’s human nature for you,’ she said Dean told her. More of the details of their conversations that day do not appear in the inquest records. However, M told the police Dean repeatedly indicated that he intended to end his life. Scarcely able to fathom what was going on, M clung to the telephone receiver and pleaded with her friend to turn himself in.
But Dean remained unmoved.
A tragedy unfolds
Around 6.05 pm, Dean indicated that he would come down if he could speak to M face-to-face. Concerned for her safety, Sergeant Evans told him he could only see her if he put the rifle down. Dean refused.
M came on the phone again. The two spoke for nine minutes with the only detail of their conversation M’s claim that Dean intended to die. No-one knew Dean like M did so by this time, a sense of inevitability probably descended on her. When the call ended, Sergeant Ryan again attempted to persuade him to relinquish the rifle and surrender.
“He was extremely difficult to negotiate with,” Sergeant Ryan said. “He was completely disinterested and vacant except when speaking about M or the rifle.”
Eventually Dean told Sergeant Ryan to give him time and he would think about surrendering. Ten minutes later, Sergeant Ryan tried to communicate with Dean with a loud hailer. But there was no response. Worried, he summoned the helicopter to do a welfare check.
By 7.10 pm, the news came through that the helicopter had spotted Dean lying unmoving on the roof. The siege was over. Dean was dead, the rifle by his side.
An incomprehensible loss
As relieved shoppers trapped inside Chadstone Shopping Centre made their way home, one young man returned to his car to find a bullet hole through the window and the front seat covered in glass. The police scoured the carpark for more evidence but it appeared Dean only shot a handful of times before taking his own life.
The news of Dean’s suicide devastated his close-knit family and friends. No-one could fathom why he would do such a thing. Even reading the bland language of their witness statements 40 years later, it is very clear that Dean was loved and respected.
Although his parents had divorced some years earlier and he had gone to live with his father, he maintained a close relationship with his father, stepmother, mother and stepfather.
“I was very proud that my son was a loving, caring young man, a wonderful son, a loving brother and a loyal friend,” his mother told police. His stepfather, a well-known psychologist who worked for the Family Court, told how much he enjoyed Dean’s company. “He was easy-going and relaxed, very intelligent, with a keen sense of humour,” he said. He had searched Dean’s room looking for clues but came up with nothing. Although he knew Dean was prone to introspection, in his professional opinion he observed no signs of any behaviour that could explain what Dean had done.
Dean’s actions made the front page of The Age and the Sun News-Pictorial. Much was made of the two books found in his possession, a collected works of Shakespeare and a copy of George Orwell’s first novel, Down and Out in London and Paris. An article that appeared two days later, based on interviews with his friends, tried to dig under the media sensation to the young man he was.
But none of his friends could shed light on his actions either. ‘He was very intelligent and when he spoke, people listened,’ said one friend. ‘We respected his views – we’re not trying to make him a martyr, that’s just the way he was.’
Dean was a little quiet but still maintained a regular social life with his high school friends. ‘He was the only one of my friends who paid any attention to my little sisters,’ said one friend. ‘Nobody else gave them the time of day but he was always kind to them.’
Dean’s suicide also affected the police in attendance. He had no police record and no past with any trouble. They had not contemplated trying to take him down themselves.
“If we’d had to sit there for two days to save the boy’s life we would have done so,” said Police Assistant Commissioner Keith Thompson.
In their death notice for Dean, a group of his friends, including M, quoted the lyrics of Pink Floyd’s Shine on You Crazy Diamond. The band wrote the song in honour of their friend and bandmate Syd Barrett. Syd wrote many of Pink Floyd’s early hits but descended into poor mental health and heavy drug use. Other friends wrote heartfelt poems and prose describing how much they admired and respected Dean, vowing that he would never be forgotten.
Sadly, today Dean is publicly remembered only as the ‘Chadstone Sniper’; that crazy guy who shot up a few cars, read Hamlet (or sometimes Macbeth) and killed himself on the roof of Chadstone Shopping Centre in the 80s. Unfortunately, there’s no question that Dean could have seriously hurt or killed someone that day. But it seems unlikely he had much interest in intentionally taking anyone with him.
Had he held on for a few more years, he would have learned of the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union. It’s ironic that should he have lived, records from the old Soviet regime from this time would have perhaps vindicated his belief that the Soviets were not the aggressors they were made out to be by the Western press.
One can only imagine what a sensitive and intelligent young man like him would think of the world today.
This article was compiled through inquest records and news articles. If anything in it has raised issues for you, please know that help is available through Lifeline, 13 11 14.
Editorial note: The department store Myer was often colloquially called ‘Myers’ at this time.
 Wilson, Neil, "Sniper a Boy Who Despised Violence," The Sun, 17 August 1984.