Paralysed after being axed in the neck, cleared of attempted murder, Jonathon Hawtin is still fighting for justice

Australian Story

Exclusive by Quentin McDermott

Posted 6days ago, updated 6days ago
Jonathon Hawtin and supporters
Jonathon Hawtin (second left) was flanked by family and supporters during the trial.(AAP: David Mariuz)

The scene was grim when police arrived at an Adelaide Hills home on a Sunday afternoon in October 2017.

As they entered the garage, they were faced with a chaotic scene; two men lay badly injured.

One had suffered a gunshot wound to his abdomen. The other — unnoticed at first — lay motionless under a sheet, with deep gashes to his neck from a blood-soaked tomahawk that was lying nearby.

Also present at the scene was a woman, whose love life, it would emerge, was linked to both men.

Warning: This article contains graphic images

As the two men were stretchered off in ambulances, the police began their investigation.

The very next day, before either man had been interviewed, the police told reporters that the man who was shot fought back against the shooter with an axe.

But that assumption was wrong and was rejected by a jury after the man who was axed in the neck was charged with attempted murder and later acquitted.

To this day, what exactly happened in that garage that Sunday afternoon remains unresolved.

Crime scene image
The blood-splattered gun safe can be seen in the confronting aftermath of the attack.(Supplied: SA Police)

‘My son was left horrendously disabled’

“You will always receive complaints, but perhaps rarely about someone who has been acquitted of all charges.”

So begins a letter sent last week to South Australia’s Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) by a distraught woman who, for nearly three years, has fought tooth and nail to clear her son’s name.

The woman’s name is Rohnda Hawtin, and her son is Jonathon Hawtin.

“Jonathon was bludgeoned repeatedly with an axe rendering him quadriplegic,” the letter begins.

“My precious son Jonathon is left with an horrendous disability which has totally destroyed his quality of life and made him completely reliant on 24/7 care.”

Mr Hawtin was charged with attempting to murder the man who axed him in the neck — Zacharia Bruckner. He maintains he never shot Mr Bruckner, and that someone else did, after Mr Bruckner had axed him.

In September last year, a jury found Mr Hawtin not guilty.

“He has been further victimised by a trial that could only be considered a farce and an embarrassment to the integrity of your office,” Rohnda Hawtin wrote to the DPP.

Jonathon and Rohnda
Rohnda Hawtin says her son, now 33, is now totally reliant on care after the axe attack left him a tetraplegic.(Supplied)

In his able-bodied life, Jonathon Hawtin worked as a plumber and was, for several years, the primary carer of his two young children.

The children’s mother Lisa Lines, who has PhDs in History and Creative Writing, is an academic editor who founded Capstone Editing.

In a profile published in The Australian in January 2017, Ms Lines paid tribute to Mr Hawtin’s parenting role.

“I’ve had to sacrifice time with my kids, which is really hard to do,” she told the paper. “I’ve been able to do it because my husband has stayed home full-time with the kids for the past three years.”

In 2014 Ms Lines took up a position as a lecturer in history in the prestigious military history department at UNSW Canberra (Australian Defence Force Academy) and there she met Zacharia Bruckner, 13 years her junior, who at the time was undertaking an Arts degree at ADFA.

Lisa Lines
Lisa Lines and Mr Hawtin split up several months prior to the incident.(Supplied: Youtube)

At Mr Hawtin’s trial, Ms Lines said in late 2016 she invited Mr Bruckner to work with her in Capstone Editing and he moved into the family home in Canberra.

In early 2017 he moved with them to South Australia, to the home that Ms Lines and Mr Hawtin purchased in Littlehampton in the Adelaide Hills.

By June 2017 Ms Lines and Mr Hawtin split up and in August he moved out.

“She changed the locks and put all my belongings in a locked garage attached to the house,” Mr Hawtin recalls.

Later that year his own and his family’s lives would tragically change forever.

‘I want justice’: Who attacked whom?

On the afternoon of October 29, 2017, Jonathon Hawtin arrived at the former family home with the children who had stayed with him over the weekend. He walked into the garage with Mr Bruckner.

At some point, Mr Hawtin was struck repeatedly on the back of the neck with a tomahawk.

And at some point, Mr Bruckner was shot in the abdomen with a rifle. The order of those two events would prove to be critical at Mr Hawtin’s trial.

For the first time, Mr Hawtin has talked to the ABC about what happened that night. He says he is doing so “because I want justice — and I want safety for my family”.

He says that after dropping the children home, and as he was leaving the house to go to work, “Zac had the garage keys and started asking to take photos of a rifle.

“Next thing I know I am being struck from behind and I am wondering, why would he hit me?” he told the ABC’s Australian Story.

Mr Hawtin was struck by the tomahawk at least eight times, a court heard.(Supplied: Jonathon Hawtin)

Mr Hawtin would spend over three weeks in intensive care, sedated and kept alive with a tracheostomy.

“I had been struck at least eight times in the neck, irreparably damaging my spine,” Mr Hawtin told Australian Story.

His mother said doctors at the Royal Adelaide Hospital told her that if her son survived the axe attack, he would be “hooked up to a machine for the rest of his life”.

“He would never be able to talk and be reliant on tube feeding for the rest of a very shortened life,” Ms Hawtin said.

Mr Hawtin remains a tetraplegic, paralysed from the neck down, confined to a wheelchair and requiring round-the-clock care in a private care facility.

No-one — including the police — expected Jonathon Hawtin to live.

“Initially, SAPOL did not expect Jonathon Hawtin to survive and so they assumed they were going to be preparing a report for the coroner rather than doing an attempted murder investigation,” Mr Hawtin’s solicitor Nikki Conley said.

Crime scene
The blood-stained tomahawk and the rifle on the floor of the garage.(Supplied: SA Police)

What happened in the garage?

The court was presented with two conflicting versions of what happened in that garage.

Mr Bruckner told detectives from Mount Barker police station that Mr Hawtin had lured him into the garage on the pretence of wanting to show him his rifles, and while they were standing in front of the gun safe, close to each other, Mr Hawtin had opened the safe, taken a rifle and shot Mr Bruckner in the abdomen.

Fearing for his life, Mr Bruckner told the court, he had struck out at Mr Hawtin using the nearest tool he could find. “I just grabbed the first thing I could that looked like it could be useful. I had no clue what it was,” he told the jury.

The object he used was a hatchet which, he said, he had bought at Bunnings several months earlier and placed in the garage with Mr Hawtin’s belongings.

Both men fell to the ground and while lying on his back Mr Bruckner said, he continued to flail at Hawtin, hitting him with the tool, until his energy gave out.

A recreation of a Facebook messenger exchange between Zacharia Bruckner and Jonathon Hawtin.(Supplied/Australian Story)

The second version is the forensics and medical evidence. Jonathon Hawtin’s Defence Barrister Marie Shaw QC told the jury, “It is the forensic evidence that shows that Mr Bruckner and his account cannot be true”.

Evidence presented to the jury revealed that Mr Bruckner was not shot at close range and was not shot while standing just in front of the gun safe.

Blood splatter evidence confirmed that he was shot 3.6 metres away from the safe on the other side of the garage near the roller door.

Prosecutor Lucy Boord conceded that Zacharia Bruckner was mistaken about where he was shot.

“You might think that one of the reasons that he’s mistaken about the exact location is because he’s just been shot,” she told the jury.

“You might think that in those seconds, when he realises (a) he’s just been shot, (b) been shot by the accused, (c) been told by the accused he was going to kill both Mr Bruckner and Lisa Lines, (d) been very seriously injured and (e) tries to quickly weigh up his options, he’s not really paying precise attention to exactly where he’s standing in that garage.”

But Mr Hawtin’s barrister Marie Shaw QC took a different view and challenged the notion that the neck injuries were inflicted by Mr Bruckner while lying down.

“He’s not swinging randomly. He’s not lying on the floor.”

She added: “Mr Bruckner is not telling the truth, and the question that then arises from the defence point of view is: what is he covering up?

“Why does he tell a story that is so at odds with the forensic evidence? The obvious explanation, we submit to you, is this: he has to be covering up the fact that this is not self-defence when he strikes my client repeatedly in the neck.”

Crime scene
Mr Hawtin’s lawyers argued in court that it was not feasible that Mr Bruckner was shot first. Blood was splattered on the floor near the roller door.  (Supplied: SA Police)

‘Contradictory’ blood splatter evidence

On the day the trial began, Mr Hawtin’s solicitor Nikki Conley received an email from her counterpart in the office of the DPP.

The email alerted her to the fact that during a proofing three days prior, the prosecution was advised by a police forensic investigator that blood splatter in the garage “indicated that [Mr Bruckner] was standing very close to the roller door when he was shot”.

The forensic investigator had been on leave causing the delay in this crucial information being conveyed to the defence.

This evidence directly contradicted Mr Bruckner’s insistence that he had been standing in front of the gun safe when he was shot — several metres away from the garage’s roller door.

Even with this direct challenge to Mr Bruckner’s credibility, the trial proceeded.

Ms Conley told the ABC: “Despite prosecutors apparently being told the meaning of the blood spatter evidence shortly prior to trial, we obtained internal police correspondence which suggests police were aware of this prior to Mr Hawtin even being charged.”

It’s unclear why police did not disclose this information to the prosecution earlier.

Ms Conley added: “For police to charge Mr Hawtin, a man rendered tetraplegic as a result of the incident, based solely on a fundamentally flawed witness account, and at a stage in the investigation when there were more questions than answers, was an injustice to Mr Hawtin.”

Mr Hawtin told Australian Story he was “dumbstruck” when he found out he was a suspect.

Who is Zacharia Bruckner?

Zacharia Bruckner
Zacharia Bruckner was shot in the abdomen during the incident.(Supplied)

Mr Bruckner’s Army career didn’t end well.

A psychological report written in February 2014 for the Department of Defence and later disclosed in court during Mr Hawtin’s trial described Mr Bruckner as “argumentative, verbally hostile and deluded with regard to his self-importance and place in the military context”.

Two years later, his probationary appointment as a Staff Cadet was terminated, citing an assessment that he was “unsuitable to remain in training at [Royal Military College, Duntroon] on the grounds of adherence to Army values and performance”.

According to court exhibits, one of the reasons given for terminating his Army career, was the allegation — which he denied — that he had thrown a female officer cadet down some stairs and then attempted to manipulate the situation so she would give him a character reference.

A subsequent bid to re-enter the Royal Military College or to be given a transfer to the Army Reserve as a rifleman, was turned down in November 2016.

Multiple electronic messages tendered in court revealed that in the days and weeks leading up to the garage attack, Mr Bruckner had asked Mr Hawtin to show him his rifles because he wanted to take photos to send to a “mate”. In court he was unable to name his friend.

Jonathon Hawtin’s solicitor, Nikki Conley, says major crime detectives have expressed their surprise that all phones and computers were not seized by the local SAPOL detectives in the course of their investigation.

“At the very least Jonathon Hawtin’s phone and computer should have been checked as there were allegations that Mr Hawtin was in effect planning to kill Mr Bruckner and Ms Lines,” she told the ABC.

“Police would have then seen the messages and that it was in fact Mr Bruckner asking to see Mr Hawtin’s firearms.”

‘I had no reason to harm them’: Hawtin

As the trial started, prosecutor Lucy Boord told the jury that the reason Mr Hawtin had shot Mr Bruckner was because of tensions between himself and Ms Lines, and his suspicion that Lisa was romantically involved with Mr Bruckner — a classic love triangle.

Crime scene Adelaide hills- gun collection
Lisa Lines and Mr Hawtin used guns for hunting and kept them in a safe in their garage.

Ms Lines and Mr Bruckner were romantically involved, but didn’t tell Mr Hawtin this.

Rohnda Hawtin said there was no history of domestic violence, jealousy or money that could suggest her son would kill someone.

“The prosecution suggested that Jonathon’s motive was revenge due to the romance between Lisa and Zacharia Bruckner,” she said.

“Yet there’s no evidence to say he knew or in fact cared about their relationship.”

Mr Hawtin said he was “entirely uninterested” in the new relationship between the pair.

“I was actually relieved to be out of there. I was sleeping with other people.

“I had no reason on Earth to harm Lisa or Bruckner. I had no motive or intent to do that.”

Text messages submitted in court revealed that, even while he was romantically involved with Ms Lines, Mr Bruckner asked Mr Hawtin to catch up alone, claiming he wanted advice relating to Lisa and moving out of the house.

He would later be accused in court of “holding out the hand of friendship” to Jonathon Hawtin ‘but deliberately concealing that in fact, there was a relationship going on”.

Was life insurance a motive?

During the trial, it was revealed that several months before the garage attack, but after Mr Hawtin and Ms Lines split up, Ms Lines moved $200,000 out of their joint mortgage account into her own personal account.

Evidence was presented that five days before Mr Hawtin was almost killed by Mr Bruckner Ms Lines had told her psychologist: “Can’t deal with him, custody arrangements. He wants the kids 50 per cent because he can get 50 per cent of the assets and not pay child support.”

“This is the trigger,” Marie Shaw QC suggested to the jury in her closing address.

“This is the threat to her control of her assets, her control of her business, the control of the house that she’s got him locked out of, the control of the accounts that she’s closed off,” she said.

The jury was told that 12 days after the attack, with Mr Hawtin lying grievously ill in intensive care, Ms Lines wrote to Mr Hawtin’s superannuation provider, CBUS, calling herself his spouse and representing him as a non-manual, white-collar worker.

Crime scene
The entrance to the garage where the incident took place.(Supplied: SA Police)

“If I had died from my injuries, she would have been likely to receive around $800,000 in life insurance, almost double what would be paid to a manual, blue-collar worker,” Mr Hawtin said.

“The suggestion that my client had a motive to decide to kill Lisa Lines and Zac Bruckner falls to the ground when you look at the possibility of what might have been the motives of Lisa Lines,” Ms Shaw suggested in her closing address to the jury.

Earlier this year, Mr Bruckner moved from a position of being financially dependent on Ms Lines when working in Capstone Editing to now owning it. ASIC records obtained by the ABC show Mr Bruckner as being the director and current majority shareholder in the company.

A ‘mysterious’ hospital visitor

Astonishingly, the trial revealed that the relationship between Jonathon Hawtin, Lisa Lines and Zacharia Bruckner wasn’t the only suggested love triangle in the case.

In June 2017, the same month that Mr Hawtin and Ms Lines separated, Ms Lines met a woman through a dating app, who had recently come out of a relationship with another woman.

Following the events of October 29, 2017, Ms Lines gave evidence that she invited the woman to move into the Littlehampton home to live with her and the children.

At 6:00am on New Year’s Day, when Mr Hawtin was lying paralysed in bed at the Hampstead Rehabilitation Centre in Adelaide, the woman — who didn’t know Jonathon Hawtin — entered the centre and approached his room.

When she was disturbed by staff, peering through his door at him, she ran out of the building. Shortly after she was stopped by security on the grounds and claimed she was training for a marathon.

The court heard that later, the woman’s former partner made an anonymous call to Crime Stoppers, alleging that the reason the woman had gone to the centre was to suffocate Mr Hawtin with a pillow, and that Ms Lines had been conspiring to hurt him while he was in hospital.

In court, under cross-examination, Ms Lines said she knew the woman was suffering from mental health issues, and wanted to form a romantic relationship with her. But she had only stayed with her for about six weeks.

Ms Lines denied having asked the woman to kill Mr Hawtin, by suffocating him.

Detectives concluded that there had been “nil conspiracy or solicit to murder”, but Mr Hawtin and his mother have criticised the fact that not everyone associated with this incident was questioned by the police.

Mr Hawtin’s solicitor, Ms Conley, is equally critical: “It’s incredible that this woman knew where Jonathon Hawtin’s room was in a building that can be hard to navigate and managed to get access to his wing at a time well outside visiting hours,” she said.

“The only mutual connection they have is Lisa Lines.”

Acquittal and aftermath

In September last year, following a four-week trial, Mr Hawtin was acquitted of all charges. The jury of six men and six women took under three hours to reach its unanimous verdict.

Mr Hawtin’s reaction at the time wasn’t one of extreme relief or elation.

“To be honest, I was quite nonchalant,” he says now. “My mind had already moved on to the next challenge — there is a lot more at stake here than people know.”

Mr Hawtin and his mother are left with an unanswered question: “Who shot Zacharia Bruckner?”

A portrait of a man sitting against a stone wall
Mr Hawtin and his legal team question how his ex-partner’s new friend knew his hospital room details.(Supplied)

“That’s what I would like to know,” Mr Hawtin said. “Because I can tell you now, it wasn’t me.”

Yesterday a SAPOL spokesperson told the ABC: “SAPOL will consider the outcome of the court decision and will not comment further at this time.”

In her letter to South Australia’s DPP, Rohnda Hawtin writes: “At one point, late in Jonathon’s trial, Justice Bampton asked: ‘How is it the police were so sure as to who they should charge in the matter…?’ It is a question that begs to be asked from day one.”

In January this year, Lisa Lines travelled overseas with her and Jonathon’s two children. She has not yet returned.

At a later hearing, suppression orders imposed on naming Lisa Lines, Zacharia Bruckner and Jonathon Hawtin in any reporting of the trial were lifted. Information provided to the court suggested that Lisa Lines had travelled to China with the children.

Mr Hawtin is hanging on to the hope that one day soon, he will be reunited with his children.

Ms Shaw — Mr Hawtin’s trial barrister — said the mother-son duo were courageous in their pursuit of justice.

“There is nothing I could say that would adequately describe the courage and determination of Mr Hawtin to fight for the truth to be exposed and to one day be able to be a father to his children,” she said.

“Despite being rendered a tetraplegic, he won’t give up. Nor will his devoted mother whose love for him and belief in him will help carry them both through the indescribable heartbreak they continue to endure.”

The ABC has attempted to contact Ms Lines but to date she has not responded to messages left for her.

Mr Bruckner would not comment on the outcome of the trial.

Jonathon and Rohnda Hawtin are still waiting for answers to their questions.

Posted 6days ago, updated 6days ago

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