An insider’s account of the day from hell

The man with the revolver and wearing a Collingwood beanie as a balaclava was Geelong Prison escapee Edwin John ‘‘Ted’’ Eastwood, 26, who five years earlier pulled exactly the same crime 270 kilometres away, kidnapping a teacher and six students from Faraday.

Kidnapper Edwin John Eastwood.

Kidnapper Edwin John Eastwood.

Photo: Victoria Police

Hoping it was a simple robbery, Hunter volunteered: “I can write a cheque. How much would you like?’’

The gunman responded: ‘‘No mate, that’s not the sort of money I want.’’

Hunter did his best to protect his students from the spectacularly inept but equally erratic Eastwood, who seemed more interested in headlines than getting away with his idiotic crime.

More than 40 years later, the recently retired Hunter has written a riveting account in the self-published book Day 9 at Wooreen, his personal recollections of what began on Monday, February 14, 1977.

‘‘Even then I thought I should put down on paper what happened in those staggering series of events, but it was in early 2016 I thought I better get on with it,’’ he told us.

Hunter refused to be defined by the kidnapping and continued to teach around Victoria, retiring earlier this year after 44 years in education. The key, he says was to ‘‘let go’’ of his anger towards the kidnapper and reject his desire for revenge. He now delivers those kidnapping lessons in school lectures, entitled Health After Hurt, to teach kids about mental resilience.

Rob Hunter, who has written a book about his kidnapping.

Rob Hunter, who has written a book about his kidnapping.

Photo: Jason South

Back in 1977 Hunter slipped into his new role, having been welcomed into the Wooreen dairy township with a local barbecue a few days earlier.

The children – six girls and three boys from six families – ranged from seven to 11 years old and grade six to grade two. They were, according to Hunter: ‘‘A dream – cooperative and well-behaved, from families who loved them dearly … All different in their own ways, all full of potential. They were all so keen to please, eager to impress, willing to work and hungry to learn.’’

Today he says, some of them are grandparents, and all were affected by the kidnapping. Four did not return to Wooreen Primary, leaving him with just five students for the rest of the year.

He remembers Eastwood as nervous, distracted and sweating profusely when he initially grabbed them. When a grade five girl asked ‘‘What’s your name?’’ the gunman eventually responded ‘‘Ted’’ – failing even to attempt to provide an alias. Eastwood always craved the spotlight – even if it was held by armed police.

His planning was so poor that he tried the kidnapping at another country school earlier before randomly choosing Hunter’s class. His ransom note had the name of his original target, Allambee, crossed out and replaced with Wooreen.

Concerned parents and friends outside the Wooreen Primary School.

Concerned parents and friends outside the Wooreen Primary School.

Photo: The Age

Trying to remain outwardly calm for the sake of the children, Hunter managed to unplug the electric clock to leave a clue to the time of the abduction. It stopped at 11.10am.

Eventually Eastwood produced a 10-metre dog chain to bolt the kids together. As he made Hunter lie on the floor to chain his wrists, one of the grade six girls asked: ‘‘Ted, what are you going to do with us? Where are you going to take us? How long are we going to be away for? When will we get back?’’

“He answered, ‘You’ll only be away until I get what I want’,” Hunter writes. “‘Don’t worry, just do what I say and I won’t hurt you. But if you do anything silly, I’ll shoot the teacher’.’’

Under unimaginable stress, Hunter was angered by the most trivial matters. Eastwood had a sign prepared to give him breathing space. On a torn piece of cardboard he had printed: ‘‘HAVE GONE ON A NATURE STUDY TRIP, WILL BE BACK IN ONE HOUR!’’

‘‘This annoyed me,” Hunter recalls. “He had written a notice, making out that it was me who had written it. It made me angry. How dare he? Despite the crazy circumstances, I was also irritated by the way it was written. His use of capital letters was wrong.

“Any primary teacher worth his weight uses every opportunity to model and teach the use of correct upper and lower-case letters. I would not have written that note in capital letters.’’

An 11-year-old from Rob Hunter's class is reunited with her mother, right.

An 11-year-old from Rob Hunter’s class is reunited with her mother, right.

Photo: The Age

What did the kidnapper want? His ransom demand was as stupid as his initial plan. In a note to education minister and deputy premier Lindsay Thompson, he demanded the release of 17 of the state’s most dangerous criminals, an arsenal of weapons, $7 million in US currency, 100 kilos of cocaine, 100 kilos of heroin and a late-model car with a full tank of petrol (with $US7 million he couldn’t buy his own juice?).

Eastwood gagged and blindfolded Hunter before taking his chain gang to his stolen Dodge truck. The kids were put in the back while Hunter was forced onto the front passenger-side floor.

‘‘He yelled at the children, all crammed in the back cabin, ‘You kids keep down. When we’re passing any cars, keep your heads right down or bullets will be flying’.’’

‘‘You mongrel! They’re my students you’re yelling at,’’ Hunter recalls. ‘‘How dare you threaten them like that?’’

Eastwood’s plan was doomed from the start. Not only was he a bad kidnapper, he was a bad driver, hurtling along gravel roads and throwing the chained children around the floor of the truck, leaving them frightened and one bleeding. ‘‘The gunman called out to the children, ‘Keep your heads down or watch out! If I see you waving to anyone I’ll shoot someone’.’’

The stolen Dodge that Eastwood crashed during the kidnapping.

The stolen Dodge that Eastwood crashed during the kidnapping.

Photo: The Age

Then he ran into a truck. Eastwood jumped from his disabled vehicle and took the two men in the logging truck hostage: ‘‘Don’t try anything f—ing smart or I’ll blow your heads off.’’

He had 12 hostages, but another truck rolled around the corner and he grabbed the two men on board, bringing the number to 14. When a Kombi van pulled up with two women on board, he added them to the list – 16.

He jammed all these people in the van and eventually drove to his campsite for the night, where they shared tinned ham and stolen chocolate. That night Eastwood openly bragged about the Faraday kidnapping and declared that this time if confronted by police ‘‘he would shoot it out with them; he wouldn’t be going down alone, he would shoot some of them too.’’

Hunter saw that when news of the kidnapping broke on the radio, Eastwood was delighted. ‘‘It was like he was sitting back getting ready to enjoy the unfolding of the story, with the essential ingredient of the media giving him publicity.’’

In the darkness, truck driver Robin Smith slipped his chains and crept out of the campsite. ‘‘I’m sure that if Eastwood had woken up at that moment he would have shot Robin,’’ wrote Hunter. Smith then jogged more than 10 kilometres to a farmhouse to raise the alarm.

By 6.45am Eastwood, the prison escapee, realised he had let one of his prisoners escape. He bundled his remaining 15 hostages into the underpowered van and took off. Almost immediately police were on his tail.

February 15, 1977: Edwin John Eastwood is carried from a plane at Essendon Airport after being shot in the leg and captured.

February 15, 1977: Edwin John Eastwood is carried from a plane at Essendon Airport after being shot in the leg and captured.

Photo: The Age

‘‘Eastwood, holding his revolver in hand, put his hand and arm out the window while he was driving and took some shots at the police cars chasing us. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. How close some of the children or us adults came to being shot is anyone’s guess,’’ Hunter wrote.

Police fired at the tyres but one bullet ricocheted through the cabin. Eventually Eastwood was shot in the leg and arrested.

On Monday, November 7, 1977 – 38 weeks after Eastwood walked into the Wooreen Primary School – he pleaded guilty in the Supreme Court to 16 counts of kidnapping, three of theft of vehicles, three of using a firearm to avoid arrest, one of escape, one of burglary and one of theft.

He was sentenced to 21 years, with a minimum of 18, and was released from jail in 1993.

Day 9 at Wooreen is available at the website kidnappedteachertalks.com and should be picked up by any mainstream publisher with half a brain. Schools can also contact Rob Hunter through the website.

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