Robert Bruce Stewart sat impassively as Magistrate Karen Stafford read out the guilty verdict in Ballina Court House yesterday, after two days of testimony relating to the bow-shooting death of his neighbour’s pet dog Bucket.
The much-delayed case, which was mainly held in Byron Bay Court House, related to an incident that took place in Canowindra Court, South Golden Beach, on the morning of 6 December 2019.
The owner of the deceased ten-month-old Wolfhound-Malamute cross Bucket, Kris Thompson, joined a number of other neighbours who appeared both as witnesses and offended parties, seeking multiple Apprehended Violence Orders against Mr Stewart.
In addition, the defendant pleaded not guilty to two serious animal cruelty charges under section 530 (1A) and Section 6 (1), including recklessness and torture.
Because of COVID precautions, the public gallery was almost empty for the trial.
Prosecutor Sergeant Alix Thom described the ‘voluminous amount’ of material and witnesses she would present in the case. Not in dispute was the fact that the dog Bucket was on the defendant’s property at the time of the incident, or that Mr Stewart shot the dog, or that the dog had to be euthanased by a vet as a result of his injuries.
Sergeant Thom alleged the incident stemmed from Mr Stewart’s intense dislike of neighbourhood dogs and dog-owners, which had a documented history.
She presented police body-cam evidence from 6 December showing distraught neighbours and the initial police interview with a shirtless, sarong-clad Mr Stewart at his house, which culminated with his arrest and being loaded into the back of a police paddy wagon.
Mr Stewart, 60, a builder and commercial landowner of multiple properties, was represented by Mr John Weller, who said the defence case was that Mr Stewart was acting to protect his chickens, whose coop was being attacked by an ‘erratic vicious dog’.
Having fired two arrows near the dog to little effect (one hit the ground and one hit the metal in the chicken coop, making a noise), he alleged the third arrow glanced off a palm tree and hit the dog in the back.
He said Bucket’s death was an unfortunate accident.
Did Bob know Bucket?
The next part of the trial related to whether Mr Stewart knew the identity of the dog and his owner (Mr Stewart’s neighbour, Mr Thompson), prior to the shooting.
Several witnesses were called to give separate evidence on this point and then asked to wait before giving their main testimony.
Mr Weller objected to much of this evidence and elements of the AVOs, saying unjustified aspersions were being cast on his client’s character.
Stories included Mr Stewart being seen on the roof of his house with a bow and arrow and striding around the neighbourhood, armed and wearing camouflage gear.
Mr Weller said that on 6 December Mr Stewart was acting in legitimate defence of his property, including a number of specially bred chickens and a rooster.
Witness Detective Senior Constable Philip Parker confirmed the chronology of events, as per the police body-worn video, in which one neighbour could be heard to say, ‘What happens when Bob retaliates? Something’s got to happen, it can’t slip through the cracks.’
Another neighbour in the police video alleged that Bob lured dogs into his ungated yard with meat, so he could photograph them and prove they were off-leash and trespassing, claiming, ‘He has a vendetta against dogs’ and ‘he’s threatened us with knives’.
In his initial interview with police, Mr Stewart denied shooting the dog Bucket deliberately.
‘I’ve got to live here,’ he said. ‘Do you think I would have done this on purpose? I just wanted to scare the f–king thing.’
He acknowledged he didn’t yell or try to throw something before firing the arrows, claiming he had to act quickly.
‘This is not the way I would have started my day,’ he said.
In the video, when they arrest Mr Stewart, the police take as evidence a large compound bow (almost as tall as the constable) and a number of steel-tipped arrows.
He helps them measure the distance from where he shot to where he hit the dog (about 14 metres), and shows them the palm tree, which he claims deflected the arrow.
After the video, while further evidence was being heard from the detective, (including some grisly details about the X rays at the vet, which showed the arrow lodged in Bucket’s spine, causing paralysis), the defendant rocked slightly in his chair, but remained impassive.
DSC Parker said Mr Stewart refused to answer any further questions at the police station.
Next, Bucket’s owner Kris Thompson took the stand. He said he’d owned Bucket since May 2019, when he was two and a half months old. On 6 December he was ‘getting bigger but not full grown, about knee height’.
Mr Thompson, a plumber, said he took Bucket to work most days.
‘He loved people, he was a super-friendly dog,’ said Mr Thompson.
To his knowledge, Bucket had never attacked any people or other animals, and he was often around young children.
He said his mother (Sally Williams, who lived nearby) regularly took Bucket for walks at the beach, and they had a good bond.
Mr Thompson said he hadn’t really known his neighbour Mr Stewart prior to the shooting, but the builders who had worked on his house had said ‘there was some aggression there’ while the building was going up.
The following evidence made it clear that Bucket had escaped from his fenced yard through a garage door that was left ajar momentarily while Sally Williams was attending to her grandchild, together with her daughter Holly Ceglinski.
After finding the dog crying in agony, dragging his legs, she confronted Mr Stewart, who said, ‘I’ve done him in, I’ve broken his back.’
Another former neighbour, Luke Young, confirmed Mr Stewart’s callous initial response to the ‘horrific’ sight of the dog’s condition after being shot, with a ‘fair bit of blood’ coming from the back wound.
‘He said “He’s f–ked. Whose dog is it anyway?” I said you know who it is, it’s the neighbour’s dog.’
In the afternoon, the dog’s owner Kris Thompson returned to the stand, where Mr Weller attempted to show that Bucket’s breed combination might have made him dangerous, with a tendency to hunt.
Mr Thompson reacted angrily to these assertions, which were also rejected later by the vet who treated Bucket, Dr Stephen Van Mil, who said ‘historical and domesticated animals were different’.
The vet said the dog’s injuries left him no option but euthanasia. Having treated Bucket since he was a pup, the vet said he had never experienced any aggression from the dog.
Seriously injured dog not helped by Mr Stewart
Returning to the stand, Sally Williams said Mr Stewart did nothing to help Bucket after he was shot, and this task was left to her daughter and another neighbour, Ashley Gould.
‘Did Mr Stewart seem shocked or apologetic or remorseful?’ asked the prosecutor. ‘No, just belligerent and aggressive,’ said Ms Williams.
In cross-examination, Mr Weller alleged she said to Mr Stewart at the time, ‘You psycho, you are bloody crazy,’ and Ms Williams agreed she’d said that, saying she was very upset.
Ms Williams’ daughter Holly Ceglinski, who was nearby while all this was happening, said when she heard the ‘awful howling’, and the dog was still missing, ‘she knew where the sound was coming from and knew which person was capable of doing it’.
Ms Ceglinski became upset when she remembered Mr Stewart saying, ‘He’s gonna die, I shot him.’
Another neighbour with a young child and a dog, Ashley Gould, took the stand and recounted another of Mr Stewart’s public threats, describing him as ‘extremely aggressive and incoherent’.
Mr Gould described Bucket as a ‘lovely dog’.
Another neighbour, Ms Sally Johnson, gave evidence that Stewart approached her property in July 2019 and said ‘Get rid of these f–king dogs or I will get rid of them. We were the first house on this street.’
She said she felt afraid for her own dogs’ safety (Stewart brought an official complaint against them which was later dropped by council), and also gave refuge to another neighbourhood dog, Halo, who was being pursued by Mr Stewart.
On day two the court heard evidence from another neighbour, Ms Storm Rooklyn, who had known Bob Stewart for years with no problems until she discovered her dog Noah eating meat in Mr Stewart’s yard.
Ms Rooklyn found herself being filmed, and her dog was accused of biting Mr Stewart on an earlier occasion. He said he was worried about the safety of his grandchild who came to visit, and she responded that she had a child the same age who was safe with Noah.
Apprehended violence orders
Coming to the matter of the multiple AVOs, the prosecution initially sought five years on each of them, but this was reduced to two years in agreement between the parties.
Having already been convinced that Robert Stewart posed a threat to his neighbours, Magistrate Stafford ruled that he would not be able to assault, threaten, intimidate, harass or damage any of the complainants (or their families and associates).
She explained he was also unable to have any other contact with them, including via social media, with two years imprisonment if any conditions of the AVO were breached with violence.
After further testimony from neighbours, detailing additional hostilities to neighbourhood dog-owners, including local school teacher Lucy Johnson, who had a bizarre encounter with Robert Stewart wielding a stick on her boundary when accompanied by her grandchild, Mr Stewart finally took the stand himself.
Bob Stewart’s evidence
He said he’d lived in the street for 20 years but had no resentment of the increasing population.
He talked about problems developing after July 2019, when a series of unpleasant incidents with neighbourhood dogs took place, including being ‘rushed’, having dogs appear in his yard, and being nipped on one of his knee pads, which he wore much of the time ‘because I get down on my knees and do things’.
Mr Stewart said he photographed off-leash dogs and their owners after being urged to do so by council.
In relation to the Bucket incident, he said he was woken by the dog terrifying his chooks early that morning (from outside the coop), and picked up his bow and arrows because he had to act quickly. He said he hadn’t intended to shoot the ‘frenzied’ dog, but ‘fired instinctively’.
When the third arrow ‘deflected off the palm tree, the dog ran into it’.
Afterwards, he told his lawyer he was stunned and in ‘total disbelief’, and retrieved the arrows out of habit.
Although Bucket lived next door, Mr Stewart claimed he had no idea who owned the dog, having not seen him since he was a small puppy.
In cross-examination, Mr Stewart said he was a ‘competent’ but not highly skilled archer, having been a member of two archery clubs and with targets in his back yard.
He said he had a hip replacement, which meant he couldn’t hurry down to stop the dog frightening the chickens, and a bad shoulder, which meant he couldn’t throw a nearby boot or something else. He said he didn’t yell out because it was very noisy and he didn’t think it would help.
In her summing up, prosecutor Alix Thom said the actions of the defendant were ‘clearly disproportionate and excessive’.
She said the cruelty and recklessness charges had been proved, and that self-defence could not be claimed, as the chickens were safe inside their coop.
She said the torture case was clear from the effects of the metal-tipped arrow, which caused agony to the dog and paralysed his hind legs.
Mr Stewart’s lawyer Mr Weller said no admissable evidence had been presented that his client had purposefully shot the dog, and contended that there was no motive or knowledge of the dog’s owner at the time of the incident.
‘How bad did the situation need to get for Mr Stewart to be entitled to defend his chickens on his own property?’ he asked.
In her summing up on the final day, Magistrate Stafford said she was unconvinced by the ‘flimsy evidence’ regarding the third arrow ricocheting from the tree.
‘Why did it still have enough force to enter the dog’s torso and sever the spine?’ and what was Mr Stewart trying to achieve if the first two arrows had been so ineffective at scaring the dog?
She said she was convinced that a motive existed to get back at the neighbourhood dogs and their owners, with Mr Stewart seeking to ‘downplay how upset and obsessed he was’ after previous events with dog-owning neighbours.
Magistrate Stafford said she found the evidence of the neighbours to be trustworthy and reliable, and accusations that they were lying unfounded. The evidence of Mr Stewart, by contrast, she found ‘reconstructed and inconsistent’.
She found the allegations of animal cruelty, recklessness and torture proved beyond reasonable doubt, but the suggestion of self-defence on Mr Stewart’s part unproved, although she conceded that the dog could have been scaring the chickens.
‘I find that it was a deliberate shooting at Bucket’, she said.
Mr Stewart did not visibly react when he was found guilty as charged.
Magistrate Stafford agreed to consider two previous offences from Mr Stewart, as well as character references, saying she would be passing sentence on 8 December 2020. Imprisonment and fines are both possible outcomes.
Reaction from Bucket’s owner
Kris Thompson told Echonetdaily, ‘We are pleased with the guilty verdict and that Bucket is getting the justice he deserves.
‘It was such a stressful time for my family and all the neighbours involved. The court case brought back all the raw emotions from that heart-breaking day,’ he said.
‘This doesn’t bring back our wonderful puppy but I’m relieved the judge found Bucket the innocent victim and Stewart for what he is.
‘It was such a cowardly act on the most beautiful and friendly puppy who wasn’t even a year old.
‘My family and neighbours are all still wary of Stewart’s disturbed nature and it is a shame our friendly community has to endure this type of person.
‘We look forward to hearing the sentencing on the 8th of December,’ said Mr Thompson.