WARNING: EXTREMELY GRAPHIC CRIME SCENE REPORTS
A Sydney woman who cut her 57-year-old mother’s head off with kitchen knives in July 2019 was found guilty of manslaughter in the NSW Supreme Court, after pleading not guilty to murder due to mental impairment. The court was told that Jessica Camilleri – who had a history of refusing to take psychiatric medications – had only stopped the attack when her mother’s head fell off and her eyeballs came out of their sockets.
A judge said Camilleri had practised “grave and mutilating depravity”, had squeezed and prodded her mother’s eyeball after removing it, and engaged in “acts of decapitation and cannibalism”.
Camilleri was sentenced, in March 2021, to serve 21 years and 7 months in prison, but may be eligible for parole when she’s 41, in 2035.
Mother and daughter had been at home in the mother’s St Clair house where they had dined on Red Rooster (chicken) before Jessica demanded a second delivery from the food outlet, then turned on Rita, who had threatened to have her daughter taken into mental health care. Jessica dragged her mother into the kitchen by the hair and attacked her with steak knives, beheading her and removing her tongue, eyeballs and nose.
The week-long trial saw graphic police evidence, crime scene bodycam video and a police interview with Ms Camilleri, her face still coated with her mother’s blood and her hands bagged.
Senior Constable Jodie Bennett, who examined the living room and a bedroom in the Camilleri house, found blood-soaked hair, human tissue, pools of vomit, overlapping blood-soaked footprints, plus a Crocodile Dundee figurine, the head of which had been detached.
The court heard Ms Camilleri was obsessed with figurines and violent horror movies featuring decapitation such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Detective Sergeant Brett Griffin, who examined the crime scene between 12.42am and 7am on Sunday July 21, told the court that out on the footpath in front of the neighbour’s house he found Rita Camilleri’s mutilated head.
“I saw an area of apparent bloodstaining and human tissue,” he said. “A short distance away I saw a human head with numerous injuries including a severed nose, removed eyes and numerous groupings of apparent lacerations and incised stab wounds.”
In her judgement, Justice Helen Wilson SC said:
“I’m satisfied the offender knocked her mother to the floor and then dragged her by her hair into the kitchen… The focus of the onslaught was upon her mother’s head and face, with over 100 individual blows landed, many on Mrs Camilleri’s right cheek. Mrs Camilleri was conscious and trying to defend herself for long enough to have sustained over 90 defensive injuries and a knife wound to a vein in her neck.”
Camilleri had previously been diagnosed with a range of conditions, including an intellectual disability, an autism disorder and ADHD. However, she didn’t like to take her medication and Mrs Camilleri had no recourse when she failed to do so, the trial heard.
A four-year-old, known as Child A, whom Jessica referred to as “the little bastard”, was in the house at the time and tried to jump on her to stop the attack. She fought off and wounded the child.
A forensic psychiatrist, Professor David Greenberg, told the NSW Supreme Court last year that in addition to her mild intellectual disability and autism spectrum disorder, Ms Camilleri suffers from a rage disorder that causes her to lose control and “explode like a bomb” when provoked or triggered by stressors.
Justice Wilson said Camilleri fully understood the wrongful nature of her actions and had squeezed one of her mother’s eyeballs after the decapitation. “The removal of Mrs Camilleri’s eyes does not appear to have been an act of deep and uncontrolled rage, rather, at this stage, the offender was indulging a sort of macabre curiosity sparked by her obsessive viewing of horror movies.”
Asked how Ms Camilleri’s decision to remove her mother’s eyeballs sits with the intermittent explosive disorder diagnosis, Professor Greenberg replied:
“it could also be more consistent with her autism spectrum disorder, her fascination for horror movies and body parts, decapitation, cannibalism, in her interest in these horror movies that she collected and views all the time.”
Camilleri later told a forensic psychiatrist she bit off her mother’s nose and that she got the idea to cut off her head from horror movies. She had a fixation on horror films, and owned eight copies of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and five of Jeepers Creepers, the court was told. The Crown Prosecutor added “A feature of these movies was killing people violently and dismembering their bodies”. Cannibalism featured prominently in both films.
After the attack, Camilleri dropped her mother’s head in the street and called the police emergency number, telling them that:
“I was just so caught up in the anger I kept stabbing and stabbing her and I took off her head. I ran to my neighbour and I had my mum’s head in my hand and I was taking it as evidence to show that in the struggle, I didn’t know what I was doing so I cut her head off. I chopped her head off with a knife.”
She said that she used “about seven knives” to murder Rita, breaking four of them, before adding there is “blood everywhere” in the kitchen. The recording of the call is at this site.
Camilleri told police when they arrived: “My mum’s head is on the concrete over there. Can you bring someone back to life if they don’t have a head? There’s nothing you can do, she’s a goner? They can’t restart her heart? ‘Cos I know doctors can do miracles they can’t resew her head?”
Police officer: “That’s a bit of a stretch.”
Her older sister Kristi Torrisi Rita’s testified at the trial about her sister’s troubled childhood and how, once in desperation, her mother had paid a medium $2,500 to get “the demon out of Jessica”. She said the mum was “killed and butchered like she was nothing, all because of a fit of rage”.
The case raises a lot of definitional issues. The judge stated that Camilleri had engaged in “acts of decapitation and cannibalism” yet none of the news stories mention any swallowing of human flesh (although biting off a nose might count). But cannibalism is a slippery concept, hard to define. We assume the cannibal to be the person who eats the flesh or organs of other humans. However, Robert Myers, who wrote a careful study of the allegations of Carib cannibalism, pointed out that this is too narrow:
“There is an absence of a clear definition of cannibalism, a practice encompassing an extremely broad and sometimes ambiguous range of behaviours. Cannibalism can include drinking water-diluted ashes of a cremated relative, licking blood off a sword in warfare, masticating and subsequently vomiting a snippet of flesh, celebrating Christian communion, or gnawing on entire barbecued limbs as De Bry depicts Caribs doing.“
Then we have Camilleri’s sister accusing her of butchering their mother “like she was nothing”. Butchery is a term used in warfare for massacres, but most commonly it is a business term. A butcher used to be someone who killed farmed animals and sold their parts, but now it usually involves no killing, which is done elsewhere behind high walls, and is a retail profession – selling bits of the dead animals to customers. The animals are not “nothing” in butchery but the raw material, valuable commodities to be sold, their ‘nothingness’ restricted to the moral value of which they are deprived by the logic of capitalism. Butchery, in other words, is normally done for profit. But the lessons we draw from its ubiquity in our societies can be taken to heart in many different ways.
“For as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other. Indeed, he who sows the seed of murder and pain cannot reap joy and love.”
– Pythagoras c. 500BC (attributed by Ovid)