“Mommy, I just want you to know that I love you and Jason with all my heart,” the young woman whispered urgently.
“What’s wrong?” asked Joan.
The once vibrant young hairdresser, in a state of controlled panic, said she was preparing to leave her fiancé of six weeks, Simon Gittany, an emotionally abusive control freak who was lurking on the other side of the door.
“Mommy,” she whispered frantically. “If anything happens to me, please contact Michelle.” Lisa insisted her mother note down the details for Michelle Richmond, the life coach in whom she had been confiding for the previous three weeks, and repeatedly read them back to her. “What the hell is going on?” persisted Joan.
“Mommy, it’s OK,” continued Lisa, trying in vain to play down her terror. “I’ll call and talk to you … as soon as I can. However I can.”
It was the last time Joan Harnum spoke to her only daughter. A little over four hours later, after apparently rendering her unconscious, Simon Gittany picked up his fiancée and dropped her from the balcony of the apartment they shared on the 15th floor of Sydney’s fashionable apartment block The Hyde.
The young Canadian beauty didn’t utter a sound as she plummeted from the building, but the world heard a deafening scream. “It says, ‘Stop the violence against women!’” explains Joan Harnum, sitting in the living room of her home in southern Ontario. “Stop!”
On November 27 last year, after a gripping month-long trial, Supreme Court judge Lucy McCallum found Simon Gittany, 40, guilty of the “shocking and tragic” murder of the woman he’d pledged to spend his life with just weeks earlier. “She was nearly there,” says Tracy Howe, CEO of Domestic Violence New South Wales, of Lisa’s escape attempt. “That guy is in jail because of her planning and exposing of his behaviour. She is a heroine to me. I think she is amazing.”
"That guy is in jail because of her planning... I think she is amazing.”Tracy Howe
Before she even knew that Gittany was monitoring her emails and text messages in the weeks before her death, Lisa had decided to confide in the only two women in Sydney that her controlling fiancé allowed her access to outside of his family: her new personal trainer, Lisa Brown, and Michelle Richmond. She told them that Gittany had cut her off from her friends, dictated what she wore, where she went and to whom she spoke. And tucked into the pocket of the jeans she was wearing on the morning of her murder was a crumpled note that had been torn into little pieces. When police put it together, they found a chilling message: “There are surveillance cameras inside and outside the house.”
Gittany’s claim that his unhinged girlfriend had committed suicide was about to unravel. “She set out crumbs Hansel and Gretel-style that [led] right back to him,” says Howe. “He hadn’t banked on her being smarter than him.”
Joan sits on the edge of a sofa in the living room of the modest home she shares with her son, Jason, 39. As she talks about her daughter – Lisa preferred to use her middle name, Cecilia, in Australia – Joan’s chest and shoulders curve inwards, like she’s making a constant effort not to collapse into her own body. In snapshots taken together years earlier, Joan’s face isn’t only fuller, but also full of light and energy. On this chilly winter’s night in Ontario, it’s as if Lisa’s murder has not only eroded Joan’s family, but her body itself.
“I remember just seeing a head of hair; she had so much hair,” says Joan of Lisa’s birth on June 12, 1981. “She was adorable; so sweet.” Jason chose his sister’s first name; her second name was a nod to her tall, slender great-grandmother. Lisa was “a very smart kid”, says Joan, happy to colour in the one-dimensional picture the world has of her daughter, and “very mature for her age”.
As a little girl, Lisa would play football and practise karate moves with her adored older brother, but music was Lisa’s passion. From the ages of three to 16, she studied tap, jazz and ballet, competing in dance contests throughout Canada and the US. At some point in her teens, around the same time she began turning heads in the street, Lisa became intensely conscious of body image. “She wasn’t eating,” says Joan, who finally had her underweight daughter admitted to hospital, where she was diagnosed with an eating disorder. It was a condition she struggled with, on and off, for the rest of her life. “She had this immense ability to keep pushing and trying,” adds Joan. “If one thing didn’t work, she’d just try another. She fought it all the time.”
One of Lisa’s first jobs was in the fragrance department of Toronto department store The Bay, where she befriended co-worker Jenny Romano. Instantly close, the pair became “partners in crime” on Toronto’s club scene, jokes Romano, often dancing until eight in the morning. “Lisa never drank, ever, and was not into drugs,” says Romano. “She just loved [dancing]; it was her thing.”
Often in the early hours after a night of clubbing, Lisa and her friends would sit around the kitchen table telling Joan about their evening while Joan made tea and prepared a meal. “Lisa used to say, ‘Mom, I tell you everything. My girlfriends don’t tell their mothers anything.’ It was true. We were very, very close.”
Romano says her “super fun” friend was attracted to older men “that could take care of her … I think that was because she saw how much [Joan] struggled being a single mom.” Joan has a simpler explanation. Lisa, she says, “was always mature for her age.
At the end of 2004, Lisa quit her job at The Bay and decided to move to Australia, initially on a 12-month working visa. “I think she got kind of stuck,” says Joan. “She wanted to travel, she wanted a different job. She kept meeting people from Australia [at The Bay]. And she loved the heat.”
When Lisa arrived in Melbourne on January 1, 2005, Joan was with her. “I just wanted to see what it was like, where she was going to be,” admits Joan. “I couldn’t just let her go down there and figure it all out. I wanted to make sure she was OK.”
That May, Lisa started work at a Sydney cosmetics company and soon began a relationship with a colleague some 20 years her senior. “They got along really well,” says Joan. The pair spent 2006 travelling the world, from exotic resorts in Bali to the famous masquerade ball in Venice. Eventually, they became engaged. “I thought he was really nice,” says Joan, and “very respectful” of Lisa. “He asked us when he wanted to [propose].” While Lisa happily accepted, the age difference became a factor and the relationship ended.
By the end of 2009, while studying and working at Australian Hair & Beauty in Sydney’s Bondi Junction, Lisa had a new boyfriend. “He was the type of guy you could easily fall for,” says Joan. “He was very charming; made her laugh.” He was also married. When Joan was in Australia for Christmas, “we talked about it”, she says. “I said, ‘Do you really want to do this? It’s not a good idea.’”
As soon as Joan went home to Canada, Lisa broke up with the man. But before they split, he gave Lisa the worst possible parting gift. He introduced her to Simon Gittany.
“At first [Lisa] thought he was gay,” says Joan, with a wicked smile. “I would have loved to have said that in court.”
In early 2010, unhappy where she was living, Lisa accepted Gittany’s offer of a room in his rented apartment “until she found something”, says Joan. About two months later, the arrangement took a romantic turn. “I have no doubt that [Gittany] and Lisa Harnum loved each other and that their relationship was at times very happy,” said Justice Lucy McCallum in her four-and-a-half hour judgement. While Joan says Lisa never told her she was “in love” with Gittany, she concedes that “at first they got along great”. Then, shortly before Lisa’s 29th birthday that June, Gittany urged Lisa to quit her job at the hairdressing salon. He said she should be looking for “a better class of people”.
Sabotaging a partner so she can’t work is a common tactic of controlling men, says domestic violence expert Tracy Howe. “They will do it in a variety of ways – phone you all the time, make you stay home because he feels sick and you’ve got to look after him, make it hard for you to get to work. As soon as they get you out of the workplace, then they go to town and that’s what happened with Lisa.”
Indeed, Gittany was just getting started. By September that year, having signed a lease on the apartment at The Hyde, he had begun cutting Lisa off from her friends. At one point, he hacked into her email account and deleted any emails from men. Friends mysteriously vanished from her Facebook account. The couple had stopped going to clubs because he didn’t like the attention Lisa got from men. “I miss my family and friends so much,” Lisa wrote in a text to Joan on October 2, 2010. “I have no life.”
“I miss my family and friends so much...I have no life.”Lisa Harnum
While other texts suggest a far happier story, slowly, but surely, Gittany was isolating his partner.
A torrent of midwinter rain was crashing onto the roof of Michelle Richmond’s home on Sydney’s north shore when the life coach opened the door to greet her new client, Lisa Harnum, in June 2011. Standing on the deck was an “exotically beautiful” woman and an impeccably groomed man. But only one of them was happy. “We’ve been [waiting] here five minutes!” snapped Gittany. Richmond explained that she hadn’t heard the bell, apologised and led Lisa into her rooms. Gittany, who believed Richmond was treating Lisa for injuries suffered while doing ballet, left.
Lisa had been referred to the therapist by her personal trainer, Lisa Brown, who sensed that all was not right with the young Canadian. (Gittany had stopped Lisa from working out in a public gym because of the male attention.) Lisa “glowed”, says Richmond of her new client. “She was very warm and very loving. You wanted to wrap her up.”
Importantly, it seems, Lisa felt safe. Almost immediately, she began to open up about her life. By now some 18 months into her relationship with Gittany, it seemed the more she talked, the more the once social and vivacious young woman realised she’d been lured into a new normal. Gittany now dictated where she went, whom she talked to, what she wore – monochromatic pants and jackets, flat shoes, no cleavage, hair tied back – how she worshipped (Lisa had not only converted to Catholicism, Gittany’s faith, but wholeheartedly embraced it) and whom she worked for.
When Gittany proposed on her 30th birthday three weeks earlier, claiming that he’d found someone to “serve” him, the room was full of his friends and family, but not one of hers. “Yet, she was still making excuses for him,” says Richmond. “She was still struggling within herself. She wanted the fairytale.”
On the other side of the world, Lisa’s family was growing increasingly concerned. Lisa’s texts home were a tale of two relationships– one loving (“Mom, I think I’ve met my match; I think I love this guy”), the other abusive and suffocating. She was leaving Gittany and going home to Canada. And then she wasn’t.
Joan was conflicted. “I know every parent goes through this: when do I step in and say, ‘I know you’re not a little person anymore, but I think you need help’? I always said to her, ‘If anything happens, just grab your bag and get the hell out. And then call me right away.’”
Joan, says Tracy Howe, “responded in the best ways she could. She was open, frank – a non-judgemental rock for her daughter. She was a very good mother.”
Gittany’s mantra during the couple’s regular explosive arguments was that he had the power to have Lisa’s visa cancelled and have her deported, shattering her dream of making a life in Australia. A final straw for Lisa appears to have been the timing of their marriage. Lisa was excited and wanted to start planning. Joan says Gittany responded: “I’ll let you know when we’re going to start planning it. Until then, shut up.” Finally, for Lisa, the penny was starting to drop.
Richmond told Lisa what support services were available and what her legal rights were should she choose to leave and, given Gittany’s obvious domination, the safest way to do it. With the help of personal trainer Brown, Lisa secretly began removing some of her things from the apartment. And she asked her mother to come and take her home. “I need you down here,” Lisa told her mother a few days before she died. “How bad is it?” asked Joan. “Do you need me right now? Because I’ll come right now.” When Joan explained that she needed to clear the time off with her employer, Lisa was reassuring. “It’s OK; I can handle it.”
“Do you need me right now? Because I’ll come right now.”Joan Harnum
Through her window at The Hyde, Lisa could see a little skating rink, but Gittany wouldn’t allow her to visit it. “She said, ‘Mom, when you come down, can we go skating?” Lisa said she would book her mother a ticket for the following week.
On the morning of July 30, 2011, after discovering that Gittany had been monitoring all activity on her phone – every call, every text message, every planned airline booking – via a software program he’d installed on his computer, Lisa knew she couldn’t wait for Joan to arrive; she had to grab her bag and flee. Having confronted her partner about his monstrous breach of trust, the clock started ticking on what would be an unimaginable act of brutality.
Of all the photos of Lisa Harnum and Simon Gittany, it’s the final one that reveals the true nature of their relationship. It’s a grainy image captured by a pinhole camera near the door of their apartment. Gittany, with his arm around his terrified fiancée’s neck and a hand over her mouth, is seen dragging her out of the corridor, back inside the apartment. What happened next wasn’t captured by Gittany’s living room surveillance cameras or recorded on the hard drive he had hidden in the ceiling, but 69 seconds later, Lisa Harnum was dropped silently to her death. Her handbag went with her.
In Canada, Joan was frantic. She’d been trying to reach Lisa since her last phone call. “I just kept calling and calling and texting and texting. ‘Simon are you there? Just let me talk to my daughter.’”
Joan’s phone did ring at 2am. “I thought it was her,” says Joan, “but it wasn’t.” It was the Toronto police. Joan buzzed them into the building and met them in the hallway outside her unit. “He killed her!” Joan cried, before they could break the news. “He killed her!”
Today, as Gittany spends his first Christmas behind bars, Joan is determined to spare others the pain she’s been through. “Pay attention,’’ she advises. “If you see changes – like they’re dressing differently or losing contact with their friends – you’ve got to start asking the right questions. And if you really think it’s that bad. Step in. That’s the message we’re trying to get out there. It’s never too late to interfere.’’
Outside, the street is electric with Christmas lights, but Joan’s home is conspicuous for its lack of cheer. Her only outward nod to the festive season is nestled in the picture window of the living room. It is an angel, about 20cm high, with long brown hair and a gleaming dark-caramel dress. “She loved Christmas,” says Joan, her eyes full of tears. “We have to carry on. It’s hard.”