Family of slain nurse changes narrative on domestic violence
Cait O'Brien always knew she wanted to help people. To her family, she was a born carer.
"She was always going to be a nurse, it was her life goal," her sister Martine O'Brien says. "From a very young age she was extremely focused towards community work and putting people first. It wasn't just about the study for her, it was about making a difference."
Aged 31, O'Brien had dedicated her short life to it. But on June 25 last year, she was killed by the one person she had fought the hardest to help.
Her partner of more than a decade, Shea Sturt, 33, smothered her with a pillow in their Gardenvale home while in the throes of a drug-induced psychotic episode.
Just two days earlier he had told her not to be scared, promising, "I would never hurt you."
"Cait never expected to be in this situation," Martine says. "My sister never would have imagined she would die young."
O'Brien and Sturt met as teenagers at Chisholm TAFE in Frankston. O'Brien was pursuing her passion for nursing and the two soon moved in together in a flat in Cribb Point before moving into their home in Gardenvale in 2014.
From the beginning, O'Brien financially supported Sturt, who was unemployed for all but a few months of their relationship.
The O'Brien family welcomed Sturt into their fold, viewing him as a son and brother, Martine says.
But it was not long before the relationship turned violent, marked by incidents of physical aggression Sturt inflicted on O'Brien.
In late 2008, a fight about moving furniture descended into a full blown assault, with Sturt kicking and punching O'Brien. She reported the incident to police, but quickly withdrew her report, lodging a statement of no complaint.
By 2010, Sturt's mental state had begun to deteriorate. When O'Brien told him he needed to get psychological help, he exploded, court documents reveal.
"He grabbed her by the hair, pulled her onto his lap and punched her six or seven times in the back of the head," the Supreme Court heard at a pre-sentence hearing last month.
O'Brien eventually fled the home and reported the incident at Chelsea police station. Sturt admitted to the assault at the Frankston Magistrates' Court. He received a good behaviour bond.
By 2016, O'Brien's colleagues at Caulfield Hospital recall often seeing her crying at work and covered in bruises.
She told a colleague Sturt threw things at her and hit her. She also told of waking up to Sturt attempting to strangle her in her sleep.
Medical records reveal she sought help again in 2017 and 2018, detailing years of verbal and physical abuse at the hands of her boyfriend. She had visited her local GP clinic 33 times in the two years before her death. In 2017, she told hospital staff Sturt had been violent towards her for seven years of their 10-year relationship.
In late 2018, Sturt was admitted three times to a psychiatric ward due to delusional thinking exacerbated by cannabis and LSD use. As his mental health worsened, so too did the relationship.
Just months before her death, O'Brien told a friend she was worried about Sturt's mental state but knew he had nowhere else to go.
"I'm not heartless, I can't just kick people out," she wrote. "He has mental issues too, fairly bad ones. I do love him.
"He's my best friend. I worry about his safety … I know I'm enabling him," she told her friend.
A forensic psychiatrist gave evidence Sturt had used various coercive behaviours, including threats of violence and suicide, out of fear O'Brien would abandon him.
Martine says while her family knew of some incidents of domestic violence early on in the relationship, the continuing cycle of abuse was a "revelation" to her devastated family.
"It was a very complex and traumatic relationship and it's just so sad it ended the way it did," she says.
"She was an incredibly strong person. As a nurse, she felt that she could help him. As a family we struggled for years to get him help. She honestly thought she could save him … in the end, he just snapped."
Early last year, O'Brien began suffering debilitating migraines and was getting progressively sicker.
A scan revealed a cyst on her brain, which she had removed in a process that involved drilling into her skull. The invasive nature of the surgery required months of rehabilitation and time off work.
Martine says her sister was never given the chance to recover. She would be dead before the month was out.
On June 23, O'Brien was again worried about Sturt's mental health.
He was delusional, believing he was Jesus and gave children cancer. He forced her to eat an apple so that they could be Adam and Eve and be enlightened.
He was taken by paramedics to The Alfred hospital for assessment but released later that night.
In a Facebook conversation, O'Brien told Sturt she was scared.
"Of what?" Sturt asked.
"You murdering me," O'Brien replied.
Later that evening, she messaged a friend: "I'm so scared, I just want to run away."
On the morning of June 25, Sturt and O'Brien sat on the bed they shared and discussed the end of the world, Sturt would later tell police.
He told police he had confronted her, saying: "You've been killing people". He believed she was a witch and a psychopath.
"Her face just went dead, it was like all the love had gone from everything and she was just defeated," he said.
O'Brien became scared and tried to escape him, running to the bathroom and grabbing a pair of scissors.
Sturt overpowered her, snatched the scissors and began stabbing at her. He pushed her onto the bed and placed a pillow over her head for two minutes until she stopped moving. He then tied a pair of tracksuit pants tightly around her neck to ensure she was dead.
In his final act, he took a bank card from O'Brien's wallet and placed it on her body to signify that "you don't own me any more".
Sturt then showered, washed the blood off his clothes and left the house.
In the hours following the murder, he walked around Collingwood and Fitzroy before making his way to the city. He eventually stopped two PSO officers outside Flinders Street Station and told them: "You have to arrest me, I've just killed my girlfriend."
Later, when detectives told Sturt he would be charged with O'Brien's murder, he simply replied: "Cool."
In court, prosecutors described O'Brien's murder as brutal and deliberate. She was vulnerable, not only because she had been subjected to years of domestic violence, but she was also recovering from significant surgery, they argued.
"You murdered her in her own home, a place she should have been safe," Supreme Court Judge Christopher Beale said as he sentenced Sturt to 22 years prison last week. He could be released on parole in just 15 years with time served.
"This was not a one-off instance of domestic violence on your part," Justice Beale said. "No sentence I impose can undo the harm you have done."
Martine sat in court and watched Sturt's face as the ruling was handed down.
"It was important for me to go, for both of them," she says. "We're very pleased with the sentence. I think it's fair."
Martine said she hoped Sturt would use the time behind bars to rehabilitate himself. "He needs to take responsibility for what he's done. Cait would have wanted him to get better."
The death of her little sister, seven years her junior, at the hands of her partner illuminates a dangerous culture of domestic violence in Australia, Martine says.
It also highlights a system that's failing men and women.
"We have a massive problem that is just not getting better. There needs to be more help for both men and women and we need education to start in schools," she says.
"We need a royal commission into partner abuse, murder and domestic violence. We need to do more. Cait would want us to focus on a solution; she would want everybody to look at this problem in society and find a way we can all come together and suggest solutions."
Martine says her beloved sister should not become merely a number. "This could be somebody else's sister, mother or daughter."
As for Sturt, Martine said her family didn't just lose their sister and daughter that day.
"He was part of our family - we have lost two people," she says.
Martine, a professional historian, remembers her sister as a kind, compassionate young woman who wouldn't go a day without picking up the phone to have a chat.
"We were a very close family. Cait loved nature and I'll always remember our time spent bushwalking together," she says "She was marvellous, she was emphatic and vibrant."
Martine is now working to ensure her sister's legacy as a passionate nurse lives on.
She says she hopes to engage The Alfred and Caulfield hospitals, two places where O'Brien worked, to do so.
Adjunct Professor Janet Weir-Phyland, chief nursing officer at Alfred Health where O'Brien was in her graduation year, says the nursing community is deeply saddened by the loss.
"Caitlin was a much-loved team member, and a caring and compassionate nurse, who was well-respected by her colleagues at The Alfred and Caulfield Hospital.
"We are deeply saddened by what happened, and our thoughts are with her family, her friends and colleagues who have experienced a great loss," she says.
Justice Beale noted her family's "rightful pride" in O'Brien's achievements in nursing and contribution to the community.
The family thanked members of the homicide squad for their empathy and support in bringing justice for their daughter and sister.
*For 24-hour domestic violence support call the national hotline 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or MensLine on 1800 600 636.
Originally published as Family of slain nurse changing the narrative on domestic violence