Di McDonald only dated Max Gardiner for a few months. But the consequences of splitting up with him nearly broke her. It took a famous FBI profiler to finally catch the serial stalker.
It was about 11:00pm one night and Di McDonald had just switched off the light when she heard an almighty bang on her roof.
She leapt out of bed and headed to the bank of CCTV monitors in her living room. Since breaking up with Max Gardiner, the slightly built 52-year-old had turned her house in the north-west of Melbourne into a fortress. Cameras flanked the front and back.
Di was dialling triple-0 with one hand and rewinding the CCTV recording with the other.
“And what I saw terrified me, absolutely terrified me,” she tells Australian Story.
“His face was black with glowing eyes. I was petrified. I am screaming at the operator on triple-0. She’s telling me to calm down.
“And I’m like, ‘You’re not looking at what I’m looking at’.”
The man outside wore a balaclava to hide his identity, but Di was certain she knew who it was.
She just had to prove it. And that proved nearly impossible.
For more than three years, Max Gardiner relentlessly stalked the mother-of-three.
“I would never have expected Di’s life to be like this,” Di’s sister Michelle McLennan says. “I wouldn’t expect anyone’s life to be like this.”
Gardiner would turn up unexpectedly when Di was out. She feared he’d put a tracker on her mobile phone.
Di found used condoms on her doorstep and in her letterbox, her car was vandalised and her 80-year-old mother’s windows were smashed.
Offensive anonymous posters kept turning up at her favourite haunts. The material called Di a whore, a second-rate hooker, a bad mother, trailer trash.
Di frequently went to the police but they said there was no proof that her former boyfriend was responsible.
Courts issued Di with intervention orders that were meant to protect her. But the stalking just got worse.
Little did she know that according to Victoria Police, Gardiner had other victims, and his earliest conviction dated back 30 years.
Di was caught up in a nightmare that drove her to breaking point.
That is, until a young detective in Melbourne teamed up with one of the FBI’s most famous profilers on the other side of the world. And he found the clues that would crack this case in places no one had thought to look.
Romance starts with a rose
In 2014, Di was on top of the world. She loved her job as a supervisor at Big W and she excelled at customer service. Very little fazed her.
“It was absolutely a chance meeting that changed Di’s life,” Detective Senior Constable Beck Norris says. “She was at work and just happened to assist a colleague with a complaint.”
A thick-set man was arguing with one of her staff, and Di decided to go over and sort it out. A few words and Max Gardiner left happy.
She was surprised when he returned with a single red rose and a letter. It said: “You made my day … I would love to get to know you and have the pleasure of your company over dinner”.
Di’s staff passed the letter around. “Oh, he’s so nice. You should go. Go! Go!’,” they said.
Reluctantly, she agreed. Coffee soon became dinner, and eventually a five-month on-again off-again relationship.
“I think what drew me to Max was that he came across as extremely charming and very much a gentleman,” Di says.
Max Gardiner was 62 and had three children to two former partners. He was once in technology and the motor industry. But as a result of an injury he limped slightly and hadn’t worked in years.
Di says she wasn’t looking for love. She had been divorced for about a year and was living with her two teenage daughters.
“Life was pretty cruisy,” she says.
Di loved live music and regularly went to two wine bars in Melbourne’s bayside with her best friend, Cathie Maney.
Christine Turnbull, the owner of the Brighton Wine Larder, says Di and Cathie would come at least once a week and “they loved to party”.
Christine remembers meeting Gardiner when Di first took him to the Wine Larder to celebrate her birthday with Cathie and her boyfriend.
There was nothing about Max that struck the seasoned crowd controller as untoward. But Christine’s wine bar made a big impression on him. In the months and years to come, Gardiner would use it to try to bring Di down.
Control and jealousy: ‘I couldn’t do anything alone’
Max Gardiner wove his magic with Di’s sister. Michelle McLennan met Gardiner when he came to Christmas Day lunch in 2014 and thought he was “a good catch”.
“He was very attentive, and I just thought he was quite nice,” Michelle says. “Looking back on it now, he was probably a little bit possessive.
“If Di would sit on the couch, Max would be sitting right next to her and he would be holding hands with her or he’d have his hand on her knee.
“You think it’s just, you know, being in a new relationship that he just wants to be with her all the time.”
But Di broke up with Gardiner the next day. She felt Max was trying to control her and get between her and her kids.
“Max actually got extremely jealous of my son, and that was it,” Di says. “I basically said, ‘No one comes between me and my children’.”
Michelle thought she’d been too harsh.
After Gardiner turned up unexpectedly at another bar she frequented, Di decided to give him a second chance. But Gardiner became even more possessive.
“If I had to go anywhere, he was taking me,” Di says. “I couldn’t do anything on my own. The rose-coloured glasses had come off.”
Di finally ended the relationship in May 2015.
That was when Di’s world really started unravelling. “I had no idea what was to come,” she says. “No idea whatsoever.”
Di’s faith in police fades
Di would go out and meet her friends but when she left to go home, she would find her car damaged.
Her tyres were slashed. Her side mirror and windscreen wipers were broken off, expansion foam was sprayed over her car, and strip nails were found in her front tyres.
Di’s brother-in-law Rob McLennan ripped the nails out.
“There was one of these things in each of the front tyres and they were both across the tread,” he says.
“And that’s just highly improbable that you could just run over them and they’d both get stuck into both tyres at the same time.”
Di texted Gardiner and told him to leave her alone. She took out an intervention order to make him keep his distance.
Weeks later she went out with a friend in Melbourne’s inner-north and when they returned to the car, they discovered a flat tyre. CCTV footage showed a man kneeling next to the front tyre.
When police questioned Gardiner, he accused Di of “making up crap allegations”.
“I’ve never threatened, I only had the care in this world for this woman,” Gardiner told police in his interview in 2015.
“There’s only one person being hurtful out of this … And everything I did for her, if she can’t show me the respect … she wants to cause grief.”
Di reported every incident but there never seemed to be enough proof. Even when there was CCTV, police said his face was not clearly identifiable.
Her long-held faith in the blue and white uniform was fading.
“Some of them [officers] were incredibly rude,” Di says. “I had absolutely no help at all from them.
“They actually told me they could tell it was Max by his walk out front of my house and I’m like, ‘Great, charge him’. No, he’s wearing a balaclava, no magistrate is going to convict him of that.
“The advice I got from police was to get my neighbours out and tackle him to the ground, make a citizen’s arrest and rip the balaclava off and take photos.”
‘Manipulative, bad mother’: Attacks begin
But it wasn’t only Di’s car that was being attacked. It was also her reputation.
Crude posters started appearing at her favourite wine bars. They accused Di of being “manipulating”, “cheating”, “unfaithful”, “promiscuous” and “a bad mother”. They attacked her best friend Cathie as well.
Christine Turnbull found one sticky-taped to the outside of her Brighton bar that included a photo of Di as well as Cathie’s mobile number with an invitation to call Di for a “blow job”.
The Elwood Food and Wine Bar was also being plastered with posters.
Owner Peter Newson searched his CCTV and found a man disguised in a ski suit, balaclava and gloves sliding A4 sheets of paper under the door and sticking others to the bar’s windows.
“This guy, there’s something really a bit loopy here, you know, it was two o’clock in the morning, you’re dressed like that?” Peter says.
“I thought that’ll be the start and finish of it. But sadly, it went on and on and on and really did a lot of damage, I believe, to both Cathie and Di.”
Max Gardiner was brought in for questioning again.
Terrified and helpless, Di hits rock bottom
Despite Gardiner being convicted three times for breaching the intervention order that Di had taken out to prevent him coming anywhere near her and her daughter, the stalking continued.
Professor Heather Douglas, an expert on criminal justice and domestic violence, says non-physical forms of violence are harder to prove and in Di’s case, police handed the case from one officer to another and that put Di at risk.
“It’s very disappointing to see this case take so long to come to a prosecution for stalking,” Professor Douglas says.
“People who are experiencing stalking are some two-and-a-half times more likely to suffer serious physical harm and even death as a result of that, so it is a big risk factor.
“By the time she got a protection order, there was already clear evidence that there were clear incidents that she could speak to that would have, I think, supported a stalking prosecution.”
If you or anyone you know needs help:
One of the lowest points for Di was in early 2016 when her childhood friend Karen Chetcuti was murdered by a neighbour.
Di was terrified. “I was thinking, ‘Is that going to happen to me? Is that his main goal with me?’.”
She organised a walk to raise money for Karen’s two children. That’s where Gardiner struck again.
Along the route of the walk, Gardiner had plastered posters with a photo of Di and the words: “This is laughable. An insult to women who have morals.”
Di collected all the posters and took them to the police.
“But Max would say, ‘No, no, no, I haven’t done this; it’s not me’,” she says. “They would release him, and he’d continue putting the flyers up again and again and again.”
Di and Cathie stopped going out because Max Gardiner seemed to know exactly where they went. And it started to affect their mental health.
“Cathie would get very animated sometimes; she would be screaming, saying, ‘Make it stop, make it go away’, which I couldn’t,” Di says.
“I started losing friends and fighting with family … They blocked me, they hung up on me, they just didn’t want to know about this anymore.”
Di says one night she saw no way out and attempted suicide.
Peter Newson from Elwood Food and Wine Bar believes the posters would also have had an impact on Di’s best friend.
“Cathie was a painter, a great artist [but] she was troubled in her own little way,” he says.
Cathie Maney killed herself in January 2017.
Di was devastated. And alone.
Posters kept appearing at the two bars. And now they blamed Di for Cathie’s death.
And then Gardiner turned up at her daughter’s workplace in contravention of an intervention order. He was convicted of the breach. But the damage was done.
“You’ve got no idea the terror I felt, and the helplessness, that this person … is now looking for my child.”
Detective becomes Di’s ‘saviour’
Di became desperate. Her pleas to Victoria Police weren’t working so she turned to a politician.
In a letter to Victorian opposition police spokesman Ed O’Donohue, she wrote: “Do my daughter or myself have to die before we get any help? What has to happen to us before he’s put in jail? We are constantly in fear.”
Di’s story chilled the Liberal MP. “She was compelling; she was truthful, she was afraid; and she needed help,” Mr O’Donohue says.
He passed on Di’s letter to the office of the Victorian Police Minister, Lisa Neville, and it finally landed in one of the Family Violence Investigation Units, set up after Victoria’s royal commission. That’s where Di met the woman she calls her “saviour”.
Detective Senior Constable Beck Norris was 28 and had only been a detective for two years. But she’d been handpicked by her boss, Detective Senior Sergeant Tania Gallagher, because of her “tenacity, patience and a lot of victim-centric policing”.
Detective Senior Constable Norris remembers the day she first met Di.
“She was very tired, she was exhausted, and she was frustrated with the whole process. So, I had my work cut out for me to build a relationship with her.
“She needed to trust me that when I said I’m working on it that I meant it.
“I guess I’m dogged in my investigations, I don’t let things go very easily.”
Di had been reporting incidents to several police stations over the years. But no one had tried to bring the evidence together and drill down into her allegations against Gardiner.
“The overall view, I suppose, was, ‘It’s their business, what’s going on with them in that family is their business. Look the other way’,” Detective Senior Sergeant Tania Gallagher says.
“That was true not just for Victoria Police, [but] the entire community was reacting or looking at family violence like that. That definitely needed to change.”
Detective Senior Constable Norris says she quickly established that other women had been victims of Max Gardiner and that his first conviction for breaching an intervention order was three decades ago, in 1989.
Yet none of them agreed to make a statement. Detective Senior Constable Norris says they were afraid the menacing would start up again.
“I think sometimes it’s easier to let sleeping dogs lie. That’s what one of them said to me.”
But not Di McDonald.
Right from the start, Detective Senior Constable Norris was confident there was only one suspect. When Di gave her a bulging file of material she’d collected, the detective spread out the contents on the floor of her office.
She then drew up a timeline that clearly showed the number of offensive posters that had haunted Di over three years.
In August 2018, police swooped on Gardiner’s house and found a balaclava, gloves, the same tape that was on the posters, and a torn photo from Cathie’s Facebook page. But neither the CCTV nor DNA and fingerprint testing could prove beyond reasonable doubt the identity of the stalker.
Max Gardiner had left clues, but they were not going to be found in a laboratory.
Turns out he’d made the same mistake as Ted Kaczynski, a recluse known as The Unabomber, who terrorised America with mail bombs that killed three people and injured another 23 over a 17-year period.
Kaczynski also wrote down his thoughts and revealed himself.
FBI profiler decodes love letters
Beck Norris was too young to know much about the Unabomber.
And she’d never heard of James R. Fitzgerald, the FBI’s linguistic profiler who finally caught Kaczynski in 1996.
“I remember being told about it and thinking, I’m going to have to Google this because it sounds like a big deal,” Detective Senior Constable Norris says.
Mr Fitzgerald had compared Kaczynski’s published manifesto with the letters he wrote to his family and discovered a secret code within his writings, which helped lead to his arrest.
When the Australian detective reached out to him, Mr Fitzgerald used the same strategy, comparing the anonymous posters with Gardiner’s original love letters to Di to determine if the same person wrote both.
“It hadn’t really been done in Australia that I knew of, let alone Victoria, so we weren’t sure how the court was going to react,” Detective Senior Constable Norris says.
“There was no case law, so it was all very new territory for all of us. I think I would be silly to say I wasn’t nervous.”
But Mr Fitzgerald was confident that he would be able to tell one way or the other if Gardiner wrote the posters.
“There’s a lot that can be told by someone’s spoken language or even their written language, even if they try to disguise it,” he tells Australian Story. “Because eventually the features of their long-term usage of language will manifest themselves in the writings.”
“I was looking for different sorts of emboldened sentences. I’m also looking for the spaces between abbreviations.
“I’m also looking for the spaces between words and punctuation.
“I’m looking for some of those possessives and plurals that Max was getting wrong.
“What was most striking to me was the odd usage of one-sentence paragraphs, most of which were indented at the same time.”
James Fitzgerald gave it the highest rating. The strongest possibility that the letters and posters were written by the same person.
Beck Norris was relieved as she read his report, sure she now had the additional evidence needed to link Gardiner to the crime.
In April 2019, she charged Gardiner with 28 offences including stalking and recklessly causing serious injury for the post-traumatic stress disorder Di suffered.
In Victoria, stalking carries a maximum 10-year sentence. Recklessly causing serious injury carries a maximum of 15 years in prison.
“They [the defence] would have had Jim’s report and it all laid out very clearly how many letters were sent and how we compared it,” Detective Senior Constable Norris says. “All roads were leading to him.”
But the detective who took a punt on a former FBI agent will never know if an Australian court would have accepted the linguistic evidence.
‘I’m proud of Di’
Just as his committal hearing was due to commence in October last year, Gardiner agreed to plead guilty on the proviso that the prosecution drop the serious injury charge.
“I think Jim’s finding was the reason that Max pleaded guilty,” Detective Senior Constable Norris says.
On February 19, 2020, Gardiner was convicted of stalking and sentenced to eight months’ jail with a two-year correction order.
When he appealed that sentence, Justice Martine Marich in the Victorian County Court warned she could increase it if he persisted.
The sentence remained and Gardiner was taken from court to prison.
“Beck and I had to watch the walk of shame,” Di says, “He was shackled with handcuffs … and was just shuffling.”
But it was a bittersweet moment. Di wanted Gardiner locked up for each of the five years he had tormented her.
And she believes the mental harm she has suffered from years of constantly looking over her shoulder wasn’t fully recognised when the serious injury charge was dropped in the plea deal.
“Why does he get away with that? Just because you can’t see it.”
Professor Douglas hasn’t met Di but admires her determination to see justice done.
“To really follow it right through the way she has is quite courageous and exceptional — I think it’s amazing,” she says. “A lot of women would have felt like they had to give up.”
Detective Senior Constable Norris says Di’s case will stay with her and she hopes Di can now live without fear.
“It definitely got under my skin. It’s something that I think I’ll probably have stuck with me for a long time in that I’m proud of it. I’m proud of her.”
Di McDonald is also proud she put Max Gardiner in jail, but she is nervous about the future.
“I’m not looking forward to his release date,” she says.
“I’m assuming he’s sitting wherever he is and he’s absolutely fuming.
“So I am expecting the worst. But I’m also prepared for the worst.”
Watch the two-part Australian Story To Catch a Stalker on iview or Youtube.
Reporters: Cheryl Hall, Belinda Hawkins
Digital & video production: Megan Mackander
Photography: Belinda Hawkins, Simon Winter, Jenny Magee, supplied: Di McDonald
Video: Simon Winter, Victoria Police
Graphics: Julie Ramsden
Special thanks: Matt Henry, Dan Harrison