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The Canberra Times
The Canberra Times
Tim Piccione

Murder in Murrumbateman: how a 23-year marriage ended in tragedy

The crime scene established in August 2021 after Dale Vella shot husband Mark Vella, both inset. Pictures by Elesa Kurtz, Facebook

Dale Lee Vella was acting strangely at the dinner table on the evening of August 9, 2021.

"I recall her taking one or two bites but she definitely didn't eat much," said David Borg, a family friend.

Georgia Vella, the woman's then-22-year-old daughter, said: "She said she wasn't feeling well."

Neither of them knew their friend and mother would, hours later, use a double-barrelled shotgun to murder another man at the dinner table, the offender's husband of 23 years, Mark Anthony Vella.

The married couple had only moved to the Murrumbateman property, which one local described as secluded and hidden behind tall pine trees, a few months earlier from the Central Coast.

The legally blind Mr Vella cooked dinner that winter night, as he often enjoyed doing for his family, but may not have noticed his wife's lack of appetite.

Or the spare cartridges in her slipper as the pair eventually went to bed.

What's almost certain is the sleeping man didn't see the loaded shotgun held within 30cm of his right eye before its firing instantly killed him.

The key question posed during a two-week trial in April wasn't whether Vella pulled the trigger that Monday night almost two years ago, but rather whether she understood the gravity of her actions.

It only took a jury a few hours to decide.

'I've shot him'

The first person Vella, 54, alerted to her crime was Mr Borg, who was awoken in his room on the opposite side of the house by a "loud bang" about 10pm.

A lifelong friend of the deceased man, Mr Borg's door was soon shaking from the offender's frantic knocking.

"I've shot him," Vella told Mr Borg.

"I was going to shoot myself but I've shot him."

The woman's immediate request for an ambulance, which she later told the NSW Supreme Court she did not recall, became prosecution evidence as to her relatively sound state of mind.

Crown prosecutor Kate Ratcliffe described the fatal shot Vella took in that state as "deliberate, carefully chosen, focused".

Georgia Vella leaves the Supreme Court of NSW, in Sydney, last week. Picture AAP

The crucial following minutes were heard and seen in part by the court through the emotional recordings of a triple-0 phone call and police body-worn camera.

"Your mum's shot your dad," Mr Borg told Vella's daughter, who was sleeping in a converted stable block and first thought the man was joking.

Talking into a phone she "snatched" off the family friend, the young woman quickly realised what had happened.

Her ensuing conversation with an emergency services operator was heavily muffled by her sobbing and often interrupted by her repeated disbelief.

"Oh my God," she said over and over.

"Why did you do this?" she asked her mother.

The operator attempted the impossible - to comfort Ms Vella and gather information to help incoming Yass police and paramedics.

"We're going to get you help," the operator said.

Ms Vella's immediate grief, shock and heartbreaking distress were loudest as she entered her father's room to find him lying on his bed.

In moments of tragedy, she believed he could still be alive.

"I know now there was nothing anyone could do. His death was instant," the man's daughter later said in an emotional victim impact statement she bravely read out in court.

"My world is smaller ... I instantly lost my father and my mother from my life."

Dale and Mark Vella. Picture Facebook

In court, as the loud triple-0 recording of the night in question stopped playing for the trial, the King Street building in Sydney remained filled with the overwhelming sound of crying.

This time, from the accused Vella.

Justice Helen Wilson cleared the courtroom so the offender could take a short break.

'The evidence is barely there'

Trials take great care to not obscure the opinions of jurors, with journalists forbidden from reporting what happens in their absence before a case is completed.

A jury is shielded from hearing legal questions, debates about the admissibility of evidence and the opinions of judicial officers.

Like, for example, a seemingly frustrated Justice Wilson directly expressing her concerns about Vella's defence case before closing addresses.

"The evidence is barely there," she said to defence barrister Greg Hoare and an otherwise almost empty courtroom.

The judge questioned whether Mr Hoare had presented any evidence Vella was substantially mentally impaired on the night of the shooting.

"It's pretty slim and there's a question of whether it's here at all," Justice Wilson said.

In murder cases, an accused offender can still be found guilty of the alternative charge of manslaughter if a court accepts they were substantially impaired by a mental health impairment.

In this case, jurors had to determine if Vella was either in control, understood events, knew her actions were wrong, or a combination of the three.

While not questioning the woman had been affected by a mental health impairment, as agreed by expert witnesses, the judge plainly asked: "Where's the evidence it was a substantial impairment?"

Dale Vella, who never denied shooting her husband of 23 years. Picture Facebook

Following the closed door conversation and in what surely surprised jurors, the defence barrister opened his closing address by asking the group to disregard the possibility of "serotonin toxicity" as a contributor to Vella's mental impairment.

The proposition he had spent nearly two weeks trying to prove was that the drug-induced condition was caused by the mixture of venlafaxine, an antidepressant, and St John's wort, a herbal remedy.

"The evidence is such that you can put that to one side," Mr Hoare said after no medical expert witness backed the claim.

"That's why we have a trial."

Close to home

Kristin Butler never met the Vella family, despite sharing a postcode for a brief time.

But the 12-year Murrumbateman local and Yass Valley councillor understands more than most what it's like to watch an arduous murder trial from the public gallery.

She told The Canberra Times about being "a bit triggered" by news of the shooting in 2021 after her own experience with the death of someone close to her.

"It was a long time ago now but it just brought back all the memories of sitting in that court," she said.

Cr Butler said she had often thought about the Vella children giving evidence, watching on, waiting and dealing with the shooting's aftermath.

"There are so many victims that have to go through all of this," she said.

The local politician and dental hygienist said news of a murder wouldn't have felt out of place in her former Sydney home but was a shock to her and many others in the NSW town.

Murrumbateman local Kristin Butler. Picture by Karleen Minney

"To have it happen here, where it's predominantly families, it's quiet and there's not a lot of crime, it was quite shocking," she said.

She couldn't recall any local incidents happening in the past decade "that would come close to this".

"Maybe a few livestock burglaries and house break-ins but nothing to this extent," she said.

With the violent crime being so out of the ordinary, Cr Butler said "Murrumbateman still feels safe".

"I don't think it's shaken anyone in terms of how we feel here in the community," she said.

'He can't hurt us anymore'

Murder was the trial's only charge but not its only allegation.

The court heard Vella was subjected to what her barrister described as "years of psychological abuse by her husband", for whom she was a carer.

"He can't hurt us anymore," the seemingly calm woman said while sitting on a couch after the shooting.

At other times, she was seen crying.

"He wasn't hurting us," her daughter responded.

Mr Hoare alleged the deceased man had been the perpetrator of coercive control, a form of domestic abuse recently criminalised in NSW.

It was this which Mr Hoare claimed led to Vella recording a "suicide note" video on the morning she shot her husband.

"I'm sorry guys, I just can't live like this anymore," she said in the video addressed to her children.

"I've let him abuse you emotionally for years and I've never protected you."

Giving evidence, Vella detailed a life of "walking on eggshells", telling the court she was "frightened of his temper".

Mark Vella and daughter Georgia Vella. Picture Facebook

Witnesses, including Mr Vella's long-time friend, daughter, son, brother and stepson, each said the deceased man had a "temper" and could easily "fire up" but calm down readily.

Many of them saw the married couple argue regularly but swore, keeping in mind the difficulties of witnesses not being privy to what goes on behind closed doors, they'd never seen abuse.

Whether jurors believed Vella had faced years of emotional abuse was one thing.

But, testing the harsh objectivity required in legal proceedings, whether they concluded this led the woman to be so impaired it lowered her moral culpability to manslaughter was an entirely different question.

"You must not let sympathy or emotion influence your verdict," the prosecutor said in her closing address.


The jury ultimately rejected Vella's defence, finding the woman guilty of murder.

On Friday, Justice Wilson sentenced the offender to 24 years in prison, with a non-parole period of 18 years.

"We are all diminished by the violent and too early death of a member of the community," she said.

The judge's earlier concerns were again heard, and this time publicly shared, in her stern sentencing remarks.

"There was no evidence that could, in my opinion, have supported the partial defence of substantial impairment that the offender sought to raise before the jury, and the jury very properly rejected the claimed defence." Justice Wilson said.

She also rejected "the demonisation of Mr Vella".

Dale Vella, who has been in custody since the August 2021 shooting. Picture Facebook

"The offender may have perceived her husband as unsupportive or even oppressive, but there is no evidence at all, and the court does not accept, that he was in fact abusive, controlling or violent towards her," the judge said.

She ultimately concluded Vella did have an "intention to kill" her husband that night by shooting him and that she had "probably planned to kill herself".

"What occurred on the late night of 9 August, 2021, is clearly established by the evidence given at trial," Justice Wilson said on Friday.

"Why it occurred is much less clear and may never be known."

Vella will be 70 when she becomes eligible for release in August 2039.

  • Support is available for those who may be distressed. Phone Lifeline 13 11 14; MensLine 1300 789 978; beyondblue 1300 224 636; 1800-RESPECT 1800 737 732.
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