Manmeet Alisher always smiled. Everyone who walked on to his bus said so. He smiled at Anthony O’Donohue, who hesitated for a moment, then stepped on board with a homemade petrol bomb in his backpack.
On Friday O’Donohue, a 50-year-old paranoid schizophrenic, was declared unfit to stand trial for Alisher’s murder by the Queensland mental health court.
Justice Jean Dalton found he was of unsound mind when he boarded the bus at Moorooka in Brisbane’s south in October 2016 and lit a fuse on a bottle filled with petrol and diesel.
In the aftermath, debate in India and Australia centred on whether O’Donohue’s act was a hate crime, whether Alisher had been targeted because he was Indian. The Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, phoned his Australian counterpart, Malcolm Turnbull, to express concern. Family members feared the worst.
Dalton said she did not think the attack was racist. Instead, it was the eruption of a man suffering worsening and severe psychotic delusions, a man with a long history of mental illness, who was triggered that spring morning by Alisher’s beaming smile.
‘He thought he might kill someone’
Five years earlier, O’Donohue had fashioned a weapon from a tyre lever. In October 2011 he walked into the Roma Street police station, surrendered himself and handed over the weapon. He asked police to lock him up “because he thought he might kill someone”, Dalton said.
Afterwards he was given an involuntary treatment order and regular injections of anti-psychotic drugs due to fears he would not take oral medication.
In 2014 the involuntary treatment order was revoked. In June 2016 he was “discharged from care” and told to follow up with his general practitioner. In the following months, his delusions of persecution became increasingly worse.
A likely coronial inquest will examine potential systemic failures in his mental health care since 2010.
In the mental health court on Friday, Dalton ordered that O’Donohue be kept and treated at The Park mental health facility in Brisbane for at least 10 years, the maximum amount of time the court can mandate. She made the order on the advice of multiple psychiatrists out of a concern that O’Donohue remained deluded, dangerous and had the capacity to hide symptoms from treating medical professionals.
‘Like a loaded gun’
O’Donohue had scored a 97 on his NSW higher school certificate, received two university degrees and worked as an accountant for NSW rail. In 2003 he left his job, citing persecution from colleagues. Psychiatrists told the mental health court his paranoid schizophrenia likely began around this time.
Time and again, he believed he was being persecuted: by colleagues, fellow residents, the transport workers union, Brisbane city council and bus drivers.
His delusions grew to the point where one day, the court was told, he placed a metal colander on his head to block people who were reading his thoughts. He believed the prime minister’s wife, Lucy Turnbull, was complicit and that the mining magnate, Gina Rinehart, would send special air service soldiers to rescue him and resettle him in Western Australia. O’Donohue had a bag packed, waiting for the SAS.
When they didn’t arrive, the delusions got worse. He believed a group of people he spotted on a bus, each wearing pink shirts, were part of a conspiracy against him. He told a psychiatrist about following a woman because she was carrying a black handbag.
In September 2016, about a month before the attack, he went to separate service stations and bought petrol and diesel, mixed them together and left the concoction in his unit as a warning to the people watching him.
The fuel was, he said, “like a loaded gun”.
‘We live in fear’
Dozens of Alisher’s relatives and friends, many of whom travelled from India, attended the mental health court hearing this week.
In a victim impact statement, his family recalled a man with “many dreams in his eyes”, who came to Australia with dreams of being a “superstar” singer, and who was a dedicated member of his community.
In a video produced by Alisher’s family and played to the court, they questioned whether he was killed because he was Indian.
“Why did he choose Manmeet?” Winnerjit Goldy said. “Manmeet’s friends and other Australians live in fear that they don’t feel safe in Australia.
“If O’Donohue was mentally sick for the last 18 years, why [was] he was moving in society?”
Dalton addressed potential racist motives, which have been discussed in international news reports and conjecture about the case for the past two years. Two other bus drivers, both of Indian descent, gave accounts that O’Donohue had previously made racist comments towards them.
“I will assume that Mr O’Donohue did make those statements,” Dalton said.
“I still do not think that the attack on [Alisher] was a racist attack. There are two reasons. The first is … that we have witnesses that showed he went straight from his house and got on the first bus that arrived. He could not know what race the driver would be.
“The second reason is that the defendant talks and talks and talks about the things that agitate him. For three hours he spoke at her very very rapidly about all his delusions. As well the defendant has written literally hundreds of pages about the things that agitate him. There are no racist themes in all that material.”
The court heard that O’Donohue’s trigger was Alisher’s beaming smile.
‘He was lovely’
“The memory of Manmeet’s bright and vibrant smile as I boarded the bus that day became one I’m grateful for,” one passenger wrote in a statement to the court.
“In our brief greeting we both became open and sincere, smiling at a brand new day. [It was] the kindness of strangers, and I think just that uplifting feeling you get on a sunny spring morning.”
Another passenger said he “recalled the driver was polite, friendly and relaxed”.
Another: “I smiled at the driver and said ‘hello’. The driver smiled back.”
And another: “As we got on the bus the driver said hello. He was lovely.”
When O’Donohue boarded the bus, he saw a smirk, not a smile. It was, to him, acknowledgment that Alisher was part of the conspiracy against him. He reached into the backpack, and set the canister filled with petrol and diesel alight.