Glenn Sanders' descent into darkness

He is destined to be known as the Derrinallum bomb man, but for most of his 49 years Glenn Sanders was a talented mechanic and polite, if offbeat, character, writes MARY ALEXANDER 

NOISES are amplified on still and chilly nights.

A farmer who lives alone wakes in the middle of the night after hearing what he thinks is a massive blast. It’s too loud for a gunshot. It must have been a transformer exploding, but the power is still on.

He puts it down to a tremor from an earthquake. Nothing appears to be damaged so he goes back to bed. It’s a problem for the morning.

Fifteen kilometres away, a huge explosion has rocked the town of Derrinallum.

CFA volunteers are quickly alerted as their pagers signal an emergency. They are needed on the ground just a few kilometres to the west. Donning their trademark yellow uniforms and helmets, they rush to the scene in their trucks. They are told to wait.

A few hours pass and they are stood down. There is nothing they can do.

In the early hours of Saturday morning the drizzle sets in. The town wakes to the unmistakable drone of police and television helicopters and dozens of police cars. Neighbours are talking, friends ring each other. News broadcasts will soon fill in the missing gaps.

Not since 1944, when bushfires razed the town, has Derrinallum been in the national spotlight.     

*****

HIS name was Glenn Sanders. He was a kind soul who had developed a troubled mind. His piercing eyes and long, willowy beard were unmistakable around the district. He was known for his generous spirit and his polite and friendly nature.

His mechanical prowess was second to none. If you needed something fixed, there was no argument: he was the “go-to” man.

Some people referred to him as the “Colonel’’ because of his beard and the similarities to Colonel Sanders of KFC fame. 

He reminded others of MacGyver, the television hero who could easily solve complex problems armed only with a roll of duct tape and a Swiss army knife.

Eighteen months ago that all changed. He had become volatile, worrying locals with his paranoia, unpredictable behaviour and threats.

They saw him out walking the streets with a vest rigged with explosives concealed under his jacket. They could hear blasts coming from his property on the western edge of town and from the cemetery, to the east, at all hours of the night.

Horrified residents in the close-knit town reported him to police, but officers found no sign of explosives and they didn’t have enough evidence to do a full search of his property. They did manage to take his explosives licence away.

About a month ago, Glenn Sanders rode the 12 kilometres into Lismore on his Harley-Davidson with his sheepdog on the back. He wasn’t wearing a helmet. 

A local takeaway operator suggested he should be worried about getting caught by police or falling off and injuring himself.

His response was: “No. When I go, I go big.”

That something “big” happened. Just what occurred is under wraps, but it involved a “violent incident” last Thursday week. Someone was troubled enough to make an official report to police, who put Sanders under surveillance with the task of arresting him. Their operation had begun.

We now know that police were concerned about items Sanders had strapped to his body. Specialists were called in and began negotiations as soon as he returned to his property about 7pm on Friday.

He had not entered his house when they attempted to get him to undress and remove the items. A seven-hour stand-off had begun.

Just before 1.30am his house exploded and, shortly after, the items he was wearing also exploded. The injuries were fatal.

Two police officers were also injured and were taken to hospital.

Remains, believed to be those of Sanders, were removed from the property on Tuesday afternoon.

The highway was closed as soon as the siege began. More than a week later the roadblocks remain in place. The town is still isolated and trade is down.

“The Glenn we knew wasn’t the same Glenn who did this. It was just a different person altogether. He was always such a nice guy.” - Derrinallum Post Office owner Margaret Howard

Oddly enough, the people of Derrinallum are now willing to forgive all that. And they also seem willing to forgive the man responsible for putting the media spotlight on the town for all the wrong reasons.

A simple observation by a woman attempting to bring normality back by enjoying a picnic lunch in the elm avenue with her grandson best reflects that view: “I think we’ll all remember him for what he was — a great talented man — rather than what he had become.”

Margaret Howard, who runs the post office agrees: “The Glenn we knew wasn’t the same Glenn who did this. It was just a different person altogether. He was always such a nice guy.”

Glenn Albert Sanders was born on November 25, 1965 at a time when Australia was in the grip of conservatism. Henry Bolte was premier, Sir Robert Menzies was still prime minister after 16 years and Australia had just entered the war with Vietnam.

His parents Keith and Margaret Sanders ran the farm at 1370 Hamilton Highway which is now a crime scene. Locals described them as “very placid people”. His brother Andrew was born a few years later.

Sanders was a born and bred country boy. He never ventured far from home, attending kindergarten and school at Derrinallum and then gaining an apprenticeship as a motor mechanic just up the road in Mortlake. 

He was a quick learner and was qualified by the time he was just 18 or 19.

Returning home to help on the farm, Sanders dabbled in mechanical work and this eventually became his full-time trade.

Rob Jamieson, a fourth-generation farmer at the historic Stony Point property in Darlington, offered Sanders a permanent part-time job in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

"He wasn’t a mad idiot who had a fetish for blowing things up. He used explosives like it was one of the tools in his toolbox. He was very skilled at it." - Clive Jamieson

Every week he would spend one day in the farm workshop repairing and servicing machinery and another day restoring old cars and motorbikes for Rob, who was a passionate motor racing enthusiast.

Sanders also had a love of racing and restored his own vehicles, competing in speedway and drags.

Rob’s son Clive Jamieson said the pair had a father-son-type relationship because of their shared interests.

“Even though they came from completely different walks of life, dad and Glenn had a very special rapport because of their passion for cars.”

Clive, who has known Sanders since the pair were at primary school in the late 1970s, described his welding and engineering skills as “brilliant”.

“He was always happy to do whatever task we charged him with even though some of it was probably below him.”

“He wasn’t a mad idiot who had a fetish for blowing things up. He used explosives like it was one of the tools in his toolbox. He was very skilled at it.”

As part of his work on farms, Sanders would use an air compressor to remove the muck accumulated in windmill casings and then throw a part-stick of gelignite down the hole to create a cavity for water to accumulate.

Clive’s family wants to remember Sanders as the “very kind, polite and friendly person” they knew at Stony Point.

“We don’t want Glenn’s life to be defined by his final actions.”

Sanders also supported another local motoring enthusiast, Gary Poole, in his hobby. Mr Poole, a Derrinallum plumber, is well known for his trip overseas early last year to recreate the historic Monte Carlo rally in his FX Holden with V8 Supercar drivers Craig Lowndes and Richard Davison. Sanders took an avid interest in the project.

Mr Poole says the pair had a lifelong friendship and Sanders helped with his other FX Holden race car over many years. 

“The Sanders boys had a farm ute, an FJ Holden, which he gave to me 25 years ago for parts.”

Sanders left the Jamiesons’ employ in the mid-1990s when his business had grown enough with its own clientele.

"We don’t want Glenn’s life to be defined by his final actions." - Clive Jamieson

By that time he was married to first wife Sue, seven years his elder. She would do the accounts but “kept pretty much to herself”. 

The couple were later divorced and she now lives in a nearby town.

His second wife, Shirley Savage from Cobden, had been married twice before and had an adult daughter from her first marriage.

Shirley was well known around the district for the distinctive “Cobden” registration plates on her Prado four-wheel-drive. She also owned a motorhome and an old Austin A50 Cambridge car which Sanders had restored.

Photographs from the bomb site show the three vehicles intact at the edge of the pile of rubble and twisted metal that was once Sanders’ substantial home and several sheds. 

His mother’s house also remains standing. Some people say he knew exactly what he wanted to destroy and what he wanted to leave using carefully placed  explosives.

The pair would often visit the picturesque farm that Shirley still owned on Boundary Road in Cobden, staying overnight in a rustic old cottage. Neighbours would report the sound of night-time explosions coming from the deep valley at the bottom of the property.

“He seemed to be a bit of a larrikin,” said one Cobden resident who met him.

Another friend remembers gatherings around bonfires: “He loved being the centre of attention.”

He recalls nights when Sanders would set explosives in dead cows, blowing their heads off and sending blood and guts in the air as a “party trick”.

Shirley was diagnosed with cancer and their life was turned upside down. She urged Sanders to keep her illness quiet and didn’t want any fuss. But friends say he needed an outlet and wanted to talk. He was stuck in a catch-22.

Her death, about 18 months ago, appears to be the catalyst for a different Sanders to emerge.

“Shirley’s death rocked him big time. He slipped into depression.”

Shirley had willed him her Cobden farm but there were challenges over her estate and financial issues he had to deal with.

Sanders gradually lost faith in the legal system and with authority in general.

“Shirley’s death rocked him big time,” a friend said. “He slipped into depression.”

Many people kept their distance. Friends tried to talk and reason with him. He was referred to a psychiatrist but he shunned the offers of support.

“He refused help from anyone or if he did take it, he ignored it,” one friend said. “He’d fallen through the cracks of the mental health system.”

They feared he was also abusing drugs, saying his weight and hair loss and the deterioration of his teeth certainly pointed to this. His paranoia was also a symptom.

Sanders became a recluse. He padlocked the gates to his property and worked alone, using earth-moving equipment and digging holes on his land to bury items as if he was “planning something”.

He would visit Shirley’s unmarked grave at the Derrinallum cemetery, picking up a take-away meal on the way. He would sit on her plot eating pizza and drinking his favoured tipple of bourbon and lemonade, discarding the empty cans when he left.

There are reports of him visiting the cemetery up to three times a night, always in the dark. Residents have also reported the sound of explosions coming from the area as recently as six to eight weeks ago.

“It had escalated way out of control and no one was prepared for the magnitude of what happened,”

Unfortunately, it took a major incident and someone willing to make a firm statement before police could arrest Sanders.

“It had escalated way out of control and no one was prepared for the magnitude of what happened,” one friend said.

Geoff and Diane Henderson from the Derrinallum garage spoke to Sanders on Friday morning, saying he appeared to be normal — almost serene — reminding them of the “old Glenn”.

He was heading to Ballarat to visit his mother in hospital. It was when he returned home the police swung into action.

Police held a public meeting in the town this week to reassure people and answer what questions they could. 

“There’s some stuff we can’t talk about at the moment, but in due course, it will all come out,” said Acting Superintendent Paul Ross. A coronial investigation has begun.

People listened quietly to the information that he could reveal and asked the inevitable questions. How long will the road be closed? Is the township safe? Why wasn’t more done to help him? Can weekend events go ahead as planned? Can school resume as normal on Tuesday?

There were raised eyebrows when Acting Superintendent Ross was interrupted by a man standing in a side corridor seeking access to a home in the exclusion zone for a young girl who lives by herself. He demanded immediate answers. “It’s bloody ridiculous.”

He was the only angry man in the room.

Corangamite mayor Chris O’Connor called for people to be respectful. “I know some of you have lost a very good friend ... We’re very aware of the tragic human side of the whole episode. People in the room are hurting.”

He encouraged people to seek support and “look after each other”.

Sanders has a daughter, Hollie, from a relationship that ended 23 years ago, before he met his first wife. 

His girlfriend was pregnant when she left and, although he never met his daughter, he agreed to pay child support.

Hollie has two children, a son Saul, 2, and a daughter Skye, born three weeks ago. Sanders knew nothing of his grandchildren, nor did his mother who is now ill in hospital.

“As much as a shock it will be to Margaret, I’d love her to know that we are here and would be happy to meet one day instead of her never knowing who her family was,” Hollie says.

--If you or someone you know is experiencing an emotional crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. Website: lifeline.org.au

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