Craig is an old friend of mine. He was a skater and a graffiti writer when we first met more than 20 years ago, and now he works in an abattoir and sings lead vocals in a death metal band called Belligerent Intent. I can see Craig as a scary person if I look at him from a distance, but close up, he’s not scary at all. I don’t agree with some of the things he says, particularly the satanic stuff, but he’s clever, he’s funny and he listens when you talk. We’ve been in touch a bit lately and it turns out he lives around the corner from me with his girlfriend and two kids. I met up with Craig one night after his shift finished and we sat in a McDonalds for a couple of hours over crappy coffee, talking about something stupid he did 10 years ago.
At the end of a four-day bender in June 2004, Craig fell asleep in a cab that was taking him back to his girlfriend’s house. The driver misunderstood Craig’s directions and he woke him up a few kilometres past where he wanted to be. Craig ‘cracked the shits,’ punched the driver in the face and ran off. Then he burned down a church.
‘I had no premeditation. I just went in, switched the lights on and started trashing the joint,’ he says. ‘Then I saw the drapes, set them on fire and the whole place erupted into flames.’ Next, he wandered down a nearby street, sneaking into people’s houses and, as he creepily puts it, ‘hearing them in bed’. He remembers finding a statue in a front yard, ‘… a cardboard thing with heaps of glue. I set that on fire, so the fire trucks had to go from the church to this house, then I ended up setting a park on fire.’
Craig believes he was possessed in some way because he can’t remember much from that night; but I think he was just really wasted and set a lot of stuff on fire. It’s a difference between us; he ascribes meaning to everything, while I think things just happen. It’s part of what I like about being around him. ‘The flashes I can remember were so demonic … I hate Christianity, but if I was going to do something like that I’d premeditate it. I’d get away with it; I wouldn’t do it like an idiot. I trashed that church like a 14 year old kid would.’
‘I hate Christianity, but if I was going to do something like that I’d premeditate it. I’d get away with it; I wouldn’t do it like an idiot.’
Craig’s hate of Christianity is not a new thing. He swapped his allegiance from rap to death metal when we were teenagers, and became obsessed with Satanism and hating everything else. I always understood it as something to be fascinated in, and it made more sense when Craig added humour to it (he had nicknames for his favourite serial killers and called Satanism ‘Tanics’), but he explains that it went deeper than that. ‘My dad was made ward of the state when he was 10 years old. He was molested and raped by a priest at Bayswater Boys’ Home. That’s where all the anti-Christian shit started. He got really pissed off when I got into Satanism too, because he hates any kind of religious shit.’
The whole church-burning thing seemed like a weird dream to Craig, even when it was in the news the next day. No one was physically hurt, so he told himself to forget about it and get his life back on track. He moved out with some mates to a place in Blackburn and formed his band, Belligerent Intent. It wasn’t until almost three years later that the fire caught up with him.
‘I was cruising down through Camberwell after picking up a six-pack of beer. I was driving along taking a sip and some cops came out of a side street.’ After running a check on his license, the police told Craig there was a warrant out for his arrest. ‘I asked them what they were arresting me for and he said, “Arson.” I honestly thought it was a mistaken case until I got in the back of the paddy wagon and it hit me out of nowhere, like a memory people get from child molestation, you know how it comes back? “Fuck! That church, that time, oh no!”’
‘They held me in the cell in Camberwell for the whole day. I had to wait for these two detectives to drive from Coburg, a woman and a man. They opened the cell door and the detective says: “Mr Priestley, Saint Mary’s Orthodox Church in Coburg. What can you tell me about that?” I played it well because I was still confused. I said, “I don’t know what you’re on about.”
‘She told me they had a fingerprint of mine on a laminated thing that was on the wall, so how could my fingerprint get there? I said, “I don’t fuckin’ know. I used to walk into churches with my girlfriend and have sex.” She goes into the stories of the other shit and I’m thinking, “Oh fuck, I’m fucked here.” She’s telling me about all the houses I went into and the sculpture I set on fire. She pulled out a map with fucking pins on it.’
After submitting to a DNA test (a blood-covered tram ticket had been found in the church), Craig was released on bail and waited another year before the detective called him back. ‘She’s like, “I’ve got you on the church alright? I’m going to cut a deal with you. If you’re pleading guilty, I’ll leave out the other bullshit.” She was waiting for me to be a smart arse, and I was like, “Yep, ok, no worries”. I copped two years for it but I only had to serve seven months.’
Craig spent the majority of his term at Fulham medium security prison in Sale, Victoria. ‘When you go to a prison like Fulham, you meet a lot of regular kind of dudes who just fucked up. Guys who got drunk, jumped in the car and smashed up, killed someone. They’ve done five years somewhere else, then they’re sent there for the last ten. You get more privileges there; like you get Foxtel, and there’s a really good gym.’
‘But shit goes on in there. They’ve got a little golf buggy that brings all the heated food from the main area to the different units. They use that same buggy to carry people on a stretcher that have been fucked up. It happened on the second night I was there, this dude had been hit with a meat cleaver over some shit.’
‘I think the reason I survived so well was because I had Koori [Aboriginal] blood. When I went to Fulham, all the Kooris out there knew my family from Echuca, so when we got talking, all of a sudden I’m in with all the Kooris. So you’ve got this white guy with a skinhead and all these tattoos, hanging out with all the black fellas, the toughest guys in the prison.’
‘I did a pissy little seven month sentence, but to sit in a two by four cell every day when you have shit on the outside, it’s not a world you want to be in. The people who can deal with a long sentence are the ones who’ve got nothing, so when they get out they’re freaked.’
Luckily, Craig had the prospect of his band to focus on, so he had something solid to look forward to for when he got out. ‘I went full steam with it and things went good. I got out Christmas Eve in 2007, then we spent three years touring Asia. We played festivals over there to 10,000 people.’
Craig likes talking about Australia’s criminal history; he’s a scholar of it. He tells me about people he has respect for, like an Australian serial killer who’d kill people then walk into the pub covered in blood, saying he worked at the abbatoir. ‘Dangerous as all fuck.’ He hates Mafia-style crime TV shows because they glorify the wrong criminals. ‘Yeah, them guys have got a bit of pull and money, but they shouldn’t be painted up to be the ones …’ he trails off. The ones who what? Get the TV show made about them?
I think Craig, like most of us, is a mass of contradictions. He hates crime, but he loves it. He wants to make a clean break from ‘all that shit’, but he still hovers around it. He’s one of the most intelligent people I know, but he set fire to a church. But who am I to judge? I do stupid shit all the time.
Craig and I sat talking until the McDonalds closed, then we walked outside and talked more in the freezing carpark. He tells me he’d like to go to university and study something, to break the monotony of his work. He asks me about myself and is impressed I still skate. ‘My biggest regret ever was fucking off skating,’ he says, ‘I don’t know how it happened really. Fuck I wish I stuck at it.’ I point out that he must get the same kind of satisfaction and release from music, to which he agrees, adding, ‘I’ve always looked at us guys, everyone from that kind of crowd, as artists. I just can’t live my life as a regular nine to five guy. When I try to, that’s when I start getting … my brain is like, “what are you doing with your life?”’