They’d met as teenagers while they were studying, and despite their relationship being fraught with problems for over a decade, they had been together ever since.
Caitlin O’Brien, 31, knew being with Shea Sturt was toxic but however many times she tried to get away from him, she was trapped. And it wasn’t for want of trying.
Caitlin was a nurse, living in a second-floor apartment in Melbourne, Australia. She was kind and caring – and committed to trying to help others. No one more so than her boyfriend.
Quiet Caitlin would often shock her hospital colleagues by showing up at work crying and covered with bruises and Sturt’s violence towards her had seen him end up in court several times.
Everyone knew she deserved so much better but Caitlin couldn’t seem to break free. As early as 2008, they had a fight about moving furniture and Sturt hit Caitlin. She reported him to the police, but she withdrew the complaint.
Then in 2010, she fled her home after Sturt pulled her by the hair and punched her several times in the head. He had become angered by Caitlin suggesting he might need psychological help.
Caitlin filed a report and he was charged with assault but placed on an adjourned good behaviour bond. Caitlin went on to visit her GP over 30 times with injuries from physical assaults. She told the GP once that Sturt had attacked her saying he needed to ‘kill her first before himself’.
It became a way of life for Caitlin. She would tell the police about his acts of violence, but Sturt would manipulate her and she’d eventually drop the charges.
Sturt was having psychiatric treatment for his mental health problems. Later, he would be diagnosed with a schizophrenia-type personality disorder which was made worse by his excessive cannabis use. It differs from schizophrenia in that a patient is aware in hindsight that their delusions weren’t real.
Sturt was admitted to mental health wards several times with paranoid delusions and that paranoia was targeted at Caitlin. But behind it all, his violence was his way of controlling Caitlin and he knew it was wrong. He later wrote to a friend, ‘I fully admit that I was predatory towards Caitlin. It was the core of our relationship.’
Caitlin knew that Sturt relied on her too which made it hard for her to cut him off. He was unemployed saying he couldn’t work due to his social anxieties.
They lived off her wages – and Sturt was always threatening to harm himself which kind-hearted Caitlin didn’t want. Her intuition to help saw Caitlin stand by Sturt over and over again.
Then Caitlin was the one who needed caring for after she was diagnosed with a brain tumour. In May 2019, she underwent surgery to have it removed.
Recovering at home, she posted a picture on social media of her bandaged, shaved head and large wound, and jokingly referred to herself as ‘tennis ball head’.
But the line of medical staples right across her head was proof of just how serious things were and what she’d gone through.
Her friends rushed to send her their love in the comments underneath and, as always, Caitlin brushed them off with humility saying she was fine and not to worry. She even wrote that Sturt was doing the chores and cooking to help her out while she recuperated.
But around a month after the operation, Sturt was in a bad place. He told Caitlin that he believed the neighbours were worshipping Satan and that she herself was a devil.
Sturt even said he thought he was Jesus and made her eat an apple so she could be ‘enlightened’ like Adam and Eve.
On June 23, Caitlin was so worried about Sturt’s behaviour that she called the police. He was clearly in the middle of a psychotic episode and she was scared.
Sturt was taken to The Alfred hospital, where Caitlin worked, and was detained under the Mental Health Act as he was assessed. With Sturt in hospital, Caitlin believed she had a few days to finally escape; to move out and find somewhere safe away from him.
She contacted an old boyfriend and asked if she ‘ran away’ could she stay with him. ‘I’m just scared to be around him,’ she messaged. ‘He’s not making sense at all.’
But it was impossible to understand the urgency of the situation. Her ex said that if she still felt that way at the weekend, and they had broken up, she could get an Uber to his.
Meanwhile, Sturt messaged Caitlin. ‘I would never hurt you,’ he wrote.
‘I hope so. I get scared,’ she replied.
‘Of what?’ he asked.
‘Of you murdering me,’ she wrote back.
Caitlin thought she had time to get away but after a few hours, doctors released Sturt. He had somehow convinced them that he wasn’t a threat and he returned to Caitlin’s flat.
Then, on June 25, Sturt shared a series of strange and worrying messages on Facebook. There were ramblings about ‘sacrifice being beautiful but only ever for the right reasons’.
Another message said, ‘You can’t rape humanity away.’ He also posted a video of a stand-up routine by Owen Benjamin called How To Be Married And Not Be Murdered. Sturt was in a drug-induced psychotic state and his fixation was Caitlin.
Caitlin was sitting on her bed when Sturt went in and started talking about the end of the world. He pulled off her trousers and held her down, but she fought him off and ran to the bathroom where she armed herself with a pair of scissors.
Sturt overpowered her and took the scissors and, as they struggled, he plunged the scissors into Caitlin up to five times. Then he held her down on the bed and smothered her with a pillow.
Fearing she might still be alive, he strangled her with a pair of tracksuit bottoms. Within 36 hours of promising not to hurt her, Caitlin was dead.
Sturt took a shower, left Caitlin’s credit card on her chest – to signify ‘you don’t owe me any more’. Then he headed to the police station.
Outside, he told officers to arrest him. ‘I just killed my girlfriend,’ he said. ‘No, you didn’t,’ they replied.
But when they went to Caitlin’s flat and broke down the door, they found her dead on the bed. The tracksuit bottoms were still wrapped tightly around her neck.
Sturt told police that killing Caitlin was ‘necessary’ and ‘felt like the right thing to do’. When he was told he would be charged with murder, he simply replied, ‘Cool.’
In March this year, Sturt, now 33, pleaded guilty to murder. His legal team had considered an insanity defence, but apparently Sturt felt he deserved to be punished.
While Sturt’s mental health issues were a factor, a psychologist also insisted that throughout their relationship he used ‘various coercive behaviours, including violence, threats of violence and threats of suicide’.
Sturt told doctors that using cannabis was ‘like a cure-all’ and it made him treat ‘Cait better’. But it was clear it only worsened his delusions.
Caitlin had also been failed by the system, despite trying to get help countless times for the violence she was suffering. In June, Sturt was sentenced to 22 years in prison. He will serve 16 years before being eligible for parole.
The judge told Sturt that Caitlin’s life had been cut tragically short. ‘You murdered her in her own home, a place where she should’ve been safe,’ he said, adding, ‘It was not a one-off incident of domestic violence.’
The judge also said that using cannabis had been Sturt’s choice, even though there were other, safer options to control his anxiety, so couldn’t be used as an excuse for his actions.
‘You were aware that cannabis might cause you to become violently psychotic,’ he said. Sturt looked tearful when the judge read a statement by Caitlin’s mum, who described losing part of her soul when her daughter died.
Outside the court, Caitlin’s sister, Martine, said that she hopes Sturt uses his time in prison to rehabilitate himself.
‘That’s what my sister would’ve wanted. She would have wanted him to get better,’ she said. ‘She would have wanted him to get help. And I really hope that he does that.’
Sturt was held accountable for his actions after systematically abusing Caitlin for years. Caitlin had just survived major surgery and had battled for her life, but she had no idea that she had already lost the fight.