Tamworth police officer's widow’s pain: We used to share everything ... now it’s just me

THE night before Senior Constable David Rixon was killed, his wife Fiona kissed him goodnight at their Tamworth home and told him, “I love you, I’ll see you in the morning."

It was a promise that was cruelly taken away from her in a quiet residential street as the city came to life the next morning.

The next time Fiona saw her husband he was lying in a hospital bed with a bullet wound to his chest, his life gone in a hail of gunfire on that fateful Friday morning in West Tamworth as he went about his work making a routine traffic stop.

Ironically, in a room just a few doors away, the man who now stands accused of his murder was barely alive, doctors working under heavy police guard to save his life.

While the facts of exactly what happened on that tragic morning are yet to be told in court, his widow tells of the pain and loss her family faced in the aftermath of his death.

Fiona Rixon breaks into a smile as she tells of how she and David met.

“It was 10.30-ish on a Saturday night, the 5th of September, one of the last Time Warp dances at the West Tamworth League Club.” 

Out with a group of girlfriends, a mutual friend saw the potential between the pair and cockily dragged David onto the dancefloor where Fiona was standing with her friends.

“We got talking, we just talked, it was as comfortable as an old sock,” Fiona smiles.

“He said, ‘you know I’m a copper?’ and I said ‘I don’t care.’

“I said ‘you know I have three children’, and he said ‘I don’t care’.”

After talking for a while, Fiona said she told him she was leaving and he gave her his phone number, asking her to repeat it back so she wouldn’t forget it.

“He was desperate for me to remember his phone number,” she said.

“I don’t know how many times he asked me to repeat it to him.”

Fiona said it took her three days to finally get the courage to ring his number.

From then on it was always David and Fiona.

The pair moved in together just three months after they met, Fiona saying she just knew David was the man for her.

“It was just right,” Fiona said.

“I would say it was love at first sight.”

David also became a father to Fiona’s three teenagers, Renae, Jemma and Scott, taking them in as his own children.

“He was the only man who was a father to them,” Fiona said.

“Ricko” to his friends and work colleagues, Fiona said she always called him “sweetheart” –  the nickname an indicator of the happy relationship the pair shared.

Although reserved at work, David was known for his bad “dad jokes” and fun nature at home, always ribbing or stirring someone, Fiona said.

The couple went on to grow their family, with Matthew and Haley born in the years after they met.

Married on February 17, 2001, Fiona was pregnant with their youngest child Patrick, completing the family of eight.

Settling into family life, David would always kiss his wife goodbye before beginning his shift as a highway patrol officer at Tamworth Police Station, where he had worked since 1996.

Fiona said she was never worried about his safety as a police officer, but sometimes would worry if he returned home later than when his shift ended.

“He learnt very early to text me if he was ever going to be late.”

Fiona said she always thought if tragedy struck David at work, it would be fatigue and many kilometres on the road that might result in an accident.

“I always thought it would be a car accident, more so than anything.”

On February 8, the couple returned from their second honeymoon in New Zealand, going abseiling, canoeing and caving during their week-long holiday.

Fiona said it was a wonderful holiday, made all the more poignant because it was the last she would take with David.

On the night of March 1 last year, David had gone to bed before his family because of an early start in the morning.

Fiona said she went in and kissed him goodnight, telling him she loved him.

He replied “I love you more”.

Fiona then went downstairs to sit with her children in the family room to watch a television program before going to bed.

The following morning, Fiona said although she normally woke up to the noises of David getting ready for work, she slept in and didn’t hear him leave.

Going about her normal family routine that morning, packing lunches and getting the kids off to school, Fiona was on the computer looking at job vacancies when she heard a knock at the door.

Checking the clock, the time was 9.07am.

Still in her pyjamas, she asked “who is it” and said when the reply came she knew straight away that something had happened to David.

At the door, with his hat in his hands was Inspector Phil O’Reilly from the Tamworth Police Station.

“My stomach just went, I opened the door and said ‘tell me and tell me quick’," she said.

“He just said ‘there’s been a gunfight and I’m sorry but David didn’t make it’.”

“And I lost it there.”

Matthew was the only other one home, the teenager collapsing on the stairs when told the news.

“I rang mum and I said, ‘mum, David’s been shot and killed, I need you’.”

Further pain was to follow, as Phil drove Fiona to various schools to pick up her children, with the news of the shooting yet to spread.

“They were worried, they didn’t understand why I was coming,” she said.

Breaking the news to them one by one, Fiona said all she wanted to do was get to the hospital to verify the news for herself.

Arriving at Tamworth hospital, she said the first thing she saw was people crying outside the emergency department, police officers and hospital staff among them.

Her daughters, Jemma and Renae, were already there, sitting with the police chaplain Andrew Newman.

Her husband’s work partner, Brock Freeman, was sitting there and his wife and family friend Senior Constable Tracey Freeman, came up and hugged her, in tears.

“We just held each other,” Fiona said.

Taken in to the hospital room to see David, Fiona said she couldn’t believe her husband was gone.

“He just looked asleep, just asleep,” she said quietly.

The bullet that had taken his life had left just a small hole in his sternum, and Fiona said she found it hard to believe that such a small injury had taken him away.

“It was just the tiniest little hole, that’s it, there wasn’t a mark on him otherwise.”

Saying an emotional farewell with her children beside her, she said the family was aware of the irony that a few doors away in surgery, the man accused of pulling the trigger was being saved.

“It was shocking.”

Fiona never got a private moment alone with her husband, saying her shocked and upset children were her first priority. 

“I wished I did, I just never got the chance.”

Fiona said the rest of the day passed in a blur, the house full of police officers, friends and family, with flowers and cards beginning to arrive as the tragic news spread.

“I don’t remember much, I was in complete shock, couldn’t think,” she said.

“I went into survival mode.”

Fiona thinks it was NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione who first asked her if she wanted David to have a full police funeral.

“I said yes, straight away.

“I wanted him to have all the bells and whistles, because he deserved it.”

The next few days were incredibly difficult, Fiona said, as the family began to come to terms with the tragedy.

On any given night, sitting around the family table were priests, police officers and any number of family members planning the funeral, to be held a week after his death, on March 8.

Fiona said she remembered ironing David’s police shirt the day before the funeral, saying she took her time to get it “just perfect”.

David would be buried in his full uniform, but Fiona said she hadn’t ironed his shirts for years, it was a job that David liked to do.

“I used to mow, David used to iron.”

Beautiful weather greeted the day of the funeral, but in the Rixon household, Fiona said she was sick and anxious with nerves.

Getting the family ready for the day, she said she leaned on her mother and identical twin sister Tammy, who helped get her through the day.

In the car on the way to St Paul’s Anglican Church, Fiona said she first realised the full effect David’s death had on the community, passing businesses Coates Hire and Bunnings on the way.

People were gathered on the funeral route, filling driveways and lining the roads in silent salute as the family drove past.

An electric sign at Coates Hire read: Rest in peace and thank you Senior Constable David Rixon.

Fiona said she had no inkling of how big the funeral would be and how many people from the Tamworth community would turn out to pay their respects.

“We’re just a quiet, private family. I didn’t expect it.”

Ironically, the funeral route also passed the turn-off to Lorraine St, the cars passing just a few hundred metres from where the fatal event had occurred just days earlier.

Inside the church, 200 dignitaries, friends and family members farewelled David, with another 1500 people lining the street in front of the church, including school friends of the then 15-year-old Matthew, who broke down upon seeing them.

In the small confines of the car where the family was on full view to the public, Fiona said all she could do was give him a hug.

“He was just overwhelmed.”

After it was all over David’s body was laid to rest at Tamworth Cemetery and as the family remained, the crowds gone, a small moment of lightness emerged.

One of the borrowed vintage vehicles that the family had travelled in faithfully all day simply refused to start.

Forgoing the offer of a jumpstart, the family climbed into another car.

“It wouldn’t start either,” Fiona smiled, saying she believed David had sent the family a personal message.

“He didn’t want us to leave.”

Fiona said she felt the true warmth of the Tamworth community in the days and months after the funeral with personal messages, flowers and gifts arriving from people she’d never met.

The police wives galvanised into a tight unit around her, coming around with endless lasagnes, and making themselves available at all hours of the day and night.

Fiona said a gift of a deepfreezer from a local business, to hold all the casseroles people had cooked for her, reduced her to tears when it arrived on her front door step.

Friends, old and new, came to support the new widow and cards and letters arrived by the hundreds, along with more personal gifts.

One woman sent a hero quilt, which Fiona keeps on her lounge, and a pillow which a sender embroidered with an image of David rests on her bed. 

Fiona says she sleeps with it every night.

She and also her family relied upon the help and support provided by NSW Police Legacy and the police community.

Many decided to support the Rixon Family Appeal, opened in the days afterwards, which has topped $1 million and lies in a trust.

A wage comes every week, just like a salary, and Fiona said she treats it as such.

“I have to budget and I have to stick to it.”

In the long-term, she is also planning to look for work, with her financial future in mind.

The parents of Constable Bill Crews, who was shot in 2010, also reached out to her, but it was the advice of another police widow that really spoke to her.

The wife of Senior Constable Robert Spears, who was shot dead with another officer in 1995 at Crescent Head near Port Macquarie, wrote to her and told her to keep talking to her husband, advice Fiona said she embraced wholeheartedly.

“I talk to him all the time. I say good morning and goodnight and I tell him I love him all the time,” she said.

With the anniversary of David’s death looming, Fiona said she and her family were still struggling to come to terms with their loss, the light in the family blown out.

She tells of days when she is unable to get up, of a future and promises dashed and dreams of children who miss their father.

She is aware that the wheels of justice turn slowly, and the family will face many years of trials and appeals and cold hard facts about David’s death.

Fiona said she will sit through every day of court proceedings she can, saying it’s her way of continuing to support her husband.

“It’s the last thing I can do for him,” she said.

“Justice will never be done, it’s not going to bring my husband back.”

At 48, Fiona Rixon is a strong woman, but also one suffering deeply. Behind her quick smile and brunette bob, tears still come easily when it comes to the man she loves.

One year on, she said her mind is still filled with the things that they had planned after their children had grown up, such as becoming grandparents.

“It’s been very hard, emotionally and physically,” Fiona said.

“We used to share things, now it’s just me.”

The little things in family life, such as computer passwords, paying bills and checking the family car tyres, now fall to her and her alone.

Self-doubt clouds her judgement and she admits she’s not quick to ask for help.

But most of all she said she misses the intimate details about the man she chose to spend her life with, her “other half”.

“I’ve got a hole in me.

“He was my best friend, we did absolutely everything together, everything.”

Tomorrow David’s stepdaughter Jemma will begin work at Tamworth Police Station, after her graduation from the NSW Police Academy in August last year.

It will be a bittersweet day for Fiona, also her wedding anniversary.

David’s legacy has continued in 26-year-old Jemma, friend and police officer Tracey Freeman saying the young probationary “wanted to be the kind of person David was”.

While David was still alive, Senior Constable Freeman was the supervisor in the Tamworth station one day.

The pair were joking about Jemma joining the police force, Tracey asking David,“you still haven’t talked her out of joining then?”

The conversation moved on and Tracey asked David if he would still join the police force, knowing what he knew now.

Tracey said David didn’t miss a beat.

He said, “Yep, I’d still join, I love my job.”

His last words to Tracey were, “you’d never get me out of the highway car, though.”

The very next day, David Rixon would die while going about his highway patrol duties.

Fiona said although she’s as worried about her daughter as any normal parent would be, she would never dissuade her from continuing her police role.

“She loves it. She has to do what she has to do,” she said

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