Before he climbed the ladder that would ultimately lead to his downfall, Brian Warton was rarely ruffled by a stranger’s gaze.
With heavy facial tattoos and a successful window-cleaning business in his tiny Victorian town, the colourful identity was used to catching eyes.
But after he scaled that building and set those traps, the ones which would make the news, the smiles turned into snarls, the g’days became grievous insults.
It was only then that Warton, implicated in one of the nation’s worst racing scandals, become a public enemy.
“Everywhere I was walking, I was thinking people were looking at me for being cruel to animals,” he says.
Some of the townsfolk living in Mansfield, at the foothills of the Victorian Alps, did more than just stare.
“You cruel c***,” one person yelled from his car window as he sped away.
Another, in much quieter tones, told Warton that her windows no longer required his services.
“I prefer you not to come back here,” she said.
“I know you’re a part of a live-baiting scandal. That’s nothing but disgusting.”
This is what happens when a big man in a small town gets tied to a dirty deed — and then tries to tell his side of the story.
Possum traps, a favour to a friend and an exposé
Nestled in the high country, the tiny town of Mansfield has become a gateway to Victoria’s towering mountain ranges and luscious ski fields.
In winter, droves of cars pass through Mansfield on the way to disturb the driven snow at Mount Buller.
Tourism has become the breath of life for the 4,000 people who live in the quiet hamlet, not far from where the Man from Snowy River was filmed.
In a place of that size, news travels with speed.
In July 2019, Warton was allegedly asked by a man to set possum traps to catch critters keeping an elderly woman up at night.
The ABC has not named the man because he has been criminally charged and is still appearing in the Magistrates’ Court of Victoria.
For each possum, Warton was was paid $10, which he spent on groceries and punts down at the track.
Over the course of about two months, he trapped between five and 10 possums.
The 49-year-old insists that’s all he did.
“I put them in my friend’s car under the impression they were being let go in Bonnie Doon, only to find out, as you know, it wasn’t true,” Warton says.
The possums were allegedly being ferried to greyhound trainers who are now accused of using them in a cruel practice called blooding.
There is a belief among a small handful of trainers that letting greyhounds maul live animals will increase their prey drive, pushing them to new speeds during races as they chase a mechanical lure.
The brutal training methods were exposed by the ABC’s Four Corners program in 2015, and put the sport on notice for the alleged practices of a select few.
But Warton swears that he had no idea what was happening to the possums after he trapped them.
The magistrate presiding over his case later agreed.
“I’m spewing I didn’t see this earlier, and I don’t know why I didn’t,” Warton says.
But by the time that realisation hit him and he pulled the pin, it was too late.
The blaze of suspicion was sparked by a local greyhound trainer who was holding a copy of the Herald Sun, where the issue had made the front page.
“I reckon this is you,” the man told Warton.
“He said, ‘Do you realise what’s happening?’, and I sort of didn’t believe him.”
By then, the wave of uneasiness inside Warton had become a roiling torrent.
He decided to look up the Four Corners program.
“So I watched it, and I watched it with my son, and some of the vision was actually making me f***ing sick, mate,” he says.
“I could never watch it again.”
The next day, Warton ended the arrangement with his mate.
Not long afterwards, Warton was arrested and charged by RSPCA investigators, who accused him of breaching the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act by setting illegal traps.
He says he has never regretted a favour more.
“What was happening was barbaric,” Warton says.
“Every time I think of greyhounds, I think of what I did.
“That thought never leaves me head at all.”
Swift condemnation of a man with a chequered past
For many years, and to the dismay of those closest to him, Warton was drawn to the wrong side of the law.
“This was when I was an arsehole,” he explains.
“I wanted to rebel against me parents, me old man and me brothers.”
Warton’s brushes with the law paint a portrait of a young man at odds with those around him.
He comes from a family of police officers and admits that, as a younger man, he took particular joy in taking risks.
“I paid dearly in the end for that also.”
That price was prison, where Warton spent the best part of a decade for crimes including burglaries, thefts, drug possession and unlawful assault.
He says he has also received a community correction order and attended a men’s behavioural change program for breaching an intervention order through phone calls and text messages.
There is no question that for a large part of his life, Warton did contemptible things that stained his reputation.
But in 2001, he finished repaying his debt to society and about a year later, took custody of his baby son.
A Victoria Police officer gave evidence on his behalf at a custody hearing.
“He came into me hands at four months of age because he was abandoned by his mother,” Warton says.
“DHS [the Department of Human Services] had me history, they knew where I been …to return a child into a household where his father spent the best part of a decade in jail, was a credit to myself.”
Nine years ago, he started his window-cleaning business to make ends meet and became a feature on Mansfield’s high street.
It was a fresh start pined for by many former cons.
Then the animal cruelty charge was laid by investigators.
Warton says he was devastated because, having negotiated the delicate balance sheet that comes with starting over, he was suddenly in arrears once again.
“I’m an animal lover. Anyone that knows me knows I love my dogs.”
He has four all up.
There’s Jordie, a two-year-old sausage dog, and three Jack Russells called Max, Weezy and Latte.
Max, the oldest, is a rescue. Latte is named after the coffee. And then there’s Weezy.
“I just fell in love with her,” Warton says.
But once charged, Warton’s affection for animals didn’t have currency in Mansfield.
When it became known around town that the tattooed window cleaner was implicated in a live-baiting enterprise, the condemnation was swift.
Mansfield residents keep and care for their animals with great pride and so to be linked to such a scandal was an unwelcome mantle for some, and a personal affront to others.
Some of the disapproval is overt, but most has been insidious – a comment here, a look there, or deliberate avoidance.
Warton recalls being brought nearly to tears as he lost client after client.
“I’ve lost friends over this, and I’ve lost work,” he says.
An early guilty plea and a small fine
In November last year, as Victoria woke from its hard lockdown, Warton appeared in the Mansfield Magistrates’ Court for what was meant to be an administrative hearing.
But before the matter could be adjourned, Warton, who was in court by phone because of the pandemic, made it clear where the buck would be stopping.
“I’d like it to go ahead today because I want to plead guilty,” he told the magistrate.
Warton admitted to one specific charge – setting or using a trap in breach of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act – which carries a maximum penalty of two years in prison.
The anxiety of the allegation hanging over his head, and the rumours sweeping the town, had become too much to bear.
He wanted to set the record straight and take responsibility.
It was then that the Warton — heard only by the magistrate, the clerk, the RSPCA and the ABC — laid bare his account of what happened.
He told the court that he was just helping a mate by placing traps on a house owned by an elderly woman.
“These possums were jumping off a tree onto her roof, and it was keeping her up at night,” Warton said.
“I didn’t think anything untoward was happening at this stage.”
Warton was also frank about his brushes with the law.
“To be honest, your honour … I’ve spent several years in prison. But I’ve worked my way back,” he said.
“I’m definitely not the person I was 20 years ago.”
When it was the prosecution’s turn, there was a concession.
“The accused’s offending is perhaps at the lower end of the scale,” said Graham Hambridge, a senior inspector for the RSPCA.
It was enough to sway Magistrate Lance Martin, who fined Warton $584.
“Today you’ve told me that you were not aware that [your co-accused] was not releasing the possums back into the wild, that you found out he was releasing them or passing them along to others in the racing industry,” Magistrate Hambridge said.
“I accept that it wasn’t until the end … that you became aware of that.
“Had you been in some form of conspiracy … to acquire these animals then the outcome of today’s proceedings would be vastly different.
“Your matter does not call for the imposition of a jail sentence.”
Marks on his reputation, and on his skin
With the weight of criminal prosecution off his shoulders, Warton was hopeful that life would return how it once was.
The news didn’t filter through to Mansfield.
And in the months that followed, the mark on his reputation settled into a new stain.
Warton says he sold his car because it was too recognisable around town, and drew painful attention to him. It didn’t take long before the new one became well known, too.
But while he could change his mode of transportation, his tattoos were a different matter.
“I just like the facial ink, but it has caused me problems, and people will judge me,” he says.
On that front, Leith Mounsey is slightly unsympathetic.
“I tried to talk him out of getting those silly tatts,” she says.
“I said to him, you’re gonna get judged.
Ms Mounsey runs Mansfield Holiday Letting, just off the high street, but she came into Warton’s orbit more than a decade ago when she was his case manager at a job service.
Now, as one of the few advocates he has around town, she spoke to the ABC in an effort to rehabilitate his tattered image.
“I first met him as a single dad, wanting to work and keep a roof over his head for his son,” she says.
Ms Mounsey describes a highly-sensitive man who can take things extremely personally, like allegations of animal cruelty.
“He was shattered. When all this sort of came about, he rang me in quite a state,” she says.
“It’s a pretty harsh accusation to make and label to have, and you don’t want to be labelled.
The town’s whispers have reached Ms Mounsey, who gives them no credence.
“I believe what he says.”
Further down the high street, past the roundabout, Fraser Stephenson operates Sportsfirst Mansfield, a sporting supply store.
He met Warton about six years ago through his business.
“Straight away you’re kind of drawn to this personality,” he says.
“He’s always done the right thing by me.”
Mr Stephenson says he doesn’t get involved in town gossip.
“I think he’s just a good bloke that just tries to do the right thing,” he says.
The picture Warton’s allies want to paint is of a man who values his community, and has been devastated by the tide turning against him.
They offer stories about how Warton donates meat trays to the local footy club, or kicks the footy around with the son of a single mum who needed some help.
“He shouldn’t have to live each day justifying his own being. No-one should have to do that. That’s just not fair,” Ms Mounsey says.
A plea for a second chance
Little has changed for Warton since his court case last November.
His denials still carry little currency in Mansfield.
“The people that really do know me, that know me very well, they haven’t backed off on me,” he says.
“It’s the people that don’t know me well.”
Support has come from the most unlikely of places.
“I have a very good relationship with the local police now, I’ve actually cleaned several of their houses’ windows,” he says.
“You really think local police are gonna have Brian Warton at his house if he’s a cruel person?”
Warton wants his neighbours to know that he’s been interviewed by the RSPCA and spoken to Greyhound Racing Victoria, who he says are “not even interested in me”.
The RSPCA declined to comment when contacted by the ABC, because Warton’s co-accused were still before Victorian courts, but called for stronger live-baiting laws.
Warton doesn’t deny he was tied up in a nasty business, but he’s asking for another second chance.
“If people knew the full story, the abuse that I’ve copped, I do believe those people would owe me an apology,” he says.
“The magistrate was happy with my explanation, I think that says it all.”