Horrendous Death as Son ‘Left to Die in the Dirt’

‘Jake died in horrendous circumstances: he was chased down and left to die alone in the dirt on the side of the road.’
Horrendous Death as Son ‘Left to Die in the Dirt’
A general view of Police tape in Melbourne, Australia, on Nov. 9, 2018. (Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

After a high-speed chase ended with a vehicle ramming a motorcycle into rocks and trees, Steven Dale Latter stole a backpack containing thousands of dollars belonging to the lifeless rider.

Latter had driven the vehicle that dangerously pursued Jakob Opacic’s bike, while encouraged or motivated by his passenger Benjamin Charles Johnson, a Brisbane court heard on May 23.

Latter and Johnson pleaded guilty to the manslaughter of the 29-year-old brother of rugby league star Tom Opacic on a road at Natural Bridge in the Gold Coast hinterland in July 2021.

Mr. Opacic’s mother Rhonda sobbed as the court heard Latter took her son’s backpack after the crash and made no attempt to help him or check if he was alive.

“Jake died in horrendous circumstances: he was chased down and left to die alone in the dirt on the side of the road,” she said in her victim impact statement.

Mrs. Opacic said she tried to make sense of what the men were thinking when they hit the oldest of her two children.

“How they just drove away like he didn’t matter? How brutal and cruel they were.”

The night before the two men talked, while taking drugs, about a possible physical altercation when Johnson’s former long-term partner - Jakob Opacic’s girlfriend - was to be released from prison.

Latter told another person if things got out of hand and “Benny starts losing” he would step in, while Johnson said he would “have a crack at Opacic”.

The woman left prison with family in a convoy with Mr. Opacic on his bike, but they stopped nearby where Johnson and Latter’s vehicle had a flat battery.

The animosity building inside Johnson was immediately evident, while Mr. Opacic was antagonistic, making gestures and revving his motorcycle before driving at least 200m away, the court heard.

After saying he would kill Mr. Opacic for stealing his girlfriend, Johnson aggressively walked towards the motorcyclist wielding a star picket, prosecutor Nathan Crane said.

Latter got into the driver’s seat, picked up Johnson and immediately closely pursued the motorcyclist in a way designed to intimidate him, the court was told.

The Camry struck the bike which hit rocks and trees leaving Mr. Opacic with injuries so severe he would have died immediately or shortly after the impact.

In the height of callousness Latter stopped and took Mr. Opacic’s backpack, Mr. Crane said.

The men did not call emergency services but told the woman and her family who were still nearby that Mr. Opacic had come off his bike.

Johnson handed himself in to police after dumping the car, while Latter was arrested on the Sunshine Coast with about $10,000 stolen from Mr. Opacic’s bag.

Defence barrister Angus Edwards said Johnson told police where to find the vehicle after surrendering.

But he did not tell the whole truth, saying he had got out the car before Mr. Opacic came off his bike fearing repercussions for himself, although he was remorseful.

Johnson, who has four children with his former partner, went to the prison that day hoping to reconcile the family, the court was told.

Latter made an extremely unwise decision to support a friend, his barrister Frank Richards said.

“The events did unfold quickly, they were emotive and he was swept up in them,” he added.

Latter and Johnson, who were initially charged with murder, each pleaded guilty to manslaughter while Latter also admitted stealing from Mr. Opacic.

Justice Glenn Martin sentenced Johnson to nine years behind bars, while Latter was handed a 10-year prison sentence.

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