Canadian beaten in Australia recovering

A 35-year-old Manitoba man who uses a wheelchair is recovering from surgery in Sydney, Australia, after he was severely beaten late Tuesday night.

Friends say 2 charged teens were provoked, police say otherwise

A 35-year-old Manitoba man who uses a wheelchair is recovering from surgery in Sydney, Australia, after he was severely beaten late Tuesday night.

A still from video footage captured at the train station where Heath Proden was beaten shows him with one of his assailants. ((CCTV/City Rail))

Heath Proden suffered a fractured skull and deep cuts during the beating, which happened at a train station northeast of the city at about 11 p.m. local time. He underwent surgery to relieve pressure on his brain.

Doctors say the procedure went well and he should recover, according to Proden's mother, who lives in Winnipeg Beach.

Shellan Proden said it was a huge relief to get the news her son was going to be OK, and to finally speak with him for the first time since learning about the beating.

"Oh, it felt like somebody let the air right out of me. My body's been so tense," she said, adding her son doesn't realize how much worldwide interest and concern has been generated by the attack.

"He said, 'Don't worry, it's nothing,'" Proden said.

She is not sure when he will be well enough to return home but has been told no further operations are expected.

Closed-circuit cameras at the Mt. Druitt commuter rail station recorded video of Proden being stomped on by two young men, who also hit him on the head and body with metal bars, including one from his wheelchair.

Police have charged two boys, aged 15 and 16, with intent to cause bodily harm and armed robbery.

Both have been denied bail and are expected to remain in custody pending future court dates.

Suspects claim self-defence

Friends of the accused teenagers are trying to turn the tables, saying they were provoked by Proden and lashed out in self-defence.

"My boys called me up and said that. I know it's true for a fact that they don't hit anyone for nothing," the father of one of the accused said, speaking to BBC reporter Phil Mercer.

"They said that the guy came up to them and was hassling them."

If there was a verbal provocation, that's still no excuse for what happened, said Proden, who has not spoken about the incident with her son and has no idea what prompted it.

"They have legs — walk away," she said.

"You know, you don't have to hurt anybody, you don't have to beat them. To come back that many times to excessively beat on him. Like, you made your point the first time when you knocked him out of the chair."

Heath Proden and girlfriend Kristin Sharrock pose in an undated photo. ((Family photo))
Australian police Supt. Wayne Cox called the assault an act of cowardice.

"The attack is quite savage and certainly unprovoked from what we can see," he said.

Heath Proden, who is also from Winnipeg Beach, tried to leave the station via an elevator but was punched in the face by one of the boys and knocked from his chair, police said.

He has been living in Australia with his girlfriend, Kristin Sharrock, since November. She has been at his bedside and keeping the family informed.

"He's a kind, generous, strong individual," Sharrock said Wednesday, fighting back tears. "He doesn't deserve what's happened to him."

Her boyfriend, who has used a wheelchair since breaking his back in a snowmobile accident in 2000, was on his way home from seeing Canadian country music band Doc Walker play at a bar when he was attacked.

He grew up with members of the band in Portage la Prairie, Man., about 70 kilometres west of Winnipeg.

Airline ticket offered to mom

Jason Webb, an Australian who has been living in Canada for 14 years, said he is devastated and embarrassed about what happened in his native land.

It's one of those moments when you're not proud to be where you're from, he said.

"You know, I've been telling myself that, you know, trying to make myself feel better about it saying this probably could've happened anywhere in the world," he said.

"It's just one of those horrible things that you hear about now and again that should never have happened at all."

Webb, who now lives in Calgary and owns the Down Under Travel agency, is offering to fly Shellan Proden to Australia for free to visit her son.

Peter Debenham, who grew up in Sydney, but has lived in Winnipeg since 1981, has also been shocked by the violent incident.

The attack was front-page news in Australia because it was so unusual, he said.

"It's just a despicable act. It would be terrible to happen to anybody, let alone a disabled person," he said. "The Australian population is embarrassed, too, that this would happen to a tourist. No, everybody's just shocked that it would happen.

"It is extremely unusual and hopefully, it would never happen again."

Shellan Proden has not decided whether she will take the offer from Webb because her son and Sharrock are scheduled to return to Winnipeg Beach soon.

Sharrock has never met her boyfriend's parents and the couple is still planning to be in Manitoba in May.