updated 7/1/2008 5:26:21 AM ET 2008-07-01T09:26:21

An elderly man was charged Tuesday with hacking his wife and two grandchildren to death and badly wounding his daughter in an ax attack that has shocked Australia.

John Walsh, 69, did not enter a plea and was ordered to be held in custody when he appeared in court briefly on three charges of murder and one of attempted murder stemming from Monday's attack in Cowra, 155 miles west of Sydney. He will return to court next Monday.

He faces a maximum penalty of life in prison.

Investigators had few clues to the motive of the attack, which took place in the house where the man and his wife often looked after their grandchildren while their mother went to work as a police officer.

"We're all at a bit of a loss. We will get to the bottom of it," said New South Wales state police Commissioner Andrew Scipione.

Walsh was arrested without incident at a motel in the town of Hay, 258 miles west of Cowra, about six hours after the attack, police said.

"One can only say that he's bearing up as well as anyone in that situation," defense lawyer Matthew Lees told reporters in nearby Deniliquin where the court hearing occurred.

Head wound
Paramedics who were called to the Cowra house Monday found three bodies — a 7-year-old boy, a 5-year-old girl, and their grandmother, aged 52.

Their mother, Shelley Walsh, 31, was allegedly attacked as she returned to the house, and fled to a neighbor's home bleeding from a deep gash on the side of her head.

She remained in serious condition in the hospital, police said.

Neighbor Terry Lovett said the elderly man and his wife often looked after the children when their mother went to work.

"It's a shocking tragedy, and our heartfelt condolences (go) to the family and also to the police officer," New South Wales Premier Morris Iemma told reporters.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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