News Archive




Evil Under The Sun (part One)

The Sunday Age

Sunday July 8, 2001


THE man who found the bodies is 70 now, the oldest drinker in the public bar of the Plaza Hotel in Townsville. He's seen and done a lot of things since he left South Otago, New Zealand, back in 1952. But nothing sticks in his memory like the day he played a walk-on part in a cruel story that haunts the town where two little sisters lived and died.

He tells it his way. A knockabout carpenter, he'd been building houses for the nickel mines out past Kalgoorlie, then got a bankroll and itchy feet and headed east across the Nullarbor in his new Falcon, camping on the way.

He'd meant to go home to New Zealand to see his family but good intentions slipped away as easily as last week's wages. After a little work at Woomera Rocket Range building a "secret" satellite-spotting post, he turned north. First to Coober Pedy, then further into the desert to the "Three Ways", where a traveller has to make a lonely choice.

The Adelaide road was behind, narrowing the choice ahead to Darwin and Townsville. He tossed a coin. Townsville it was, via Mount Isa.

He arrived late on August 27, a Thursday, to find the sleepy coastal city in a frenzy, shocked out of its tropical torpor by the worst tragedy since the war. Two sisters had vanished on their way to school the previous morning. Their mother was under sedation, their father half-mad with unspeakable fear.

The old man puts his glass on the bar, fishes in his coat pocket for two pieces of paper - worn, grimy, folded small - that he's kept nearly half his life.

It's the carbon copy of a statement he made to police the day it happened. This is what it says:

"I am a married man, 40 years of age, at the present time of no fixed place of abode in Townsville, having only arrived from Boulder, Western Australia, on the night of 27th August, 1970.

At about 8.45 am on Friday 28th August 1970 I joined a number of other persons in a taxi cab ... In company with two other men I was engaged in a search party for two missing girls who had disappeared whilst on their way to school ...

We travelled along the Townsville to Charters Towers Highway and made a search in various places along this road prior to going to a spot near Antill Creek. We parked the car and set off in various directions. I traversed the creek bank and dry creek bed.

Whilst searching in the creek I saw what appeared to be child's footprints in the sand. I continued to walk along the creek bed and, about 10 yards further on I then saw the body of a child ... in a small hollow and the child was in a more or less sitting, reclining position. I saw that the child was wearing a pair of panties. At this stage I was a distance of approximately 10 feet from the body. The child appeared to be dead ...

I now know that the body which I located was the body of Susan Debra Mackay."

SUSAN was five, the baby of the family. Judith was seven. They were ``late lambs", as they say in the bush, born well after two boys and two older girls. They were dark-eyed, olive-skinned and pretty, like many children of the far north, where indigenous, islander and Italian influences temper the Anglo-Celtic majority.

Bill Mackay kissed his babies goodbye as they slept when he left for the meatworks before dawn. He never saw them again.

The Mackays lived in Albert Street, Aitkenvale, a suburb sprawled along the Ross River Road, a highway that leads inland from Townsville to Charters Towers and beyond.

Susan and Judith left home about 8.10am, after their mother, Thelma, got them ready for school. They walked to the corner, turned left into Alice Street, and vanished.

The girls would have crossed the road to wait at their usual bus stop. But when their brother, Alan, rode past on his bike about 10 minutes later, they weren't there. They weren't at school, either, but it wasn't until they didn't come home that afternoon that the alarm was raised.

When Bill Mackay got home from work his wife was distraught. He grabbed photographs of the girls and went to the police. By nightfall, police and friends gathered to search back yards in the district.

Next day, hundreds more joined in. The meatworks offered its entire workforce, and police doorknocked every house in the area. By Friday, the search had spread, which is how a wandering Kiwi carpenter called Richard Tough and two men he didn't know were sent to Antill Creek, a sluggish watercourse meandering across an ugly plain 25 kilometres south-west of Townsville. It is an empty place where scrawny cattle poke through stunted scrub and feral pigs tear up the barren ground ...

Tough waited by the little girl's body for an hour until the police arrived. They followed footprints in a sandbank running along the creekbed, which was almost dry. About 70 metres away, near the opposite bank, they found Judith's naked body.

The only mercy was that the pigs hadn't got to the girls first. Both of them had been raped and stabbed in the chest. Susan had been strangled. Judith choked from having her face rammed into the sand. It looked as if she had fled while her little sister was being killed, and was then run down.

Beside the bodies, their school uniforms: folded inside out and placed with an awful neatness. Their shoes, socks, hats and school bags were nearby.

A senior sergeant cried when he saw it. Another policeman said he wouldn't go home until they caught the killer. He was as good as his word, staying at Townsville police station day and night, with his worried wife bringing in food and clean clothes. Until he died of a heart attack two weeks later.

Had he lived, he could hardly have guessed that the case would see his generation out of the force.

IN THE DAYS BEFORE DRUGS multiplied crime, homicides were mostly simple domestic murders, or brawls gone wrong, as easily solved as the average burglary.

But the motiveless and random killing of two innocent children produced a huge outcry and no obvious culprit. There was intense pressure from the top for a quick arrest, when a slow, painstaking investigation was the best chance of cracking the case.

From the start, the police's problem was not that there were too few leads, but too many. Townsville was, and is, an army town, and the meatworks had its own blood-spattered corps of itinerant slaughtermen, butchers and boners, not all model citizens. Add meatworkers to a barracks full of soldiers and there were thousands of potential suspects. It was inevitable that the sheer weight of numbers - and of public expectation - would affect the investigation.

Local knowledge, sometimes a police officer's best tool, didn't help the tedious elimination of hundreds of suspects. Ironically, it might have been a handicap, because it would encourage assumptions about who should be put on - or left off - the long list of people to check. The temptation was to take shortcuts. The risk was that they would miss their man.

Meanwhile, there was the mammoth job of piecing together witnesses' accounts - often contradictory, or apparently so.

A teacher, Judith Drysdale, saw a man driving slowly near the Mackay sisters and staring intently at them. Much later, she was able to pick a photograph of the man she saw from a series of pictures.

Nola Archie, in the grounds of the Aboriginal hostel behind the bus stop, saw two small girls talking to a man in a car. She wasn't sure of make or model, but agreed it might have been a Holden.

Bill Hankin was driving a road-roller on Ross River Road that morning. About 8.15am he pulled over near the Aitkenvale school for a smoke and a cup of tea. He noticed a man in a car with two girls in school uniforms; while everyone else was driving children towards the school ``like ants to a nest", this man was taking children away from it.

Hankin had been a driving instructor in the army, and he noted automatically that the driver was thin-featured, swarthy, not tall, and drove badly. He looked middle-aged, with a tanned complexion and dark wavy hair, cut short. A face like the character ``Beau" in the television series Days Of Our Lives, but older, he was to tell police later.

Around the same time, Neil Lunney was running late for work at the army barracks. Just back from Vietnam, he had a short fuse, and was incensed when a car in front of him sped up and veered to block him when he tried to overtake. ``He tried to put me over the embankment," Lunney was to recall. ``I did my cool. I was going to bumper roll him but, when I got up level with him, I saw the kids in the car."

The older girl, on the passenger side, had shoulder-length hair, as Judith Mackay did. The younger one, sitting in the middle, had shorter hair, like Susan Mackay. Both wore green, Aitkenvale school uniforms.

Lunney yelled at the driver, and looked at him hard in case he saw him in the street. He'd been taught recognition in the army; it could mean life and death in jungle warfare. This enemy had high cheekbones, short hair, and ``Mickey Mouse" ears stuck out from a narrow skull. Lunney wasn't so observant about the car, except that it was blue-grey ``like a battleship"; it wasn't a Ford but might have been a Holden, and had an odd-colored driver's door. He did notice two ``STP" oil stickers on the rear mudguards, and venetian blinds in the back window.

JEAN THWAITE WAS CLEANING a car in the Shell service-station she and her husband ran at Ayr, more than an hour's drive south-west of Townsville, when a car pulled up. It was covered in dust and her memory is that it was ``dirty white" or beige color, and arrived between 11.30 and noon.

The driver was thin, dark-haired, looked to be in his 40s, and wore a faded fawn or off-white shirt. He seemed preoccupied, and ignored her request to cut the motor while she pumped the $3 worth of petrol he ordered.

The petrol inlet was on the left side, and she had to open a flap to get at the screw-on cap, similar to her own 1965 EH Holden. This ruled out the car being a 1950s Holden but, unknown to her, was a design feature shared with the Vauxhall Victor, uncommon in country Queensland.

Thwaite, mother of a five-year-old, took notice of two children in the car. In the back seat, a small girl who looked as if she had been crying, asked: ``Are we there yet?" In the front seat was an older girl, who said to the driver: ``When are you taking us to mummy? You promised to take us to mummy."

Both wore green school uniforms. The driver silently handed Thwaite exact change. By the time she looked up from the till, the car had gone. When she heard next day about the abduction in Townsville, Jean Thwaite was sure she had seen the Mackay sisters, but found it hard to get the local police to take her seriously.

There was so much information - some obviously contradictory and some apparently so - that the police felt pressured to make choices: to play hunches that one lead was better than another. Unfortunately, they got it wrong about the car.

Although the descriptions of the car given by Hankin, Lunney and Thwaite varied in details, between them they had enough key information about it to find a driver whom they all described the same way.

But the police, punting on a description of a car seen near where the bodies were found, concentrated on looking for an early-model Holden. Their enthusiasm to find the ``right" car rather than to build a picture of the driver caused confusion. As one legal insider was to remark drily 30 years later, witnesses who first thought they'd seen a Vauxhall ended up signing statements they'd seen a Holden - and an FJ Holden, at that. Worse, despite the matching descriptions of the driver - apart from his age - there was no sketch or photofit picture of him published. Instead, the newspapers and television ran pictures of FJ Holdens.

It put the investigation so far off course it never recovered. For the wanted man, it was an unbelievably lucky break. For others, it was a tragedy, because sex killers almost always kill again.

JOHN WHITE WAS ONLY 19, but he'd worked alongside men for years, and knew his way around. He'd been a carpenter, bridge builder and meat worker. Now he was a trainee psychiatric nurse, working shifts at the mental hospital in Charters Towers. Which is why, late on a weekday afternoon - probably the first Tuesday of September, 1970, he was to say later - he was sitting in the deserted bar of the White Horse Tavern in the main street when a stranger walked in.

White guessed the man was old enough to be his father, perhaps in his 50s, but wiry and fit. He put his height at ``five seven or five eight" - about 172 centimetres - and his weight at no more than ``11 stone" - about 70 kilograms. He was wearing clean work clothes - a checked flannelette shirt, long brown trousers, brown hat. The man sat at the bar a couple of metres away, produced a tin of tobacco and rolled a cigarette. He was out of matches, and he asked the younger man for a light. White didn't smoke, so the stranger bought matches from the barmaid and started talking.

He asked White if he'd been following the murder of the Mackay sisters a few days before. White nodded, and the man stated that the police, were ``looking for the wrong sort of car". Before White could ask how he knew that, the man kept talking quickly. ``You know," he said, ``I killed those two girls." White wanted to think it was a tasteless joke, but it didn't quite sound like it. So he kept talking, trying to draw out more information. The stranger said he was staying at the Crown Hotel down the street, that he was a carpenter who did a bit of maintenance work for the publican, and that he sometimes did some prospecting in local creeks.

It was as if the older man had ``a monkey on his back, and happened to choose me to get it off", White was to muse later. The stranger got up to leave, and White tentatively arranged to meet him next day for another drink. And, as casually as he could, he asked him his name.

As soon as the carpenter left, White borrowed a pencil from the barmaid and wrote the name on the back of the empty matchbox the man had left on the bar. Then went looking for police. He found two, locking the station to do their afternoon patrol. He knew one of them, a Constable John Cooper, and told him what the carpenter had said and where he was. He gave them the matchbox with the name on it.

The policemen went to the Crown Hotel. Next day, the carpenter turned up at the tavern, as arranged. He told White the police had spoken to him, but didn't seem worried. If anything, he was a little cocky. He showed White a photograph of his house, which was small and low to the ground, with sawn timber stacked neatly in the yard. Then he had a beer, and left.

White never saw him again. He ran into Constable Cooper a few days later. ``He just said he'd been to see him (the carpenter) and there was nothing in it."

And that, as far as John White was concerned, was that. He rarely thought about the strange encounter again, though he never forgot the name he wrote on the matchbox.

Arty Brown.

IN LATE MARCH 1972, two children in north Queensland disappeared, feared murdered. One was a two-year-old, Shay Maree Kitchen, at Mount Isa. The other was a cane farmer's teenage daughter, Marilyn Joy Wallman, at Eimeo on the coast near Mackay.

It was before the state's homicide squad was formed, and local police investigated murders. Charles Bopf, prominent Townsville detective and future homicide chief, did the Kitchen case. He quickly arrested the de facto husband of the child's mother, another sordid domestic tragedy to add to his long tally of cases solved.

The Wallman mystery, outside Townsville's police district, wasn't so easy. It was as brazen as Judith and Susan Mackay's abduction 20 months before, but with no clues. No cars. No suspects. No leads. Not even a body.

On Tuesday, March 21, the three oldest Wallman children were going to school. Marilyn, 14, had to catch the high-school bus on the main road, a few hundred metres away along the small road that led to the farm. She left, riding her bike, a few minutes before her brothers - David, 10, and Rex, 8 - who went to the local primary school.

Wallman's road went over a hill that hid most of its length from the house. When David and Rex rode over the crest they found their sister's bike lying on its side.

The puzzled boys looked around, thinking Marilyn had fallen, bumped her head and wandered off in a daze. David went home for his mother while Rex stayed, sitting near the bike. He heard voices on the other side of the canefield next to him, but couldn't tell if one was his sister's. Their mother came with the car. They drove around the blocks of cane, searching and calling, fear rising as the minutes passed. The boys' father was out fishing, and someone went to get him. Friends and neighbors gathered and began a search that has never really ended for the Wallmans.

As the days became weeks, hopes of a miracle ebbed. It seemed clear Marilyn was almost certainly dead and her body well-hidden. If buried, it was deep. If put in water, it had not floated or washed ashore.

At least the Mackays had bodies to grieve over. The Wallmans prayed for even that bitter-sweet mercy. Thirty years on, they still do.

EVERY DAY IS A private hell for the broken-hearted, but anniversaries torment most. The Mackays had moved from Townsville to Toowoomba to get away from the stares and whispers, the crank calls and the well-meaning solicitudes of their home town, but they took their grief with them. And nothing could ease that, only mask it.

On the morning of August 26, 1973, the third anniversary of their girls' murder, they woke to nightmare news. Lightning had struck someone else. In Adelaide, where the Beaumont children had disappeared seven years before, two girls had been abducted from a football game. In a public place, in daylight, like the Beaumonts and their own girls and Marilyn Wallman.

Joanne Ratcliffe was 11; Kirste Gordon was four. At three-quarter time in the preliminary final between Norwood and North Adelaide at Adelaide Oval, Joanne had taken Kirste to the women's lavatory, about 300 metres from the stand where her parents were sitting with Kirste's grandmother.

A teenager selling lollies, Anthony Kilmartin, saw a man watching the girls in the stand and, later, hurry after them near the southern gate. He lifted the young girl under his right arm and started walking fast. The older girl, whom he later identified from photographs as Joanne Ratcliffe, had looked frightened and tried to stop the man.

Kilmartin was vague about the man's age - ``about 40", but gave a detailed description of his clothes and appearance. He was thin, narrow-shouldered, wearing a brown broad-brimmed hat, grey checked jacket and dark trousers.

And there was one other thing, Kilmartin was to tell police in 1973, and an inquest six years later. The older girl had kicked the man in the knee, causing him to bend down. As he did, a pair of black horn-rimmed glasses fell from his pocket, which he snatched up. A small thing, but it signified a man too vain to wear glasses all the time, or who needed them only for reading.

Kilmartin wasn't the only witness. An assistant curator at the oval had earlier seen a man and two girls apparently attempting to entice some kittens from under a car near a tool shed. The man was thin, about 172 centimetres tall, and dressed in a grey checked sports coat, brown trousers and brown wide-brimmed hat.

Sue Lawrie, her father and little sister heard the football siren as they left the zoo, about a kilometre from the oval on the other side of the Torrens. Sue's father guessed it was the start of the final quarter of the big game. They followed the river bank towards the new Festival Theatre, opposite the oval.

Minutes later Sue, then 14, saw a middle-aged man hurrying towards them, carrying a small girl. Behind him was a girl about 11, running to keep up, punching him in the back and yelling at him, ``We want to go back."

Sue was surprised the man would let his ``grand-daughter" hit him without chastising her. She stared long enough to be able to describe details years later that tallied with other witnesses, but the hat and the man's face caught her eye most.

In 1970s Adelaide, the most English of Australian cities, if a middle-aged man wore a hat at all in winter it was usually a tweed peaked cap or a natty narrow-brimmed felt. Wide-brimmed hats were not yet a fashion affected by city people - big hats were for practical protection, worn in summer in the country by country people. And there were regional differences even then. The only time Sue had seen a wide-brimmed hat with a low, flat crown like this one was when visiting relatives in Queensland, where a lot of men wore them. It was, as she was to say later, ``very Queensland country".

Next day, Sue went for a country trip for a week, and missed most of the furore over the missing girls. When she returned, police were concentrating on events around the oval, so she dismissed what she had seen near the zoo. It wasn't until some time later, while discussing lack of discipline in some families, that Sue commented on the young girl she'd noticed thumping her ``grandfather" in public.

``When was that?" her father asked.

``The day we went to the zoo," she replied. As she spoke she remembered it was the day the girls had been abducted, and she realised the sinister significance of what she'd seen. But she was young, her father thought she had the timing wrong, and he didn't take it further.

For years, it played on her mind. In late 1980, married with a baby of her own, she told her husband about it. He urged her to go to the police. She told detectives about a man in his 50s with a wide hat and a thin, hollow-cheeked face she couldn't forget.

IT WAS THE DARKEST secret she knew, and she'd spent half her life wanting to tell it. But it took a move to the other side of Australia and a crisis of conscience for Merle Martin Moss to make the call she'd rehearsed so many times in her head.

She was sitting alone in a flat in suburban Perth in October 1998, looking through her family ``birthday book" when a wave of revulsion hardened her resolve. On the page under May was the name of an old man who, she knew, had molested at least five female relatives among her extended family. She despised him.

It was a family secret, shared between cousins, aunts and husbands. But an inner circle - Merle Moss, her sister Christine Millier and two of their cousins' wives - suspected something more evil was linked to the old man's predatory ways.

Moss had bowed to family pressure not to embarrass or distress the victims by forcing them to reveal things they'd learnt to live with. The problem was, if such delicacy masked the fact that the old man was a deviant, it would be hard to accuse him of murder.

She had no hard evidence he was a killer. Her suspicions relied on a web of circumstance, detail and intuition spun around the knowledge that he had covered up decades of sexual offences against children. Without knowing that background, she feared, any police officer bothering to check out a telephone tip would find nothing but a couple of harmless old-age pensioners in a neat house in a sleepy Townsville street.

But, this night, Moss decided she had to act. The Crimestoppers number flashed on her television. She reached for the telephone.

It took three days for the message to filter through to the Queensland homicide squad in Brisbane. Detective Sergeant David Hickey, who had just finished investigating a baby's death, was about to open an old file allocated for a routine review when he got a note to call the woman in Perth.

As he spoke to her the coincidence hit him ... the old file on his desk was the Mackay sisters' murder in Townsville. Hickey, a methodical investigator, wasn't superstitious - but when he told the woman on the line which file he was reviewing, she took it as a sign. She poured out her story about an old man in Townsville called Arthur Brown.

For Hickey and another detective, Brendan Rook, it was the beginning of an exhaustive investigation. Starting with a circle of the woman's relatives in north Queensland, their inquiries rippled outwards, interstate and, in one case, to New Zealand. Some people they spoke to were shocked at the allegations of sexual abuse, others guardedly confirmed them. But Merle Moss's younger sister Christine Millier and two cousins-by-marriage filled the gaps in a Gothic horror story played out among three generations of slow-talking, hard-working, apparently respectable folk.

It seemed that, until 1982, most family members had not suspected Arthur Brown of anything except being a ``big noter" who fancied himself as ``a ladies' man". But, that year, a tearful teenager told her parents he had molested her as a small girl, and quickly Brown's carefully constructed cover was blown. Four other girls - sisters and cousins - had quickly admitted similar secrets. To all but a few who refused to believe the girls, he was a pariah.

And some suspected worse.

ARTHUR STANLEY BROWN was born at Merinda, near Bowen, on May 20, 1912, one of three children whose parents separated when he was young. His mother went to Melbourne and Arthur was to spend several years there. He told people later he had been a paper boy and had got a Victorian driver's licence before returning to Queensland.

He attached himself to the Anderson family, who also came from Bowen and had six daughters and two sons, most of them younger than Brown. Their mother and some of the girls ran ``the galley", cooking for workers at the Ross River meatworks, where Brown worked during and after the war, apart from a spell doing wartime construction work.

A beach photograph of Brown in the 1940s, bare-chested, shows a wiry man with the lean muscles and dapper toughness of a lightweight boxer or a heavyweight jockey. The high cheekbones, long jaw, and prominent ears below a short-back-and-sides haircut were distinguishing features that age was not to soften.

Active, fit, and a light drinker, Brown didn't gain weight or lose his hair as he got older. He was delighted when a shop assistant once mistook his first wife as his mother; a stranger could easily have mistaken him for 15 years younger than his real age. Even in his 50s, he would show off by gripping a table edge and balancing his body in the air above the table, lifting himself up and down. If this showed a dash of the exhibitionist, there was also an obsessive neatness. He would line up his perfectly shone shoes, fold a piece of paper before putting it in the bin, and iron knife-edge creases into work clothes when others wore rumpled shorts and singlets.

© 2001 The Sunday Age

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