Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Snowtown Murders

A Familiar Horror

Established in 1837, Adelaide the city was well-conceived. Originally planned by military engineer Colonel William Light, it was layed out with impressive foresight and intelligence. Light envisioned a series of city squares, connected by wide streets, laced with gardens, and surrounded by parklands. The site he chose for his orderly, open-planned city was ideal: Adelaide would grow between a mountain and the sea. And though built in the driest State in earth's driest continent, freshwater would be in ample supply. The River Torrens winds from rocky gorges in the Mount Lofty Ranges, through the coastal plains to the sea. Colonial planning also aligned with "Light's Vision." When most other Australian cities were primarily penal settlements, Adelaide was stocked exclusively with free settlers.

Today's resulting city of between 1 and 2 million occupants enjoys a reputation for a calm pace and a certain charming residual "Englishness" in speech and architecture. Host to a world famous Festival of Arts, Adelaide now covers some 1924 square kilometres. But beneath this cultured exterior has always lurked a propensity for brutal crimes. Colonel Light's statue, in North Adelaide, looks down on the panorama of a magnificent city centre -and on many terrible crime scenes. Controversial author Salman Rushdie visited Adelaide in the 1980's, and later declared it "a perfect setting for a Stephen King novel or horror film," adding that "sleepy conservative towns are where those things happen."

Australia Day, 1966, in the midst of post-war optimism and an economic boom, saw Adelaide shocked by a presumed triple abduction-murder. The victims were children. Eight years old at the time, I was to grow up with the surname Beaumont ringing in my memory as a warning bell, invoked by my parents and their friends to discourage wandering.

Jane, Arna and Grant Beaumont, aged 9, 7 and 4 respectively, vanished after leaving their home for nearby Glenelg Beach, never to be seen again. As if to signal trends to come, the case prefigured the horrors that were to befall Adelaide in the 1970s. For locals, a string of multiple-crime cases almost eclipsed other seminal events of the decade such as Vietnam, the Peace movement, and even the Apollo moon landing. The chilling words "serial killings" came to apply to South Australia long before the expression entered popular speech around the world.

The decade kicked off with a heart-rending tragedy: a domestic killing spree. In September of 1971, Clifford Cecil Bartholomew was charged with the shooting murder of 10 of his relatives at Hope Forest near Adelaide. Among the dead, Mrs Heather Bartholomew, a baby and a group of siblings aged from four to nineteen. Pleading guilty to the murder of his wife in November of that year, Clifford Bartholomew was sentenced to death, but ultimately served only eight years imprisonment.

In August of 1973, Joanne Ratcliffe, 11, and her friend Kirsty Gordon, 4, attended an Australian Rules Football match at Adelaide Oval with Joanne's parents. Presumed intercepted en route to the toilets by an unknown offender at the three-quarter time break, they were never heard from again. South Australia reeled, recalling the Beaumonts. Both police and public speculated that the same predator might be responsible for both abductions. But despite exhaustive inquiries, each case remained unsolved. Out mushrooming on public holiday Anzac Day in 1978, a man discovered the body of a young woman in scrubland near Truro, about 80 kilometres north of Adelaide. Though sparsely populated, Truro lies near the world-famous Barossa Valley wine district. Related corpses were soon unearthed near Murray Bridge, a river town to the east of Adelaide, and in a northern suburbs rubbish dump. While the modus operandi was variant — one victim had been shot, another beaten and stabbed — all had disappeared between December 1976 and February 1977. It was also later established that each had been abducted from either Adelaide's city centre or northern suburbs. Police soon connected further disappearances of teenage girls, though no suspects were identified until 1979. By then, the case locals simply called "Truro" encompassed seven victims aged 15 to 26.

James William Miller, one of two men ultimately found responsible for the murders, had made statements incriminating himself and his former lover, Christopher Robin Worrell. Worrell, a handsome young bisexual with a prison history, had been killed in a traffic accident two days after the disappearance of the last victim in February 1977.

Miller led police to where he and Worrell had buried or hidden their other victims, as far apart as Port Gawler on the South Australian coast, Gillman on the outskirts of the city, and further sites at the killers main "graveyard" near Truro. In March 1980, Miller was found guilty of the murder of six of the seven victims and sentenced to life imprisonment. Worrell, some suggested, had already been dealt with by a "higher court." But even before Miller's conviction, another serial case was alarming Adelaide from 1979 onwards.

The mutilated body of Alan Barnes, 17, appeared on the banks of a reservoir north of Adelaide a week after his disappearance. Blood loss from massive anal injuries was cited as the cause of death. Two months later, Neil Muir, 25, was found beside the saltwater Port River, Port Adelaide, his body diced and sealed in plastic garbage bags. In 1981, 14 year-old Peter Stogneff disappeared while playing truant. In February of the following year, Mark Langley, 18, disappeared from near the River Torrens. His mutilated corpse, bearing a surgical-style abdominal incision, was located nine days thereafter in the hills. Portions of his lower bowel had been removed. Four months later, Peter Stogneff's body was found at Port Gawler, the isolated burial spot also used by the Truro murderers. His skeletal remains had been sawn apart.

One year later, Richard Kelvin, 15, son of a popular newsreader and television celebrity, was abducted only metres from his home in up-market North Adelaide. His body was eventually dumped in the Adelaide Hills, only a few kilometres from a hobby farm I later bought. Pathologists examining this victim noted some alarming familiarities; anal wounds and death by blood loss. But forensic evidence also suggested something new, and its announcement stunned locals. Police believed that Richard Kelvin had suffered five weeks of drugged imprisonment prior to death.

The media were soon reporting on the rumoured existence of a well-organised homosexual serial killer gang, dubbed "The Family." Popular gossip held that The Family preyed on young men in order to make "snuff" movies featuring on-camera sexual murders. The hearts of Adelaide people went out to young Richard Kelvin's high-profile — and publicly courageous — parents. I remember meeting celebrity Rob Kelvin in 1984, and feeling profoundly humbled by his warmth, stoicism and generosity of spirit. For many Adelaidians, the taking of his son felt like an attack on the family of an old friend. More sensational speculation followed. It was widely rumoured that a huge network of alleged offenders was known to police, some of them high in Adelaide society. Yet only one man was eventually brought to justice. Adelaide accountant Bevan Spencer von Einem was linked to the Kelvin murder through trace evidence — matching drugs and hairs. Convicted on the one victim, von Einem — who was reported to be a former medical student — was sentenced to life imprisonment.

In 1988, Bevan Spencer von Einem was also charged with the murders of Alan Barnes and Mark Langley. A mystery witness — identified only as "Mr B" — gave astonishing evidence at the committal hearing. Among other claims, "Mr B" alleged that von Einem was involved in each of the five killings the press had now dubbed the "Family Murders." While that seemed a logical claim to many, "Mr B" did not stop there. He alleged that von Einem had also implicated himself in both the Beaumont and Ratcliffe/Gordon cases. Adelaide was shaken by the idea of a prolific killer operating undetected since 1966. Media reports were quick to point out that von Einem was old enough to have participated. But as B's testimony was uncorroborated by other evidence, and complex legal issues arose involving the admissibility of "similar fact" evidence, prosecutors were unable to proceed. Von Einem remains imprisoned for the Richard Kelvin murder, and denies involvement in the other abductions.

Against this formidable background, police, journalists, and citizens of South Australia have learnt not to make any assumptions. When "just one body" is pulled from the ground or found beside a river, it might simply be the beginning. Such was the case on August 16th, 1994 with the unknown corpse at Lower Light. But Australia would have to wait until the 20th of May, 1999, to see more than the tip of the proverbial iceberg. It would surface in a northern haven called Snowtown.


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