SMALL TOWN CRIME IS JUST AS BIG
There’s a tendency to think major crime only happens in the city – “down these mean streets” where dark alleys and doorways inspire murder and mayhem. Cities make perfect places for murder, where people are more anonymous and someone going missing may not in fact be missed. But small country towns and villages also can be a hotbed of crime, both fictional (Midsomer Murders) and true. Australia is no different.
Over the past few years, both novels and true crime books have explored some of the bizarre or brutal crimes that can happen in small places here. Australia is a huge country with hundreds of tiny towns, some of which have become notorious. One of the most infamous in South Australia is Snowtown, in what has come to be known as the “Snowtown murders” or the “bodies in the barrels” murders. None of the killers came from or lived in Snowtown, and only one of the eleven victims was killed there. But eight of the bodies were dismembered and put in barrels, then kept in an abandoned bank vault in the town.
The murders, committed between 1992 and 1999, were carried out by three men: John Bunting, Robert Wagner and James Vlassakis, and Mark Haydon was convicted of assisting them with disposing of the bodies. Bunting was the leader and convinced the others they were helping to rid the world of paedophiles and homosexuals. In fact a number of the victims were partners, ex-partners or related to the killers in some way. They were all tortured with a variety of tools, and died in horrible ways.
Bunting was clearly the ringleader. He was described by others as a nice man, friendly, but was extremely manipulative and able to convince the others to follow his lead, drawing them further and further into the mutilations and killings. Like many serial killers, he had a history of killing animals and was obsessed with death.
Upon conviction, Bunting was sentenced to eleven consecutive life sentences and Wagner to ten, with no possibility of parole. Vlassakis was sentenced to four life sentences, with no parole before 26 years. Haydon pleaded guilty to assisting and received a sentence of 25 years with no parole before 18 years. Snowtown has been stigmatised by the murders, and at one point there was discussion about changing its name. In 2011, a movie called The Snowtown Murders was released.
In NSW, Belanglo State Forest was similarly tainted by a series of murders committed by Ivan Milat. The forest is south-west of a small country town called Berrima. A number of hitchhikers and backpackers had mysteriously been going missing since the late 70s, and people had already started to travel in pairs for safety. In September 1992, two runners on an orienteering trip discovered the remains of a body in the forest and reported it to police, who subsequently found a second body nearby. They were British backpackers, Caroline Clarke and Joanne Walters, who had been missing since they left Sydney in December 1991.
Police searched the forest further and ruled out more bodies, but then a year later a man collecting firewood in a remote area discovered bones. Police found two more bodies, who were identified as Deborah Everist and James Gibson, who had left Melbourne to hitchhike to a camping festival in December 1989. Then in November 1993, the remains of three German backpackers were also discovered.
NSW Police set up a large taskforce to try and capture the killer, and received mountains of information, including forensics from the sites that showed the perpetrator had kept the victims for several days and tortured them. Because several of the victims had disappeared in pairs, it was also thought it could be the work of more than one person. Investigators applied link analysis technology to a range of government records including car records, gym memberships, gun licences and police records, managing eventually to narrow it down to 32 possible suspects.
In November 1993, they received a call from Paul Onions, a British man who’d been hitchhiking in NSW in 1990 and got a lift from a man who called himself “Bill”. When Bill pulled a gun on him, Onions managed to escape with the help of a passing motorist. They reported the incident to police and, although that report was lost, the original notes taken by the police constable were found. This, plus another tip, led the police to Ivan Milat.
Police surveillance began, Onions flew to Australia and positively identified Milat, and then police arrested him and searched his home as well as those of his mother and five brothers. Large numbers of weapons were found, as well as many items that were identified as belonging to the murdered backpackers. Milat never confessed to the murders – he tried to push the blame on to some of his brothers at one point. He was convicted and sentenced to seven life sentences without possibility of parole, and he died in prison in October 2019 without ever confessing. Police believe that he was involved in the murder of up to ten other people, some of whom are still missing.
The Belanglo State Forest again came into the picture when remains were found there in 2010. Police initially thought the woman could have been another victim of Milat, but forensic investigations showed the body had been dumped there long after he’d been sent to gaol. No identification was possible at that point, the only clue being a T-shirt with the word “Angel” on the front of it.
However, an apparently unconnected case emerged in 2015 when the body of child was discovered in a suitcase on the side of the road in Wynarka, South Australia. Police determined that the child had died a violent death several years earlier, and had no way of identifying her. They launched a public appeal, using clothing and a distinctive hand-made quilt found in the suitcase. 1200 calls later, someone was able to identify the quilt made by the child’s grandmother who had died in 2012. The child was two-year-old Khandalyce Pearce. DNA from her remains was then used to identify her mother, Karlie Pearce-Stevenson, aged 20, who had been missing from Alice Springs since 2008 – the young woman police had called “Angel”.
Karlie’s mother had believed her daughter and granddaughter were safe and well, living interstate, due to messages she had received. Further investigations revealed Karlie’s phone had been used to text those fake messages to her family, and her ID had been used to steal welfare payments and carry out fraud worth more than $90,000.
In October 2015, Daniel Holdom, already under arrest for another crime, was charged with Karlie’s murder, and then charged three months later with Khandalyce’s murder after an extensive investigation. He had apparently been in a relationship with Karlie, but after he killed her, and then her daughter, his partner, a woman named Hazel Passmore, used Karlie’s documents to carry out the frauds.
The prosecutor of the two cases described the murders as “thrill killings” and “atrocious, detestable, hateful, gravely reprehensible and extremely wicked”. Holdom eventually pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences without parole.
Killers operate everywhere, and their activities can impact a small country town far more, simply because those communities are more friendly and everyone knows each other. In contrast, the vastness of forest areas and the outback means there are plenty of places to hide bodies and “disappear” people. Hence the huge growth of Australian crime fiction set in rural locations, as writers have come to see the potential.