Australian True Crime
This collection features some of Australia's most infamous crimes from the 20th century, showing how they were investigated by authorities and reported in the media at the time.
Australians are fascinated by true crime stories. They offer up real-life heroes and villains and force us to acknowledge that humankind has a dark side.
The following items from the NFSA collection show how crime reporting has changed throughout the decades.
Cinema newsreels of the 1930s to early 60s used dramatic re-creations and voice-overs to captivate an audience. In the 1980s and 90s, on-the-spot competitive reporting meant high stakes to the rapidly expanding media networks, with journalists jostling to claim 'first at the scene'.
The cases in this collection were also chosen because of their historical significance or the impact they had on Australians and the Australian way of life.
WARNING: Some of the content and descriptions in the following clips are graphic in nature and may be upsetting to some people.
This report from Seven News marks 30 years since Perth was terrorised by a serial killer who murdered 8 victims in total, and attempted to murder 14 others, from 1959 to 1963.
Eric Edgar Cooke, the 'Night Caller' or 'Nedlands Monster' as he became known, was an opportunistic killer and had no obvious modus operandi. His victims did not share any common characteristics and he used different methods to commit his crimes, including shooting, stabbing and strangling, plus hit-and-run attacks.
It has been widely reported that Cooke had a troubled childhood. He had a violent, alcoholic father who abused him and his mother, and he was bullied at school for his facial deformity caused by a harelip.
At trial, his defence lawyers used these events from his childhood as part of an insanity plea. However, he was deemed sane by the state's mental health professionals and convicted of wilful murder on 28 November 1963. Cooke was sentenced to death by hanging and was the last man hanged in Western Australia.
This excerpt is from a Seven News Special marking 30 years since the capture and arrest of Perth serial killer, Eric Edgar Cooke. It looks back on a confession he made prior to his hanging for a murder for which another man had been convicted.
In fact, two of Cooke's murders led to false convictions, which have since been overturned. John Button (aged 19) was convicted of manslaughter in the 1963 hit-and-run murder of his girlfriend Rosemary Anderson (17) after the pair argued and Anderson decided to walk home. Another young man, Darryl Beamish (18), was initially sentenced to death for the 1959 stabbing murder of Melbourne socialite and chocolate heiress, Jillian Brewer (22), in her home in Cottesloe. Cooke confessed to both murders before his execution in 1964.
The crimes of Eric Edgar Cooke, along with other shocking events of the 1960s, caused a shift in the way Australian's led their lives. In the early years of the decade, people would often leave doors to their homes open, cars unlocked and children unsupervised as they thought their community was safe.
After Cooke's murder spree, the disappearance of the Beaumont children, the Wanda Beach murders and the Graeme Thorne kidnapping, it was considered that Australia lost its innocence and the days of living a carefree existence were over.
This is a National Nine News report on one of the most shocking targeted attacks in Australian police history.
In the early hours of 12 October 1988, Steven Tynan (aged 22) and Damian Eyre (20), were sent on what seemed like a routine police call involving a stolen car. When they arrived on the scene, the two young constables were ambushed and murdered.
The shootings have been the subject of multiple documentaries and docu-dramas. They also partly inspired the Australian drama Animal Kingdom (David Michôd, 2010) about a tight-knit, dangerous criminal family, their network and some of the crimes they commit.
This National Nine News report follows the fatal shooting of two young police officers, Steven Tynan (aged 22) and Damian Eyre (20), on a routine call to Walsh St, South Yarra in Melbourne.
The report looks at a spate of shootings and violence towards Victorian police in the years prior to this attack.
The Walsh Street shootings led to changes in how police were trained to attend calls.
Four men were eventually charged with the murders of the two young officers but were acquitted at trial after multiple setbacks involving prosecution witnesses.
This 1960 newsreel, narrated by newsreader Brian Henderson, was made shortly after the kidnapping of 8-year-old Graeme Thorne, who was taken not far from his family home in Bondi on his way to school. This case of child kidnapping and ransom was the first in Australia and had people across the country, particularly in Sydney's surrounding suburbs, horrified that something like this could happen so close to home.
The boy's father, Basil Thorne, had just won £100,000 (equivalent to around $3 million dollars in 2018) in the Sydney Opera House Lottery. Privacy laws protecting the identity of lottery winners were not yet in existence and so Basil Thorne's photograph and personal details were printed in the newspaper at the time of his win.
After the kidnapping and murder of Graeme Thorne, the rules of the lottery were changed so that winners could opt to remain anonymous.
TV presenter Peter Luck describes the tragic details of the 1960 kidnapping, ransom demand and murder of 8-year-old Bondi boy, Graeme Thorne, whose parents had just won the lottery, in This Fabulous Century, Episode 4 - Crime. This excerpt outlines some of the groundbreaking and detailed forensic work that was undertaken to solve the case and find the young boy's murderer.
The Graeme Thorne case was significant for several reasons.
It was the first case of its kind in Australia; there had never been a kidnapping and ransom before and, prior to 1960, there was no statute for the crime of kidnapping. That changed very soon after the Thorne case.
In terms of forensics, it was a pioneering case for Australian investigators that involved tracking down a particular blanket from manufacturer to point of sale, the identification of certain trees and dog hairs found on the blanket, finding a car seen by witnesses, identifying mould and mortar found on the boy's shoe, and other laborious tasks and techniques all performed prior to the technology that police enjoy today, such as computerised databases and DNA.
After the Thorne case was resolved, lottery winners were able to opt out of having their personal details published in the newspaper. Parents also kept a tighter rein on their children and kids were less likely to be left free to play unsupervised in bushland, parks and on the streets.
Luck clearly and concisely lays out the steps involved in finding and convicting the culprit. The excerpt makes very engaging use of archival footage, photographs, newspaper headlines and interviews with key figures from the investigation. It's a good example of seamless editing that effectively brings the story to life. Interviews are compellingly used to break down what was a complex investigation, and the segment is convincing in capturing the public sentiment surrounding the case as it played out.
This Fabulous Century (1979) was a documentary series consisting of 36 episodes, produced and presented by veteran journalist Peter Luck, which covered important historical events in Australia in the 20th Century.
News reports and commentary on Sydney radio station 2SM, from the trial of Stephen Leslie Bradley for the kidnap and murder of eight-year-old Graeme Thorne. The trial took place from 20 to 29 March 1961 at the Central Criminal Court in Darlinghurst after Bradley confessed to the murder but then recanted his confession, saying that he only confessed because he feared for the safety of his family if he didn't.
These four excerpts taken from 2SM radio on 29 March 1961, the final day of the trial, give a sense of the heightened public interest in this case. Public scrutiny was so intense that throughout the day, 2SM were throwing to reporter Des Mahon at the Darlinghurst court for detailed updates every half hour.
Mahon outlines how the the judge, Mr Justice Clancy, gives his summation and his instructions to the jury and then, in an unusual turn of events, the jury is recalled to hear the judge add to his summary. Announcer John Brennan conveys a sense of urgency as he promises listeners that they will return to Darlinghurst Court as soon as the verdict is known. Later, Mahon reports that the jury has a question regarding some of the medical evidence, and then finally at almost 8.00pm that evening, they return with a verdict.
Mahon, and fellow reporter at the scene Kevin O'Donohue, describe the mood within the courtroom, and outside among people gathered in the street, as being one of jubilation upon hearing the guilty verdict. The crowd reportedly cheered and clapped and some in the courtroom had to be restrained by police. Their retelling of the moment the verdict was announced is evidence of how shocking this case was and the extent to which it captured the public's attention.
This recording, a compilation of reports by Des Mahon and Kevin O'Donohue, is utterly compelling. Even after many years it is still effective in presenting events as they unfolded with excitement and anticipation. Mahon's voice is clear, if somewhat monotonous, at the start. But as it progresses you can hear both Mahon and O'Donohue have found it a difficult case to report on and they have obviously been moved by it. They describe the crime as 'shocking' and 'dastardly', adding that it was an 'extremely hard trial' for everyone. It's a great example of radio broadcast courtroom reporting from the era and effectively captures a significant moment in Australian history.
Bradley was sentenced to life in prison, the maximum penalty for murder in NSW. He died in prison from a heart attack in 1968.
A Ten Eyewitness News bulletin covering the bombing of the Hilton Hotel in Sydney on 13 February 1978, during the first ever Commonwealth Heads of Government Regional Meeting (CHOGRM).
The report includes a statement from then NSW Premier Neville Wran in which he offers a $100,000 reward as part of an appeal for anyone with information about the bombing to come forward.
The bombing was the first major terrorist incident in Australia. The bomb had been planted in a garbage bin just outside the hotel entrance and exploded when the bin was emptied into a garbage truck in the early hours of the morning. The explosion instantly killed two garbage collectors. A police officer who was on duty at the hotel died in hospital from his injuries. Eleven other people were injured by the blast.
To this date the 1978 Sydney Hilton bombing is shrouded in controversy. Although members of the spiritual organisation Ananda Marga were charged and convicted (one was later acquitted on appeal), several conspiracy theories involving branches of government and ASIO have also been floated in the media.
Five years after the bombing of the Sydney Hilton Hotel, 2SER FM Sydney produced an hour-long radio program looking back on the case against the accused and exploring the theory that the attack was a conspiracy.
The retrospective program raises allegations that the three members of the Ananda Marga sect who were accused of the bombing were in fact framed by ASIO and the NSW Police Force. By 1983 the three men had been in prison for almost five years, but had not actually been charged with the crime.
The program begins and ends with a disclaimer stating that the allegations in the program cannot be substantiated.
An HSV 7 News bulletin on 30 May 1994 reports that Ivan Milat has been charged with the murder of seven young backpackers whose remains were found in the Belanglo State Forest in NSW.
The charges were announced after Milat appeared in court on robbery and weapons charges on 23 May 1994. A UK man, Paul Onions, who had been backpacking in Australia in 1990, positively identified Milat as the person who attacked him in January that year. Onions escaped from Milat by flagging down a passing motorist and he immediately reported the attack to local police.
Following Onions' positive identification, large-scale searches were undertaken on Milat's home, as well as those of his family members, which uncovered a great deal of evidence implicating him.
The backpacker murders in the early 1990s left Australians sickened and horrified, and made headlines around the world. This QTV Townsville News report from Milat's committal hearing in November 1994 is by veteran crime reporter Harry Potter. He reveals some of the disturbing evidence found in the Belanglo State Forest that led to the arrest of Ivan Milat.
In coordinated searches of Milat's home and those of many of his family members in May 1994, an overwhelming amount of evidence was found linking Milat to the murder victims found in the forest and he was eventually charged with all seven murders and ordered to stand trial.
This Ten News bulletin covers the first details that were revealed in court regarding evidence directly linking the suspect, Ivan Milat, to some of the murdered backpackers who had gone missing while hitchhiking between 1989 and 1993.
Police found weapons used in some of the murders, plus clothing, camping equipment and other items belonging to the victims, while searching the homes of Milat and some of his relatives.
Milat's trial began in March 1996 and lasted 15 weeks. In July 1996, a jury found him guilty on seven counts of murder and he was given a life sentence for each count, with no possibility of parole. He received another 18 years for the robbery, attempted kidnapping and attempted murder of a UK man.
These Seven News reports take place as the case of Australia's worst serial killings unfolds. The reporter is on the scene as police and forensic investigators undertake a massive search for more victims of four men arrested and charged with the torture and murder of 12 people between 1992 and 1999.
In May 1999, the remains of eight individuals were discovered in an unused bank vault. They had been stored in barrels filled with acid. More remains were found buried in the backyard of a house occupied by one of the men charged.
The murders happened in various locations around Adelaide and the bodies were later moved to Snowtown. None of the victims were local residents of Snowtown. Many victims were first tortured and forced to give up their bank account details and some were receiving welfare benefits that the killers continued to claim after the murders.
During the search, a large contingent of police officers gathered, along with members of the media, as the enormity of this case was exposed.
Four men were arrested and convicted of the murders and the ringleader was identified as John Justin Bunting. It is interesting to note that, although the men are named in this news bulletin, their faces are pixelated, which was a shift in how suspects had been treated in the media previously.
Nine News Melbourne reporter Paul Murphy describes the events now known as the 'Hoddle Street Massacre'.
On 9 August 1987, in the Melbourne suburb of Clifton Hill, a 19-year-old man carrying three guns, including a semi-automatic rifle, went on a horrifying shooting spree that lasted 45 minutes, firing at cars and pedestrians along Hoddle Street. Police were on the scene within minutes of the first shots being reported. However, seven people were killed and 19 others were wounded before the man surrendered to police.
This news footage takes place very soon after the attacks and includes interviews with witnesses who appear to be still in a state of shock over the events.
The reporting conveys the sense of chaos that was playing out on the scene, with vision of police vehicles, ambulances, a police helicopter overhead and audio from D24 police operator tapes. Stunned onlookers and people with minor wounds can also be seen in the streets.
The gunman, Julian Knight, was a former Australian Army cadet who had been discharged months earlier for stabbing an Army officer in a Canberra nightclub. He was charged with assault and released on bail and ordered to appear in court in November. The charges prevented Knight from pursuing a career in the armed services which, reportedly, had long been his dream. This event, compounded by personal and financial problems, is thought to have been a trigger for the events of 9 August.
In this National Nine News special marking 20 years since the Hoddle Street massacre in Melbourne, reporter Brett McLeod talks to John Delahunty. Delahunty was one of the officers responsible for capturing 19-year-old gunman Julian Knight, who killed seven people and wounded 19 others during a shooting rampage on 9 August 1987.
This excerpt from the retrospective news special details the events immediately preceding Knight's surrender to police. Delahunty pays tribute to the victims who were simply going about their business that evening, before describing the moment he faced Knight, who was armed with a semi-automatic rifle. The officer and his partner were directly under fire and had to use their police training to steel themselves to return fire. McLeod and Delahunty paint Knight as a coward, as they discuss his surrender and plea for police not to shoot him.
Knight was a former Australian Army cadet who had been discharged months earlier for stabbing an Army officer in a Canberra nightclub. He was charged with assault and released on bail and ordered to appear in court in November. The charges prevented Knight from pursuing his career in the armed services which, reportedly, had long been his dream. This event, compounded by personal and financial problems, is thought to have been a trigger for the events of 9 August.
Knight was sentenced to seven concurrent sentences of life imprisonment with a non-parole period of 27 years for his crimes.
This 1930s newsreel recounts the coronial inquest into the Pyjama Girl mystery, one of the most baffling unsolved murder cases in Australian criminal history.
It reconstructs courtroom scenes and the witness account of Detective MacCrae, who calls for the body to be preserved in the ‘interests of justice’.
The clip also shows footage of pieces of fabric from the pyjamas the woman was wearing when she was found.
Her preserved body is taken to the Faculty of Medicine at Sydney University and, despite displaying her corpse to thousands of curious people, her identity remains unknown. Summary by Poppy De Souza.
This newsreel reconstructs the coronial inquest into the Pyjama Girl mystery, one of the most baffling unsolved murder cases in Australian criminal history.
The clip opens with the discovery of new evidence in 1939. Believing that the lake near Albury where the woman was found might hold the key to the mystery, the local fire brigade, on direction of Superintendent Matthews, drain the lake in search of clues.
Local detectives find gumboots, shoes, slippers, a blouse and parts of a silk dress. From these items, police construct an outfit similar to what they believe the woman was wearing at the time of her disappearance.
A ₤1,000 reward is posted for information leading to the arrest of her murderer, and a direct plea to the public is made, asking them to help identify the woman. Summary by Poppy De Souza.
The identity of the 'Pyjama Girl' and her murderer remained a mystery for 10 years and the case became known as Australia's biggest murder mystery, until a new set of detectives were charged with looking at it in 1944.
In This Fabulous Century, Episode 4 – Crime, veteran journalist Peter Luck delves into that 1944 investigation using a combination of Australia Today and Cinesound newsreel file footage, photographs, newspapers and an interview with Robert Coleman, author of The Pyjama Girl (1978).
Luck takes viewers back to the time of the investigation, detailing the lengths that police went in order to identify the 'Pyjama Girl'. In this excerpt, Luck recounts a breakthrough by the forensic team that leads them back to a woman named Linda Agostini, someone they had previously ruled out because of her dental records.
By today's standards, events surrounding this case seem bizarre, with the victim being kept in a formalin bath at the University of Sydney for years, so that members of the public could view the body in the hope that someone might know her. Drawings, facial reconstructions and dental records had failed to reveal who she was.
The excerpt makes very engaging use of archival footage, photographs, newspaper headlines and an interview. It's a good example of seamless editing that, coupled with Luck's narration, effectively brings the story to life and makes for compelling viewing. Luck skilfully weaves a fascinating tale in his retelling of the 'Pyjama Girl' investigation, while treating the victim with an appropriate level of respect and dignity.
This Fabulous Century (1979) was a documentary series consisting of 36 episodes, produced and presented by Peter Luck, which covered important historical events in Australia in the 20th Century.