Contributing editor-at-large Tess Lawrence shares her personal experience with the still unsolved Easey Street murder case, including a chilling anonymous phone call — possibly from the murderer.
I COULD SMELL their blood in the hallway.
I remember I could smell the fear. I could almost taste it. I could hear my own inner screams and sensed theirs echoing in that desolate silence where lurk the ghosts of bleak tragedy and unnatural death at the hands of our own species.
I felt nauseous and had to will myself to stay upright in deference to those around me, who bore the true brunt and bluntness of raw sorrow at such senseless carnage.
Both sides of the narrow hallway walls were splattered with what seemed litres of blood. And what looked like macabre wallpaper stencilled in blood by the palms, hands and fingers of someone desperately trying to defend themselves from the maniacal and frenzied repeated stabbings of a cold-blooded and ruthless killer or killers. Perhaps the victims had tried to stand up and steady themselves by outstretching their hand on both sides of the walls.
Macabre wallpaper stencilled in blood. Source: theage.com.au.
So, too, were the bodies of the two women covered in blood. The police told me that such was the savagery and brutality of the knifings that the murderer would have required extraordinary strength. And blind rage. Anger — perhaps drug fuelled.
It was January 1977 and, at the request of police, I was at the house in Easey Street, Collingwood, rented by close friends and schoolmates from regional Benalla, Suzanne Armstrong and Susan Bartlett, who lived and travelled together and now had died together in bloody terror.
It was hoped that an article might prompt the memory and conscience of someone – anyone – who might then come forward with information and help police to piece together the jigsaw that has now remained dissembled for an untenable 40 years.
Suzanne, a 27-year-old single mum, had been raped and stabbed 29 times, her body naked from the waist down — pools of congealed blood under and above her head.
Mercifully, Suzanne's little 18-month-old toddler Gregory was eventually found alive in his cot and seemingly untouched.
28-year-old Collingwood schoolteacher Susan Bartlett had been stabbed 55 times. Her body was found on the hallway floor; her blood spurted all over the walls and there was a large pool of congealed blood on the ground that is visible in the photo above.
These notorious and callous murders thought to have been committed on the night of January 10, still remain unsolved, despite a plethora of forensic, DNA, circumstantial and factual evidence.
Ilona Stevens (left) and Janet Powell and the dog belonging to the murdered women (Source: heraldsun.com.au)
Yet inexplicably, a number of large rocks remain unturned.
There were no signs of forced entry. Then again, the women often left the front and back doors unlocked and their windows open. Maybe their killer was known to them.
One can speculate that the women might have screamed and that there were yells and thuds and thumping while the ferocious attacks were carried out, and that neighbours would have heard or seen something. Apparently not.
The killer must have been strong enough to restrain the struggling women. There was evidence that Susan Bartlett in particular fought hard against her murderer.
The killer took the time to wash his (or perhaps her) hands of blood in the bathtub and didn't see the need to ensure all the blood was washed down into the plughole. Later, a bloodied facecloth and shawl were found a few blocks from the murder site.
But it wasn't until three days later, on January 13, that neighbours Ilona Stevens and Janet Powell decided something was amiss and went around to the house to check on things.
They'd already put a note on the front door after they'd found a young dog belonging to the women, wandering around the street.
They heard Gregory crying and went inside. It was Ms Stevens who was first confronted with the horrifying sight. For the little boy's sake, she valiantly tried to avoid getting hysterical, removed him out of the cot and fled the house.
AFTER 40 YEARS AND UNTURNED ROCKS, POLICE OFFER $1 MILLION REWARD
Last Sunday (15 January 2017) Victoria Police upped the reward to $1 million for any information that will catch the murderer.
The announcement brought back suffocating memories for me. I can only imagine what indescribable heartache is felt by the families and friends of these two popular young women, cut down by a homicidal maniac who may have had an accomplice.
From the media statement by Acting Sergeant Melissa Seach:
While DNA testing has not uncovered an offender thus far, it has provided a useful tool in eliminating suspects and remains a very strong line of enquiry.
Homicide Squad Detective Inspector Michael Hughes said DNA testing was an important method of the investigation.
"We are also hoping that today’s $1 million announcement will encourage someone out there with crucial information or direct knowledge of these murders to come forward,” Insp Hughes said.
“We believe after 40 years someone out there knows something and it is time for them to come forward.
“These unsolved murders have been extremely devastating on these two young women’s families and after all this time we would like to provide them with closure.”
An image of Suzanne Armstrong and Susan Bartlett and their house on Easey Street have been released.
A reward of up to $1 million dollars will be paid at the discretion of the Chief Commissioner of Police, for information leading to the apprehension and subsequent conviction of the person or persons responsible for the Easey Street murders.
The Director of Public Prosecutions will consider, according to established guidelines, the granting of indemnification from prosecution to any person who provides information as to the identity of the principal offender or offenders in this matter.
The cheery idyllic front of the house that belied the horror within (Source: theage.com.au)
I met with family members that day four decades ago and it broke my heart even then to see their polite stoicism as they walked down the hallway painted in blood – with their shared DNA – telling me anything that might be pertinent and helpful in encouraging informants and whistleblowers to come forward.
They must have had to place a double lock on their own riven hearts to stop them haemorrhaging from grief and sorrow. I learned much from them. No scales can fairly measure our grief greater or less than another's. But when I think of the Easey Street horror, it gives me some understanding and empathy of the multiple murders of innocents in Syria and elsewhere. Every such death is personal.
It was shocking for me to discover the bizarre fact that Gayle Armstrong, Suzanne's sister, and other members of the victims' families were never interviewed by police. What's going on?
Joining Victoria's homicide squad boss at a press conference on Sunday, Gayle Armstrong, whose family raised Gregory, expressed frustration about early errors.
Gayle told reporters:
"We weren't even interviewed. We had to make an appointment to go down to the police station to speak to police, which was really bad."
She pulled no punches when asked what it meant to her that police were still actively involved in trying to find the killer.
Gayle Armstrong said she had not lost hope that there would be a breakthrough:
"[It means] everything, everything. It's something that has to be finalised and this reward should have been offered 39 years ago and it'd be solved and we wouldn't be doing all this now ... I hear the miracles that [police] do solve [cases] and I think Suzanne will be next.
They will do it, they will find this person. With the DNA, even if this person is dead, you can now go to family members and find out that way if it was that person."
Suzanne's sister Gayle Armstrong makes a public plea for information about the murders. Source: abc.net.au.
Of course, Gayle should have been interviewed. It beggars belief that she wasn't.
For a start, at the time of the murders, Gayle was a shearer's cook working in Hungerford, Queensland. Suzanne's boyfriend was a shearer. So Miss Marple 101 makes it an imperative that Gayle, as well as Suzanne's boyfriend, Barry Woodard, would be extensively interviewed, given this important connection, in case either had vital information helpful to the police investigation.
Woodard coincidentally worked as a shearer and, apparently, went to the Easey Street house with his brother Henry, leaving a note for Suzanne in the third person on the kitchen table at the rear of the house, asking her to call him, unaware that the bodies of the two murdered women were on the other side of the door.
I do not – nor does Independent Australia – make any imputation whatever in relation to Mr Woodard. Nor do we make any imputation whatever against anyone else.
I have not seen Mr Woodard's note. He has been quoted as saying he did not venture further into the house.
Moreover, we now discover that the two sisters, Gayle and Suzanne, had planned a get-together in Hungerford, Queensland at the time of the murders, but Suzanne couldn't find a babysitter for Gregory. She stayed behind and was instead murdered by a person or persons unknown.
Curiously, I understand that there were several newspaper clippings from The Age newspaper on the kitchen table. These clippings were apparently dated January 13, 1977 — three days after the women were murdered. Who left them there? Was it the killer(s)? And what were the clippings about?
How were the clippings cut — with scissors? With a knife or a guillotine? A letter opener? Was there any DNA on the clippings? What was the strength of the ink run? That might provide a clue to the area The Age newspaper bundle was dropped.
Surely it is time for Victoria Police to place these clippings in the public domain in case someone recognises them and will step forward with information.
So many times during the ongoing mystery of the Easey Street murders there have been assertions of breakthroughs that have resulted in nought.
The police have placed so much conflicting and confusing evidence and information before us. We have been told there were no visible signs of entry. Yet we have also been told that someone gained entry through Susan Bartlett's bedroom window and that there was dirt on the end of the bed.
But we have also been told that Susan Bartlett went to the aid of Suzanne Armstrong, trying to fend off her attacker. So who was attacked and killed first?
The rear of the Easey Street house (Source: vicpolicenews.com.au)
HERE'S WHAT HAPPENED TO ME AFTER THE PUBLISHED EASEY ST REPORT
My eventual article, if I recall rightly, detailed much of the murder crime scene, including descriptions of the sitting room, surrounds and objects in the rooms. I hoped for a response to the article — someone always knows; someone always suspects. As a community, we owe that to the grieving families.
We had a wide and helpful response and, of course, all information, no matter how small, was passed onto the police for them to analyse and process as they saw fit.
BUT THEN I GOT A SCARY PHONE CALL
But then I got a spooky phone call. It scared me. There was a male voice on the other end. Somehow, it was different to the other calls. He started to go through my article and dissect it.
Then he started criticising the fact that I hadn't been so observant after all – that I had left things out about a record player I'd mentioned – specifically the name of a record.
He was right. A chill went up my spine. I had indeed left out details about some of the records. Deliberately.
He then mentioned objects in the house that I hadn't mentioned at all. But I didn't let on. While I tried to keep him talking, I wrote a note and passed it to a colleague asking him to contact the switchboard and see if they could trace the call.
The caller was mostly derisory and contemptuous of me for my lack of observation and seemed strangely annoyed.
The unidentified record (an LP) seemed to mean something to him. I tried really hard to engage him in a conciliatory way, saying I wish he'd been with me when I visited the house, given his astute powers of observation.
His attitude changed a bit and I tried to see if we could meet up. He said he was based at Victoria Barracks and worked in signals but would not give me his name. He said he would call me back. My recall is that he ended the conversation abruptly — as if someone had come into the room.
Of course, I immediately contacted the police and gave them all the information I had. Did they trace the call? Did they follow up? Was that caller involved in any way?
I intend to ask them today whether there is a note in the Easey Street files about the phone call I received. There should be.
What were the results of any follow-up, if indeed there was one?
THE MURDER WEAPON AND THE TYPE OF INFLICTED WOUNDS
I remember discussing the murder weapon and the type of wounds found on the bodies with the police. Given the caller said he was at Victoria Barracks, I asked if the wounds were compatible with a bayonet and/or a bayonet-type knife. They said yes ...
Strangely – and I'm pretty sure this happened after I put the above to the police – a knife that was supposed to be the murder weapon, a bayonet type, was found but has since been discarded as the murder weapon.
WAS THE CALLER THE MURDERER?
Was the caller the murderer? Did he know the murderer? Was he calling on behalf of the murderer? I don't know.
Of course, I kept quiet about this at the time so as not to hinder investigations or interfere with the course of justice. And when I asked for an update from the police, I was told the investigation was still in progress. I was given the brush off — as were the families of the victims.
I encourage you to contact IA with any information you may have and we undertake to protect our sources.
We cannot bring back to life Suzanne and Susan, but if we work together we may be able to bring some peace to their grieving families.
To contact Tess Lawrence please send an email to managing editor David Donovan at email@example.com, who will forward your information.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License
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