– Long before kids collected hundreds of friends through Facebook, Vicki Reid had a handful she thought would remain her mates forever.
In the days when Berwick was more country than outer Melbourne, the kids from the local high school spent their spare time together, gossiping, listening to music on their parents’ record players and watching Countdown every Sunday night.
“We would just hang out really, go to the movies, sit around, talk, that sort of thing,” Vicki, now a mother of three, recalls. Sometimes they would head to nearby Akoonah Park with that generation’s version of an iPod – a giant battery-operated “boom-box” that played their home-recorded cassettes.
But like most school friends they eventually drifted apart. Some left the area while others developed new social circles.
Except one: a lively 14-year-old named Catherine Linda Headland, who remains frozen in time. Thirty-three years ago this month somebody stole her future and stole from her friends their last shred of innocence.
For she would be one of four women whose bodies were found in scrub in Tynong North.
It was about 2pm on December 6th, 1980, when a man dumping animal remains saw what he thought was a human body, and then another. He called police, who discovered the bodies of Catherine Headland, Ann-Marie Sargent, 18 and Bertha Miller, 73.
It would take a further two years to find a fourth body on the other side of Brew Road – Narumol Stephenson, 34 – a woman abducted from Northcote in November 1980.
The killer, or killers, have never been found and Tynong North remains one of Australia’s most chilling mysteries.
Catherine lived with her parents and older brother. She was devoted to her friends but also to her horse, Prince, which she rode every chance she had. The family emigrated from Lancashire in 1966 when Catherine was one and had lived in Allan Street, Berwick, for five years. Catherine was popular at school and loved competing with her pony in local gymkhanas.
Her mother Hazel was adamant that she had to contribute to the upkeep of the horse and to do so she had to take on some part-time work.
She was given an ultimatum: get a job or they would sell Prince.
For three weeks, she had worked part-time at the Fountain Gate Coles supermarket and Thursday, August 28th, 1980, was to be her first mid-week shift, from noon until 4pm.
Hazel was employed at the same supermarket and arranged for her to work extra shifts during the August school holidays – not that the teenager was grateful. She would rather hang around with her mates than work on the supermarket register.
That day Hazel left home at 8:30am leaving her daughter 70c for the bus fare.
During the morning the friends met at the home of Catherine’s boyfriend, John McManus, who had been ill.
She told her mates that she didn’t feel like going to work that afternoon and that she wanted to give up the job because it was stifling her social life.
They watched morning television and played records before McManus walked her to the gate as she headed off to catch the bus. Before she left she said to her friends: “Goodbye, I’ll see you after work.”
She saw the bus go past towards Beaconsfield at 11:10am and knew she had five minutes to get to her stop at the corner of Manuka Road and the Princes Highway.
There were many alleged sightings of Catherine, which would later confuse the initial investigation.
A bus driver told police he picked in a girl fitting Catherine’s description and a blonde girl at the Peel Street bus stop, 800 metres from Manuka Road. But police found “there is no evidence she caught the bus”.
Friends claimed to have seen her and the blonde girl at Narre Warren about 2:30pm that day, but the blonde associate was never identified and police were to treat the Narre Warren sighting as unreliable.
But if she had gone to Narre Warren and had only 70c, she might have decided to hitch-hike home, a common practice at the time.
The regular bus driver in the area told police he believe he had seen Catherine hitch-hiking along the Princes Highway on previous occasions.
What probably happened is that she accepted a lift from a stranger who had already decided to use the Tynong North scrub as his dumping ground. He knew it well as he had left Bertha Miller there 18 days earlier after he abducted her near her Glen Iris home as she waited for a tram to take her to church.
When Catherine Headland reluctantly left her friends she was wearing a thin leather strap on her ankle. The girls from Berwick High wore the straps from one of their fathers’ leather bootlaces as a sign of friendship. Vicki remembers wearing hers on her wrist.
Police used that friendship strap to help identify the body when she was found at Tynong North more than three months after she went missing.
“When she disappeared we were just shattered. We knew she hadn’t run away, it wasn’t in her nature,” Vicki says.
“We knew someone had taken her away but we couldn’t really comprehend what had happened.”
When police found her, “We were just so angry we wanted to find out who did this.”
But no one has. There is an old man who remains a suspect. Devoutly religious, he has always maintained his innocence, but there are intriguing links between him and at least six unsolved murders – the four at Tynong North and two in Frankston.
Allison Rooke, 59, disappeared near her Frankston home on May 30th, 1980, and Carmel Summers, 55, went missing in the same suburb on October 9th, 1981. Both bodies were found in Frankston North bushland.
The man once lived in North Frankston and also lived and worked near Tynong North. He agreed to two polygraph tests and was found to be lying when asked questions about the Tynong North and Frankston murders.
But he is not the only suspect and after 2000 people have been interviewed and 11,400 pages of notes taken, police remain split. They maybe searching for one killer or as many as three.
It is possible that it is a coincidence Stephenson was found in the same area and the Frankston women may have been taken by another man.
What appears certain is that Miller, Headland and Sargent were all the victims of a serial killer.
A detailed analysis by the Bureau of Criminal Intelligence indicated the three bodies found together at Tynong North had been placed there by the one killer. It also showed a series of marked differences with the other three murders.
“The person(s) who placed the bodies near the sand quarry off Brew Road, Tynong North, took care in the way he/they placed the bodies…Such care was not shown in the placement of the bodies of the other three victims.”
The report concluded that the offender(s) “had given some thought to how and where they might dispose of a body and suggests that he/they may have planned to commit a particular offence if and when the opportunity arose”.
The Frankston victims and Stephenson were left within 50 metres of busy roads. “This suggests that the three were placed at the first available suitable location known by the offender(s).”
What is certain is there will be a link to the old sand quarry where the bodies were found and the killer. He knew the remote area well and suspected the bodies would never be found. In one case he sawed off branches to use as cover.
He knew the location and planned his moves well before he took his first victim.
Covering the case back then, it was clear from the beginning that this was no random drop. Well off a road and 200 metres down a hidden track, it had been carefully selected. And the police were up against it. The killer had months’ head start, there were no forensic clues and no sightings of the women being abducted. And one was an elderly woman while the other two were teenagers.
What we still don’t know is, why did he start and why did he stop?
Did he learn he was a suspect? Was he interviewed and not charged or was he jailed for another offence?
Certainly one name often mentioned is Raymond Edmunds, known as “Mr Stinky”, who murdered Shepparton teenagers Abina Madill and Garry Heywood in 1966 but was not arrested for the murders until 1985.
Police believe he committed at least 32 rapes and remains a suspect in several murders spread over nearly two decades.
Edmunds has refused to speak to police but confided to a fellow sex offender that he had killed “dozens” of women. “If I told them everything I’ve done, they’d neck me,” he said.
The Headlands kept to themselves after Catherine’s body was found, preferring to grieve in private. Eventually it became too much and they sold up and moved.
Vicki Reid doesn’t drive near Brew Road very often as it always brings back so many sad memories – even so she thinks about her teenage friend nearly every week.
A few years ago they put up a little plaque for her in nearby Akoonah Park – the same park where she loved to hang out with her closest mates.
Of Vicki’s three children, the eldest is Catherine, named after the friend she lost 33 years ago.
“I just wanted her to live on.” – John Silvester
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