Certain Admissions: A Beach, A Body and a Lifetime of Secrets
By Gideon Haigh
Penguin Australia 2015
RRP – $32.99
Kidnapped: The Crime that Stopped the Nation
By Mark Tedeschi QC
Simon & Schuster Australia 2015
RRP – $32.99
Reviewed by Gerard Henderson
I was too young to remember the brutal murder of Elizabeth Maureen Williams near the Albert Park Life Saving Club on Melbourne’s Port Phillip Bay. The date was the evening of 27 December 1949 or the early morning of the following day. The victim was 20 years old. But I well recall the controversy the case caused as her convicted murderer, John Bryan Kerr and his vocal supporters, proclaimed his innocence throughout the 1950s, 1960s and into the 1970s. Some still believe that Kerr was wrongly convicted.
I well remember the murder of Graeme Thorne in Sydney on 7 July 1960. This crime horrified the nation. It was Australia’s first kidnapping/murder and the 8 year old’s body was not discovered until around six weeks after his death. It appears that only the public defendant, Frederick Vizard QC, believed that his client Stephen Leslie Bradley was innocent.
In Certain Admissions: A Beach, a Body and a Lifetime of Secrets, Melbourne-based journalist Gideon Haigh has written an essentially empirical account of the Williams murder. There were three trials. According to one of Haigh’s sources, the jury in the first trial voted 10 to 2 that Kerr was guilty beyond reasonable doubt. In the second, the jury decided 8 for guilty and 4 for not guilty. At the time in Victoria, unanimous jury verdicts were required for convictions or acquittals. At the third trial in September 1950, the defendant was found guilty and sentenced to death. This was commuted to life imprisonment and Kerr served just over 12 years in Pentridge Prison. He was released on bail in May 1962.
The author located a jury note which suggests that the jury at the third trial agreed on a murder finding once it was established that a recommendation for mercy could be made. This was an indication that the jurors did not believe that the defendant should be executed and were reluctant to bring in a murder verdict without a recommendation for mercy.
By the standards of his time, John Bryan Kerr was a celebrity defendant. At the time of the murder at Albert Park beach, he was aged 24; his victim was 20. Kerr did not come from a well-off family but he did attend Scotch College – which, these days, would be described as an elite private school. Kerr was a good looking man who dressed impeccably. After leaving school he became a radio announcer who found work in Hobart and parts of Victoria.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the Victoria Police’s homicide squad was known to manufacture confessions. The only evidence of Kerr’s guilt turned on a brief confession which he signed in the early hours of 29 December 1949. The evidence suggests that Miss Williams was sexually assaulted but not raped. It appears Kerr flew into a fit of rage when his advances were rejected. Kerr’s (alleged) words were transcribed by Detective Bluey Adam. Apart from this confession which Kerr denied giving to Adam, he always proclaimed his innocence – including in his evidence to the Supreme Court of Victoria. In the late 1940s, Victoria Police was not all that interested in forensic evidence – certainly there was none in this case. It was not until the early 1960s, in the Graeme Thorne murder case, that forensic evidence began to play an important part in police investigations.
Yet there was much circumstantial evidence – and circumstantial evidence can be compelling. Reading Certain Admissions you get the impression that Gideon Haigh believes that Kerr should have been acquitted since his guilt was not established beyond reasonable doubt. However, this view is tempered by a contemporary document, discovered by the author, where Maxwell Keetley – a one-time policeman and former school mate of Kerr – declared, some years after the trial, that Kerr had told him of his guilt. In a discussion which took place at Pentridge shortly after the murder, the defendant is alleged to have told Keetley: “They tell me that the nipple on her teat was bitten off…I know I knocked her around pretty badly but I don’t remember doing that.” One former girlfriend of Kerr testified to his rough behaviour during sexual intercourse with a fetish for biting.
The case against Kerr was compelling. He knew the Hobart-born Beth Williams vaguely when they met by chance under the clocks outside the Flinders Street Station – they had previously met at the Hobart radio station 7HO. He was with her in the vicinity of Albert Park Beach on the night/morning of the murder and he had a record of aggressive, sudden attacks on people he knew who happened to upset him. In short, Kerr was a thug. A well-educated and well-dressed thug, but a thug nevertheless.
Kerr became something of a star prisoner due to his role at Pentridge Prison in debating (which was encouraged by authorities). I knew several people who had debated against Kerr during his prison days or who had been recipients of vote-of-thanks following a talk at the jail. The list included the lawyer and later politician Alan Missen, Essendon football star John Coleman, film director Stanley Kramer, athlete Herb Elliott and writer Alan Marshall.
Due to his level of education, Kerr dominated in intellectual pursuits while in prison.
But those who were closest to Kerr at Pentridge – wardens and prisoners alike – disliked him intensely. There is evidence in Certain Admissions that Kerr could have been responsible for the murder of one other woman, his one-time young girlfriend Kerrie Williams whom he met after discharge from jail. She died in mysterious circumstances during the time when Kerr had changed his name to John Wallace.
Needless to say, Kerr received support from the usual soft-on-crime suspects. Melbourne University academic Pansey Wright organised a petition signed by academics and lawyers attesting to the convicted murderer’s alleged innocence. It was dismissed by authorities. No member of the left intelligentsia seemed to care about the late Beth Williams. The left-wing newspaper The Argus also proclaimed Kerr’s cause until its demise in 1957. Kerr died of natural causes in November 2001 at age 76.
In Kidnapped: The Crime that Stopped the Nation, NSW’s senior crown prosecutor Mark Tedeschi QC covers the 1960 brutal kidnapping and murder of 8 year old Graeme Thorne. The author was born in the same year as the victim. Which serves as a reminder that, without murderer Stephen Bradley, Graeme Thorne would probably still be alive today – aged in his mid-60s. His younger sister Valerie lives in Australia. Which serves as a reminder that murder is a crime without end.
In Certain Admissions, Gideon Haigh sticks closely to the known facts. In Kidnapped Mark Tedeschi covers in detail all the evidence. But, as described in the book’s preface, the author engages in what he terms “creative reconstruction”. This enables him to present what he believes are the “thought processes, emotions and motivations that lay behind this egregious offence”. By the use of this tactic, Tedeschi recreates what he believes that Stephen Bradley and his wife Magda were thinking and discussing around the time of the murder. Tedeschi also discusses what he believes were the thoughts of young Graeme and his parents Bazil and Freda Thorne.
The author is one of Australia’s best known, and most accomplished, crown prosecutors. Consequently, Tedeschi takes particular note of what Bradley’s prosecutor, Bill Knight QC, thought about the accused since he “had the benefit of hearing all the witnesses’ first-hand and had direct access to the investigating police”. Knight’s thought can be found in Tedeschi’s creative reconstruction.
Graeme Thorne died within hours of his kidnapping on his way to Scots College in Sydney. The Thornes were not wealthy but had spent much of their income on the education of their two children. Then, on 1 June 1960, they won the NSW Opera House Lottery. The £100,000 prize would be worth about $4 million in today’s money. Stephen Bradley wanted £25,000 of Bazil Thorne’s winnings. The Thorne family was prepared to pay the ransom but, tragically, their son, unbeknown to them, was already dead.
Like many murderers (including John Bryan Kerr), Stephen Bradley was a narcissistic liar. Upon arrest in Sri Lanka (then called Colombo) when attempting to flee to Britain, Bradley made a confession. But he soon repudiated it and never made any other admissions of any kind.
Like Kerr, Bradley was a thug. Before the Thorne murder, he almost certainly burnt a hotel he owned in the Blue Mountains in order to get the insurance. And it is likely that he murdered his second wife Eva Laslzo, gaining an inheritance in the process. Tedeschi believes that Magda Bradley, Stephen’s third wife, was not involved in the kidnap/murder.
Graeme Thorne was kidnapped in July 1960. Initially NSW Police bungled the investigating by making what turned out to be false assumptions and by overlooking the testimony of persons who were acquaintances of Bradley. However, once Graeme’s body was found, the forensic investigations were path-breaking and linked Bradley to the scene of the murder. Bradley hit Graeme on the head with a metal instrument and placed the victim in the boot of his car. Graeme died of asphyxiation. He was buried at Macquarie Park Cemetery following a service at St Mark’s Church of England in Darling Point.
The jury took little time to find Bradley guilty of murder beyond reasonable doubt after a trial that lasted six weeks – remarkably short by today’s standards. Bradley received a life sentence but died of a heart attack in Goulburn Jail in October 1968, aged 42, during a game of tennis. Unlike Kerr, Bradley was a popular figure among his wardens and fellow prisoners. Bradley went to his maker maintaining his innocence and without disclosing any details about Graeme’s death.
Bradley was convicted on circumstantial evidence plus forensic evidence relating to material found on Graeme’s body, at the scene of the crime and inside Bradley’s car. A decade earlier, at the time of Beth Williams’ death, access to such scientific evidence was not available to police.
Bradley was, and remains, a hated figure in Australian society for those who remember the Thorne case. However, there are still some commentators who burn a candle to Kerr and maintain his innocence. In fact, both cases demonstrate the value of the jury system. The jurors got it right about Bradley. And 30 out of 36 got it right about Kerr – even though it took three trials to get to a 12-0 decision. And the jury got it right in finding Bradley guilty of murder rather than the alternative finding of manslaughter.
Discussion of Bradley’s conviction invariably, and understandably, focuses on Graeme Thorne. However, discussion on Kerr’s conviction invariably focuses on the murderer. Gideon Haigh refers to Beth Williams as “small, plump [and] brown-eyed”. Yet the only extant photo of Kerr’s victim suggests that she was a normal looking girl for her generation – she was described by The Argus at the time of her murder as “pretty”. Beth Williams was buried in Werribee Cemetery following a requiem mass at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Middle Park.
Gideon Haigh and Mark Tedeschi have written compelling and highly readable accounts of two of the worst crimes in twentieth century Australia. Certain Admissions and Kidnapped remind us that murderers are evil people without the slightest concern for their victims or their families. Both books contain an excellent series of photographs.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute and author, most recently, of Santamaria – A Most Unusual Man (MUP 2015)