After years of fear, grief and mystery – and a seven-month trial – Australians will learn on Thursday if Bradley Robert Edwards is the Claremont serial killer. Here’s how the long investigation unfolded.
In early 1996, missing person posters began appearing on shopfronts and billboards in Claremont, a western suburb of Perth.
Eighteen-year-old secretary Sarah Spiers disappeared in the early hours of 27 January after celebrating Australia Day with friends at the popular Club Bayview.
Ms Spiers had walked a short distance from the nightclub to a telephone booth and called for a taxi. But when it arrived only a few minutes later, she had vanished.
Less than six months later, on 9 June, 23-year-old childcare worker Jane Rimmer vanished in similar circumstances.
Ms Rimmer had spent the night at the Continental Hotel and was last seen outside the venue after declining to share a taxi with friends.
Then, on 15 March 1997, 27-year-old lawyer Ciara Glennon dissapeared. She was last seen walking along Stirling Highway after leaving the Continental Hotel.
The disappearances of three women in 14 months confirmed in the minds of the Western Australian public and WA Police that a serial killer, or killers, was at large.
While Ms Spiers’ body has still never been found, members of the public found the bodies of Ms Rimmer and Ms Glennon in the months after they vanished.
Bret Christian is the founder of Post Newspapers and editor of The Post, the local newspaper covering Perth’s western suburbs. He has reported extensively on the killings and the police investigation for more than two decades.
“The disappearance of Sarah Spiers was a real shock, but it was initially treated as a missing persons case,” he told SBS News.
“Her family and friends immediately knew that it wasn’t, but it took some time before the homicide squad swung into action and I think that was largely prompted by her friends and family writing posters and begging the media for attention.”
A day after the disappearance of Ms Rimmer, WA Police established a specialist investigative unit, the Macro Taskforce, to investigate.
Ms Rimmer’s body was found in bushland in Wellard, at the southern end of Perth’s metropolitan area, on 3 August 1996. Ms Glennon’s body was also found in bushland, but in Eglington, at the northern end of Perth’s metropolitan area on 3 April 1997.
“By 1998, two bodies had been found. Police had a pretty good idea of what had happened to them, [but] not a word of that was ever released to the public.
“No one knew how many people were involved in the murders, what weapon was thought to be used. Where they were killed, how they were killed. There was dead silence; a blanket of secrecy.”
What the public did know was that investigators were targeting taxi drivers, as all three women were thought to have been looking for rides home when they vanished.
“The thought was they could have been picked up by a rogue taxi driver or a bogus taxi driver, of which there were some operating in Claremont. And use that position to lure them into the car and then murder them,” Christian said.
Thousands of taxi drivers were questioned, their vehicles searched and DNA samples given. But those efforts yielded no new leads or information.
In the years that followed, the Macro Taskforce identified several potential suspects and focused on one man in particular.
Public servant Lance Williams became the target of investigators’ efforts after he was found driving the streets of Claremont offering lifts home to young women.
“I think many police were convinced that they had their man, it was just a matter of time either before they found a forensic link or he made a mistake and tried to do it again,” Christian said.
“The police basically tracked him for 10 years and came up with zero. There was no forensic evidence to connect him to the crimes”.
By the time he died of cancer in 2018, aged 61, Mr Williams had spent years in the public eye as the primary suspect, his places of residence raided by police and both he and his family pursued relentlessly by the media. But there was never any evidence to link him to the murders.
For more than a decade, it appeared publicly that the murders might never be solved. During that time, the Macro Taskforce was nearly disbanded, but several independent cold-case reviews opened new lines of inquiry for the investigation.
On 12 February 1995, a year before Sarah Spiers went missing, a 17-year-old woman was abducted while walking in Claremont. She was bound and blindfolded, driven a short distance to Karrakatta Cemetery and raped.
Christian’s newspaper first reported in October 2015 that WA Police had matched DNA from the woman to a sample taken from Ms Glennon and believed that the same person was responsible for the crimes.
“We began hearing in about 2009 that the police had reopened the investigation and were knocking on the doors of men they had not interviewed or DNA tested before,” Christian said.
“The reason there was increased interest in taking DNA samples was because they had obtained a DNA sample from Ciara Glennon from a male and they were trying to find a match for it.”
Police were also believed to be searching for a car that they suspected had been used to commit the Claremont murders.
But matching the DNA samples taken from Ms Glennon and the woman who was raped didn’t lead anywhere until investigators also matched the samples to a kimono that had sat in a police evidence storage room for nearly 30 years.
On 15 February 1988, the silk gown was dropped at the scene of a home invasion and attempted rape in the suburb of Huntingdale in Perth’s southern suburbs by the alleged perpetrator. The DNA on it too, did not match any samples held in a national police database.
It instead led investigators on a search for the ‘Huntingdale prowler’, a man seen lurking and breaking into homes in Huntingdale in the late 1980s and early 1990s, often either wearing or attempting to steal women’s nightwear.
Fingerprints taken from one of the homes by forensic specialists were run through a national database in December 2016 and allegedly found a match.
In 1990, Bradley Robert Edwards, then 21 years old, was working as a Telstra technician at Perth’s Hollywood Hospital when he grabbed a woman from behind and attempted to drag her into a toilet block. The woman escaped and Edwards later pleaded guilty to assault.
With the fingerprints allegedly matching his, investigators began following Edwards in December 2016, who at the time was living with his stepdaughter in a house in Kewdale in Perth’s southern suburbs.
When Edwards discarded an empty Sprite bottle at the cinema, detectives retrieved it and allegedly matched his DNA to the samples taken from the crimes.
“I was having lunch at a restaurant in Cottesloe and I got a phone call from a television reporter saying the police were searching a house in Kewdale, ‘do you know anything about it? We think it’s the Claremont serial killer investigation’,” Christian said.
“I was actually having lunch with a young man and his wife, and the young man had been a friend of one of the victims and was with her the night she was abducted. I can still see the look on his face, he just went grey and looked at his plate for a long, long time.”
The next day, Edwards appeared at Perth Magistrates Court where he was charged with the murders of Ms Rimmer and Ms Glennon, as well as the 1995 Karrakatta Cemetery abduction and sexual assault and the 1988 Huntingdale break-in and assault.
On 22 February 2018, WA Police also charged Edwards with the murder of Ms Spiers, despite her body never being found.
Edwards faced a total of eight charges over the Claremont murders as well as the 1995 Karrakatta and 1988 Huntingdale assaults.
After denying all of the charges, Edwards dropped a bombshell during a pre-trial hearing on 22 October 2018 when he pleaded guilty to the Karakatta and Huntingdale attacks.
“I suppose that was a tactical decision made by [Edwards] and his legal team to make sure that attention was focused on what they considered to be a significant lack of evidence in relation to the [Claremont murders],” he said.
“It’s a tactic lawyers sometimes make, to plead guilty to charges about which there is no controversy, and by contrast, the matters in which you are taking issue with are seen more starkly.”
The guilty pleas shocked the packed courtroom and meant that a trial that was expected to take as long as nine months would instead take only six, focusing solely on the Claremont murders.
The trial commenced on 25 November 2019 with the matter to be heard by Justice Stephen Hall in a judge-alone trial.
Families of the victims, media and members of the public were packed into the courtroom at the Supreme Court of Western Australia.
“I think the most critical day was the first day, » Mr Percy said. “In 40 years I’ve never seen that sort of turnout before, and that’s where the prosecution began outlining its case”.
Lead state prosecutor Carmel Barbagallo told the courtroom on the first day that Edwards is the Claremont serial killer and pledged to demystify an “enigma of the dark” that had plagued Perth for decades.
The prosecution case against Edwards largely relied on the DNA evidence, as well as fibres found on the victims that allegedly match a Telstra uniform and fibres from a car the prosecution argues Edwards was driving when the murders occurred.
“There was DNA evidence said to be found under Ciara Glennon’s fingernails which matched DNA found at the scenes of the other crimes and which [allegedly] matched Bradley Edwards’ DNA,” Mr Percy said.
“Secondly, the fibre analysis. Fibre which was found on both girls whose bodies have been found had a high degree of similarity to that of people that worked for Telstra at the time, which he did.
“There was also the lies told by him in his recorded interview [with police] which was relied upon by the prosecution. As well as, of course, the propensity evidence which they say, there was a high similarity in where the girls were taken from, the manner in which they were abducted, the locations in which they were found, the injuries and other matters which the prosecution say forms a body of evidence from which there is no escaping that the same person committed all three offences.”
The defence case outlined by Edwards’ legal counsel was simple, with Paul Yovich SC telling the courtroom simply that “he didn’t do it”.
“I think from day one, the defence put their cards on the table too,” Mr Percy said.
“They questioned the DNA evidence, arguing there are all types of possible contamination sources that could be pointed to. And they relied on that argument to cast doubt as to whether the court can be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that this DNA stacks up.
“They also said in relation to the fibre evidence that [Edwards] might have been one of many people in WA the Telstra uniform at that time.”
More than 200 witnesses gave evidence during the trial, including friends and relatives of both Edwards and the victims, witnesses on the nights the three women disappeared, police investigators and forensics experts. Edwards though, did not.
“That’s a common tactic that defence lawyers use, often quite successfully, and it’s a legitimate tactic too,” Mr Percy said. “Because let’s say that you’re accused of something you genuinely didn’t do, you can’t set up an alibi for the night in question because it was a quarter of a century ago, who knows where you might have been?
“Quite often what a defence position would be is, ‘if you bring those charges against me, you have to prove it. I’m presumed to be innocent. Unless you can remove that presumption by proving these charges beyond any reasonable doubt, then I’m entitled to be acquitted’.”
On Thursday 24 September 2020, Justice Hall will decide whether it can be proved beyond reasonable doubt that Bradley Robert Edwards is the Claremont serial killer.
Three women were murdered in Claremont. This is why it took two decades to reach a verdict
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