Fifty-four years ago Australia lost its innocence with the kidnapping of the Beaumont children – now we may know what happened.
Fifty-four years ago today, Australia lost its innocence, on what was meant to be a day of celebration.
Jane, Arnna, and Grant Beaumont, aged nine, seven and four, respectively, were lured from Glenelg Beach in Adelaide by an unknown assailant.
Like they had many times before, they caught the bus to the beach unsupervised, with sensible Jane Beaumont tasked with ensuring the younger children’s safety.
Such an arrangement may seem akin to child neglect today, but it wasn’t uncommon in 1966. The bus trip was only five minutes, Australia was regarded as a safe place to raise children, and many kids in neighbourhoods across the country enjoyed a free range upbringing.
The disappearance of the Beaumont children and the widespread coverage it received changed all that. Stranger danger was the new normal, and tight communities eyed each other nervously, former neighbours now potential suspects. The Australian way of life had forever changed.
Despite the story of the Beaumont children remaining in the country’s collective consciousness for more than half a century, the three children have never been found, and the identity of the 30-something slim man who was spotted with the children that day by numerous onlookers remains a mystery.
Two strikingly similar child abductions that occurred around the same time may be the key to solving this harrowing crime.
HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT
Adelaide Oval was packed for the August 25, 1973 Aussie rules match between Norwood and North Adelaide.
Joanne Ratcliffe, 11, was one of 13,000 spectators who attended the football match. She was sitting with her parents and next to Kirste Gordon, a four-year-old who was in the care of her grandmother. Joanne’s family had been to the oval to watch dozens of games, and the young girl knew her way around the grounds. Bored, she struck up a friendship with the four-year-old sitting next to her, and when the younger child asked to go to the bathroom, Joanne volunteered to take her.
The Ratcliffe family had a rule: Joanne could go to the bathroom while the game was being played but not during the last quarter, nor in any of the breaks. The two girls went together early in the game and then again during the third quarter. The second time, they did not return.
A skinny-faced man around the age of 40, wearing a brimmed hat and a tweed jacket, was spotted with the girls in and around the oval by numerous witnesses.
The assistant curator of Adelaide Oval, Ken Wohling, spotted the man and the two young girls behind the grandstand trying to coax a kitten out from under a car.
Anthony Kilmartin, 13, was selling drinks and lollies when he saw the man come from behind a tree and “scoop up” the younger girl with one arm and carry her towards the southern gates, with Joanne following frantically behind.
According to Anthony, Joanne, who he later identified from a selection of photographs, was kicking the man in the shins and pulling at his jacket. He was angrily yelling “clear off” before taking her by the arm and leading both children out the gates.
Sue Laurie, just one year older than Anthony, witnessed the same scene but mistakenly read this as a family dispute. This misinterpretation was understandable, and even after learning of the abductions, she didn’t make the link. It wasn’t until 1980, when she offhandedly mentioned the scene to her husband, that it began to weigh heavily on her mind. She reported it to police but didn’t revisit this day again in her mind until almost two decades later.
“The child was crying,” she told Adelaide radio station 5AA in 1998, “and a second girl who looked a few years younger than me was running after the man, thumping him and punching into him and shouting, ‘We want to go back’.
“I assumed, absolutely assumed, that the man must be the girls’ grandfather and that the girls were misbehaving. I watched it all for about 60 seconds, and my main reaction was surprise that the grandfather didn’t tell his granddaughter off for hitting him.”
Ninety minutes later a motorist spotted the trio some three kilometres past the oval, and such was Joanne’s distress, the man pulled over before thinking twice about interfering. This was the last reported sighting of the two girls or the man.
Given the man’s distinct appearance, and how he was acting in broad daylight, in an oval containing 13,000 people, police were able to get an accurate description.
The identikit picture was drawn and widely disseminated and an eerie connection was apparent to all.
The police sketch of the suspect in the Adelaide Oval case looked exactly the same as the one drawn years earlier after the Beaumont children went missing.
THE MACKAY MURDERS
Judith and Susan Mackay, aged seven and five, were only 200 metres from their house in Townsville when they were abducted. They had only left home 10 minutes earlier, strolling up to the bus stop to head to school.
Their naked bodies were discovered two days later in a dry creek bed. Both girls had been raped, and each had been stabbed three times in the chest. Both of them were choked to death before the sexual assaults took place: Susan with the killer’s bare hands, and Judith after sand was forced into her mouth and nose, blocking her airways.
With chilling precision, their school uniforms were neatly folded and placed beside them, along with their straw hats and school bags. Even their socks were folded and placed carefully, one inside each little shoe.
As with the Adelaide Oval case and the Beaumont children disappearance, there were plenty of witnesses. One man saw a slender male leaning out of a car, talking to the girls at the bus stop, at 8.10am. Three hours later, and 85 kilometres away, the same man pulled up at a service station and refuelled. The attendant, Jean Thwaite, recalled later that one of the two girls with the man asked, “When are you taking us to mummy? You promised to take us to mummy.” The two children seemed upset.
Later still, another driver had a heated argument with the man, who was with two young girls in school uniforms that matched those of the Mackay girls.
Although these latter two sightings were the most concrete, they were disregarded by police, as both the petrol station attendant and motorist claimed the car was a Vauxhall with a mismatched driver’s side door. They also both gave similar descriptions of a man with a narrow, long head and high cheekbones.
Police were told by numerous other witnesses, however, that the car was an FJ Holden with a mismatched door, and given this description happened to match a car parked near where the bodies were found, police focused on finding this vehicle above all else. A police sketch was never circulated to media, as the car was thought to be the salient piece of information.
The FJ Holden was never located, vital witness statements were not treated seriously, and the case quickly went cold.
Eighteen years later, while watching a TV report on the case, Sue Laurie sat up with a start. She recognised the man who was being charged with the Mackay murders. It was the same man she had seen a quarter of a century earlier, the “grandfather” who was being hit by a distressed young girl as he steered two children out of Adelaide Oval.
ARTHUR STANLEY BROWN
On July 6, 2002, Arthur Stanley Brown slipped away for the final time, aged 90. He died alone, in a nursing home in Malanda, Queensland. He left no blood relatives and gave instructions to his carer that there were to be no death notices published. It took months for the media to report on his death.
Brown died an innocent man, having never been convicted of any of the crimes he was charged with, including the rape of six children, the Mackay murder and 45 sexual assault charges.
Photos of him taken in the 1970s and in his later life look shockingly similar to the identikit police sketches from the Adelaide Oval murders. His appearance remained consistent throughout his adult life, giving witness sightings from decades ago a vivid quality.
From all accounts, Brown was a very strange man. He was meticulously neat to a fault, with immaculately pressed shirts, and an odd habit of folding garbage up into near squares before disposing of it. This latter quality interested police, given the neatly folded clothing near the Mackay sisters’ bodies. He also drove a Vauxhall with an oddly coloured door, which he replaced and buried shortly after the murders as he didn’t want “anyone interviewing or annoying him”.
Brown married Hester Porter in 1944 and became stepfather to her three children while also conducting an affair with Hester’s sister Charlotte. When Hester died in 1978 following a fall, he quickly married Charlotte. Charlotte’s son, Peter Neilsen, believes Brown actually killed his first wife, fearing she was planning to go to the police.
Hester had caught Brown molesting a child and confessed to her older sister Milly that she made sure he was never alone with her children. It wasn’t enough to protect them.
As various relatives came forward in the early 1980s and claimed that Brown had molested them as children, they teamed up and sought legal advice. Sadly, they were advised to keep this a family secret for fear that a trial may be traumatic for Brown’s many victims. Many of the children were taken by Brown to the same dry creek bed the Mackay sisters were found in.
Brown lived in Queensland all his life and repeatedly denied he was in Adelaide around the time of the Ratcliffe/Gordon disappearance. He once betrayed this in a conversation with Mim Moss, a relative through marriage. Brown was talking to Moss and her sister, who had just returned from Adelaide. He mentioned he visited Festival Hall not long after it opened – which would place him in the area in 1973.
Moss also claimed Brown was obsessed with the Mackay sisters’ killings, as he worked as a carpenter at their school.
“He asked aunty Hester, my sister and I if we wanted to go out and see where the Mackay girls were murdered,” Ms Moss said.
“It would have only been a couple of weeks after they were found.’’
Brown also had a secret room in his house that locked on the inside.
“Aunty Hester and I got in there one day and found bottles of port wine and all these books, true stories on women who had been murdered, absolutely slaughtered,” she said.
“He used to get all the grandkids drunk and show them the pictures of women who had been gutted and say, ‘Look, isn’t that wonderful?’ There was paraphernalia like ropes and stuff like that.’’
BROWN CHARGED BUT NOT CONVICTED
A 1998 crime special led to Brown’s arrest. The program focused on the 1970 murder of the Mackay sisters and prompted one of Hester’s cousins, who was molested by Brown and long suspected him of the murders, to call Crimestoppers.
She reported that Brown had molested several of his relatives and shared her suspicions of the Mackay murders. Police cast a wide net and located two men who claimed Brown confessed to the murders, although neither took him seriously at the time.
The motorist who argued with the man on the day of the Mackay abduction and the petrol station attendant who saw the upset girls in his car both positively identified Brown as the man they saw in 1970.
The evidence against Brown was circumstantial, and a Supreme Court jury was unable to decide upon a verdict.
A retrial was scheduled, but Brown’s wife Charlotte fronted the Mental Health Tribunal and claimed that he was unfit to stand trial due to his increasing dementia. Brown was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and the prosecution dropped the charges, believing it pointless to continue.
Arthur Stanley Brown died in 2002, with a clean criminal record. Members of his own family believe he may have been responsible for at least nine murders.
The Mackay case is officially closed, with police satisfied that Brown was the killer, but both the Adelaide Oval abductions and the location of the Beaumont children remain a mystery.