On August 25, 1973, 2 Australian children, Joanne Ratcliffe, 11, and Kirste Gordon, 4, went missing while attending an Australian rules football game. It was presumed they were abducted and murdered, and the case became one of South Australia's most notorious crimes.
The presumed murderers have never been caught, but are also suspected of the disappearance of the Beaumont children, 3 siblings who disappeared in 1966.
DISAPPEARANCE AND INVESTIGATION
47 years ago today, Joanne Ratcliffe and her parents, Les and Kathleen, her brother, and their family friend went to the Adelaide Oval to watch the game. Kirste Gordon's maternal grandmother took her to the game while her parents were out visiting friends. The families had never met, but were seated next to each other in the stadium.
The girl's respective guardians allowed them to go to the bathroom together twice that day. They went for the second time at around 3:45 PM, and the families began worrying when they hadn't returned in a timely manner. They began searching the area at around 4 PM. Shortly after the game ended at around 5, they were able to make an announcement on the stadium's PA system. They were officially reported missing at 5:12 PM.
The children were seen by various witnesses in the 90 minutes after they had left their families. Apparently, they looked distressed, and in the company of an unknown man who was walking next to Joanne and carrying Kirste. Of course, everything is more suspicious once you know a crime was committed. Witnesses who saw the distressed children simply assumed the unknown man was their father.
The last reported sighting of the man and the children was on a bridge near the Adelaide Zoo.
Joanne's father said in 1979 that she had been to the Oval dozens of times, and would not have left with a stranger voluntarily, and knew how to dial the emergency number. (Though I won't judge the statements of a mourning father, I don't think there is any suspicion that she did leave voluntarily. Knowing that strangers are bad and how to call the police doesn't help if you're being guided away by a scary man, one who may have threatened you to keep you quiet.)
In 2014, a $1 million reward was offered by the South Australian government for anybody who had information leading to the girls' kidnapper, but so far, there have been no arrests made.
THE BEAUMONT CHILDREN DISAPPEARANCE
Because many of the suspects in the disappearance of the Beaumont children were also suspects in this case, I figured we should walk through this other similar case, as well.
On January 26, 1966, 3 children, Jane (9), Arnna (7) and Grant (4) Beaumont disappeared from Glenelg Beach near Adelaide, South Australia, near where Kirste and Joanne would disappear from years later.
The day before the children disappeared, their parents, Jim and Nancy, dropped the kids off at the beach before he headed off for a 3 day sales trip. Jane, 9, was considered old enough to watch out for the younger siblings at the beach, and they returned home with no issues. The following day, the kids asked their parens if they could go to the beach again. Nancy agreed, and they got on the bus alone. They were to return by noon, but Nancy began to worry when the children didn't return on the noon bus, or the 2 PM bus. The police were notified of their disappearance at around 5:30 PM.
A search was organized, though police were convinced the kids were nearby and just lost track of time. (They left the house before 9 and it was past 6 at this point... and they were supposed to return by noon. Sure, kids lose track of time, but it seems pretty obvious that isn't what happened.) Within 24 hours and a regularly increasing search distance, the entire nation was aware of the case.
Like Joanne and Kirste's kidnapping, several witnesses had seen the children in the company of an unknown man. They provided a description: tall, blonde, thin-faced, in his mid-30s, thin or athletic build, tanned skin, wearing swim trunks. The man was playing with the children, who seemed relaxed. Then, the kids were seen walking away from the beach with him at a little past noon.
But the parents weren't entirely convinced as Jane, the oldest, was shy and it would be out of character for her to so confidently play with a stranger. Thus, investigators believed that they may have met him during their previous visit, and grew to trust him. This reminded Nancy of something that 7-year-old Arnna had told her the day before: "Jane got a boyfriend down at the beach". At the time, Nancy just thought they had met a young playmate. It is now believed it was the man who would later kidnap them.
In the 54 years since they disappeared, there have been many suspects, but nobody has been arrested in relation to the crime.
There are 6 primary suspects in the kidnapping of the Beaumont children, and by association, in the Joanne and Kirste case, as well.
The first is Bevan Spencer von Einem, who was sentenced to life in prison in 1984 after he murdered a 15-year-old boy. Police and prosecutors believed he had accomplices, and that the murder he was convicted of was not his first murder. Police believe he may have been involved because an informant told police of an alleged conversation in which von Einem bragged about snatching 3 children from a beach years ago to conduct "experiments" on in his home, saying he conducted surgery on them and "connected them up". The informant claims von Einem told him that one of the children died during the procedure, so he killed the others and dumped their body. He also somewhat resembled the descriptions provided to the police.
Von Einem was known for frequenting the beach the children were taken from to "perv" on the changing rooms. However, the murders he was convicted of, and others he was suspected of, were males in their teens or twenties. The Beaumont children, and Joanne and Kirste, were girls between the ages of 4 and 11, which is a fairly uncommon disparity in victimology. Despite this, the informant also told police that von Einem had told him he had taken 2 girls from a football match and killed them. In 2007, police began examining archival footage from the original search for Kirste and Joanne to see if he was there among the fans.
Arthur Stanley Brown was another suspect, who, in 1998, was charged with the murders of sisters Judith and Susan Mackay. They disappeared on their way to school in August of 1970, their bodies found several days later in a creek, strangled. He and von Einem are considered to be the most likely suspects. He bore a striking resemblance to the sketch drawn of the suspect for both cases.
Though there is no proof he ever visited Adelaide, a witness recalled a conversation with Brown when he mentioned seeing the Adelaide Festival Centre nearing completion, which meant he was in the city sometime in June of 1973, a month before Joanne and Kirste would be abducted. But no evidence has ever been found to connect all of the pieces. He was also a bit older, at 53, than the man spotted with the Beaumont children. He died in 2002.
In 1975, James O'Neill was jailed for life for murdering a 9-year-old boy in Tasmania. But in the years before his conviction, he had told a station owner and several other acquaintances that he was responsible for the disappearance of the Beaumont children. A documentary attempted to link him to the murders in 2006, and he filed an injunction against the show, but lost... meaning that now, he might be going back on his initial bragging.
Though there is no evidence linking him to either crime, when he was interviewed, he would provide runaround answers. He claims to have never visited Adelaide, but records indicate otherwise. However, South Australian police have discounted him as a suspect in the Beaumont case, but he was still considered a suspect in the disappearance of Joanne and Kirste.
A 2007 report in The Age suggested that one Derek Ernest Percy was the man behind the Beaumont disappearance. He was jailed for the murder of Yvonne Tuohy in 1969, where he remained until his death in 2013. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and thus was not able to remember the details of all of his actions. However, allegedly, he believed he may have killed the children. But, at the time, he was only 17, which was too young to have been the spotted witness. Additionally, he would have been in jail when Kirste and Joanne were kidnapped, so police do not believe this suspect holds a lot of weight.
Allan Maxwell McIntyre had been investigated, but cleared of involvement, in the Beaumont case back when it happened. However, in 2015, McIntyre said a man he knew in 1966 named Alan Anthony Munro had come to his home with the children's bodies in the trunk of his car. In 2015, Munro was being sought in Southeast Asia in connection for child abuse incidents, and had pleaded guilty to 10 child sex offenses dating back to 1962.
In 2017, Adelaide detectives received a copy of a child's diary from 1966 which may have placed Munro in the vicinity of the Glenelg Beach at the time the children disappeared. Though Munro had been convicted of several child sex abuse charges, police never found any evidence that he was involved in either case.
And lastly, there is Harry Phipps, a local factory owner and social elite, who came under suspicion after a 2013 book was published on the Beaumont Children. He had died back in 2004. He looked quite a bit like the sketch of the man on the beach, and was later alleged to have "pedophile tendencies". Additionally, he lived quite close to the beach. In 2007, Phipps' son came forward and said that he had seen the kids in his father's yard that day, and 2 other witnesses said they had been paid to dig holes in his factory yard that weekend.
In November of 2013, the area was excavated in search of remains. Animal bones were found, but nothing related to the kidnapped children.
Personally, based on nothing but a few Wikipedia paragraphs, I put myself on Team Phipps, only because the man who did this was good. He snatched 3 children from a public beach without being caught. A 9 year old, a 7 year old, and a 4 year old, all taken at once from a public area... that isn't sloppy work. They were smart, potentially shy children. He had to lure them. And his house was so close - he could have told them he had something of interest there and lured them away.
The biggest difference between the Beaumont abduction and the Adelaide Oval abduction, for me, is that the Beaumont children seemed relaxed, enjoying themselves, while Kirste and Joanne were seen distressed. To me, this shows escalation. For his (maybe) first kidnapping, he had to get to know the kids. He sees them, alone, at the beach on January 25. He tells them to come back tomorrow - now he has their trust. Arnna tells Nancy that Jane met a boyfriend because Jane took a liking to the wealthy, kind man at the beach. The next day, the ask to go back because they told Harry they would meet him. He has their trust, and now he can act.
For Kirste and Joanne, he knows he can do it now. It has been 7 years. Other kidnappings could have happened in the interim. He's a professional. He doesn't need to meet them before, doesn't need to gain their trust. He knows if he blends in, makes it look like they're his children, he can take them. And he did.
I just don't think a man who kidnapped 5 total children (at minimum) in only 2 incidents in broad daylight, got away without looking suspicious, with no bodies ever turning up would end up arrested for other crimes. Von Einem was arrested and charged with a murder of a person outside of the victimology. Brown was charged with the murder of 2 girls who's bodies were found a few days later. O'Neill was jailed for life for killing a young boy. Percy was insane, and in jail for another murder.
I initially thought Munro sounded like an okay suspect, having been convicted of sex crimes but not any murders. However, his friend from 1966 is the one who claimed he had the children in his car... his friend who was also questioned for the kidnapping in 1966. If you were being questioned for a crime and you knew someone else did it, and they were just an acquaintance and not a close friend, wouldn't you give them up? Not wait almost 50 years to give it up?
Phipps, on the other hand, lived his life as a popular man in town with a job and a successful life. To me, that seems like the kind of person who had the confidence and skills to abduct 3 and 2 children respectively from public places in the middle of the day. Not a bunch of low level criminals who got caught for their crimes. He also had someone come out against him 40+ years later, but it was his son. That makes more sense to me... his son didn't want his father to get in trouble, and convinced himself it was an innocent encounter as to not tarnish his father's name. That makes much more sense than a man holding onto the secret of a criminal acquaintance.
But unfortunately, we may never know. The Beaumont children were abducted in 1966, and Kirste and Joanne were snatched in 1973. Most of the suspects in the cases have died since, and the ones who haven't will be dying soon. The world will soon be rid of whomever committed these evil crimes, but we may never know who it was.