Originally written by Portland Observer
IT is 20 years, tomorrow, since the horrific murders of two Portland women rocked the relatively quiet coastal town of Portland.
The Old London murders, as they were dubbed, resulted in the deaths of Portland hairdresser Claire Acocks and her client, Margaret Penny, in a hairdressing salon in the ground floor of the Old London building, on the corner of Bentinck and Julia streets.
On the afternoon of Friday, May 3, 1991, then Portland Observer chief of staff and senior journalist Dave Reynolds was one of the first people on the scene. Now a taxi operator in Warrnambool, Mr Reynolds was invited to revisit the events of that day and the ensuing days, weeks and years …
DAVE REYNOLDS, JOURNALIST WITH THE PORTLAND OBSERVER, 1980-84, 1989-99
IN recent times I have developed a slightly curious habit. On the sadly all-too-infrequent occasions when I manage a trip back to my home town Portland, it almost always entails a visit to the cemetery.
My father, uncle and aunt have been in residence at the top of the hill in Portland cemetery for quite some time now and, while it is primarily their graves that I visit, I cannot help but take myself on a slow, quiet, private tour through the headstones, pausing frequently whenever I find a name I know.
It seems I pause more frequently each time I visit. Could it be that I now have more friends, relatives and acquaintances below the ground than above it?
Each site brings different emotions: a smile, a tear, a lump in the throat, a sense of loss, a yearning to revisit old times.
There is one grave site which fills me with somewhat different emotions. Anger; horror; overwhelming sorrow; a lack of closure. It is the gravesite of someone I never met, yet whose name I have known well for many years.
She should not be here. Not like this.
Claire, along with her client Margaret Penny at Portland’s Old London Coiffure died in a frenzied attack by a monster – possibly even more than one – on an otherwise unremarkable Friday afternoon 20 years ago this year.
Friday, May 4, 1991, was the end of what had been another hectic week at the Portland Observer. I was chief of staff at the time and was looking forward to a couple of days off after battling deadlines and putting the bulk of the Monday edition’s general news section to bed.
It was late in the afternoon when a mate of mine, Robert, burst into the newsroom: “Quick, Dave, something’s happened at the Old London! There’s cops down there and they’ve got the whole area shut off!”
The photographers had already left, as had most of the rest of the news crew. I grabbed a camera. A few rolls of film and ran out the front door.
From the Percy-Julia streets intersection, I could see flashing lights down at the far end of the block. With heavy camera bag over my shoulder, I walked as quickly as I could down Julia St. A couple of people poked their heads out of shop fronts as I passed. “What’s happening, Dave?” they asked. “Not sure yet,” I replied. “I’ll find out in a minute.”
I reached the corner of Julia and Bentinck streets, as police officers were starting to reel out CRIME SCENE tape around the perimeter.
As the newspaper’s chief police/court reporter at the time, I had come to know most of the members of Portland police. Many of them had become friends. However, the look on the face of the Senior Constable gave me a far from cheerful greeting. “Sorry Dave,” he said, ashen-faced. “I can’t let you through.”
“That’s okay,” I replied. “What’s happened?”
“Can’t say anything at the moment, mate. But it’s not good. Not good …”
I was soon joined at the scene by an old friend and colleague, Ian Lewis, who was working for The Standard at the time. Same questions, same answers.
I crossed the road and started firing off a few shots with my camera. More and more police arrived and information started to slowly trickle out.
There had been an attack. A bad one. There were still two victims in the hair salon which took up the corner section of the ground floor of the Old London building. Police and ambulance officers were on the scene, but the lack of any stretchers coming out of the building was not a good sign.
A detective from the CIB (Criminal Investigation Bureau) eventually emerged. “I can’t tell you a lot at this stage,” he said in a sombre tone. “All I can say at this point is that there are two persons in a section of the salon. Both appear to be deceased. We have the Coroner on his way as well as officers from the Homicide Squad. We should know more later on.”
Thus began one of the longest weekends of my life.
Portland is the sort of town where everybody knows everyone else. It is both a blessing and a curse. My wife, Glenda, has been a hairdresser for most of her professional life. In a place like Portland, it seems that pretty much everyone in a particular trade knows just about everyone else in that same profession.
Like most people, Glenda was shattered when she heard the news. Making matters worse was the fact that, at that point, no-one had been caught and no-one even had a half-decent description of any possible suspects.
There would be little or no rest for many people that weekend, myself included.
Glenda was scared, especially having young children. What if the suspect was still hanging around the area? What if he was some sort of nutter who had something against hairdressers?
She and our children opted to spend most of that weekend in the Observer newsroom. A golf club and a baseball bat were kept within easy reach at home. That’s the kind of fear that something like this can instill in a community.
Word of this horrendous crime quickly got out. Soon a small army of state and national media folk would land in a squadron of helicopters, pointing cameras, microphones and recorders in all different directions.
Beating the media to the punch were the detectives from the Homicide Squad, led by Detective Senior Sergeant John Morrish – a thick-set bulldog of a man with bags under his eyes and the demenour of a prize fighter, Det Sen Sgt Morrish was old-school. A copper’s copper.
He would lead his troops from the Homicide Squad as well as the detectives from the local CIB in one of the most exhaustive criminal investigations ever seen in this part of the state.
Media briefings would be held at irregular intervals throughout the weekend and during the weeks and months that were to follow.
A police caravan was posted near the entrance to Old London. Eager to help, locals proffered whatever information they could to help police catch the killer. Thousands of interviews would be conducted by police, with tens of thousands of pieces of information carefully collated, checked, cross-checked and referenced.
Early in the piece, two grainy photographs were produced by police for the waiting media pack. Fading images of a smiling Claire Acocks and a bespectacled Margaret Penny were filmed and re-photographed before being flashed on TV screens and in newspapers across Australia.
As soon as I saw the photo of Mrs Penny, I realized that I had met her. Only a week of two prior to the murders, my wife and I had been to a party at a private residence. We were introduced to Mrs Penny and chatted for a short while. I remembered her as friendly and personable but, sadly, time has robbed me of further recollections.
Time started to drag on. Items of clothing were found in the street and presented in the hope of being a vital clue. Unfortunately, these were discounted early in the piece.
Police saturated the town. Anyone with any sort of criminal history was checked. Police conducted countless interviews.
Days stretched into weeks; weeks into months; months into years. And now, years into decades.
Despite one of the most thorough police investigations in Victoria’s history, one of the strongest responses from the community in terms of providing information, no-one to this day has been charged over the deaths of Claire Acocks and Margaret Penny.
Without doubt, police have had strong suspicions about various individuals over the years. — including 33-year-old former soldier Gordon Smith, of Portland, who was one of many people spoken to by the police. While his family did not believe he was responsible for the murders, and the police played down the significance of the interview conducted some seven years after the murders, Mr Smith was found hanged in St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne, 28 days later.
Twenty years on from that terrible Friday afternoon in May 1991 there are still so many questions that remain unanswered.
How does someone brutally stab two innocent people to death in a salon in the middle of busy Portland at about mid-afternoon on a Friday and still walk away undetected? Photofit images of a moon-faced, bespectacled young man with short, dark hair were produced by police; but nothing concrete developed from this. How does one simply disappear under the nose of an entire city after causing such a bloodbath?
Why target two well-known, well-liked, well-respected women in a hairdressing salon in such a callous way?
What was the motive? Robbery would seem unlikely given the small amount of cash in the salon at the time.
Did it have something to do with Claire Acocks’ son, Tim, being a local police officer? Again unlikely, given that he was a highly regarded member of the community.
The cause of such an unprovoked attack remains as unclear today as it did twenty years ago.
It is now what police would call a ‘cold case’, but that doesn’t mean that the investigation has ended.
It is my hope – and, I imagine, the hope of the victims’ families and friends as well as every Portlander with memories of that horrific event that robbed Portland of its innocence – that one day it will be solved, and the killer brought to justice.
It is also my hope that I am not invited to write another piece on this dark episode in Portland’s history in another 20 years under the heading ‘Unsolved Murders’.