How scientists in a lab finally ‘unmasked a killer’
Australia’s most expensive and longest-running murder investigation haunted Perth detectives for two decades before police claimed to have finally caught the Claremont serial killer – but in the end it was science rather than shoe leather that clinched the arrest.
Seasoned detectives like Paul Ferguson and David Caporn were among the first to “give up years” of their lives, as Ferguson once put it, trying to solve the case, fronting the media repeatedly after the disappearances of Sarah Spiers, Jane Rimmer and Ciara Glennon – all three women taken in the space of 15 months in the mid-90s after last being seen leaving a bar alone.
In the end, the former heads of the Macro Taskforce were never called to give evidence at the trial of accused man Bradley Edwards, who did not appear on the police radar until 2016.
Like many historical cases, his arrest came after several major breakthroughs in a lab.
Early leads through more traditional detective work led police to twice ask Telstra for a list of its Perth employees who drove vans or Toyota Camrys, once in 1996 and again in 1998.
Despite meeting the criteria, Mr Edwards’ name was omitted in error.
It meant detectives never checked his criminal history. If they had, they would have seen his 1990 conviction for a sexually motivated attack on a social worker at a Perth hospital, carried out while he was upgrading the building’s phone lines.
Initial investigations instead focused on public servant Lance Williams.
He was followed by police and hounded by the media for years.
In 2009, he was suddenly told he was no longer a person of interest.
More than a decade later, it would be revealed at Mr Edwards’ triple murder trial in the Supreme Court of Western Australia that 2009 was the year forensic scientists recovered an unknown male’s DNA profile from underneath Ms Glennon’s fingernails.
The discovery completely changed the direction of the investigation, with the DNA profile linked to an unsolved abduction and rape at Karrakatta cemetery from 1995, the year before the murders began.
Detectives had long suspected the crimes were connected.
They had the alleged killer’s DNA, but didn’t know who he was.
Five years later, in 2014, microscopic blue polyester fibres recovered from the rape victim’s shorts were linked to fibres found on Ms Rimmer’s and Ms Glennon’s bodies by scientists at WA’s ChemCentre who were building the world’s largest fibre database in an attempt to provide Macro investigators with a new lead.
Around the same time, they also linked two of the murders to fibres from a Holden Commodore VS station wagon – the same vehicle type Mr Edwards drove at the time.
The fibre discoveries meant detectives suspected the Claremont serial killer had clothing associated with a rare blue polyester fibre and used a Holden Commodore to abduct his last two victims.
But again, the trail went cold.
The 51-year-old Telstra technician was arrested in December 2016 after an evidence box from a 1988 Huntingdale sex assault was sent to the Pathwest lab as part of a routine cold case review testing historical items for DNA.
The DNA recovered from a semen-stained kimono left at the scene matched the mystery Claremont profile.
The Huntingdale case was reopened – and solved within weeks.
While eventually admitting to the sex attack and rape, Mr Edwards denies the murders.
Following his arrest, a call went out for veteran Telstra employees to hand in their old uniforms. Fibres from trousers custom-made for the telco in the early 90s allegedly matched the mystery blue polyester fibres found at the crime scenes.
During Mr Edwards’ trial, which wrapped up on Thursday last week, defence lawyer Paul Yovich attempted to cast doubt on the integrity of the state’s forensic evidence, claiming Mr Edwards’ DNA contaminated the canister containing Ms Glennon’s fingernails while in the PathWest lab.
He also argued the car and Telstra trouser fibres could have come from other sources, got onto the women’s bodies before their abductions, or contaminated their crime scenes or post-mortems.
For both scenarios, however, he was unable to provide a theory of how or when the contaminations most likely occurred, conceding the evidence pointed to no “smoking gun” moment.
Prosecutors said Mr Edwards was more likely to be the killer as he had a history of attacking strangers for his own sexual gratification.
They also alleged he drove around the western suburbs in the mid-90s, offering women lifts late at night. A number of women gave evidence at his trial of an interaction involving a Telstra driver, but Mr Yovich said the driver was not Mr Edwards.
On the nights Ms Spiers, Ms Rimmer and Ms Glennon went missing, state prosecutor Carmel Barbagallo claimed Mr Edwards, then aged in his late 20s, either offered the women a lift, or they mistook his white station wagon for a taxi.
With no eyewitnesses, Ms Barbagallo also didn’t rule out the less likely scenario he could have snatched the women off the street, as he did his Karrakatta rape victim.
The state claims Mr Edwards then took them to a remote location with the intent to sexually assault them before killing them and concealing their bodies in the hopes no one would find them.
Ms Barbagallo described him as a “calculated and methodical” predator who carefully selected his victims.
“He was prepared, he created opportunities, he took those opportunities when it suited him,” she said.
“When viewing the accused’s conduct in the Huntingdale, Hollywood Hospital and Karrakatta offences, an inference can be drawn the accused evolved as an offender over time.
“He could abduct, murder and dispose of [his murder victims] quickly and with little fuss.”
With each murder, Mr Edwards allegedly left behind more clues than the last.
Ms Barbagallo argued if Justice Stephen Hall found Mr Edwards guilty of Ms Glennon’s death on the basis of the DNA and fibre evidence, the circumstantial and fibre evidence would lead the judge to find him also responsible for Ms Rimmer’s death, and his history of offending would then lead to a guilty verdict on Ms Spiers’ death as well.
However, Mr Yovich said there was no evidence linking Mr Edwards to Ms Spiers’ death. Her body has never been found.
He described the DNA evidence as an “indispensible link” in proving Mr Edwards’ guilt amid a mountain of circumstantial evidence.
Of Ms Rimmer and Ms Glennon’s murders, Mr Yovich said it could reasonably be concluded they were murdered by the same man, but that that person wasn’t Mr Edwards.
He said at best the evidence only placed Mr Edwards in a class of people who could have been responsible for their deaths due to him being a Telstra worker who drove a 1996 Holden Commodore VS station wagon and had a history of attacking women.
“No doubt the community and the families of the victims yearn for closure,” Mr Yovich said.
“But a conviction or convictions founded on inadequate evidence and not by powerful satisfaction beyond reasonable doubt on any of the counts will not constitute proper closure.”
Ms Barbagallo said the state had proven Mr Edwards was the Claremont serial killer, and that the trial, particularly the forensic evidence revealed, had “unmasked the killer sought by so many and for so long”.
“Nearly seven months ago [at the beginning of the trial], the state made reference to an enigma of the dark and promised to shed light on and demystify that enigma, we say that that light has been cast incrementally from the months of many witnesses who gave evidence of events that occurred more than 20 years ago,” she said.
“Some of them still have vivid memories of those events, others have recollections which have faded overtime, but what has remained impervious to the two-decade span is the forensic evidence.
“Physical evidence can’t be intimidated and it can’t forget.”
Justice Hall retired to reach his verdict on June 25.
Heather McNeill is the crime and courts editor at WAtoday.