David and Catherine Birnie
On the afternoon of Monday 10th November 1986, customers in a
supermarket in Fremantle, Western Australia, were startled when a half-naked
seventeen year old girl burst in, sobbing that she had been raped.
Taken to the police station, she described being held captive since the previous evening, when a man and a woman had dragged her into a car as she was walking in the affluent Perth suburb of Nedlands.
She had been taken to a small bungalow, chained to a bed, then raped twice by the man. The following morning, the man had gone off to work, leaving the woman to guard their victim. It was when the woman left her unchained, and went into another room, that the girl escaped through an open window.
Within minutes of raising the alarm, she was being questioned by police. One officer was later to say that he had been deeply impressed by the 'very alert, intelligent and brave female'. The girl had kept her wits about her and seized the opportunity to escape as soon as it became possible,
When the girl was recounting her story, police were already on their way to a white-brick house in Moorhouse Street in nearby Willagee. The door was answered by Catherine Birnie, a small, hard faced woman with high cheekbones and a tight mouth. Within a short time, she and her common law husband, David, were being questioned.
David Birnie was an unlikely looking rapist; slightly built, dark hair, with a
gaunt face and prominent nose. He looked too weak to subdue a desperate,
Catherine Birnie is escorted by a police officer to Perth's Supreme Court in March 1987 to hear her sentence. She appeared in the dock together with David Birnie. She had admitted involvement in four murders
Taken to the police station, it was obvious that neither had much fight left in them, Within a short time, they had confessed to four rape-murders, committed over a period of four weeks.
Before evening, the Birnies were taking members of Perth's Major Crimes Squad to the graves of their victims. Three girls had been buried in remote Glen Eagle State Forest, almost 50km (31 miles) southeast of Perth; another in a pine plantation near Wanneroo, some 30km (19 miles) north of central Perth. The three Glen Eagle victims had been strangled to death. The fourth girl had been stabbed and struck with an axe.
David Birnie - bearing plasters from a fall - is led from the Supreme Court in Perth after being sentenced. Like many killers, he showed self possession even when certain he would never know freedom again.
It soon became apparent that Catherine Birnie had played an active part in the murders. She had even taken photographs of her husband in the act of raping the victims. As the two described their brief career of homicide, police found themselves listening to a narrative that was beyond their experience - the story of a woman who had apparently enjoyed helping her husband to violate other women.
David and Catherine Birnie had, apparently, known each other since childhood. They were both 35 years old, and had become lovers in their teens, when they had also teamed up on a spree of burglaries. They then went their separate ways.
David Birnie married and Catherine became a domestic help. She eventually married the son of the house and bore him five children. Meanwhile, Birnie's marriage had foundered. When he and Catherine met again, they resumed their affair. Catherine left her husband and children to live with Birnie.
In spite of his small stature and mild appearance, Birnie was sexually insatiable. He wanted intercourse six times a day. Interviewed by the press, his twenty one year old brother James, who had himself been in prison for sexual offences, told how, when David and Catherine Birnie had temporarily broken up in 1984, his brother had insisted on having sexual relations with him, climbing into his bed after he was asleep.
James Birnie, Brother
On his 21st Birthday, James had been allowed to go to bed with Catherine Birnie
as a birthday present.
The twenty two year old student was murdered after going to buy tyres from Birnie. She was awarded a posthumous degree in psychology from the University of Australia.
In 1985, David and Catherine Birnie had discussed the idea of abducting and raping girls. But their first murder, that of a twenty two year old student named Mary Neilson, was apparently unplanned.
She came to their house on 6th October 1986 to buy tyres, which Birnie obtained through his work in a car-wreckers yard. Unable to resist the temptation, he had forced her into the bedroom at knifepoint. Catherine Birnie had watched while he raped her.
The girl was then taken to the Glen Eagle State Forest, where she was raped again. She was begging for her life as Birnie strangled her with a nylon cord. He and Catherine mutilated the body and buried it in a shallow grave.
The detectives listening to the confessions began to understand that Catherine Birnie, this hard-faced, defiant woman, had had nothing to gain from the murders except by playing her part in fulfilling David Birnie's deranged lust.
The simplicity with which the Birnies had abducted and murdered Mary Neilson encouraged them to lure more victims to their home, but this time using a more devious method. They inserted an advertisement in a local newspaper that read: 'URGENT. Looking for a lonely young person. Prefer female 18 to 24 years, share single room flat.
The advert was found in the house after their arrest, although it is not known if it brought any applicants. But two weeks after abducting Mary Neilson, the Birnies picked up a fifteen year old hitch hiker named Susannah Candy. She was held prisoner for several days and repeatedly raped. During this time, Birnie made her write two letters to her parents, to allay any worries they might have about her whereabouts. In the letters, she was to explain that she was safe and well, and wanted time to sort out her problems.
Catherine Birnie may have grown jealous of her husband's enthusiasm for Susannah Candy. She strangled her, and the body was buried close to that of Mary Neilson.
The third victim, a thirty one year old airline hostess named Noelene Patterson, was already acquainted with the Birnies, according to one of his workmates. The couple had helped her to wallpaper her home. When the Birnies saw her having problems with her car - it had run out of petrol - they helped her push it to a service station. Noelene was then forced into their car at knifepoint and taken back to their Willagee home.
Victims: Denise Brown and Mary Neilson
For three days, she endured rape. Birnie showed so much interest in her that
Catherine became increasingly jealous, demanding that she be killed. Birnie
finally agreed. He gave Noelene a large dose of sleeping tablets, then strangled
her while she was unconscious. When Catherine led the police to Noelene's grave,
she spat on it.
Aged twenty one, a part time computer operator who lived with her parents in the Perth suburb of Nedlands. She was returning from a friend's home when she was abducted.
Denise Brown, a twenty one year old computer operator, was abducted by the killers at knifepoint on 4th November 1986, taken to the house in Willagee, and made to suffer rape by Birnie for two days.
She was taken to a pine plantation near Wanneroo, where Birnie raped her again, stabbing her twice while doing so. But he failed to kill her, and Catherine Birnie handed him a bigger knife, with which he stabbed Denise in the neck.
Only three days later, they abducted their final victim, the seventeen year old girl whose escape brought their month long murder rampage to an end.
After his arrest, Birnie claimed to be contrite, saying that he deeply regretted the suffering he had caused. Whether this was genuine, or a bid for leniency, is unclear. His crimes certainly inspired horror throughout Australia, and he was so violently attacked by other inmates while he was in prison that he had to be treated in hospital.
The Birnies decided to plead guilty to the charges. David Birnie claimed that his motive for admitting the charges was to spare his victims' families the ordeal of having their fates described at length in court. The case came to trial on 3rd March 1987 in the Supreme Court of Western Australia in Perth, and lasted just thirty minutes. Catherine Birnie's lawyer, Brian Singleton, QC, said that she had signed a detailed statement, admitting direct involvement in all four murders.
Clearly, he said, she had nothing to gain from them. She had taken part because of her 'total dedication to Birnie', feeling a desperate need to satisfy his sexual desires.
The chief prosecutor, Graeme Scott, said that, in Mary Neilson's case, it seemed that Catherine Birnie 'was interested in find out out if the girl was able to make the male prisoner excited.'
Birnie's counsel, Terry Walso, said his client understood that what he was doing was wrong, and would present no claims of insanity to the court. The belated expression of regret cut little ice with anyone, however, and did nothing to help David Birnie's case.
Disturbed sexual behaviour in the Birnie family drew David's younger brother James into the web. After his brother's arrest, James Birnie confirmed that he himself had served a prison sentence for molesting a six year old niece.
James Birnie said that his brother 'needed to have sex every night' and that, three days after David and Catherine split up in 1984, he had agreed to David's demands to have incestuous sex with him. James Birnie said this could not have been reported to the police as his brother 'would have killed me'.
On his 21st Birthday in August 1986, James had been 'allowed to have sex with Cathy' as a present. Catherine Birnie had agreed to the idea. 'I was led,' he said.
The Birnies were each sentenced to life imprisonment. This meant a minimum of twenty years in prison before they were eligible for parole. But after the crimes had been read to the courtroom, the trial judge, Mr Justice Wallace, said that 'Each of these horrible crimes were premeditated, planned and carried out cruelly and relentlessly over a comparatively short period', and that David Birnie ' should not be let out of prison - ever'.
The Birnies did not appeal. Catherine Birnie was confined in Bandyup prison, Northern Perth, while her husband David has been
involved in violent incidents inside Fremantle prison. Neither is eligible for a parole hearing until the year 2007.