Evil Under The Sun (part Two)

The Sunday Age

Sunday July 8, 2001



Brown was to marry two of the six Anderson sisters, and was close to two others. He was first married in June 1944 - to Hester, then freshly divorced, with three small children, but whom he'd known before her first marriage. They were to live an outwardly normal life for 34 years, but Hester's oldest sister Milly, now dead, was convinced she made the best of a dreadful mistake.

Milly disliked Brown, said he couldn't be trusted. She told relations that Hester feared him, and had once confided to her about his well-known womanising: ``He doesn't just like big girls - he likes little girls too." Hester had caught him interfering with a child and tried to prevent him from being alone with them. But she was stricken with crippling arthritis in early middle age, and was no match for the man she increasingly relied on to care for her.

Hester's younger sister, Charlotte, had also been married before and also had three children. As Hester grew more infirm, Charlotte visited the Browns often and even went on interstate holidays with them.

Hester kept up appearances but, once, called aside a young female relative and gave her prized lacework she'd inherited from her mother, saying bitterly: ``I don't want his next lady love to get it." Asked who she meant, she blurted: ``Charlotte, of course."

Hester, in constant pain, became confined to a walking frame and bed, a virtual prisoner in the fibro and timber house Brown had built long before in Lowth Street, Rosslea, an old suburb of Townsville. Her problems ended late at night on May 15, 1978, when Brown told the family doctor by telephone she had fallen while trying to get on the commode next to her bed, hitting her head and killing herself.

As far as the police could ascertain 20 years later, the doctor had written out a death certificate at home without viewing the body, which Brown took to an undertaker's himself. Hester Brown was cremated, which meant the injuries to her skull could never be examined.

At the time, Brown pointedly told family members he'd paid for a post-mortem to be done. Detectives told them years later it wasn't true, although at least one insisted she'd been there when police spoke of an ``autopsy". Hester's big sister Milly didn't believe the death was an accident.

``The day Hester was found dead," another relative was to recall, ``Arthur was shaking with fright. He wasn't grieving, because he never showed emotion. He was worried."

Suspicion didn't appear to worry Charlotte who, family gossip had it, had been sent packing by Hester not long before her death. She moved in with Brown and married him the following year.

She was a small woman and, even in her 60s had the odd custom of wearing little girl's pyjamas, much to the bemusement of her female relatives. When one of her cousin's grandchildren asked her once why she wore such childish clothes to bed, Arthur Brown interrupted, saying, ``Because she's my little girl."

MERLE AND CHRISTINE'S MOTHER was a cousin of Hester and Charlotte, and the girls often visited the Browns while they were growing up.

As youngsters, they accepted Brown as a jovial, talkative man who liked to be the centre of attention. But as they matured and he aged, they tired of his boasts that he knew everybody of importance in Townsville. And they didn't like his fascination with sex crimes. He kept a collection of lurid ``true crime" magazines and showed the graphic photographs to children. He went on about how dangerous it was for young girls to be alone, and told them to ``trust nobody". He spoke of ``silly mothers" dropping their children too early at school.

There was another side to his ``concern". He would say he felt sorry for male teachers because girl students were ``prick teasers" and that it was too easy for girls to ``scream rape" on a whim. ``The kids of today will set you up," he would say. ``They'll get you hung."

It seemed to the sisters, even then, that Brown protested too much. They recalled that their grandfather had detested Brown, and refused to be in the same house with him. ``Pop always said Arthur was a bad man," Merle was to recall. ``He would say to me `See after yourself, love, and don't be on your own with him.' I often wonder what he knew."

Apart from one minor incident, Merle was old enough to be out of Brown's reach. And he didn't try to molest Christine ``probably because I had a mouth and would have fought to the death". But, looking back on it, she thinks she was lucky. Twice.

The week that John F. Kennedy was shot in 1963 Christine, then 13, was staying at Brown's. One day, when Hester was out, Brown proposed taking her ``for a swim". She refused because she couldn't swim, and there were no other children to play with.

Three years later, on another visit, Brown came home early from work while Hester was at bingo and Christine was home alone. He suggested driving her to a mountain outside Townsville to take some pictures with her new camera. She refused because she didn't like the steep, winding road. Much later, she realised it was such a slow trip it would have been too dark to take photographs by the time they arrived.

At 16, she was too articulate to be molested and scared into keeping quiet, as younger girls had been. So what was his plan? If she had disappeared, no one would have known where she'd gone. Brown was supposedly at work, and she would have been just another teenage runaway. But that thought didn't strike her until after 1970.

THE DAY THE MACKAY sisters were murdered, Christine was staying at Brown's. She was 20, with a year-old baby, on her way north to rejoin her husband at Weipa after visiting family in Bowen.

That morning, Brown got up about 7am, cut his lunch, and went to work. Christine remembers nothing unusual about his return that afternoon, except that the radio that was usually on was switched off that night and next morning - which meant she didn't hear news of the abduction until she got to Cairns the following evening.

Another relative, who trusted Brown with her children until 1982, when his sexual abuse was exposed, was puzzled at something he said a few weeks after the Mackay girls' murder.

``I could've done that," he told her. The woman didn't go to the police, she was to explain years later, ``because I didn't think he'd be the type." She was to change her mind in 1982, but stayed silent rather than involve his sex-abuse victims.

When police were looking for a car with an odd-colored driver's door after the murders, Brown took the dark-blue door off his Vauxhall and buried it, according to another relative. He told her at the time ``he didn't want anyone interviewing him or annoying him". Because they thought police were looking for an FJ Holden, they accepted his explanation.

Later still, he told Christine he knew the Mackay sisters' father, and that he had worked at the girls' school. He offered to drive Christine and Merle to look at the spot where the bodies had been found. They refused, and wondered at his weird tastes.

THE DETECTIVES CAME FOR Arthur Brown after breakfast on December 3, 1998. Car after car pulled up outside the neat fibro house in the neat street. There were 14 detectives - and photographers, forensic experts and army sappers with metal detectors used for mine sweeping.

While the soldiers swept the big backyard for any remnant of a buried car door, the detectives painstakingly searched the house. They were especially keen on a spare room they'd been told about, which had a door fitted with a bolt on the inside. It was where Brown kept, among other things, his personal papers. Yet there was no record of registration or insurance or mechanical work to indicate he'd ever owned a blue-grey Vauxhall Victor sedan - a car he tried to deny having owned, until they produced a photograph supplied by a relative.

There was no warning of the raid, but even when the officer in charge read the warrants, detailing allegations of murder and sexual abuse, the old man did not seem shocked. ``Didn't raise an eyebrow," one detective was to recall. When the officer reading the warrant used the married name of one of the sex abuse victims, Brown instantly queried it, nodding when the officer corrected the surname to one he knew.

Before they left to go to the police station for questioning, Brown said to an increasingly agitated Charlotte that he'd done some terrible things she didn't know about, and it was time to pay for them. It seemed an odd comment, given that she must have known about the sex-abuse allegations.

At the watchhouse, Brown reportedly said another strange thing, later denied. ``Those Mackay sisters have me stumped," he declared. ``I've lived in Townsville for 30 years and I haven't heard of the Mackay sisters."

This, a prosecutor was to tell a hushed court months later, was a clumsy lie that pointed to guilt of a crime the judge himself called ``one of the most notable events in the city's post-war history" of which ``no one in Townsville at the time would not be aware".

At the start, detectives thought they were talking to ``a silly old bloke", as one was to put it. But when questions swung from the general to the particular, Brown's attitude hardened.

Asked if he would go to Antill Creek with police, he retorted, ``No way I am going out there with you", then demanded to see a lawyer. Arthur Brown had never had a conviction in his life, but he'd worked at the meatworks and around courts and police stations, and he knew the drill. He got a telephone book and looked up a law clerk, who called a solicitor who made another call. Mark Donnelly, a policeman's son and one of north Queensland's toughest criminal barristers, soon turned up to represent his new client.

From then on, Brown was silent. And his wife refused to repeat in a formal interview what she had already told police informally.

The police were left pondering what had achieved from the arrest. One thing they'd found in the bolted room was a bottle of port, which tallied with claims by some of Brown's alleged victims that he'd given them liquor before molesting them.

And something else had been locked away for years - a set of worn work clothes, musty and yellowed with age. It included a singlet with a large, faint stain that washing had not removed.

``Arthur would never wear a stained singlet," one relative was to say. ``I reckon it was the clothes he wore the day the girls were killed in 1970. He's kept them like a trophy."

JOHN WHITE, LATE OF Charters Towers, was in Brisbane when he heard a man had been charged for the Mackay sisters' murder.

``I bet his name is Arty Brown," White blurted to his astonished partner, then told the story of his conversation with a thin stranger in his hometown 28 years earlier. He couldn't sleep for several nights, and wrote down details as they came back to him: Brown's name, the name of the tavern, the time he spoke to the police, and the policeman's name, John Cooper. Then he called Brisbane CIB.

Sue Lawrie was living in Melbourne when she saw fleeting footage of an old man in Townsville on the television news. Something about him pricked her memory. ``Where do I know you?" she said to herself uneasily. Next morning she took a call from an old friend in Adelaide, who asked her reaction to the news. Before the friend could explain that there was media speculation in Adelaide about a connection between the old man arrested in Queensland and unsolved Adelaide abductions, Sue interrupted.

``My God! It's him," she screamed into the telephone. The man she'd seen on television was older, more gaunt, but - in her mind - the same one she'd seen on the banks of the Torrens 25 years before.

John Hill had been apprenticed to the Public Works Department in Townsville as a teenager in 1974, and worked with Brown intermittently for 18 months. The first radio bulletins about the arrest brought back a memory of a ``capable tradesman" who'd once said something so strange the younger man remembered it, word for word.

They'd been driving past Townsville police station in 1975 in Brown's Vauxhall when Hill, then 16, had remarked that the police hadn't solved the Mackay sisters' murder. Brown, a ``big-noter" whose instinctive habit in conversation was one-upmanship, had said immediately: ``I know all about that - I did it."

This had troubled Hill. ``It chilled me because of the way his face looked when he said it.

``But I didn't believe it because it was so out of character for the person I had worked with."

Hill had a restless night, but Brown seemed at ease next day and the boy didn't ask questions. ``Being a kid, when it wasn't reinforced, I put it to the back of my mind." But he didn't forget it, either.

When Brown was arrested 23 years later, his former apprentice called the police. He told them about an obsessively neat tradesman who sometimes wore black horn-rimmed glasses and who had been right under their noses for years. So close, in fact, that no one had seen him.

FROM THE DAY BROWN was arrested, he was described as a roving school maintenance carpenter. This was correct as far as it went, and it was understandable that it was emphasised: the fact that Brown had worked at schools supplies one of the planks of a copybook prosecution case - opportunity and, perhaps, motive.

Brown, after all, had worked at Aitkenvale State School, which the Mackay sisters attended. He was known to eat lunch with the children, who called him ``uncle". None of which, unfortunately, seemed to strike anyone in 1970, despite the seemingly obvious need to interview any men who had contact with the victims, such as teachers, cleaners, or gardeners.

Such an apparently glaring oversight isn't the only reason several retired or veteran Queensland police might have been secretly embarrassed when Brown was arrested. Schools, in fact, had been a minor part of Brown's rounds. As a Public Works employee, he regularly did jobs in every state public building around Townsville ... he was a familiar face at the police station, the prison, the courthouse and the orphanage.

Brown carried some tools in his car boot, but stored other gear in an outbuilding of the old courthouse to which he had the key. He regularly parked in spots reserved for police next to the police station, and was friendly with the court registrar, the bailiff, the matron at the orphanage and many local police.

Hill recalls that when working at the old police station Brown usually had ``smoko" with ex-police who worked in the police garage. Hill, in fact, bought his first car from one of them. If working at the courthouse, Brown would have coffee with the bailiff and discuss seized goods due to be auctioned. He was on first-name terms with court staff and police, who called him ``Arty" or ``Browny".

When police houses needed work, Brown did it. When one policeman needed dining chairs mended, Brown arranged for Hill to do it. Brown was a notoriously bad driver and parked wherever he liked, but he boasted that he never got a ticket.

He also boasted he knew the most senior police in town, notably Charles Bopf, the man whose brilliant career had only one blot - not finding the Mackay girls' killer.

In a state that had rewarded some senior police with knighthoods, an Order of Australia was the least a grateful Queensland could do for Bopf.

Townsville's best-known detective for years, and head of the state's new homicide squad in the 1970s, in retirement he is still a noted citizen in what is an overgrown country town.

Unlike Arthur Brown, whose mind has ostensibly been eroded by age, Bopf is still alert. He lectures in law at a local tertiary college, follows current and legal affairs, and easily summons details of his career after joining the force from the railways in 1946. But no one's perfect: the sleuth who made a living for nearly 40 years with his memory for names and faces has trouble recalling a man who claims to know him well, and he swiftly ends conversations that raise the question.

As a youngster in the 1960s, Christine Millier was walking in the street with Brown when he stopped to chat to Bopf, and made a great show of introducing her to him. Afterwards he claimed ``Bopfy" as ``a mate" and boasted that he was chief of police in all of Townsville. This overstated Bopf's rank, and probably the relationship, if indeed there was anything more to it than Brown scraping acquaintance with an authority figure.

But the fact remains that in 1970s Townsville, Brown knew the police well enough that he blended into the scenery, and police knew his car so well nobody even noticed that it once had an odd-colored door. They were looking for a Holden driven by a crazed killer, not a Vauxhall driven by someone they knew.

Familiarity breeds content. Like the postman who appears at the same time every day, Arthur Brown had become invisible.

John Hill marvels at how trusted Brown was around the police station. Brown worked any hours he liked, and Hill thinks that if he'd wanted to he could have got access to records and files. Speculation, perhaps. And yet ...

When police spoke to Neil Lunney in 1998 he said he'd made a statement in 1970, but was told it was missing. They had found his name with others on an old file note, and had a record of him taking part in an identification parade in 1971, but nothing else.

It wasn't the only evidence to disappear. Samples taken from the murder scene were apparently lost when the police forensic section in Brisbane was flooded in 1974. The floods - which covered vast areas of Queensland - might also explain why there are no Public Works records of Brown's work history. There is no record of when he joined the department, no pay records and, crucially, no record of when he took leave, when he was absent, or for what periods he was not sighted by a supervisor.

With Brown, now 89, unwilling or unable to answer detailed questions, his working life is a mystery. He didn't have to report to work except to draw his pay and pick up maintenance requests. He was trusted to work unsupervised. The state couldn't have employed a more careful man.

JUST AS SOUTHERNERS GO north in winter, seeking the sun, northerners head south in summer to avoid it. One of the perks of working for the Queensland Government north of Rockhampton is getting five weeks' annual leave instead of four - a legacy of when it took a week to travel to and from Brisbane by train or steamer.

But, by the 1960s and 1970s, with better roads and cars, a traveller could go a long way in a week - and five weeks was enough time to visit Sydney, Melbourne or Adelaide. Relatives know that the Browns visited the youngest of his wife's sisters and her husband in Victoria more than once. No one willing to talk about it now knows if Brown ever went on to South Australia.

But Christine Millier has her suspicions. She believes the man she's known all her life killed the Mackay sisters, and that the fact a jury did not reach a verdict in a murder trial two years ago proves only that it could not be told everything the family and the police know.

There are coincidences that intrigue investigators, though they will never be put before a jury. Judith and Susan Mackay's bodies were found at Antill Creek at the spot where Brown had taken little girls to molest them. That place was only 500 metres from where the body of a murdered teenager was found in 1975.

Her name was Catherine Graham, and she was last seen selling encyclopaedia door to door near Brown's house. The last night of her life she had made a call to her mother in Brisbane from a public telephone box. The last thing Graham told her mother was that a man was standing near the telephone box, staring at her, and that she didn't like the look of him.

Other things unsettle Millier and her sister, Merle Moss. They believe that around the time of Marilyn Wallman's disappearance in 1972, the Browns were visiting Hester's relatives nearby, in Mackay. His car broke down, causing them to come home by train. Brown returned alone to get the car, the story goes, and didn't come back to Townsville for some time. All the police can confirm is that a ``chalky blue" Vauxhall was seen in the district around the time of Marilyn Wallman's disappearance.

In early 1991, Christine was working as a carer with teenage wards of state at what had been the local orphanage. On Wednesday, January 23, she wrote in her diary: ``Kids (state wards) and I went for walk to Strand. Arthur Brown drove by and the kids called him `rock spider', shouting it out. Eventually they told me what a rock spider was."

``Rock spider" is prison slang, never used jokingly, for a child molester. Somehow, at 79, Brown had a reputation outside the family as a sex offender.

Some instincts die hard. In Brown, the reflex to boast about what he'd seen and done was stronger, at times, than his sense of self-preservation.

Buildings were a favorite topic. He had a carpenter's eye for the way they were made and where they were, and once he saw a building he didn't forget it. Talk about other cities, and he'd talk about something he'd seen there. Mention Sydney and it was Martin Place. Brisbane and it was The Valley. Melbourne he knew backwards, of course, having lived there. Perth he'd never seen.

And Adelaide? It seemed to Christine that he'd been there, too. When the city's name came up one day, he mentioned seeing the Festival Theatre when it was nearly finished, and agreed when she said what a beautiful building it was, with the steps down to it, looking over the river to the oval ...

Work on the Adelaide Festival Theatre, commissioned in the 1960s, was begun in 1970 and the first stage was completed in June 1973, two months before Joanne Ratcliffe and Kirste Gordon were abducted from the Adelaide Oval. It was Australia's worst child abduction case since Grant, Arnna and Jane Beaumont were abducted from Glenelg Beach on Australia Day, 1966. Their bodies were never found.

In a corner of the prosecutor's office in Townsville is a board bordered with photographs of Arthur Stanley Brown at different stages of life, in different clothes, bareheaded and wearing hats. In the middle of the collection is a computer-generated sketch of a man's face, based on the recollection, 28 years later, of the schoolteacher who saw a driver staring at the Mackay sisters before they were abducted. The similarity between the sketch and the photographs is striking. So is the resemblance to the police sketch of the man seen taking two girls from the Adelaide Oval in 1973.

© 2001 The Sunday Age

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