For many West Australians, the tragic murder of Jillian Meagher in Melbourne has evoked chilling memories of what became known as “The Claremont Killings.”
The mysterious murders of three beautiful young Perth women in the late 90s continues to baffle police after 16 years.
As in Jillian’s case, each of the three women was last seen walking home alone after a night out at a bar with friends.
WA Premier Colin Barnett, in whose electorate the women went missing, recently told The Starfish that the State’s most famous murder mystery remained “the most disturbing issue,” he’s had to confront.
The women’s deaths – which terrified those living in Perth’s western suburbs – sparked the biggest murder investigation in Australia, but to this day the killer has never been caught.
On three separate evenings between January 1996 and March 1997, the women vanished from the heart of Claremont, where they’d all been socializing with friends.
The bodies of two of the women were eventually found in Perth scrub, while that of the first woman who went missing, Sarah Spiers, has never been found.
Sarah, 18, was last seen leaving a popular nightclub, Club Bay View, at 2am on January 27, 1996, after telling friends she was tired. The young secretary called a taxi from a phone booth but by the time the vehicle arrived, she had vanished.
On June 9, child care worker Jane Louise Rimmer, 23, enjoyed a Saturday night with friends at Claremont’s Continental Hotel. Declining a friend’s offer to share a taxi home, she left alone. She was never seen alive again. Two months later, a mother and her children. picking flowers in bushland south of Perth, found Jane’s body.
Ten months later, on Friday, March 14, 1997, Ciara Ailish Glennon, a 27-year-old lawyer, vanished after spending time at the Continental Hotel with friends. Ciara had newly returned to work in Perth after a year overseas.
Ciara’s mother Una said her vivacious daughter enjoyed office drinks in the city, arriving at the Claremont hotel just before 11pm: “She and her friends went in there for a short time and she wanted to have an early night and she left on her own to catch a taxi home and was never seen again,” she told the ABC’s Radio National.
“I expected her home and I had spoken to her at a quarter to five and she said to me then that she was feeling tired and I said, ‘well do you really have to go to those drinks?’ and she said, ‘oh yes, I’d better go.’”
“When she still hadn’t returned home in the morning, I started ringing her friends.. I rang one of her best friends, and she said, ‘leave it with me, I’ll find out.’ She very soon returned my phone call and said that Ciara had left Claremont at a quarter past eleven the night before.”
Mrs Glennon said she immediately feared the worst: “because, of course, two other girls had gone missing from Claremont within the past 18 months prior to that. And so immediately, I knew she was gone, yes. And even almost 100 per cent knew that she would probably not be found alive… the first impact was shock, shock and disbelief and this was accompanied by physical pain.”
Three weeks after her disappearance, Ciara’s body was found by a bushwalker in scrub north of Perth. (Police have never publicly revealed how they believe Ciara and Jane were killed, for fear of jeopardizing their enquiries.)
By now inhabitants of Claremont and its surrounding suburbs, were terrified at the realization a serial killer was in their midst. Suspecting a taxi driver could be the killer, many young women refused to catch cabs, instead relying on friends to take turns being “designated driver.”
WA police set up a large, task force, Macro, to track down the serial killer, calling in experts from across Australia and around the world. Claude Minisini, a Melbourne, FBI-trained criminal profiler, described the killer as a man who planned his crimes meticulously and carried them out in a controlled way.
In Easter, 1997, police DNA-tested thousands of WA taxi drivers and conducted extensive background checks on them, but unearthed nothing.
Police later repeatedly interviewed a middle-aged public servant, Lance Williams, who lived in the beach suburb of Cottesloe, close to Claremont.
From 1998, Lance, who had being regularly spotted driving around Claremont at night, following women as they left drinking spots, was kept under police surveillance, day and night, for several years. Despite intensive interviews and failing a lie detector test, Lance maintained his innocence and has never been charged with anything.
Macro also sent out questionnaires to “persons of interest,” which even included the query, “Are you the killer?” One recipient of the questionnaire was former Claremont mayor, Peter Weygers. His properties were later raided by police, including the home he rented out to friend, Stephen Ross, a taxi driver who claimed he’d given Sarah Spiers a lift in his cab shortly before her disappearance. The two men were later obliged to give DNA samples to police, but no evidence was found to implicate them in any crime.
Detective Superintendent Jeff Byleveld, now retired, spoke of his distress that the extensive enquiries had failed to unearth the killer.
“It’s very frustrating. If you talk to any of the 80 or 90 people who have worked on Macro they are all still deeply passionate about resolving this crime.”
Police have been criticized for their handling of aspects of the investigation, most recently for not publicly releasing footage of Jane Rimmer caught on surveillance camera outside the hotel where she’d been drinking. The footage – showing Jane briefly talking to a mystery man, seen from behind – was finally aired on TV in August 2008, 12 years after Jane vanished. Police defended their decision to withhold the footage for so long, stating it had only become good enough to be viewed recently, thanks to advances in technology.
After the footage was screened, more than 150 people phoned Crime Stoppers.
But to this day, nobody has been charged over the Claremont Killings.
It remains the largest and most expensive murder enquiry in Australia’s policing history, with the FBI and even a former Mossad agent called on to assist.
In a broad-ranging interview with The Starfish earlier this year, WA Premier Colin Barnett, reflecting on his political career, said: “The most disturbing issue, which hopefully is not forgotten, is the Claremont murders. It’s the first and only time I’ve felt fear in the community and it reminded me of the time of the Cook murders, when I was a small boy. That was a sense of fear in the community for the safety of their kids, which was very strong – people are frightened for their children.”
Since Jillian Meagher’s murder came to light, WA police have received calls from journalists asking if the man charged with killing her as she walked home from a Melbourne pub after a night with friends, could be connected to the deaths of the three Perth women. The police media unit’s carefully worded reply, merely stated that investigations into the Claremont killings remain ongoing. But The Starfish has been told that Jillian’s alleged killer was not in WA when the Perth women went missing.
WA Police spokesman Rex Haw said Jillian Meagher’s tragic fate “brings home the constant reminder that young women should be really aware of their personal safety when walking anywhere at night.”
Anyone with information is encouraged to call Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.
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