When it comes to shocking, violent crimes most Australians immediately think of infamous killers from overseas – from Jeffery Dahmer to Jack The Ripper – but there have been plenty of notorious cases right here at home.
As criminal lawyers in Sydney practising exclusively in criminal law over the last two decades, we’ve dealt with all sorts of serious criminal cases, but nothing can ever prepare you for these top ten grisly crimes in Australia’s history.
Here are ten horrifying crimes committed down under.
1. The Melbourne Ripper
Peter Dupas’ name still provokes a shudder down the spine of Melbournians who remember his disgusting crimes.
Dupas had a long history of sadism, beginning at the age of 15 years old when he attacked his neighbour with a knife.
Before receiving a number of life sentences, Dupas committed several violent sexual assaults on women and murdered at least three (but most likely six) young women throughout the 1990s.
Dupas had the horrific criminal signature of removing the breasts of his female victims.
Senior Detective Ian Armstrong, who had early dealings with a young Dupas, described him as “pure evil” completely without remorse for his crimes.
2. The Bodies In Barrels Murders
On 20 May 1999, South Australian Police made the grisly discovery of eight corpses dissolving away in plastic barrels within a disused bank vault in Snowtown.
The remains were the result of a heartless gang led by John Bunting, and consisting of Snowtown locals Robert Wagner and James Vlassakis. The group had come together over their disgust of “pedophiles” – which more often than not bled into a general hatred of gay men and anyone they deemed unworthy of life.
At least 12 people were killed by Bunting and his crew, with many victims suffering several hours of torture before their demise.
So infamous were the crimes, that a big budget feature length film was made of the murder called Snowtown (2011).
3. The Port Arthur Massacre
No other tragedy has had such a transformative impact on Australian public policy than the Port Arthur Massacre.
On 28 April 1996, 28-year old Martin Bryant went on a shooting spree near the Port Arthur historic site in Tasmania, killing 35 people and wounding several others. Bryant, who had been disturbed since childhood, became incredibly depressed following the death of his father by suicide in 1993 and aimed to take his anger out on the world through the mass shooting.
Following Bryant’s arrest and life sentence, the horrendous nature of the Port Arthur Massacre led to Australia dramatically reforming its gun and firearms laws to ensure a similar catastrophe wouldn’t happen again.
4. The Backpacker Murderer
Between 1989 and 1992, seven backpackers were gruesomely murdered in New South Wales’ Belanglo State Forest.
They were the victim of a demented career criminal named Ivan Milat who stalked, tortured and killed the young victims seemingly for his own personal sport.
Milat, who served as the inspiration for the killer Mick Taylor in the horror film Wolf Creek (2005), was a remorseless psychopath who murdered his victims with a pistol and a Bowie knife before being arrested and convicted in 1996.
In 2019, Milat died in prison having never confessed to his crimes.
5. The Family Murders
No other Australian crime has attracted more conspiracy theories than the murders connected to South Australian accountant, Bevan Spencer von Einem.
Between 1979 and 1983 five young men aged between 14 and 25 years old were found dead with indications that they had been tortured. A number of other teenage boys and young men were kidnapped and sexually raped within the same time period.
Police suspect that the crimes were committed by a loosely connected group of high-profile individuals, which they called “The Family”. The only member of the group to be convicted of any crimes is von Einem, who was sentenced for the murder of 15-year-old Richard Kelvin in 1984.
South Australian police are continuing to investigate further members of “The Family” and it remains an open case still today.
6. Lady Leatherface
Whilst Katherine Knight only committed one murder, she shocked the country by bucking the trend of her gender and committing one of the most brutal crimes in Australian history.
Knight, who was known for her love of knives and erratic behaviour, stabbed her partner John Price to death following an argument.
Utilising her training as an abattoir worker, Knight then skinned Price, put his flayed flesh on a meat hook and cooked his head with the intention of feeding the disgusting meal to Price’s children.
Luckily, Knight’s devious plans were interrupted by police and she is currently serving a life sentence in a Northern Territory prison.
7. The Mutilator
Achieving the dubious moniker of Australia’s first documented serial killer, William MacDonald is responsible for the deaths of at least five men over the years 1961 and 1962.
Stalking fellow gay men at public beats in Queensland and New South Wales, MacDonald was notorious for the brutality of his murders – often slicing off the genitals of his victims leading the media to dub him “The Mutilator”.
So sophisticated was MacDonald’s use of a knife that police at one point thought they were looking for an accomplished surgeon.
MacDonald was charged and convicted of his crimes in 1963, dying in prison in 2015.
8. The Moorehouse Murders
You can’t get a more twisted love story than that of David and Catherine Birnie, a Perth-based couple who satisfied their sexual sadism through the murder of at least four women.
The Birnies abducted the women, mostly hitchhikers, taking them to their now infamous home at 3 Moorhouse Street and spending days torturing and sexually assaulting their victims before burying their bodies in a local forest.
The killer couple were eventually caught when one of their victims, seventeen year old Kate Moir, managed to escape and alert police.
David Birnie died in prison in 2005, whilst Catherine Birnie remains serving out her multiple life sentences.
9. Toxic Tea Lady
Caroline Grills seemed like such a sweet middle-aged lady, before it was discovered that she liked to poison her house guests with rat poison in the late 1940s.
Grills murdered four of her family members including her stepmother, sister in law and two distance relatives by marriage by slipping thallium (a poison readily available over the counter in NSW at the time) into various sweets and teas.
Her motive seemed to be largely inheritance money, knocking off the relatives she knew named her in their will.
Grills was convicted of the murders in 1953 and died in prison in 1960.
10. The Granny Killer
There’s nothing more disgusting than preying on the most vulnerable in our community, and that’s exactly what John Wayne Glover did when he murdered six elderly women over a period of 14 months from 1989 to 1990.
Glover’s apparent motive was disgust of older woman, stemming from his troubled relationship with his mother and step-mother. He would often beat his victims repeatedly over the head with a hammer, before stealing whatever money or goods they had.
Glover was under police surveillance after he indecently assaulted a women in a nursing home, and was eventually arrested following the murder of his defacto partner Joan Sinclair.
Glover died in prison in 2005.