Linda Stilwell. St Kilda’s missing child.

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When seven-year-old Linda Stilwell was abducted from the St Kilda foreshore in 1968, a bayside community slipped into a terrified state of shock. Four decades later, Linda’s older sister, Karen, revisits her family’s lifetime of despair.

Linda Stilwell, right, with sister Karen

The 1960’s prototype of St Kilda was festive and illustrious. Melbourne boasted a strong period of economic growth, and the bayside suburbs and towns attracted a large influx of families, inspired by the town’s fervent set of social and geographic ideals.

St Kilda, merely a stone’s throw from the bustling city centre, provided a conveniently located slice of paradise. For adults, the suburb exuded a relaxed, unpretentious beach lifestyle and a modern hub of social culture. For children, the legendary St Moritz ice-skating rink and the colourful gala of Luna Park were huge drawcards. Permanent residents and fleeting tourists alike agreed that it was a town that had a little something for everyone.

But behind the alfresco dining, the orange sunsets and a rickety old roller coaster is a disturbing unsolved crime that’s left a lasting blemish on the town’s history and an entangled lifetime of despair for a heartbroken family.

When seven-year-old Linda Stilwell was abducted, assumed murdered, from St Kilda pier in 1968, an unprecedented shockwave was sent through the bayside community.

Linda’s sister, Karen Stilwell, now 54, describes her memories of St Kilda before the abduction as happy and carefree. “The world was safer back then. People left their cars and their houses unlocked. There weren’t any abductions… it was unheard of to have a murder.”

‘The world was safer back then. It was unheard of to have a murder’

Asked to describe her younger sister, Karen smiles with glowing enthusiasm. “Linda was such a cheerful, sweet girl. She was a free spirit that would just talk to everyone and befriend them.” Giggling, Karen recalls an afternoon in St Kilda that summarised her sister’s personality perfectly. “We were out shopping with mum and Linda just sat down next to this homeless man, started talking to him and offered him some of her lollies”. Karen adds that although their mother, Jean, made multiple attempts to educate her three children on the dangers of talking to strangers, Linda was not one to be held back. “That’s just the kid she was,” she says.

The Stilwell Children, from left, Karen, Gary and Linda

When asked to think back to August 10th, 1968, the day that Linda went missing, Karen leans forward in her chair, straightens her posture and takes a deep breath. “It was the week before Linda’s eighth birthday. I was eleven and Gary, our brother, was nine. As the oldest, mum had put me in charge,” she pauses, fiddling awkwardly with her headband. “I remember the early part of the day quite well. We’d been playing down at the foreshore and had met a group of older boys who had fishing rods,” she smiles mischievously, noting that it was on this day that she experienced her first kiss. “The group of us wandered down the pier and started playing in an old tin boat. We were jumping up and down, being stupid. But then the owner spotted us and started shouting. We couldn’t have run away faster,” she laughs.

As the mid-August sun began to fade, Karen knew that mum would be expecting them. She told Gary and Linda that it was time to go home but they were insistent on staying out, so she went alone, leaving her siblings by the pier. Shortly afterwards, Gary returned home, revealing, somewhat uneasily, that he and Linda had been separated. His fleeting recollection of Linda standing by his side whilst he looked into his kaleidoscope is the last morsel of knowledge the Stilwell family have of their daughter’s whereabouts.

‘The guilt I have felt… thinking she would come home any minute… has haunted me for so many years’

On her ‘Remembering Linda’ tribute website, Karen describes the decision to leave her brother and sister alone as something she’s regretted for the rest of her life. “The guilt I have felt… thinking she would come home any minute… has haunted me for so many years.”

Karen describes the days following Linda’s disappearance as horrific. Her mother began to experience a mental breakdown, as the family was summoned back and forth to the police station for questioning. The rumours started. Perhaps Linda had fallen from the pier and drowned. Perhaps she had decided to flee to New Zealand to find her father, from whom Jean had separated months earlier. Worse, perhaps she had been abducted. There were countless questions being asked, but for the Stilwell family there were no answers.

A rigorous search of the St Kilda foreshore was conducted, with homicide detectives digging up sand in a manner that made the beach resemble scattered bunkers on a golf course. A mobile police caravan was established near the pier, encouraging the public to come forward if they remembered anything suspicious. Journalists, desperate for a story, followed investigators around like vultures, ensuring that the Stilwell family’s private hell was published all over the national newspapers and television networks. However, despite unprecedented investigative efforts and media attention, the search for Linda was unofficially abandoned after several months.

After the initial investigation faded from the spotlight, Karen describes the ongoing police effort as frustratingly incompetent. “There was so much information that they didn’t follow up on. Even if it was a dead end, at least they could’ve made the phone call,” she remarks. Folding her arms across her chest, she continues to mention the distress of discovering that Linda had never been added to the missing persons register. “A policewoman told me that because Linda was assumed dead, she couldn’t go onto the missing persons list,” she pauses, shrugging her shoulders. “But Linda wasn’t on the murdered list either. She was nowhere, it was like she didn’t exist at all.”

Karen describes the next four decades of her life as heartbreaking and empty. “I remember doing a Google search for Linda’s name and crying in front of the computer as nothing turned up.”

In 2007, thirty-nine years after Linda vanished, an investigation by undercover police task force, Operation Heats, named Derek Ernest Percy as the prime suspect in Linda’s disappearance. Rediscovered evidence – including hand-written notes and an admission of implication to a policeman – had linked Percy with up to eight other child abductions and murders throughout Australia in the 1960’s.

Derek Percy was already in prison. In 1969, he was found not guilty by reason of insanity for the abduction and brutal murder of Yvonne Tuohy, aged 12, at Warneet Beach. It was after he was arrested, covered in Yvonne’s blood, that he made a number of admissions to a young police officer about his implications in other crimes. When questioned, Percy confessed to being in St Kilda on the day that Linda disappeared. But when asked if he abducted Linda, his response was cold. “I don’t remember,” Percy said. As the information was seen to have little relevance to the Tuohy case, it was not recorded. It wasn’t until the then-retired police officer came forward many years later, that the evidence was revisited.

Although the new evidence hasn’t yet been conclusive enough to persecute Percy for Linda’s murder, the Melbourne Magistrates Court officially acknowledged in 2007 that Linda had been murdered. It was a long overdue hearing that Karen says provided the family with emotional closure. Gary Stilwell, who has wrestled with the weight of blame for most of his adult life, described the court’s decision as a huge relief. “It is an acknowledgement of what happened,” he says.

The Stilwell’s momentry relief, however, was offset by the knowledge that without prosecution, Derek Percy will one day be eligible to apply for parole. As a result, the family’s rush to achieve a conviction is being pursued post-haste. “We know that he’s guilty, but we need to get the evidence before the courts,” says Karen.

Tasmanian journalist and true-crime writer, Debi Marshall, understands Percy’s dark psyche better than most. She should do: she has written a book about him. Released in 2009, Lambs to the Slaughter, an Australian best seller, documents a chronology of Derek Percy’s crimes. Debi confesses that in her twenty-seven years of true-crime writing she’s “never come across anybody as guilty as Percy,” describing him as “the most abhorrent character I’ve ever written about.”

‘I’ve never come across anybody as guilty as Percy. He’s the most abhorrent character I’ve ever written about’

After years of interviewing the Stilwell family, talking to key witnesses, filing through evidence and attending court proceedings, Debi has no doubt that Percy abducted and murdered Linda. “Linda’s disappearance had Percy’s mode of operation all over it,” Debi states with great confidence. “He always hunted at beaches and he admitted being in St Kilda on that day. The police even found a map in his car with a line drawn through St Kilda,” she continues, “Nobody else could have done this crime.”

Like the cold-case investigators, Debi believes Percy is responsible for a series of child abductions and murders throughout the 1960’s. Referring to some of Australia’s most infamous cold-cases, Debi comments, “I have no doubt that Percy killed the Beaumont Children (1966) and I have no doubt that he killed three-year-old Simon Brook (1968). He was at these places when they went missing,” she says. Then she pauses for a moment and states: “Everywhere Percy went, children disappeared.”

When asked what she thinks motivates somebody like Percy, Debi has no hesitation in replying. “He’s evil. He’s just plain, sheer evil. I mean, you might do it once and it’s an aberration, but to continue to hunt children the way he does, to diarise it, and to act out these things for the thrill of it, it makes him evil.”

In Lambs to the Slaughter, Debi criticises the Australian legal system for not passing a bill that would enable criminals like Percy to be DNA tested, even when they are not convicted of a crime. She believes that if Percy were to be DNA tested, there would be enough evidence to keep him behind bars. Without legislative change, there is a very real possibility that Percy could be released back into the community one day, free to roam the streets of St Kilda once again.

As we discuss the possibility of Percy’s release, tears begin to swell in Karen’s eyes. “He (Percy) changed who Gary and I were supposed to be. He changed my outlook on life. I often sit there and think of what I could’ve achieved, what I could’ve done,” she says, hands pressed nervously against her thighs.

Despite the difficulties, Karen smiles as she begins to tell me about her own experiences as a parent. Her four children, three of them boys, were raised in Bacchus Marsh. “As a parent, I wanted to be in a completely different environment. That’s why I moved out to the country.” She adds that whilst she was overprotective with all of her children, she was particularly paranoid with her daughter. “Yeah,” she says. “She wasn’t allowed out much.”

Karen describes her struggles in returning to contemporary St Kilda, something she’s only done a handful of times. “Walking around, it’s hard not to wonder if Linda’s body is underneath me, somewhere nearby.”

Now a grandparent, Karen Stilwell lives in a small flat in Melbourne’s outer east. Her partner, Steve, whom she first dated when she was fifteen, found her on Facebook a year ago. Facebook is also the medium that Karen has been using to promote child safety. Her online group, ‘Keep Derek Percy Behind Bars’ has almost three thousand members and boasts hundreds of messages of public support. Currently, Karen is attempting to persuade the City of Port Phillip to establish a memorial chair at the St Kilda foreshore. “It would be somewhere the family can go to mourn. We’ve never been able to do that,” she says.

Karen recognises that her fight for justice isn’t over. With legal proceedings set to resume this year, she’s determined to get the answers that her family needs to move on. “Linda will always be a huge part of my life,” she adds, concluding that, regardless of the court’s outcome, her memories of Linda will remain strong.

“She didn’t get to go through puberty with all its highs and lows. She didn’t experience her first boyfriend or her first kiss. There was no joy of motherhood for Linda, but her memory lives on in all who knew her.”

Help the Stilwell family’s plight to have a memorial chair established on the St Kilda foreshore. Make your voice heard @cityportphillip on Twitter.

by Ben J. Campbell – @benjaminpencil on Twitter

 

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