In the criminal justice system, there is a phrase cops, lawyers and criminals know all too well…
Murder stays murder.
When you kill someone, it’s a disease with no cure. You might get away with it, but the disease stays with you. It lives in your blood, your DNA, something you can never change. There is no statute of limitations on homicide.
This disease is what homicide detectives work on, like skilled scientists sifting through microscopic cells, honing in on the cause, eliminating similar illnesses, building patterns and developing theories, with the ultimate aim of making a correct and thorough diagnosis.
There is another phrase you’ll find in many homicide squad rooms around the world:
No greater honor or responsibility can ever be bestowed upon an officer than when he or she is entrusted with investigating the taking of a human life.
Some cases are slam dunks. A husband or boyfriend crying in the kitchen with his dead wife or girlfriend next to him. Others are more complex and “the first 48-hour” rule applies. Others go cold before an investigation even begins. People disappear, get dumped in the ocean, thrown down an old mine shaft or buried in the desert. In any case, the same rule applies: murder stays murder and the disease remains out there. Somewhere.
I was asked recently at a writer’s seminar whether some murders mattered more than others. In fiction, we can afford to take a moral high ground and bend reality. I’ve commented before about Michael Connolly’s lead character, Harry Bosch, who has a motto he lives and works by: Either everybody counts or nobody counts.
It is a noble ethos, but real life isn’t as generous. The detectives who work homicide cases are the elite. They are patient and passionate, but they’re also realistic. In a perfect world justice for all murders could be found. Of course, the world isn’t perfect and in many cases the disease remains undiagnosed. Justice isn’t served and there is no redemption.
It follows that the toughest dilemma faced is prioritization. Who matters more, a dead gangster or junkie? It’s not easy to prioritize human life and I’m in no way going to try or suggest how or even if this is done, but every now and then along comes a case that must be solved. These usually fall into one of the underworld commandments I’ve previously commented on:
1. Never shoot or kill police
2. Never hurt a child
3. Never commit violence in public
The following case is one that had to be solved, yet never was and to this day remains a stain on the system and the killer unidentified. It was, to use a cliché almost every fictional detective has in their world of demons, the one that got away.
But murder stays murder, so the kidnapping and execution of 13 year-old Karmein Chan in 1991 is one case that will always remain open, not for the family and the police, but all Australians.
Although unidentified, the killer has a household nickname almost any Australian around at the time of his offending will know:
He was, and still is, the personification of the ‘Boogie Man’. Every parent and child’s worst nightmare.
AUGUST 22, 1987 LOWER PLENTY
A man armed with a knife and gun removed a pane of glass from the lounge room window and broke into a family home about 4am. He forced both parents onto their stomachs and tied their hands and feet before he locked them in a wardrobe. Their seven-year-old son was tied to a bed and the 11-year-old daughter was then attacked. He cut the phone lines and left.
DECEMBER 27, 1988 RINGWOOD
A masked intruder, armed with a small handgun and a knife, broke in through the back door at 5.30am. He forced both parents onto their stomachs and bound and gagged them, disabled the phones and demanded money. He grabbed their 10-year-old daughter, placed tape over her eyes and put a ball in her mouth. He abducted the girl and released her 18 hours later.
JULY 3, 1990 CANTERBURY
Armed with a knife and a gun, a masked intruder broke into a house through a window at 11.30pm and forced the victim, aged 13, onto her stomach before tying and gagging her. He disabled the phones and searched for money. He placed tape over the eyes of his victim, drove her to another house where he kept her for 50 hours before releasing her outside a power sub-station in Kew.
APRIL 13, 1991 TEMPLESTOWE
A masked offender, armed with a knife, cut through a fly wire screen to open a window. He confronted Karmein Chan, 13, and her two younger sisters. He forced the younger girls into a wardrobe and pushed a bed against the doors before abducting Karmein at 9.15pm. Her body was found a year later.
I know Phyllis Chan personally, as does the rest of my family, through her take away business and restaurant in Melbourne. Her two other daughters work with her. She is a strong and proud woman, on the surface full of life and humor that commands respect. Underneath she remains damaged beyond any belief, carrying the disease of her daughter’s killer in her heart, soul and nightmares.
Mr Cruel apparently planned his attacks and tried to avoid leaving clues. He bathed two of his victims before releasing them — to minimise the chance he could be identified through forensic samples — and wiped sinks and bench tops to remove fingerprints. One victim told police he bathed her “like a mother washing a baby”.
Shortly before releasing one victim, he thoroughly cleaned the bathroom and then lay down a sheet on the lino-covered floor to avoid leaving footprints. In one case, he took a second set of clothes from the victim’s home to dress her before she was freed. In another, he dumped the victim in garbage bags so police could not test her original clothes.
He is thought to have kept his victims’ homes under surveillance, and drove abducted girls in different directions and changed cars to disorientate them. The level of planning was shown when he grabbed one of the girls and told her exactly when he would release her — 50 hours after she was abducted.
Two of his victims were able to provide details of the house where they were imprisoned. Both were shackled to a “detention bed” with a rough neck brace. One told detectives she heard planes landing, leading police to believe the house was on one of the flight paths to Melbourne Airport.
The taskforce worked for 29 months at a cost of nearly $4 million. Its 40 staff checked 27,000 suspects and investigated 10,000 tips. Detectives arrested 73 people on a range of offences, many relating to sex crimes.
Police checked about 30,000 houses looking for the one where he kept his victims and probably filmed them. Detectives from Taskforce Spectrum discovered a list of about 150 men who subscribed to mail-order child pornography, including some prominent individuals. All were questioned over the abductions. No diagnosis, although it is almost certain the offender was interviewed and his identity narrowed to a short list of suspects. Still to this day his identity remains one of the country’s greatest mysteries.
So who and where is Mr Cruel?
An FBI profile of the serial offender reported: “He will have his home-made pornography as well as commercial pornography. He will have photographed and or videotaped his victims. These items will have great personal significance to him.”
The FBI profile suggests Mr Cruel was unlikely to fit the popular stereotype of a child molester. “In view of the fact that these incidents all occur during school holidays … we suggest there is a high degree of probability that the offender is involved with a school. He may be employed there or connected with a school in some other capacity.
“The offender has an intense interest in children, especially children in the age group he is assaulting. He will spend a great deal of time with these children in what appears to be selfless dedication to students. This apparent dedication may well have earned him recognition and awards (teacher of the year, coach of the year, exceptional volunteer, etc).
“He is a functional individual, one with steady employment, is generally regarded as a good neighbor, polite, quiet, somewhat introverted, but may be involved in certain community-minded projects.”
Without overtly criticizing the management of the case, the FBI profile did suggest the labeling of the offender as ‘Cruel’ sent police on wild goose chase, following up too many leads and tip offs. It also threw the public mindset off course, fooling everyone into the ‘troll under the bridge’ scenario.
So why did he stop?
One theory is that police interviewed the offender who, fearing he was on the suspect list, was frightened into stopping. Another is that he is dead or overseas. To this day the case remains open and a reward of almost half a million dollars is available to anyone with direct information to close the case and find some justice for Phyllis Chan and her family, as well as the other victims.
If you are alive and you’re reading this Mr Cruel, remember…. Murder stays murder.