On August 10th 1968 a seven-year-old schoolgirl was kidnapped from St Kilda beach in Melbourne. Linda Stilwell was murdered and never seen again, but she wasn’t the only victim.
Last week, nearly 45 years later, a monster died in hospital, finally succumbing to the cancer that began in his lungs and spread through the rest of his body.
Derek Percy, aged 64, one of the most notorious serial killers in Australia died peacefully under a cocktail of painkillers and sedatives. Investigators from across the country wanted a last word with him, a bedside confession, but he remained mute, refusing to divulge any details of at least nine unsolved cases of missing and murdered children.
Linda Stilwell’s abduction and murder are symbolic of Percy’s modus operandi, his M-O, his signature, or in new-age psychosocial terminology, his “offender profile”. A young child on a beach, lured away from prying eyes, tortured and ultimately murdered, their bodies never to be found. His list of suspected victims spans three states and Australian cities, including a three-year-old boy named Simon Brook, who he suffocated before mutilating and disembowelling him. His choice of weapon, a razor blade.
Percy is also suspected of one of the most infamous and unsolved mysteries in Australia, that of three Beaumont children kidnapped from Glenelg beach in Adelaide and murdered. His elderly mother (now living in Queensland) received a phone call she’d been expecting and waiting to hear for a long time. News that her son was dead. For Elaine Percy, it was good news. She knows her son was a serial child killer. She never kept a photo of him in her house, wanting to distance herself as much as possible from her own blood.
In many cases of serial murder, the relationship between mother and son has a direct influence on the behaviour or offending pattern of the killer. There is no evidence of this in Percy’s case. No signs of an abusive childhood. No typical indications or early warning signs. No explanation. Nothing.
There is only murder, and murder – like lung cancer – is a terminal disease. Once it enters your blood system it never leaves. There’s no cure or treatment. You can’t turn back the clock. No statute of limitations. It’s inside you, forever. Permanent.
Murder stays murder.
This applies as much for the killers as it does the victims. In this instance, the reaction to the news of Percy’s death was the opposite for the families. It wasn’t good news. He was dead, but he took with him the secrets of his crimes, revealing nothing. If ever there was a definition, Percy was evil personified. A real life monster. But he was a cunning monster, both in his crimes and in manipulating the legal system to his advantage. Never convicted, he instead spent the last 43 years in psychiatric custody after having been ruled legally “insane” following another murder, that of Yvonne Tuohy, a twelve-year-old who he abducted from Warneet beach in Sydney. Many analysts and professionals have long since declared the ruling a miscarriage of justice, a carefully staged act on Percy’s behalf. An act he maintained until the very end.
It’s said that there is a fine line between genius and insanity. Perhaps this is what Percy played on. The same might also be said for crime fiction, a genre in which serial killers have long been part of the call sheet for villains, almost to the extent of romanticising them to the point of extinction; or reader ‘burn-out’. Many publishers openly state that any crime writer pitching a serial killer story simply won’t get a reply, unless the author is well established (and in which should know better) or there are some compelling differences that set this ‘serial-killer-on-the-loose’ script miles apart from the hundreds of other titles already on the market.
Hannibal Lector, the creation of Thomas Harris, is probably the most well known of all fictional serial killers. The books and Hollywood adaptations to film made Lector a franchise celebrity and a household name. Some of the characters in the series are loosely based on real life profilers, in particular John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, who pioneered the FBI’s Serial Crime Unit and brought its operations to the world through their own book, Mind Hunter.
The same is true for much of the procedural detail. There is no doubt Thomas Harris did his research. Yet his portrayal of Lector, that of a psychiatric doctor nick-named “Hannibal the Cannibal” (due to his inclination to eat his victims) is just that, a portrayal, an author’s creation, albeit an incredibly good one.
Just like any character, Hannibal is a villain and villains are important for any good story, especially in the crime genre, and their reason/s for killing or committing their crimes must be compelling.
That is the case for crime fiction. Reality in most cases tells a different story. People kill for all types of reasons. In some cases, the reasons may be as complex as the most intriguing and entertaining plot, as is true for “Buffalo Bill” in Silence of the Lambs, but in reality the majority of murders are simple, spare of the moment events that could never fit the bill for a decent crime novel or film adaptation.
Similarly, a fictional killer’s reaction/s to committing murder can be just as varied as their methods. The same applies in reality, although in many cases there is a state of indifference. No sobbing or anger. No empathy or emotion. No explanation. Nothing.
Derek Percy is a perfect example of this. He didn’t eat his victims or help police catch other serial killers. He didn’t provide researchers with insights into the Mind of a Hunter. He didn’t skin over weight women so he could make a costume of a woman made from his victims. He abducted, tortured and killed children. He sliced them open with a razor blade and for 43 years he had every opportunity to explain why, but he never did.
Instead he spent much of his time writing stories and notes about how he killed. Even after a Coronial Inquest, he still maintained his role of “insanity” and remained mute, refusing to answer any questions on the grounds of self incrimination. Not bad judgement for someone deemed criminally insane, unable to distinguish right from wrong.
And so it seems it isn’t the Lambs that have been Silenced this time, as Thomas Harris wrote about so eloquently in 1988, it is the secrets of a monster that have been silenced. With any luck, DNA taken from the dying killer may assist with a series of cold cases as time goes on and provide some closure for the affected families.
In the meantime, the show must go on. In St Kilda last week, the same week Percy died, another young woman was murdered. This time the circumstances are different. A known street prostitute, she was murdered in a van that she had been living out of. Details have been scant, as has (coincidentally or otherwise) the media coverage, but at least there is a body and hopefully soon an arrest. When that happens, another monster may be brought to book.
If you know anything about this murder, contact Crime stoppers on (+61) 1300 333 000.
Murder stays murder.
Blood Sunset is set in St Kilda and follows the path of child killer. It is available online as an eBook at amazon.com. Click on the cover image for more information.