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Critics' Corner
30 September, 2009  
Lambs to the Slaughter

Stephen Estcourt reviews Debi Marshall’s latest book Lambs to the Slaughter, about the sadistic paedophile murderer Derek Percy … The details are almost too obscene to publish – but too important to ignore

On the day Neil Armstrong landed on the moon a 20-year old Royal Australian Naval rating sadistically murdered a 12-year old girl at Westernport Bay in Victoria.

imageDerek Percy (pic), described in a feature in The Australian as “Australia’s Hannibal Lecter” (more a reference to some of his depraved notes and drawings than crimes committed by him), abducted Yvonne Tuohy on July 20, 1969.

He molested her, debased her, virtually decapitated her and eviscerated her with a savagery beyond comprehension.

The following year Percy, defended by George Hampel, then still junior counsel, was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Although not convicted of a crime this man is now Victoria’s longest serving prisoner.

Whether Derek Percy actually was, or is, insane or whether he has always been a sadistic, paedophilic, psychopath has recently been canvassed on a review application before the Victorian Supreme Court, which could result in him being transferred from Port Phillip Prison to a psychiatric facility.

The decision on that application is presently reserved before Justice Philip Cummins.

Two previous review applications, in 1998 before Justice Geoffrey Eames and in 2004 before Justice Murray Kellam, resulted in no change to Percy’s custodial circumstances, both judges being of the view that he was still a danger to the public.

At a time when the Rees government has passed legislation through the parliament allowing the Director General of Housing to evict convicted paedophile Denis Ferguson from his public housing unit, even though he has a five-year lease, the questions of how to deal with the community’s concerns about the safety of its children and how to best attempt the rehabilitation of child sex offenders could not be more topical.

Psychiatric evidence before Justice Cummins suggests that if Percy was moved to a psychiatric institution and saw children visiting other patients this could fuel his depraved fantasies as his dreams of violent torture and dismemberment of youngsters have not disappeared.

imageThe evidence suggests that Percy is not mentally ill but has an abnormal personality marked by sadistic paedophilia.

Percy’s story is the subject of a new book by Debi Marshall (seen here), the Hobart based true crime writer and author of six books.

Her work includes Killing for Pleasure – the story of the Snowtown murders in South Australia – which won a Ned Kelly award for Best True Crime in 2007 and Justice in Jeopardy, the story of Raymond John Carroll.

Convicted of the obscene murder of 17-month old Deidre Kennedy and later acquitted on appeal, Carroll’s second conviction for perjury, for having denied the killing, was also overturned on appeal.

The upholding of that appeal decision by the High Court was the catalyst for Marshall’s book and her work can fairly be credited with being instrumental in bringing about the change in the laws in Australia against double jeopardy.

Marshall’s story of the murder of Yvonne Tuohy – Lambs to the Slaughter – deals with the dreadful facts that are known about that case, but it also speculates about Percy’s possible involvement in a number of other unsolved murders and disappearances.

That speculation ranges from the quite likely, in the case of the murder of three-year old Simon Brook whose age and sexual mutilation match fantasies depicted in Percy’s notebooks, to the less likely in the cases of the Wanda Beach murders and the disappearance of the Beaumont children.

In November 2005 a NSW coroner was persuaded that a “known person” was responsible for Simon Brook’s death, however the NSW DPP decided in 2007 that there was insufficient admissible evidence to justify the prosecution of Percy.

imageAs to the other unsolved crimes it appears that Percy – on his own admission to a police officer in 1969 – was in Adelaide near the Glenelg beach at the time of the abduction of Jane, Arnna and Grant Beaumont (pic) in January 1966 and had driven through St Kilda at the time of the disappearance of seven-year old Linda Stilwell in August 1968.

He was also in Sydney at the time of the Wanda Beach slayings of Christine Sharrock and Marianne Schmidt in January 1965.

In fact, in all the cases in which Marshall suggests Percy’s involvement he was either in the vicinity of the crime at the critical time, or could easily have been.

But why write this book?

On first reading the Percy file Marshall wrote:

“How can I spend a year immersed in these vile fantasies; in the utter, utter horror of what Derek Percy inflicted on a defenseless 12-year schoolgirl, Yvonne Tuohy and – God forbid – possibly several other children? How many other children? What good can possibly come from dredging up these stories and regurgitating the shocking details onto the page, the details that made me feel like a dirty voyeur, peeping at a child’s unimaginable terror and helpless to do anything about it.”

The author appears to answer her own question by reference to the families who have trusted her and relied on her to tell their stories.

Nonetheless in the prologue Marshall writes:

“I pace the cottage floors most of the night. I will find a way to break it to this mother, this sister, this father. I’ll break it to them gently, and to all the other people who have dredged their memories to colour in this story for me. But first I will call my publisher and tell her I can’t continue. I will call her, definitely. First thing tomorrow morning.”

Obviously, she didn’t call her publisher and the result is almost 400 pages of meticulously researched and skillfully narrated true crime, which at times is difficult to cope with.

I’ve been grappling with the question of this book’s value in a society where child sexual abuse and rape, abduction and murder appear to have become more prevalent than ever.

I wonder whether those who read it, apart from criminologists or psychiatrists, might not have an unhealthy prurient interest in the torture and murder of children.

I put these questions to the author herself over lunch in Hobart. Her answers were persuasive.

There is a legitimate public concern.

Percy would almost certainly not be regarded as criminally insane today on the basis of contemporary psychiatric theory.

As child killing was the planned impetus for the abduction of Yvonne Tuohy the evidence is that Percy’s case is extremely rare.

So rare, in fact, that one psychiatrist who has interviewed Percy on five or six occasions over the years is of the view that “you would not expect to find more than one to be active in any decade”. The implication is clear.

It is reasonable to conclude that although the details of Yvonne Tuohy’s and Simon Brook’s sadistic murders are almost too obscene to publish, the forensic and public interests in the case of such a rare child killer are compelling, particularly in view of the statutory five year judicial reviews of Percy’s custodial circumstances which will continue until he dies or is released.

In June 2007 Victoria Police raided a warehouse in South Melbourne where, among 35 boxes of Percy’s belongings, they discovered pornographic writings and drawings which Percy had managed to smuggle out of prison.

Police have been guarded about the details of the contents of these documents.

On August 30, 2007 Melbourne magistrate Belinda Wallington granted detectives the right to interview Percy about the documents.

Police told her that the writings and drawings could relate to the abduction, murder and disappearance of Christine Sharrock, Marianne Schmidt, Linda Stilwell and the Beaumont children.

A coroner’s inquest into the disappearance of Linda Stilwell is due to commence in Melbourne in December this year.

If this story had to be told then Debi Marshall’s proven record as an investigative journalist and prize winning true crime writer have equipped her ideally for the harrowing task of doing so.

The ultimate conclusion is obviously yet to be written.

Stephen Estcourt QC

Lambs to the Slaughter by Debi Marshall. William Heinemann Australia. RRP $34.95.