Book Synopsis: "I Know Who Killed Betty Shanks" published by Boolarong Press in 2014

"I know Who Killed Betty Shanks"

This book details the full story of the 1952 murder of Betty Thomson Shanks as told by Delcia Sterry to the author, Ted Duhs. Delcia is now known by her married name of Desche Birtles.

In 1960 at the age of sixteen, Desche went to the Fortitude Valley Police and told them that in 1952, her father Eric, who fancied that he was in a relationship with Betty Shanks, killed Betty after she rebuffed him. On that occasion, the police told Desche that she shouldn’t say things like that about her father as they knew him. He changed the locks on the cells there.

In the years that followed Desche made two more attempts to tell the police her story but on each occasion the police found reasons to disbelieve her. Finally, in 2013, she told her story to academic and author, Ted Duhs. Ted wrote the book and it was published by Boolarong Press to commemorate the 62nd anniversary of Betty Shanks’ death.

Background

Betty Shanks graduated in Psychology from the University of Queensland in 1950. She took a job as a trainee personnel officer with the Commonwealth Department of the Interior, working from an office in Interior House at 147-153 Ann Street, Brisbane. As part of her job, Betty attended night classes after work on Wednesdays and Fridays. On Friday 19 September 1952, she did a day’s work, attended night school, travelled home by tram and arrived at The Grange terminus at 9.32 pm. The timing after that suggests that she met an acquaintance at the terminus and appears to have walked with him down Thomas Street. At about 9.39 or 9.40 pm, some 7 or 8 minutes after leaving the tram, a total of 7 people heard two distinct female screams. However, when some of these people went to their windows to investigate, they could see nothing and went back inside. That night was dark and there was no moon. When Betty’s battered body was found early the next day, she was lying on grass in the backyard of a residence that bordered Thomas Street and was owned by a Mrs Hill. Betty had been attacked on the footpath of Thomas Street in the shadow cast by some bauhinia trees and then pushed over, or thrown over, the cyclone wire fence of the Hills’ residence before being brutally bashed to death. From start to finish the attack took not more than 12 minutes. By 9.53 pm that night Betty was dead. She was only 300 yards from her home.

When the body was discovered the next morning detectives had no suspects and only four main clues to work from. There were no witnesses to the murder and Betty’s previously unblemished life failed to suggest a motive for the killing. Detectives found themselves working in the dark. In the 62 years since then, no-one has ever been charged with the murder, and no-one has ever been named as a prime suspect.

The Four Clues at the Murder Scene

The first clue concerned the brutality and ferocity of the attack in which Betty was kicked with such force about the face that one of her teeth was forced through her cheek and found on the grass several feet away from her body. This suggested to the police that the murderer had a background history of violence and was possibly a psychopath, since a normal person, even when angered, doesn’t act in that way. A second clue concerned two bloodied hand prints on the upper rail of the fence of the Hills’ property only a few feet from her body, where the perpetrator had apparently vaulted the fence when he departed the crime scene. These prints indicated that the murderer had large hands. A third clue involved traces of black shoe polish found on Betty’s face, and also on her legs, where she was kicked during the assault. This indicated that the murderer had polished shoes and that when he kicked her, some nugget was transferred to her skin. The fourth clue, however, was the most valuable, but at the same time, the most puzzling. This involved a patterned mark on Betty’s forehead which was clearly visible at the autopsy.

This pattern had been described in a previous (2006) book about the murder by Ken Blanch.i The mark on Betty’s forehead occupied an area of about four square centimetres and consisted of

“a series of round dots of haemorrhage, each about 1.58mm in diameter, separated by about 1.58 mm of normal skin”...”not all of the dots were round. Some appeared to be square or rectangular, others were of irregular shape.”

In his book, Ken Blanch claimed that a canvas gaiter, commonly worn by soldiers at the time, was capable of producing a regular pattern similar to the one on Betty’s forehead. As a result, Ken Blanch believed that Betty was killed by a soldier wearing canvas gaiters above his boots. But he couldn’t link Betty Shanks to a soldier, and no soldier was seen in the area at the relevant time. Nevertheless, people read his book and this gave popular support to his theory over the years.

When Desche Birtles contacted me in 2013 she provided a different, more detailed, and much more believable explanation of the patterned mark. At first glance, the patterned mark appears to have been stamped on Betty’s forehead by someone using a rubber stamp. And strangely, this is how Desche explained it. In those days, before the ‘throw away’ society influenced our behaviour, it was common to have one’s shoes repaired. This was often done by glueing a patterned rubber sole over the leather sole in order to protect it. If the murderer was wearing such a pair of shoes, and stomped on Betty’s forehead with great force to hasten her demise in order to allow himself time to escape, such an action would not only cause unconsciousness, and possibly death, in the victim, but it would also leave this patterned mark on her forehead.

Desche remembers taking her father’s shoes to a bootmaker in Fortitude Valley to have rubber soles glued onto the soles of his shoes. Desche says that Eric was wearing those shoes that night at The Grange. These were his ‘brown brogues’. Desche regularly polished these shoes, nearly always with brown nugget, but if there was no brown nugget available, as sometimes happened, she would occasionally use black nugget.

When Desche contacted me in 2013 she also provided answers to other questions about the murder that detectives have struggled with over the years. The real breakthrough in the task of gathering the information that provided the full story of Eric’s involvement came in the early months of 2014. This involved acquisition of both medical evidence, and also, photographic evidence. Each of these items is of vital importance, but neither of which has ever been brought to light before.

The Medical Evidence

Consider the medical evidence. In February 2014 Desche managed to obtain, not only her father’s war service military records, but also her father’s war service medical records. These were provided to Desche by the Department of Veteran’s Affairs. Subsequently Desche managed also to obtain her father’s medical records for the post war years up to July 1950. These records, some of which are reproduced in my book, show that Eric suffered from severe mental problems over a very long period of time.i They also show that he was discharged from the RAAF on mental health grounds in April 1945, some months before the end of World War 2.

One record, dated 21 August 1944, was completed by medical officer, H.Bennett Little, who wrote, “(Eric Sterry) becomes violent at home; is afraid he might injure someone”. Another medical record, dated 10 November 1944, records a diagnosis by a RAAF psychiatrist that Eric is a “potential psychotic”. As late as 10 July 1950, just two years before Betty Shanks was killed, Eric was diagnosed by a different psychiatrist, Dr J Hynes, with “anxiety hysteria”. Anxiety hysteria involves behaviour exhibiting excessive or uncontrolled emotion and could involve panic disorder which is characterised by recurrent, unexpected panic attacks. These medical records provided vital supporting evidence for Desche’s claim to the police (on three occasions) that her father killed Betty Shanks. But because the police disbelieved her, they failed to ferret out this evidence.

Part of Betty Shanks’ job in 1952 was to organise maintenance on Commonwealth buildings in Brisbane. This work was usually carried out by employees from the state department of public works which was based at the depot at 210 Alice Street. Eric, a carpenter and a locksmith, was one of those employees. Desche’s mother told Desche that Eric got to know Betty Shanks through this work connection sometime after Betty won half-share in first prize of the Golden Casket Lottery in April 1952. Betty’s share was £3,000, equivalent in today’s money to about $250,000. Betty spent some of this money on renovations to her parents’ house. One job involved changing the locks. According to Desche’s mother, Eric carried out this work. Desche described her mother as a ‘party girl’ who did not accept responsibility for the family and was often away from home. In the wake of Eric’s disintegrating marriage it seems that Eric began to see Betty as a possible future life partner. There is no evidence that Betty shared Eric’s feelings, but Eric was strong and handsome, and Betty, who did not have a boyfriend, may have been somewhat flattered by his interest in her. Despite Betty’s training in psychology, it is almost certain that she would not have been aware of Eric’s long standing mental problems and the diagnoses by the two psychiatrists that he was a psychotic. This ignorance of Eric’s mental illnesses would eventually lead Betty into a situation that she was not able to escape from.

The Photographic Evidence

The other evidence, the photographic evidence, is equally convincing about Eric as the murderer of Betty Shanks.

Three people at The Grange tram terminus on the night of the murder gave evidence at the inquest in February 1953 that they saw a man in a brown suit moving restlessly about as he apparently waited for a tram passenger to arrive. One person, Clarice Eva Ansell, described this man in detail as well as the clothes that he was wearing. Another person, Clarence Hovelroud, actually spoke to this man. A third person, George Balias, saw the man under the awning of the cycle shop about one or two minutes before the tram carrying Betty arrived at the terminus at 9.32 pm. The descriptions provided by these three witnesses match, almost exactly, a photograph of Eric Sterry in his brown suit. This photograph was kept in Eric’s photograph album, which was passed to Desche after Eric’s death in 1997. Desche subsequently passed this album on to me.

Desche remembers the night of the murder very well. Her father had driven her and her younger brother to The Grange to meet Betty when she returned from her night class by tram. He parked the car (the black Vanguard shown on page 132) in Inglis Street next to Wilston State School. He left Desche and her brother to sleep on the back seat and was gone for a long time. Nearly two hours passed before he returned to the car and drove them home to Bowen Hills. In an email to me in 2013 Desche wrote:

“When we got home we were told to go to bed. My brother shared a bed with me, he was too scared to sleep alone. My father stayed out in the yard and after a while I smelt smoke. When he walked past our bedroom he was naked. There were no doors on any of the rooms in the house and the light from his room shined down the hall.”

Desche said that her mother wasn’t home that night or the next night. Desche believes that Eric burnt his suit and clothes that night. The next morning he had a migraine headache and Desche had to massage his head. Then he told her to clean the front seat of the Vanguard, and to wash out the floor of the car on the driver’s side, and to clean his brown brogue shoes. She thought that she was cleaning mud out of the welts but she realized later that it was blood, skin and tissue.

Also of significance is the fact that Eric kept a photograph of Betty Shanks in his photograph album.i This was the only non-family photograph in his album. Why would anyone keep a photograph of Betty Shanks in his photograph album for 45 years, from 1952 when it was taken, until 1997 when Eric died. This indicates to me that in Eric’s mind at least there was some connection between the two of them. When I asked Desche this question, she said, “Perhaps he kept it as a memento”.

Summary

Everything that Desche has told me checks out, including the child sexual abuse that she suffered at her father’s hands over a long period of time. In addition, there is evidence that Eric was at The Grange tram terminus on the night that Betty Shanks was murdered. There is also evidence that there was tension in the Sterry household as a result of Eric’s involvement with Betty. There is medical evidence that Eric was a psychopath. There is evidence that because Eric lived at Bowen Hills he would have not been picked up in the extensive police doorknock of houses in the suburbs around the crime scene in the days after the murder. And finally, there is evidence that 8 year old Desche is the only living person who had knowledge of what happened that night. This book is her story.


Book Synopsis: Crucial Errors in Murder Investigations published by Bond University Press in 2012

Why is it that some people are convicted of murders that they did not commit, while others are not convicted of murders that they did commit? It is argued in this book that the answer to this question commonly lies in errors which may have been made in the investigation of the crime, either in the initial police investigation, or in a subsequent forensic investigation. Such errors persist and warrant close scrutiny.

Errors do occur in all investigations. So, it is necessary, firstly, to distinguish between an error and what might be called a ‘crucial’ error. A ‘crucial’ error is defined in this book as one which leads the investigation in the wrong direction resulting in either no one being convicted when obtaining a conviction seemed a reasonable prospect, or resulting in the wrong person being convicted.

Crucial errors have been revealed in a number of cases detailed in this book. In some of those cases, initial convictions have now been quashed. Such cases include the Lindy Chamberlain case at Uluru in the 1980s, the Andrew Mallard case in Mosman Park (Perth) in 1994, the Graham Stafford case at Goodna in 1991, the Kelvin Condren case at Mt.Isa in 1983, the Frank Button case at Cherbourg in 1998, and more recent cases involving Farah Jama, David Errol Phillis, Marc Renton, Robert Hytch, Joy Thomas, Frederick Martens and others. This book also deals in detail with three other cases where a person was convicted of murder and remains in jail to this day despite continued proclaimations of innocence against a background of plausible evidence. These three cases involve Andrew Fitzherbert, Wayne Butler and Shane Davis. Each of these cases has now been taken up by the Innocence Project at Griffith University.

Fitzherbert was convicted of the murder of veterinarian and chair of the Queensland Cat Protection Society, Kathleen Marshall, at Wilston in 1998. Fitzherbert had no motive, claimed that he had never met Marshall, but was convicted because his DNA was found in Marshall’s small surgery where the murder took place. Fitzherbert claimed at his appeal that he was “convicted by deliberate fraud on the part of the staff at the laboratory… and by fraud on the part of the scientist in charge of the case.”

Butler was convicted of the murder of Natasha Douty who worked as a waitress at the Brampton Island Resort in 1983. Natasha was in the habit of sunbaking nude at Dinghy Bay, a remote beach on the southern side of the island. In September that year she was found at that spot bashed in the head with her naked body covered by a red beach towel on which the murderer had masturbated. Three ABO blood grouping tests conducted on the semen on the towel shortly after the murder revealed that the semen came from a person who was a group O secretor. Butler was initially exonerated because he is group B secretor. But fourteen years after the murder, a DNA test on the semen on the towel was matched to Butler and he was convicted at his trial in 2001. Butler has always maintained his innocence of the crime and in 2012 he will apply for a pardon.

Davis was convicted of the murder of South African tourist, 19 year old Michelle Cohn at Surfers Paradise on Boxing Day 1990. This year marks his twenty first year in prison. Davis has been offered parole on condition that he admits to the crime and expresses remorse, but Davis maintains his innocence and has refused these offers of parole.

Other cases dealt with in the book include the Jaidyn Leskie murder at Moe in Victoria in 1997, the Arnold/Leahy case at Cherry Tree Creek near Atherton in 1991, the Caroline Byrne case at The Gap in Sydney in 1995, and the Daniel Morcombe case on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast in 2003. Another case dealt with is the Gabe and Tina Watson case in which Tina died in strange circumstances in 2003 whilst scuba diving on the wreck of the Yongala on the Barrier Reef. Gabe Watson pleaded guilty to the manslaughter of his wife Tina and he served time in Borallon Correctional Centre. On his release, he was sent back to his home state of Alabama, where prosecutors brought a murder charge against him. In February 2012 he is now a free man after Judge Nail ruled that the prosecution had failed to establish a case to answer. Judge Nail then threw the case out of court.

Crucial errors, if they occur, are very costly. They are costly in jail time for any innocent person who is convicted, and in lost reputation for the prisoner, for the police and the justice system. They are also costly in terms of compensation payments, and in terms of the suffering caused to the surviving members of a victim’s family. Andrew Mallard served twelve and a half years for a crime he did not commit, and in May 2009 he was awarded $3.25 million in compensation by the Western Australian government. Kelvin Condren received $400,000 in 1995 as compensation for serving seven years in prison for the murder of Patricia Carlton, a crime that he did not commit.

Why do such Errors Occur?

It is argued in this book that part of the problem lies with inadequate police and detective training programs which fail to impart the necessary expertise for the future task trainees face in processing serious, complex crimes. When the trainees confront this situation in their later work, their consequent lack of ‘know how’ sometimes leads them into error. Solving a complex murder mystery is akin to conducting a scientific experiment and it is essential that investigators follow the scientific method. This requires that all of the data be collected before any hypothesis is formed. In the Graham Stafford case, and in the Arnold/Leahy case, as well as in the Andrew Mallard case, investigating police seemed to have reversed this process. They formed their hypothesis about who committed the murder before they had examined all of the data. Stafford has now had his conviction quashed, while the Queensland Attorney-General has announced that in 2012 a third inquest will be held into the Arnold/Leahy case. Mallard spent twelve years in jail before being released in 2006. As mentioned above, Mallard received substantial compensation three years later.

Mistakes have also occurred in the forensic area. Frank Button served almost a year in jail before DNA tests implicated a person other than Button as the culprit. Farah Jama served almost eighteen months in jail in Victoria before it was revealed that the DNA evidence against him had been contaminated in the laboratory. Similarly, DNA found on baby Jaidyn Leskie’s clothing after his body was recovered from Blue Rock dam near Moe, was matched to an unrelated rape case - again through a laboratory error.

Juries are mesmerized by the ‘mystical infallibility’ of DNA evidence where it is often claimed in court in murder cases that the probability of a match between the crime scene evidence (blood,saliva or semen) and a person chosen at random from the community is of the order of one in several billions. In the Kathleen Marshall murder, the forensic scientist in charge of the case claimed that the probability of a random match was one in four thousand billion. His calculation was heavily criticized by other scientists who pointed out that there are dependencies, not only between the nine loci in the Profiler Plus test system, but also between the alleles at the individual loci. One scientist argued that the true random match probability in the Marshall case might be as high as one in one hundred thousand. This means that there could be several males in a city the size of Brisbane with the same nine loci profile as Fitzherbert. It is clear how such a difference in random match probabilities could affect such a case.

It is argued in this book, however, that if the jury was also told about a different probability, namely, that the probability of human error in the laboratory that carried out the analysis, was (say) one in a hundred, or one in a thousand, the jury might return a different verdict.

Why we should be concerned

Each of us has good reason to take an interest in these matters , since any one of us could be a victim if we are in the wrong place at the wrong time. In fact all of us are victims to the extent that some guilty parties continue to walk free on our streets, and as taxpayers all of us fund the additional costs of dealing with crime, including the sizeable compensation payments that are made to those whose wrongful convictions are quashed.