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McCulkin tragedy: A summer evening’s drive becomes murder

News Corp Australia

FORTY-THREE years ago, 13-year-old Vicki McCulkin, her little sister Leanne and their mum Barbara climbed into the orange Valiant Charger that was Vincent O'Dempsey's pride and joy.

Vince's good mate Gary Reginald 'Shorty' Dubois was along for the late night ride on January 16, 1974.

The girls and their mum had no reason to fear O'Dempsey.

Even though he was a known Brisbane criminal king pin - once dubbed the Angel of Death - O'Dempsey used to live in the McCulkin's Highgate Hill home, he was a still a regular visitor and he even collected debts alongside their estranged husband and father Robert William 'Billy' McCulkin.

Vincent O'Dempsey
Vincent O'Dempsey

The family also had no reason, it seems, to distrust O'Dempsey's small time criminal mate Dubois, who was coming along for the ride that evening.

It's no surprise that the men were Barbara's friends.

She was a popular, beautiful woman who was "generous" with her time and often spoke about her different aspects of her life with neighbours, friends and even colleagues - including her suspicions her often violent husband might have been connected to a the Torino and Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub fires early in 1973.

Barbara had recently left her job at a milk bar and had breast augmentation surgery, a treat for herself following the breakdown of her marriage.

"Barbara was an excellent mother to her children and she was regarded by many as a good and generous lady," her nephew Brian Ogden recalls almost four decades later.

Barbara McCulkin and with one of her daughters. The McCulkin family disappeared in 1974.
Barbara McCulkin and with one of her daughters. The McCulkin family disappeared in 1974. Contributed

A serendipitous trip around Brisbane in what was then one of the country's most popular cars possibly seemed like a perfect way to top off a busy evening for the girls who were on school holidays.

Earlier on January 16, 1974, Vicki and Leanne went to a birthday party at the home of their neighbourhood friends Janet and Juneen Gayton.

Vicki had on her favourite jeans - blue with yellow stars dotted along the flares - a red top with a zipper at the front and a necklace.

Leanne matched her pink shorts with a smock top that "she wore all the time".

The McCulkins and the Gaytons were long-time mates.

They went to the same schools and they spent a lot of their spare time together.

"Vicki and Leanne were nice kids who had many friends," Mr Ogden says.

"They were busy doing what kids do - going to school, attending dance lessons, going skating, knocking about with the local kids and playing with their cats."

 

A photo of Vincent O'Dempsey's Valiant Charger. Mr O'Dempsey is accused of the alleged murder of Barbara McCulkin and her daughters Vicki and Leanne on January 16, 1974.
A photo of Vincent O'Dempsey's Valiant Charger. Mr O'Dempsey is accused of the alleged murder of Barbara McCulkin and her daughters Vicki and Leanne on January 16, 1974.

 

As they'd arranged earlier on the birthday day, the Gayton sisters popped across the road to collect the McCulkins from their plain but neat single-storey home at 16 Dorchester St.

It was about 6.30pm when Janet let out her usual greeting -  a friendly whistle - to alert Vicki and Leanne that she was outside.

As Janet and Juneen waited, they noticed a man with longish sandy brown hair patting Ginger Meggs the cat in the McCulkin's front yard.

They could see another man through the kitchen window, talking to Barbara.

A bright coloured Valiant Charger was parked in the street.
 

The McCulkins and the Gaytons had a quick conversation about who the men were, with Vicki explaining they were 'Vince' and 'Shorty' and then they headed over the road to the Gayton home.

Feeling sick, Leanne left the party about 8.30pm. Her big sister followed a little after 10pm.

Janet watched Vicki go inside her house but she did not see the family leave on the trip that would end in their murder and she did not see the Valiant Charger in the street.

The family did go for a drive that night and it was in that distinctive car and must have expected to be back soon.

Barbara McCulkin and her daughters Vicki and Leanne disappeared in 1974.
Barbara McCulkin and her daughters Vicki and Leanne disappeared in 1974. Contributed

 

Mrs McCulkin left a half-sewn dress on the sewing machine, her purse and wedding ring were on the fridge, the family's  cats were locked in the bathroom and two lights were left on.

"I saw that all my wife's clothes and shoes were in the house and the only thing that was missing was a pair of pink coloured scuffs with a floral design," Billy  McCulkin later told police.

It's not clear when the drive became a nightmare, but at some stage the car was stopped and O'Dempsey told Dubois to tie the mother and her daughters up.

The McCulkins were then driven to an unknown bush location where O'Dempsey forced Mrs McCulkin away from Vicki and Leanne.

Dubois later told his Clockwork Orange Gang mate Peter Hall that he heard "gurgling" sounds and O'Dempsey returned alone.

"After the sound stopped he (O'Dempsey) came down and proceeded to rape one of the girls," Peter Hall recounted at Dubois's trial in November.

 

Barbara McCulkin (right) and her daughters Vicky (left) and Leanne (centre) disappeared from their home on January 16, 1974. Contributed
Barbara McCulkin (right) and her daughters Vicky (left) and Leanne (centre) disappeared from their home on January 16, 1974. Contributed

 

Mr Hall said O'Dempsey told Dubois to "rape the other one, which he had trouble doing".

"He (Dubois) said he didn't feel real good but he eventually complied," Hall said.

"After that was over, O'Dempsey killed one (of the sisters) and asked him to kill the other.

"He said he couldn't do it so O'Dempsey killed the other (girl)."

The men then waited "until the sun" came up on the " horrific sight" and they buried the bodies.

They returned to Brisbane where they were seen about noon that day.

On Friday, the mystery of the McCulkin murders came to a  close as a Brisbane Supreme Court jury found O'Dempsey guilty of three charges of murder and one of deprivation of liberty.

 

Vincent O'Dempsey court drawing. Courtesy of the Courier Mail.
Vincent O'Dempsey court drawing. Courtesy of the Courier Mail. Brett Lethbridge/CourierMail

In delivering their verdict, the jury was not aware that Dubois was, in November, convicted of the manslaughter of Barbara and of raping and murdering Vicki and Leanne.

Both men were guilty of deprivation of liberty but two rape charges against O'Dempsey were dropped.

Friday's result was a massive relief for the family of Barbara, Vicki and Leanne.

"On January 16, 1974 Barbara, Leanne and Vicki were lured from their home by people they considered friends and suffered unimaginable violence and cruelty resulting in their untimely and callous deaths," Mr Ogden said.

"For 43 years our family have longed for information and justice regarding the disappearance of Barbara, Vicki and Leanne.

"Over the years members of both families have had to endure endless rumours, victim blaming, mistruths and time-wasters."

 

The Highgate Hill house where Barbara, Leanne and Vicki McCulkin lived before they disappeared in January of 1974.
The Highgate Hill house where Barbara, Leanne and Vicki McCulkin lived before they disappeared in January of 1974.

Bringing O'Dempsey and Dubois to trial was no mean feat.

Queensland Cold Case Homicide detectives had no bodies, no forensics and potential witnesses from 1974 were either dead or reluctant to come forward.

Detective Inspector Mick Dowie said it took great courage for the more than 60 witnesses who did appear at both trials.
"I'd like to acknowledge the outstanding work of the recent investigation team," Detective Inspector Mick Dowie told reporters after O'Dempsey was convicted on Friday.

"They did an outstanding job in collecting fresh evidence presented at both trials.

"I'd also like to acknowledge the outstanding job done by investigators over the past 40 years.

"Without their work, we could not have been able to present such a compelling circumstantial case.

"We have a motto - they may be gone but they're never forgotten, and that's true and that's been proven here today."

Vincent O'Dempsey.
Vincent O'Dempsey.

Criminologist and cold case expert Dr Claire Ferguson said solving a cold case after 43 years was almost impossible.

"It's exceptionally difficult, even for a current 'no-body homicide' to get to trial," the QUT Faculty of Law lecturer said.

"You have to prove the crime was committed - if you don't have a body what's to say that the people are even dead?

"After 43 years you would expect if they were still alive they would have made contact so that is in this case helpful but it would be better if they had the bodies."

Dr Ferguson said even if police had found forensic material relating to the crimes it probably would have been unusable 43 years later.

"There's no guarantee that evidence hasn't been contaminated in the time It has been sitting somewhere and we don't know about the collection procedures that were in place in 1974," Dr Ferguson said.

"Were gloves worn? What were they swabbing? What kind of vessel were the swabs put into?

"And you can't test all of the people who were working at the crime scenes back then."

Barbara McCulkin and her daughters Vicki and Leanne disappeared in 1974.
Barbara McCulkin and her daughters Vicki and Leanne disappeared in 1974. Contributed

The McCulkin murder trials were separated but there were many common themes between the Crown's cases against both killers.

Crown prosecutor David Meredith explained at Dubois's trial how Dubois and four of his mates burnt down Fortitude Valley's Torino nightclub in February of 1973 after O'Dempsey "paid" them $500 for the job.

Eleven days later the Whiskey Au Go went up in flames, killing 15 people.

In the months after the fires Barbara told at least two people  that she thought her estranged husband was involved in the blazes.

Peter Nisbett, who lived next door to the McCulkins, told the Dubois trial how Barbara said "if the police had asked Bill the right questions they may get additional information about the Whiskey Au Go Go and Torino fires."

"The impression I gained was that he was involved in some way," Nisbet said.

Leanne, at school one day, broke down sobbing as she revealed to a friend that "her father had something to do with it (the Whiskey Au Go Go fire)." 

The Crown's case at both trials was that O'Dempsey feared Barbara might link him to the Whiskey Au Go Go fire and that might have been the reason behind his decision to murder the family.

"It may not sound a sufficient motive or even a sensible one, but there never is for murder," Mr  Meredith said at O'Dempsey's trial

Both trials featured many of the same witnesses including the Gaytons who confirmed the men were at the McCulkin home in the hours before they disappeared.

Barbara McCulkin and her daughters Vicki and Leanne. The family disappeared in 1974.
Barbara McCulkin and her daughters Vicki and Leanne. The family disappeared in 1974. Contributed

Mr McCulkin's desperate search to find his family was also outlined at both trials when the deceased man's statement to police read to the court.

The court heard Mr McCulkin suspected Dubois and O'Dempsey were behind the disappearance and after he started asking questions, the murderers fled Brisbane.

The Crown relied heavily on the testimony of a number of witnesses to whom the men confessed.

Dubois's trial heard he became agitated and stressed in front of police when he was being extradited from South Australia to Queensland in 1980 on unrelated charges.

"I'm guilty by association. I know O'Dempsey," former South Australian police officer John Attwood said Dubois told him.
"I'm dead if I say anything. He's mad. He likes doing it. He's a mad f**king dog."

Self-confessed heroin addict Kerri Scully fired up under defence barrister Tony Glynn's questioning, never wavering from her claim that her former lover, O'Dempsey, told her he killed the family.

"I'm  good for it but they'll never get me for it," O'Dempsey told her while they were in bed at Mr O'Dempsey's Warwick home reading a book called Shotgun and Standover, in which the defendant featured.

"(He said) I'm good for it but they'll never get me for it," said Ms Scully, who also told the court that Mr O'Dempsey told her he was "sleeping" with Barbara.

"I was blown away when I heard that come out of his mouth," 36-year-old Ms Scully said.

"I went home and tried to distance myself from him and the relationship.

"I was scared, I was confused, I was off my head."

 

Vincent O'Dempsey. Photo Warwick Daily News
Vincent O'Dempsey. Photo Warwick Daily News

Under questioning from Mr Glynn, Ms Scully angrily yelled that she could have fled Warwick to have a 'hit' of heroin: "Especially if I just heard the man I'm laying beside is a killer of kids".

"I'll be a junkie for the rest of my life," she said when asked about her drug use, indicating that she no longer used the drug but considered herself addicted regardless.

Mr Glynn told Ms Scully he did not believe the evidence she was giving.

"I'm telling the truth," she rebutted.

"I don't give two sh*ts if you believe me or not.

"I wasn't interested in the reward.

"What was the $250,000 going to do for me?

"I wasted thousands and millions of dollars in my arms.

"If the reward was offered to me I wouldn't take it - I would be offended."
 

Barbara McCulkin and her daughters Vicki and Leanne disappeared in 1974 from this Highgate Hill home.
Barbara McCulkin and her daughters Vicki and Leanne disappeared in 1974 from this Highgate Hill home.

Warren McDonald claimed he was telling the truth when he said  O'Dempsey allegedly revealed he had "several notches on his belt" while they were discussing security surrounding a crop of marijuana they were growing in Warwick.

"He (O'Dempsey) said 'You need a notch on your gun. When I was your age I had several notches on my gun, you need a kill'," Mr McDonald told the jury.

"He said he killed the McCulkins and Shorty was nothing but a rapist.

"He said they'll never catch me because they'll never find the bodies."

The O'Dempsey trial also heard from an unnamed prison informant  claiming O'Dempsey confessed to him.

O'Dempsey and Dubois will be sentenced together on May 31 or June 1.

Dubious has filed an appeal and O'Dempsey's legal team has suggested they would follow suit.

The pain is far from over for the families of Barbara, Vicki and Leanne who have no bodies to bury and no memorial to mark their passing.

Mr Ogden said he and his family hoped someone would come forward to reveal the final piece in the puzzle.

"We still need information as to the location of our loved ones' remains," Mr Ogden says.

"We ask that if anyone has information that they come forward."

 

- ARM NEWSDESK