Are there multiple serial killers on the loose on Australia’s ‘highway of death’

Are there multiple serial killers on the loose on Australia’s ‘highway of death’

The lonely outback road has been called Australia’s ‘highway of death’ – and with good reason.

Over more than 50 years Flinders Highway, which stretches 800km from Townsville to Mount Isa in north Queensland, has claimed 12 victims who were murdered or vanished, never to be seen again. 

And no one has been convicted of any of these crimes.   

Many believe the killings and disappearances were the work of one serial killer, but an American criminal profiler who has closely studied the cases disagrees. 

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The lonely outback Flinders Highway stretches 900km from Townsville to Mount Isa in North Queensland, where at least 11 people vanished or met a grisly end

‘The thing that became so intriguing about the Flinders Highway is the number of victims that are attributed to that stretch of road,’ said Mike King of ESRI Fraud and Emergency Comms.

‘(But) there are too many inconsistencies in the victims, the victimology and in the locations where these things occurred and the events surrounding each crime.

‘What I do believe is that there are multiple killers responsible and that in reality the Flinders Highway becomes a serial location,’ Mr King told Channel 10’s The Sunday Project.

Rachel Penno, the mother of Jayden Penno-Tompsett, the most recent person to go vanish from the highway, said ‘It’s just a perfect area to take someone and make them go missing’.

Mr Penno-Tompsett, from Newcastle in NSW, was aged 22 when he was reported missing in the early days of 2018. 

‘He sent me a text on the Saturday night saying the one word, “yeah”. That was it. When I asked him, “are you OK, Jayden?” 

‘Never heard from him again, until the Wednesday about four in the afternoon, I got a text message saying Jayden was missing,’ she said. 

Mr Penno-Tompsett was travelling with his friend Lucas Tattersall, who said Jayden had taken the drug ice and after a fight he stormed off into the bush, near Charters Towers. 

An inquest into the disappearance found he probably died due to exposure to the harsh elements, but his mum has never believed that to be the case. 

Rachel Penno (pictured) believes her son Jayden Penno-Tompsett was killed over a drug deal that went wrong

People killed on the highway of death Judith and Susan Mackay, August 26, 1970

Anita Cunningham and Robin Hoinville-Bartram, July 1972

Catherine Graham, July 29, 1974

Karen Edwards, Gordon Twaddle and Timothy Thompson, October 1978

Tony Jones, November 3, 1982

Reece Kearney, December 15, 2017

Jayden Penno-Tompsett, December 31, 2017 

She has made many trips to the area, knocked on doors and hired a private investigator.  

‘I found out afterwards, there was a lot of stuff going down. There were threats sent to Jayden, Jayden wasn’t behaving normal, he was acting very scared,’ Ms Penno said. 

‘I believe (it was a) drug deal gone wrong. Something to do with drugs. I believe Jayden’s lost his life.’

Ken Gamble, the investigator she hired with help from crowd funding, says he believes ‘There’s every possibility there could be a serial killer up here’. 

‘There’s people in Charters Towers who have made very serious allegations about certain people in Charters Towers that may have been involved in Jayden’s disappearance. And those people have not spoken to police,’ Mr Gamble said.     

There were many other cases on the ‘highway of death’ before Mr Penno-Tompsett’s disappearance, dating back to 1970.

All the others are either confirmed dead, or were declared to be deceased by inquests years after their bodies were never found.

Only two people were ever charged for any of the murders: one dying before he could stand a retrial and the other case ongoing.

With so many unsolved cases, wild theories run rampant including that convicted serial killer Ivan Milat could have been involved. 

Some call the highway Australia’s real-life Wolf Creek. Others such as Mark Jones, whose brother Tony vanished in 1982, believe at least one serial killer could be operating along the road.

‘It is a lonely abandoned road in the middle of nowhere. But if the same person did these completely random killings, why stop?’ he said in 2014.

‘Was he in jail, did he go to ground, or is he still out there waiting for the next victim?’

Judith and Susan Mackay, August 26, 1970

Judith, 7 and Susan, 5, disappeared from a bus stop near Townsville and were reported missing when they didn’t come home after school.

After a two-day search their bodies were found in a dry creek bed about 25km southwest of Townsville.

Susan was found first before a trail of footprints led searchers 70m to Judith’s body, leading to speculation that she tried to flee after her sister was killed.

Judith, 7 and Susan, 5, Mackay disappeared from a bus stop near Townsville and were reported missing when they didn’t come home after school. Two days later their bodies were found

Both girls were raped and stabbed three times in the chest, but Judith was still alive when she was buried and choked to death on the sand.

Their school uniforms were found neatly folded in their schoolbags and their straw hats and shoes, with socks folded inside, laying beside them.

Locals were so outraged that one detective vowed not to go home until the killer was caught and worked day and night at the police station with his wife bringing him food.

He died of a heart attack after two weeks.

Police offered a $10,000 reward and two witnesses reported seeing a blue Vauxhall Victor with the girls in it but others said it was a Holden.

Petrol station worker Jean Thwaite said she saw Susan in the car as she filled it up for an adult male driver, with her eyes red like she’d been crying. 

‘Are we there yet?’ she asked the man, before Judith inquired ‘when are you going to take us to mummy? You promised you were going to take us to mummy.’

‘Get up on the seat and go to sleep,’ the man snapped back.

Another witness, Neil Lunney, said he confronted a man who cut him off in traffic and saw two girls in school uniform inside the car.

Both accounts were dismissed by police who, along with the media, were convinced the car was a Holden. The case went cold.

In 1998, a victim of serial paedophile Arthur Stanley Brown came forward with her suspicions as police were conducting a cold case review.

Serial paedophile Arthur Stanley Brown was eventually tried for the murders but it resulted in a hung jury. A retrial was called off when he was declared senile and he died a year later in 2002

He had allegedly confessed to the murders twice, once to a stranger in a pub in Charters Towers, further along the highway, who asked him about the case, and to his apprentice.

The drinker told police but was ignored, and the apprentice thought Brown was joking as it was an out of character remark.

Cold case detectives investigated Brown, who worked as a carpenter at the Mackay girls’ school in 1970, and he was later arrested.

Police charged him with both murders, 45 sexual assaults and six rapes. Many of his victims were attacked in the same creek bed the murdered girls were found in – one just 20 metres away from their bodies.

Brown stood trial in October 1999 but it resulted in a hung jury after evidence of his paedophillia was ruled inadmissible.

A retrial was planned for the following year but called off when Brown was declared unfit to stand trial because he had dementia. He died in 2002.

Brown was also suspected of the famous unsolved abduction of the Beaumont children, who were snatched from a beach in Adelaide on Australia Day 1966.

A photo of part of the Flinders Highway in the 1970s when several of the murders and disappearances took place

He is also one of two top suspects for the Adelaide Oval abductions in 1973 of Joanne Ratcliffe, 11, and Kirste Gordon, 4, after a witness to that crime recognised him from footage of his 1998 arrest.

Brown is also a suspect in the 1975 murder of Catherine Graham, another victim from the Flinders Highway. 

Her body was found 500m from where the Mackay girls were discovered and police said the way they were buried was similar.

Brown may also have killed Anita Cunningham and Robin Hoinville-Bartram, who disappeared along Flinders Highway in 1972.  

Jayden Penno-Tompsett, December 31, 2017

The 22-year-old was on a big road trip with his friend Lucas Tattersall from Newcastle to Cairns to visit friends in time for a New Year’s Eve party.

The pair took an inland route and were doubling back towards Townsville on Flinders Highway, stopping at a Charters Towers roadhouse at 3.30am on December 31.

However, they had a big argument soon after getting back on the road and Mr Penno-Tompsett pulled the car over and stormed off into the darkness. 

Jayden Penno-Tompsett, 22, was on a road trip to Cairns for New Year’s Eve with a friend when they had an argument and he got out of the car, storming off never to be seen again. Just before that he was seen on CCTV at a roadhouse in Charters Towers

Mr Tattersall took the wheel and drove off but soon returned to look for his friend, only to find there was no sign of him anywhere near the area.

Family and friends were concerned but thought he may have just started hitchhiking home and Mr Tattersall didn’t report him missing until January 3.

Mr Tattersall claimed this was because when he got to Cairns friends told him not to call police because Mr Penno-Tompsett had outstanding warrants in NSW.

Police said he has been ‘more than cooperative’ with the investigation and Mr Tattersall has hit out at those who accuse him of abandoning his friend.

‘I’m sorry to tell you but if someone wants to just up and leave and f**k off then that’s what they are gonna do,’ he wrote on Facebook. 

‘[You] don’t understand how hard I tried to help Jayden when I with him and calm him down so we can sort this out.

‘He is my mate and I’m hurt too please stop making out I’m just some heartless p***k that left him out there to die.’ 

Police searched an 85km radius of where Mr Penno-Tompsett was believed to have left the car but found no trace of him. 

The car the pair were driving in before he got out and Mr Tattersall left without him, returning soon after to find no trace of him

Police searched an 85km radius of where Mr Penno-Tompsett was believed to have left the car but found no trace of him

Local officers said the area was ‘impossible to get lost in’ because there were plenty of properties around to ask for help. 

His mother Rachel has spent almost every waking moment searching for him.

She visited the area, knocked on doors and followed whatever leads she could.  

Ms Penno said she would not stop looking, no matter how long it took, that she wants to bring her son home. 

Anita Cunningham and Robin Hoinville-Bartram, July 1972 

The two student nurses set out from Melbourne on a hitchhiking holiday around Australia and disappeared before they made it to visit Robin’s mother in Bowen.

The skeletal remains of Robin, 18, was were found in Sensible Creek under a bridge of Flinders Highway near Pentland on November 15, 1972.

She had been raped and shot twice in the head with a .22 rifle. Anita, 19, was never found but she is presumed to have also been murdered.

Anita Cunningham and Robin Hoinville-Bartram (pictured with a friend) set out from Melbourne on a hitchhiking holiday around Australia and disappeared

A reward of $250,000 and immunity from prosecution has not produced any serious leads and the case remains cold after being reopened in 2003.

In 2019, former police detective Mick Gurn sensationally claimed that Australia’s worst serial killer Ivan Milat could be responsible.

Robin was found raped and murders but Anita (pictured) is still missing and presumed dead

The two friends made it to Mount Isa from Melbourne and headed east along Flinders Highway, stopping in Pentland.

Mr Gurn claims he was told by staff at the Pentland Hotel the girls hitchhiked with a man they knew as ‘Cowboy’.

They then left the pub that night with the band but never made it to their next stop in Charters Towers, another 100km east.

Another suspect is John Andrew Stuart, who firebombed the Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub in Brisbane on March 8, 1973, killing 15 people.

A man named Randall Wilson claimed to have met Stuart at the Pentland Hotel around the time of the murders when he was staying there.

‘I left him to go roo shooting about dusk and when I got back, I found just about all my gear, including money and 21st birthday presents, was gone,’ he told the Sunday Mail in 2008.

‘He left something a bit chilling. On the bed he had neatly laid out a single set of my clothes. Laid out like a body. 

Witnesses said the pair were spotted at the Pentland Hotel and left with the band, and never seen alive since

‘There was a shirt, neatly in place, under that an arranged belt, then a pair of my jeans and at the bottom of the jeans was footwear arranged to look like there were feet in them.’

Some of the stolen clothing was found near the Sensible Creek bridge, very close to where Robin’s body was found.

Stuart was jailed for the nightclub bombing and died in jail in 1979.

Catherine Graham, July 29, 1974 

The 18-year-old was selling books door-to-door south of Townsville when she disappeared.

Ms Graham called her mother at 8.19pm from a payphone in a panic, concerned about a stranger she spotted along her route.

Catherine Graham was selling books door-to-door when she disappeared. She was found raped and murdered the next day

‘There is someone peering at me mum — and I don’t like the look of him,’ she said. 

The next day about 5pm her badly beaten body was found near the Flinders Highway in the same area as the Mackay children.

She was raped and her head was bashed in with a rock, which was ruled the cause of death.

Ms Graham’s killer was never found.

Her body was found 500m from where the Mackay girls were discovered and police admitted the way they were buried was similar.

A fresh appeal for information was made in 2019 with a $250,000 reward.

Karen Edwards, Gordon Twaddle and Timothy Thompson, October 1978 

The Spear Creek killings took place near the mining town of Mount Isa where Flinders Highway meets the Barkly Highway.

Karen Edwards, 23, Timothy Thomson, 31, and Gordon Twaddle, 21, set out on a motorcycle adventure around Australia and stopped at the local caravan park.

The trio planned to ride from the Northern Territory to Cairns before heading down Australia’s east coast to Melbourne to spend Christmas with family members. 

Friends Karen Edwards, Gordon Twaddle and Timothy Thomson (left to right) were on the adventure of a lifetime in the Australian outback in 1978 when their lives were cut short

Bruce John Preston, 63, was charged with the triple murder near Mount Isa in 1978, 41 years later

Ms Edwards and Mr Thompson rode their red and gold 1977 BMW R100s with a homemade side car for their nine-month-old doberman Tristie, while Mr Gordon rode a blue 1977 Suzuki GS750. 

They were last seen leaving the Moondarra caravan park on October 5, 1978, after getting into the Toyota Landcruiser of an unidentified man they had befriended.

The next day, the motorcycles they left behind were removed along with the rest of their gear, and Tristie was found at the local dump.

No trace of the trio was found until October 24 when a dog walker stumbled upon Ms Edwards’ body propped up against a tree and left to rot in bushland in Spear Creek, just out of town.

The other two were found against other trees nearby when police searched the area the next day. All three had been shot dead.

A week later the rest of their belongings, minus the motorbikes, was found at the dump.

Decades passed until the case was reopened earlier this year and after more than 50 leads were generated, police finally made an arrest in April 2019. 

Tim, Gordon and Karen were last seen at this caravan park (pictured) before their bodies were found with gunshot wounds  19 days later in bushland 12km north of Mount Isa

Bruce Preston has always been a person of interest, charged with stealing Tim’s motorcycle (pictured) in 1978 for which he was convicted and fined $300

Bruce John Preston, 63, a retired senior prison officer at NSW’s Goulburn Supermax jail, was charged with three counts of murder.

Preston was caught with Mr Thompson’s distinctive motorbike and after saying he had found it, he was fined $300 for theft but not considered a murder suspect.

He told police in 1978 he wasn’t even in Mount Isa at the time of the murders, but in an interview before his arrest he contradicted this and said he was.

Witnesses said the mystery man with the Landcruiser matched Preston’s description, which eventually led to his arrest.

Detective Senior Sergeant Kentwell said he did not expect the arrest when police hauled him to lockup decades after the crime.

‘He was surprised, as anybody would be after 41 years,’ he said.

Preston, who maintains he is innocent, was granted bail in January 2020. 

A judge said some of the evidence against Mr Preston may have been exaggerated. 

The trio were travelling with Tim’s dog Tristie (pictured). Tristie was found at a Mount Isa dump 18 days before their bodies were discovered

Tony Jones, November 3, 1982

The Perth native, 20, was working his way around Australia and was heading home with his brother Tim across North Queensland.

The brothers had an odd travelling style where Tony hitchhiked while Tim rode his bicycle and they communicated by phoning relatives and leaving messages for each other.

Tony Jones left Townsville on November 3, 1982, to hitchhike to Mount Isa to meet his brother Tim but never made it

After a couple of weeks in Townsville, Tim began the journey across Flinders Highway on October 28 while Tony made a side trip to Cairns.

When he got back to Townsville on November 3 he called his girlfriend in Perth and was surprised to learn Tim was already in Mount Isa.

His parents had wired him $150 to split with Tim when they met up in Mount Isa, so Tony began his hitchhiking.

He never touched his bank account and was never heard from again.

Mr Jones also carried a dismantled .22 Voere rifle, serial number 257435 with a stained red stock in his backpack, which was never found. 

The missing person investigation by undermanned and poorly skilled police at the time was beset by missed clues and leads that were never followed up. 

The 2002 coronial inquest that declared Mr Jones dead was damning of the 1983 investigation, calling it ‘not sufficient’ and highlighting many problems.

It was indicative of a 1980s Queensland police culture that the Fitzgerald Royal Commission into police misconduct called ‘debilitated by misconduct, inefficiency, incompetence, and deficient leadership’.

Could a serial killer have murdered 14 on the same highway? The grisly history of Flinders Highway lends itself to all manner of theories about why so many people me their end and if they are connected.

In 2014, Andy Albury added fuel to that fire by confessing he killed 14 people in the area between 1970 and 1982, including Tony Jones.

He was already serving a life sentence for the 1983 murder of Aboriginal woman Gloria Pindan in Darwin.

Albury was convicted of using a broken bottle to mutilate and murder Ms Pindan – cutting off her breasts and gouging out her eyes after killing her.

The grisly history of Flinders Highway lends itself to all manner of theories about why so many people me their end and if they are connected

A psychiatric assessment found he suffered a mental disorder causing him to have ‘a casual disregard for the act of killing’.

‘Albury is an extremely dangerous man. He has a fantasy about terrorising a town by committing casual, motiveless murder for the purpose of making people frightened that they may be the next to be killed.’

Albury allegedly confessed the 14 murders to retired detective Les Chapman, who didn’t say which cases the convicted killer claimed as his own.

However, his confession has been repeatedly rubbished by police and even Mr Chapman thought Albury could just be talking himself up.

Many of the known murders and disappearances on Flinders Highway were also too long ago, occurring when he was still a child.

Witnesses were not interviewed, statements not properly taken, leads not followed up, and a composite sketch of a person of interest was not released for 10 years.

A key piece of evidence, a note that claimed to say where Mr Jones’ body was buried, was lost in the decades before the case was reopened.

‘I believe body of AJ Jones buried in or near Fullarton River bed within 100 yds west southside Flinders Hwy Lochiel,’ it read.

Police searched the area when they found nothing decided the letter was a hoax, but because they lost it the paper couldn’t later be tested for DNA.

A key piece of evidence, a note that claimed to say where Mr Jones’ body was buried, was lost in the decades before the case was reopened and so couldn’t be DNA tested

Two sketches of persons of interest made by police from witness statements. They were never identified and Mr Jones’ likely killer remained at large

A reward of $20,000 was offered in 1983 and raised to $250,000 in 2010.

The 2002 coronial inquest determined Mr Jones was murdered but because of a technicality the family couldn’t get a death certificate until 2006.

Attorney-General Linda Lavarch had to get the law changed in parliament before the death certificate was finally issued.

Reece Kearney, December 15, 2017 

Reece Kearney, 26, hasn’t been seen since he was spotted filling up his a black 2012 Bonneyville Triumph motorcycle at a roadhouse in Charters Towers.

He smashed his phone and left his father’s home with nothing but the clothes he was wearing in the moments before he disappeared. 

Mr Kearney’s father Ron Kearney believes his son was attempting to make his way over to Normanton to see his brother, however he never made it and his family believe he may have had a crash.

Reece Kearney, 26, hasn’t been seen since he was spotted filling up his a black 2012 Bonneyville Triumph motorcycle at a roadhouse in Charters Towers

His family released this photo of the distinctive tattoo on his arm in the hope of finding him

Mr Kearney’s father Ron Kearney believes his son was attempting to make his way over to Normanton to see his brother, however he never made it and his family believe he may have had a crash

Ron Kearney made an emotional appeal a month after he went missing, begging for any information. 

‘There is still a possibility that he’s gone from Normanton to Mount Isa, so I appeal to the people… if they see something, please come forward,’ he said.

‘We are still hopeful of having a happy ending, we love him very much and we’d like to see him back.

‘He’s a good lad, loves his fishing, he’s well liked in the community.’

A month after that, a police search of bushland near Georgetown in the Gulf Country found clothing belonging to him.

No trace has been found of Mr Kearney since.

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