BEEP beep. I was half asleep as I reached for my mobile phone on the bedside table, but with each word quickly became wide-eyed.
''Saw your article in 2days Standard I know who killed those women I have a story that has never been told''
I threw back the covers and my feet hit the floor. Was this serious? Or, more likely, were these the words of a crackpot seeking a thrill? While the text did not contain a name, the number had not been blocked. Taking note of the phone number, I nervously keyed each digit. A woman answered.
News that two women had been slaughtered at a hairdressing salon spread quickly across Victoria's South West like a fast-moving nauseating fog. Located about 360 kilometres west of Melbourne, Portland was used to being buffeted by strong winds sweeping off the Southern Ocean, but was not prepared for a grisly double slaying. Residents were temporarily paralysed in disbelief that such a horrific and unexpected crime could occur in their peaceful part of the State. They were stunned by its brazenness. The Old London Coiffure was one of several businesses housed inside an historic bluestone building overlooking picturesque Portland Bay. The building is considered the oldest stone structure in Portland with the town itself Victoria's first permanent European settlement. The corner location of the building on the intersection of Bentinck and Julia streets - two busy thoroughfares - placed the killer or killers at extreme risk of detection. People strolled along the footpaths; employees filled adjoining workplaces on a ''regular'' Friday afternoon. Perhaps the killer had banked on this element of surprise.
Another puzzling aspect of this crime was the killer's choice of victims. Mrs Acocks and Mrs Penny had no known enemies or cause for concern. They should have, and would have, felt safe at the salon until that chilling moment the killer's face appeared, shattering any sense of security. We can only imagine how the women felt, their minds undoubtedly racing to decide the best way to handle the surreal situation; should they negotiate or reason with their attacker, should they submissively co-operate and comply with any demand, or rise against him? Were their minds a blur with thoughts of when to chance an escape or risk further injury by screaming for help? Keeping them quiet and contained would have been a priority for the killer with so many people around. Exactly how long he remained inside the salon is not known; however, in that time he stole the lives of two women, traumatised and shattered their families and left a community reeling in terror.
When Mrs Penny did not arrive for her 3.15pm coffee arrangement, her long-time friend Mrs Endersby launched a one-woman search party. She sensed something was wrong. It was out of character for her friend, whom she referred to as Meg, not to show. The day before the murders, the two women organised to meet the next day as Mrs Penny was going away for three weeks. Mrs Endersby understood Mrs Penny's hair appointment was for 2.15pm and they would meet an hour later.
Mrs Endersby was one of a handful of key witnesses whose collective accounts provided a timeline of events, but pinpointing times relied mostly on the accuracy of memory. A fax received in an office across the courtyard from the Old London building about the time screams were heard helped police estimate a 3.30pm time-of-death. I was curious if there was a scientific method available to determine exactly when someone died, so I contacted a highly regarded senior pathologist at the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine, Dr Shelley. She shared her practical method of estimating a victim's time-of-death, citing it was ''sometime between when the victim was last seen alive and when found dead''. Anything more concise was left to the ''experts'' on television programs such as Crime Scene Investigation where fictitious murders were neatly solved within the hour's viewing.
Mrs Acocks was last seen alive by a witness at 3.05pm as she returned to the salon after leaving briefly to collect knitting from her car. Presumably Mrs Acocks planned to show Mrs Penny the jumper she was knitting for her soon-to-be-born grandson. It was also common for Mrs Acocks to knit or read a book when there was a break between clientele. We know that a potential offender was observed running from the area near the back entrance of the salon between 3.30 and 4pm - the Running Man who became the focus of the computer-generated image created by the former mayor. The bodies were found shortly after 4.30pm. So, based on Dr Robertson's theory, the women died sometime between 3.05 and minutes after 4.30pm - providing the crucial 90-minute window.
Using a stopwatch, I recorded how long it took me to walk from the salon to where Mrs Acocks' car was found parked in Bentinck Street and back again. I walked at a regular pace and allowed 30 seconds for her to open the car manually, collect her knitting and lock the car door again. Mrs Acocks always locked her car, as a second key was jammed in the ignition.
Edited extract of Horrible Man by Leonie Wallace, published by Fontaine Press.
This book is one of 10 Victorian titles included in the State Library's Summer Read program. Visit a participating public library and recommend one of the books for your chance to win a prize.