A RETIRED Hamilton policeman has reflected on his role as a young officer covering a south-west murder case that horrified 1970s Australia.
Southern Grampians councillor Dennis Dawson spoke about the 1971 Rosalyn Nolte murder, in which the Hamilton teenager was killed in odd and sadistic circumstances near Mount Napier.
Apprentice bricklayer Christopher Lowery and shop assistant friend Charles King were convicted of Miss Nolte’s murder and sentenced to death, the last people in Victoria to be in line for the hangman’s noose.
But a last-minute intervention by State Governor Henry Winneke in 1973 spared Lowery and King’s lives. Instead, they were sentenced to life imprisonment.
Cr Dawson’s recollection of the murder investigation and its aftermath were stirred after News Limited recently reported the whereabouts of King, now in his late 60s and living in Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs.
The Hamilton-based councillor served in the police force until 1986, going on to have a successful business career.
Four decades may have passed since the murder and subsequent trial but Cr Dawson said the events of the period were seared into his memory.
“I was a 22-year-old officer in the police force. Only a few years earlier I’d been in the cadet program,” he said.
“Like most new officers, I was exposed to a number of crimes early in the job but I don’t think anything prepares you for something like the Nolte murder.”
Young Rosalyn was walking her corgi dog Jabie near her Hamilton home on a warm Sunday evening in January 1971 when it is believed Lowery and King abducted the 15-year-old girl in Lowery’s Holden panel van.
The sadistic duo drove south of Hamilton to Mount Napier and beat, stomped and kicked her repeatedly.
A court heard that both men were involved in trussing her with electrical flex in such a way that the weight of her body slowly strangled her. Lowery and King watched, then left her.
An exhaustive search across the south-west took place in the days following Rosalyn’s disappearance.
She was found five days after she went missing when a Macarthur district farmer found the girl’s dog wandering along a track near the Port Fairy-Hamilton Road.
Police moved on to the area where the corgi had been wandering and a search party led by Detective Norm Mengler discovered Rosalyn’s body, her clothes scattered around the scene.
“It’s something that no one would be able to easily forget,” Cr Dawson said.
“At the time when Rosalyn’s body was discovered near Mount Napier, I was sent to the scene to secure the area ahead of the arrival of police photographers and a thorough search by investigators.
“She was bound at the wrists and ankles with brown two-core electric flex.
“She’d been thrown, naked, except for her socks, into this scrubby area surrounded by porous rocks.
“There was no dignity in her death. She wasn’t treated like a human being.”
The young officer had to guard Rosalyn’s body and was present when the girl’s father had to identify her in an undertaker’s panel van at the police station yard.
It was only a few days before Lowery and King were arrested. They were questioned at Hamilton police station before appearing in Melbourne City Court the following day.
Again, the young officer was involved in the investigation, coming face-to-face with Rosalyn’s killers.
“When they were arrested and interviewed, Christopher Lowery made some admissions and I had to give evidence at the trial,” Cr Dawson said.
“Shock and revulsion was the best way to describe how I felt. But as an officer, I was a firm believer in not passing judgment, in letting the legal process run its course.”
Cr Dawson said all three families — of the victim and the two murderers — were well known around town and the fallout reverberated around Hamilton for years.
“It’s fair to say the three families were well regarded and given Hamilton’s small population, it was particularly tough for parents and other family members,” he said.
“The Nolte family were wonderful people who didn’t deserve the pain and suffering they had to endure.
“The parents of Lowery and King were lovely people too.
“They were placed in a very difficult position not of their making.”
With Victoria moving away from the death penalty, Governor Winneke commuted the death sentences to 60 years’ imprisonment, with a minimum of 50 years.
But the duo were freed far earlier than the 2023 deadline.
The Kirner government’s new sentencing act made them eligible for a minimum sentence and they were released from prison in August 1992.
Reaction in Hamilton was mixed. Rosalyn’s aunt Aileen Williams was furious and said the new sentencing act meant the concept of life imprisonment was undermined.
Lowery returned to crime within a few years, appearing in Geelong courtrooms on drugs charges and received a two-month prison term in 1999. He suicided seven years ago.
King led an inconspicuous existence for two decades until News Limited reported that he was working as a gardener at a retirement village in suburban Melbourne. He resigned from the position once his employers became aware of his dark past.
The motive for the killing was never properly explained by either King or Lowery. The court accepted it was committed as a “thrill kill”.
“People in any country town would have been shocked by what happened, more so in the early 1970s,” Cr Dawson said.
“You have to remember at that time that we weren’t exposed to the horrors of murder on television or in newspapers like we are today.
“Despite those changing circumstances, it remains a shocking crime.”