Portland murders leave legacy of heartache

Author Leonie Wallace has penned a book about the unsolved murders of Margaret Penny and Claire Acocks.
Author Leonie Wallace has penned a book about the unsolved murders of Margaret Penny and Claire Acocks.

THE horrific murders of two Portland women in a hair salon more than 20 years ago continues to cause heartache and suspicion in the tight-knit community.

The pain and unanswered questions are laid bare in Port Campbell author Leonie Wallace’s book Horrible Man, released this week.

It was on Friday, May 3, in 1991 between 3.05pm and 4.35pm that hairdresser Claire Acocks, 49, and her client Margaret Penny, 58, suffered a brutal end.

After three-and-a-half years writing the book, Wallace is adamant there is someone out there who knows what happened.

She said that after a story was published in The Standard last year on her upcoming book she received a late-night text message from a woman who claimed to know who committed the crime and that her story had never been told.

“We have shared various text messages and telephone conversations since then, with our last contact only a few weeks ago,” she said.

“Despite initial scepticism, I think she is genuine.”

Wallace and the woman are yet to meet and so far her contact is yet to say who she believes killed Mrs Acocks and Mrs Penny.

Wallace’s publisher also stalled going to print while the final chapter was unfolding.

“Paranoia and concerns for her own family have so far fuelled her reluctance to reveal the full extent of what she allegedly knows,” Wallace said.

“I am clinging to the chance this woman does hold that final vital piece of information and am optimistic she will soon find the courage to speak.

“Surely the killer shared what occurred with at least one other person, perhaps a trusted relative, a partner or a friend. Over time loyalties can change and people mature, so after close to 21 years, it would be incredible if these factors could align.

“I don’t understand how someone could be in possession of that kind of information and not feel compelled to do the right thing, but it appears to be more complicated than that.

“The hope is whoever knows the truth will read the book, realise the importance and power of what they know and then have the courage to make it known.”

Police suspect the women were murdered at about 3.30pm when two screams were heard at the Old London Coiffure hairdressing salon on the corner of Julia and Bentinck streets, and when the screen door at the back entrance was apparently opened violently.

Wallace was a cadet journalist at the Geelong Advertiser at the time. At first she was motivated to write the book out of curiosity and early on gained support from the victim’s families.

“Initially I was driven by curiosity. However, once I came to know many of the people connected to this crime my perspective deepened.

“I was struck by the debilitating effect this crime continues to have on the victims’ families and those closely associated with what unfolded. Their suffering today is as devastating as it was more than 20 years ago.”

An email sent to Wallace from Claire Acock’s youngest son Tim, who was a policeman in Portland at the time of the murders, tells of his hope that new information is revealed.

“The chapters on mum and Meg show just how innocent they were and cheated we feel. I don’t think anyone could hold information and not feel it should be given up … Our hope is the information comes forward,” he said.

The murders also affected the community, with residents worried about their own safety and highly suspicious.

“Most women go to the hairdressers, many of us on a regular basis, and to consider you could be murdered in such a public place seems ridiculous,” Wallace said.

“It made people feel vulnerable at places and times when thinking of your personal safety shouldn’t be an issue.

“Murder in Portland on a Friday afternoon in a public area just wasn’t a consideration.”

For more information visit www.horribleman.com.