Portland murders become a work of non-fiction

MAY 3, 1991 — It’s a date etched into the minds of many long-term Portland residents, a marker that conjures up only trauma and confusion.

On this otherwise ordinary Friday, the town’s psyche shifted.

The horror that unfolded — in broad daylight and in the central business district — is still spoken of in hushed tones.

It took place on the corner of Julia and Bentinck streets in the Old London, a building that then housed a hairdressing salon.

Hairdresser Claire Acocks, 49, and her client Margaret Penny, 58, were alone among the basins and mirrors that afternoon.

Mrs Penny arrived at the salon, which had been in business for more than 20 years, about 3.15pm.

Less than two hours later she and Mrs Acocks were found dead, brutally murdered by someone who used a knife and possibly a pair of scissors.

Despite an exhaustive police investigation, nobody has ever been charged over the women’s deaths.

A motive for the crime was not immediately clear and still remains a mystery, with just $100 stolen from the ransacked premises. On the day of the murders, Leonie Wallace was working as a cadet journalist with the Geelong Advertiser.

Like thousands of people across the state she was shocked to hear of the crime, though her interest remained even after it faded from front pages. Wallace grew up in the Western District. She knew its towns and its people, and was struck by how bizarre the act seemed.

“It was a Friday afternoon in a busy part of town with potential witnesses all around: in adjoining businesses, pedestrians on the street and motorists driving by,” she said.

“I decided I might write about it one day — basically I wanted to know what had happened and what was it about this crime that caused it to remain unsolved.”

Wallace, a Port Campbell resident and mother of two, first started researching the crime in late 2008. She then began writing a book about it, and during this year has combined her work with a teaching role at Cobden Technical School.

“After some preliminary research I contacted family members of both victims to gain their permission to proceed further,” she said.

“Having their support was important to me because this was their story.

“It’s not just a book about the murder itself; it also explores how a single event can ricochet and change the direction of many people’s lives.”

Its title — Horrible Man — relates to an unsettling incident that took place just a fortnight before the murders.

“A man attended the Old London Coiffure and made threatening comments to Mrs Acocks, who was working alone in the salon at the time,” Wallace said. “He was rude and abusive, telling Mrs Acocks he hated hairdressers and would be back.

“She described him as a horrible man with frightening eyes. He has never been identified and may or may not be the killer.”

Wallace said Portland residents became increasingly wary as months dragged on with the culprit still at large. “It made people a lot more security-conscious,” she said, adding that locals feared the killer could be living among them.

“It was incredibly brazen and incredibly brutal as well.

“I think the impact of it continues into the long term for a lot of people, and until it’s solved there’s no chance of closure for the victims’ families.”

For Tim Acocks, whose mother was one of the two women killed on that awful afternoon, closure can’t come soon enough.

As a senior constable then stationed in Portland he was among officers called to the murder scene, and was soon sent home suffering from shock. Mr Acocks said support from police colleagues had been crucial to his ability to process the horrific discovery.

“It just consumes your life. Every day you’re thinking about it and wondering about it and hoping it will be resolved,” he said.

“From that day forward your life changes — you’ve got no control over it.

“I can only speak for my side of the family, but uncles, aunties and even my father will never come to terms with it.

“It just lingers forever; it’s 20 years now.”

Mr Acocks, who remains a member of Victoria Police and is now based in Ballarat, was hopeful Horrible Man would prompt new information on the case. “I see it as a way of bringing the case into the media again and hopefully receiving further information which may lead us to the piece of the jigsaw that we need,” he said.

“(After the murders) everyone was very uneasy about what had occurred; security certainly had to be stepped up. It was no longer a country town where you could leave your house open and leave your car unlocked.

“Everything changed that day. It was definitely the worst crime to occur in Portland in its history.”

Wallace is also optimistic the book will be more than simply a compelling read.

“Hopefully it will keep the crime alive in the public memory, and may encourage someone who knows something to come forward,” she said. “Over time loyalties can change; perhaps someone exists who was previously reluctant to come forward.”

A young woman who saw a man about a block from the crime scene on the afternoon of the murders is of particular interest to Wallace. “(This man) had blood on either his clothes or his body, and he attempted to engage her in conversation,” she said.

“I don’t have her name and I’d desperately like her to contact me — it may be that this witness I’m seeking is able to tell me something which could hold the key.”

Horrible Man is now in the final stages of editing and will be published in March by Western Australia’s Fontaine Press. The company was the first Wallace had sent her manuscript to and quickly replied with the offer of a contract.

Such a straightforward acceptance was a dream come true for the first-time author, who plans to take a well-earned rest once her book hits shelves. “It was so emotionally draining and exhausting, so I think I’ll have a break,” she said.

Anyone who may have information on the female witness Wallace is seeking can contact her on 0418 986 375 or email leoniewallace01@bigpond.com

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