September 28, 2013
Grisly find: The scene at Lady Robinsons beach last year. Photo: Chris Lane
On a summer’s day early last year, an object wrapped in two plastic garbage bags and a chain was sighted off a beach near Sydney Airport.
A corrective services officer supervising a dozen people on community service, spotted it four metres offshore, nestled in thick seaweed. Pulling off his shoes, he waded into the water off Lady Robinsons beach near the mouth of the Cooks River.
After dragging the package to the sand, he pulled off a silver chain and ripped open the plastic. He found a black flat sheet that, peeled back, revealed a white hessian sack and a rusty, circular weight. He also noticed red colouring, took a step back and called police.
And 21 months after the torso was dragged ashore, police are still in the dark as to its identity.
The quest to identify the Lady Robinsons beach torso has been slow, painstaking and a far cry from the excitement of the hydra-headed CSI and other forensic police television series. Instead of snazzy dressing, smart cars and baby-boomer rock music, the NSW investigators have been handed visits to Spotlight and Bunnings as the order of the day.
Detective Sergeant Justin Moynihan took on the case the day after the torso was found.
”The difficulty is, we don’t know who it is. If we could put a name to our body, we would be halfway there,” Moynihan said.
Police believe the victim met foul play through links with organised crime.
It is believed he was aged 22 to 57, possibly from a European background. The torso weighed 52 kilograms and measured 79 centimetres, indicating he was more than 183 centimetres tall.
Moynihan thought it was ”a two-person job” because of the torso’s overall weight and the heavy contents in the plastic bags. He said the arms and legs were cut off with surgical precision in order to limit identification: ”The way the body was dismembered is quite clean. It’s definitely not a rushed job … and it’s very neat.”
With the victim’s body parts cut off, police have no fingerprints or other identifiable marks.
Detective Inspector Hans Rupp said police had taken casts of the bones but could not definitively say what tools were used.
”No one has hacked it off, they have done a neat, clean job,” Rupp said. ”It’s not a ritual killing and it’s not a killing where you are trying to send a message to someone because, clearly, they never intended for that body to be found.”
Even the cause of death remains a mystery. There is a deep slice that starts from the man’s nipple and finishes at the waist.
But it is not known whether this wound is what killed the victim or if the torso was slashed in an effort to stop it from floating. ”It’s an old trick,” Rupp said.
Dr Peter Tate, an oceanography expert, believes the body had been in the water for eight to 10 days. It drifted down the Cooks River where a witness spotted it a few metres from St George Rowing Club on January 25. Security footage taken of the boat ramps shows what is believed to be the floating torso. Two days later it was discovered on the shores of Kyeemagh, less than a kilometre from the airport’s southern runway.
Twenty-one months later, Moynihan is the only officer on the case.
But more than 100 police, including forensic officers, water police, divers and detective scoured the Cooks River and embankment in the early days, gathering months of security footage within a 20 kilometre radius of where the torso was found. The footage came from clubs, boat ramps, service stations and even the airport tower.
”We try to capture as much footage as we can and, although we might not necessarily review it, something in the future may come to light which means that footage becomes relevant,” Moynihan said.
The items found with the torso took detectives on a long and winding search.The black sheet wrapped around the torso was tracked back to a Spotlight store. Detectives reviewed all sheet purchases over several months and collected credit card numbers. A rusty circular weight inside the bag has also led to a dead end. The word Samson was etched into the 22.6 kilogram weight.
Moynihan said the weight was made by an American company and could not be bought in Australia: ”You need a lot to keep a body down and 20 kilos just won’t do it.”
A silver chain with one-centimetre thick links was wrapped around the torso. However, a piece of red ribbon tied to one of the links pointed police to marine and hardware stores because they sell chain stored in buckets and use the ribbon as markers. It proved fruitless.
The most time-consuming part of the investigation was sifting through missing person profiles to match a file with the estimated age of the male victim.
Moynihan investigated 43 people reported missing in NSW between January 2011 to the day the torso was found. Six were possibilities but further DNA testing ruled them out.
The problem is, police do not know where their victim came from.
”Because the torso was located not so far from the international airport it may well have been an international traveller, we just don’t know,” Rupp said.
DNA samples are run through a monthly systematic process in the hope of a match. ”I am fairly confident it is not someone in NSW,” Moynihan said.
One DNA sample even made it to Spain after a specialist in ancestry ran a series of tests in the belief the victim was from Europe.
Moynihan filed a brief for the Coroner in late August.
”It’s frustrating to not know who it is because, obviously, that’s the bread and butter of a homicide investigation but still, the actual investigation has been quite interesting.”
But hope springs: police are waiting for a possible DNA match with a person recently reported missing.
The Sydney Morning Herald