To answer this question, ask yourself where you would start if you were a child predator in 1987 looking for your next victim.
Like many offenders, you might gravitate to institutions that provided you with access to children, like the church, scouts, sporting clubs, schools. However, because Mr Cruel went to such dramatic lengths to obtain his victims (i.e. extracting them from their homes), we will assume he did not have an easy foot in the door like this. Or if he did, he did not use it, since it would make it too easy to trace him.
So what else could you do? You might notice a picture of a child in a local paper, look them up in the phone book and decide if the house was a suitable target or not. Two of Mr Cruel’s four likely victims were known to be in newspaper articles in the months prior to being attacked. Surely too much to be coincidental.
You might go to a primary school you are somehow familiar with and spend some time loitering close by observing the children. Think about which primary school you would choose. Probably one close enough to your residence to be familiar, but not too close for comfort. Or one that you have previously frequented in a legitimate capacity.
Alternatively, you could target the children of people you knew or came into contact with through work or some hobby. Mr Cruel’s dramatic efforts to disguise his identity could indicate that he would be recognisable to his victims.
You might use your profession as a cover to case potential victims’ homes if you have a job that takes you into residential streets. Or you might just randomly select a victim who crossed your path and follow them home.
Apart from prowling around in the dead of night and peeping through windows, there aren’t too many other options.
An FBI analysis of ‘residential child abductions’ shows that most convicted offenders knew their victim and their residence. And of those offenders who knew the victim, most had had contact with the victim within a week of the abduction. Most had also been in the area of the home prior to the abduction for legitimate purposes.
For this reason, the FBI recommend investigating everyone in the area of the abduction during the week prior – residents, workers, visitors, customers, delivery personnel, construction workers. In particular, anyone with prior convictions for burglary offences. Of course there is one caveat on the applicability of these stats to the Mr Cruel case – these offenders were caught, while Mr Cruel was not.
Let’s look at each victim and the possible ways Mr Cruel might have identified them:
Lower Plenty victim
The Lower Plenty victim lived in a block surrounded by trees in a fairly quiet street and there was nothing noteworthy about the parents. So how did Mr Cruel identify her? One potential clue is that he called her by the wrong name, which would suggest he did not know much about her prior to the attack – unless of course that was a deliberate red herring. While not much is known about the Lower Plenty victim’s family or residence, as with all victims there is a chance that Mr Cruel was known somehow to the parents or the victim through work or hobbies. If neighbouring houses were open for inspection in the leadup to the attack, this could have afforded the offender with an opportunity to observe the family. The other possibilities I see:
- Local resident – While it’s almost certain that Mr Cruel committed offences prior to the Lower Plenty attack, it nevertheless marks the first in a series of crimes. Geographic profiling suggests that an offender’s first crime is often closest to home and it certainly seems likely that Mr Cruel was familiar with this area. Mr Cruel may have been either living or staying close to the victim and noticed her while prowling in the area. If that is the case, he could well have also been a customer of Chans’ nearby restaurants in Lower Plenty or Eltham, providing a further link to this area. A fellow student who lived 6 doors down from the victim has said that items went missing from their clothesline around the time of the attack. This would lend weight to the idea that the perpetrator lived close by.
- Newspaper article – According to Keith Moor the girl and her family were featured in a local newspaper in the days before the attack. The perpetrator could well have fixated on his victim’s photo and looked them up in the phone book.
While Ringwood is geographically within striking range of Templestowe and Lower Plenty, the Wills’ modest house in Hillcrest Avenue is perhaps not an obvious next choice for Mr Cruel. Does this mean he had some connection to the Wills or some other reason that took him to Ringwood that Christmas? A few clues seem to suggest some familiarity with the family. Firstly the perpetrator called Sharon by name when waking her. While of course he could simply have learned this by overhearing her name, it nevertheless suggests some intimacy or familiarity – particularly since there were three other girls sleeping in the same room. Secondly, John Wills told press that he had run the perpetrator’s voice over in his head to see if he recognised it, but he couldn’t. Does this mean the voice seemed somehow familiar to him in the first place?
- Newspaper article – in July 1988 Sharon and her family featured in a Sun newspaper article about a fire in their bedroom. Police believe that this photo led to Mr Cruel targeting Sharon. If so, he was able to sit on his urges for almost 6 months before striking.
- Fire – the fire mentioned above would also have given a variety of people an invitation into the Wills house in a professional capacity. The journalist and photographer. The emergency workers who responded to the fire. Any handymen who came in to repair damage. And any insurance assessors.
- Family connection – Sharon’s cousin went to school with Nicola Lynas and Karmein Chan at PLC, and her cousin’s father worked with Nicola’s father. Police thought this was all too much to be coincidental and the cousin was closely questioned. Could she be the link between the victims? It would be interesting to know where she spent Christmas in 1988.
- Primary school – Antonio Park Primary is a short walk along Maroondah Hwy to Sharon’s house. If Mr Cruel was in the area for some reason he could have noticed her walking to and from school and followed her home. Antonio Park Primary is also surrounded by vast and dense parkland which could attract people from surrounding suburbs and provide a perfect vantage point for any offenders. The perpetrator could also have been a teacher or worker at Antonio Park Primary school. One former teacher claims he was investigated by police as recently as 2016.
- Electrical connection – Any visitor to the Wills house cannot fail to notice the enormous power lines looming directly above the house. There is also a small substation-style building in the easement running directly behind the Wills house, which would have afforded an excellent vantage point for any electrical workers. The SEC Ringwood Terminal Station was also 500m away.
- Boxing Day Shopping – The Wills are believed to have been shopping on the evening before Sharon’s abduction. It’s not known where they were shopping but a likely spot is Eastland Shopping Centre which is just 1km away. It is certainly possible that the perpetrator came across them while shopping and followed them home. Though perhaps this is unlikely as neighbours reported that a prowler had been seen in the days leading up the abduction, which suggests he had been watching the house for some time prior.
- Choir – Sharon was an active member of the Victorian Children’s Choir, which rehearsed several times a week at Deakin University in Burwood. The Choir performed on the Early Bird Show in early December, and while Sharon’s actual appearance on TV is so fleeting that it would not have been noticed by any viewers other than her parents, it is possible that someone involved in the production of the show or someone who worked at the Channel 10 Studios in Nunawading noticed her. The choir had a very active schedule in 1988, even appearing in John Farnham’s filmclip for Age of Reason.
- Christmas – people often visit events, Church and relatives at Christmas and this puts them into contact with people and places they haven’t seen for a while. It’s possible that Christmas brought Mr Cruel into contact Sharon.
Exclusive Monomeath Avenue is not a great place for a prowler to stumble across a victim. There is nowhere convenient to loiter nearby and a stranger would stand out like a sore thumb. It’s also furthest removed from Mr Cruel’s known area of operation. Therefore it is likely that the victim led him to the house rather than vice versa. Again, the offender seemed to have some prior knowledge of his victims – he called Nicola by her nickname Nicki, he struck the night before the family were due to vacate the property, he took her school dress with him and seemed to know that that the car key would be on a hook in the kitchen. As far as we know he never asked for the location of the key and simply took it off the hook as he left.
- PLC – Mr Cruel told Nicola he had followed her home from school. This certainly seems the most likely explanation and would explain his school uniform fetish. Assuming that this is true, he could have either spotted her on at some point in her journey home from school, such as the East Camberwell substation, where flashers have been known to target schoolgirls, or followed her all the way from PLC itself. If the latter, another electrical substation diagonally opposite PLC would have provided a perfect vantage point. But how likely is it that Mr Cruel would volunteer information to his victim that could later identify him? After all, he also told Nicola that when she was returned, police would ask her a lot of questions. So he knew that everything he told her would be relayed to police. Therefore, this might have been an attempt to direct police away from his real connection to the Lynas family.
- Delivery driver – in the leadup to their scheduled departure the Lynas sisters had been ordering takeaway food while their parents attended a series of farewell dinners. On the night of the abduction, they dialled for a pizza which was delivered at 10.05pm.
- Real estate connection – the Lynas family were due to vacate their rented house the very next day, so no doubt had been in contact with real estate agents, removalists and others involved in the move. There was also a display home a few doors down which was open for inspection throughout July 1990.
- Father’s work – Brian Lynas was an executive at Price Waterhouse. Mr Cruel asked several questions about Brian Lynas’ employment and said he would call him to demand a ransom.
- Tennis connection – Nicola apparently played tennis, as one of the items Mr Cruel stole and made Nicola wear was a tennis skirt. It’s therefore possible Mr Cruel spotted her while playing tennis.
The Chan house was surrounded by a high fence, had no external signs of children and had an elaborate security gate. So, like Nicola Lynas, it is likely that Mr Cruel found Karmein Chan before he found her house. Where did he notice her?
- PLC – Every day Karmein and her sisters took the school bus to their mother’s restaurant in Eltham where they had dinner. Could the perpetrator have followed the bus home – or even been driving the bus? Or could someone else who worked at or near the school have selected her and Nicola? We know that police investigated PLC employees extensively, including one PLC teacher who lived next door to one of the victims. And in the weeks prior to the holidays, neighbours of the Chans reported a man sitting in a sedan apparently watching the private school bus stop opposite the Chans’ house on successive mornings.
- Bulleen restaurant/Library – Karmein spent the day of her abduction at Bulleen Plaza, eating at her parents’ restaurant and studying alone at the library. While a library might seem like the perfect spot for someone to get close to the object of their desire (and even learn their address), Bulleen Library is in a small building consisting of a single room with only a few desks available for studying. It would not be the ideal spot to stalk someone without being noticed by a librarian.
- Tennis connection – Karmein had a tennis lesson at Booroondara Tennis Club at 9am on the day of her abduction. Her teacher said she didn’t say anything out of the ordinary and there was no sign that anyone was watching her.
- Real estate connection– An auction was scheduled for 12.30pm on the day of Karmein’s abduction at 326 Church Rd – just 2 doors down from the Chans and opposite the vacant lot where Mr Cruel apparently parked his car. Could Mr Cruel have been among the attendees at the auction or a previous open for inspection?
- Eltham restaurant/business connections – On the day of her abduction, Karmein and her sisters were seen playing outside their parents’ Eltham restaurant during the afternoon. Several known POIs – including Ron Iddles’ suspect – were customers of the Chans’ restaurant. Restaurant workers or suppliers would also have been familiar with the Chans’ finances and movements and may have had a motive to commit the crime. Graffiti left on the Chans’ family car by Mr Cruel pointed to ‘payback’ as a motive and accused the Chans of being ‘Asian drug dealers’. Or on an alternative reading of the graffiti, the offender was potentially suggesting drug debts as a motive: i.e. the Chans should ‘pay back [their] Asian drug dealers’. However police investigated the Chans’ business dealings and declared them ‘squeaky clean’. So was this graffiti an attempt by Mr Cruel to steer police away from his real connection to the Chans?
- Tradesman – the Chans said a tradesman came knocking at their door in two weeks prior to the abduction asking if they needed any odd jobs to be done. Could this have been Mr Cruel’s way of casing potential victims?
Ultimately, it’s likely that Mr Cruel did not employ just one method of selecting victims, but a combination. However, it’s worth noting the following common points of connection between the victims.
- Two victims had recently had tradesmen in their homes.
- Two victims had wealthy parents with various business interests
- Two victims attended PLC and one apparently attended choir practice nearby at Deakin University.
- Two victims played tennis.
- Two victims lived in immediately neighbouring suburbs of Lower Plenty and Templestowe (this geographical link is strengthened even further if we include the suspected victims from Donvale, Warrandyte and Bulleen which are all contiguous)
- Two victims had featured in newspaper articles.
- At least two victims lived in or near homes that were for lease or for sale – (and another suspected Mr Cruel victim from Hampton was taken to a vacant property according to Ron Iddles)
- Three victims had personal links to Sharon’s cousin.
- Most victims lived or attended school close to powerlines or substations – (this link is even stronger if we include the possible St Alban’s victim who also lived directly under powerlines, and the fact that both Nicola and Karmein were left at electrical substations.)
Some of these points are striking – in particular the geographic link, the PLC link and the electrical link are undeniable. But which are coincidences, which are red herrings and which are genuine connections?
Let us know what you think in the comments below.