Saturday April 13, 1991 was the first day of the autumn holidays. It was a mild, fine day after early drizzle, with a top of 22 degrees. Just the day before, Operation Challenge investigating the abductions of Sharon Wills and Nicola Lynas, had been scaled down. 13-year-old Karmein Chan had spent the day attending tennis lessons at Camberwell Tennis Centre in Bulleen Rd, having lunch with her mother at Bulleen Plaza and spending time studying alone at the library.
In the afternoon, friends of the Chans picked up Karmein and her sisters Karly, 9, and Karen, 7, and took them to the family’s Eltham restaurant where they had dinner with their mother Phyllis and were seen playing outside. At 6.30pm, an employee of the restaurant drove the girls home to the family’s sprawling home in Serpells Rd Templestowe, where their father John was waiting. John left for work about an hour later, leaving Karmein to babysit her sisters.
This was routine for the Chans – after school Karmein and her sisters would take the bus straight from PLC in Burwood to Ming’s in Eltham for dinner and get dropped home by one of the restaurant workers. It is possible that someone had followed the girls home from school or from the restaurant on one of these trips. In the weeks prior to the holidays, a man had been reported to Doncaster Police by neighbours for sitting in a sedan apparently watching the private school bus stop opposite the Chans’ house on successive mornings.
According to another source, two weeks before the abduction, a tradesman had mysteriously appeared at the Chans’ door looking for work. And in the days leading up to the school holidays, the Chans had been forced to turn off their alarm system after something kept setting it off.#
So even though the house looked like a fortress with a 2m fence and electric gate – on the night on April 13 there was little security to protect the girls. While Karmein and her sisters read stories and watched TV, a man in a green-grey tracksuit and a brown balaclava spray-painted the family car with the words “Pay back, Asian Drug Dealer. More and more to come”. Or “More anon. More to come”.
Despite several doors being unlocked the offender broke in through a loungeroom window. Around 8.40pm, when Karmein and Karly headed to the kitchen for something to eat he confronted them with a long silver carving knife. “See this knife?”
“Where’s your mum and dad?” Grabbing them by the hair, he led them back to Karmein’s bedroom, where he found Karen hiding behind a door.
He gagged and bound^ the younger sisters and shut them in a cupboard. “You two little ones get in the cupboard. I won’t hurt you.” Still holding Karmein by the hair, he pushed a bed against the cupboard door to trap them inside and told them she would be back to get them.
The two girls heard Karmein say “Don’t do that” and called out to their sister as she was taken away. Sniffer dogs traced her scent from the kitchen sliding door, through the garden to a gate at the tennis court, across the court, through a second gate to a side fence with a 2m drop into the street and 300m down the street to a vacant block, where she was apparently forced into a car.
After about 10 minutes, Karen and Karly managed to free themselves and called the restaurant to tell their father a man had taken Karmein. Inexplicably, according to Phyllis, when she asked John what was wrong, he said nothing was the matter and told her to keep working.
At around 11pm in Elizabeth St, North Coburg a man walking along Edgars Creek claims he heard a gunshot. He looked up and saw a man wearing overalls and a spray jacket standing by a ute, with his back turned and a gun in the air.
On April 9, 1992 a human skull was found in a landfill area by Edgars Creek at the rear of an electricity substation on the intersection of Mahoneys Rd and High St. Dental records confirmed it was Karmein and she had been shot at least three times in the back of the head. Her badly decomposed body had been there for a year.
Another witness who lived in a house overlooking the landfill area where Karmein’s remains were found later recalled having seen a man wearing a hooded waterproof rain coat digging beside a truck on a ‘grey, rainy day.’ When this sighting occurred is unclear, but two-three days after Karmein’s abduction the weather was cloudy, with a shower or two.
Was Mr Cruel responsible for Karmein Chan’s death?
Some police have their doubts. Karmein’s execution-style murder had some of the hallmarks of a criminal hit rather than a murder by a paedophile. And then there was the graffiti on the family car. In the months following Karmein’s disappearance, police investigated John Chan extensively to see if the abduction was payback relating to drug or business dealings, but they declared him to be “squeaky clean”.
In fact, there were many signs that this was the work of Mr Cruel. The meticulous planning, forcing family members into a cupboard, the fact that Karmein and Nicola attended the same school, the fact that the attack occurred on the first day of the school holidays just as the investigation was being wound down. The execution-style murder might simply suggest that Mr Cruel was a career criminal who also happened to be a paedophile. And Mr Cruel was known for red herrings. If the graffiti was another of his red herrings, it had certainly worked in diverting police and media attention.
Phyllis believes Karmein’s fate may have been sealed when she ripped off her blindfold, making her the only person to see Mr Cruel’s face..
‘A man in the dark shatters a happy family’ The Age, Paul Daley and Antony Catalano, April 21, 1991
‘Victoria Police and FBI dossier on shocking Mr Cruel child attacks’ Herald Sun Keith Moor, April 8, 2016
Shocking Australian True Crime Stories by Paul Anderson
‘The hunt for Mr Cruel’, The Age 15 Dec 2010, John Silvester
‘Mr Cruel may have inside information, South China Morning Post, 13 April 1993
‘The hunt for Karmein’s killer’, Herald Sun, 18 Dec 2010 Peter Coster
# Anthony Wemyss, Sensing Murder, Channel 10, 2004
^ Antony Catalano, ‘Brutal abductor breeds fear with cruelty’, The Age, 4 May, 1991