True Crime

The mild-mannered pop who turned out to be a killer

One family couldn't believe the truth about their step-dad

After Ralph Gray’s mother Merle Palmer died, he and his six siblings were sorting through her belongings.

It was among them that they found confirmation a family rumour was true.

Merle had married their stepdad Cliff Palmer in 1983 after she was widowed.

Up until Cliff’s death in 2002, he had been a much-loved father figure to Merle’s kids and later on, her grandkids.

‘He was a gentleman,’ Ralph told The Sunday Mail. ‘He loved us, and we all loved him.’

But there were whispers in the family that Cliff had killed his first wife.

When the siblings found Cliff’s prison discharge papers in their mother’s belongings they knew for certain their religious mum was aware of his crime but had seen fit to forgive.

It wasn’t until 2018 that Ralph and his siblings discovered that ‘Poppy Cliff’ was actually Clifford Bartholomew – Australia’s worst family mass murderer.

In 1971, Bartholomew shot dead his estranged wife Heather, 40, his seven children, his sister-in-law and her son at their remote South Australian farm, as he wrongly believed Heather had been having an affair.

Some had also been bashed with a mallet.

After serving less than eight years for the crime, he was released and went on to spend the rest of his life as a quiet family man.

The family had a hard time accepting that ‘Poppy Cliff’, who never so much as had a parking ticket, committed such a heinous crime.

‘He never disrespected our mother and they hardly had a raised voice in more than 20 years together,’ Ralph said.

‘I couldn’t believe it, none of us can.’

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