True Crime

My sister killed our sweet pop for $1000

How could she?

Ryan never suspected there was evil in his family…

Here, Ryan Whitwell-Dwyer, 26, tells the story in his own words.

Walking around the zoo, my Nanna Joyce suddenly stopped in her tracks.

‘Oh, I’m really craving a cup of tea,’ she said.

So Poppa Robert dropped everything to make it happen!

Poppa and Brittney
Poppa holding tiny Brittney (Credit: Channel 7)

I was only 11, but I knew a true gent when I saw one.

Treating his wife like royalty, he’d open doors and book in her weekly hair appointment.

We even called Nanna ‘The Queen’. But Poppa had a cheeky side, too. While Nanna sipped her brew, he flashed me and my little sister, Brittney, six, a grin.

‘Anyone for a nice cup of tea?’ he teased, putting on his poshest voice to make us giggle.

brother and sister
Me and Brittney were so close

As a kid, I flew from Qld to Adelaide every school holidays to spend time with Poppa, my mum

Tonya’s dad, and her stepmum, Nanna Joyce. And by 23, I visited as often as I could.

Down for a work trip just before Poppa’s 81st birthday in March 2016, I took him out for lunch.

‘This is my grandson,’ he proudly told all the staff at his local pub. And when I went up to pay for our meals, Poppa wouldn’t hear of it.

As 3.30pm neared, we had to duck off.

Battling dementia, Nanna Joyce, 94, lived in a care home and Poppa visited at the same time every day.

Still his queen, he’d sit and hold her hand or brush her hair.

Soon after, Poppa got his first mobile phone! He wanted to practise texting, so Brittney, 18, and I would message him back and forth.

There were five years between me and my sis, but we were really close. She’d even lived with me for two months before moving in with her best mate, Shelby.

That Mother’s Day, Brittney and I took Mum for a fancy breakfast at a hotel.

My little sister seemed moody and I could tell Mum was a bit upset that she hadn’t made any effort to dress nicely.

When was the last time she ran a brush through her hair? I wondered.

Over the next few months we sent silly texts to each other but I didn’t see Brittney.

Then in August, I woke up and saw a message on my phone from Mum.

Hi mate, please give me a call when you wake up, she’d written.

When she answered, her voice was gravelly. ‘Mum, what’s wrong?’ I asked.

‘Poppa died,’ she choked out. ‘He has stab wounds on him.’

Losing it completely, I cried hot, angry tears. Who would stab an old man? I wondered, shocked. Mum had already told Brittney, who was also devastated.

She drove straight to my place, so we could meet Mum at the airport to get the next flight out.

Brittney’s eyes were red from crying and she looked like she hadn’t slept or showered in days. ‘Poor Poppa,’ she wept.

Driving into Poppa’s street, we saw it was lined with cop cars and roped off with crime scene tape.

At Poppa’s door, Brittney fell apart, bawling uncontrollably. She was so distraught, Mum had to hold her up.

Inside, there was a birthday card on the kitchen counter, all ready to be sent. With my 24th birthday two days away, it was for me…When Poppa’s body had been discovered, police had
found his laptop open. He’d been looking at old photos of Nanna Joyce.

‘It could be suicide, an accident or a break and enter,’ the detectives told us. I couldn’t believe that my Poppa would take his own life, though. And nothing seemed to have been stolen.

Since I was a teen, I’d known that Poppa kept a lot of money in his back shed. The door was wide open, but the money was still hidden inside a secret drawer.

The next day, it was all too much, so Brittney and I went for a drive and tried to make sense of the tragedy. ‘I don’t think it could’ve been murder,’ I said. ‘Everyone loved him so much,’ Brittney agreed.

My birthday was bittersweet. I wanted to do something Poppa would’ve liked, so Mum, Brittney and I went to a restaurant he loved in the Barossa Valley.

Raising our glasses of wine, we toasted to Poppa’s memory.

After lunch, we went to a beautiful farm, which sold gourmet goodies. Trying to lighten the mood, Brittney and I were mucking around and I tricked her into tasting some pâté, which I knew she would hate. ‘Oh yuck!’ she laughed.

Three weeks on from Poppa’s tragic death, we still had no answers.

Then, back home in Queensland one night, my cousin called.  ‘You need to sit down,’ she said.

In the background, I could hear Mum, who was still in Adelaide, sobbing helplessly. ‘Is Mum okay?’ I asked, panicking. ‘What’s going on?’

‘Brittney has just been arrested for Poppa’s murder…’ she said.

Dropping the phone, bile rose in my throat and I felt like I was going to faint. She’s been framed, I thought. It has to be someone else!

It turned out, Brittney and a friend who I’d never heard of, Bernadette Burns, had both been charged with Poppa’s murder.

Mum and Poppa
My mum Tonya and Poppa Robert

Flying to be with Mum, her eyes were vacant. We tried to get in touch with Brittney, but her lawyer said she didn’t want to speak to us. What does she have to hide? I thought, alarm bells ringing.

A few days later, we tearfully farewelled Poppa at his funeral. It was heartbreaking and any mention of Brittney had to be erased from the eulogy as it was too upsetting.

Shockingly, soon after, Brittney’s friend Shelby was arrested too, charged with aggravated serious criminal trespass.

During one hearing, I went to Adelaide Magistrates Court where I watched my sister, Brittney Jade Dwyer, 19, climb into the dock behind a glass panel. She couldn’t even meet my eye. You’re guilty, I realised.

On September 27, 2016, she admitted to murdering our poppa, Robert Whitwell, 81. It’s all real… I thought.

In November last year, the South Australian Supreme Court heard that on April 30, 2016 Brittney and Shelby drove almost 2000km from Queensland to Adelaide to rob Poppa. As Shelby walked past scoping out the house, my sweet grandpa smiled and said hello to her. He said hey to me omg he’s lovely, she texted Brittney, parked nearby. Don’t get attached to him. He might have to die, my sister replied, callously.

Apparently, she and Shelby had been influenced by a graphic TV show called American Horror Story.

On May 2, while Poppa was out, the girls used a milk crate, climbed over the fence and tried to get into the shed where he had hidden $110,000. But they got spooked and ran away empty handed. It was then Brittney had rushed back to Brisbane for the Mother’s Day lunch.

A few months later, in August, Brittney and her friend, Bernadette, drove back to Poppa’s – intent on stealing the cash, with Brittney planning to do whatever it took. Happy to see his girl, Poppa showed Brittney family photos.

Deciding she couldn’t go through with it, Brittney texted Bernadette, who was in the car, putting on make-up. Bernadette replied she should just ‘harden up’.

As Poppa walked Brittney to the door to say goodbye, my sister pulled out a knife and stabbed him repeatedly in the neck and chest.

‘Why?’ my shocked poppa asked, before staggering to the kitchen to bandage his wound.

Helping him apply a bandaid, Brittney then washed the dishes, while our grandpa sat in a chair and died. She and Bernadette then searched for cash. They left with $1000.

Bernadette Burns
Bernadette Burns got 13.5 years

For 21 days, she played the role of grieving granddaughter.

My sister was sentenced to life in prison and ordered to serve 21 years before she’ll be eligible for parole. She deserves it, I thought.

Convicted of trespassing, Shelby Lee Angie Holmes, 19, was given 17 months, suspended for three years. Bernadette Burns, 22, pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment with a non-parole period of 13.5 years.

Mum and son
My mum and I support each other

A year on, every time I wake up, I’m hit with the horror of what my sister did. Some days I love her. Other days, hate bubbles up.

At Christmas, and on my birthday, I received cards from Brittney, and we’ve sent a few letters back and forth. But she’s never explained her actions.

For now, I’ve had to stop writing – I’m too confused. Mum’s doing her best. Losing Poppa – and Nanna Joyce soon after – has bought us closer together. We don’t want this to happen to anyone else, though – so please don’t keep large sums of money at home. It’s just not worth it.

Poppa’s old wind-up clock lives at my house now, and when it chimes on the hour, I can’t help but think of my kind, generous grandpa. He lived for his family and I’ll spend the rest of my days making him proud.

Read more in this week’s issue of that’s life, on sale now.

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