True Crime

42-year Aussie mystery – could you help solve Victoria’s most brutal crime?

Four decades ago, two young women were brutally murdered, but their killer has never been found.

The night of January 10, 1977, was much like many others that summer in Melbourne.

Martin Bartlett was doing his sister Susan a favour, hooking up speakers at the cottage she shared with Suzanne Armstrong and her 16-month-old son, Gregory.

Best friends since school, the two Sues had only moved into 147 Easey Street a couple of months earlier.

There was a milk bar on the corner and Suzanne, 28, would zip over with Gregory on her hip.

Bubbly Susan, 27, loved music and crafts and worked as a teacher. They were happy, friendly and enjoying life.

When Martin left around 9pm, Gregory was asleep in his cot in the small sewing room that doubled as his bedroom and the friends settled in front of the TV to watch The Sullivans.

No-one knows what happened next, except for their killer…

Front of house
147 Easey Street

Three days later, neighbours watched in horror as police swarmed the cottage. Then, the covered bodies of the two women were brought out on gurneys and Gregory was carried to a waiting ambulance.

Suzanne Armstrong had been found on the floor in her bedroom. She’d been stabbed 27 times – three of those through the heart – and raped after she’d died.

Susan Bartlett had 55 stab wounds, including slashes to her arms and hands from where she’d bravely tried to fight back. She was found lying face down near the front door.

There were smears along the hallway as if she’d made a lunge for it with bloodied hands. As she’d desperately tried to escape, she was knifed in the back and legs over and over.

The killer hadn’t rushed away after the attack either.

The bathroom was a mess of bloodstains as though he’d tried to clean himself up or wash away evidence. Then he’d walked out the back door and into the night.

The hallway where Susan was found
The hallway where Susan was found

The police thought it would be easy to solve – they had DNA from the crime scene and because it had happened at home they thought the Sues might have known their killer. But there were no leads.

Melbourne was gripped by a sense of alarm. How could the killer just vanish?

In the papers it was called one of the most brutal sex crimes in Victorian history. Women living alone were warned to keep their doors locked.

Although the case was high profile, there were only 16 detectives assigned to Victoria’s homicide squad at the time and other murders to investigate… So the case went unsolved.

After being treated for dehydration, Gregory was being raised by Suzanne’s sister Gayle, 24, who threw herself into making sure he was happy. A year on, a reward of $50,000 was offered. There were still no answers for the broken families though.

‘We’ll never really get over this until this fellow is caught,’ Gayle told reporters. ‘You walk around not knowing who did the murder. It could be the bloke next door.’

Was it someone they all knew? A man who was still in their lives? Or was it a stranger coming in on an ugly whim?

Over the years, eight suspects were cleared by DNA.

A year before the 20th anniversary of the double murder, a crime reporter looked into the case again and interviewed Gregory.

‘The worst thing is not to know who did it,’ he said. ‘There is nothing I can do, but it would be different if I knew. For one thing, it’d be something big I wouldn’t have to think about every day… I miss her. I wish I could meet my mother again, even just once.’

The high-profile case that police had been sure would be easy to solve had become one of the Homicide Squad’s most perplexing. In 2011, the cold case was re-opened.

backyard
The backyard entrance

Still, there was nothing to link the DNA from the Easey Street murderer to a suspect.

Could the samples have been contaminated in a lab early on in the investigation? Could they have been mis-labelled?

There’s a broad theory that it would be impossible for a killer capable of two such vicious murders not to repeat the violence – an anger towards women would be hard to control. But maybe the killer had died and perhaps that’s why the DNA didn’t match.

In January 2017, 40 years after the two Sues’ bodies were found, a $1 million reward was announced.

Brave, heartbroken and determined, Gayle called again for the public’s help.

When asked what it meant to her that police were still actively looking for her sister’s killer, she said, ‘Everything, everything.’

Gayle told journalists that since the terrible crime, she found watching the news too hard because it was ‘all concerning people like me’.

But she had faith in the police to solve what is still regarded as one of the city’s most shocking crimes.

‘I hear the miracles that they do and I think Suzanne will be next. They will do it, they will find this person.’

‘Murder on Easey Street’, by Helen Thomas, published by Nero, out now.

Murder on Easy Street book

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

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