Disappearance of Cheryl Grimmer
Cheryl and her father, Vince
Cheryl Gene Grimmer
|Disappeared||January 12, 1970 (aged 3)|
|Status||Declared dead in absentia|
2011 (aged 45)
|Known for||Kidnapping victim|
|Parent(s)||Carole Grimmer (mother)|
Vince Grimmer (father)
Cheryl Gene Grimmer (1966 – disappeared 12 January 1970; declared legally dead in 2011) was a three-year-old toddler who was kidnapped on 12 January 1970 from Fairy Meadow Beach in Wollongong, Illawarra, New South Wales, Australia. She had been in the shower block at the beach when witnesses claim a man took her and ran off. It is believed that she was strangled to death around an hour after her abduction, in the nearby suburb of Balgownie.
Cheryl's disappearance had been without explanation for over 45 years, until a suspect was arrested and charged in March 2017. He pled not guilty. His trial was expected to take place at the Supreme Court of New South Wales in May 2019, however, a ruling by the judge in the case declared some evidence unlawful.
The Grimmer family emigrated from Knowle, a suburb of Bristol, England to Australia in the spring of 1968, when Cheryl was two years old. They were living in Fairy Meadow Migrant Hostel near the beach where she disappeared. The family consisted of mother Carole (26), father Vince (24), and sons Ricki (7), Stephen (5), and Paul (4). Cheryl was the Grimmers' only daughter.
On the morning of 12 January 1970, the Grimmer family went to the beach at Fairy Meadow in Illawarra, except for Vince, who was away working as a sapper for the Australian Army. When the weather turned at 1:30 pm, Carole decided it was time to go home. The children all went to the shower block together whilst Carole packed up their belongings. Ricki went back to Carole ten minutes later saying that Cheryl was refusing to come out of the shower block. She followed Ricki back to the shower block moments later to find that Cheryl had disappeared. There was no phone nearby, so Carole made her way to a house on nearby Elliotts Road and asked them to call the police.
At the time, witnesses claimed that a man was seen holding Cheryl up to drink from a water fountain and then ran off with her wrapped up in a towel. The claims are now seen as unlikely. Cheryl's brother, Ricki, recalled picking up his sister so that she could drink from the fountain and it is thus believed that witnesses mixed the two occurrences. It was also claimed that she was spotted in a white car.
Cheryl's disappearance sparked a massive manhunt. A day after investigations began, the New South Wales Police announced that they had four theories as to Cheryl's whereabouts: that she was hiding and had fallen asleep, that she had wandered into the ocean and was carried away by currents, that she had fallen into a waterway, or that she had been kidnapped. After a day of searching, all but the latter were dismissed and they began pursuing other leads, such as a blue Volkswagen Type 2 van which had been spotted near the scene of the crime. On the third day, police received a note demanding $10,000 and stating that the child was unharmed. They staged a drop for the money in Bulli, but the kidnapper never showed despite police earnestly believing the note to be credible. They disguised themselves as council workers for the ransom drop and originally feared that this led to the kidnapper being spooked and that the large police operation may have deterred them from coming forward. However, the writer never contacted police again and it was assumed the note was a practical joke. The case became famous in Australia and the family relocated back to England for ten years afterwards to escape the notoriety.
Although the police had three main suspects, none could be positively identified as the man witnesses saw. Just under 18 months after Cheryl's disappearance, in 1971, a local teenager, then 15 or 16, confessed to abducting and killing her. The man gave an overview of what occurred that day, describing a tubular steel gate, a cattle guard, a track, and a small creek near the scene of the murder. He brought police to a corner of Brokers and Balgownie roads and claimed the body was buried there, but noted that the area had undergone residential development and he thus couldn't be sure. Police interviewed the owner of the property, who contradicted the suspect's description and stated that there was no cattle guard in place at the time of the murder and that there had never been a tubular gate of any kind. Such inconsistencies eventually led to police concluding that his confession was false, with a police report at the time, written by Detective Sergeant Phillip Findlay, stating:
On the whole it is considered without some material evidence to directly connect him with the missing child it would not be desirable to take any action against him in respect to this matter at this time.
In the 2000s, New South Wales Police Minister Michael Gallagher stated that it is entirely possible that both Cheryl and her kidnapper are dead but expressed hope that someone may know the truth. He also theorised that Cheryl may be alive and free and encouraged anybody who believes they may be her to come forward. One of Cheryl's characteristics that was cited as a possible identifier was a belly button which protruded one centimetre due to a medical condition, which may or may not have been corrected by surgery. In 2008 a woman believed that she might be Cheryl but, after submitting a swab taken from her inside cheek, proved not to be a match to Cheryl's DNA.
In May 2011, a coroner formally ruled that Cheryl had died shortly after going missing due to an undetermined cause and recommended that police reopen the investigation—Carole Grimmer stated that she believed her daughter was still alive. In response, police posted a $100,000 reward for information regarding Cheryl's disappearance and Wollongong detectives and the Homicide Squad's Unsolved Homicide Team combined efforts into a new task force called 'Strike Force Wessell'. Shortly after the investigation was reopened, both Carole and Vince Grimmer died without knowing what happened to Cheryl.
In 2016, a review of the evidence was carried out and all of it, including witness statements, was computerised for the first time. The review uncovered many leads and brought to light information that appeared to have not been pursued thoroughly enough in the original investigation, particularly the 1971 confession. Police returned to the property where the teenager alleged that he had committed the murder and questioned the owner's son, who, contradicting his father, said that the cattle guard was "certainly" in place at the time and that he recalled a tubular gate as well as a track leading over a creek into the property.
Police announced in late 2016 that three witnesses had come forward and recalled a teenage man loitering around the shower blocks and that they had a credible lead on a man who was seen carrying a fair-haired child at the time of Cheryl's disappearance. Police noted that he would be in his 60s by now and appealed for him to come forward.
In January 2017, police turned their attention towards the Mount Penang Training School for Boys, a reformatory school which it was believed the suspect attended in the early 1970s. They implied that they had been provided with information by somebody who alleged that former staff or residents from the school would be able to help with the inquiry.
Arrest of suspect and court proceedings
On 23 March 2017, it was announced that a man had been arrested in the Melbourne suburb of Frankston at 1pm the previous day and was being extradited from Victoria; he was charged with Cheryl's abduction and murder at Wollongong Police Station and was incarcerated at the Silverwater Correctional Complex. Police stated that it is unlikely that Cheryl's body will ever be found as there has been substantial development of the once-rural area in the 47 years since the abduction.
In April 2017, New South Wales police announced that they were trying to trace a family who gave a witness statement on the day of the abduction. Soon after Cheryl's disappearance, the family moved to Papua New Guinea and then back to their native Nottinghamshire in England. Interpol assisted in tracing efforts, eventually finding them; their testimonies are expected to be crucial in the court case.
In May 2017, it was revealed that the suspect who was arrested in March was the same person that had confessed to Cheryl's abduction and murder in 1971 and had been dismissed due to inconsistencies. The accused is a 63-year-old man who was born in Britain and has been in Australia since the late 1960s. He has not been named, as he was around 15-years-old at the time of the alleged offence and therefore a minor. Further details of the crime have continued to emerge as the court case proceeds. In his original 1971 statement, the man—who allegedly told doctors in 1970 that he had "urges to kill himself and kill other people"—said that, after the abduction, he had hid with the toddler in a nearby drain for about 35 minutes, gagging her with a handkerchief and tying her hands behind her back with a shoelace. After emerging from the drain, he took her three kilometres by foot to the suburb of Balgownie, where, according to prosecutor Emilija Beljic, he intended to have sexual intercourse with her. The accused denied the latter claim, calling it "bullshit". In the man's original confession he told police that after he took the gag off of her and she started to scream, he put his hands around her neck and told her to "shut up", eventually strangling her to death. He apparently panicked, took off her clothing, and placed "bushes and dirt" over the body before heading back to Fairy Meadow Beach.
The confession also included information which, the prosecution claims, the man could not know without being present at the beach when the abduction occurred. Such details include a description of the royal blue bathing suit she was wearing and of the white towel she was carrying, as well as mention of the fact that somebody had picked up Cheryl so that she could drink from a water fountain, which her brother Ricki confirms he did.
The defence will argue that the accused was significantly mentally unwell at the time of the confession and it is thus inadmissible in court. They claim that he also made another confession, to the murder of a prison guard, which was determined to be false.
The defendant appeared via video link at the Supreme Court of New South Wales on 7 September 2018 and spoke only to confirm his name and enter a not guilty plea. His trial was due to occur in the same court in May 2019 however, the judge at the Supreme Court of New South Wales, declared some of the evidence inadmissible in the case and so the charge against the suspect were dropped in February 2019.
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