Eric Edgar Cooke
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|Eric Edgar Cooke|
|Born||Eric Edgar Cooke
25 February 1931
Perth, Western Australia
|Died||26 October 1964
Fremantle Prison in Fremantle, Western Australia
|Cause of death||Hanging|
|Other names||The Night Caller|
|Victims||8 murders and 14 attempted murders|
Span of killings
|1 September 1963|
Eric Edgar Cooke (25 February 1931 – 26 October 1964), nicknamed the "Night Caller", was an Australian serial killer. From 1959 to 1963, he terrorised the city of Perth, Western Australia, by committing 22 violent crimes, eight of which resulted in deaths.
Cooke was born into an unhappy, violent family; his parents married solely because his mother, Christine, was pregnant with him, and his alcoholic father, Vivian, beat him frequently, especially when the boy tried to protect his mother from the elder Cooke's drunken rages. Christine Cooke would sleep in the staff room at her job in the Como Hotel to avoid beatings. Much like his mother, Cooke would hide underneath the house or roam neighbouring streets just to escape a night of his father's violence. Cooke was also placed in orphanages or foster homes on occasion.
Cooke was frequently hospitalised for head injuries and had suspected brain damage because of his accident-proneness. Later it was questioned whether this was due to repressed suicidal tendencies. He also suffered from recurrent headaches and was once admitted to an asylum. His reported blackouts later stopped after an operation in 1949.
Cooke was born with a hare lip and a cleft palate, for which he had one operation when he was three months old and another when he was 3½. Surgical operations to repair the deformities were not totally successful, and left him with a slight facial deformity, and he spoke in a mumble; these handicaps made him the target of bullying at school. In her book, Broken Lives, journalist Estelle Blackburn's telling of the murders, he is described as "a short, slight man with dark, wavy hair and a twisted mouth..." Cooke's disfigurements made him ashamed, shy, and emotionally unstable at a young age due to the beatings and bullying that came with it.
Though very good at subjects that required retentive memory and manual dexterity, Cooke was expelled from Subiaco State School for stealing money from a teacher's purse at the age of six. Once he was transferred to Newcastle Street Infants' School, Cooke was again the butt of many jokes with his mumble and scar. He continued to be made fun of at every school he attended, including Highgate Primary School, Forrest Street Primary School, and Newcastle Street Junior Technical School. He left school at 14 to work as a delivery boy for Central Provision Stores in order to support the family. He would give his weekly wages to his mother who could not fully support the family with the money she earned from cooking and cleaning. Many of Cooke's jobs put him in the hospital due to his accident-proneness. At a job in the factory of Harris, Scarfe and Sandover, Cooke landed in the hospital due to effects of being struck on the nose by a winch. At the age of 16, he worked as a hammer boy in the blacksmith section of the workshop at Midland Junction, where he always signed his lunch bag "Al Capone," and ended up burning his face with steam and suffering second-degree burns. At the same job he jarred his right hand and also injured the thumb of his other hand.
As a teenager, starting at 17, Cooke spent his nights involved in petty crimes and vandalism; he would later serve 18 months in jail for burning down a church after he was rejected in a choir audition. During his later teenage years, Cooke would sneak into houses and steal whatever he found valuable. These crimes escalated to damaging clothing and furniture in acts of vengeance. He would cut out newspaper accounts of his crimes to impress his acquaintances in an attempt to gain friends.
At Cooke's grandmother's house on 12 March 1949, police finally caught up with the young vandal, finding evidence at his house. His fingerprints were then matched to those found in other open cases. At the age of 18, on 24 May 1949, Cooke was sentenced to three years in prison after being arrested for arson and vandalism by a Detective Burrows who considered the boy one of "life's unfortunates." He was convicted on two charges of stealing, seven of breaking and entering and four of arson. He left many fingerprints and easy clues for detectives which would teach him to be more careful in his future crimes.
At the age of 21, Cooke joined the regular Australian Army, but was discharged three months later after it was discovered that before enlistment he had had a juvenile record for theft, breaking and entering, and arson. During his training, he was quickly promoted to lance corporal and was taught to handle firearms.
On 14 October 1953, Cooke, then aged 22, married Sarah (Sally) Lavin, a 19-year-old waitress, at the Methodist Church in Cannington. They ultimately had a large family of seven children, four boys and three girls.
After marriage, Cooke was arrested several times as a "peeping tom" and for other minor offences. In 1955 he was arrested for stealing a car and sentenced to two years hard labour. After his release, he took to wearing women's gloves while committing crimes in order to avoid leaving fingerprints.
Cooke's victims included Jillian Macpherson Brewer, 22; Brian Weir, 29; John Sturkey, 19; George Walmsley, 54; Shirley Martha McLeod, 18; Constance Lucy Madrill, 24; Patricia Vinico Berkman, 33; and Rosemary Anderson, 17. As his crimes were opportunistic and used varying methods, and his victims shared no obvious common traits, predicting where he would strike and catching him was difficult.
Cooke's killing spree involved a series of seemingly unrelated hit-and-runs, stabbings, stranglings, and shootings. Victims were shot with different rifles, stabbed with knives and scissors, and hit with an axe. Several were killed after waking up as Cooke was robbing their homes, two were shot while sleeping without their homes being disturbed, and one was shot dead after answering a knock on the door. After stabbing one victim, Cooke got lemonade from the refrigerator and sat on the veranda drinking it. One victim was strangled to death with the cord from a bedside lamp, after which Cooke raped the corpse, dragged it to a neighbour's lawn, then sexually penetrated it with an empty whiskey bottle, which he left cradled in the victim's arms.
Two of Cooke's murders resulted in false convictions. One of them, for which a man named John Button was wrongly convicted, involved Rosemary Anderson. Another was the murder of Jillian Macpherson Brewer, a Melbourne heiress who was stabbed with a hatchet and scissors, which led to the false conviction of Darryl Beamish. Beamish was initially sentenced to death, but an investigation by Post Newspapers owner Bret Christian led to his conviction being overturned. The police case against Beamish is detailed in Christian's book Presumed Guilty.
During the 1960s, people in Australia frequently left cars unlocked and/or with the keys in the ignition, which enabled Cooke to steal a car almost every night. He sometimes returned stolen vehicles without the owners becoming aware of the theft, including several cars that were involved in hit-and-runs. Cooke's first hit-and-run was on Nel Schneider, 29, a mother of four who came to Australia from Amsterdam in September 1955. After being thrown from her bike, Schneider was left with a fractured skull and permanent brain damage.
The police investigation included fingerprinting more than 30,000 males over the age of 12, as well as locating and test-firing more than 60,000 .22 rifles. After a rifle was found hidden in a Geraldton Wax bush on Rookwood Street, Mount Pleasant, in August 1963, ballistic tests proved the gun to have been used in the murder of Shirley McLeod. Police returned to the location and tied a similar rifle, rendered inoperable, to the bush with fishing line and constructed a hide in which they waited in case someone returned for it. Cooke was apprehended when he returned to collect the weapon seventeen days later.
Cooke confessed to many crimes, including eight murders and fourteen attempted murders. He was convicted on a charge of murdering John Lindsay Sturkey, one of Cooke's five Australia Day shooting victims. In his confessions, Cooke demonstrated an exceptionally good memory for the details of his crimes irrespective of how long ago he had committed the offences. For example, he confessed to more than 250 burglaries and was able to detail exactly what he took, including the number and denominations of the coins he had stolen from each location.
Presumed Guilty includes Cooke's confession, made over two days in September 1963 at Fremantle Prison to his Legal Aid lawyer Desmond Heenan. "I have a great respect for the law, although my actions don't show this," Cooke said.
Conviction and execution
Cooke pleaded not guilty on the grounds of insanity. At trial, Cooke's lawyers claimed that he suffered from schizophrenia, but this claim was dismissed after the director of the state mental health services testified that he was sane. The state would not allow independent psychiatric specialists to examine Cooke. Cooke was convicted of willful murder on 28 November 1963 after a three-day trial by jury in the Supreme Court of Western Australia before Justice Virtue.
He was sentenced to death by hanging and, despite having grounds to appeal, he ordered his lawyers not to apply, claiming that he deserved to pay for what he had done. After 13 months in New Division, Cooke was hanged at 8 a.m. on 26 October 1964 in Fremantle Prison. Ten minutes before the sentence was carried out, Cooke swore on the Bible that he had killed Jillian Brewer and Rosemary Anderson, claims which had been previously rejected as others had already been convicted of those murders.
Cooke was the last person to be hanged in the state of Western Australia. He was buried in Fremantle Cemetery, above the remains of child killer Martha Rendell, who was hanged in Fremantle Prison in 1909.
People wrongly convicted of Cooke's crimes
Cooke's confessions appeared to exculpate two men who had already been tried separately, convicted and imprisoned for the killing of Jillian Macpherson Brewer (1959) and Rosemary Anderson (1963) respectively:
- Darryl Beamish, a deaf mute, was convicted in December 1961 of murdering Brewer.
- John Button was convicted of manslaughter, following the death of Rosemary Anderson, his girlfriend. Anderson was one of Cooke's first hit and run victims though, after intense questioning, Button confessed to the murder.
Despite Cooke's 1963 confession, Beamish served 15 years, while Button was sentenced to ten years and served five as prisoner No. 29050.
The appeal court dismissed Button's initial appeal, even though Cooke had provided details that only the culprit could have known; in particular, the judges did not believe Cooke's claim that Anderson's body was thrown "over the roof" of an EJ Holden without damaging its sun visor, as Cooke had claimed. Over subsequent decades, Button and his supporters – including newspaper owner Bret Christian and journalist Estelle Blackburn – continued to press for a retrial, a campaign that included a well-publicized 1998 simulated reenactment of Anderson's death, conducted by crash test experts, with both a Holden matching one believed to have been used by Cooke on the night in question, and a 1963 Simca Aronde like the car owned by Button, which were both driven at a crash test dummy. The dummy was thrown over the roof of the Holden, as Cooke had claimed, and the damage sustained matched the records of a panelbeating business that had, in 1963, repaired the vehicle driven by Cooke. The experts found that the sun visor flexed when hit by a body and returned to its original shape, without even cracking the paint. An expert from the United States was brought to Australia and four 1960s cars were purchased by Bret Christian to prove Cooke's car, not Button's, drove into Rosemary Anderson.
Beamish's initial appeal was also dismissed because the court did not believe Cooke's evidence. The prosecution claimed that his confessions were an attempt to prolong his own trial and the then-Chief Justice of Western Australia, Sir Albert Wolff, called Cooke a "villainous unscrupulous liar".
In 2002, the Court of Criminal Appeal quashed Button's conviction. Button's success opened the way for an appeal by Darryl Beamish, who was acquitted in 2005. In both cases, the appeal judges found that the murders had probably been committed by Cooke.
Walkley Award-winning journalist Estelle Blackburn spent six years writing the biographical story Broken Lives, about Cooke's life and criminal career, focusing particularly on the devastation left on his victims and their families. New information on Cooke and fresh evidence published in the book led to the exonerations of Button and Beamish.
In Randolph Stow's final novel, of 1984, The Suburbs of Hell, he acknowledged that there was a delayed response to the horror of Cooke's murders, which he transposed for fictional purposes from his WA origins to a town resembling the English town he then inhabited, Harwich. Suzanne Falkiner's biography of Stow revealed that it piqued his sense of humour that Perth denizens at the time of the murders would knock on doors and say 'It's the Nedlands Monster'.
A 2000 memoir by Robert Drewe, The Shark Net – later made into a three-part television series – provided one author's impressions of the effect the murders had on the Perth of that era. According to Drewe, more people bought dogs for security, and locked back doors and garages that had never been secured before.
- Christian, Bret. "Police decoy used in killer hunt sting". Post Newspapers. Archived from the original on 2 February 2003. Retrieved 21 September 2006.
- "Cooke, Edgar Eric (1931 - 1964)". Retrieved 2008-12-12.
- Broken Lives p.18. (Blackburn writes that Cooke had an operation on his lip at 3 months as a baby and for his cleft palate at 3½ years of age)
- "Eric Edgar Cooke - The Night Caller". Retrieved 2008-12-12.
- Cooke, Sarah; Condon, Judy (2006), [Interview with Sarah Cooke], retrieved 5 March 2017
- Episodes in Western Australia's Policing History (1963 Serial killer Cooke) Western Australia Police
- Blackburn, Estelle (2005). Broken lives. Hardie Grant. ISBN 1-74064-073-X.
- Presumed Guilty
- "Button -v- The Queen  WASCA 35" (PDF). Supreme Court of Western Australia. 2002.[permanent dead link]
- "Ex gratia payment for wrongly jailed man". The Sydney Morning Herald. 2 June 2011. Retrieved 2011-06-02.
- Drewe, Robert (2003). The Shark Net. Penguin Books. ISBN 9780143002154. Retrieved 17 March 2016.
- "Channel Nine Episodes, Crime Investigation Australia". Archived from the original on 7 March 2009. Retrieved 2 March 2009.
- Christian, Bret (2013). Presumed Guilty. Hardie Grant. ISBN 978-1-74270-674-0. (review)
- Blackburn, Estelle (2005). Broken lives. Hardie Grant. ISBN 1-74064-073-X. (review)
- Cooke's hanging and its legal significance
- Serial killers (has one paragraph on Cooke)
- The lasting effect Cooke's crimes have had on Perth
- ABC-TV, Australian Story: "Murder He Wrote" (transcript of the 2002 Australian Story feature on the Cooke case, first broadcast 29 July 2002)
- Eric Edgar Cooke - The Night Caller