Twenty-five years ago, serial killer Paul Denyer terrorised the Melbourne bayside suburb of Frankston.
It began on 11 June 1993 when Elizabeth Stevens was murdered on her way home from the library. Then, on 8 July, Debbie Fream left her new baby boy with a friend while she dashed out for milk. She was abducted and killed.
True crime writer Vikki Petraitis was researching her second book, after writing The Phillip Island Murder (Kerr Publishing, 1994), when she unexpectedly found herself in the middle of the hunt for a serial killer.
A school teacher by day, Petraitis was doing a ride-along with Frankston police late on Friday July 30, when word came through that the body of missing Year 12 student, Natalie Russell, had had been found. Petraitis, who remained in the car while the scene was examined, was warned she was not to talk to the media.
Petraitis had no intention of racing off to the nearest newspaper: “I was a true crime author, and if this story was to be written, it would need more than just headline-grabbing prose. It would need to be measured and tell a bigger story. It would need to talk about not only what the serial killer did, but about what he took from us. It would need to explore the aftermath of such a killing spree on the families and the community.”
The result was the best-selling, The Frankston Murders, which has been just been republished by Clan Destine Press in a revised edition to commemorate the 25th anniversary.
Twenty-five years on, the trauma of his seven-week killing spree still haunts the community. The spate of murders in 1993 touched many more lives than just the three young women he killed.
Petraitis says, “I am extremely conscious of the need to tell the story of the families with dignity.
“The 2011 Clan Destine edition was entitled The Frankston Serial Killer. Reverting to the original title, The Frankston Murders, takes the focus away from Denyer and puts it back on the women who died at Denyer’s hands and on what he took from them.”
Debbie Fream’s son Jake Blair, now 25-years-old, speaks for the first time about the loss of his mother.* And Carmel and Brian Russell share their dream for Denyer’s ongoing incarceration, as the killer of their child will be eligible to apply for parole for the first time in 2023.
When Denyer was arrested the day after Natalie Russell’s body was found, the police and public were shocked by his lack of emotion. Denyer, 21, spoke of the three young women with contempt as he described their final moments. Their deaths had simply fuelled his bloodlust.
Eleven years later, Denyer, made front-page news with his quest to become a woman. Now calling himself Paula, he wants gender re-assignment surgery.
The murders also had a dramatic effect on policing in Victoria.
Petraitis writes: “Until Denyer, most detectives in Victoria had little experience investigating serial killers. Their knowledge was largely theoretical. Investigating his crimes and apprehending Denyer gave detectives in the Victoria Police first-hand field experience of this type of offender.
“The Frankston murders provided a couple of key learning opportunities for the homicide squad. As soon as the police realised they had a potential serial killer on their hands, they started a taskforce and dedicated resources to the investigation. There were 200 detectives and uniformed officers following leads, and a profiler was brought in to help narrow the field. Ultimately, it was the flood of police into Frankston during the seven weeks of Denyer’s murder spree that made the difference.”
The Phillip Island Murder, another of Petraitis’ best-selling books, has also been republished by Clan Destine Press. Out in September is Petraitis’ account of her crime writing career: Inside the Law: 25 years of true crime writing, also published by Clan Destine Press.
*Also see Megan Norris’s interview with Jake Blair, “The Frankston Serial Killer: My mother’s murderer stole my life,” Australian Women’s Weekly, June 2018, pp. 96-100