BOOK REVIEW: The publication of Banquet: The Untold Story of Adelaide’s Family Murders – a detailed account by investigative journalist Debi Marshall of the unsolved serial murders of young men in Adelaide 40 years ago is important, writes Therese Taylor.
Debi Marshall is a well known writer in the field of true crime. She also worked on a documentary for Foxtel, Frozen Lies, on the same topic. The documentary series looks at a series of crimes in Adelaide which involved murder, the gay community, elite men, and a failure of the legal system to provide closure.
The events investigated by Debi Marshall began with the murder of prominent Adelaide lawyer Derrance Stevenson in 1979, and led on to the disappearances and psychopathic killings of ‘The Family’ crimes during the 1980s.
A police officer interviewed on 60 Minutes referred to the perpetrators of the Adelaide serial murders as a group who worked together, ‘one big happy family.’ This rather bizarre phrase caught on, and the shadowy, sinister cabal of sex offenders and killers has been known as The Family, ever since. No one knows for sure who they are, and the deeds attributed to them include kidnapping, drugging and raping victims, as well as making violent pornographic films, and perhaps snuff films.
The strong points of Banquet are the links which Debi Marshall establishes between a far flung and complex series of events. With persistent interviewing, she has persuaded many people with knowledge of these crimes to tell what they know or guess about the events. However, as she laments throughout the book, much still remains unknown, off the record, and consigned to silence by suppression orders.
Only one person has been convicted of the serial murders of five young men, Bevan Von Einem, and his conviction was only for the death of the final victim, Richard Kelvin. The other cases remain unsolved. There is general agreement that Von Einem did not act alone, and many aspects of the crime scenes indicate multiple perpetrators.
Debi Marshall does not elaborate on why Von Einem became a serial killer, but several relevant points are found in her text. She notes that he says he was raped at the age of seven, and that his parents did nothing when he told them of it. His parents marriage was difficult, as his father was a domestic tyrant. Also, it is mentioned that as a youth he had a car accident where was thrown forward, with his head going through the windscreen. Here, we see the elements disproportionately found in studies of serial murderers, psycho-social stress in childhood, sexual abuse, and frontal lobe brain damage.
These features explain why Von Einem was predisposed to take the path he took, but of course it does not explain why he was able to work in concert with others, why he preyed upon young men in increasingly violent sex crimes, but was not charged, and why we still do not know the full history of these crimes. An explanation for all of these unanswered questions is to be found in the particular character of Adelaide in the 1970s and 1980s, and Debi Marshall gives an effective representation of the toxic combination of male privilege, libertine values and police indifference which made for a community where youth were not safe.
Bevan Von Einem
To seek out sources on such a topic, for a long time, would be onerous. Debi Marshall several times explains her fluctuating emotions about her work. She is motivated by the importance of the topic, and also the heartening contact with grieving families, who appreciate her efforts to tell the story of their lost sons. At times, Debi Marshall’s accounts of her moods interrupt the narrative, and even seem to lead to unrealistic dramas, such as the assertion, worked out with a psychologist, that if she had visited Von Einem one more time in jail, that he might have attacked her and broken her neck. Surely, this is unlikely. Even in his younger days, Von Einem was, as she notes in the text, “a weak man who had to sedate his victims”. After all these years in prison – he is now in the aged care unit – he is unlikely to have any commando moves. Perhaps this apprehension is a way of articulating her own fearful reaction to his nightmarish crimes.
There are also some ambiguities in Banquet, which might be polished away in a second edition. On page 65, it is stated of Alan Barnes, the murder victim, that ‘his nickname is Spook’. On page 66, ‘Spook and Alan’ are visiting the Torrens River. How can Alan and Spook be two different people? Presumably, this should be ‘Peter’, a friend mentioned elsewhere on the page.
On page 48, Von Einem is described as boasting about his sexual exploits to ‘his friend … She distances herself from him from this time on.’ But who is this friend? They just appear in the text with no explanation. All throughout Banquet – a book which has no index – names and quotes tend to appear suddenly, and it would sometimes be useful to remind the reader who these people are. Debi Marshall is certainly capable of expounding well, as in her work on the Claremont murders in Perth, The Devil’s Garden, she unwinds an elaborate jigsaw of events over a considerable period of time, with polished clarity.
There is another recent publication on this topic, The Family Murders: Dissected, by Greg McInerney and Wendy Roles. It offers a very clear and detailed review of the evidence which links some suspects to these crimes, and can be usefully read alongside Debi Marshall’s book.
Author and investigative journalist Debi Marshall (Photo: Debi Marshall / Supplied)
It is terrible that no one, other than Von Einem, has ever been successfully charged in respect of the five murders which took place in Adelaide, and the numerous kidnappings, druggings and sexual assaults which preceded the escalation to murder.
The acknowledgement that Von Einem did not act alone, and the rumours about who other members of The Family might be, are what fuels conspiracy theories about this case. Banquet is an effective source for consideration of the shadowy presence of evil figures who appear to have evaded detection. Debi Marshall quotes numerous sources, fairly and comprehensively. Between their claims and contradictions, every reader can make up their own mind about what might be being concealed. Some interviewees call for a Royal Commission into these events, and I have sympathy with their viewpoint.
Debi Marshall forcefully points out that so many aspects of the cases are covered, still, by suppression orders, and these should be lifted:
“The High Court decision in Victoria’s explosive ‘Lawyer X’ case outlined that despite the risk of death to the witness and her children, the public interest in disclosure and confidence in the integrity of the justice system outweighed the public interest in immunity. Why are suppression, even of dead people, still sitting around some names in matters regarding the Family?”
One of the ambiguities which surround The Family murders is the reputation of the South Australia’s Director of Forensic Pathology, Dr Colin Manock. He was involved in the autopsies of Von Einem’s suspected victims, and also with most other high-profile cases in that era. Controversies about the quality of his work have led to several appeals, most notably in the conviction of Henry Keogh, in 1995, for the murder of his fiancée, Anna-Jane Cheney.
Anna-Jane Cheney case is recounted in detail by Graham Archer, in Unmaking a Murder, the mysterious death of Anna-Jane Cheney. This book is an excellent work in the true crime genre, and sheds light on the uneven quality of justice in South Australia during the decade following The Family murders.
There have always been rumours that Dr Colin Manock was favoured by the legal profession, and enjoyed a strange immunity from scrutiny, even when serious questions were asked about his work.
As Allan Tiller, historian and paranormal investigator, and author of The Haunts of Adelaide, wrote:
“It would seem there are many issues with evidence provided by Dr Manock, across many cases, and … perhaps there is something more sinister behind his position and personality. If one places a puppet in control of evidence in cases, one can pervert the course of justice to one’s own end….a conspiracy perhaps?”
Anyone thinking on these lines would find their suspicions bolstered by reading Debi Marshall’s lengthy interview with Dr Manock, described in Chapter 29 of Banquet. This conversation, in which the distinguished pathologist chats about his knowledge of Adelaide s&m salons, and makes allegations about involvement of members of the legal profession in The Family murders, is vivid and extraordinary. It is worth obtaining Banquet just for this one chapter.
Many other important pieces of research are presented. One of the most disturbing is Debi Marshall’s compelling assertion, in Chapter 47, that the types of crimes associated with The Family did not end with Von Einem’s incarceration. She presents accounts of the disappearances of two young men, in the 1990s, which show exactly the same tactics as used in the earlier abductions. The difference appears to be that Von Einem cannot possibly have been involved, and the bodies of these suspected murder victims have never been found.
I recommend Debi Marshall’s book. The Family crimes, while unsolved, ambiguous and wreathed in rumour, are a story which needs to be told.
Banquet: The untold story of Adelaide’s Family Murders by Debi Marshall. Penguin, Random House Australia. ISBN: 978 1 76089 300 2