EXCLUSIVE: By all accounts, Mary Anne Fagan was living a quiet, middle-class life at 575 Dandenong Road, Armadale, before evil arrived at her doorstep. Sarah Davison with this investigation into a cold case murder that shocked Melbourne.
The recent high-profile coronial inquest into the unsolved 1980 murder of Maria James uncovered a deeply flawed investigation by Victoria Police, placing other Melbourne cold cases of the era under the microscope.
Collins Fagan – a Group Captain in the RAAF – and Mary Anne Fagan were a happily married couple raising five children. The couple had wed in November 1960, with the pair’s marriage at Elwood’s St Columba’s Church reported in Melbourne’s society pages.
“The bride … wore a classical gown of white pure silk French brocade,” The Age reported.
Almost two decades later, for the family of seven, Friday, February 17, 1978 had begun like any other day.
The three eldest children; 15-year-old Anthony, Katherine, 13 and Rebecca, 12 all caught the train to their respective Catholic schools, while Mary Anne and 17-month-old Patrick had taken Collins (called Jack), 6, to his primary school at Caulfield.
Witness accounts determine that after dropping Jack to school, Mary Anne had visited a nearby bank to withdraw her RAAF allotment (approximately $200), and at about 10.30am a policeman reported seeing a woman in a blue dress standing in the front garden of the Fagan home.
Group Captain Fagan always called his wife twice a day, and said he had last spoken to her at 11am on the morning of February 17. In this conversation, Group Captain Fagan said that Mary Anne had complained to him about a mess that had been left in the driveway due to a burst water main.
Rebecca was the first to arrive home on Friday afternoon at about 4.10pm. She rang the doorbell and after getting no response, assumed her mother was out picking Jack up from school.
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Soon after, Katherine arrived home to find her younger sister waiting on the front porch, followed shortly by Anthony. All three children sat waiting for their mother to return home, before they heard the sound of a baby crying.
Knowing that their mother would never leave baby Patrick alone in the house, the three children began to feel a sense of unease.
Breaking in through the back door, Rebecca noticed an empty green cup and saucer sitting on the concrete near the car port, but didn’t give the strange placement much thought as she ran inside to grab an unharmed but distressed baby Patrick from his crib.
Mary Anne was found in a bedroom shared by Rebecca and Jack.
She was naked and had her arms tied behind her back and her ankles bound. Mary Anne had been gagged and stabbed a total of 14 times in the back.
“Killer was in frenzy”: Newspaper headlines days after the murder
A blue dress, undergarments, stained pillowcase, and a Winfield cigarette butt were discovered in the bedroom.
Investigations concluded that Mary Anne had been tied and gagged with strips of towelling that had been torn. It was determined that the towelling was from the home.
Two independent witnesses at different locations had reported hearing screams between 1pm and 2pm on the afternoon of February 17.
Apart from the window that had been broken by the children, there were no signs of forced entry.
Patrick was discovered unharmed in his crib.
Mary Anne’s red imitation leather handbag, car and house keys, a State Savings Bank passbook and cheque book, credit cards and some personal items, including religious medals, were never found.
The money she had withdrawn from the bank that morning was never recovered.
Just days after the murder, Victoria Police’s then-Head of Homicide, Chief Inspector Noel Jubb, admitted Mrs Fagan’s murder “bore similarities to the still unsolved double murder in Easey St, Collingwood, 13 months ago”.
True Crime News Weekly will soon be revealing never-before-published major revelations related to the 1977 Easey Street cold case killings of Suzanne Armstrong and Susan Bartlett; including naming a prime suspect – who happens to be one of Australia’s most loved sportspersons – for the first time after almost 50 years.
There were indeed a number of eerie similarities between the Easey Street killings and the murder of Mary Anne just over a year later. Both incidents involved a sexually motivated frenzied knife attack on women while a young child was in the house. Other coincidences between the two crimes include groups of council workers who happened to be working nearby both murder locations. Both incidents remain unsolved to this day.
In July 1983, more than five years after the murders on Easey Street and that of Mary-Anne, Jubb once again discussed both cases briefly to media, telling reporters “it is likely that whoever stabbed the two women [Suzanne Armstrong and Susan Bartlett] to death could strike again – or might have already”.
“Easey Street will be ever present on a persons mind,” Chief Inspector Jubb said at the time. “If we only had an idea why anyone could be that violent towards defenceless women it would perhaps be possible to solve…”
Interestingly, a reward of $1 million was announced by Victoria Police in 2017 for information that may help solve the Easey Street killings. A year later, Victoria Police also announced a $1 million reward for information leading to the capture of the murderer of 39-year-old mother, Jenny Ng, who was found stabbed multiple times in her Richmond public housing unit in April 1982. Similar to the Easey Street killings and Mary Anne’s murder, Ms Ng was attacked while a young child was present in the home.
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Last September meanwhile, Victoria Police announced another $1 million reward in relation to another Melbourne cold case from the same era. 13-year-old schoolgirl, Denise McGregor, was sexually assaulted and brutally murdered in late March 1978, just a month after Mary Anne was killed.
“While 43 years have passed, I have no doubt that the community would expect that solving the brutal sexual assault and murder of an innocent teenage girl remains a priority for Victoria Police,” Detective Inspector Tim Day said when talking to the media last year.
Although police have finally deemed it appropriate to announce million-dollar rewards for the cold case murders listed above, it seems Mary Anne’s life has well and truly been conveniently forgotten about by authorities with only a paltry $50,000 reward on offer.
When contacted for this story, Victoria Police said the investigation into Mary Anne’s murder was ongoing.
“The investigation into the murder of Mary Anne Fagan at her Armadale home in 1978 remains open and unsolved,” a police spokesperson told True Crime News Weekly.
“Any new information provided to police in relation to her death will be thoroughly assessed.”
The man in uniform
With any murder, the partner of the victim is always the first suspect. Group Captain Fagan had been away from the family home the night prior to his wife’s murder.
Group Captain Fagan had decided to stay on the base for the night of February 16 after a work function, and was due to return home at his usual time on Friday the 17th.
In his original police statement, Group Captain Fagan said that he believed his wife would ordinarily lock both the front and back door of the home during the day, and would also keep the windows locked unless it was a particularly hot day.
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The distance between his base at Tottenham and the family home seemingly eliminated Group Captain Fagan as a suspect.
However, a witness sighting of a man in an RAAF uniform leaving the Fagan home via the front gate at approximately 12.10pm on the day of the murder, drew police attention to the posibility of another airforce man being responsible.
In an article in The Age on March 3, 1978, a man in RAAF uniform was described as the new ‘prime suspect’ in the murder. At the time, Chief Inspector Noel Jubb said the witness was a “most reliable person” and police were “95 percent sure it was a RAAF uniform”.
Elaborating on the theory, Chief Inspector Jubb then said Mary Anne may have been coerced into opening the front door of her home upon seeing a man dressed in a RAAF uniform.
“New lead on killing”: The man in an RAAF uniform
The sighting was further verified after a second witness came forward and said he had picked up a hitchhiker opposite the Fagan home on the day of the murder.
This second witness said the hitchhiker had been dressed in uniform and had similar facial features to the original witness’ description.
However, the sightings were later discredited by Victoria Police, with police stating they believed the sighting was of Group Captain Fagan but on a different day.
In an article in The Herald Sun in 2001, retired deputy commissioner Paul Delianis said the false sighting had diverted attention from other suspects.
Mr Delianis said all the evidence suggested that Mary Anne had been a very moral and chaste woman, and there was no reason that another man would be at the family home.
However, when one of the witnesses was asked if he believed the man he saw in uniform on the day in question looked like Mary Anne’s husband, the witness told the coronial inquest in June 1979 that “there is a similarity” to Group Captain Fagan. Upon being further pressed, the witness then responded: “But I would say no”.
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At the time of her murder, it appeared that Mary Anne was bleaching her hair. A bowl with purple liquid was discovered in the bathroom along with a number of Peter Stuyvesant cigarette butts (her preferred brand).
The purple liquid was still in her hair when she was murdered.
Given how well-presented Mary Anne was, it seems unlikely that she would open the door to a male suitor in the midst of bleaching her hair. It seems more likely that she was not expecting any company on the afternoon of February 17.
The boy down the street
Leo* was only 13 years old when Mary Anne Fagan was murdered, just streets away from his own home. He said that the crime had shocked the usually-quiet suburb of Armadale and marked the end of an age of innocence.
“For a week or so, I would come running home from school to check on my mum. I was terrified I would come home to find her dead,” he said.
Leo said that his mother and the other women of the neighbourhood – including Mary Anne – would often meet at the nearby shops and have a chat.
“It wasn’t like it is these days, they wouldn’t meet at a cafe or anything. And for those women at the time, it was like their social outing of the day.”
Leo said that after the murder, his mother had remarked that Mary Anne was a very striking woman, and he had always wondered if she had been followed to her home by someone with ill intent.
“Mum always said she was very striking, very well put together, I’ve always wondered if that drew the attention of her killer.”Leo*
The council workers
On the morning of Mary Anne Fagan’s murder, council works were being conducted on Dandeonong Road in front of her property.
A burst water main had damaged the road in front of the Fagan home in the days prior to the murder, and council workers had begun to replace the damaged sections of road.
Council worker James Robert Scanlan said he had arrived at the worksite at about 8am.
At about 9am, Mr Scanlan said he was approached by a woman driving a Station Wagon who asked him who was going to clean up the sludge from the driveway at the rear of her property.
Mr Scanlan said he went to the back of the property with the woman and surveyed the mess from the burst water main.
He said that he told the woman that it was likely not the responsibility of the council, but he would speak to his boss to see what they could do.
At approximately 11.20am, Scanlan said that he entered the front yard of the Fagan home with fellow council worker Ken McDonald.
Scanlan said that Ken wanted to wash his hands, so they both went to the front door of the property to look for a tap. He said he did not recall whether he knocked on the door to ask for permission or not. He did not recall seeing Ken wash his hands while they were in the front garden.
In his original police statement, Scanlan said that he had also considered asking the woman whether they could leave their tools behind her front fence while they went for lunch.
After lunch, the men were back at the worksite from 12.55pm before they packed up their tools and left the site at about 2.30pm.
It must be noted that the timeline given by Scanlan puts the council workers outside the Fagan house at Mary Anne Fagan’s approximate time of death.
While two independent witnesses near the Fagan residence reported hearing screams between 1pm and 2pm, Scanlan does not report hearing any disturbance or seeing anyone enter the home.
February 17 was only the second occasion that Kenneth Alwyn Michael McDonald worked with Jim Scanlan.
Aged 41 at the time of the murder, McDonald lived by himself, and by his own admission had never had a sexual relationship with a woman.
McDonald said on the morning of February 17, he witnessed Scanlan speaking to a woman on the corner of Bailey Avenue and Dandenong Road.
McDonald reported that later that morning Scanlan told him that he had given the woman a quote to remove the rubbish from her backyard and would return later to see if the quote was alright.
McDonald confirmed that he had washed his hands in the front yard of the Fagan home, and that Scanlan had commented that it was a ‘classy or pricey’ front door.
McDonald stated that later in the day, he and Scanlan had been sitting on a fence and Mary Anne had come up in conversation.
“I cannot remember Jim speaking sexually about Mrs Fagan,” his statement read.
“But the expression ‘when I knock them off they stay knocked off, it’s like getting hit with a bucket of porridge’, is familiar to me.
“I believe that I have heard Jim use this expression, but I don’t know when or where.”
In a later police interview, Scanlan admitted that he had spoken about Mary Anne in a sexual way, stating he said he would like to “bite her tits and knock her off”.
At about 10.30am, Scanlan and McDonald both left the worksite.
Scanlan claimed he had gone to buy cigarettes and to his bookies’ house and McDonald said he was hungover and went to a nearby laneway to vomit.
When interviewed some months later, the bookkeeper denied seeing Scanlan on February 17.
He said that he had only taken bets from Scanlan on a number of occasions, and he never paid out bets before 5pm. Additionally, at the time of the murder, Scanlan owed money and had been avoiding paying the bookkeeper back.
“Sex talk on day of death”: Council worker James Robert Scanlan told a colleague that he would like to “bite her tits and knock her off” when talking about murder victim Mary Anne Fagan
McDonald said he returned to the site at approximately 11am, and Scanlan returned at around 11.15am. Upon his return, Scanlan allegedly showed McDonald a roll of notes he had apparently received from his bookkeeper.
After work finished at approximately 2.30pm, McDonald and other workers – including Scanlan – went to the Armadale Hotel.
McDonald said that while at the Tattslotto area of the pub, he saw news about an incident at Bailey Avenue on the television.
“When I got back into the hotel Jim Scanlan was there with [council worker] Pat Quinn,” the statement read.
“I said to Jim ‘what happened in Bailey Avenue today?’
“He just laughed in a funny sort of way.
“I didn’t tell him what I had heard on the TV. We just went on drinking.”
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At about the same time, McDonald reported that two police officers came into the hotel to speak to him and Scanlan about the murder of Mary Anne Fagan.
Both men were spoken to by uniformed police officers for approximately 10 minutes upstairs at the hotel.
Despite being potential key witnesses at the very least, Scanlan and McDonald were not interviewed by homicide squad detectives until nearly two months later. The interviews only occurred after Detective Sergeant David Speirs was brought into the murder taskforce from the Stolen Car Squad one month after Mary Anne’s killing had taken place.
When interviewed for a second time by Detective Seargent Speirs in April 1978, Scanlan revealed he had spoken to Mary Anne on the day of her murder.
Despite initial denials, when faced with McDonald’s testimony, Scanlan admitted that he had given Mary Anne a quote about removing the rubbish from her driveway. He also remembered that the woman he spoke with was wearing a blue dress.
He also admitted that he had spoken about how attractive he had found her with other council workers.
Detective Seargent Speirs queried the large amount of money that Scanlan had at the pub on the night of the murder and suggested that he must have got it from the Fagan residence.
Scanlan denied this.
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It was also put to Scanlan by Detective Sergeant Speirs that he had been motivated to attack Mary Anne on the day because he was angry at women and upset that his de facto partner, Raelene Anne Findlay, who was almost 20 years his junior, was in a lesbian relationship with a female lodger living with them.
“Have you had [a] problem with finding Raelene in bed with other women?” Detective Sergeant Speirs asked.
Again, Scanlan denied the allegations.
“She used to be a lesbian but that’s finished. Just because the other girl who’s there now is a lesbian doesn’t mean Raelene is. We are just helping her out,” Scanlan claimed.
“I love women. Just because I have a bit of trouble at home doesn’t mean I hate women for it.”
When questioned though, Ms Findlay admitted to police that Scanlan would regularly lose control when consuming alcohol.
“Jimmy is a quiet person except when he is drunk,” Ms Findlay told police after Mary Anne’s murder.
“When he is he just yells and screams … He pushed me a few times.”
In any event, Coroner Kevin Mason found the evidence given by the council workers at the inquest to be unsatisfactory, but ruled there was insufficient evidence to nominate a likely killer.
Scanlan, died in the early ’90s when a tree he was felling hit him on the head.
In the early 2000s, McDonald again denied any involvement in the murder of Mary Anne Fagan.
In 2001, Group Captain Fagan spoke publicly for the first time about his wife’s murder.
Speaking to the Herald Sun, Mr Fagan allowed the first photograph of his wife to be publicly shared and implored the public for any information that could lead to an arrest.
“I’ve reached the stage where I’ve either got to look at this or look away,” he said at the time, almost 25 years following his wife’s murder.
“It’s got nothing to do with the closure that some people talk about. For me it’s a tribal thing.
“I just want to find out who killed my wife and see that they’re punished.”
Group Captain Fagan passed away in 2010, and never saw justice served for his late wife.
Before dying he had remarked publicly about his displeasure with the original police investigation into Mary Anne’s murder.
“I was never impressed with the quality of the investigation,” Mr Fagan said in 2001. “It seemed to be very scattered and disconnected, the whole exercise.”
At the conclusion of the recent inquest into the 1980 murder of Maria James, the coroner delivered an open finding but severely criticised police methods and investigatory procedures from the era, particularly of evidence collection. Victoria’s Deputy State Coroner, Caitlin English, who heard the inquest implored police to take immediate action to further the investigation.
It may also now be time for a fresh look at the cold case of Mary Anne Fagan.
* Not his real name
– Additional reporting and research by Serkan Ozturk
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