(Taken from The Age, Saturday 31st December 2011 – link here)
Twenty years ago this week, young mother Rosie Turner vanished from a busy holiday spot on the Mornington Peninsula. She left behind a young family and a police force struggling to find any leads in the case, which was, in the absence of any other real possibility, quickly upgraded to a murder enquiry. In 1993, a reward was offered for any information leading to the arrest for her murder. The case remains unsolved. So what did happen to Rosie Turner? AIDAN HEISS revisits one of the more baffling missing person’s cases of the 1990s.
It was a searingly hot late afternoon on 26th December 1991, and Constable Mike Fleishman, manning the front desk of the of Mornington police station, was looking forward to a night down at Mt Martha’s Safety beach with a nice cold beer.
‘It had been a long boring shift,’ he recalls. ‘Not much happens on Boxing Day at the station. We had had a couple of domestics the night before, too much festive spirit in both cases, but the next day had been filled with paperwork and that sort of stuff. Not much happening.’ Little did Fleishman realise that the report he was about to file would be the very start of one of the most baffling inquiries in Mornington police, and Victorian, history.
Two burly men in their late 30s walked in to the station just before 7pm. One of them was Melbourne man Paul Turner, who advised the desk constable that his wife, 31 year old Rosie, had gone to the shops and had not come back. ‘[He] looked sweaty and concerned. His mate did a lot of the answering for him’. Turner explained that his family were holidaying in the camping ground at Rye having come from Melbourne; his wife had gone down to the local supermarket to buy the evening meal three hours’ before and had not returned. The two men had found her car at the supermarket but Mrs Turner was nowhere to be seen. Duly taking the details, Fleishman was concerned but not alarmed, even after notifying his sergeant, Gil Caruthers.
‘We thought it sounded like it was a young mum taking some time out from the family at a stressful time of year, and she would probably be back that evening after having some time to her herself.’ But Turner was insistent, the police officers remember. ‘He said it was completely unlike her and the car was still in the car park but she wasn’t and he just couldn’t understand it. In fact his mate with him was trying to keep him calm, saying pretty much what we were saying – that she had probably taken some time out and would be back soon. That’s honestly what we thought was likely at that stage.’
Caruthers and Fleishman made their way to the car park and found the vehicle, as described, over the opposite side of the lot, about a 100 metres from the supermarket entrance. This was apparently quite normal for Rosie Turner, who often parked miles away from other cars.
‘She wasn’t that good at parking,’ her best friend, Rhonda O’Reilly, remembers fondly. ‘There were many minor scrapes from her parking on the front and sides of her car. We used to tease her about it all the time’. There was nothing odd about the family’s 1986 Mazda, except for the fact the passenger door was unlocked and the seat was drawn back much further than Rosie would have normally had it, who was known for driving with her knees touching the steering wheel. The wallet she was believed to have been carrying was not in the vehicle.
No staff at Rye Coles could remember serving Rosie. It was likely Rosie had never entered the supermarket as she had presumably planned. But why? Had she been distracted? Had she changed her plans? Had she decided to walk back to the campsite instead? The car’s petrol tank was half full and there was no other problem with the vehicle that would have prevented her driving it.
Turner told police he, his wife and their children, aged 10 and 13, had spent much of the afternoon at the Rye’s front beach, relaxing and swimming in the lagoon. It had been a still, hot afternoon, the last of a stretch of days in southern Victoria over 30 degrees. Around 4pm, Rosie had mentioned that she would go to the supermarket to grab a couple of things for the evening meal, despite the caravan fridge being crammed with Xmas leftovers. She picked up her towel and her sunglasses, waved goodbye and then walked up the beach to the campsite, about 300 metres away. That was the last he had seen her, he said. It was quite normal for Rosie to take the car for such short runs to the supermarket, as she hated carrying shopping home, and on a hot day as this it would be quite uncomfortable. Given the traffic conditions at that time of the day, it wouldn’t have taken her more than seven minutes to get to the supermarket where the car was later discovered.
Ten year old Melissa had gone back to the caravan about 5pm, hoping her mum had bought her the promised icy pole, and found no sign of her mum or the car. Melissa ran back to the beach where her father and brother still were. Turner and his friend, Gary O’Reilly, went for a quick ride in Gary’s car about 5pm, thinking that maybe Rosie’s car had broken down and was stuck waiting for some help. But there was no Rosie in her car that they found or in the supermarket. Fearing the worst, and without a phone to use that was any closer, Turner and O’Reilly stopped in at the nearest police station and reported Rosie missing.
As the hours stretched on and the sun began to set, things began to take a more serious turn. Turner remained at the police station, while several police teams were dispatched to search the streets around the Rye and Rosebud areas in the dimming light, asking at local houses and the local taverns and restaurants, as well as searching bushland and scrub by the beach. There was no sign of Rosie, her wallet, her car keys, or anything else that belonged to her. People don’t just evaporate into thin air. Where was she? Had she somehow headed back to Melbourne from the peninsula? There was little public transport from the area on the Boxing Day public holiday – had she decided to hitch her way out of town?
Rosie Turner was an attractive woman: 5’5, of medium build, deeply tanned with shoulder length brown permed curly hair. When she was last seen, she wearing a knee length white muslin dress and brown thongs. Another holidaymaker, a 15 year Melbourne boy, said he saw Rosie driving out of the camping ground at about 4.15. He didn’t speak to her but he knew it was Mrs Turner as he knew her son Jeff quite well. One local woman came forward and said she saw a woman matching Rosie’s description walking in the opposite direction to the campsite, past the Rye Pub, at about 7.30pm that evening. That was after her worried husband had made his way to the police station, but before any police cars were out on the road with her description. The witness said the woman was wearing a white dress and carrying a cloth shopping bag over a shoulder. She did not see her face.
Rosie Turner has not been since alive since that day.
So who was Rosie Turner? She was known as a practical sensible woman, who, if she was going to be delayed, or if she had bumped into a friend down at the car park and gone for a quick cup of tea, would have certainly tried to let her family know. No such friends ever came forward. She wasn’t the sort just to run off and not tell anyone, or go anywhere without her children.
Born Rosemary Louise Pritchard in Melbourne in 1960, Rosie had led an unremarkable life. She was the only child of Tess and Simon Pritchard, the latter of which had left the family when Rosie was still young. Tess, a seamstress, had had to work hard to keep food on the table, and she and her daughter were extremely close. Even as an adult, it would be rare that Rosie and her mother wouldn’t speak. “They were a tight knit unit”, a friend from school recalls. ‘There wasn’t much Rosie did without her mother.’ Indeed, the summer of 1991 was the first one that ‘Nana Tess’ as the kids called her, had not joined the family on the summer holiday, having recently moved house.
Rosie left school at 16 and worked for her mother, who by that stage had started a successful tailoring business in Brunswick. She met Paul Turner, an ex-Vietnam serviceman turned carpenter, at a pub in Collingwood in 1977; theirs was a whirlwind courtship and they married in March 1978. The reason for their haste was explained when their first child, Jeffrey, was born five months later. A daughter, Melissa, followed a three years after and the couple settled in modest Pascoe Vale, in Melbourne’s north.
By all accounts Rosie was a devoted mother to her two children. ‘She was a very young mother of course, but no-one loved their kids more than Rosie did,’ Rhonda O’Reilly remembers fondly. Neighbours from the time agreed: ‘she was always in the front garden laughing and playing with her children,’ another says: ‘they used to have a totem tennis pole out the front and I remember seeing her laughing and playing with them.’ Rosie had suffered from what is now commonly termed post natal depression after the birth of Melissa in 1981, but seemed to recover well.
The family had spent their holidays down in the camping ground for many years, camping with another family, the O’Reillys. It was the annual trip that Rosie always looked forward to. She loved lying down on the beach – although strict with applying sunscreen to her children, she held herself above that rule, tanning herself for hours on end.
Inspector Bob Riley, leading the enquiry, publically stated on the 28th December that there were grave concerns for the welfare of Mrs Turner, and for anyone with any information to come forward to give the family some comfort. With the lack of any evidence that Rosie was still alive, after three days, the police began to accept that Rosie may have been the victim of foul play.
As the inquiry progressed, several others came and spoke to the police about what they thought had happened to Rosie. One distant acquaintance, not seeing the media reports until several days after, thought he had seen her on the ferry to Queenscliff from Sorrento on or about the 28th of December, but did not speak to her. Another witness said he had seen a male who looked like he was in his 50s driving the Mazda down a back street of Rye at 4.30pm – well before Rosie was reported missing and presumably while her family were still at the beach.
Paul Turner told the police and media theirs was a content, happy marriage, ‘we had the usual ups and downs, but we are a happy family,’ he said to an assembled press conference, on New Year’s Eve. ‘I just want her to come home. We love her and need her home. The kids need her home.’
But what of Paul Turner himself? Devastated at the disappearance of his wife, footage of the press conference showed him looking tired, drawn and unshaven. A man clearly in distress with the family’s upheaval – a devoted father and husband. But some people remember Turner slightly differently. A former mate from the armed services remembers Turner had a filthy temper when he was drunk. ‘When he had had a few, he liked to pick fights. There was one night in a pub he bought down a tray of drinks on a blokes head’. It was said Turner’s time in Vietnam had scarred him – he hadn’t been the same when he came back – this was the way it was for many veterans of Australia’s dismal involvement in Vietnam. Was his temper something Rosie sought to flee from? Had she been on the receiving end of his temper and one day simply had enough? But surely she would have made arrangements for her children? Things just didn’t add up.
To this day, many friends of the Turners utterly unconvinced that the Turner marriage was anything but a normal one. ‘I am sure they had their problems’; Rhonda O’Reilly says today, ‘but to say Paul had anything to do with her disappearance? Completely ludicrous. They loved each other and adored their children.’ There is no record of any domestic disturbances between the Turners and there were no reports of the children having anything but happy childhoods. At the inquest into Rosie’s death in 1998, Coroner Jacqui Hardling made a point of saying that she ‘was satisfied that Mr Turner had nothing to do with his wife’s disappearance and likely death’.
The week after Rosie went missing, army searchers were dispatched to thoroughly search the ground of the peninsula, hoping to find some sign of her. Throughout the hot month of January, soldiers worked in the blistering heat, cutting through swathes of dense bush and steep dunes, looking for any trace of the young mum. There was some excitement when a dress resembling the one she had last been seen in was found in the bush at Portsea back beach, but it could not be proven to be Rosie’s and was later established to be a local woman’s.
There was the possibility, however remote, that Rosie had chosen to disappear, even that she had fled the state, or even Australia, and was now living under another name. But surely she would need money to pack up her life and leave? Police duly checked her credit card account which had not been touched and no withdrawals had been made from her joint accounts she held with her husband either. There was no odd activity beforehand that would indicate any untoward intentions. Her passport was in a drawer beside her bed at home in Pascoe Vale and a new one had not been applied for.
What about suicide? There was the short episode of depression after the birth of her second child, but there had been no record of her seeking help since. Had Rosie secretly been unhappy? Had the stress of Xmas gotten to her, the cramped confines of the caravan been too much, and she had snapped? And she had chosen to walk out into the waves of the beach and drowned herself? It seems so unlikely, that on a busy beach on such a hot day crammed with locals and holiday makers enjoying the relief of the cool bay water she would be able to do this undetected. In any case, detectives determined that the tides of the area would have carried her body back to shore soon enough.
It was a busy time of year and the streets and beaches were crowded. So how did a person just vanish?
The only other real possibility was that Rosie had been the victim of foul play and that someone had had a hand in her disappearance. Someone out there knew what happened to her. Had this person been watching her and with her family? Had they followed her to the carpark and made an advance on the attractive young mum? And then driven her car to a spot to dump her, explaining the sighting of the man in the car at 4.30, and why the car’s driver seat was so far back? How did this person manage to get into the car?
The Mazda was examined by fingerprint experts who found no evidence of anyone but Rosie or her husband being in the car.
Turner continued to live in Melbourne with his children. Whispers circulated around the community as to his involvement, and he found himself shunned by several friends. Turner sold his carpentry business in 2004 and moved to Shepparton. He refused to comment on this story when contacted. The Turner children, now adults, are believed to be living in Melbourne.
In 1998, seven years after her disappearance, Melbourne Coroner Jacqueline Hardling declared Rosemary Turner legally dead. In a statement, he said ‘I find that Rosemary Elizabeth Turner of Melbourne died on or about the 26th December 1991, in the area of Rye, Mornington peninsula. I also find that there was a person or persons unknown that had a hand in this death, and that the likely cause of death was homicide.’
In February 1993, Mornington police had offered a reward for any information that would lead to the arrest of person or persons related to the matter of the disappearance of Rosemary Turner on or about the 26th December 1991. This produced a number of phone calls, mostly in the form of clairvoyants. But one lead did arise from the information received at the time which led police to question for the very first time a former boyfriend of Rosie’s, Mr Tom Harris, whom the source said had confided in him years before that ‘Mrs Turner had needed to leave her husband and he helped her obtain a false passport and leave the country that night out of Melbourne airport.’ Harris was at the time a well-regarded property investor in Melbourne, living in South Yarra with his wife and small child. He had had a romance with Rosie as a teenager, but told police he had not seen her for many years, and although saddened by news of her disappearance, had no idea where she could be or what had happened to her. His belief at the time was that an old business acquaintance, who he had fallen out with, had wanted to embarrass him publicly.
Another lead came in 1995, when a man was arrested for indecent assault on a woman camping in Rye. In an uncanny resemblance to the Turner case, 29 year old Megan O’Hare had been staying at the same ground as the Turner family four years before when she was attacked while taking a run along the beach in August. The assailant, identified as 35 year old unemployed man Ben Moonee, dragged the petite O’Hare to a bush under a culvert and indecently assaulted her, before being disturbed by a passer-by who had heard her cries for help. She later identified Moonee, who had a history of violence against women and girls dating as far back as when he was 14. Questioned about the disappearance of Rosie, he became truculent and resistant, saying he had never heard about Rosie Turner. Moonee was sentenced to a minimum ten years’ jail for the assault. Only 5 months into his sentence, Moonee committed suicide by electrocuting himself with the television cord in his cell. He left no note.
In the absence of a body, rumours abounded in the years after Rosie’s disappearance that she was still alive and living in Horsham, having started a new life with a new name.
Police, however, are convinced Rosie was the victim of foul play, and refuse to be drawn on any suspects. ‘This is still an open case, and for legal reasons we are unable to discuss with the media or disclose any of our suspects,’ states Detective Inspector Doug Low, now leading the inquiry,’We will say that there are a number of persons of interest at this stage and we continue to work to solve what we think was a murder of a devoted wife and mother. To say it’s a cold case would be inaccurate.’
Twenty years on, her family and friends still wait for news of what happened to Rosie Turner.