THE SUNDOWN MURDERS – South Australia

A brutal gun murder took place alongside the Australian Stuart Highway on the 5th December 1957. In similar circumstances that befell Peter Falconio and Joanne Lees in 2001 this event draws a close comparison, but time has expired the reference. If you have become interested in studying the twists and turns of the Falconio this story will engage your attention.

Just 295 km, (180 miles), south of Alice Springs is the murder site of Thyra Bowman, 43 her 14-year-old daughter Wendy and 22 year old family friend Tom Whelan who had been working on their ranch. They had been travelling to Adelaide in South Australia. Tom Whelan was returning home and the Bowman’s were looking forward to a holiday by the sea. When they set out from the Glen Helen Station, a family business north west of Alice Springs there were five, this included husband Nigel Bowman and the other Bowman daughter, Marion. They had reached Alice Springs on the 4th of December where the group spent the night in the Stuart Hotel. Thyra’s husband Nigel and their disabled daughter Marion had tickets to fly to Adelaide later on the 5th. The road party were in a black Standard Vanguard and departed around midday continuing south on Route 87, the Stuart Highway. They stopped for fuel and refreshment at the Kulgera homestead rest stop and continued until they reached the Northern Territory/South Australia border around sunset. They decided to camp on the roadside which was close to the abandoned Sundown Station. They had provisions and sufficient kit to sleep out in the bush. They also had two dogs, a very attentive and loyal Blue Heeler and a Corgi cross. They also had a Remington .22 rifle which the bush hardy young Wendy kept in a canvas gun slip. They were very much acquainted with the outdoors in Australia, this was a not a naive urban family.

Nigel Bowman and his daughter arrived in Adelaide on the 5th December. They were expecting the family road group to arrive sometime the next day on the 6th. When there was no sign of them by the evening Nigel was largely unconcerned. He anticipated that they had suffered a minor problem with the car and were securing themselves for another night somewhere on the route. Later the next day, the 7th there was still no sign or word so Nigel Bowman contacted the police. His concern was taken very seriously, and the police instigated an alert and call out in the region requesting any information concerning this family group travelling in their Vanguard. Aircraft were dispatched to perform a search along the Stuart Highway south of Alice Springs but came up with nothing. Even the Royal Australian Air Force had been notified of the search because they regularly had aircraft transiting the area. The proprietors at the Kulgera homestead rest stop confirmed to the police that they had served the group on the 5th December. They had indeed purchased fuel for the Vanguard and cold refreshments and were in good spirits.

On the 13th December a RAAF four engine Lincoln bomber descended over the area in the late afternoon south of Kulgera to perform an area sweep and an observer spotted a car strangely parked off the road. They conveyed a radio message and some hours later a road party confirmed it was the Bowman party’s Standard Vanguard, (example below). Shortly afterwards they found three bodies under a tarpaulin and some branches. The bodies were starting to decompose. The location was on the South Australia side of the border and as such in was in the SA police jurisdiction. The Northern Territory police were still actively involved in helping their colleagues, however.

A full investigation and forensic team arrived the next day along with some local Aborigine trackers. The three bodies were confirmed as being the missing persons. They all had severe blunt force injuries to the head and upper body, and they had all been shot in the head by a .22 firearm, Wendy once, Thyra twice and Tom Whelan three times. None of them were wearing their stockings or boots. Their camping site was found closer to the road along with blood traces and spent .22 cartridges. There were footprints in the area but also evidence of wild cattle that had transited through. Wendy Bowman’s Remington rifle was found loaded but the stock was broken; it had not been fired. It was under Tom Whelan’s dead body.

It was quickly confirmed that the cash they all had was missing along with Tom Whelan’s gold watch. The two dogs were found shot, their bodies dragged further into the bush. The trackers found evidence of another vehicle that had stopped in the vicinity. What was particularly interesting, it had been towing a trailer or small caravan. In such a deserted and desolate region, the South Australia police had little else to go on.

A breakthrough came when a middle-aged couple, the Oldfield’s eventually heard about the murders. They had been travelling north on the Stuart on the 5th December and had seen a car party camped just off the road on the east side. This was in the vicinity of the old Sundown station near the state border. They had remembered seeing a campfire. Furthermore, they had seen another car stopped on the other side of the road about a third of a mile further north. This dark vehicle was towing a small light coloured caravan. They remembered seeing a young woman in her thirties and a happy young child about 3 or 4 with flaxen hair. This location was about 200 miles south of Alice Springs. They had not considered anything suspicious about what they saw, on the contrary it was the antithesis of a murder scene.

Two gentlemen, Messrs. Gordon-Brown and Warwick had met Bailey and his family on Route 87 near Coober Pedy on the 4th December. This was 390 km, (235 miles), south of the old Sundown station location on the state border. They reported that Bailey was very chatty but was obviously hard up and was willing to sell a .22 rifle and a handgun, neither of which interested the men. Bailey had confirmed he had been working on a wheat farm in Wirrulla in South Australia, west of Port Augusta. After some friendly conversation they parted.

It was on the 22nd January 1958 that police in St Isa in Queensland noticed a distinctive DeSota car that had an outstanding finance and registration notice. The car had been purchased in Renmark, South Australia and displayed a SA registration plate that police were looking for. When they approached the young male driver, he gave a false name later admitting that he was always avoiding the Government Taxation Department. His real name was Raymond Bailey, he was 24. Police found an unlicensed handgun in the car. The car had a tow-hitch and Bailey admitted that his wife and child were just outside of town in their caravan. In contact with their colleagues in South Australia the bigger picture started to emerge, and Bailey was taken into custody for questioning.

Raymond Bailey, 24 admitted to travelling north on the Stuart Highway towards Alice Springs when on the 5th December and he had passed the Bowman site that evening and spotted them. He was with his wife and young son and they were towing a caravan behind their 1938 DeSota car. They had travelled from Wirrula where Bailey had been working the wheat on a farm. He was low on funds and looking for work.

Exactly what happened came down to Bailey’s statement and what police detectives could deduce. Bailey claimed that he decided to stop and camp about a third of a mile north from the Bowman site. After a meal his wife and son retired to bed. He then decided to go for a walk.

Bailey stated that he set off and took with him a Sportco Huntsman single shot bolt-action .22 rifle which he had agreed to purchase from Dave Iles, a work colleague, on the Wirrulla farm but took without leaving payment. During his walk he found himself entering the Bowman camp and one of the tethered dogs lunged at him, barking and growling. This surprised him. He was then confronted by Tom Whelan who started to get up and was armed with the Remington rifle. There was a confrontation and Tom Whelan he claimed was shot by his own Remington rifle in the struggle. Bailey then stated he had a “black out” and just panicked. He then admitted that he shot the two females with the Remington as they got up and tried to run away. When he came to his senses, he realised the gravity of what he had done. Early the next morning he returned to the camp, moved the bodies and their car further into the bush, and tried to clean up the area. He made no mention of what occurred to the dogs.

He was fearful about the affect this all had on his wife who the police interviewed separately. She was terrified about the outcome and just insisted that she was not aware of what had happened. Being just 700 metres from the Bowman camp it is possible that she didn’t hear the .22 rifle shots, the acoustic scenario would dictate the factors but her husband’s behaviour would have certainly concerned her.

Bailey stated that he had got rid of his Huntsman rifle closer to Alice Springs but gave no reason as to why. Despite admitting being at the scene and giving this statement Bailey then started giving conflicting versions. At one stage he claimed to have caught another person who had murdered the group and stabbed him to death, burying him close to the scene. He was acutely aware that if he were found guilty of murder, he would be hanged. No such grave or person existed.

In trying to nurse a jury with the notion that it was all a mistake and all part of his supposed “black out”, he was hoping at the very worst that he would be found guilty of manslaughter and just be imprisoned.

Raymond Bailey’s trial in Adelaide started on the 12th of May 1958.The prosecution case concluded that Bailey had initially stopped at the Bowman camp, curious to see who they were. The tyre marks made by his car and caravan opposite their camp suggested this. He might have turned down an offer of hospitality and maintained he and his family didn’t need any assistance. He planned to move on and then later rob them.

The prosecution maintained that Tom Whelan was woken by the dogs and reacted to Bailey’s armed incursion standing up to protect his group with the Remington. Bailey indeed panicked and simply shot him. He then proceeded to bludgeon Whelan and the two females who had started to stir but were still lying down. He used the Remington to do this. He then shot them all with his own Huntsman rifle to make sure they were dead.

He then stole their money and walked back to his caravan. The Bowman party had a total of £85.00 between them. That would now be worth the equivalent of around £1,400 in 2020.

Early the next morning he returned to the site. He had fashioned some coverings for his boots made from cutting sections from wheat jute sacks and tied them on like moccasins to hide his footprints. These were later found by the police. He shot the two dogs and dragged their carcasses further into the bush. He then placed the three victims in their car and drove it further into the bush. He then removed the bodies, laid them together and covered them with the tarpaulin and blankets, placing branches over them from nearby thorn trees.

He used a 4-gallon water container he found at their site to wash the car and clean away fingerprints. This he successfully managed to do because the police fingerprint expert on site could not find a single impression implicating Bailey.

Bailey returned to his wife and son. His wife was unquestioning and seemingly just accepted his movements. Bailey claimed she had no idea what had occurred. Bailey had murdered three people and their animals just for some money. He had no predetermined motive. In such a remote location he must have believed that he could get away with it.

A Police ballistics specialist tested a nearly whole .22 bullet which was removed from Tom Whelan. He discovered that it had been engaged in counterclockwise rifling twists which was very uncommon, (the Remington was traditional clockwise). The police then visited the wheat farm at Wirrulla and found Dave Iles. He confirmed that Bailey had agreed to purchase his rifle and it was indeed a Sportco Huntsman. He then took the officers to the location Bailey had test fired it and where he had shot a snake. There were spent .22 casings still there which the police retrieved.

The Huntsman was manufactured by Sportco, (Sporting Arms Ltd), a company set up in 1947 by Jack Warne in Adelaide. Manufacturing arms for the Australian domestic market after World War II, the initial models were copies of established American and European patterns. The simple single shot .22 Model 40 Huntsman had inadvertently had the barrel rifling milled counterclockwise. It was an engineering mistake that was not intended when the tooling was set up, but it made no difference to performance. The Huntsman was just unique. Bailey was unaware of this and it added to the evidence against him. The fired cartridge cases found at Wirrulla were compared to the cases found at the murder site. The firing pin strikes on the rimfire bases were identical. Bailey had lied to the police and had clearly taken the rifle to the camp with an intention to use it if necessary. Tom Whelan was not shot by his own rifle.

Raymond Bailey was found guilty by jury of the three murders on the 17th May 1958. The inevitable appeal by his defence to a higher court followed but was dismissed. On Tuesday, 24th June 1958 the law exacted from him the price of his crime.

 

 

 

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