Barrenjoey Road by Neil Mercer and Ruby Jones

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Please note that the name of the sexual assault victim mentioned below is a pseudonym provided by the authors.

In late evening on 24 June 1978, eighteen-year-old Trudie Adams left the Newport Surf Club after a dance to go home.  She walked about one hundred metres to Barrenjoey Road and hitched a ride – a common practice in those days – and was never seen again.

On 26 June 1978, Trudie was reported to the police as a missing person.  That same day, ‘Wireless Message 31’ was written by the police on a telex machine.  It contained one crucial mistake which ‘would reverberate down the decades’ [19] – the mistake which had such serious consequences for the subsequent investigations was a reference to ‘a green Kombi van’ [19].

In the Prologue to this engrossing and chilling account of sexual assaults, drug-running, kidnapping and killings, the authors refer to two earlier sexual assaults in the same area some years previously.  On 2 March 1971, a British tourist reported to the police that she had been brutally sexually assaulted.  The police concluded their report with these words ‘because of the doubtful nature of the report she [the complainant] was advised to return to her home’ [2].  Undeterred and determined to take the matter further, the complainant returned to the police station later the same day but received a similar response.  The detectives again noted ‘the complaint could be considered one of a very doubtful nature’ [2].

Five nights later, a fourteen-year-old girl reported that she and a friend had been abducted and raped.

These two assaults marked the beginning of a period of thirty-five years during which there were at least two murders and 14 reported sexual assaults [and presumably more unreported ones] – and none of these was ever solved.  The authors have claimed that this is ‘one of the greatest investigative failures in the history of the NSW Police’ [5].  The articulated purpose of Barrenjoey Road is to attempt to explain how this could have happened.

As the police investigation into Trudie’s disappearance commenced, other young women [and one young man] came forward with similar complaints and provided further impetus to the embryonic investigation.  The modus operandi of the assailants was frighteningly similar as all had been abducted and raped within minutes of leaving licenced premises and attempting to hitchhike on Barrenjoey Road.  In each case, the abductors [there were two of them] had a gun and the victims threatened with death should they scream.  After the assaults, the victims were taken home in a bizarre demonstration by the assailants that they knew where the victims lived should they consider making a complaint.

In Part 2 of the book which examines a number of possible suspects, one name is mentioned more than the others – Neville Brian Tween – and is repeatedly mentioned through the remainder of the book.  Tween first came to the attention of the police when he was aged nine.  His subsequent criminal career spanned almost sixty years with close to 100 criminal charges – stealing, break and enter, possession of firearms and explosives, robbery, drugs, and, more relevantly, sexual assault.  Being suspected of one crime never precluded Tween from committing another.

In early 2011, an Inquest in the NSW Coroner’s Court began to explore what may have happened to Trudie Adams.  The Counsel Assisting the Coroner, Peter Hammill SC, said, with some degree of understatement, that ‘the investigation [into Trudie’s disappearance] seemed somewhat disjointed’ [241].  The authors set out in some considerable detail the evidence provided to the inquest, the persons who were called to appear – including a number of police officers – and the Coroner’s findings which were delivered on 1 April 2011.  Sadly though, the Coroner found that there ‘just wasn’t enough evidence for him to say what had happened to Trudie, or who was responsible for her death’ [286] and the case was referred back to the NSW Police for further investigation.

In late 2018, the ABC put to air a three-part documentary series and a seven-part podcast written by the authors.  It became clear from numerous responses to both the series and the podcast that suggested that rather than two or three offenders there were dozens of predators operating on the Northern Beaches – ‘some were flashers, opportunists and weirdos.  And some were rapists’ [291].

Tween died in prison in 2013.  In 2019, a memorial was erected on Avalon Beach in honour of Trudie – it is called Trudie’s Whale Stone.

Barrenjoey Road is a meticulously researched book into this quite complex series of crimes which took place over an extended period of time.  The authors drew on thousands of pages of evidence presented to the Coronial Inquest as well as the Inquest’s transcript and findings.  In addition, 700 pages of police running sheets provided the authors with deep insight into the day-to-day processes of the 1978 police investigation.  It is important to note – and it is a credit to the authors – that, in spite of what seems at times to be an overwhelming volume of material and exhaustive detail, they never lose sight of what the book is really about and that is the sexual assault of young women and the consequent grief and trauma experienced by those women especially but also by their families and friends.

Even though it is not her real name, the name Trudie Adams is writ large in the book – it is critical that we do not anonymise those who have been harmed by others.  It is equally critical that those persons who have been assaulted and whose assailants are never brought to justice are never forgotten.  The authors have ensured that, through this book and the earlier television series and podcast, the names of the victims are enshrined in our collective memories.

It can be a difficult book to read because of the assaults but for readers who value skilled investigative writing then this is a fine book.

Neil Mercer has been a print and television journalist for more than 45 years.  He was a presenter on the Channel 7 programs 11AM, Today Tonight, The Times and Face to Face.  Neil is the winner of a Walkley Award and an NSW Law Society award for excellence in legal reporting.  He has written one other book – Fate: Inside the Backpacker Murders Investigation which told the story of how the serial killer Ivan Milat was caught.

Ruby Jones is an award-winning investigative journalist and documentary host.  Her stories have appeared on ABC TV’s 7.30 and Lateline programs.  She was the Marchbanks Young Journalist of the Year in 2015.

Barrenjoey Road

[2021]

by Neil Mercer and Ruby Jones

ABC Books

ISBN 978 0 7333 4046 8

$34.99; 307pp

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