Article and Interview with Vikki Petraitis by: Kylie Fox
It’s the winter of 1993 and a young girl huddles inside her warm coat against the chill of the air. Her steps are fast and she glances furtively at her surroundings, feeling reassured by the two male friends who flank her. She also feels somewhat ridiculous having her friends walk her everywhere, as though she needs bodyguards. After all, this was sleepy little Seaford, a suburb on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula. She’d lived here her entire life; she’d walked its paths, played in its parks and generally come and gone as she’d pleased without ever giving her safety a second thought.
Now, it wasn’t safe. Two young women had already been killed. Another, her neighbour and the mother of two of her friends, had been attacked on the sporting reserve that her own house backed onto. The same reserve that she’d always seen as an extension of her own backyard.
Nobody was safe.
A serial killer, one who hunted young women as they walked alone, was on the loose – and he could be anywhere – he could be anyone. And he would strike again.
Eighteen year old Elizabeth Stevens was the first victim of the “Frankston Serial Killer”. She had been at TAFE in Frankston and had caught a bus to nearby Langwarrin where she alighted prepared to walk the small stretch home. But she never arrived.
Her body was found in nearby Lloyd Park, her throat slashed and her chest carved with a bizarre criss-cross pattern.
Rosza Toth was attacked on her way home from work, as she walked the short distance from Seaford train station to her home, past the North Seaford Soccer Reserve. She was dragged from the footpath towards the toilet block but managed to break free. She ran onto Railway Pde and hailed down a passing car who took her to safety.
On the same night, only a short time after the failed attack on Rosza Toth, Debbie Fream left her 12-day old baby with a friend to drive to the local milkbar, not far from Kanakook Railway Station, for some milk. Fream failed to lock her car doors, and was hijacked by a man who held a knife to her throat and forced her to drive.
She drove a few kilometres to Taylors Road where her body was later discovered in a paddock – her throat cut and body savagely slashed.
By this time, the panic in the Frankston area was palpable. It was clear that there was a serial killer on the loose but the police had no leads and no suspects. Women were warned not to go out after dark alone and residents were warned to be on the lookout for anyone exhibiting odd behaviour.
A community meeting was held in Seaford, attended by the police who were working the case. The atmosphere in the room was electric. Both police and the community were well aware that it was not only possible, but probable, that the killer himself was in the room with them. The lure would have been too great to deny.
People who had passed each other every day, usually nodding a friendly greeting, now eyed one another with suspicion.
Natalie Russell was a seventeen year old student at Frankston’s John Paul College. Pretty, smart and popular with her friends, she’d left school a little early to walk home along the much-used track that ran alongside a golf course on Golf Links Road.
Her murderer lay in wait for the first woman to walk past. He’d even cut a hole in the fence in preparation. Natalie was the unfortunate victim.
He confronted her, brandishing a knife. Natalie first tried talking her way out of danger, offering him money, offering him anything he wanted not to hurt her. He wasn’t interested. He attacked the girl who fought back bravely and with all she had. He slashed at her head and her neck, making her murder the most brutal of all.
The first murder had been committed on June 11, 1993, the third and final murder on July 30, 1993. But, the following day, July 31, 1993, his reign of terror, short-lived but brutal in the extreme, came to an end.
Following up leads of a suspicious car seen in the vicinity of both the murders of Debbie Fream and Natalie Russell, the police apprehended Paul Charles Denyer, at his home.
At first, Denyer denied any knowledge of the murders, other than what he had read in the newspapers and seen on television. He admitted having been in the area when two of the murders had been committed but maintained that it was purely coincidental.
He explained away several cuts on his hands, that police believed he sustained in the struggle with Natalie Russell, as having been caused by the fan while working on his car.
The detectives were not that easily fooled. They knew they had their man. They informed Denyer that his DNA was being matched with a piece of foreign skin found on Natalie’s Russell’s body. After a little discussion about likely DNA results, Denyer confessed. “I killed all three of them,” he said candidly.
He then went on to give full confessions to all three murders and the attack on Rosza Toth – sparing no details or sentiment.
POLICE: Can you explain why we have women victims?
DENYER: I just hate them.
POLICE: I beg your pardon.
DENYER: I hate them.
POLICE: Those particular girls or women in general.
Paul Charles Denyer was convicted of the murders and is currently serving three life sentences for the crimes with a minimum non-parole period of 30 years. However, a loophole in Victorian law at the time, could see him become eligible for parole after only 20 years. That is, in 2013.
In a bizarre twist, Denyer has petitioned the courts for tax-payer funded, gender reassignment surgery. He no longer identifies himself as Paul but as Paula Denyer.
Vikki Petraitis, author of The Frankston Murders, released shortly after the crimes, is re-releasing the book this year with Clan Destine Press, with the new title – The Frankston Serial Killer. The new book includes details of Denyer’s life since his imprisonment.
Vikki was kind enough to answer a few questions:
KYLIE: What was it about the Frankston serial killings that made you want to write about it?
VIKKI: I remember sitting in the back of a police car at the scene of Natalie Russell’s murder thinking: Here I am, a true crime writer, sitting at the crime scene of a girl murdered by a serial killer. I have to write this book. In those days, hardly anyone was writing true crime so there weren’t a bunch of writers vying for the story. I was privy to some of the behind-the-scenes stuff because I was spending time at the Frankston police station working on other stories. I knew the local detectives involved, and I saw first-hand how hard everyone was working to catch the guy. I’m glad it was me who wrote it – someone who lived in the area and felt what it was like.
KYLIE: You interviewed most of the people involved in, and affected by, the killings while researching the book. Are there moments from those interviews that are still memorable?
VIKKI: I will never forget Natalie’s mum Carmel apologising for the way she explained Nat’s loss on the family. But in her simple eloquence lay the most profound understandings of loss. She said that the hardest thing was remembering to only set three places at the table instead of four. It was really moving stuff. I remember people asking me how I could listen to these stories and view the crime scene videos and look at photographs, but for me it was all about honouring these people by telling their story to the best of my ability. When I heard a harrowing story from the families about their loss, my first thoughts were: how can I show this to the reader? How can I give this the power in words that it has in life? The weight of the responsibility to tell the story well overshadowed my personal response. That’s not to say that I might not feel upset later, but the ability to postpone or redirect personal reactions is the asset required by crime writers and cops and forensic people alike.
KYLIE: I can remember, having lived in the area at the time, the overwhelming sense of fear that was almost tangible at the time. What was your impression?
VIKKI: I too lived in the area and it was something that we were aware of all the time. I remember going into the fish and chip shop and around to the video store and looking at me and thinking: is it you? Being a true crime writer and the reader of hundreds of true crime books, I probably felt safer than most. I knew that he picked women off the streets who were alone or didn’t lock their car doors. I made sure that if I had to go shopping, I took my daughter with me, and that I parked out the front of shops under the lights. People were out in droves buying security doors and guard dogs, but my perception was that he was unlikely to change his MO and break into my house and kill me. Knowledge is power in these situations.
KYLIE: Obviously these murders had a huge impact on the lives of those directly related but what do you think the long-lasting effects of this series of crimes have had on the public consciousness?
VIKKI: I’m not sure there is a long-lasting effect for the general public, and I’m also not sure there should be. One man made a choice to terrorise a community and murder three women. For a while, we were over-cautious and scared, but then things settle down and return to normal. I would hate to think that one man could have a long-term fear effect on people. I suppose that because he did what he did, he opened a door to the possibility of it happening again, but that possibility was always there. Maybe people who lived through it, trust a little less, or are more careful. Maybe that’s a good thing, maybe it’s not. I chose to believe that once he was caught and locked up, we were as safe as we were before he started killing. I don’t want to live in fear. He took enough with the lives of three women. I don’t want to think that he took any more.
KYLIE: Your original book, The Frankston Murders was released shortly after the events. It will be re-released under the title The Frankston Serial Killer, by Clan Destine Press this year. What new information will be included?
VIKKI: The new edition has been re-edited and streamlined. A writer develops a lot over 15 years and so I’ve changed bits and pieces all the way through. I’ve also added the update on what Denyer is doing now in prison. The fact that he wanted to wear make-up and now dresses as a woman, complete with pigtails, has certainly brought about a renewed interest in him.
KYLIE: How does it feel for you revisiting the crimes, and the devastation they caused, after all this time?
VIKKI: Surprisingly, I’ve found it quite distressing to revisit the story. I don’t usually read my own books, so once it’s out there, I move on to the next project. I think that as a writer, if you can’t let go of a story and move on to the next one, it would eat you up – especially true crime writers. Revising the story is different now, with time. I know that a number of the people I interviewed have passed away since then. I grew very fond of Natalie Russell’s aunt, Bernadette. She was so keen to keep the public aware of Denyer and what he did. Unfortunately, she didn’t live to do this. I visited her just before she died and I mourned at her funeral. The grief contained in the story is now much more real to me since I have experienced loss in my life. Until you lose someone you love, you can only sympathise rather than empathise with the families. Now I get it which is why I have found revisiting the story as distressing as I have.
KYLIE: Is there any difference in the way you perceive Paul Charles Denyer now, to your perception of him at the time of his arrest and trial?
VIKKI: One thing that struck me was that as the years go on, people don’t even remember his name. When it first happened, everyone knew who he was – which I guess is the whole point of it for him – but with the passing of time, many wouldn’t even remember his name. I’m not sure if my perception of his has changed; he’s a woman-hating killer. Seeing the media photos of him with pigtails pretending to be the very thing he loathes is hard to understand.
KYLIE: You’ve contacted Denyer for both the original book and again, for the new edition. Was he able to offer any insights?
VIKKI: When I first wrote The Frankston Murders, I wrote to Paul Denyer in prison to offer him the opportunity to contribute. I didn’t get an answer from him and one of the detectives spoke to him and Denyer told the detective that he had flushed my letter down the toilet. For the reprint, I wrote to him again with the same offer – did he want to tell his story, or at least explain the reasoning behind his decision to live as a woman. In only a couple of days, I received a reply from ‘Ms Paula Denyer’ – as Paul was now known. Paula explained that ‘she’ did not wish to make a contribution and that one day, she might like to tell her own story. The letter was respectful and well-written. She signed off with: ‘I plan to make this world better.’
Coming from a self-confessed woman-hating monster, that last sentence is one of the most frightening prospects I’ve ever read. I shudder to think how he would make the world a better place. You can read more in the upcoming, “The Frankston Serial Killer“.