Child killer takes his secrets to the grave

DANIEL FOGARTY
Last updated 15:18 24/07/2013
Fairfax Australia

It's a tragedy that the families of Derek Percy's alleged victims will likely never get closure, says crime writer John Silvester.

DEREK ERNEST PERCY
DEREK ERNEST PERCY: Died of lung cancer in hospital.
Linda Stilwell
VICTIM: Linda Stilwell.
Shane Spiller
ESCAPE: Shane Spiller with his tomahawk. The youngster had been walking along the beach with friend Yvonne Tuohy.
Derek Percy
COLD STARE: Derek Percy picture in 1969.

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Jean Priest hoped she might finally hear what happened to her 7-year-old daughter Linda 45 years ago.

The man suspected of killing her, Derek Ernest Percy, had lost a long legal battle and looked likely to take the witness stand in the Victorian Coroner's Court.

Priest desperately wished Percy would reveal in court what happened to Linda Stilwell on the St Kilda foreshore on August 10, 1968.

But Percy, who may well be Australia's worst child killer, was diagnosed with lung cancer and his condition was worsening.

Detectives went to his beside in the prison ward of Melbourne's St Vincent's Hospital and urged the 64-year-old to divulge any details about the disappearance of Linda and several other children.

At first, Percy claimed he didn't remember and then, as he approached his death, he denied he was even involved.

He died today.

Priest and many other families may now never find out what happened to their loved ones with the prime suspect having never spilled his secrets.

Percy, a loner with a high IQ, was just a schoolboy in the sleepy Victorian town of Mount Beauty when people began to notice his strange behaviour.

He was once seen standing in a river dressed in woman's clothing waving a knife around while defecating.

Later, as a teenager, he was found in a caravan with two girls who had their pants down.

Had it not been for the children's mother calling out to them, they could well have been Percy's first victims.

A few years later, aged 20, Percy admitted killing 12-year-old Yvonne Tuohy who he snatched from Victoria's Warneet beach on Western Port Bay.

As she walked along the beach with her friend Shane Spiller, Percy appeared and grabbed her, threatening to hurt her as Shane held up a tomahawk he was carrying and moved towards Percy.

Shane ran into the bush to try and get help as his friend yelled "Shane, help me", but Percy drove Yvonne away and horrifically killed her.

Under persistent and meticulous police questioning, Percy eventually admitted his crime, but the former naval rating was found not guilty by reason of insanity and was handed an indefinite sentence.

Percy has been diagnosed as having an exceedingly rare "serious sadistic sexual paraphilia" and was Victoria's longest serving prisoner.

He is suspected of killing up to eight other children.

Among them are some of Australia's most infamous crimes, including the three Beaumont children who disappeared from Glenelg beach in South Australia on Australia Day 1966.

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Percy admits he was in Adelaide at the time the children disappeared and was asked during a 1969 police interview if he killed the Beaumont children.

He told police: "I could have killed them, I don't remember a thing."

Percy said during the same interview that he had driven past the spot where three-year-old Simon Brook was murdered in Glebe in Sydney in 1968, on the day he died.

He said he might have killed Simon, but doesn't remember.

Percy was in Canberra when six-year-old Alan Redston disappeared in 1966.

It is also believed he was holidaying near Wanda Beach in Sydney when 15-year-olds Christine Sharrock and Marianne Schmidt were killed.

Percy was interviewed by police over the murders in 2007, but he was not charged.

George Hampel was a barrister in his 30s when he was briefed to defend Percy for his 1970 trial for Yvonne Tuohy's murder.

Before the trial, Hampel, who is now a professor at Monash University and was a Supreme Court judge, visited Percy behind the bluestone walls of Melbourne's Pentridge Prison and remembers an intelligent and co-operative client.

Percy had already made admissions of guilt and was resigned to his fate.

"He was certainly able to give instructions and seemed to be understanding the way the case was going to be run and what the issues were going to be," Professor Hampel told AAP.

"Certainly intelligent, certainly he understood what we were talking about. Quite resigned to what was going to happen."

The horrific crime scene photos and the awful details of the crime still stick in his mind.

So graphic were the descriptions of the killing in the case that a juror fainted during the prosecution opening, Professor Hampel said.

There was no question that Percy was the man who killed Yvonne, the question was simply whether he was insane at the time.

Forty years on, Professor Hampel still can't forget the trial.

"Mainly because of the horror of the event itself," he said.

"It was a terrible thing and also of course because there is this continuous concern that he may have been involved in these other cases."

In his city office near Melbourne's court precinct, Professor Hampel pulls out a drawer and takes out an old grey scrapbook, flicking through pages of old newspaper cutouts of his big cases before coming to stories about Percy.

One sticks out, showing the photos of some other alleged Percy victims including the Beaumont children.

An inquest into Linda Stilwell's death began in 2009 and Percy was found by a coroner to be in the vicinity of St Kilda beach the day she disappeared.

The coroner found that Linda likely met with foul play and that Percy's evidence may solve the case.

Percy was called to give evidence and Priest sat just metres away from him as he sat without emotion, his eyes closed and his head down.

But in the end, the coroner ruled Percy did not have to give evidence.

In 2012, the Victorian Court of Appeal overturned that decision and the case was set to resume this year.

Priest expressed joy that she might finally hear Percy reveal details of the crime.

"We need to bury Linda with dignity, and we need to find some way to know that we've done everything we possibly can for her," she told reporters in April after a directions hearing.

"I'm at the stage where it's just sad to think that we've waited all this time, and we just need to know some answers."

But last week, after hearing Percy was in a terminal condition and had days to live, Priest could only hope he would reveal his secrets to police.

"I'm just hoping he has some kind of a heart and tells us what happened to Linda and where he buried her," she said.

Percy died overnight on Wednesday, having never revealed anything about what happened to Linda.

- AAP

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