The loss of Australia’s innocence and the case that forged the path for modern forensics

The loss of Australia’s innocence and the case that forged the path for modern forensics

On the 7th of July 1960, the kidnapping and murder of a young boy in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs would not only change the way Australia thought of itself as a nation but would also shape the path for modern forensics in this country. 

The story of Graeme Thorne has haunted Sydney and Australia for the last 70 years. Touted as the ‘end of innocence’, it was the first kidnapping for ransom in Australian history. Sadly, the young Thorne would not have a happy ending but the ingenuity of researchers and scientists at Sydney University and the Royal Botanic Gardens would revolutionise the way crime scene investigation occurred and could be used in court.

Graeme Thorne was born in 1951 to parents Bazil and Freda Thorne. The eight-year-old attended the prestigious Scots College in Bellevue Hill and had a 3-year-old sister, Belinda. The Thorne’s were described as a typical Australian family with Mr Thorne working as a travelling salesman and Mrs Thorne a homemaker, living in the very working class suburb of Bondi.

During the 1960’s, Sydney’s iconic landmark, the Sydney Opera House was being built. The original cost to build the Jørn Utzon design was $7mil but this budget soon blew out to $102mil so in order to finish construction, it was largely funded through the state lottery.

In June 1960, Bazil Thorne lined up to purchase one of the 100,000 tickets in Opera Lottery number 10 and to his disbelief won £100,000, the equivalent to roughly $3.5mil today. His win was splashed over the front pages of Sydney papers; and so began the plot that would lead to the ‘trial of the century’.

Photograph of Graeme Thorne, Courtesy Of Fairfax Media

Stephen Leslie Bradley was born in Budapest in 1926 before he emigrated to Australia in 1950. In 1958 he married his second wife, Magda Wittman, also Hungarian, with two children from a previous marriage. In 1959 the family moved to Sydney from Katoomba to “do something big” with their lives. 

After seeing Mr Thorne’s win in the Opera Lottery, Bradley hatched a plan to kidnap Graeme and hold him for ransom. While Bradley did eventually confess on a plane to a Detective Inspector, all the details of his plan are still not known.

Mr Bradley spent weeks studying Graeme’s movements and casing the street where the Thorne’s lived. This even included a brazen knock on their door three weeks prior to the kidnapping. Bradley spoke to Mrs Thorne, identifying himself as a Private Enquiry Agent, looking for a “Mr Bogner”. A Mr Bogner was never identified throughout the Thorne enquiry.

Photograph of Stephen Bradley, courtesy of NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive

On the day of the kidnapping, Graeme left his home at 8:30am and began to walk approximately 300 metres to wait on the corner of Wellington and O’Brien Streets, where a family friend, Phyllis Smith would pick him up at 08:40 and take him to school with her sons. However, when Phyllis Smith arrived, Graeme was nowhere to be found. Sensing that something was immediately wrong, Phyllis went straight to Freda to see whether Graeme was going to school that day. After Freda confirmed that he hadn’t made it to school, she rang the NSW police. 

Due to Freda’s fast thinking, the police arrived shortly after her phone call and were on site when a man, with a thick European accent, rang at 9:40am. Sergeant Larry O’Shea from Bondi police answered the phone pretending to be Bazil, as Mr Thorne was in Kempsey on business. The kidnapper said, “I have your boy, I want 25,000 pounds before 5 o’clock, or I’ll feed the boy to the sharks.” O’Shea responded that he wouldn’t be able to obtain such a large sum of money as he was unaware of the Thorne’s lottery win. The kidnapper said he would call back at 5:00pm with more details and hung up.

By 9:45am, several police officers had arrived at the Thorne’s household and when the phone rang again at 9:47, another officer answered, again impersonating Bazil. This officer attempted to stall to allow a trace on the phones location to occur. The kidnapper eventually started to give instructions that the money was to be put in two paper bags but then hung up without giving further instructions. This is the last time the Thorne’s would hear from Stephen Leslie Bradley.

The police quickly began searching around the Thorne’s house and Bondi. A search so large the likes of it had never been seen in Australia before. Mr Thorne made his way back to Sydney and on arrival at the airport was told that his son had been kidnapped for random.

Despite police not wanting media involvement, the story was leaked to legendary crime journalist Bill Jenkins and the headline “Feed him to the sharks” ran on the front page of the afternoon paper. This led to a highly emotional press conference from Bazil Thorne at Bondi police station at 8:30pm.

Due to the lack of precedent for this situation, Australians were in uproar. NSW Premier at the time R.J Heffron, proposed amending the legislation to make kidnapping a capital offence. 

Speaking with Judy Fellowes, a resident of Bondi at the time of the kidnapping, she said that the country was aware of the Lindbergh baby case, but never expected that kind of brutality in Australia. She said “we were quite a naïve nation. Especially in Bondi where there was a great sense of community. All of a sudden the streets fell silent and people were hesitant to let their kids out to play.”

The next day, while police continued to canvas Bondi for information, local Cecil Denmeade reported that a blue 1955 Ford Customline was parked less than 100m away from the Thorne’s house. He noticed the car because of the strange way it was parked and also because of the unusual appearance of the occupant.

This led the police to track down the 5000 blue Ford Customline’s in NSW and sight all of them and speak with the owners of as many as possible. Including Stephen Bradley at his place of work in Darlinghurst, roughly a week after Graeme’s disappearance. Bradley let the police know that he had owned a blue Ford Customline but he had just sold it to a car dealership.

The day after the kidnapping, the police made a massive discovery when, 20km north of Bondi, Graeme’s empty school port was found just off the Wakehurst Parkway. 

Within hours, hundreds of police officers, army units, helicopters, and tracker dogs began a day’s long search for any remaining items belonging to Graeme. On 11 July, a mile away and on the other side of the highway from where his port was located, they found his school cap, raincoat, lunch bag, and math books. One of the most poignant moments was the contents of his lunch bag, a lone apple, lovingly peeled and wrapped by his mother Freda.

The press continued to cover the story, the police slept at the Thorne’s home and the search continued until it ultimately concluded five weeks later when on the 16 August, some young boys playing on a vacant lot located in Seaforth, found something wrapped in a picnic blanket.  

Peter McCue and his friends regularly played in the vacant lot and after spotting the bundle, McCue recalls the kids speculating what could be in the blanket. The kids asked their mothers what to do and they told them to wait for their fathers to return home from work. 

At 5:30pm, the fathers of the children got together and walked over to the rock where the blanket was found and discovered the decomposing body of Graeme Thorne. 

Detective Sergeant Ken Baret was tasked with telling Freda about the grim discovery, however, on arrival to the Bondi house, Freda had already seen a story on the news about Graeme being found dead.

And so, the search began…

Detective Sergeant John Snowden who was part of the Scientific Bureau showed up on sight with his partner Ted White. 

They began by photographing the scene, before removing the picnic blanket to find the young boy still in his school uniform. Graeme was bound by his feet with a piece of cord and a silk scarf was knotted around his neck. The detectives continued to photograph as much as they could, and when removing the body for autopsy, attempted to keep as much of the attached debris as possible.

The next morning the autopsy began, and it was revealed that Graeme had a fracture to his skull and had died from either blunt force trauma to the head, being strangled or a combination of the both. The rate of decomposition, and mould located on his shoes,  indicated that he had been killed relatively quickly after he was taken. 

When the news broke about the way that Graeme was killed, Australia reacted with revulsion and disgust. The outcome of Graeme being dead had never been considered, everyone was sure that this was a money grab and the child would be returned. Surely no one is callous enough to kill a child? Judy Fellowes from Bondi again described the air of the Eastern Suburbs as that of “profound sadness. You could feel the country was in mourning and that it would never be the same again. A bit of all of us had died along with Graeme”. 

The hunt was on to find the killer. The police even enlisted the help of the most hardened criminals who were just as disgusted at what had happened. Everyone in Sydney had the eyes and ears switched on to find who could’ve done this, but the answers would come from unusual places for 1960.

Newspaper article, courtesy of Fairfax Media

The scientific evidence collected and utilised in this case was like nothing that had been seen in Australia before. The scientists involved recognised that nothing should be left unexamined and so performed a thorough investigation of any and all organic elements that they could. 

The picnic blanket that Graeme was found wrapped in would become an integral piece of evidence in the investigation. Not only because of how the blanket was able to be traced, but also because of the unique debris left on it. Debris that would inevitably seal the fate of Stephen Bradley in this case and begin the science of modern forensics. 

Detective Constable Harry Tupman was tasked with travelling to South Australia to speak to the factory owners of Onkaparinga Mills where the blanket was made. It was found to be No. 0639 of 3000 and had been sent to a store in Melbourne to be sold. Det Cnst. Tupman then travelled to Melbourne and was able to track down the man who bought the blanket. He was interviewed and it was discovered that he had given it to his friend Mrs Magda Wittman on the birth of her first child. 

Allan Clarke from the police scientific bureau lead the team who meticulously picked hairs, fibres, seeds and anything they could find off the blanket. 

The hairs that were found were sent to a government microbiologist named Dr Cameron Oliver who determined that they were the hairs of a Pekinese dog. Despite significant frustration from the police, as they suggested that this restricted their field of suspects, Dr Oliver was adamant that the hairs could only be from that of a Pekinese. 

The seeds that were found on the blanket were sent to De Joyce Vickery and Dr Barbara Briggs at the Sydney Botanic Gardens who used comparison between their samples and careful observation of the evidence to identify the trees the seeds came from. Dr Briggs said that the seeds came from two different types of Cypress trees. One of which was more common than the other, however “having the two of them together is a very rare occasion and so a wonderful clue”. 

A geologist from Sydney University was able to look at the debris and pinkish sand attached to the blanket and identify it as pink limestock mortar; which would’ve attached to the blanket while it lay on a hard surface – presumably under a house. 

In order to say when Graeme was murdered the doctors at the School of Agriculture at Sydney University were able to use his stomach contents, and fly larvae to narrow down the time frame and Professor of Plant Pathology, Dr Neville White, used samples of the mould on Graeme’s shoes to say definitively that he had been killed within 24 hours of being kidnapped.

When police put the scientific evidence together, it gave them a relatively specific picture of the house they were looking for. Detectives Roy Coleman and George Shields were dispatched to conduct a street study around where Graeme’s body had been found. They spoke with a postman who said that he thought he knew a house that sounded like what they were looking for. 

And so, the Detectives were led to 28 Moore Street, Clontarf. A house made of pink limestock mortar. A house that had two different types of Cypress trees out the back. A house where a family of Hungarian immigrants and their pet Pekinese dog had just moved out on the day Graeme Thorne was kidnapped. A man, who owned a 1955 blue Ford Customline. A man, named Stephen Leslie Bradley. 

Bradley had first come to the attention of the police on August 19, 3 days after Graeme’s body had been found, when a neighbour mentioned that Bradley owned a blue Ford Customline. At that stage, he was merely a person of interest on a long list. 

Now, in late October and armed with this new scientific evidence, the police were ready to arrest Bradley. When they attended the now empty residence on Moore Street, the police were able to locate a missing tassel from the picnic blanket and also a crumpled strip of 35mm film. When this film was developed, it was found to be a photo of the Bradley family sitting on the picnic rug that Graeme was found wrapped in. They were also able to locate the Pekinese dog who was left at a local vet clinic. 

Bradley had advised the police that after they moved out of the Moore Street house, they were moving to a flat in Manly, however, when police went to arrest Bradley, they discovered they were too late.

Bradley and his family had left on the SS Himalaya for London to start a new life. 

This caused significant issues for the police but knowing that the next stop was the soon-to-be new country of Sri Lanka, Sergeant Brian Boyle and Jack Bateman were able to intervene and arrest Bradley in Colombo. Australia did not have an extradition treaty with Sri Lanka which meant it took 5 weeks of legal negotiations before Bradley was successfully extradited on 18 November 1960. 

As mentioned at the top, on the flight back to Australia, Bradley made a verbal confession to Bradley on the plane, he also made a written confession although he would later retract it. 

“I went out and watched the Thorne boy leaving the house and seen him for about three mornings and I have seen where he went. And one morning I have followed him to the school at Bellevue Hill. One or two mornings I have seen a womman [sic] pick him up, and take him to the school. On the day we moved from Clontarf I went out to Edward Street. I parked the car in a street I don’t know the name of the street it is off Wellington Street. I have got out from the car, and I waited on the cornor [sic] untill [sic] the boy walked down to the car.”

Bradley’s trial began on Monday 20 March 1961 and lasted a mere 9 days. Despite pleading not guilty, he admitted to the kidnapping but claimed the murder was an accident. No one bought it. He was found guilty and sentenced to the maximum life in prison.

He was promptly sent to Goulburn gaol where he spent his time segregated from other prisoners for his own protection.

Bradley died at age 42 from a heart attack while playing tennis in gaol.

The Thorne family moved to Rose Bay where Bazil died in 1978 and Freda died in 2012. 

Australia was never the same after this case. Federal laws were changed to protect the winners of lotteries; this gave them the opportunity to stay anonymous. An innocence was lost that could never be regained; but most notably, forensic science became a legitimate way to find and convict criminals and was the birth of what we see regularly in court room today.  

By ATC contributor, Rory Banwell