Elvira Buckingham with a picture of her daughter Michelle. Photo: Ray SizerThe pain of not knowing
Cold-case murder evidence – destroyed during a bungled Victoria Police relocation 20 years ago – could have been lost from about 140 unsolved murders, with detectives in the dark about how badly homicide investigations have been compromised because force command has never investigated what was lost.
Some detectives have revealed they only learnt of the 1994 mistake when they reopened cold-case investigations years later and discovered evidence was missing. Families of murder victims, who have waited decades for answers, fear that the bungle will mean they never see justice for murdered loved ones.
An Age analysis has found that about 140 murders remain unsolved from between 1943 – when the homicide squad was formed – and 1994, when the evidence was destroyed.
Of these cases, it is believed evidence – including samples which could now be tested for DNA – was taken from up to 40 files, but police will not explain why a review of the missing evidence, and the cases affected, was never completed.
After questioning from The Age, force command confirmed on Thursday that an urgent review had now been ordered into the missing evidence.
“Until the review and prioritisation is completed, we are not in a position to comment on the status of exhibits relevant to cold-case investigations,” a police spokeswoman said.
Families who may have been affected, and current and former homicide squad detectives, said the force needed to explain why it had taken 20 years for a review to occur.
Detectives said that although making public the cases that had lost evidence could hamper investigations, there was no reason why families should not be told privately that their cases had been affectedif it appeared material was missing from their files.
In 1994, as Victoria Police prepared to move exhibits from Russell Street to Collingwood, the eight crews of homicide squad detectives were asked to review cases to determine which evidence was no longer needed.
Police sources say that each crew developed a list and gave that to the squad’s inspector. Detectives estimated evidence in up to 40 cold cases was signed off on for destruction.
The exhibits could have been destroyed for a number of reasons – they were labelled “biohazards” or they had been through the inquest stage – but the decision infuriated some police, who say the possibilities of new DNA technology were just being realised.
The inspector who approved the destruction of evidence is no longer in the force and could not be contacted. It is unclear what has happened to the original audit document.
Retired homicide squad detective Charlie Bezzina remembers the audit being conducted. He said the decision to destroy evidence would have been based on ignorance of what future technology could do for old exhibits.
“It was all crystal ball stuff in those days, I wouldn’t attest to the word negligence. DNA in those days weren’t as big as it is now and judgments were made,” Mr Bezzina said.
“If was up to investigators we would hold everything … but the cold, hard facts are we don’t have the facilities, no one has the facilities, to keep umpteen exhibits.”
He said property management has always been a problem for Victoria Police.
“Exhibits do get lost.”
Sources also say it was more likely exhibits in lesser-known cases were destroyed. Victoria’s most prominent unsolved murders are likely to have complete files, with the 1977 Easey Street killings and the 1953 Shirley Collins case, for example, still intact.
One low-profile case, the 1983 killing of Shepparton 16-year-old Michelle Buckingham, is the only homicide that Fairfax Media has been able to confirm had exhibits destroyed in 1994.
Michelle’s mother, who still lives in Shepparton, first learnt of the bungle during a committal hearing last November.
Other families who Fairfax Media contacted, most of whom had loved ones slain in the ’70s and ’80s, had never even been told that evidence was destroyed.
In 1990, Sarah MacDiarmid disappeared from a train station near Seaford. It remains one of the state’s most well-known cold cases. Her father, Peter MacDiarmid, is adamant a cigarette lighter, found where the 23-year-old was last seen, has gone missing.
“You’re dealing with human beings and human beings are prone to error, but if they were lost in the move, if it was a deliberate order to destroy them because they didn’t think they would need them again, that’s the height of negligence,” he said.
Daryl Floyd, whose brother Terry Floyd was abducted and murdered in 1975, is in contact with the families of about 14 unsolved murder victims.
“They don’t feel there’s enough contact in relation to what’s going on with their case. A family can live a lifetime of not knowing what happened to their loved one let alone what’s going on with their case,” Mr Floyd said.
“This is not [a criticism] of Victoria Police, there are great detectives within the rank and file. Unfortunately, they’re hampered by budget constraints, resources and time.”
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.