Untold story of Veronica Knight: Murdered by monsters

WARNING: Graphic content 

 

For the last two years of her life, Jeanette and Peter Woods were the closest thing Veronica Knight ever had to a family.

Abandoned by her parents, she spent the majority of her short life in care at Brighton's Minda Home - a convenient bureaucratic solution at the time for children who could not be placed with a foster family, even if they had no disability.

The Woods first came across Veronica in 1974 when she was aged 16. They met at an Anglican Church youth group the pair ran and their affection for her was instant. So too was her need for their love.

Veronica Knight was the first victim in the Truro murders in 1976.
Veronica Knight was the first victim in the Truro murders in 1976.

For the next two years they grew close. The pair were Veronica's informal foster parents, mentoring and guiding her through her final teenage years as she grew into a confident, yet shy young woman.

But sadly, on the evening of December 23, 1976, they lost Veronica when she vanished after a pre-Christmas shopping trip in the city with a girlfriend. She was last seen at a King William St bus stop.

While police believed she was just another missing person and were not terribly alarmed because of her background, Jeanette and Peter feared otherwise. Their fears became a reality when 18 months later Veronica's remains were found in a lonely paddock at Truro.

Eighteen-year-old Veronica Knight was the first victim in South Australia's infamous Truro serial murders case. Another six young women would suffer the same horrible fate.

Ms Woods said Veronica had "bounced into their lives and never really held back".

"She was really sociable, it was as if she was looking for a community,'' she said.

"We did not plan to be as involved with Veronica, it just happened and she became part of our lives, much more than somebody we just took along to youth group.''

 

The Truro Murders victims, clockwise from top left, Veronica Knight, Julia Mykyta, Connie Iordanides, Deborah Lamb, Vicki Howell and Tania Kenny and, centre, Sylvia Pittman.
The Truro Murders victims, clockwise from top left, Veronica Knight, Julia Mykyta, Connie Iordanides, Deborah Lamb, Vicki Howell and Tania Kenny and, centre, Sylvia Pittman.

 

Although she was not their child, such was the impact Veronica had on their lives their grieving has continued for the past 40 years. For the past two of those years, Ms Woods has researched and written a book she says is about Veronica, not so much the Truro murders case.

A Voice For Veronica chronicles her short life and how Jeanette and Peter came to love and care for her as their own child.

It also details their devastation when Veronica went missing - just three days before she was to catch a train to visit them in Melbourne, where they had just moved to prior to a planned overseas work posting.

"I needed to make sure that Veronica was not forgotten," Ms Woods said.

"If you go online it is all about the serial killers, their background, what happened, gruesome things.

"I thought it was time the families had a say. I thought we are her family, we are going to stand up for her and make sure she is not forgotten.

"I want people to get to know Veronica and find that she was just an ordinary, lovely girl who did not deserve this end.''

The roles of others in Veronica's life are also explored, and the impact of her loss on them revealed.

 

Peter and Jeanette Woods with a portrait of Veronica Knight. Picture: Tait Schmaal
Peter and Jeanette Woods with a portrait of Veronica Knight. Picture: Tait Schmaal

 

These include matron Dorothy Reed, who ran the Sutherland Hostel where Veronica was staying when she vanished. She not only reported her missing, but fruitlessly badgered police for some time afterwards for updates on her case.

So too are other key individuals who were players in the Truro case, such as killer Christopher Worrell's parole officer Charles Cornwall, retired detective Ken Thorsen, who led the investigation, and even the mounted police officer who discovered several of the girls' remains during one of the massive searches at Truro.

A Voice For Veronica also outlines Jeanette and Peter's own grief at losing Veronica, along with their angst at how seven young women could be abducted in the space of seven weeks and police not realise because of both apparent inaction and antiquated procedures that prevented the murderous spree from being detected.

Ms Woods' motivation for writing the book is clear. She wants Veronica to be remembered for who she was, not how she lost her life and her part in such a shocking crime.

Frank and forthright, Ms Woods, 72, lays much of the blame for the public's view of the Truro victims as deserving hitchhikers squarely in the media's lap. This includes The Advertiser.

Christopher Robin Worrell died in road accident in February 1977, putting an end to the serial killings.
Christopher Robin Worrell died in road accident in February 1977, putting an end to the serial killings.

She recounts an editorial written following James William Miller's conviction in 1980 for six of the seven murders that suggested the victims had contributed to their deaths.

"It is clearly the duty of the parents of girls, particularly the naive, the gullible and the misguidedly adventurous, to impress upon them the dangers of walking alone in streets at night and accepting lifts in cars offered by people unknown to them. Girls who tend to be free with their favours are committing no offence by behaving as they choose, but they must realise that in doing so they are exposing themselves to mortal danger,'' the editorial stated.

Clearly attitudes have changed seismically since that time, but for Ms Woods the slur against the victims is permanent.

"Sadly, even today, there is an assumption teenage girls who go missing don't matter, or they will come home eventually," she said.

A Voice For Veronica cover
A Voice For Veronica cover

"But in this case there were no grounds for portraying them as loose women who were roaming the streets at night, sharing their favours. There were no facts like that, the only person who said that was James Miller.''

It is not just the attitude of the media at the time Ms Woods questions. The lack of action by police in the initial days of Veronica's disappearance - and the other victims - is a focus.

She believes from the outset police made incorrect assumptions about the girls and simply brushed aside the concerns of their parents and loved ones.

An archaic filing system recording missing persons also contributed to the malaise and prevented any pattern being detected.

"We knew that Veronica would not have missed her trip to visit us; the matron of her hostel went to the police within two hours of her disappearance because Veronica had never missed curfew, and never failed to communicate her whereabouts,'' she states.

"And despite the police knowing she had bought train tickets to visit us in Melbourne on December 26 - after she vanished - they never rang us to see if we knew where she was.''

Ms Woods also raises the prickly question that the lack of investigation and scrutiny of Veronica's disappearance may have contributed to the killing spree continuing undetected.

She believes it is highly likely that if Veronica's case was treated as an abduction, leads may have come to light that could have potentially saved other victims over the next seven weeks.

"It probably would not have saved her - she was probably dead within an hour or two, we know that,'' she said.

"But if they had responded more strongly there is a possibility other lives could have been saved.''

While Ms Woods' research for her book was exhaustive, there was one aspect that also took courage to tackle. It also proved to be somewhat cathartic for her and Peter.

It was the trip to the lonely paddock at Truro where Veronica lay for 18 months until she was found in 1978.

In searing heat, the pair found the location Veronica was crudely dumped. As a lasting memorial they planted a mauve flowering bottlebrush and left a handmade sign that simply said: "Veronica Psalm 23.''

"Going to Truro was a little bit spooky, but quite positive. It was almost a celebration of her life,'' Ms Woods said.

"It was good for us, it provided some closure.''

Jeanette and Peter will on Sunday place a new marble and bronze headstone on Veronica's grave at North Brighton cemetery. Their loving words replace the bland, basic message that has marked her modest resting place since her funeral, just over 40 years ago.

A Voice For Veronica will be launched at Mostly Books at Mitcham Shopping Centre at 6pm this Tuesday.

It is available from GinninderraPress.com.au or by email at jeanettewoods2@gmail.com.

 

TIMELINE: One murderous summer

 

■ During the summer of 1976-77, a lonely patch of scrubland just outside of Truro was a dumping ground for serial killers Christopher Robin Worrell and James William Miller.

■ The pair killed seven young women, five of whom were crudely buried near the tiny town, 80km northeast of Adelaide.

■ Worrell and Miller had met in jail - Miller convicted of the abduction and rape of a 14-year-old boy and Worrell for the abduction and rape of a young woman.

■ Their penchant for deviant crime soon led to murder, although Miller maintained he only helped dispose of the bodies and wasn't involved in the actual killings.

■ He was convicted of six of the seven murders - those of Tania Kenny, Julie Mykyta, Sylvia Pittman, Vicki Howell, Connie Iordanides and Deborah Lamb. The murder of the first victim, Veronica Knight, went unpunished.

■ Before Worrell, 23, could face justice he died in a car accident.

■ The older Miller survived the crash, but would be charged with the murders two years later.

■ He was found guilty and sentenced to life in jail in 1980, with a 35-year minimum term.

■ In 2008, still imprisoned, Miller died of cancer.

 

The unofficial foster parents of Truro victim Veronica Knight, Peter and Jeanette woods, at North Brighton cemetery with the new headstone for her grave. Picture: Tait Schmaal
The unofficial foster parents of Truro victim Veronica Knight, Peter and Jeanette woods, at North Brighton cemetery with the new headstone for her grave. Picture: Tait Schmaal
James Miller was jailed for life for the murders and died in prison of cancer in 2008.
James Miller was jailed for life for the murders and died in prison of cancer in 2008.

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