"Mr. Cruel" is the name given to the Australian boogeyman, who became well-known for the heinous assaults against children he would commit in the late 1980s and early 1990s. His identity has never been discovered, and he has escaped justice for almost thirty years.
January 7th, 2016 Micheal Whelan
August 22nd, 1987. On the outskirts of Melbourne, Australia, specifically in the suburban area of Lower Plenty, things are as they should be. While the rest of the world is beginning to cool down for Fall, winter is coming to an end in Australia, so temperatures are still relatively chilly in this southern city.
It is around 4:00 AM, on a Saturday. The time where most families are at home, fast asleep. But on this chosen morning, an urban legend was beginning to take form, in the shape of a masked man lurking outside of a family home.
Removing a pane from the family's living room window, this criminal made his way inside, alerting absolutely no one. This masked man made his way to the bedroom of the parents, armed with a knife and a gun. He woke up the two parents, under the threat of lethal retaliation, pretending to be just a common thief that was interested in their personal belongings.
Commanding the parents to roll over onto their stomachs, this criminal tied both their hands and feet together, nullifying any plan of escape the two may have had in their tired, groggy, yet-thoroughly alarmed state. This intruder utilized a type of knot commonly used by sailors or those with nautical experience.
To further compound their inability to escape, the masked man ordered them into their nearby wardrobe, but not before blindfolding and gagging each with surgical tape that he had brought with him. He locked both parents in, under the threat of death, and made his way to the rest of the house.
In an adjacent bedroom, the family's six-year old son was awoken by the intruder, but was kept relatively unharmed. The masked man blindfolded and gagged the boy with the same surgical tape, and then tied him to his own bed.
This was when the intruder made his true purpose known, and he made his way into the nearby bedroom of the family's eleven-year old daughter.
Over the next two hours, this masked intruder would take breaks from his own perverted sexual desires to wander throughout this family's home, even stopping at one point to make himself a meal.
After spending the better part of two hours sexually assaulting this poor eleven-year old girl, this mysterious psychopath left the house with a box of classic records and a blue jacket stolen from the family.
This is how the legend of Mr. Cruel began, and established an Australian boogeyman that would haunt parents and children for decades afterwards.
Following the attack on the family in Lower Plenty, the police were obviously called and brought in to investigate the crime.
Without a doubt, they were stumped. This attack seemed to come unprovoked, and the family had no real demons to look further into. The crime didn't seem to fit with any of the other open cases in the area.
In the late 1980s, Melbourne had the reputation of being a safe place. "The most live-able city in the world," many citizens ascribed as its unofficial slogan. While violent crime still happens within its borders, it is at a lower rate than many other places in the world.
So, police began to look into the assault and pick apart the pieces. The parents had been bound, gagged, and then locked inside their own wardrobe. The son had been bound, gagged, blindfolded, and then tied to his bed. The daughter had been physically assaulted over the span of a couple of hours, in which the suspect searched the house and eventually made off with a record collection and randomly, a coat.
More details came out when the investigators began to focus on the daughter, and she told the police that during one of the perpetrator's breaks, he had used the family phone to call someone else. This call was a threat, as apparently the man had demanded the person on the other end of the phone to move their children or else they would be next, and he referred to this person as "bozo."
When the police checked the family's phone records, they were surprised to see that no such call had actually taken place. Obviously, this was before the commonplace nature of cell phones, but it became clear later on that this was a trend of Mr. Cruel. He liked to plant red herrings like this, to confuse the investigators.
Fortunately, it would be over a year before the perpetrator struck again. Unfortunately, we would see the stakes rise dramatically as this perverted individual began a reign of terror that would leave parents and children alike living in fear.
December 27th, 1988 - Just days after Christmas, most families would still be enjoying the post-holiday bliss. But on this day, one family would experience the most traumatic, haunting experience of their lives.
John Wills, his wife, and his four daughters were sleeping in their Ringwood-area home, just a few miles southeast of where the previous assault had taken place over a year prior.
John was deep asleep, when at around 5:45 in the morning, the sensation of an object to his temple startled him awake.
"Don't be a hero," a voice ordered him, and John was immediately plunged into a parent's worst nightmare.
This masked intruder, wearing dark blue overalls and a blue ski-mask, was holding a gun to John's head. He was holding a knife in his other hand, and John knew that to fight back would be to risk the lives of his entire family.
John and his wife were both ordered to roll onto their stomachs, much like the first crime, and they were bound at their wrists and ankles with copper wire. A similar type of knot was utilized as before, a specialized one used primarily by sailors. They were then blindfolded and gagged with the same type of surgical tape as before, and were then assured by the intruder that he was only there for money.
The masked man stole roughly thirty-five dollars from the family's bedside table, and he then went throughout the house, physically cutting the home's phone lines. After ensuring that he had a head start, he made his way into the bedroom that the family's four daughters shared.
Addressing ten-year old Sharon Wills by name, this man woke up the groggy ten-year old girl, and then proceeded to blindfold and gag her as he had her parents. He stopped to pick up a few items of her clothing, and then made off with her into the early morning.
It took roughly fifteen minutes for the two parents to break free of the restraints, and when they finally did, they were confronted with the crippling realization that their oldest daughter was missing.
With the phone lines cut, John had to rush next door to the neighbors' house to use their telephone, and he then proceeded to search the neighborhood in a panicked state. Unfortunately, his search would be in vain and come up with nothing. Ten-year old Sharon Wills was gone, and this family's nightmare had just begun.
For over eighteen hours, the Wills family existed in a panicked state, worrying that their ten-year old daughter had been taken from them for good.
It was just after midnight when a woman stumbled upon a small figure standing on a street corner. Wrapped up in green garbage bags, the small figure was Sharon Wills as she had been left by her abductor.
Despite the terrible trauma that had just befallen her, the ten-year old was in surprisingly strong spirits, calm and collected.
"My name is Sharon Wills," she told the woman. "And I was taken from home early this morning. A man left me here and told me to go and ring home."
The woman that found her called police and got in-touch with the Wills family, and soon they were all reunited, but the investigation into the assault was just beginning. And it turned up some surprising evidence... or, rather, the lack of any.
Sharon was blindfolded throughout the entire ordeal, so she wasn't able to give a physical description of the attacker, but she described him as a soft-spoken, rather blunt individual that actually seemed somewhat caring about his victims. This of course stood in stark contract to the egregious crimes that had just taken place, so investigators were sure to take a note of it. One of the words used to describe him was "gentle," which was especially shocking.
During her brief captivity, Sharon was apparently fed a Vegemite sandwich and given some milk and lemonade to drink. And shortly before being let go, the suspect had given the ten-year old a thorough cleaning, not only washing off any possible forensic evidence he had left behind, but clipping her fingernails and toenails, brushing and flossing her teeth, and more.
The abductor either kept or discarded her clothes, not wanting any forensic evidence to be traced back to him. He then dressed her in an assortment of garbage bags before dumping her off on the grounds of Baywater High School, just a few miles away from her house.
Investigators were quick to piece this incident to the prior one in Lower Plenty, but they wouldn't make details of that public for quite some time. Needless to say, though, an environment of fear was beginning to take shape, and the nickname of "the Hampton Rapist" began to be used to describe this burgeoning boogeyman.
In the weeks and months following the assault, the Wills family lived in a state of fear. The parents, along with their four daughters, began to sleep in the family's lounge together, refusing to sleep in separate bedrooms for months. They installed a security system, and were even given a Golden Retriever as a pet by a caring individual.
John Wills, in particular, took the assault very difficultly. He began to wonder if anything he might have done would have changed the course of the assault, or saved his daughter all of that untold pain. He had no way to know, and simply had to hedge his bets on the police eventually finding his daughter's abductor.
Unfortunately, the investigation into finding the perpetrator was a dead-end. Very little evidence was left behind or ever found, and none of it could be used to find one specific person.
One piece of evidence was emerged in later interviews, in which Sharon told of hearing low-flying aircraft during her short captivity. This is a clue that would go on to effect the investigation later on, for better or worse.
While many in the area began to wonder who this masked menace was, another frightening question began to emerge: who was next? Nearly two years would pass before that question would be answered.
The area of Canterbury, Victoria, lies just on the outskirts of Melbourne. Located west of Ringwood and south of Lower Plenty, it is yet another part of this sprawling suburban area, albeit much closer to the center of Melbourne proper.
The Lynas family were rather well-off English citizens, who had been renting a house along the esteemed, prestigious Monomeath Avenue. For context, this neighborhood had been home to many Australian politicians and public officials.
Moving to Australia for business purposes, the family was prepared to move back to England in the very near-future. In fact, they had moved to this Melbourne-area community specifically to raise their children safely, and were planning on making their move back home just days later.
On July 3rd, 1990, their illusion of safety would be shattered forever.
The Lynas parents, Brian and Rosemary, were at a farewell party being thrown for them. The family was planning on moving back to England in the very-near-future, so they had left their two daughters alone at home for just a few hours.
It was shortly before midnight when 15-year old Fiona and 13-year old Nicola were awoken by the angry, commanding barks of a masked intruder. He ordered Nicola into another room to collect her school uniform from the Presbyterian Ladies College she attended, while he began to tie up Fiona in the very bed she had just been sleeping in.
Armed with a gun and a knife, this two lone teenage girls stood no chance of either fight or flight. And now with the oldest of the two bound, this intruder was able to make his getaway quite easily.
Informing Fiona that her father, Brian, would have to pay twenty-five thousand dollars for the safe return of Nicola, this abductor took her and made his escape in the family's own rental car, which was parked in the driveway.
The two drove for about a kilometer, and then they proceeded to park the family's rental car and presumably transfer to another parked car that this abductor had prepared.
It was just twenty minutes after the abduction that Brian and Rosemary Lynas returned home, finding their driveway empty and their front door open. That intrigue turned into fear, which only compounded when they found poor fifteen-year old Fiona bound on her own bed, with a ransom message to share.
The police found almost no evidence from the crime scene itself, the intruder's kidnapping of Nicola having been done in a quick, tactical manner. They realized that tough spot that they were now put in, with most missing persons cases going cold just hours after the initial abduction.
Unlike the abduction of Sharon Wills, Nicola wasn't returned later that day or even the next day. Roughly 36 hours after the abduction, her father Brian held a press conference in which he pleaded with the abductor and stated his willingness to comply with the ransom demands in any way possible.
Unfortunately, the Hampton Rapist, as he was now known as, had left behind only a demand for money but no means of which to collect.
The investigation began to look into business dealings of Brian's, beginning to think that this may somehow be related to his work. The police believed, at the time, that this ransom must have been personal in nature.
Fortunately for poor Nicola and her family, she was found alive approximately fifty hours after being abducted.
It was her 14th birthday.
Found outside an electricity station in Kew, just a short distance away from her home, Nicola was left by her abductor. Fully-dressed and wrapped in a blanket, her abductor had left her outside the utility station and told her to sit in a prone position until he could drive away. After that, she had removed the blindfold that had become her vision for the entirety of her captivity, and then made her way to a nearby house.
It was shortly after two in the morning, but she immediately phoned her father, who had been awake praying for her safe return ever since returning to a desecrated home on July 3rd.
Nicola was able to provide the investigators with some details that were vital to their investigation. Most prominent among them was a rough estimation of the perpetrator's height, which was roughly 175 centimeters (or five-foot-eight, for those of us stateside). She had guessed this by judging her own height to the attacker when he rushed her from her bedroom to the getaway car, and said that he barely stood taller than herself.
She revealed information that the suspect likely had reddish-brown hair.
Nicola was also able to give detectives some vital details they hadn't heard as of yet: a description of her abductor's house and vehicle. While the sketches she gave the police were rather mundane and plain in nature, they were of vital importance, especially once word of how she had gotten them got out. Apparently Nicola had been blindfolded for the duration of her captivity, but had been given a few chances to get a glimpse and taken it. This went in direct contract to threats given to her by Mr. Cruel.
"My freedom is worth more than your life," he had told Nicola, which echoed threats he had given to Sharon Wills.
Just like Sharon Wills' captivity, Nicola had been bathed and cleaned before her release. Throughout her captivity, she had also been forced into a neck brace fastened to the abductor's bed, which no doubt fed into the fear and panic she must have felt throughout.
During this endeavor, it was reported that the perpetrator talked aloud to another person while Nicola was blindfolded in a bedroom, but no response was ever heard. Investigators weren't sure whether this meant there was an accomplice or such, but it's likely that this was just one of his many red herrings.
She also told investigators, months after the Lynas family completed their move back home to their native England, that she remembered hearing the same type of low-flying aircraft previously reported by Sharon. To investigators, this meant that the suspect lived in the surrounding vicinity of the nearby Tullamarine Airport, most likely in its direct flight path.
Now the investigators had the rough height of the suspect, as well as detailed sketches of his house, the interior of his car, and a good idea of where he lived. You'd assume that a warrant would be issued for an arrest any day now, but you'd be assuming wrong. Unfortunately, the worst was yet to come.
John and Phyllis Chan were two incredibly hardworking parents that worked approximately eighteen hours a day to ensure luxurious lives for their three daughters. Both immigrants to Australia, the two parents owned three restaurants in the Eltham area of Victoria, as well as a handful of other property investments.
The two parents often didn't return home until midnight or so, managing one of their three restaurants. They would often leave their three daughters home alone, trusting their thirteen-year old daughter Karmein to watch over the other two.
Mr. Cruel must have known this, as detectives believe he would stake out his victims for weeks or months ahead of time, learning their habits.
On April 13th, 1991, terror and tragedy would strike the Chan family, in the form of Mr. Cruel himself. Even though the family resided in the comfortable Templestowe district of Victoria, in a house that many would classify as a mansion, they weren't immune to the dread of Mr. Cruel.
It was a Saturday, normally a very busy day for the Chan parents. Karmein and her two younger sisters were left to their own devices, which on a Saturday night meant the three sisters would be watching movies and TV in Karmein's room.
At roughly 8:40 in the evening, Karmein and one of her sisters started to go to the family's kitchen to make something to eat, when they were confronted by Mr. Cruel, wearing his traditional balaclava along with a green-grey tracksuit and holding an intimidating knife.
"I only want your money," Mr. Cruel told the three girls, as he forced the two younger daughters into Karmein's closet. He claimed he only wanted Karmein to show him where the money was, and he braced a bed in front of the closet, locking in the two youngest sisters as he made his getaway with Karmein.
Within minutes, the two youngest sisters had broken free from their makeshift prison, and immediately placed a call to their father, hard at-work at the family's restaurant.
By the time police arrived, they knew what had taken place. The large house had no sign of children within: no yard toys, no playground equipment, or anything of the sort. This attack had been planned, and that was evident from the house's driveway.
Written in big, bold letters on Phyllis Chan's parked Toyota Camry were the words "Pay back, Asian drug dealer. More. More to come."
Tracing his entrance from a cut-window screen, police were able to track the intruder's steps through the house, including his getaway through the sliding glass door in the kitchen. Aided by tracking dogs, they were able to trace the abductor's steps through the family's garden and tennis court, up to nearly 300 meters away at a vacant lot, where he must have made his getaway with Karmein at a waiting car.
Hoping to get their daughter returned home safely to them, both John and Phyllis Chan held a press conference roughly 72 hours later. Phyllis Chan broke down sobbing, holding up the outfit Karmein had been wearing the night she was taken and pleading for her daughter to be returned home safely.
Days later, the Chan family posted an encrypted letter in the local newspaper, using a cipher that Karmein would have been able to decipher. They offered ransom in exchange for the safe return of their daughter. Even Karmein's sisters penned letters to be published in the media, begging for their older sister to be returned to help take care of them and help with their homework.
Unfortunately, days, weeks, and then months would pass with no word on Karmein's safe return.
And more unfortunately, the investigation was marred from the very beginning. The first police responders spoiled any potential evidence by failing to establish the Chan house as a crime scene. There were dozens of police walking throughout the house and looking for leads before investigators could begin to look for clues of their own.
Even though the police force spent the next few months running a fine-toothed comb through John Chan's personal and professional life, looking for any possibility of criminal ties of business enemies, the investigation soon swung to focus on Mr. Cruel. The writing on the Chan's vehicle was nothing more than another red herring, meant solely to mislead investigators.
One of the largest manhunts in Australian history, Operation Spectrum was a multi-million dollar undertaking that consumed tens of thousands of man hours, along with many thousands of more volunteer hours. Offering a $300,000 reward for any information leading to the capture of Mr. Cruel, the safe return of Karmein Chan was of the utmost priority.
However, there would be no happy ending for Karmein or her family.
Nearly a year to the day of Karmein's abduction, on April 9th, 1992 - A man was walking his dog in the nearby area of Thomastown, along Edgar's Creek, when the pair stumbled upon a weird object. He bent down to touch it, and was horrified by his discovery.
Returning home to alert the authorities, the police soon discovered what the man had found: a fully decomposed skeleton, which would soon be revealed to have been Karmein Chan.
An autopsy would reveal that Karmein had been shot three times in the head, execution style, and based on the decomposition of her skeleton, had likely been dead for close to a year.
Theories have lingered as to why Mr. Cruel murdered Karmein, but that can possible be explained by Karmein's own mother, Phyllis. Phyllis insists that Karmein was a stubborn girl who would have fought against being victimized, and likely learned of her abductor's identity. It's possible she learned who her kidnapper was, and paid the ultimate price for it.
Even though his life had been torn apart, John Chan was cleared of any possible wrongdoing and revealed to be an upstanding member of society. Operation Spectrum now publicly connected Karmein Chan's murder to the three previous sexual assault/kidnappings, and laid the blame at the feet of the true culprit, the still-unidentified Mr. Cruel.
Operation Spectrum would last for the next few years, costing over four million dollars. The forty-member task force would go on to investigate over twenty-seven thousand suspects, receive over ten-thousand tips from the public, and search over thirty-thousand houses in the hopes of identifying a single clue.
While Mr. Cruel was never identified by the task-force, it went on to arrest over seventy people involved in child pornography, a seedy underworld that many believed Mr. Cruel to be involved in. Both of his freed abductees had claimed to have seen or heard clues of a camera at the foot of the bed they had been detained in, and it was an easy step to believe that Mr. Cruel was involved in the trading of child porn.
But, unfortunately, despite all of the good accomplished by Operation Spectrum, the Victoria police force was marred with claims or corruption in the early 1990s, which not only would go on to affect the later investigations into Mr. Cruel, but bring forward many claims of a cover-up.
Operation Spectrum was eventually shelved in 1994, and with it any potential leads for Mr. Cruel.
Over the years, theories would linger about the identity of Mr. Cruel and his eventual fate.
No future crimes would be attributed to him, but investigators have possibly tagged prior crimes on Mr. Cruel.
While they believe that the abduction and murder of Karmein Chan was his last offense in the Victoria area, there are potentially up to a dozen assaults on children in the mid-1980s that have remain unsolved. And almost all of them share a couple of details with the Mr. Cruel abductions. So it's possible that Mr. Cruel is far more notorious of a criminal than publicly known, but police have refused to release details of these prior assaults or Mr. Cruel's alleged ties to them.
Another theory that has emerged has been Mr. Cruel's supposed ties to the Victoria school system. All four of the assaults and abductions happened during school breaks, which lead many to believe that Mr. Cruel was an employee of the local school system. This also goes in conjecture with the knowledge that both Nicola Lynas and Karmein Chan attended the same school, Presbyterian Ladies College, and Mr. Cruel requested Nicola to bring her school uniform along with her. This would bring into question his ties to Sharon Wills, since he addressed her by her name on the night she was abducted.
Further interviews with his two living abductees revealed that he liked to refer to them as "missy," and lived in a fantasy where he thought the two were married.
It's very possible that this monster, a man that preyed on children in the most depraved ways, spent his working hours among them.
In 2010, over twenty years after the original abductions and assaults, a new investigation was launched into finding out details and hopefully identifying this Australian boogeyman. Taskforce Apollo was launched, hoping that newer technology and investigative methods could bring about an answer that prior detectives had failed to find.
Unfortunately, much to the dismay of the task-force itself, many of the case files were misfiled, unorganized, or just straight-up missing. In fact, one of the vital pieces of evidence that could have led to Mr. Cruel's doorstep - a piece of tape used to bind one of the victims - was missing. Police could have potentially used that piece of tape to recover DNA from Mr. Cruel, but it had disappeared while in police custody.
This missing piece of crucial evidence, paired with Mr. Cruel's tactical abilities and his knowledge of forensic evidence, has led many to theorize that he might have been involved in law enforcement. It's possible that he would know what investigators would be looking for, which is why he did his best to cleanse his victims of any DNA and remove vital evidence afterwards. We can only guess whether it was corruption or ineptitude that led to these essential parts of the case going missing.
However, one suspect was detained in 2013 that ultimately could have been Mr. Cruel. Robert Keith Knight was a man who had made a living as a youth worker and school volunteer, but had been arrested on two separate occasions for a variety of crimes against children. In 1980 and 1996, Knight had been arrested and convicted for sexual assaults on minors, and a multitude of other victims had come out of the woodwork following his convictions.
According to the original Operation Spectrum investigators, Robert Keith Knight was one of their suspects that had never quite panned out, but investigators had been unable to eliminate him from contention. He remained a person of interest throughout the following investigations, and the time of the Mr. Cruel assaults would coincide with his post-1980 conviction release.
After being released from prison for his 1996 conviction in 2009, Knight began to amass thousands of child pornography images, and he was later detained in an investigation by Victorian police. He plead guilty to the overwhelming evidence, and while awaiting trial, he leaped from a second-story prison railing to his death-by-suicide.
So he is just one of the many suspects that the Victorian police force have had to this day, and they have refused to make much more information public.
More recently, many people have begun to theorize that Mr. Cruel himself might have resurfaced and been involved in the 2011 abduction of 13-year old schoolgirl Bung Siriboon, as that case remains unsolved without an end in sight.
As of this moment, the Mr. Cruel case is still open, and he remains one of Australia's most wanted criminals.
Sources and further reading
- Wikipedia: Mr. Cruel
- Herald Sun - "Up to 20 men were suspected of being Mr. Cruel, and one prime suspect still lives"
- Herald Sun - "Mr. Cruel suspected of at least a dozen attacks on children"
- Herald Sun - "Mr. Cruel was a meticulous, intelligent predator, say police"
- Herald Sun - "Mr. Cruel's victim Sharon Wills wants closure after childhood abduction"
- The Age - "The Hunt for Mr. Cruel"
- OPC Global - "The Mystery Behind Mr. Cruel, Caroline Bayford, & Giovanni di Stefano"
- ABC - "Police reopen Mr. Cruel investigation"
- The Cold Case Files - "Forever Cruel - My thoughts..." (Blog)