The Kidnapping and Murder of Graeme Thorne

01.07.1963

tags: Homicide, NSW Police, Clontarf, Graeme Thorne,

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Scientific Aspects of the Graeme Thorne Kidnapping and Murder
By Detective Sergeant A F Clarke (NSW Police)
July 1963 (also the 50th Anniversary Issue)

Editorial

The following is an abridged version of the original article published in the July 1963 issue of the Australian Police Journal (Vol. 16, No. 3, pp.181 to 237), and reprinted in the APJ’s 50th Anniversary Edition of September 1996 (Vol. 50, No. 3A, pp.68 to 95). Some additional comments have been inserted to provide context for today’s reader.

The APJ continues to receive many requests for access to this story because of its account of the forensic techniques used in solving a horrendous crime that shocked Australia.

Introduction

Much publicity has been given to the police investigations concerning the murder of Graeme Thorne and the extradition and subsequent conviction of his killer Stephen Leslie Bradley. The purpose of this article is to deal primarily with the scientific and technical aspects of that investigation.

It was well-known to all who read Sydney’s local daily newspapers at that time that Graeme Thorne’s father had won £100,000 in a lottery drawn on 1 June 1960, and that he would receive that sum before the 7 July. The lottery had been established by the NSW government to help fund the building of the Sydney Opera House and in 1960, a modest Sydney home could be purchased for around £8,000. The prize was therefore quite substantial.

Background

Eight-year-old Graeme Frederick Hilton Thorne was taken from a street near his home at Bondi, a seaside suburb of Sydney, shortly after 8.30am on the 7th July, 1960. A few minutes before, the boy had, as usual, left home to walk to the nearby corner of O’Brien and Wellington Streets where he was to meet a neighbour and be driven to school. As he failed to arrive, the neighbour drove to Graeme’s home to see if he was going to school that day. Enquiries then made of the school proved the boy had not arrived there.

Graeme Thorne

Missing Person

Graeme’s disappearance was soon reported to Bondi Police and a sergeant went to the boy’s home to investigate. Whilst there, the sergeant took a threatening telephone message (about 9.40am) from a male with a foreign accent demanding £25,000 before 5pm that day for the boy’s safe return, otherwise: “…the boy will be fed to the sharks”.

The caller made no plans for the delivery of the money at that stage, but said that he would make further contact. He rang again at 9.47pm that evening and, after enquiring whether the money was available, gave instructions for it to be placed into two paper bags. The caller, however, hung up before giving any further instructions and made no further demands.

On that fateful day the boy’s father was away on business, and, as both telephone calls were answered by police (unfortunately by different officers) it is probable that the offender was disturbed by hearing two different voices, both claiming to be the boy’s father. A newspaper account of the father’s return by air from another city, which followed published news of the child’s disappearance, no doubt satisfied the offender that the police were involved and any further efforts to obtain the money would be fraught with extreme danger.

A Stranger Calls

Investigating detectives ascertained that on the 14th June (or thereabouts) – just over three weeks before the boy had disappeared - a man had called at the Thorne’s flat during the early evening and enquired about a person who he referred to as a Mr Bognor. The missing boy’s mother had informed him that she knew of no one by that name. When he pressed her on this point she said she had only recently moved to the flat and that she believed the previous tenant was a man named Bailey. “Could that be the person you want?”

The caller replied, “No.” He then consulted a small notebook and said, “Is the telephone number here 30 7113?” The Thorne family, at that point in time, had applied for the installation of a telephone. Although they had been told that the number was to be 30 7113, the phone had not as yet arrived and, of course, the number was not in the telephone directory. Mrs Thorne was surprised that a stranger should know the proposed number and asked, “How did you get that number?”

He said, “We have ways and means”. She said, “That happens to be my number, but we haven’t got the telephone connected yet”. The caller then said, “I am a private inquiry agent and this is a husband-and-wife affair”. Mrs Thorne then suggested he might enquire from a Mrs Lord, who lived upstairs and was a tenant of longer standing. He left Mrs Thorne and went up to Mrs Lord and asked her about Mr Bailey, but made no mention of the name Bognor.

No doubt the Thorne’s telephone number was obtained from the new services branch of the Postmaster-General’s Department where the number had been recorded (when allotted) pending connection of the phone.

The stranger’s visit was put aside as being of no consequence - until the day of the boy’s disappearance.

Suspicious Vehicle

At 8.20am on the morning of the kidnapping, a man and woman driving to work saw a 1955 Ford Customline, iridescent blue in colour, parked at the intersection of Francis and Wellington Streets. The car was in a position which would require people walking along the footpath of Wellington Street to detour around it.

This was the footpath generally taken by Graeme Thorne. The two witnesses were able to supply a description of the driver but not the number of the vehicle.

 A Ford Customline (unrelated to this case)

A squad of detectives was assigned the task of tracing this vehicle. It was ascertained from Department of Motor Transport (DMT) records that all 1955 Ford Customline cars should have an engine number commencing with the prefix SQ or ASQ, the former if fitted to an imported body and the latter if in one of Australian manufacture.

Some 4,000 vehicles with engine numbers bearing prefixes SQ or ASQ were on record out of the total 270,000 Ford cars then indexed at the DMT. The task of tracing and interviewing the owners of these 4,000 cars, regardless of colour, was quickly set in motion.

Graeme’s Property Found

The pivot of the investigation moved to Sydney’s north-eastern suburbs the day following the kidnapping, when Graeme's school case was found behind a stone monument at the side of a main road (Wakehurst Parkway) passing through French’s Forest. The contents of the case and Graeme's school cap were found several days later about a kilometre away, in the bush, beside the same road.

A thorough search was made of this locality, but Graeme's body was not found until the 16th August (over a month after the abduction). Although the suitcase and other belongings were found in bushland near the boundary of a residential area, Graeme was found on a vacant allotment among dwellings in the suburb of Seaforth. The location of the find was approximately one and a half kilometres from where the school case had been located. The body was discovered close to the side fence of a house, but was screened from the dwelling and the street by an overhanging shelf of rock and low scrub, and was wrapped in a woollen rug.

The allotment (left) at Seaforth

Graeme was fully dressed in the clothes he had been wearing when kidnapped, although his right shoe was lying loose in the rug. His ankles were tied together with a piece of twine and there was a scarf tied around his neck; the size of the loop of this indicated that it had been used as a gag.

Autopsy and Subsequent Scientific Examinations

The autopsy showed that the Graeme’s body was in an advanced state of decomposition.

There was a patch of abrasions on the right side of the neck, a wound to the back of the head on the left side with an underlying fracture of the back of the skull and some bruising of the scalp. The lungs and upper air passages showed scattered surface haemorrhages.

The stomach was empty. The organs showed no disease. Death was caused by the head injury or asphyxia, or a combination of both. The nature of the fracture of the skull indicated the use of considerable force, whilst the presence of haemorrhages dotted on the surface of the lungs and in the upper part of the air passages at the top and just below the larynx was indicative of asphyxia by some mechanical obstruction to the air passages.

It seemed that death had most probably occurred within 24-hours of the kidnapping. The factors taken into consideration in reaching this conclusion included the:

  • growth of fungi on Graeme's shoes;
  • general condition of Graeme's clothing;
  • presence of fly larvae;
  • condition of the stomach; and
  • time of death.

Graeme's shoes were examined at the School of Agriculture, University of Sydney. Tests showed four kinds of fungi growing abundantly on both shoes, and that they had reached a stage of growth where the perithecia or sex spores had developed.

After identifying one of the fungi present, it was shown that it would have taken a minimum period of three weeks for the development of the perithecia on leather under the conditions and in the range of temperatures of the period under review.

It was found that the perithecia had commenced to break up and this indicated a further period of approximately three weeks after their development. These fungi could not start to grow if the shoes were being used and would not develop unless covered and in a humid atmosphere.

The rug in-situ

The general condition of the boy’s clothing was indicative of death having taken place on the day of the kidnapping. His necktie was as his mother had tied it when he left home for school. His coat was fully buttoned and the two handkerchiefs in his trouser pockets were unused and still folded as when laundered by his mother.

The fly larvae were identified as Calliphora Stygia, the Large Brown Blowfly and it was estimated the stage of development reached would require a minimum period of two weeks and that the eggs had probably been laid at least one week before.

Graeme's stomach was empty and, in view of the amount and nature of the food consumed at breakfast, this would require a minimum period of two to three hours.

Searching for Clues

The rug in which the body had been wrapped was identified as of pattern No. 0639, 3,000 of which were manufactured at the Onkaparinga Mills in South Australia, between May 1955 and January 1956. This particular rug showed evidence of considerable wear and a number of tassels were missing from the ends.

Numerous hairs were found on both sides of the rug and these fell into two main groups:

  1. Animal hairs of reddish colour and lighter at the roots, varying in length from one to four inches. They were soft and wavy, having microscopically the characteristics of dog hairs. Certain features of the hairs indicated that they were from a Pekingese or similar type of dog.
  2. Human head hairs of three classes:
    • Light to medium brown hairs with the appearance of having been dyed a reddish or auburn colour; the maximum length was nine inches.
    • Unstained brown head hairs with a maximum length of eight inches.
    • Light-coloured hairs. These were either blonde or grey hairs that had been subjected to treatmentwith a yellow or henna rinse.

Similar animal hairs were found adhering to the back of Graeme's pants and coat. A blonde-coloured human hair was found on the back of his coat and two similar human hairs were recovered from the scarf tied around his neck.

Crucial Evidence

Pieces of vegetable foliage were present inside the rug, some beneath the body but the majority on top near the opening of the rug. Of these pieces only one type was found not to be present or growing on the allotment where the body was recovered. This was a small stalk with leaves attached belonging to a common type of garden shrub,  Chamaecyparis pisifera var. squarrosa.

Further small pieces of vegetable foliage were adhering to the back of the dead boy’s coat, the seat of his pants and to the scarf tied around his neck. The matter on the scarf was from the shrub Charnaecyparis pisifera var. Squarrosa and small fragments of a second garden shrub, Cupressus Glabra, in addition to fragments of the shrub Chamaecyparis pisifera, which were found on the back of the coat and the seat of the pants.

A close examination was made of the allotment on which the body was recovered, but neither of these two shrubs were growing there, nor could any fragments of the shrubs be found. This examination was necessary because one of the shrub types was found growing in the yard of the dwelling next door to the allotment and the other type was present in a yard three blocks away; but neither allotment carried specimens’ of both shrubs.

Scrapings of soil were taken from the back of the deceased’s coat, the seat of his trousers, the uppers and soles of his shoes and some was found caught in the knotted section of the scarf around his neck. Each of these samples showed minute fragments of a pink-coloured substance identified by chemical tests as fragments of limestock mortar.

The distribution of pink-coloured mortar on the clothing and scarf indicated that the boy had been lying on his back near and probably under a brick building when the scarf was tied around his neck.

Because of the pink colour of the mortar and the presence of fragments of garden shrubs, it was inferred that this building was probably a house.

It seemed at this stage that closely associated with the perpetrator of this crime were:

  1. a building, probably a dwelling or high foundation about which was soil bearing a quantity of pink limestock mortar;
  2. soil of an analysis known to the investigating police, but different from that of the spot where the body was found;
  3. two shrubs, Charnaecypris pisfera var. squarrosa and Cupressus Glabra in proximity;
  4. a rug of a known make, pattern and period of manufacture, of which some 3,000 were made;
  5. a women with blonde hair, or grey hair which had been colour rinsed;
  6. a Pekinese dog;
  7. a 1955 Ford Customline sedan car, probably iridescent blue in colour; and
  8. a male with a foreign accent.

These factors were kept constantly in mind during a meticulous police house-tohouse canvass of the Seaforth area radiating from the locality where the body had been found.

As this canvass continued, it was found that although the two shrubs sought were  reasonably common in the area individually, the combination of the two growing at one home was not.

Bradley Residences and Cars

The exception was a house in Clontarf, approximately three kilometres from the spot where the boy’s body had been located. Detectives visited the house on the 3rd October in their general search of the north-eastern suburbs of Sydney. It was constructed of bricks bound with pink mortar, built on a high foundation and with a garage under the front of the house. Access to the foundation could be gained from an opening in the rear wall of the garage. The search beneath the house showed that the soil was impregnated with fragments of pink mortar and immediately in front of the garage on either side of the door was a specimen of the two plants that were being sought.

The Clontarf home

Suspect’s Background

Inquiries revealed that at the time of the abduction the house had been occupied by a Hungarian named Stephen Leslie Bradley, his wife Magda, and three children. Bradley was born Istvan Baranyay in Budapest in 1926 and arrived in Australia in 1950. In 1952 he married Eva Maria Lazlo in Melbourne and lived with her until she was killed in a motor vehicle accident in 1955. There was one child of that union. In 1958 Bradley married Magda Wittman, a divorcee who had two children from her previous marriage.

So, with three children to look after Bradley had to work hard and had a number of different jobs. At one stage he was a residential proprietor and on another occasion a guest-house proprietor. He claimed that he was an engineer and a doctor of medicine in Italy. His last occupation in Australia was that of an electroplater.

Bradley’s house in Clontarf had been sold prior to the police arriving on the scene. Their main suspect had actually made arrangements for furniture removalists to be at the dwelling at 11am on the very day that Graeme disappeared. These men were tracked down and they informed police that they took away Bradley’s furniture and effects to a store in Botany.

One of the removalists said that they did not (at any time) enter the garage beneath the home because the doors had been locked tight. It was also ascertained that Bradley’s wife had left the dwelling with two of the children, in a taxi at 10am on the 7th July and had been driven to the city shipping terminal.

At this stage, it was found that a 1955 Ford Customline sedan, bearing the registration number AYO-382, had recently been sold by Bradley. The vehicle, which was iridescent blue in colour, was registered in his name at the time of the murder. It was traced to a carsales yard at Granville, a suburb some 30 kilometres from the city. On 4th October,

1960 a police examination of this vehicle revealed a hairbrush in the boot bearing a number of dog hairs which were indistinguishable from the hairs discovered on the rug and the boy’s coat and pants.

Similar hairs were found on the floor of the car, together with human hairs indistinguishable from the blonde and darker hairs found on the rug. Bradley was found to have owned a second car when living at Clontarf, a Goggomobile, registered number BZD-432. The search for this vehicle led to its recovery at the Leichhardt premises of a finance company; a scientific examination of this vehicle also resulted in the discovery of human and animal hairs with similar characteristics.

Further human and animal hairs were recovered from a Manly flat Bradley had occupied after moving from Clontarf and from a vacuum cleaner and carpet sweeper, which he sold to second-hand dealers before leaving Australia on 26th September, 1960. Hairs from all these sources showed the same corresponding characteristics.

Pieces of twine from the yard of the Clontarf house, from Bradley’s flat and from two items of furniture he had sold to second-hand dealers showed no significant differences from the twine tied around the boy’s ankles. This comparison included a consideration of the yarn structure, the weight-per-unit-length of the yarn, the type and lengths of the fibres making up the twine and the distribution of the different lengths of fibres.

The dog

A Pekinese dog was recovered from a Sydney veterinary hospital where it had been left by Bradley and this dog’s hair was found to be indistinguishable from hairs found on the rug and the victim’s clothing.

Identification of Rug

A pale-blue tassel, found between foundations under the Clontarf house, corresponded with tassels on the rug that the boy had been wrapped in. It matched in every respect but one: i.e. the number of yarns used in the making-up was different, but as the number varied from tassel to tassel on the rug this was regarded as insignificant and due to variations found normally to occur in the manufacturing process.

One significant point in this examination emerged during the comparison of the dye of the tassel found under the house and of one from the rug. Tests showed that only one dye had been used in both cases instead of the more common mixture of dyes required to obtain a particular shade.

Three different techniques were used to show the close similarity that existed; spotting with four different chemical reagents, spectrograph analysis and paper chromatograph analysis.

The fact that Bradley had owned a rug identical in appearance with the one found around the body was supported by the recovery of parts of a roll of 35mm negatives in the garden of his Manly flat. The roll had been torn up and discarded; but the pieces, apparently thrown from a window over-looking the garden, had lodged behind some shrubs where they were later found by a neighbour.

The rug in happier times

The negatives were mainly of photographs taken of Bradley, his wife and their children several years before and in a number of these a rug was clearly shown. One photograph showed the rug fully opened out so that the complete pattern could be seen.

A comparison of the rug in the photographs with the rug involved showed that the general patterns were identical and no differences existed in the ratios of the widths of the stripes. As the negatives were not in colour, a direct colour comparison could not be made, but no dissimilarities were detected in the manner in which the colours of the rug pattern were reproduced when photographed with the same type of film and under apparently similar conditions to those in which the negatives recovered at Manly were taken.

Further confirmation of Bradley’s possession of such a rug was obtained from a Melbourne resident, who was able to prove that he gave a rug of a similar type and colour to Mrs Bradley during 1955.

Bradley’s Identification

A number of photographs, including one of Bradley, was shown to the boy’s parents and also the neighbouring tenant at Bondi who had spoken to the sham private inquiry agent on or about the 14th June. All three quickly identified Bradley as the person who had called at their flat on that date. The same photographs were shown to the people who had seen the Customline in Wellington Street, Bondi, on the morning of the kidnapping and they soon picked Bradley as being the driver of that vehicle.

A search for Bradley revealed that he had left Sydney for the United Kingdom with his wife and their children on SS Himalaya on 26th September, 1960 and were en route to Colombo. As a result of a warrant issued at Sydney on 8th October, 1960 Bradley was taken from Himalaya on its arrival at Colombo two days later and was held in custody until extradited to Sydney on 18th November.

During the flight to Sydney, Bradley lost his composure completely and told the escorting police that he had in fact committed the crime. Back in Sydney, he was persuaded to write out a confession for them. In his admissions he claimed that the boy’s death had been accidental and resulted from him being placed in the boot of the Ford, which he had locked in the garage at his Clontarf home until the furniture removalists had left. He further stated that when he opened the car boot later in the afternoon, he found the boy to be dead. This tale was not accepted by the detectives and it certainly did not correspond with the boy’s injuries.

Stephen Leslie Bradley

To prove Bradley was lying, police closely examined the car boot and it was found to have approximately a 30 cubic feet capacity. In its closed position there was an air change in the boot of .55 times per hour. Tests were carried out in respect to the variation of the composition of the air content of the boot by an expert who breathed the air through a tube and facemask for a period of seven hours. Hourly readings were taken to determine the percentages of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the air remaining in the boot.

The readings showed that there was an increase of carbon dioxide from 1.45% at the end of one hour to 2.6% after six hours and a decrease of oxygen concentration from 19.2% to 16.5% over the same period. Readings taken beyond six hours showed that a state of equilibrium had then been reached. It was shown that the drop in purity of the air content during the first six hours and the percentages of carbon dioxide and oxygen existing when equilibrium was reached would not cause suffocation even if the person confined in the boot carried on some activity during the period of confinement.

The expert explained that when considering the question of activity, he had made calculations at different degrees of exertion equivalent to a boy of Graeme’s size walking up flights of steps, six inches high, at the rate of 50 steps a minute for the six hours. With this degree of activity, the amount of oxygen remaining in the air in the boot would still be sufficient to prevent suffocation. Subsequent to Bradley’s return to the CIB he was placed in an identification parade comprising 16 persons of European nationality and similar in appearance and age to himself. The parade was viewed by the Thorne’s and Mrs Lord and all indicated Bradley as being the person who called at the flats on the 14th June pretending to be a private inquiry agent.

Stephen Bradley

Bradley was also identified (by witnesses) as the driver of the Customline sedan which was parked at the intersection of Francis and Wellington Streets, Bondi at 8.20am on the morning of the kidnapping.

Trial

At his trial at the Central Criminal Court, Sydney on 20th to 29th March, 1961 Bradley pleaded not guilty when arraigned on a charge of murder. He stated that the confession he had made to police on his arrival back in Sydney was dictated to him and he wrote it out because of his fear that some harm would come to his wife and family. He was found guilty and sentenced to penal servitude for life, the maximum penalty provided in NSW for murder.

The Court of Criminal Appeal unanimously dismissed Bradley’s appeal on 22nd May, 1961 and during the delivery of the Court’s judgment, Mr Justice Herron made the following comment in respect to Bradley’s allegations regarding his confession:

“I have been a judge now for over 20- years in this court and have listened constantly, all my judicial life, to attacks upon confessional statements made by persons accused of a crime and I doubt very much if I have ever met with a case in which the confession that was made here (in Bradley’s own handwriting) is more convincing of its truth. In the first place, before the confession was used by the police in any court, Bradley’s solicitor was called in to consult with the appellant at the headquarters of the CIB. This gentleman, a solicitor of probity and honour in the profession, consulted a barrister about the matter and it was only after legal consultation that the written confession by Bradley was put forward by the police in evidence. What more could be done by  policemen?”

The crowd at court

Denouement

To clarify certain areas, I’ll use Bradley’s hand-written statement (spelling errors included):

I red in the newspaper that Mr. Thorne won the first prise in The Operahouse Lottery. So I desided that I would kidnap his son. I knew ther adress from the newspaper, and I have got their phone number from the telephone exchange. I went to the house to see them. I have asked for someone but cannot remember what name. Mrs. Thorne said she did not know that name and she told me to enquire in the flat upstairs.

I went upstairs and I seen the woman there. I have done this because I though that the Thornes will check up. 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 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, untill the boy walked down to the car.

I have told the boy that I am to take him to the shool. He sed why, where is the lady. I sed she is sick and can not come today. Then the boy got in the car, and I drove him around for a while, and over the harbour bridge. I went to a public phone box near the spit bridge and I rang the Thornes. I talked to Mrs. Thorne and then to a man who sed he was the boys father. I have asked for £25,000 from the boys mother and father. I told them that if I don’t get the moneys I feed him to the sharks, and I have told them I ring later.

I took the boy in the car home to Clontarf and I put the car in my garage. I told the boy to get out of the car to come and see a another boy. When he got out of the car I have put a scarf over his mowth, and put him in the boot of the car, and slamed the boot. I went into my house and the Furniture Removalist came, a few minutes after. When it was nearly dark, I went to the car and found the boy was dead.

That night I tied the boy up with string and put him in my rug. I put the boy in the boot of the ford car again, and them I throw his case and toys out near Bantry Bay, and I put the boy on a vacant lotmount near the house I went to see with a Estate Agent, to buy it some time before.

Signed : S. L. Bradley

Witness: J. H. Bateman - Detective

Sergeant 2nd Class,

C.I. Branch, 19-11-1960, 10am

Conclusion

The successful result of the scientific examinations of minute traces of matter in this case, is a practical illustration of the need for the most careful handling and meticulous preservation of exhibits in the first instance, and in their subsequent examination when searching for and collecting matter which may prove of evidentiary value. The major part of these initial examinations were made by police officers attached to the Scientific Investigation Bureau, but further identifications were made by scientists employed by organisations outside the NSW Police Department.

Magda Bradley returning to Australia

Footnote

Sentenced to life imprisonment in 1961, Bradley died in gaol from a heart attack in 1968. By all accounts Bradley was detested by his fellow prisoners.

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