“Yesterdays” columnist NICHOLE OVERALL looks at the unsolved, cold cases of crimes against three young women in Canberra.
“I have dragged lakes and rivers, searched gullies and back tracks and spoken to thousands of people. I must know.” –Geoff Rowland, “The Canberra Times”, March 8, 1971.
FOUR decades have passed since the young woman left a Canberra bar alone on the night of Friday, June 13. She has never conclusively been seen or heard from again.
On September 3, 2020, Elizabeth Herfort would have turned 59.
Her still unaccounted for disappearance has echoes of a number of other regional cases, including one of the capital’s most enduring unsolved crimes – that of the murder of 20-year-old Keren Rowland almost 50 years ago.
Having delved deeply into these individual situations, the nature of them makes it an unsettling investigation, added to because each occurred within living memory.
Many family and friends remain in the area and for them, the anguish of not knowing never recedes. Some relatives are also personally known to me, and I’m ever mindful of not causing them more grief.
However, in the wake of National Missing Persons Week, by bringing to the forefront the factual details, perhaps something will come to light that may provide answers. And resolution.
The “intelligent, thoughtful and kind” Elizabeth, just 18, left the ANU Union Bar on her own that 1980 evening after socialising with friends. She was wearing dark jeans, a brown angora pullover and brown runners with a “tan, leather shoulder-bag with a design engraved on the flap”.
In the then still small Canberra, buses were fewer at night and Liz was cash-strapped. Like others in that different era, she may have felt it would be safe to hitch a ride to her mother’s house in Woden Valley, less than a 15-minute drive away.
Around 9.30pm, a person “matching her description” was seen by passers-by seeking a lift along Commonwealth Avenue as it heads south from the civic centre towards Capital Hill, where eight years later the New Parliament House would rise.
One potential witness would later state he saw a slight female with a man wearing a distinctive hat standing near the back of a vehicle stopped along the thoroughfare.
Whether it was Elizabeth or not remains unknown, as does her fate. The following morning, her mum woke to find she hadn’t come home. The only certainty was that those who knew her believe it was completely out of character for her to disappear and make no attempt at contact.
The parallels to another Friday night, nine years before, and the disappearance of another young Canberra woman, are striking.
On February 26, 1971, Keren Rowland, also slender with shoulder-length hair, wearing a knee-length patterned dress, was last believed to have been seen not far from the same area – along Parkes Way at the edge of Lake Burley Griffin. A female figure was walking towards a “dark-coloured sedan with NSW number plates” parked in front of Keren’s white Mini Minor, which had – surprisingly – run out of fuel. Even the time of night was similar, reported as somewhere between 9pm and 9.45pm.
Unlike Elizabeth, almost three months later, the young receptionist’s body was found in the isolated, densely wooded area close by the Canberra Airport. Due to the length of time out in the elements, the coroner’s report noted the cause of death was uncertain, most likely strangulation.
In 1993, the Canberra coroner Ron Cahill, ordered an inquest into Elizabeth Herfort’s “suspected death” despite no body being recovered – the first time this had occurred in the nation’s capital.
Unsubstantiated suggestions came to light, including a claim by two men that they’d abducted and imprisoned her. They later recanted.
The primary suspect, the man seen “acting aggressively” towards a young woman with “long hair” by the side of the road, had been publicly dubbed “Harry the Hat”. While the owner of the vehicle was identified and questioned, he declared that his car had been garaged the entire night.
There wasn’t enough evidence to commit anyone to trial.
In the many years that have passed since, various theories, leads and suspects have been put forward. Even the ugly shadow of notorious, now dead, serial killer Ivan Milat, has fallen over both these cases – certainly he was known to frequent the region.
All of it has amounted to nothing.
And there are others, including the more widely known case of 17-year-old Megan Mulquiney who vanished on her way home after a shift at Big W at the Woden Plaza on a Saturday afternoon in 1984.
Ultimately, it’s the heartbreaking words of Keren Rowland’s father, Geoff, that continue to resonate: “It’s the not knowing that really hurts”. Sadly, he never would know.
Harrowing questions of what unfolded for each of these women still rightly haunt the Canberra community. The families deserve answers. And some peace.
For more on these investigations, see anoverallview.wixsite.com/blog.
Anyone with information that might be of help should call Crimestoppers. If there’s anything detailed here that is incorrect or you can add to, please contact the author.
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Ian Meikle, editor