What unfolded along a dark Canberra road on the evening of February 26, 1971, ranks as one of the capital’s oldest unsolved crimes, writes “Yesterdays” columnist NICHOLE OVERALL.
AS the 50th anniversary approaches, interest and activity in the fate of 20-year-old Keren Rowland, then past the first trimester of her pregnancy, has been reignited.
According to Sgt Adam Rhynehart, leading the current re-examination of the perplexing case, it’s such engagement that can make a difference, even after so long.
“I think if one thing hasn’t changed between 1971 and today it is the investigation’s reliance on the public,” he says during our almost two-hour interview at the Winchester Police Centre, Belconnen.
“They needed the information 50 years ago from the public about what they might have seen or heard and the same thing exists today.”
At first glance, it seems that what befell Keren might have been merely a moment of chance, prefaced by a series of apparent coincidences, unfolding in less than the blink of an eye.
Around 9.30pm on that Friday night, half a century ago, along Parkes Way where it shoulders Lake Burley Griffin, a slim silhouette was seen walking towards the glow of Civic. Locked and left behind was the white Mini Minor Keren was driving, out of fuel.
Having meant to be meeting up with her younger sister and some friends, Keren’s subsequent disappearance could not be accounted for, her whereabouts unable to be ascertained.
Of the few elements known with certainty: a second vehicle in the vicinity and that what came next irrevocably altered a then still relatively innocent capital.
Weeks stretched into months; widespread searches and an exhausting investigation involving multiple witnesses, a lengthy list of potential suspects and hundreds of pieces of documented evidence produced no breakthroughs.
Then, on May 13, Keren’s near skeletal remains were stumbled across in the isolated though not overly distant Fairbairn Pine Plantation between the Canberra Airport and Queanbeyan. It’s a lonely, eerie place to be on a bright morning let alone where you might spend your final moments in the dark, terrified for your own life as well as that of your unborn child.
The findings of the coronial inquest were inconclusive in all respects – not only precisely what had occurred, but also how Keren died and who may have been responsible.
While police – and long-suffering family members – have never given up on the chance of a definitive outcome, fresh approaches are bringing to light potential leads and the hope there may yet be a resolution.
Keren’s is among those in a review of unsolved homicides and long-term missing persons in Canberra.
“We spent a considerable amount of time searching the National Archives, forensics, exhibit offices, looking to get as much information about the job as possible,” says Det Rhynehart.
“That’s not to detract from what the investigators did [in the 1970s], they did a great job. In fact there’s far more material in the investigation than I realised and they were very, very committed… and it shows with the amount of work we have recovered.”
My own previous articles from September about Keren and other local women who have disappeared without trace or been found murdered have also produced encouraging community interaction.
So too, the resulting podcast, “Capital Crime Files”, launched on December 9, 2020 – the date that marked what would have been Keren’s 70th birthday.
Along with the most comprehensive coverage of the case to this point, the podcast features interviews with some of those directly involved and impacted. This includes Keren’s younger brother, Steve, who had never before spoken publicly on a tragedy most of us could never begin to fathom.
As to the benefit of such initiatives, Det Rhynehart’s response is positive: “In the short time that we’ve been reviewing this investigation… I’ve spoken to people saying: ‘Well, I’ve heard the podcast and I’ve spoken to Nichole’. “They’re aware of the podcast and they’re aware that Keren’s investigation is still running, that we’re still looking for information that could help us.
“If it helps generate a bit of information that might assist us get some answers, then I’m very happy for it.”
It’s inevitably an ongoing challenge – memories fade, people die and in Keren Rowland’s case, the limited amount of physical evidence collected is currently unable to be located.
Det Rhynehart acknowledges the difficulties.
“I think sometimes we don’t know exactly what we are looking for or what exists, so we might be searching for a long time for something that might have either disappeared or been destroyed a long time ago, or never existed.”
Along with police reviewing all previously sourced information as well as following up what may be new angles, they continue to call for public assistance.
“We are relying on someone that saw something or heard something or that final bit of the jigsaw that we just don’t have,” says Det Rhynehart.
“I really implore the public if they know something or they think they know something, to contact us.
“So hopefully for Steve and his family, the public and the judicial system, we might be able to get some answers for what actually happened to Keren.”
- The “Capital Crime Files” podcast provides an in-depth look at Keren Rowland’s case, including more on the interview with Det Rhynehart. It’s at capitalcrimesfiles.com.au and also accessible in written form.
- Anyone with information, should contact Crime Stoppers or directly to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.