“Yesterdays” columnist NICHOLE OVERALL updates her series on the mysteries that surround the deaths and disappearances of Canberra women stretching back more than 50 years.
AN inexpensive bracelet may be a missing link in unravelling the unsolved mysteries of the sinister fate of a number of women in the Canberra region – at the same time raising the spectre of one of Australia’s most notorious serial killers, Ivan Milat.
February 26, 2021, falls on a Friday. It’s the anniversary of a Friday 50 years earlier when 20-year-old Keren Rowland vanished from near Lake Burley Griffin. Her remains were found almost three months later in the eerie surrounds of the Fairbairn Pine Plantation.
The numerous unanswered questions surrounding what occurred are echoed in other equally baffling cases that have followed in the wake of that tragedy.
Might any of these callous crimes be somehow connected?
Almost precisely three years on from Keren’s unexplained death, on Sunday, March 31, 1974 – only a few days before her 28th birthday – mother of three, Mary Bertram, left home never to return.
Four days later, her “stripped and strangled” body was found in scrub near Sutton, around 20 kilometres from where Keren had been discovered. As described in the press, Mary was “hidden behind a tree stump”.
Twenty years after Keren disappeared, 29-year-old mother and wife, Dianne Pennacchio, was last seen alive before seeking a lift between Bungendore and Queanbeyan late on a Friday night.
Close to two months later, her body would be stumbled across deep in the dense Tallaganda State Forest. Covered with pine branches, Dianne had been stabbed in the back and potentially sexually assaulted.
On November 16, 1991, “Canberra Times” reporter Peter Clack, wrote: “The circumstances of her disappearance and subsequent discovery in bushland mirrors the 1971 death of Canberra woman Keren Rowland”.
With a degree of inevitability, the ugly shadow of the now-dead “Backpacker Killer” Ivan Milat has fallen over these – and other – regional cases.
One who’s publicly asserted the potential for Milat’s involvement in the situations is Clive Small – who’d been head of Task Force Air, responsible for the arrest and conviction of the murderer.
AFP Sgt Adam Rhynehart, lead detective in the current re-investigation of unsolved homicides in Canberra, says that such a possibility is being seriously explored.
“What associates he had or links to the ACT, reasons why he might have been in Canberra, what motor vehicles he had or had access to, his work history to show reasons to be in the ACT,” all of this is being analysed, says the detective.
“That is a significant part of the investigation. At the moment where we are, I can’t rule him in and I certainly can’t rule him out. That doesn’t mean we’re not going to try”.
And then there’s that missing bracelet.
The only item unaccounted for at the scene of Keren Rowland’s death: a “goldy coloured” bracelet purchased earlier on the night of February 26 as a birthday gift for a friend’s young sister, Lynette, absent from her otherwise untouched handbag.
A killer’s memento, perhaps?
“The mystery of the bracelet is something I’m very keen on,” says Sgt Rhynehart.
“Lynette never received it and family members never saw it, so that’s an outstanding piece of evidence and we would love to know what happened to it.
“So if anyone has seen that bracelet or remembers hearing about it or seeing anything to do with it, that small bit of info, that will be very crucial to us”.
On December 8 last year – the launch of my Capital Crime Files podcast, exploring Keren’s and other cases in detail – the AFP conducted a new search for the elusive piece of jewellery in the pine forest close by the Air Disaster Memorial.
While they came up empty-handed in that regard, the resulting publicity has generated additional information and prospective leads – including on other local unsolved crimes.
Currently, the re-examination of material that may provide some definitive evidence of Milat’s involvement – or not – extends to anything that might have been found in his possession.
“There’s a fabled video of a search warrant at his house, which we’re hoping still exists, if it ever existed,” says Sgt Rhynehart.
“The Holy Grail of that video is to see if the missing bracelet that we searched the forest for, see if that is sitting on a bookshelf somewhere.”
There is some hesitation about too much focus on Milat. Certainly, in relation to Keren’s Rowland’s case, the police have a long list of persons-of-interest that’s again being combed over.
“Thirty or so people were nominated as potential offenders,” says Sgt Rhynehart.
“And even today, that list is growing as people are providing us with more information.”
For Keren’s younger brother Steve, the concern is that all efforts and resources aren’t sucked into the black hole of an infamous serial killer nominated in virtually every missing person and unsolved murder case in the country.
“While Milat may well be a serious consideration, I wouldn’t want that speculation to distract from the investigation of all and any possibilities,” says Steve.
“We can’t take the pressure off and make the mistake of potentially overlooking someone else who’s still out there and has never answered for it.
“It’s not about revenge. It’s justice.”