Australian politics, society & culture

After the Dance

A 1952 Murder Mystery in Broken Hill

The Broken Hill 'Barrier Miner', 2 September 1952. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

Jack Marx

Medium length read2900 words
 

In the outback mining town of Broken Hill, no one wants to talk about a 60-year-old murder mystery. But everyone knows something.

March 2012
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A man I cannot name shows me the very spot where it happened on a Monday morning 60 years ago. He remembers it well – he was only a boy and lived just down the street.

“I saw a crowd of people standing around, so I went up to have a look. I saw in the distance the police there, standing around a woman who was lying in the grass. After a little bit I saw them lift her up and put her in an ambulance and drive away. I knew she was dead by the way they carried her all covered up. I’d never seen a dead body before so I was just interested. But when I heard later that she’d been murdered I got scared. We all did. My mum told me we shouldn’t talk about it, so I didn’t.”

I have come to the New South Wales outback town of Broken Hill for a murder mystery, one I picked up during my travels through the town last year. But there’s a problem, and that problem is Broken Hill. The collective psyche says you don’t talk about business that’s not yours – or, more specifically, somebody else’s. You can mine for all sorts of elements here, just not information.

The town was born when a boundary rider called Charles Rasp stumbled upon the world’s largest ore body of lead, silver and zinc in 1883. By the turn of the century, Broken Hill was a town of 20,000, the Broken Hill Proprietary Company (BHP) the richest mining company in the nation, and for the next 50 years Australia’s major source of export income came from the town in the arid west of New South Wales.

It didn’t take long for the workers of Broken Hill to realise they had the nation by the balls, and in 1924 the Barrier Industrial Council became one of the most powerful unions in the world, lording over town affairs like an outback Politburo (Trades Hall, the home of the BIC, is still known affectionately as ‘The Kremlin’), banning married women from the workforce and regulating everything from the prices of groceries to the rules of worship. Enemies of the BIC were ‘blackballed’ – denied work and business within the town frontiers; those who ‘dobbed’ on mates to management were ‘sent to Coventry’ – denied friendship on the job. The tough regime ruined many lives but made Broken Hill strong against the alliance of mining companies and gutless state and federal governments, and Broken Hill’s stand against the ruling elite changed the shape of Australian life more than once.    

An example of Broken Hill’s power came in 1953, when the national media reported that Broken Hill was not complying with nationwide liquor laws, her pubs remaining open till at least 10.30 pm, sometimes later, in defiance of the 6 pm closing times. Despite months of fierce political debate, Broken Hill stuck to her guns, the matter reaching a laughable impasse when Premier Joseph Cahill told the media it was “strictly a matter for the police”, while Police Commissioner Colin Delaney responded that it was his duty to administer the law “subject to the direction of the state government”. Broken Hill kept on drinking, her recalcitrance playing no small part in the referendum of 1954 that saw the “six-o’clock swill” banished in favour of New South Welsh pubs remaining open to 10 pm.

The BIC is now a shadow of its former self but something of a cool siege mentality still exists in the town’s psyche today. People from out of town are casually referred to as being from “away”, a gigantic confederacy of towns, cities, states and nations rendered faceless and inconsequential for the simple fact they are not from here. Like a colony comfortably stranded on an alien moon, Broken Hill takes care of its own.

One of the lasting effects of half a century of union solidarity is a crime rate that is the envy of the nation – the result, no doubt, of the tentacles of unionism being more intimidating than the restricted arms of the law. In April 1933, Justice Kenneth Street of the NSW Supreme Court made reference to the absence of violent crime. “It was a surprise to me,” he said, “to find that in Broken Hill there was no case of criminal violence of that nature to be tried … one expects that there will be some evil persons in the community who would be likely to commit crimes of violence, but my experience is that Broken Hill is to the contrary.”

So it is today in Broken Hill, where one can walk the streets safely late at night, where the people are as invisible as the dead, the mournful steam whistles from the mines intoning that not much has changed since one murderous winter night nearly 60 years ago.   

*

At around midnight on the evening of 1 June 1952, residents of the northern limits of Broken Hill were startled by the sound of screams. The following morning, the body of 17-year-old Thelma Dal Pozzo was found in the scrub near Beryl Street, in a vacant lot owned by a mining company. Thelma had been walking home from a dance at North Hall and was a mere 200 metres from her house when she was beaten and strangled. Her clothes had been torn from her body, her dignity “outraged”, as the local newspaper described it.

Heel marks in the earth, left by Thelma’s high-heeled shoes, indicated she had walked calmly from the street into the paddock, leading detectives to believe she had known her killer. However, the state of the ground around her body, and the wounds on her hands, suggested Thelma had struggled furiously.  

For the next few days, local police interviewed more than 200 people who had attended the dance, but to no avail. Her friends had seen her leave for home, but there were no witnesses to the crime. As the days turned to weeks, the town of Broken Hill became gripped by panic; a “sex maniac” was on the loose, and the streets, pubs and dance halls of the town were emptied of local women. Authorities appealed for anyone who might furnish them with the slightest clue. In exasperation, they turned to the Criminal Investigation Bureau in Sydney.

Detective-Sergeant Raymond William Kelly was the golden boy of the Sydney CIB. An imposing man, over six feet tall, Kelly was a tough, old-school cop who had arrested Darcy Dugan at gunpoint in 1950 and, early in 1952, had extracted a murder confession out of the brutal Sydney gangster, Frederick ‘Chow’ Hayes. In his teens, Kelly had worked in the mines of Broken Hill, which he claimed had toughened him up. He was the obvious choice for a stalled murder investigation in Broken Hill and, within days of his appointment, extracted a confession out of a local soldier, 23-year-old Gilbert Ryan.

Ryan was born and bred in Broken Hill. Residing just a few doors from Thelma Dal Pozzo, they had played together in their formative years. As adults, however, Ryan and Dal Pozzo had little in common and, according to friends and family, scarcely associated with each other.

At 22, Ryan had joined the army as a cook. Posted at Ingleburn Camp on the outskirts of Sydney, he was home in Broken Hill on leave on the weekend of Dal Pozzo’s murder.

Many in Broken Hill regarded Ryan as something of a simpleton, a boy of low education who was even less harmful than he was intelligent. He had never had a girlfriend, had never expressed a wish for one, and, as one of Dal Pozzo’s closest friends remarked during the trial, had never shown any particular interest in Thelma.

But he was a drinker. On the day in question, he began drinking at 10 am, and according to friends was “very drunk” by the time he left their company at 9.30 pm. Ryan’s mother, who had been at home in bed, claimed to police she heard him come home at approximately 10.30 pm.

In early July, Ray Kelly interviewed Gilbert Ryan at the Ingleburn army base. By then Kelly had received a call from police in Broken Hill relating that one of Ryan’s neighbours, a Mrs Doreen Campbell, had complained to friends that Ryan had tried to strangle her on the Saturday before Dal Pozzo’s murder. Kelly immediately ordered that Ryan be taken to CIB headquarters in Liverpool Street, Sydney, where he obtained an incriminating statement.

It was a special skill of Kelly’s, who was known for his strong-arm ways. Upon his death in 1977, Kelly was revealed to have run a number of protection rackets, most notably with fellow disgraced NSW policeman, Fred Krahe. The criminal underworld’s nickname for Kelly was ‘Verbal’, a reference to his tendency to extract verbal confessions out of suspects through dubious means. Don Stewart, the first chair of the National Crime Authority, recalls as a young constable in the 1980s seeing Kelly hang a suspect over the balcony of the CIB headquarters by the ankles and holler: “Confess or I’ll drop you!”

*

In an atmosphere described by the Sydney Morning Herald as one of “intense public interest”, the trial of Gilbert Ryan began before Justice John Clancy in the NSW Supreme Court on the first day of spring, 1952. There was no material evidence for the prosecution – no witnesses, no blood stains of the accused, no clothing or property that might have proved Ryan was at the scene of the crime. (A button found near the body, apparently freshly torn from a man’s coat, was found to match nothing in Gilbert Ryan’s extremely limited wardrobe.) The prosecution’s case rested entirely on Ryan’s statement, in which Ryan did not confess to murder, but admitted he had planned to meet Thelma in the scrub, where they had sex before Dal Pozzo fainted, at which point Ryan panicked and fled home to bed.

In court, Ryan insisted the statement had been dictated to him by Kelly. Ryan claimed Kelly had assaulted him in the interview room, urging him to confess or else. Ryan said he could not bring himself to confess to a murder he didn’t commit, but so intense was Kelly’s intimidation that he acquiesced to a lesser confession. Ryan and Kelly had spent nearly two hours compiling a statement of fewer than 300 words – given what we know now, Kelly was unlikely to have spent the time dispensing tissues and telling Ryan everything was going to be all right. Although Ryan’s story appeared to stand up, the jury in the four-day trial found Gilbert Ryan guilty of murdering Dal Pozzo, and Judge Clancy sentenced him to death by hanging. He was spared the noose by the abolition of the death penalty in 1955, and died in prison in 1963.  

*

The first clue I got that something wasn’t right with the Dal Pozzo murder case came from an old miner, now in his late seventies, who had known a Broken Hill policeman working on the initial investigation back in 1952.

“He went to his grave convinced that Gil Ryan was fitted up for it,” the old man told me. “He reckons he didn’t do it.”

Since moving to Broken Hill in December, I have heard nothing to counter this. The truck driver who moved my stuff, the old barmen in the town’s pubs, the taxi driver whose mother used to tell him there was “no way in hell” Gil Ryan had done it – everyone in town knows the story, has a theory, and disputes the verdict. Unfortunately, no one wants to say what they know publicly. To do so would go against the very principles embedded in Broken Hill’s DNA.

Still, something wasn’t right with the trial of Gilbert Ryan – a cursory glance at the available documents, from the trial and the preceding inquest, reveal enough inconsistencies to throw the murder of Thelma Dal Pozzo back into the realm of an unsolved mystery.

Though the Crown prosecution claimed in its opening statement to the jury that it had incriminating evidence from a microbiologist proving the murder, no such witness or evidence was presented. Also, police attested Gilbert Ryan’s face and body were free of scratches and lacerations, despite the apparent violence of Thelma’s struggle.

In his statement, Ryan supposedly told Kelly he had been at the dance at North Hall on the night of the murder, had approached Thelma outside while she was having a cigarette, and lined up to meet her later in a nearby paddock for sex.

As Ryan himself argued in court, this was an implausible story he couldn’t possibly have hoped to get away with. Other witnesses testified that Ryan was not at the North Hall that night, that Thelma had never smoked, that Thelma was a virgin and that she detested drunks. As Thelma’s sister told the coroner, it was “highly unlikely” that Ryan, having been drinking for 12 hours, could possibly have lured Thelma into a paddock at midnight.

Detective Kelly countered Ryan was a “born liar”. He testified it was the story of the strangling incident the day before the murder that initially convinced him Ryan was hiding something. Had Doreen Campbell been called to give evidence at the trial, she would doubtless have repeated what she had told the prior coronial inquest: that the rumours of the incident were the product of her just “horsing around”. The jury, however, was left to think that the murder was Ryan’s second attempt in two days.

For reasons I have yet to ascertain, other suspects were deemed insignificant to the investigation. I won’t name them, as some are still alive, or have descendants in town. But they were close to the victim, and had a motive. Indeed, at the coronial inquest on 7 July, five weeks after the murder, one of Dal Pozzo’s girlfriends said she left the dance to escape the attentions of a particular young man, whom Dal Pozzo knew to be engaged. The friend said she did not see the young man after Dal Pozzo left. At the trial in September, however, the young woman changed her story, stating the man had stayed on.

A local miner told the inquest he had regarded himself as Dal Pozzo’s boyfriend. They had been “going steady” since January, but their relationship had become vague in the final weeks of Thelma’s life. The evening before the murder, he’d attended a wedding at which Thelma was present. She had apparently been “cool” towards him, distracted by the attentions of another man, and he admitted to the coroner this had made him leave the wedding early. He claimed to have been unaware that Dal Pozzo was attending the dance the following night, despite having escorted her to the North Hall dances numerous times. He’d been at a football club function on the night of the murder, but this was over by midnight, leaving him without a full alibi. Then there’s the story, told to me, of the man who, in the days after attending the dance, claimed the scratch marks on his face were from a cat.

All of which could be hearsay, conjecture and rumour boiled from holes in the facts. But this is a town where loyalty once counted for more than law, where mates were never betrayed, where the outside world had no place. The whispers, 60 years on, remain strong: someone got away with murder. In the meantime, sniffing around seems as noble a way for a writer to spend his time as any. I’ll be here for a while, I think.

At the West Darling Hotel, two old men, well pickled, sit at the far end of the bar. One asks what I’m doing in town. I mention my interest in the murder. The first shakes his head, the other stares down at his beer. Then they confer something, inaudibly, and the first turns to me again.

“So what business is it of yours anyhow?” he asks.

“He didn’t do it,” the quieter one utters suddenly, as if a thought has escaped through a hole in his face.

The first man turns to his friend.

“Why don’t you shut your stupid fucking mouth.”

Jack Marx

Jack Marx is a journalist, blogger and author, who has won the Walkley Award for his feature 'I Was Russell Crowe's Stooge'. His books include Australian Tragic: Gripping Tales from the Dark Side of our History and Sorry: The Wretched Tale of Little Stevie Wright.
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Published in The Monthly, March 2012, No. 76