During the late 1950's and early 1960's a series of seemingly unconnected crimes were being perpetrated on primarily lone women, who were the victim of hit and run attempts, which left some with minor injuries and others with life changing disabilities. During the same time, other women were attacked in their homes during hot prowl burglaries, where in some instances the intruder fled when the women raised the alarm, and others where the victim was brutally attacked in a variety of different ways, some of which proved fatal. The police investigation initially believed these crimes were the work of several different suspects, however in January 1963, a lone gunman opened fire on several people during Australia Day, wounding some and killing others. Then a chance encounter resulted in police finding the murder weapon, which led to the arrest of Eric Edgar Cooke, who would later go on to confess to 22 crimes.
Eric Edgar Cooke was born on 25 February 1931, the eldest of three children to Vivian and Christine Cooke. The family lived in Victoria Park, a suburb of Perth and the Cooke household was a particularly unhappy one, with Cooke's alcoholic father ruling the home with violence. His parents only married because Christine fell pregnant with Eric who was born with a hare lip and cleft palate, for which he underwent an operation when he was three months old, and against at the age of 3½. However, these operations were not completely successful, and the result left him with a slight facial deformity meaning he often spoke mumbled words. At school, he was subjected to bullying by other children because of his deformities.
As a result he was shy, introverted and ashamed of his features which made his emotionally unstable because of the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father and other school children. When he was six years old he was expelled from Subiaco State School for stealing money from a teacher's purse. His next school placement at Highgate Primary School was no better and he was targeted for fun and ridicule by his other classmates because of his scar and mumble. He would also attend Newcastle Street Junior Technical School and Forrest Street Primary School.
At home his father would often beat him when he attempted to protect his mother, which meant he spent some time placed in foster homes and orphanages for his own safety. His mother often slept at the staff room in the Como hotel where she worked to avoid the beatings, and young Cooke also attempted to escape the family home by hiding in the crawlspace underneath it or roaming the neighbourhood streets.
He was frequently hospitalised after suffering head injuries which were caused by his accident-prone nature, which the doctors suspected had caused brain damage. Cooke was once admitted to an asylum because of his repressed suicidal tendencies and would often suffer from recurring headaches and blackouts which stopped after an operation in 1949. Despite these setbacks his teachers noticed he had a great aptitude for subjects that required manual dexterity and retentive memory. In his adult years his memory would be such that he was able to remember the names of all his victims.
At the age of 14 he left school and to provide for the family and worked as a delivery boy for Central Provision Stores, giving his weekly wages to his mother who could not support herself on her earnings as a cook and cleaner. In many of his jobs, Cooke would end up in hospital because of accidents, and whilst working at the factory of Harris, Scarfe and Sandover, he suffered a disjointed nose after being struck by a winch. When he was 16 he suffered second-degree burns when burnt his face with steam when he worked as a hammer boy in the blacksmith section of the workshop at Midland Junction. He also injured the thumb on his left hand and jarred his right hand at the same job.
When he turned 17, Cooke began to spend his evenings involved in vandalism and petty crime. His pent up frustration from being victimised as a schoolchild manifested into acts of vengeance against society as a whole. He would serve 18 months in jail for burning down a church after being rejected as a member of the choir. His crimes then began to escalate and he started breaking into houses to steal valuables, whilst damaging clothing and furniture. He would document his crime spree by cutting out and keeping newspaper clipping his reported his misdeeds.
His crimes eventually caught up with him when police found Cooke's fingerprints at most of the homes he had burglarised and discovered evidence of his vandalism at his grandmothers house where he had been staying on 12 March 1949. The fingerprints were also matched to other open cases and he was arrested by Detective Burrows and on 24 May 1949. 18-year-old Cooke was convicted on seven charges of breaking and entering, four of arson and two of stealing and sentenced to three years in prison. Upon his release at the age of 21, Cooke joined the regular Australian Army and was promoted quickly to lance corporal during his training and taught how to use firearms. However, three months into his enlistment his superiors discovered he had a juvenile record for arson, theft and breaking and entering and he was promptly discharged.
He then found work as a truck driver and the following year met 19 year old Sarah Lavin, who worked as a waitress and the two married on 14 October 1954 at the Methodist Church in Cannington. The young couple would go on to have a large family of seven children of four boys and three girls. Although the marriage was a happy one and he would later describe the first two years as the happiest of his life, Cooke would often prowl the neighbourhoods and was arrested numerous times and charged with being a "peeping tom", as well as other minor offences.
He would lavish gifts on his wife and children, which unbeknown to them was paid for by his criminal activities. He started to break into cars and was caught stealing one in 1955 and sentenced to two years hard labour. Because of his previous convictions based on fingerprint evidence, Cook began to wear women's gloves upon his release to avoid leaving anything incriminating when committing crimes and he continued to break into cars, which was a largely easy crime in 1950's Australia, because so many people left their cars unlocked with the keys in the ignition.
Cooke would still suffer ridicule into his adult years, and held a grudge against authority because of his overbearing father which combined with his facial deformities and lack of social skills made him angry and vengeful against everyone. He continued to breaking into homes and steal cars, which he would drive around and often return without the owner becoming aware of the theft. Nel Schneider was a 26-year-old Dutch immigrant and mother of four who came to Australia from Amsterdam in September 1955.
On the evening of 12 September 1958, Schneider was riding her bike when she was struck by Cooke driving a stolen car. He hit the cyclist, throwing her to the ground which left her with a fractured skull and permanent brain damage before driving off. She would be Cooke's first hit and run victim, in what would be one of his favourite methods of attack. The following month on 25 November 1958, Cooke broke into a house in Applecross and beat 15-year-old Mollie McLeod unconscious.
Three months later, he committed another hit-and-run. On 27 December 1958, he hit Kathy Bellis with such force that she ended up being thrown 18 yards across an intersection. She somehow miraculously survived with only minor injuries. He broke into a South Perth apartment on 29 January 1959, waking the owner as he ransacked her home. 33-year-old Patricia Vinico Berkman attempted to raise the alarm, but Cooke attacked her, using a scuba-diving knife to stab her to death. The police were baffled at the recent crime spree, and because very little connected the crimes to a single perpetrator, detectives believed they were searching for several different suspects. Such a vastly different Modus Operandi proved challenging for the police, who were unfamiliar with such random assaults, coupled with the brutal murder.
Before the end of 1959, two more women would fall victim to Cooke's escalating attacks. In August 1959, he broke into the home of 17-year-old Alix Doncon and battered and bludgeoned her, fracturing her skull so severely that she would suffer from epilepsy for the rest of her life. In December he would claim his second murder victim. He broke into the home of 22-year-old Jillian Macpherson Brewer on 20 December 1959. Brewer was a socialite and heiress to the Australian MacRobertson's chocolate company. Cooke had previously watched Brewer's sexual activity with several men from outside her bedroom window, and when he entered her Cottesloe flat on that December night he attacked her as she lay sleeping, mutilating her body with a tomahawk and a pair of dress making scissors.
Jillian Macpherson Brewer
An arrest was made in the Brewer case when police picked up Darryl Beamish, 18-year-old deaf mute man who provided upwards of four confessions admitting to the crime. Although he would later go on to say the confessions were obtained through intimidation and threat, he made two through a sign language interpreter, one a written statement and his last through notes which were scrawled on the exercise yard at Perth Jail.
Cooke himself was questioned in January 1960 about Brewer's murder, but gave the police an adequate albi. Because of his confessions, Beamish was charged with her murder and at trial was sentenced to death. By spring Cooke had returned to stealing cars and on 09 April 1960, he run down 19-year-old Glenys Peak on a Bayswater street. Although she suffered numerous injuries, she survived. He committed two more hit-and-run in May 1960, when he drove into Jill Connell, seriously injuring her and then proceeded to knock down three other pedestrians in a single incident. Although there were no fatalities, the victims would all suffer physical injuries.
After these latest attacks, Cooke was arrested on charges stemming from an unrelated crime and sent back to prison. Meanwhile Darryl Beamish' death sentenced had been commuted to life imprisonment and an appeal was dismissed on 20 October 1961. Cooke wasn't released until 1962, and he simply resumed his crime spree in March of the year. He entered the bedroom of 23-year-old Anne Whistead at her home in Nedlands, but promptly fled when she started screaming as he attempted to strangle her.
He would later launch a similar attack on 22-year-old Peggy Fleury, who was attacked in her Cottesloe home on 29 December 1962. Cooke beat her with a flashlight and his fists, but ran away when her screaming woke other occupants of the house. In the new year, he burgled a house in Pearse Street, Como, South Perth on 26 January 1963 and stole a 22. calibre rifle and ammunition. Several days later he would put this weapon to deadly use.
On 28 January 1963, Cooke crept up on a middle-aged couple enjoying a romantic evening in their car at the beach side suburb of Cottesloe. Becoming alerted to his lurking presence, Nicholas August shouted at Cooke to "piss off!", and threw a beer bottle in his direction. Infuriated, Cooke then walked away and took aim for a safe position 12 metres away with his 22. calibre rifle. At this moment, August's companion, 40-year-old Rowena Reeves saw Cooke raising his rifle and instinctively pushed August's head downwards, saving his life. The bullet went through her wrist and grazed his neck. Although both wounded, he started up the car and they were able to escape and Nicholas August drove towards Fremantle Hospital for help. After the shooting started at 02:40am, Cooke began to prowl the streets looking for more victims.
He made his way to flat of 29-year-old accountant Brian Weir and forced his way inside. He found Weir sleeping with his head facing an open veranda door and took aim, shooting him in the head. He then left to find other victims. At around 03:00am, he rang the doorbell of retired grocer George Walmsley. Waking his wife and 21-year-old daughter, Cooke waited until Walmsley answered the door to his Nedlands home and shot him in the head. His wife and daughter found the 55-year-old lying unconscious at the front door with a bullet wound in the centre of his head. Cooke's next victim was 19-year-old agricultural science student John Lindsay Sturkey, who was shot as he slept on the veranda at his boarding house. Sturkey's fellow lodger, Pauline Fenton heard faint moans and first believed her roommate was having a bad dream, but then called police when she found him.
It was too late to save his life and he died on the way to the hospital. The police immediately urged residents to lock themselves in doors as they attempted to search for the gunman. Brian Weir was later found and taken to hospital where brain surgeons operated on him for more than six hours. Despite this, he would be left permanently disabled. Investigators had little to go on, and most witnesses were unable to provide a description of their attacker. The only evidence found were the shells from the 22. calibre rifle used by the killer.
The following month the killer struck again, during a hit-and-run on 09 February 1963. 17-year-old Rosemary Anderson had an argument with her boyfriend John Button at his parents home and decided to walk home. Button followed in his car, but she refused to get in. He drove off and after smoking a cigarette he went look for Anderson, and found her lying unconscious by the road. Cooke had come across he teenager and knocked her down in Shenton Park, causing significant head injuries. Button took her to the surgery of a local physician who called an ambulance to take her to hospital where she later died.
The police were also called and took Button to Central Police Station whilst detectives examined the crime scene. 19-year-old John Button suffered with a bad stutter, and under questioning the police interpreted it as a nervous disposition. Interrogators denied him access to his parents or a lawyer and he was struck atleast once by a police officer. He eventually confessed to the murder of his girlfriend after 22 hours of relentless questioning.
He was charged with murder which carried the death penalty, however the jury at his trial convicted him of a lesser charge of manslaughter, and he was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. He would go on to serve 5 years at Fremantle Prison and Karnet Prison Farm before being paroled. Later that month he would strike again, this time breaking into the Thomas Street apartment of Constance Lucy Madrill. He strangled the 24-year-old social worker to death whilst her housemate Jennifer Hurse was sleeping and then had sex with her corpse. Afterwards he took her body outside and left it naked and spread-eagled on the back lawn. He did not strike again until June 1963, when he entered the home of 20-year-old Carmel Read, attacking her and fleeing when she started screaming.
Cooke's final victim was 18-year-old Shirley Martha McLeod who was a science student at the University of Western Australia. On the evening of 10 August 1963, McLeod was babysitting for the Dowdes Family at Dalkeith. When Carl and Wendy Dowdes returned home they found her dead. Cooke entered the home and killed her with a single shot to the head with the 22. calibre rifle. Perth was now in a state of panic over the murders and the police were baffled at the seemingly random attacks.
The continuing investigation involved fingerprinting over 30,000 males over the age of 12 and locating and test-firing more than 60,000 rifles. Despite no solid suspects, the police would soon get their first break in the case when on 17 August 1963, an elderly couple found a 22. Winchester rifle hidden in a Geraldton Wax bush on Rookwood Street, when they stopped to pick flowers in Mounth Pleasant. The police removed the rifle a ballistic tests found it was the same rifle used in the murder of Shirley Martha McLeod. They then substituted the rifle for a dummy gun made inoperable and waited for someone to return and collect it. Around 17 days later on 01 September 1963, Eric Edgar Cooke attempted to retrieve the weapon and was apprehended by police.
In custody Cooke confessed to numerous crimes over a two day period at Fremantle Prison, including eight murders and fourteen attempted murders. Despite his crimes spanning several years, he demonstrated his exceptional memory and was able to recall the details of more than 250 burglaries he had committed, including the exact amount of cash and coin denominations he stole from each residence. He eventually admitted to the murders of George Walmsey and John Sturkey. Of Sturkey, Cooke reportedly said, "I will never meet him because he is up there and I'll be down there. I'm just a cold-blooded killer".
He confessed to burgling the house of Pearse Street where he stole the 22. Winchester rifle he used in some of his murders. The following day he was taken to the scene of Constance Lucy Madrill's gruesome death and confessed to murdering her. He said he had intended to simply rob the sleeping women, but when one of them woke up and tried to scream he throttled her with a lamp flex cord and raped her. He said he dragged her body outside to place in a car, but could not locate one so he left her on the back lawn and stole a bicycle instead and rode home.
Cooke helping detectives
He also confessed to the brutal murders of 33 year old divorcee Patricia Vinico Berkman on 29 January 1959 and 18 year old Shirley Martha McLeod on 10 August 1963. However, most surprisingly for detectives, he confessed to the murders of 22 year old wealthy socialist Jillian Macpherson Brewer on 20 December 1959 and 17-year-old Rosemary Anderson on 09 February 1963. Both of these murders were considered solved, with men serving prison sentences after being convicted of their deaths. Despite his detailed confessions to 22 violent crimes including several murders he was charge with causing the death of John Lindsay Sturkey, who was shot to death during the Australia Day shootings in early 1963. He had been nicknamed the "Night Caller" by the press, because of his home invasion attacks, which has terrorised Perth.
Towards the end of his three day trial, Cooke's lawyers attempted to claim he was suffering from schizophrenia and was not in control of his own actions, however this was dismissed by the Judge Justice Virtue after the director of the state mental health services testified he was sane. No independent psychiatric specialists were allowed to examine Cooke and he was convicted of the wilful murder of John Sturkey on 28 November 1963 after at the Supreme Court of Western Australia.
He was sentenced to death by hanging and although there were ground to appeal, Cooke refused to allow his lawyers to do so, saying he deserved his punishment for his crimes. He was held at New Division for 13 months before being taken to Fremantle Prison, where he was allowed his last suffer. Ten minutes before his execution, he placed his hand on a bible and swore to his involvement in the murders of Jillian Brewer and Rosemary Anderson. At 08:00am on 26 October 1964, 33 year old Eric Edgar Cooke was the last person to be hanged in the state of Western Australia.
His remains were buried above those of child killer Martha Rendell in Fremantle Cematary. On 25 February 2002, the Court of Criminal Appeal quashed John Button's conviction when evidence was presented from vehicle crash experts that proved Eric Edgar Cooke was most likely guilty of the murder of Rosemary Anderson. After six appeals, Darryl Beamish' conviction for the murder of Jillian Brewer was finally overturned in 2005.
On 2 June 2011, fifty years after his conviction, he was granted an ex gratia payment of A$425,000 by the Western Australian government for his wrongful arrest and conviction. It was strongly believed that Cooke's violent upbringing at the hands of his alcoholic father and the ridicule and bullying he suffered as a child due to his facial deformities, were contributing factors towards his anger at his mistreatment and frustration towards the world around him.
Written by Nucleus
Written by Nucleus