Listening through back episodes of the eerie and excellent Australian true crime podcast Casefile, I came across one that featured such a perplexing story: that of the 1986 murder of 23-year-old Beth Barnard, and the simultaneous disappearance of Vivienne Cameron. These two women were linked: Beth was having an affair with Vivienne’s husband, Fergus Cameron, and Vivienne had recently discovered it. She’d lashed out at Fergus, but things seemed to have quickly calmed and they’d made plans to amicably separate.
Except later that night, Beth was murdered and mutilated (a letter “A”, not unlike Hawthorne’s infamous scarlet one, was carved into her chest) and Vivienne vanished. She’s never been found. Her car was found near a bridge connecting Phillip Island to the mainland, with very little evidence to indicate what may have transpired. A Coroner’s Court, despite this dearth of evidence, ruled that Vivienne was responsible for Beth’s murder and had then killed herself, jumping over the bridge into Westernport Bay.
This seemed unlikely not only for physical reasons, but because someone reported having a phone conversation with Vivienne well after she was alleged to have jumped. Although what happened to both women is inevitably linked, this official narrative is incomplete.
Authors Vikki Petraitis and Paul Daley first wrote this concise, forensic accounting of the murder/disappearance and odd events surrounding them in 1993. Since then, they’ve been continually contacted with tips and questions surrounding the bizarre details of the case and those involved. This re-released edition from 2018, 25 years after its initial publication, includes two brief afterwords emphasizing the book’s impact and the lingering, persistent mystery of the story and fascination it’s inspired. (One even features a surprise cameo by Rhonda Byrne, author of The Secret – make of that what you will, but apparently The Secret’s positive thinking technique does NOT work for wanting to know the answers to baffling cold cases.)
The authors present a detailed timeline as well as interviews and impressions from the witnesses and main players involved, but, somewhat unsatisfyingly, they don’t always make connections or points that I thought could use input or commentary. For example, there’s a discrepancy between Fergus’s story of the Camerons’ decision to separate and the version Vivienne told a friend. Fergus claims Vivienne said she’d give him full custody of their two children, but the friend says Vivienne was planning to take the kids. What the police made of this isn’t mentioned.
I’d hoped in reading it to understand something more about this confounding, convoluted incident. It’s a worthwhile read for its immersion into the atmosphere of Phillip Island’s small farming community, and provides more background information about the very odd circumstances. And about who Beth was, particularly. You’re bound to still feel frustratingly curious by the end, although it does make for a good armchair detective study if you’re the careful, perceptive type.
The frustration for a mystery-loving public is that the police need hard evidence, not supposition, or rumours from a neighbour’s cousin’s hairdresser. There is no Poirot-type moment where someone puts all the theories together and comes up with a solution that matches evidence. In the world of podcasts and social media, this case has another chance to come up for air. One can only hope that the truth will push its way through the sands of time, so that we will know it.
As the authors mention from their frequent letters over the years the book has been in print, it’s a case that not only gets under your skin, but that changes somehow, or reveals something different every time you look at it. The writing is no-frills but page-turning, and it’s a short one that can be read in an evening and makes a good supplement to the creepy Casefile episode.
The Phillip Island Murder
by Vikki Petraitis and Paul Daley
updated edition published May 2018 by Clan Destine Press
originally published 1993