When the Bough Breaks, by Matthew Benns

when-the-bough-breaksI found this book in a charity shop, costing only 50 cents. I’m not sure that I would have bothered with it if it hadn’t been so cheap. At that stage I wasn’t really interested in “true crime”.

After buying it I moved onto other books and left this one untouched on my book shelves. And then about a week ago I saw a short documentary related to the case being advertised on TV.

I recorded the doco for future viewing and put this book at the top of my reading list.

Kathleen Folbigg and her husband Craig seemed to be the unluckiest of parents. Over the years, their four infant children each succumbed to SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). But was it bad luck, a dark quirk of fate – or something more sinister?

Eventually Folbigg was investigated and convicted for the murder of her children.

When the Bough Breaks is a fascinating account of the events, making Kathleen Folbigg’s guilt seem certain. But I can’t help holding onto a degree of scepticism. It’s easy to be swayed one way or the other by a single version of events and the angle from which that version is presented.

I recall too well the many accounts of an earlier case, where Lindy Chamberlain was imprisoned for the murder of her daughter Azaria after a prolonged trial by media, with most newspapers publishing all manner of wild accusations against Chamberlain and her husband. It took a few years before the powers that be acknowledged their mistake and Chamberlain was freed.

The case against Folbigg, while compelling, was entirely circumstantial, based on things like this:

  1. Her four infant children all died under very similar “unexplained” circumstances.
  2. Folbigg was the last person to see those children alive, and was the one to discover their lifeless bodies very soon after death (some were still warm).
  3. Her diaries had entries expressing strong “hints” of her guilt.
  4. Paediatric “experts” were adamant that the odds of losing four infants in the same way to natural causes would be about a trillion to one.  *

As a contrast to Folbigg’s case and the evidence against her, in particular the “expert” opinion, a similar case in Britain, around the same time, had a completely different result. The case of Trupti Patel receives a brief mention in the last chapter of When the Bough Breaks. She was acquitted after being tried for the murder of three infant children.

Basic details can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trupti_Patel

Considering the expert claims about the astronomical odds against Folbigg losing four infants to natural causes, the following excerpt of the article about Patel’s case is very interesting. In particular note the statements I’ve emphasised with bold type.

The case, which was heard at Reading crown court, was one of a number of famous court cases in Britain in which mothers who reported more than one cot death were accused of murder. It was one of a number of cases in which evidence was given by Roy Meadow, a controversial pediatrician whose testimony helped to convict Sally Clark, Angela Cannings, and Donna Anthony of murdering their babies. Meadow’s claim that the likelihood of two babies dying from natural causes in the same family was one in 73 million prompted the Royal Statistical Society to write a letter of complaint to the Lord Chancellor, stating that the figure had “no statistical basis”; other experts said that when genetic and environmental factors were taken into account, the figure was closer to one in 200

Taking into account what I’ve read in Matthew Benns’ book as well as the information contained in the following video, one thing that I’m very sure about is that our justice system is susceptible to serious error. The result of a trial seems too reliant on which side presents the most appealing case – whether the Prosecution or the Defence put on the better, more convincing show to sway a jury’s perception of the case at hand.

Faced with expert opinion expressing the astronomical odds against the chance of four similar “unexplained”  natural infant deaths in one family , how could a jury ignore the likelihood of homicide?

But as the Royal Statistical Society said regarding the similar Patel case, the stated figure of 73 million to one had “no statistical basis” (see quote above), and yet the figures suggested regarding the Folbigg case were even more extreme (trillion to one). *

Which expert opinion should a jury believe, and do they really get exposed to plausible alternatives? I recall from the Chamberlain case, that an “expert” had identified a blood spray in the Chamberlain’s car, proving that their daughter had been murdered in the car. What conclusion could a jury make when faced with evidence like that? And yet, later the spray pattern was “…found to be a ‘sound deadener’ sprayed on during the manufacture of the car” and NOT blood.  **

In the Folbigg case, police spent years trying to build up a case against her, including overseas trips to consult with amenable experts. But how long in comparison did the defence have to build their case? The video below shows that alternative expert opinion is available, but to what extent were those views presented (if at all) in Folbigg’s trial?

With the case of the diary entries, while Folbigg’s statement seemed to be self-incriminating,  they don’t necessarily express a categorical “confession” of criminal guilt – they could equally express feelings of self-condemnation about her perceived failings as a mother who had already experienced the death of multiple infants. But presented selectively, could the possibility of  ambiguity be hidden?

A major contributor of evidence for the prosecution was Craig Folbigg, Kathy’s husband and father of the dead infants.

Difficulties in their marriage (particularly as parents) can be seen in Kathy’s diary.

I can’t even trust or depend on him to look after [Laura] properly. He refuses to bother to learn anything about her. He doesn’t pat attention when feeding her, hasn’t changed a nappy, doesn’t do washing or ironing, only washes up once in a while. His life continues as normal. Work, come home and I look after him. He doesn’t even cook tea every now and then unless I ask him to. And then it is begrudgingly.

Craig’s testimony against his wife was given at a time when she had walked away from the marriage. He withdrew his accusations and suspicions when she returned to him, then when the relationship failed again he returned to his original story, once again incriminating his wife.

From what I’ve read and seen it’s easy to believe that Folbigg was responsible for the deaths of her children, but I find there are also things that make me question or even doubt that conclusion.

Overall, who can really know whether or not Folbigg is guilty and rightfully convicted?

Only she and God know for certain.




*   [Detective] Ryan spent two years collecting evidence and assembling a case that he believed would result in Kathleen Folbigg’s murder conviction. On April 19, 2001, police arrested her at her home, took her into custody, and charged her with four counts of murder. At her hearing, prosecutors claimed that she had deliberately smothered her children to death, and they produced the diary as the most incriminating evidence. They also presented a statement from forensic pathologist Janice Ophoven who said that the chances of all four children dying of SIDS “were a trillion to one.”




“Professor Cameron and Dr Jones concluded that the blood spray pattern found under the dashboard of the Chamberlain’s car could have been produced by a cut in a small artery.

“Subsequently, Joy Kuhl’s forensic report claimed to have found evidence of foetal haemoglobin in stains on the front seat of the Chamberlains’ 1977 Torana hatchback (foetal haemoglobin is present in infants six months and younger).

“She claimed to have identified foetal blood in 22 areas of the car, including the camera bag, floor, towel, console and scissors.”

There was so much conflicting evidence from witnesses and experts who both disputed and supported the Crown’s scenario and who questioned Joy Kuhl’s testing.

“The questionable nature of the forensic science evidence in the Chamberlain trial, and the weight given to it, raised concerns about such procedures and about expert testimony in criminal cases,” Ms Brown told the AFP recruits.

“The foetal haemoglobin in the Chamberlains’ car was later found to be a ‘sound deadener’ sprayed on during the manufacture of the car.”



Killing Juanita by Peter Rees

Killing Juanita is about another murder case from the 1970s that has stuck in my memory.

I became familiar with some of the locations associated with it a decade after the events, when I occasionally visited Teen Challenge, a Christian group working in the Kings Cross area of Sydney.

Juanita Nielsen was last seen alive when she attended a meeting at the Carousel Cabaret to supposedly discuss advertising for one of their events in NOW, the local newspaper she owned. That meeting seems to have been arranged as bait to draw her to her death.

I remember the venue still being there at the time of my visits in the early 1980s. I don’t recall whether it still had the same name but its purpose hadn’t changed much, remaining the home of the Les Girls “all male revue”.

Juanita Nielsen was a prominent campaigner against planned redevelopment along Victoria Street, Kings Cross and became an expensive irritant to powerful people, like businessman Frank Theeman, who were losing a lot of money because of the resistance to their plans. Despite her disappearance being so obviously linked to a particular small group of people, no one was ever seriously investigated for her murder. Instead lesser charges of conspiracy to kidnap, relating to events a few days before her disappearance, led to the imprisonment of bar manager Eddie Trigg, the man she met at the Carousel – the last man known to see her alive.

Peter Rees places Nielsen’s story within its context of organised crime, and police and political corruption. within a similar time frame to the events I’ve referred to recently in The Griffith Wars and Crims in Grass Castles.

In an interesting parallel, the only convictions made in the Donald Mackay murder examined in those two books were also “conspiracy” charges, which included  the man alleged to have killed him. To this day no one has been charged with either of the Mackay or Nielsen murders, and there were indications that investigations into both cases were not a vigorous as they could have been. Of the Nielsen case, Peter Rees notes:

…it is now clear that in the critical early weeks the enquiry was hamstrung from above – with, at least, the knowledge of [NSW Police] Commissioner Fred Hanson – when they took the first steps to explore the Frank Theeman Victoria Street connection.

Frank Theeman had connections to Jim Anderson, the manager of the Carousel nightclub where Juanita Nielsen was last seen. Anderson’s subordinates were those convicted and jailed on “conspiracy to kidnap” charges and they had also been the last known to have been with Nielsen.

Of Jim Anderson, Rees writes:

At the time of Juanita’s murder, few people in Kings Cross were in a more dominant position than Jim Anderson. While to [investigating police] he was a prime suspect in Juanita’s disappearance, they never reached the stage where they contemplated an arrest. The evidence was considered, but there was just not enough there to charge Jim with any offence. Jim’s history shows he has always managed to stay Teflon clean. By various means, he has beaten counterfeiting, receiving and manslaughter charges, as well as suspicion of arson and conspiracy…He has no convictions despite a lifetime among Sydney’s underworld. As Eddie Trigg puts it “Jim was a great one for keeping his hands clean and letting others do the dirty work”.

Many years after the disappearance, a witness came forward claiming to have seen a man with a gun standing over Nielsen’s dead body in one of the club’s storerooms. By the time of that testimony, there had been major changes to the club building so there was no likelihood of any corroborating evidence being found.

The case remains officially unsolved.

The following video gives a highly recommended overview of Nielsen and her murder.

Crims in Grass Castles by Keith Moor

This book covers the same people and events that were written about in The Griffith Wars, but was published a decade earlier when some of the featured protagonists and antagonists were still alive. That allowed the author to interview several of them, including three of the men found guilty of conspiring to murder anti-drug campaigner Donald Mackay in Griffith NSW in 1977. The remaining (and prime) conspirator, Robert Trimbole died in Spain before the opportunity for an interview could be considered.

This book digs deeply into Trimbole’s other criminal activities of the time including his association with the Mr Asia drug syndicate, responsible for the importing and distribution of “harder” drugs into Australia.

It was that Mr Asia connection and the murders of two drug couriers that helped lead to the downfall of those eventually accused of involvement in the Mackay murder. Unlike the case of Mackay, the bodies of those victims, Douglas and Isabel Wilson, were discovered, providing useful clues.

The Griffith Wars was more focused on people and events associated with the city of Griffith, in particular those allegedly connected to the Calabrian mafia. Keith Moor’s book touches on the Griffith connections but significantly extends the story beyond that location and those mafia connections. Robert Trimbole’s “Mr Asia” involvement introduces a more international element, with the syndicate being responsible for murders in Britain as well as Australia.

I found this older book in a second hand bookshop after I’d read The Griffith Wars and after I’d ordered another book, Evil Life, about the history of the Calabrian mafia within Australia. That book arrived in the mail yesterday, and a quick glance at its content revealed it should a much wider context to what I’ve read about so far. In particular there seems to a brief link to something I wrote about in a post here (regarding the murder of Kim Barry).

These books have filled in the details of memorable events from my teen years, and I’ve learned how close to home some of the events have become. Back in the 70s they were happening in places I knew little about, and it was only via their profile in the media that a few details stuck in the memory. Now I know a lot of the places where these things happened, and I know people who knew some of the people involved.

I’m finding that crime has its own version of “six degrees of Kevin Bacon“, where none of us are ever totally out of the picture without connection to major crime of one form or another.

Confessions of a Serial Alibi by Asia McClain Chapman

serialI really wish that I could write something that would do justice to this book and encourage others to read it. Preferably they would read it after familiarising themselves with the background of the case in which Asia McClain (now Chapman) features as an alibi witness.

I came to his book after listening to the Serial and Undisclosed podcasts, and after reading Adnan’s Story by Rabia Chaudry.

Clearly most people wouldn’t want to go to such preparatory lengths before reading a 240 page book, so here is the basic background.

On January 13 1999 Hae Min Lee, a student of Woodlawn High School in Maryland was reported as missing. On February 9th her partially buried body was discovered.

Her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was charged with her murder and convicted on the evidence of a witness who claimed he’d helped Syed dispose of the body, backed by cell-phone records that placed him at the burial site a few hours after Hae’s disappearance.

But all was not as it seemed.

The witness’s story changed significantly every time he told it. His most recent version now claims the burial took place several hours after the phone records allegedly placed them at the burial site.
Additionally, the phone data placing Syed’s phone at the site at the previously claimed time of the burial relates to an incoming call, and the phone company’s cover sheet clearly stated that incoming calls could not be used to identify a phone’s location. By some “quirk of fate” the prosecuting attorneys failed to include the cover sheet when providing the defence attorney with the phone records, leaving them in the dark about that disqualifying statement.

There is far more to this story than can be told in detail in a few paragraphs in a blog post, a few more of the issues are mentioned on my other blog here

Asia McClain Chapman’s book looks at another significant problem with the case against Syed. He actually had an alibi for the time the prosecutors claimed he was killing Hae.
Asia McClain was that alibi witness. She saw him in the public library and spoke to him for about 20 minutes at the same time the prosecution claim he was committing the crime. However, for reasons unknown, her offer of that alibi was ignored by Syed’s defence team and she was never called upon to give her evidence at the trial.

McClain had no particular allegiance to Syed. Both he and Hae Min Lee were classmates she didn’t know well, at best they were friends of friends. Her interest was in allowing the truth to be found, and in telling what she knew to help that process. She didn’t get that opportunity at the original trial.  When Adnan was found guilty, she assumed justice had been done and put the situation behind her.

Or so she thought…

Years later she was approached to give evidence at an appeal hearing. Due to concerns about the issue being raised again, and a suspicion that Syed’s defence team could exploit her to free a guilty man, she sought legal advice. Unfortunately she spoke to Kevin Urick, the prosecutor at the original trial and his advice led her to reject the defence team’s requests.

Because of Kevin Urick I saw Adnan as being 100 percent guilty and deserving of a lengthy prison stay I didn’t want to contribute to some sleazy underhanded attempt to get a convicted murderer out of prison.

Unfortunately for Urick, through the Serial podcast, McClain became aware that at the appeal hearing, he misrepresented her and their conversation, giving false information about her original offer to be an alibi witness and why she had declined to give that evidence at the appeal.

It’s a funny thing to find out through the grapevine that another person has misspoken about your words and intentions. It’s another thing to find out through a podcast simultaneously with millions of other people. From the moment I heard Urick’s post conviction testimony I felt I had been taken advantage of. In my entire life I can’t recall ever feeling so duped and foolish.


I know that when Kevin Urick gave that testimony he had no idea that it would be featured in an internationally-known podcast. However, in life such as in court, that’s like saying that a dirt bag who rapes a woman at a public concert has no idea that other people are videotaping it. That my friends is the power of God. Proverbs 12:19 says, “Truthful lips endue forever, but a lying tongue lasts only a moment.”

When I think about Urick I feel so violated and shameful in the sense that my only faults were being naïve and trusting him.


It made me sick to my stomach to know a conversation with me had been discussed without my knowledge or consent, that a falsehood had been seen as fact. Not to mention the idea of that falsehood being used as the basis for denying Adnan’s appeal. Hell, anyone’s appeal. We [Asia and her husband] agreed that we needed to make ourselves available to do whatever was needed to set the wrong right.

Above I’ve probably featured too many quotes from the book, but I think those quotes demonstrate a significant aspect of this case – the prosecution’s tactic of falsifying and misrepresenting  evidence to obtain a desired result. Their desire to win at all costs – even the cost of the truth and justice. Getting A result (the only result they’d counted on) was more important to them than getting the RIGHT result.

The above experience with Urick wasn’t the last experience of this type for the author. When she eventually had her day in court to present her testimony to another appeal,  she was again subjected to a similar disregard for the truth by the prosecutor at that court, Thiru Vignarajah (then Deputy Attorney General of Maryland); having her good character attacked and suffering all kinds of accusations about her motives for providing an alibi for Syed.

It might be said in the prosecutor’s defence that it was his job to challenge her and her testimony in court, however, according to McClain Chapman, his personal attacks continued in the media long after his job in court had been done.

…he continues to slander my character and lie about my motivations both in court and via any press conference awarded to him.

Up to the time of publishing the book, Asia McClain Chapman has maintained an uncertainty about the guilt or innocence of Adnan Syed. All along she claims her only desire is to tell the truth and to allow the legal process to make that determination according to the evidence.

However, I’m not so sure that her experience has given her any confidence that the legal process is capable of doing that with justice, and that is perhaps the most important thing about this book. It’s not just about the story of Asia McClain and her part in the story of one particular criminal case, it’s an expose of serious problems in the US justice system.

In our country there is supposed to be equal justice for all under the Constitution. Unfortunately, the system is so broken that many prosecutors only care about winning and not whether a defendant is truly guilty or innocent.

The court case at which Asian McClain Chapman was finally able to present her testimony led to the overturning of the conviction against Adnan Syed and the granting of a retrial. However, until that takes place he remains incarcerated in the same way a suspect denied bail would remain behind bars.

Not unexpectedly there has been appeal against that decision, so the legal processes grind on as slowly as ever.

It’s been two years since Serial subject Adnan Syed was granted a new trial, but his case will remain in limbo – and he’ll remain in prison – for another year.

This week, Maryland’s highest court agreed to hear the State’s appeal, which seeks to reinstate Syed’s conviction in 2000 for the murder of his high school girlfriend, Hae Min Lee.

Full story here: https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/adnan-syed-case-stalled-for-at-least-another-year-699265/

Adnan’s Story: addendum

This is a short interview with Rabia Chaudry about the continuing case of Adnan Syed, the subject of her book Adnan’s Story.

I’ve used the category “true crime” to describe the content of this post, however I believe the crime element relates to the way Syed was convicted of murder. I don’t see any truth in the claim that Syed was guilty of the crime for which he’s been imprisoned for almost 20 years.

The story of Syed’s conviction is told in great detail in the Serial and Undisclosed podcasts. Details of those podcasts can be found here:

Also see:


The Griffith Wars by Tom Gilling and Terry Jones

I don’t think anyone who was around in 1970’s Australia would be unaware of the  things covered by this book. Based on the diaries of Terry Jones, a newspaper editor in Griffith NSW who personally knew all of the major players, The Griffith Wars joins a lot of the half-remembered dots lingering in 40 year old memories.

Small business owner and aspiring politician, Donald Mackay disappeared from Griffith, a small inland city almost half way between Sydney and Adelaide. His furniture shop van was found in a pub car park alongside a pool of blood and spent firearm cartridges. His body has never been found.

Leading up to his murder he had been campaigning aggressively against a profitable drug trade centred in Griffith, where families of close-knit Calabrian farmers had been acquiring income far greater than would be expected from the growing of fruit and vegetables. Raids on a number of properties linked to those families had found large acreages of marijuana.

Prior to reports of Mackay’s disappearance, my  first wareness of Griffith related to two school friends were eventually found there after they’d gone missing from home. They’d been trying their hand at fruit picking using false names.

A few years later I met a friend’s sister, a nurse at Griffith base hospital, visiting her family who had recently moved to my home city on the coast. That was two or three years before Mackay’s murder, but those friends made it clear that Griffith’s reputation regarding the drug trade was already well known among locals there.

A closer personal connection to this story came when I met Gloria. She came from a small country town that relied on services available from Griffith. Her family had been customers of Donald Mackay’s furniture shop, and they had links with several places that arise in the account told in The Griffith Wars.  There was no secret about the identity of the people behind the illegalities within Griffith.

The names of those families and their activities have been well-known for decades. Many them passed through the legal system on numerous occasions but with little effect, often receiving minimal sentences (if any) receiving far lighter punishments for growing and distributing marijuana than those caught using it. Some even became recipients of local and national honours, such as “Citizen of the Year” and the “Order of Australia”.

The Griffith Wars is a very readable account of drugs, insurance fraud, murder, corrupt police and dodgy politicians. By one of those interesting coincidences, I finished reading this book one day after the 41st anniversary of Donald Mackay’s murder.


Also see: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-11-01/mafia-don-tony-sergi-dies-in-griffith/9106258







Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime, by Val McDermid

I do a lot of my reading in my work lunchbreaks.

This book is perhaps not the best lunchtime material: discovering the forensic importance of blowflies and their larvae (maggots) while chewing on last night’s left over Aloo Gobi and rice wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste.

However there are compensations for the inevitable moments of squeamishness. McDermid’s study of various branches of forensic investigation is fascinating.

She takes the reader from early, historical ideas and practices through to present day scientific investigative techniques, with examples given from actual cases.

“The governing principles of forensic science, as laid down by Edmond Locard at the beginning of the last century, is that ‘every contact leaves a trace’. But unless we know how to analyse, categorise and understand those traces, they’re not much use when it comes to catching criminals. As scientists have made new discoveries, so the art of detection has advanced.”

Various different disciplines come into play, through which different “traces” can be examined to determine a course of events associated with a crime, an accident, a natural death or even a war atrocity. Each chapter of Forensics highlights a different field of investigation, starting with the crime or accident scene itself.

Noted evidence can include the presence (and activity) of insects, fingerprints, blood spatter and DNA testable material. Beyond the incident scene, evidence can be examined through various means including autopsies on victims, toxicology tests (to determine the presence and effects of drugs or poisons) and DNA comparisons. Non-biological forensics are also given a couple of chapters, with digital forensics playing a part in finding evidence through computer, phone and CCTV records; while forensic psychology looks into the personalities and possible motivations of potential suspects.

While all of these disciplines have been useful in solving crimes, McDermid also refers to some instances in which forensic evidence has led to questionable results. One example given was a case in which an interpretation of fingerprint evidence led to a wrong conviction, as well as implicating police in career-ending acts of misconduct that were later shown to be unfounded.

While forensic sciences have changed the nature of crime investigation, mostly for the better,  outcomes are always dependent on the experience and expertise of those reviewing and understanding what the forensic evidence means.

McDermid’s book gives an excellent, informative overview of the role of forensic sciences. My interest in the topic came about as a side-track from my recent journey into crime fiction, a diversion related to my occasional detour into true crime cases.

At the risk of using a gratuitously inappropriate metaphor, this book has helped to put some meat on the bones; giving me a better understanding of investigative practices that have been touched upon in other books I’ve read recently.