Perth serial killer, David Birnie, abducted 5 women over 5 weeks with his partner Catherine. All of the victims, except for one, were raped and murdered. The fifth victim managed to escape and went to police.
During questioning, David admitted he had killed four women and took police to the burial site. It was information he freely offered.
Now, in never-before-heard phone conversations from his prison cell, David pleads his innocence over new allegations and opens up about his life in prison.
This recording is from 2005 and was David’s last contact with the outside world before he committed suicide.
See below an excerpt from Amanda’s book Killer Australia: Death and Destruction Down Under.
‘The most macabre and sadistic crime in the history of Australia’ – David
‘I’m not proud of what has been said about me but I have to live with that … why this happened I can only hope that the doctors can help me to find out’ – Catherine
David Birnie was born in 1951 in Wattle Grove, Australia, to alcoholic parents. He was the eldest of five children. After ten years of the children being repeatedly removed from their parents due to neglect, all five Birnie children were sent to different foster homes. Some of them lost contact forever. Later, Birnie contemplated what the rest of his siblings must have thought of him as one of the country’s worst killers. He felt as though he were an embarrassment.
Catherine was born Catherine Margaret Harrison[i] and never knew her mother, who died when she was less than two years old. Catherine moved to South Africa where she was systematically abused by her father for two years before being rescued by her grandmother who took the toddler back home to Perth. However, life with her grandmother was also hard. She forbade other children from coming into the house and therefore most of Catherine’s free time was spent alone, where she continued to go unloved and sink further into a morose existence. When Catherine’s grandmother suffered a severe epileptic fit, she was deemed no longer fit to look after the young girl and Catherine was shipped off to another relative. This time Catherine moved in with her aunt and uncle in the Perth suburb of Lathlain.
Life for Catherine was extremely dull and she rarely smiled. Her upbringing was rather strict. Yet in a neighbour she found what she yearned for. When David Birnie came into her life she found a kindred spirit. The fast talking, intelligent David swept her off her feet and showed her the wild side of life and her own personality. Yet the relationship was short-lived as both teenagers were moved away by their families and soon lost contact.
David grew up as a scrawny boy; he was short and thin and often picked on at school. David left school at around fourteen and went to work as an apprentice jockey, a job perfect for his stature. He talked at length about his work with horses. He claimed that had he not been dismissed from the job due being suspected of stealing, he may never have gone on to commit the killing spree.[ii]
In 1966, at the age of fifteen, Catherine and David met once again. This time David was wilder and drew Catherine deep into his world. He had quite an extensive juvenile criminal record for robbery and assault and an accomplice would suit him well. Catherine had also left school by this time and was working as a machinist in a window blind factory. But she was soon joining David in his criminal activities. By 1969, the 18-year-old couple found themselves in front of the magistrate in Perth Police Court several times, charged with breaking and entering and stealing. Both pleaded guilty to the charges and were remanded for sentencing. David received a prison term of nine months due to his previous extensive record for similar crimes. Catherine, who was pregnant with another man’s child, was put on probation. The young lovers were not apart for long.
On 21 June 1970, David walked out of Karnet Gaol and found his way back to Catherine. Together, they committed a string of thefts that added another two and a half years to David’s prison term. Catherine was sent to jail for six months and her newborn baby was taken from her by welfare authorities. After serving their prison terms, the couple went their separate ways again for a short time. David married and had a daughter. He settled down to family life. Believing she was rehabilitated and with the stipulation that she was not to see David Birnie, Catherine was released from prison and was granted custody of her child. She quickly found work as a live-in nanny for the respectable MacLaughlan family. Catherine fell pregnant to the son of her employers, Donald, and on her twenty-first birthday, 31 May 1972, the pair married. November saw the birth of ‘little’ Donny Jnr, and the couple seemed happy with their newfound family, a new experience for Catherine. However, the happy family would not last long. At the age of seven months, Donny was crushed by a friend’s car and Catherine witnessed the accident.
Catherine and Donald made it through the terrible death together and had six more children. Donald was working as a council employee and though times could get a little tight, their family always had enough money to live on. However, after Donald injured his back he was no longer able to work and the couple, with their six children, were forced to live in a dilapidated government-provided house. The place was unkempt and the children ran wild most of the time. Catherine was exhausted and soon grew sick of life in poverty.
Around the same time, David appeared again on the scene and the two began an affair that would last two years, before Catherine finally rang her husband and told him she would not be returning. She left behind, in the Housing Commission house, her husband, her six children, her father and uncle. The couple was now destined to be together. They moved into a house in Willagee, Western Australia and Catherine changed her name by deed poll to Birnie. When questioned why the couple never married, David would explain that it ‘just never came up’.[iii] He believed that the relationship was always going to be volatile and by not being married it gave Catherine a way of escape should things become too difficult.[iv] Nonetheless, the fire was now lit and David’s sexual appetite was soon whetted. The couple would spend hours in bed having sex, often trying out new sexual positions or toys, between prison sentences for theft.
During one prison stint, David was reunited with his younger brother James; they were in fact cellmates at one time. James was in prison for the indecent assault of a 6-year-old girl. His defence had been that she had led him on. It was obvious that sexual deviancy ran in the Birnie family. According to James, David was heavily into kinky sex and had quite a huge pornographic collection. He wanted sex about six times a day, and would inject anaesthetic into his penis so he could last longer without ejaculating. When Catherine and David broke up for a short time in 1984, David forced James to submit to anal intercourse. In August 1986, James was allowed to have sex with Catherine as a twenty-first birthday present. The incestuous relationship would continue until David’s final incarceration. David Birnie was a brilliant conversationalist. He was a knowledgeable man on many subjects, from the Australian Constitution to Chaos Theory and the building of the pyramids; his erudition amazed and inspired Catherine. He was able to talk her into anything he wanted. Soon, David wanted to rape and murder and Catherine was easily talked into assisting.[v]
Sex for the couple became boring and so they began talking about abduction and rape for kicks. Catherine said she would love to watch David penetrate another woman who was gagged and tied up. She told him how she wanted to lick his penis as it went in and out of another woman’s vagina. The talk didn’t last long before action took over. David decided it was time to act, and with Catherine’s devotion he knew he would get his wish. The first victim was happened upon almost by accident. According to David,[vi] on 6 October 1986, he was working at a car-wreckers when 22-year-old student Mary Neilson asked him about the purchase of some tyres for her car. There was an instant flash. David knew that the pretty young woman standing in front of him would be a perfect victim. Looking around to make sure his boss was out of earshot, he explained to Mary that he could do her a better deal. He said he had some new tyres at home. He gave Mary the address in Willagee and told her to come after 5 p.m. Later that evening, Mary arrived on the doorstep of the Birnies’ home. Though still unsure if he could go through with it, David decided it was time to act. The pretty young student with long brown wavy hair accepted the offer to enter the house, and as she did, David seized her.
Mary was dragged to the bedroom where she was chained up and gagged to stop her screaming. David repeatedly raped the terrified young girl as Catherine stood and watched, encouraging her partner. Catherine and David then drove their frightened victim out to the Gleneagles National Park where David raped Mary again before grabbing a rope from the car and using a tree branch to garrotte the young woman. He then dug a shallow grave and threw the woman’s body into the hole. Before covering the woman in dirt, he stabbed her in the chest to make sure she was dead.
Within two weeks, David Birnie was on the hunt again. The couple realised that having people come to the house was an easy way to entrap victims. So they advertised for their next victims in the local classifieds: ‘Urgent. Looking for a lonely young person. Prefer female 18 to 24 years, share single bedroom flat’. It is unknown if anyone answered the advertisement, however no victims were accosted this way. The next victim was found hitchhiking alone along the Stirling Highway.
Susannah Candy was a young, free-spirited girl of only fifteen. She happily accepted the lift in a car by the friendly and seemingly harmless-looking couple. Susannah thought that, with a woman in the car, she would be safe. She was wrong. No sooner was Susannah in the car than she was tied up and driven back to the couple’s house at knifepoint. David had been disappointed last time when they killed Mary so quickly. This time David knew he wanted to keep victim alive for longer. But he knew it was a risk. If someone had seen Susannah get into their car or enter their house, then they may be caught. To prevent this from happening, David forced Susannah to write reassuring letters to her parents, letting them she was okay. She was also made to ring them, reading a script written by Catherine.
Like Mary, Susannah was chained to the bed and raped and sodomised repeatedly by David over several days. Catherine also joined them in bed on occasions; she knew this would turn David on even more. Once David was finished with his sex slave he tried to manually strangle the fifteen year old. However, the young girl was too strong and fought to save her life. So the couple drugged her with sleeping pills. When Susannah fell into a comatose state, David gave Catherine rope and told her to prove her love for him and kill the girl. Catherine willingly pulled the rope tight around Susannah’s throat until she had stopped breathing. They took the body out to Gleneagles Forest again and buried her adjacent to the gravesite of Mary Neilson.
On 1 November 1986, 31-year old flight attendant Noelene Patterson became the Birnies’ third victim. Noelene knew Catherine and David quite well. In fact, the couple had helped Noelene a few weeks earlier wallpaper a room in her house. Noelene had been having a bad day when she had run out of petrol. Standing by her car, angry at her silly mistake, she was relieved to see Catherine and David pull up beside her. But Noelene’s relief soon turned to horror when a knife was held to her throat. The Birnies took their sex slave home, chained her to the bed, gagged her and raped her repeatedly. Catherine was concerned this time. She knew that David had always liked Noelene and Catherine was worried the woman may come between them. After several days of continual rape, David did not want to dispose of Noelene. He kept putting it off. Noelene was kept prisoner for three days before Catherine held a knife to her own throat and said that David had to choose between the two of them. David forced sleeping pills down the victim’s throat and strangled the unconscious woman as Catherine watched. Then the body was taken to the forest to join the others. Only three days after Noelene’s murder, another victim was abducted.
On 4 November 1986, Denise Brown was picked up by the couple as she waited at a bus stop near the Stirling Highway turnoff. For some unknown reason, she accepted the lift from the friendly strangers rather than wait for her bus. A knife was thrust to her throat as she got comfortable in the car. She was the Birnies’ slave now. Denise, like the others, was taken to the couple’s house at Willagee, chained to the bed and repeatedly raped for two days. Like Susannah she was made to call her parents to let them know she was okay. Catherine decided that time was up for the young woman and so Denise was bundled back into the car and take to Gnangara Pine Plantation the next afternoon. The couple drove into the plantation and while waiting for darkness, David raped Denise again.
Catherine held a torch for light as David plunged a knife into Denise’s neck while he continued to rape her. Denise survived the knife’s cuts. She was still alive and making terrible gurgling noises. Catherine could not stand the sound and so returned to the car to get a bigger knife. David plunged the knife into the woman’s chest. Denise stopped moving and so the pair dug a shallow grave and put Denise into it. As the killer couple tossed the earth over the woman’s body, Denise sat up in the grave and began struggling for air. David grabbed the shovel he had been using to the dig the hole and swung it at the girl’s skull, but again Denise fought to right herself. David then bashed the young woman’s head in with an axe. Denise was finally dead. Catherine felt sick after the murder of Denise. She could no longer help David abduct girls. But David easily convinced Catherine that it would be better next time. Catherine conceded to David’s plans, but she still felt that she could not go through with another murder like Denise’s.
David did not give Catherine time to change her mind. He was now manic about murder and had such a lust for blood that the rampage had to continue.[vii] The final victim was abducted only three days later. On 9 November 1986, David and Catherine abducted a seventeen-year-old young woman who was hitchhiking along Stirling Highway. She too was bound and gagged and driven back to the house. Inside the bedroom, the young woman was confined and subjected to a day of sex and violence.
During the time she was held prisoner she was also made to ring her family and tell them she was okay. David told the young woman that if she told them anything that she would be ‘murdered like the others’. During the ordeal, David and Catherine left their prisoner alone and untied while they made a drug deal in another room of the house. The captive took the opportunity to escape. She hid her bag and cigarettes under the bed before she left as proof she had been there. She was a smart woman and had kept her wits about her during her entire ordeal. Consequently, the woman ran from the house, covering her body with the little clothing that still hung from her arms. She stumbled to nearby Fremantle Shopping Centre, where police were called.
Once at the police station, the young woman told the interviewing officers of her ordeal at the hands of the sex-crazed couple. The girl directed the police back to the house and told them they would find her bag and cigarettes, proof of her stay. Police arrived at the house to find no one home. So they lay in wait. Shortly afterwards, Catherine came home and was arrested. David was found at work as if nothing had happened and was also taken into custody.
Overnight, both Catherine and David were placed in separate rooms where they sat in silence. The police tried everything to make the couple talk to no avail. Police knew without their admissions they could only be charge with the abduction and rape of the young woman. Yet the police knew there were more victims and like David had told his captive, he had murdered them. Finally, in exhaustion one of the detectives said to David, ‘It’s getting dark, why don’t you just show me where the bodies are, so we can dig them up’. David realised that the rampage of sex and violence was over. He would not be getting away with murder. He had known that this time would come.[viii] He looked at the officers and said ‘Okay, there is four of them’. Instantly the case took on huge momentum. With David’s confession, Catherine also broke her silence and soon the couple, with a cavalcade of police cars, descended on Wanneroo Pine Plantation.
After some initial problems finding the burial grounds, David pointed to the graves of Mary Nielson and Susannah Candy and police crime scene technicians began the arduous task of digging up the victims. Catherine wanted to point out the next grave. With police watching, the hardened woman pointed to the grave of Noelene Patterson. With indignation for Noelene, a perceived threat to her love for David, Catherine spat on her grave. Denise Brown was also unearthed at another nearby plantation. On 12 November, the pair were charged with four counts of murder and one count of abduction and rape. No plea was entered.
At the hearing on 10 February 1987, Catherine and David pleaded guilty to all charges. According to David it was to save the families the tragedy of a trial in what he described in his confession as ‘the most macabre and sadistic crime in the history of Australia’[ix], a claim he continued to maintain until his death.[x] David was sentenced the same day. He was to be incarcerated for life, with the presiding judge Mr Justice Wallace saying, ‘Each of these horrible crimes were premeditated, planned and carried out cruelly and relentlessly, over a comparatively short period …[David] should not be let out of prison, ever’.[xi] David’s sentence was termed ‘never to be released’, a proposal that is given to Australia’s worse criminals.
A month later Catherine was sentenced to the same, however, she had a minimum term set and would eligible for parole in 2007. The judge said that Catherine lacked and remorse and ‘each [murder] was premeditated, calculated and carried forward to its conclusion without mercy …’[xii] To date, she has been denied parole. In a letter to one of her children she tried to apologise, telling them that she was ‘not proud of what has been said about me but I have to live with and the memories. As to why this happened I can only hope that the doctors can help me to find out’.[xiii]
Birnie also suffered a loss of his own. Catherine had begun her own parole proceedings and decided she stood a better chance if she severed all ties with David. After a number of unanswered letters, David realised that Catherine, after seventeen years in prison, had finally decided to end their relationship. The end of their relationship came as a bit of a shock to David, but he continued to wish Catherine well. There were no hard feelings and he knew that she had done it in the hope of a future out of prison. On 7 October, 2005, just a few hours after David was interviewed by the author of this book, he committed suicide.
At 4.30 a.m. on 7 October 2005, David Birnie was found hanging by a sheet in his cell in Casuarina Prison. He had been suffering quite severe depression at the time, and his health was failing, with numerous operations in the years preceding his death, his last comments were a line from the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, ‘Funny, how just when you think life can’t possibly get any worse, it suddenly does’.[xiv] It was a small glimpse into the killer’s train of thought. He was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave after his death as no one claimed his body.
[i] ‘A loving letter from a mother’, Sydney Morning Herald, March 4, 1987
[ii] Based on author’s conversations with David Birnie (2005).
[ix] ‘Sex shock confession’, Sydney Morning Herald, November 16, 1986
[x] Based on the author’s conversations with David Birnie (2005).
[xi] R v Birnie.
[xii] ‘No remorse by killer says judge’, Sydney Morning Herald, March 4, 1987
[xiv] Douglas Adams, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy: a Trilogy in Four Parts.