Portland is a little coastal town (pop. 10,000) on the southwest coast of Victoria, Australia, with a rich maritime past. It is situated about a four-hour drive from Melbourne and a five-hour drive from Adelaide. In 1991, Portland was rocked by the vicious double murder of two middle-aged women in a hair salon. Despite widespread inquiries, at least 5000 people questioned and one arrest, the sinner has stayed unknown and unpunished to this day.
Claire Acocks, 49 years old at the time of her demise, was a married mother to three adult teenagers; she worked part-time as a hairstylist at the Old London Coiffure.
Margaret Penny, 58 years old, was retired, wedded for over 30 years, and a mother of two adult teenagers.
The Old London Coiffure was situated in the famous Old London Building on the corner of Portland’s two major shopping strips, Julia and Bentinck Streets. The Old London Coiffure was on the ground floor, with other businesses in the building comprising a dentist and insurance agency.
On the afternoon of Friday, May 3, 1991, Margaret Penny reached at about 2 pm for her normal appointment with Claire Acocks to have her hair washed, colored, set, and styled – an appointment anticipated to take up to 90 minutes. There were no other customers in the salon.
At some stage, Claire Acocks left the salon briefly to get her knitting bag from her car; she was noticed at 3:05 pm holding the bag and pausing for traffic to clear so she could cross the road. At 3:30 pm, a man who worked an office across the Old London courtyard guessed he heard cries, but he ignored them like children playing around. Another Old London tenant also heard cries at about the exact time, as well as a noise that sounded like the salon’s back screen door banging loudly.
Margaret Penny was due to greet a friend for coffee at 3:15 in a nearby tea room. The friend reached a few minutes late; understanding that Margaret was having her hair done at the Old London, she stepped down the road a little way to see if she would greet her friend on her way. Glimpsing Margaret’s car parked nearby she assumed Margaret’s appointment was taking longer than anticipated, so came back to the tea rooms to wait. At 3:40 pm she came back to the salon and discovered the front door locked; she knocked loudly and then went to the back door, which she found was also locked. After scouring the street for Margaret, the friend went home; as she drove past the Old London she could notice that the salon’s lights were on. On her arrival home, she phoned Margaret’s house, to be notified Margaret had not come back from her appointment.
Puzzled, the friend came back to the Old London, and again knocked and tried both doors. She then came back home and phoned the salon. When there was no answer, she called the salon’s owner, Kay Edwards, at home. It was Kay Edwards, unlocking and entering the salon just after 4:30 pm, who saw the corpses and called the police.
The Crime Scene
A stool behind the salon cash register was overturned and the register revealed a 20 cent transaction – not an amount that would usually be rung up. A minor amount of cash, estimated at around $160, was missing from the register, and a bag was on the floor, its contents are strewn around. Mrs. Penny’s handbag was guessed to contain around $180, and Mrs. Acocks’ had contained her holiday savings of $500; all of this cash was missing. Some “small items” were also missing, according to the police, but what they had never been disclosed; a cheque which was stolen has never been presented at a bank.
Claire Acocks and Margaret Penny were both lying face down in pools of blood in the shampoo room towards the salon’s back, where splashes and flicks of blood were apparent on the walls. Mrs. Penny’s feet had been wrapped with an electrical cord which was wound around one leg of a chair, and her hands tied were loosely at her chest with a towel. A clear plastic wrap had been wrapped around Mrs. Acocks’ neck and both women’s heads were encircled with black hairdressing capes.
At autopsy, no indication of sexual attack was found, and both women were completely clothed with their jewelry untouched (two gold bracelets and four gold rings, one with a diamond, in Mrs. Penny’s case; one gold bracelet and four gold rings in Mrs. Acocks’).
Both women’s throats had been slash. Margaret Penny also had 17 stab wounds and puncture wounds to her rear, bruises and lacerations on her arms, and five shattered ribs. Claire Acocks had been stabbed twice in the chest and once in the belly, and had bruises on her forehead, limbs, and chest as well as defensive wounds to her hands. While Mrs. Acocks’ wounds were fewer in number than Mrs. Penny’s, they were much intenser, some having penetrated up to 17 cm (nearly 7 inches) whereas Mrs. Penny’s were largely less than 4 cm deep. It was assumed that both women had initially been stabbed whilst seated in chairs, and had strumbled forward onto the floor where they bled out.
Mrs. Acocks’ blood indicated no alcohol or drugs of any sort, and Mrs. Penny’s only contained therapeutic levels of a mild analgesic utilized for her back pain.
No killing weapon was ever found – many knives were recovered after the killings from the regional area but most were assumed to have been discarded by fishermen and none were related to the killings. Nor was any individual found to have attended regional medical centers with slashes or other injuries potentially caused during a battle. In the first four years of the inquiry, police earned more than 1,100 different information reports and questioned over 5000 people, including regional criminals, the staff of the only ship berthed in town on the day of the killings, people recognized as not having been at work at the time the killings occurred, regional fishermen and of course the families of the two perished. Anyone ever known to have toured the Old London was fingerprinted for elimination motives, and in the end, only one fingerprint and one bloodied partial shoeprint stayed unaccounted for.
While DNA use was yet in the early days in Australia, the salon’s shampoo room where the women were murdered was thoroughly examined and according to the police everything vacuumed from the room has been retained. Nonetheless, as this was a hair salon, overflowing amounts of hair from several people were found and there was very small useful evidence.
The ‘Horrible Man’
It appeared that around two weeks before the killings, Claire Acocks had confronted a client at the Old London who offended her so much that she mentioned him to at least five other people. She characterized him as rude, abrasive, dirty, and creepy, with “creepy eyes” and told him he had come in for a haircut; he said her that he disliked hairdressers and on leaving, he had also said her he would be back. Despite widespread inquiries, the ‘horrible man was never recognized.
Just before the Horrible Man occurrence, the Old London had been burgled. Interestingly, there was no clue of a break-in, but the salon owner reached one morning to discover the front door open and around $20-$30 worth of coins missing from the cash register. While the impression was that it had been “just kids”, could the thief have been scoping out the spectacle of the killing?
The Running Man
A passerby (who was a former mayor of Portland) came forward to tell he had noticed a man running from the back of the Old London Building between 3:30 and 4:30 pm. Characterized as young, clean-shaven with a fair complexion, short dark hair, and round glasses, this man was also never recognized.
The Barefoot Man
Another passerby documented that a man had stopped and rubbed her dog as he passed her, around 300 meters from the Old London Building, on the afternoon of the killings. She did not remember the precise time but reported noticing the emergency vehicles soon after the sighting. This man seemed to have “wiped” blood on his jeans and was barefoot. In other respects, he fitted the description of the Running Man. Although this woman reported the sighting that evening, this guide was not followed up until 1996 after the initial inquest when she re-contacted police after glimpsing the photofit of the Running Man in the paper.
The Arrest and the New Inquest
The Homicide Squad re-opened the case in 2013 following the publication of Leonie Wallace’s book ‘Horrible Man’ (which I recommend). This study of the case took two years; numerous original suspects and observers were re-interviewed. In April 2015, nearly 20 years after the casualties in Old London, Margaret Penny’s spouse was arrested and accused of both murders. A new committal hearing was scheduled and adjourned until May 2016. Nonetheless, Mr. Penny perished for natural reasons in March 2016 before the hearing started. Following this, the coroner opened a new inquest.
The Coroner provided the new inquest outcomes in July 2017. The Coroner remarked that Victoria Police had missed a chance to interrogate Mr. Penny completely following some data given to police by one of his family members in 1993; while Mr. Penny was questioned about this information, there was no recorded try to follow up and ascertain his account.
Nonetheless, the Coroner discovered that based on information there was no information implicating Mr. Penny in the killings and that it was not apparent to assume the identity of the killer of Mrs. Penny and Mrs. Acocks in 1991.
The Persons of Interest
Claire Acocks’ spouse Bob had an airtight alibi; he was playing golf with a group of companions for the whole afternoon up until the time he was informed of his wife’s killing. He was never a suspect.
Margaret Penny’s spouse Robert’s alibi was that he was looking after his five-year-old granddaughter at the house at the time of the killings. He pointed out that as his spouse had taken their only car to the salon he had no means of traveling there from their home; nonetheless, it later appeared that their son had left his car with his parents when he went overseas soon before the killings and had urged his parents to drive it while he was away.
Police stated first that Mr. Penny was not a suspect, primarily because the violence of the killings appeared out of character for a “59-year-old retired man”. Nonetheless, some connections of the Pennys (including a nephew) did indicate Robert should be looked at more closely and that he had some “skeletons in the closet” stemming from his business partners and time working in Singapore.
Rumors in Portland heightened when Mr. Penny remarried 16 months after the killings; it transpired that he and his new spouse Kim Penny had opened a bank account jointly as early as August 1991, three months after the killings, and his son Tony contended to have witnessed some familiarity between them even earlier. The Pennys’ adopted kids both became estranged from their dad (and from one another) in the years following the killings.
One assumption was that Mr. Penny had been examining the salon from his car with his granddaughter in the back seat, and entered the salon to murder his wife when he saw Claire Acocks leave, not realizing she was just obtaining her knitting and would be back so quickly.
The information under which Mr. Penny was caught included evidence that on the night of the killings, he had told numerous associates and family members (including his children, some friends, and Claire Acocks’ husband) that the two women had been murdered with a hairdresser’s tail comb. At this initial stage, it was only known that a knife or the same weapon had been utilized to cause the most obvious injuries, that is the incised neck wounds. Nonetheless, Margaret Penny’s corpse had four puncture wounds which were not caused by a knife but by something “blunter, very narrow and pointed”, and Claire Acocks had bruises on her chest and abdomen that appeared not to have been inflicted by a knife. It was inferred that the metal “tail” of a hairdresser’s tail comb had been utilized to cause these injuries although this was never verified and in fact, two forensic specialists with substantial experience both claimed that they had never glimpsed similar wounds.
A tail comb was found at the murder spectacle, on a chair in the shampoo room along with a tiny piece of bloodstained tissue paper. This tissue paper was tested for DNA and yielded profiles of Mrs. Acocks, Mrs. Penny, and an unfamiliar partial male profile. The partial profile has been run against numerous persons of interest, including Mr. Penny, with no match found. Nonetheless, the male profile may be irrelevant to the killings as it could have been deposited in the shampoo room before the killings occurred.
The second inquest discovered that while some problems required following up to establish the veracity of Mr. Penny’s account, no information that these matters were followed up has been found. It is obvious that Mr. Penny was not regarded as a suspect when the killings were investigated, and there is no immediate evidence to implicate Mr. Penny in the killings.
Gordon Smith was an intelligent 25-year-old whose career as an army electronics engineer had been cut short by the beginning of schizophrenia. Gordon self-medicated with illicit drugs and was therefore active in the regional drug scene. The information against him seems to be primarily that he was spotted at 2:40 PM on the day of the killings near the salon with another man, and that when inquired what he was doing at the time of the killings Gordon was at first incapable to explain and then stated he had gone home to have a nap. His parents acknowledged that it was tough to get Gordon to take his medication and that this made him intensified, tense, and prone to outrage although there was never any charge of violence against him and he had no previous convictions. Following a series of interviews over the killings, Gordon became anxious locals were talking about him, which heightened existing feelings of despondency and paranoia.
In 1998 Gordon was reinterviewed following accusations by his cousin, Russell Smith, that he and Gordon had both been involved. Following this, he moved to Melbourne as he was confident he would always be seen as a killer by the Portland community.
In June 1998 Gordon committed suicide in St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne.
Gordon was known to numerous people related to the killings, including Claire Acocks’ son and salon owner Kay Edwards, and none thought him to be eligible for the crime.
Russell Smith, Gordon’s cousin, was a serial criminal with a string of convictions for burglary, drug offenses, and attacking police; his first jail sentence was for committing manslaughter, along with some teenage associates, when he was just 17. Russell was an associate of some high-profile components of the Melbourne underworld including the infamous Jason Moran. Russell was suspected of driving Moran to the killing site of another underworld heavy, Alphonse Gangitano. It was while being questioned about this that he alleged he and his cousin Gordon had been involved in the Portland killings.
Russell alleged that he had helped his cousin Gordon to dispose of bloodied clothing and killing weapons after the Portland killings by throwing them into the ocean. No information was ever discovered to verify this claim and Gordon was astonished when told of Russell’s accusations.
In September 1998, three months after Gordon’s demise, Russell committed suicide in Melbourne Assessment Prison where he was on remand for theft and other offenses.
32-year-old Stuart Pearce vanished on January 6, 1991, following the demises of his wife and three children (aged 11, 9, and 2) whose corpses were found in their Adelaide house after it was set on fire. All three had been killed before the murders; a fourth child fled because he was at a sleepover at a friend’s house. Police thought Pearce may have been related to the Portland killings because of some resemblances in the murders, but details of the Pearce homicides have not been disclosed publicly as it stays an open investigation. To this day Stuart Pearce is South Australia’s most wanted fugitive.
Claire Acocks’ son Tim was a Portland police officer at the time of the killings, and there was the assumption that the killings were the result of a personal grudge against Tim. Nonetheless, Tim had been a policeman for only six years and inquiries turned up nothing that could be deemed significant enough to prompt the killings.
Margaret Penny’s daughter Jaqueline was an inadvertent witness in a killing inquiry about eight months before the Portland killings. Drug dealer Michael Schievella and his partner Heather McDonald were killed in their home at St Andrews, north of Melbourne, in September 1990, Jacqueline was driving to work near the murder spectacle when she saw a car coming in the opposite direction being driven by someone she realized, looking irritated and with “a mean look on his face”. After first refuting she knew the man, Jacqueline recognized him to the police and although a police inquest brief strongly implicated him and some associates in the St Andrews killing, it stays unsolved. Jacqueline Penny thinks it probable that the Portland killings were a “payback” to her for turning her acquaintance in, declaring that other people related to the St Andrews killing have also perished prematurely.
Other suspects named throughout the years have included:
Peter Dupas, convicted murderer and mutilator of three women in Melbourne; however, Dupas was in jail when the Portland killings took place.
Ashley Coulston, sentenced to a triple murder in the Melbourne suburb of Burwood in 1992 as well as the attempted kidnapping of a couple in Melbourne. Both those crimes were committed with a gun and there is no information that Coulston was in Portland at the time of the Acocks-Penny killings.
So who murdered Claire Acocks and Margaret Penny? What could be the intention? And how did the perpetrator get away with committing a brazen and bloody killing at a busy time of day in a fairly public region?