Barbara McCulkin was 34 when she disappeared forever, with her two daughters Vicki and Leanne. They were last seen alive at their house on Wednesday, January 16, 1974.
Vicki was 13 years old, and the eldest daughter of Barbara and Billy McCulkin, when she disappeared with her mother and sister on Wednesday, January 16, 1974.
Leanne was 11 years old, and the youngest daughter of Barbara and Billy McCulkin, when she disappeared with her mother and sister on Wednesday, January 16, 1974.
Plotted to kill and lured Barbara, Leanne and Vicki away from their homes, into the deep bush, and murdered them in cold blood.
Dubois played a hand in the murder of the McCulkins, and supported O'Dempsey in his evil murder plot.
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Whooshkaa Studios: Listeners are advised that this podcast contains corse language and adult themes and is not suitable for younger ears.
It is April 17, 1975, and what you are hearing is something incredibly rare. As unlikely as hen’s teeth, or snow in Warwick.
On that autumn day in Sydney, Vince O’Dempsey was interviewed by Queensland detective Bruce White in the offices of the Criminal Investigation Branch at Sydney police headquarters.
And White had the presence of mind to take extensive notes of that interview. If those notes are accurate, this is one of the only records of extended dialogue between Vince and the police.
Vince is famous for not talking. At an inquest in 1980, he answered “no comment” to every question asked of him, including what his name was. He never signed statements and he never spoke.
Except in this instance.
These are the words of Detective White and Vince. It’s not their voices.
Here, Vince has immediately identified the weak link in the chain of his denial. The Gayton sisters. His story wobbles.
It is fifteen months since the McCulkins vanished. Vince is still on the move, trying to make money, trying to stay one step ahead of the police.
But Detective White persists, and has a face-to-face with his target.
You will hear more of this interview, but as the transcript reveals, Vince is arrogant, he adopts a superior tone, and you get the sense he knows he will never, ever get caught for the McCulkin murders
How do we have a record of this 45-year-old exchange? How do we have Vince’s voice, captured like a wasp in amber? We have it because it was embedded in the long forgotten transcript of an inquest in 1980 into the McCulkin disappearances.
White appeared as a witness, and produced his notebook from that interview with Vince in Sydney, and read it into the public record.
But that wasn’t it. Not by a long shot.
From Whooshkaa Studios, I’m Matthew Condon and this is Ghost Gate Road. In this episode, we will take you to the brutal dark heart of a triple murder that still haunts Australia, and reveal for the first time another murder plot by Vince that will shock you to the core. And we will try and answer the biggest question of all - how did Vince O’Dempsey get away with cold-blooded murder for so long?
News and Archival footage with people close to O’Dempsey’s crimes, with tense music throughout.
ASSOCIATE:…he wasn’t the same…he had the serious worried look and he had that for some time
ASSOCIATE: There’s nothing, no nothing to indicate that she was going away. A purse was still there.
ASSOCIATE: He had sex with one of them, he didn’t say which one, he told Shorty to rape one of the girls while he raped the other one.
FAMILY OF BARBARA MCCULKIN: Barbara, Leanne and Vicki were lured from their homes by people they thought as friends and suffered unimaginable violence and cruelty resulting in their untimely and callous deaths.
It was a lonely Christmas for Barbara McCulkin and her daughters Vicki and Leanne at the end of 1973.
Her husband Billy had left her for another woman and had moved out of the family home in Dorchester Street, Highgate Hill.
And Barbara was recovering from an operation - cosmetic surgery to her breasts and to remove stretch marks - and had given up work at the Milky Way Snack Bar in the city.
Snack shop co-worker Ellen Gilbert later told police why Barbara had decided to have the operation, uncommon at that time:
Billy dropped by now and then to see the girls.
But it was a miserable household. It had been raining relentlessly all through the school holidays.
Come January, a southbound cyclone from North Queensland and a hazardous weather system in northern NSW would come together with deadly force, creating the worst flooding in Brisbane in a hundred years.
People scrambled for their lives.
Audio from a documentary about the floods in Brisbane
VICTIM: We got out through the roof, it was the only way we could get out. REPORTER: You just got out in time. VICTIM: We just got out in time. We believe that the house has actually been covered by water. We’ve lost everything we owned. VICTIM 2: it’s happened since friday morning, REPORTER: You’ve lost your home? VICTIM 2: Everything we have. REPORTER: For the first time this century, flood waters invaded the heart of Brisbane. Swollen by massive volumes of water from upstream and backed by a tidal surge, the Brisbane River ignored its banks and swamped the Botanic Gardens. It wasn’t long before Alice Street fell victim. One of the first properties raped was the luxury Park Royal Hotel. More and more of the city disappeared under the murky water. MARRIAGE COUNSELLOR: I think people mostly felt they just had nothing. Nothing was left. No home. No possessions. And worse than that, suddenly the family just wasn’t there. No one was there for each other anymore. I think the flood was probably the symptom and what was happening was people were concentrating on possessions, getting houses, getting things to put in the houses. When they lost all that, they’d forgotten who the other person in that house was.
Barbara, too, was trying to salvage her own life.
Into 1974, as the rain drummed on the corrugated iron roof at Dorchester Street, she tried to keep everything as normal as possible for the kids. She’d bought their books for the school year ahead, and was busy sewing them outfits.
The rain didn’t bother Vicki and Leanne. They played every day with their friends across the road - Janet and Juneen Gayton - and sometimes passed the time hanging out at the service station at the end of the street. Janet was 13, Juneen almost 10.
As Janet would later tell police:
In fact, Juneen was turning 10 on Wednesday, January 16, and she was having a birthday party early that evening. Vicki and Leanne were invited.
But just before the celebration began, an orange Valiant Charger pulled up outside the McCulkin house. It was Vince O’Dempsey and Shorty Dubois. They had brought beer.
Little Juneen was watching the McCulkin house from the front verandah of her home. Then her sister Janet joined her and they walked across the road to find their friends.
Both girls were hypnotised by the Charger. It was Janet’s favourite car.
Juneen would later tell police:
The McCulkin girls then went across the road to the Gayton house. On that night, Vicki was wearing blue jeans with yellow stars on the flared cuffs, a tight-fitting red jumper with a zipper up the front and a Zodiac pendant around her neck. She was a Scorpio. And Leanne wore a pink smock covered in flowers and stripes, and pink stretch shorts.
The surprise visit of Vince and Shorty had interrupted Barbara at the sewing machine.
Soon, Shorty left in the Charger and drove across town to Chermside to give his girlfriend Jan a lift home, then briefly saw his mate, Clockwork Orange ganger Peter Hall, before racing back to Dorchester Street.
Hall told me what happened:
Back in Dorchester Street, Leanne McCulkin returned home from the Gayton party at around 7.30pm. She wasn’t feeling well. Vicki got in around 10.15pm.
Vince and Shorty - who was back after his errand across town - were still there with Barbara. They had been at the house for about four hours.
Then Vince suggested they all go for a drive in the two-door Valiant Charger. You might remember the TV advertisements for the sexy sports car. As one ad put it: “Not too big, not too small. Seats five. You can get the whole family in.”
Seats five. Barbara, Vicki, Leanne, Vince and Shorty.
Why go for a drive so late at night?
What had Vince and Shorty been waiting for?
Vicki McCulkin. They stuck around for the thirteen-year-old girl to come home from the Gayton party.
Shorty would later confess to Peter Hall what happened:
By 10.30pm the Charger was heading south-west out of Brisbane to Ipswich, and then on to Warwick.
Towards Ghost Gate Road.
Vince drove them to the bush. To the pitch black hills outside Warwick. To the darkest recesses of his psychopathic mind, this place that had nurtured his fantasies and had mothered his evil. He drove them to the bush. To his private graveyard.
There are few details of the actual location, just ragged pieces of memory and faded snapshots of landscape.
According to Dubois, they headed to Warwick, then parked the Charger with the women tied up and marched them across a creek. There was a suggestion of willow trees and a small shed nearby.
Then it was a decent walk into bushland to the site of the rape and murders. Into Vince’s private graveyard, where other victims rested. A place where, as his wife Margaret would tell police years later, he could visit his dead whenever he liked.
Peter Hall heard what happened from Shorty:
The kids. Vicki, 13, and Leanne, 11. Tied up and there in the dark, almost certainly hearing the life being strangled out of their own mother. A few hours earlier, they had been at a friend’s birthday party, with candles and cake.
Hall remembered the story Shorty told him and fellow gang member Tommy Hamilton:
How long had Vince and Shorty had their fun with the McCulkin women?
In those days, and depending on the weather, say it took them two and a half hours to get to the private graveyard outside Warwick from Brisbane. That makes it close to 1am.
And just say the walk from where Vince parked the Charger to the murder site was 15 or 20 minutes. We’re getting close to 1.30am. On average during January, at the height of the Australian summer, daylight is around 6am.
Hall recalls Shorty describing the horrific scene in the morning.
Vince killed them all, Shorty said. Vince killed them all.
And there were poor Vicki’s last words, before her life was extinguished: Vince, please, not the knife.
Peter Hall found Shorty at his mother’s place in Brisbane late on Thursday, January 17. He had not been home that night.
Hall noticed that there was something different about his good friend. He was quiet. Troubled. Not his normal self.
I asked Hall about his memory of first seeing Shorty after the McCulkin murders.
In Dorchester Street, the day after Juneen’s birthday party, the Gayton girls were keen to hook up with Vicki and Leanne across the road. These were the dying days of school holidays, and they wanted to pack in as much fun as possible.
But their friends were nowhere to be found.
Years later, at the McCulkin inquest, Janet Gayton was asked by lawyer Gary Forno about this moment.
Billy McCulkin, oblivious to what had happened, arrived at the house on the Friday night to visit his family. He found the cottage locked, so he smashed a glass pane in the front door and let himself in. He discovered lights on, and the cats locked in the laundry. The beds had not been slept in.
He raced across town to various houses and made frantic phone calls.
He returned to Dorchester Street on the Saturday and bumped into Janet Gayton.
Did she know where Barbara and the kids were?
No, she said.
Had she seen anybody else at the house?
Yes, she said. On Wednesday night. Vince and Shorty were here.
Vince and Shorty were here.
With a mate, McCulkin immediately headed north across the river to the inner-northern suburb of Kedron and Shorty’s mother’s house. He confronted Vince and Shorty head-on with the information from the Gayton girl. Had they been in Dorchester Street on Wednesday night?
This is an account of that tense meeting, as Billy would tell police:
Billy McCulkin reported his family missing to police. But it wasn’t until the first week in February that detectives combed the house, taking photographs and dusting for fingerprints.
And on February 8, a full three weeks and one day after the disappearances, police issued a circular alerting authorities that Vince, Shorty and Dianne Pritchard were wanted for questioning in relation to the McCulkin case.
Why did it take so long for police to take seriously this potential triple murder?
Or had a highly ranked police officer ordered a go-slow on the investigation from the outset?
Former detective Alan Marshall, who investigated the McCulkin case for two years, remembers being shocked at the response time to the disappearances.
Billy McCulkin was similarly bemused.
Whatever happened, Vince and Shorty were long gone by the time police entered Dorchester Street looking for evidence.
Vince and Dianne had hastily packed up their flat in Rosalie. He immediately sold his orange Charger to a car dealer in the city. Both then bolted south across the border. Shorty headed west to a friend’s property up on the Darling Downs outside Warwick.
The drama imploded the Clockwork Orange gang. Peter Hall moved out of Queensland. Keithy Meredith went to the Northern Territory.Tommy Hamilton stayed put in Brisbane.
The gang would never come back together. It was over.
Years later, Dianne Pritchard would be quizzed in a court of law about she and Vince’s sudden flight from Brisbane just days after the McCulkin disappearances.
Throughout her evidence, she expressed a lack of memory that was so complete it bordered on a possible medical condition.
She remembered nothing about suddenly leaving their flat at Nethercote Court in Rosalie, failing to give the landlord notice and forfeiting their bond, nor could she recall anything about Vince off-loading the Charger.
Lawyer Gary Forno pummeled her with questions about Vince, but, Pritchard didn’t crack.
The McCulkin inquest, in 1980, during which Pritchard was so intensely interrogated, as were so many other people who were involved in this drama but are now dead, did produce a very small fact that has been forgotten for forty years.
It is a possible hairline crack in the lies of Vince and Dianne, something so small that in their haste to get out of Brisbane after the McCulkin murders, the couple overlooked.
Is it evidence that Vince actually made a critical mistake when he fled south across the border? For a man who so prided himself in being meticulous, in his attention to detail, in his intellectual superiority, he may have missed one crucial thing.
It was about Vince’s beloved Valiant Charger.
At that inquest, a man by the name of John Joseph Johnstone was called to the stand.
We know Vince quickly sold his precious car to a used vehicle dealer before fleeing Queensland. The well-kept Charger didn’t sit long in the car yard.
The first person to purchase it, after Vince off-loaded it, was Brisbane man John Johnstone.
You will remember that at this time the city had suffered the worst flooding in a century. Johnstone was subsequently navigating inundated city streets in his snazzy new car, and at some point, the vehicle got damaged by floodwaters.
So Johnstone decided to do a thorough cleaning job and remove the internal seating and floor carpets.
And that’s when he found the hair ribbon.
This is Johnstone being questioned by Coroner Bourjoure and lawyer Claire during the inquest.
A blue hair ribbon. Possibly a child’s. A little girl’s.
Which little girls had Vince recently had in his Charger?
A thorough police search of the vehicle after the McCulkin case was first reported to police would have uncovered the ribbon.
But police didn’t start seriously investigating the McCulkin case for almost three weeks after their disappearance.
By then, the car had been sold to Mr Johnstone.
And it was never searched by detectives.
So Vince and Dianne, like Bonnie and Clyde, went on the run.
They based themselves largely in Sydney, but made quick, covert trips back to Brisbane. On at least one occasion, Vince went north to briefly see Shorty, and to visit an area of bushland outside his hometown of Warwick.
You may remember at the beginning of this episode a rare and critical police interview with Vince on April 17, 1975.
That interview only happened because Vince had been picked up by police in Sydney and charged with the unlawful possession of explosives, possession of Indian Hemp and use of an unlicensed pistol. Fleeing Brisbane after the McCulkin murders, Vince always carried a loaded pistol for protection.
He was ultimately convicted of possession of a firearm, possession of a sawn-off shotgun, and living off the earnings of prostitution, and would be sentenced to two years in prison.
But before that, Vince was brought into the Sydney CIB where Brisbane detectives took the opportunity to talk to him about the McCulkin case. He was finally caged. In custody. It was the only chance police would get to confront him.
In that interview, and again if Detective White’s notes are accurate, Vince was asked about his friendship with Barbara McCulkin.
It’s impossible to think of Vince feeling sorry for anybody. He wasn’t wired that way. But he seems to have been painting himself as a concerned friend and proxy father to Barbara and the girls.
He told police Billy was a deadbeat drunk. White pressed on in a different direction.
And you might recall, in that interview, that Vince showed a particular interest in the mention of the Gayton sisters from 7 Dorchester Street.
Let’s listen again to that exchange between Vince and Detective White:
What we know about diagnosed psychopath Vince O’Dempsey is that his lifelong modus operandi has been this - if anyone threatens his liberty, he removes that threat.
Why did his ears prick up in that interview when the Gayton girls were mentioned?
Because Vince, very early in the piece, identified Vicki and Leanne’s friends as the vital link in the chain of potential evidence against him in relation to the McCulkins. Janet and Juneen Gayton were able to place Vince and Shorty at 6 Dorchester Street on the night the McCulkins disappeared. Janet and Juneen would be able to testify, in court, that Vince and Shortly were probably the last people to see the McCulkins alive.
So what does Vince do about this conundrum?
They are a potential threat to his freedom.
And Vince knew how to handle threats.
So he planned to have not just Janet and Juneen, but the entire Gayton family, eliminated.
Now, for the first time, you will hear of a murder plot planned by Vince over 45 years ago that rivals the McCulkin murders in its pure evil.
Only now are Vince’s former criminal mates willing to reveal what the man was really like at heart. A monster with absolutely no regard for human life.
Recently, Vince’s buddy Bob - the man who was released from Boggo Road on the same morning as Vince back in late 1970, told me about Vince’s plan to exterminate the Gaytons.
Firstly, after the April 1975 police interview in Sydney when Vince was held in custody and ultimately convicted of various charges, Vince managed to get a message to Shorty. Someone phoned Shorty with instructions.
Bob remembers the moment with absolute clarity.
Then a letter arrived for Shorty. Bob held it in his hands. It was precise instructions for Peter Hall on how to murder the Gaytons.
The letter from Vince had been posted to Shorty’s mother in suburban Kedron in Brisbane.
Peter Hall also remembers the incident all too clearly.
There was something else in the letter. Something more Vince wanted Shorty to do.
He ordered his little mate - in his tiny, crabbed handwriting - to head out to the private graveyard and dig up the bodies of the McCulkins.
In the letter, Vince told him to buy some large drums and gave precise instructions on submerging the bodies in acid.
Then to take the sludge and pour it into a fast-running creek.
Exactly 42 years after the letter and that hideous, heartless and cold-blooded plot to murder two more children, both Janet and Juneen, in middle age, would stand up in the Supreme Court in Brisbane at Vince’s trial for the triple murder of the McCulkins, and give evidence against him.
The precise evidence Vince identified, and was so fearful of, all those years ago.
I was in the courtroom when they stood in the witness box, and later approached them outside the court where they sat together, alone, these two sisters. I congratulated them on their fortitude, and their dedication to the memory of their childhood friends.
They simply said thank you.
It’s important to think about the scope of this whole sorry saga.
A serial killer had been allowed to live amongst us for decades. A killer who had never been held accountable for his murders.
That would change.
It would take half a lifetime for people close to Vince to have the courage to step up and tell police what they knew.
And it would take the tenacity of two extraordinary cold case detectives to finally get Vince to face trial for the McCulkin atrocities. Both officers were children when Vince was slaughtering innocents.
The final question remains. Where are Barbara, Vicki and Leanne, buried?
I have stood over what look like old graves.
And I have held suspicious samples of yellowing matter that looks like bone fragments found in the soil.
And the place?
Morgan Park. Where the old cricket oval used to be. Where Vince drank and raised hell with his mates in the 1950s. Morgan Park. Where he raped a young woman in the 1960s then recited Shakespeare. Morgan Park, not too far from Ghost Gate Road, a dedicated public nature reserve for decades and on the way to the Leslie Dam, where Vince once worked.
Morgan Park. Remote. Thick with bush. Bordered by a creek with willow trees along its banks.
The perfect location, if you were insane enough, for your own private graveyard.
Ghost Gate Road deals with serious and sometimes distressing issues. If this episode has raised any issues for you, please seek support.
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