I knew very little about Veronica Knight when I began to write her story. In her three years as our informal foster daughter, we just enjoyed life and she quickly became part of our family. Although she was sixteen and almost an adult, she was childlike in other ways. We sensed that her so-called intellectual handicap, as it was called in the seventies, was at least partly the result of being confined to care homes and lack of regular education and encouragement. In other ways, she was insightful and smart. More recently I have had contact with one of her teachers, who described her as his ‘brightest student’.
Why my husband and I did not ask her more about her background, I am not sure. Perhaps it felt insensitive to interrogate a teenager about the years she never mentioned. Veronica was a ‘now’ girl: “What will we do now?” she would ask several times a day. We knew that she had spent several years in Minda Home, and that in Adelaide, to mention Minda was a pejorative in any context. She never mentioned any family members and I did not probe.
Sadly, Veronica became famous in a tragic way when her body was discovered in the Truro bush on Anzac Day in April 1978. It would emerge that she was the first victim of two serial murderers who received a great deal of publicity as their evil deeds were exposed (one had died in a car crash before the eventual arrest of the other one, who was charged and convicted). Veronica’s name was in the media and her movements on that last fatal night were detailed for all to read. She had been shopping in the city, was separated from her friend and accepted the offer of a ride home while she was waiting for the bus. Her last decision was a poor one. I knew that what was not in the newspaper reports was that she wanted to buy clothes and gifts for her imminent trip to visit our family in Melbourne where we were then located. Despite the information on her train ticket and our details in her belongings, the police never contacted us.
After a great deal of research, I wrote the first fifteen chapters of the book. I read everything I could find and painfully reconstructed the details of the summer of 1976-7. I researched the world of missing persons, care homes, court cases and Adelaide in the seventies. Trying to restore Veronica’s dignity and reputation, I rewrote her story and portrayed her as she really was: a happy-go-lucky teenager who loved youth group and church activities, baked cupcakes in my kitchen and was described by all who remembered her as friendly and fun-loving. Nothing like the comments published in The Advertiser’s editorial in 1980 after the dramatic trial of the killer:
It is clearly the duty of the parents of the girls, particularly the naïve, the gullible and the misguidedly adventurous, to impress upon them the dangers of walking alone in the streets at night and accepting lifts in cars offered by people unknown to them … Girls who tend to be free with their favours are committing no offence by behaving as they choose, but they must realise that in doing so they are exposing themselves to mortal danger.
This judgemental piece was written with no evidence except the unsworn story of the perpetrator, and was classic victim-blaming. What has changed? All seven victims were going about their own business, mostly looking for public transport to get home. Some came from wealthy and educated homes. For their decision to accept rides home, they lost not only their lives but their reputations. What little remains of Veronica’s short life has been tainted, and my sense of justice was outraged. I had so many reasons to tell her story; I just didn’t realise that stories have a way of taking on a life of their own!
That was when I realised that I needed to go to Adelaide to return to Veronica’s places and homes and to walk where she walked. Right to the last place she was seen. I knew it would be confronting, but I wanted to step into Veronica’s long-forgotten shoes for a while. Most of all, I wanted to speak with people who knew her, and with those involved in the aftermath of the terrible murders of 1976-7.
The book had taken over my life and mind; I could think of nothing else. Maps, articles, podcasts all contributed to a sort of growing beast that was filling my thoughts with unanswerable questions. Anyone who could answer them was already very elderly, and many had died. Forty years after the events meant that those who were middle-aged then, had aged a great deal. Had I left it too late?
Then it arrived. A handwritten envelope addressed to me containing a letter neatly written on A4 paper. It was an answer to my carefully worded letter sent to Ken Thorsen, Commander Ken Thorsen, who led the police team that investigated the Truro case. Chapters 16-27 of A Voice For Veronica tell how I was drawn into my own book as I became involved with the characters who came alive, and the story emerged with a climax I could never have predicted.
My writerly response was to switch to writing in the present tense for the second half of the book – that was a challenge but helped me, and hopefully my readers, to feel more present in the moment.
Along the way, my husband and I were at the same time outraged and touched, excited and unstitched as we moved inexorably into delayed grief and acknowledgement that we are co-victims in this tragedy. We discovered in a beautiful timeline that we could not have orchestrated, that the framework of our faith and the dynamic of forgiveness are truly liberating. My trip began as a sleuthing exercise and ended up in Truro as a profound pilgrimage.
Best of all, Veronica’s story has been captured and broadcast globally. She will never be forgotten.
Read the full story in A Voice For Veronica available at:
Amazon Australia: https://www.amazon.com.au/Voice-Veronica-Knight-murders-Australia-ebook/dp/B07NZ2C7PR (eBook available)