ON THIS DAY – September 12, 1953
Homicide detectives who investigated the murder of 14-year-old Shirley May Collins, whose battered body was found in September 1953 at Mt Martha, described the murder as one of the most vicious and sadistic in the history of Victoria. The investigation was said to be one of the biggest and most intensive manhunts in the history of Australian crime.
Shirley Collins was described as a young, shy, smiling and innocent girl. Her father had died and her mother remarried and moved to Queensland. She was one of four foster children living with her foster parents, Mr and Mrs A E Collins. Shirley left her Reservoir home at 7.15pm on Saturday 12 September to go to a teenagers party in Richmond and had promised her foster mother she would return home early. The party was at the home of a young workmate; guests were mostly teenage members of Coles staff where Shirley worked. Ron Holmes, 21, of Chelsea, had arranged to meet her at Richmond station at 8pm. Holmes waited for nearly an hour and then went to the party alone. Mrs Collins sensed something was wrong when her daughter did not return home by midnight. Early Sunday morning, Mrs Collins took her worries to a policeman who lived nearby. The constable dismissed the mothers fears, saying Shirley must have missed the last train and was probably sleeping at a girlfriend’s place and would be home in the morning. But eight hours later he referred Mrs Collins to the CIB.
Police received information that a girl answering Shirley’s description, and who they were almost certain was Shirley, was seen getting into a car near Regent station only a few minutes before she was to have boarded a bus to take her to the city. Police believed the girl accepted a lift, expecting to be taken to her destination at Richmond, but instead was driven to Mt Martha. A large squad of CIB detectives and police worked 24 hour days in an endeavour to locate the murder scene. They searched the Mt Martha and Dromana areas, questioning people who may have been able to provide clues.
At least five people saw Shirley’s body without realising she was dead; they presumed it was a girl sunbaking. People told police they had seen Shirley and a well-spoken young man in Mornington on Saturday and Sunday nights. She was seen with the man at a hotel on Saturday night. Mr Allan Downs, the licensee of Mornington’s Grand Hotel, recognised Shirley’s photo as soon as it was shown to him by the police. Downs told police, Shirley walked into the hotel lounge with a man about 26 to 30 soon after 8.30pm. I noticed them particularly because the lounge was empty, which is unusual on a Saturday night. I asked them if they were bona fide travellers and they said Yes and sat down at a table a few feet from us. They had one glass of beer each; then they got up and left at about 8.50pm. This drew my attention because it is unusual for anyone to have just one glass of beer on a Saturday night. Although I did not notice the pair laughing or joking, they seemed quite friendly. As the girl left the lounge, she turned her head and smiled and said Goodnight. Thank you very much. The girl could have passed for an adult for her hair was done differently to the photo, but I feel sure it was her. Shirley Collins was then seen at a cafe in Mornington on the Sunday night. An employee of the cafe, Mrs Larkins, recognised a photograph of Shirley. She said, the girl was with a youth aged about 18, with a long, pointed nose, brushed back hair, and of medium build.
In the early morning of Monday 14 September, the body of Shirley Collins was discovered at Mt Martha by Lionel Liardit. The 73-year-old man told police that his fox terrier, Bombo, had drawn his attention to the body. I was walking along Marine Drive to pick up my mail, he said. Bombo was chasing rabbits and wallabies then ran into the grounds of the house and came back barking and tugging the cuff of my trousers. I wasn’t in any hurry and Bombo’s a pretty intelligent dog so I went to see what was worrying him. I saw the body. Liardit was shaken by the horror of his discovery. Later medical examination showed Shirley had been dead for 10 to 12 hours. Police believed the three broken beer bottles found near her battered body were the cause of her death. She had been the victim of a brutal attack. A bottle, heavy with beer, had been smashed on her head and knocked her unconscious. Two other bottles, tops still firmly clamped, had been shattered against the back of her head. The pretty face of Shirley Collins had been completely destroyed by blocks of cement. Her nose, jaw, cheekbones and forehead were broken. Her clothes had been ripped from her body and thrown in trees and scrub. A stocking, still fastened to a suspender belt, was found on a tree stump. Evidence at the murder scene indicated the man who killed her was shrewd and dangerous, and had given police few clues to his identity. Detectives ruled out the theory that Shirley had been abducted and taken to Mornington Peninsula by force. They believed the car used was stolen and later abandoned.