Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The murderous Captain Bathtub.

You know that evil stranger that your mum always warned you about?  The one who comes to your house in response to a “flatmate wanted” ad and kills you.  The balaclava clad man, holding a sawn-off shotgun, who starts leading to you to a darker, more secluded location.  Ashley Mervyn Coulston is that evil being.  And in 1992 he terrorised Melbourne.

Ashley Coulston

 However, Coulston’s criminal career began long before 1992.  On April 29th 1971 he abducted two young school teachers, forcing them to drive to New South Wales, heading for Sydney.  He had stalked them for two weeks before the abduction.  Coulston’s choice of weapon was a .22 rifle.  When they stopped at a Gundagai roadhouse for food, the screams of the women attracted the attention of a truck driver and they were rescued.  He was 14 years old.  Coulston was sentenced to three months in juvenile detention.

Publicity photo from G'Day 88

Coulston moved around, living in New South Wales and Queensland.  He developed an interest in sailing and in 1988, during Australia’s bicentennial he came to national attention when he tried to sail the smallest boat from Australia to New Zealand.  He spent almost a year designing and building the G’Day 88 which was about the size of a spa bath.  His first attempt was thwarted by a cyclone, but he was successful on his second attempt.  He was featured in many media stories and dubbed “Captain Bathtub”.
Sailing also introduced him to his partner Jan McLeod, a woman more than 15 years older than him.  He lived with Jan on her boat docked at Hastings, on Melbourne’s Mornington Peninsula.

On July 29th 1992, three young people were brutally executed at a house in Burwood, a quiet middle-class suburb of Melbourne.  Someone had hog tied Kerryn Henstridge (22), Anne Smerdon (22) and Peter Dempsey (27, Anne’s brother-in-law) with cable ties and shot them all in the head.  Kerryn’s mother discovered the horrifying scene the following morning when she went to the house.  Kerryn had been moving out that day and had failed to meet her mother as planned.

Anne Smerden

Kerryn was moving home to Hamilton, a town west of Melbourne.  The other tenants had advertised for a new flatmate, and had been interviewing prospective tenants on the night of the 29th.  One man attended the house at 8pm sharp, and left about 8:10.  He was the last person to see the trio alive.  There was another man scheduled to visit that night, a 40 year old man named Duncan.  It is now believed that Duncan was Ashley Coulston.

Kerryn Henstridge

Police appeals for information did not turn up any leads. 

Peter Dempsey
Five weeks after the execution of three young people rocked the Melbourne suburbs, Richard and Anne Shalagin were returning to their car near the National Gallery of Victoria on St Kilda Road when they were approached by a man in a balaclava, who silently pointed a gun at them.  Thinking he was there to rob them, they threw a few $50 notes at him, which he took, but he kept menacing them.  He motioned for them to go to a darker area, under a tree.  St Kilda Road is a very busy road near the Melbourne CBD.  He told Anne to lie facedown, kicking her even though she complied with his demands.  The man took out some cable ties to bind Anne, and while doing so, put his rifle down.  Richard took this opportunity to grab the man in a bear hug, and after a brief struggle, both the Shalagins managed to run away.  Richard’s actions almost certainly saved their lives.

The shouts of the Shalagins drew the attention of two security guards who radioed for police.  The approached the man, who shot one of the security guards in the hip.  Despite this, they managed to grab him and hold him until the police arrived.

Coulston's gun with a homemade silencer, made from an oil can.

Police took the man back to the police station.  He was Ashley Mervyn Coulson and he had a murder kit on him that night – sawn-off shotgun with a homemade silencer, knife, balaclava, high velocity .22 cartridges, handcuffs, thumb cuffs and cable ties.
When the police did ballistic tests on the shotgun they found a match to two of the bullets used in the Burwood murders.  The third bullet was too badly damaged to be compared.  The homemade silencer had high velocity bloodstains matching the Burwood crime scene.  Police also found a map book with Coulston’s fingerprint on the page for Burwood. They had their man.

Coulston refused to say anything to police during questioning.  His partner Jan gave him an alibi, stating he was visiting her in Frankston Hospital that night, but this was not able to be verified.  He claimed he had lent his gun to a friend.  The person he named stated he did not know Coulston, and was out of the country at the time of the murder.

Coulston was charged with the Burwood murders and 11 other offenses.  He remained mute throughout his trial.  He was found guilty, but successfully appealed that verdict.  He was found guilty again at his second trial, and his appeal was denied.  He was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. 

Because of Coulston’s refusal to speak, the motive for the execution of three innocent young people remains unknown.  It is speculated it was just a thrill killing.  Three lives full of potential were ended just for kicks.

In a troubling incident, Coulston was able to access the names of 51 nurses working at Frankston Hospital the night of the murders in Burwood through a Freedom of Information (FOI) application.  This led to changes in the FOI laws in Victoria preventing names of public servants being released.  He was also able to access records about a notorious Melbourne child killer call Mr Cruel.

It is highly unlikely that Coulston did not commit any crimes between 1971 and 1992.  He is suspected of being the “Balaclava Killer” who terrorised the Gold Coast and Tweed Heads, on the border between New South Wales and Queensland between 1979 and 1980.  Coulston lived in the area at the time.  He is also a prime suspect for being the “Sutherland Rapist” who attacked women in Sydney between 1981 and 1984.  The rapist wore a balaclava and carried a sawn-off shotgun.  Coulston was living in Sydney at the time.  He was investigated in related to the disappearance of Sarah McDiarmid from Kananook railway station in Melbourne in1990.  No evidence was found to link him to her death, and her body has never been found.  Coulston was even considered a possible suspect for the “Mr Cruel” crimes.  (I’ll discuss Mr Cruel in a later post).

Considering that Coulston refuses to talk about the crimes he is known to have committed, he is unlikely to ever confess to any further crimes.  He remains in prison alongside some of the most dangerous men to have terrorised the city of Melbourne.

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