A Murderer Calls on Glen Iris
Updated: Sep 14, 2022
On a cool Sunday morning on 8 August 1980, Bertha “Beth” Miller called out a farewell greeting to her housemate/brother-in-law Bill Ross. ‘Don’t wait for me for lunch,’ she told him through the closed bathroom door. ‘I might go into Prahran.’
A spritely and active 73 year old, Beth left their shared house on the corner of Kardinia Road and High Street. As she walked towards the small strip of shops closed for business on a Sunday, she made her way down the steep curve of the hill towards the Glen Iris tram terminus. Her intention was, as it always was on a Sunday morning, to catch the 10.47 am tram to Prahran for the Sunday service at the Wesleyan Mission on Spring Street at 11 am. The walk would normally take her no more than 20 minutes.
But Beth Miller never made it to church that morning. In fact, she never even made it to the tram stop. Somewhere along the way, Beth disappeared.
She was never seen alive again.
1980s Glen Iris
Mysterious disappearances of little old ladies just did not happen in Melbourne, let alone 1980s Glen Iris. The suburb was – and remains – the epitome of solid, safe, reliable, middle class surburbia.
Unburdened by the diverse melting pot of socio-economic demographics that defined neighbouring Ashburton, leafy Glen Iris sits on a roughly drawn rectangle overflowing the city boundaries of Camberwell into Malvern and Hawthorn – enclosed by Tooronga, Toorak, Summerhill and Tower Hill Roads, Dunlop and Dent Streets and Wattletree Road.
In 1954, when Beth Miller first moved to the hill above the pretty Kooyong Koot (Gardiner’s) Creek to live with her sister and brother-in-law, the nearby valley had already been eroded by clearing, over-grazing, excavations for sand and clay, man-made stone and concrete channels, railway lines, and transmission towers. The original mansions of Glen Iris built nearly a century earlier had begun to disappear, replaced by neat brick housing commission houses for returned servicemen and the solid brick two-story houses of upwardly mobile families who could not afford to buy in Camberwell.
By the time of her disappearance 25 years later, the topography of Glen Iris had changed considerably. The suburb stood at a literal and ideological crossroads between the South Eastern Freeway from the city and the encroaching Mulgrave Freeway from Dandenong.
By 1980, the Glen Iris Tram Terminus was now on the edge of a curving arterial road link – complete with concrete barriers, bridges, light poles, noise and pollution – that signalled the end of the South Eastern Freeway. The Mulgrave Freeway was still at Warrigal Road.
In between the union of these two Freeways stood the residents of Glen Iris. By the time of Beth’s disappearance, they had been embroiled in a ten year battle to halt the extension of the South Eastern Freeway and the inevitable compulsory acquisition of houses and degradation of what remained of their section of the creek.
According to a comment made by ‘Andrew S’ on Marcus Wong’s blog ‘Waking up in Geelong’ about the freeways:
‘The gap between the Mulgrave Freeway and South Eastern Freeway was probably the one most mired in politics. The two sections were separate routes – one was to join the Healesville Freeway and the other the Tullamarine Freeway but the space was there to join the two. It was part of the never built F6.’
For the most part though, when not battling freeway progress or urban sprawl (depending on what side of the stoush you stood on) the residents of Glen Iris lived quiet, suburban lives untouched by the growing criminality of other parts of Melbourne.
How did Beth disappear?
This week is the 42nd anniversary of Beth’s disappearance. I walked the route she would have taken and speculated on where along the route someone could have taken her.
Beth was well-known to the 10.47 am tram driver and he testified at her inquest that he never saw her that day. Her friend Jessie, who usually boarded at the next stop to accompany her to church, confirmed she did not see Beth on the tram either.
So it’s reasonable to say Beth never made it to the tram stop.
Kardinia Road is on the same side as the Glen Iris terminus, so it’s very unlikely Beth would have crossed High Street. This meant she would have been walking down the hill against the traffic, giving her a clear view of a car coming towards her. High Street is a pretty busy street today but on a Sunday morning in conservative Glen Iris where most residents still went to church? Maybe not so much.
The police believed the last sighting of Beth was not reliable. A Glen Iris shopkeeper called Georgette Lati thought she had seen Beth walk past on the morning of her disappearance. Georgette’s shop stood at 41 High Street, on the corner of Glen Iris Road, indicating that Beth made it past the shopping strip. The shop is no longer there today.
But Georgette only knew Beth by sight and through polite small talk when Beth came into the shop. A creature of habit, Beth always went to church on Sunday morning the same way. When she was questioned months later, Georgette could not be sure which Sunday she had last seen Beth on. She could only be sure she hadn’t seen her for several weeks.
All the other shops on the strip were closed.
After the shopping strip ends, there is a very old, high wall on the side of the footpath. On the other side of the road is the Eric Raven Reserve, as you can see from this video I took.
If someone drove up from the South Eastern Freeway or from down High Street and grabbed her, pushing her into their car, it’s quite likely nobody would have seen or heard a thing.
A kind, helpful woman
To say the Beth Miller case shocked Glen Iris residents would be a gross understatement.
Speculation swirled around her disappearance. She was well-liked among her friends; known for her devotion to the church and for helping others. Retired, she had worked for many years at Myer Department Store in the City. She made handicrafts to sell for church fund-raisers, sewed all her own clothes, cared for ailing friends, and kept a neat house for her sister and brother-in-law. She was not a person who shared personal details of any troubles she may have had so if she had encountered someone unsavoury before who may have taken her, or had suspicions about a person, she did not mention it to anyone.
‘She was a very kind woman’, her friend Jessie More told the Coroners Court in the inquest into Beth’s case. ‘She took a strong interest in the mission and was always very helpful. She had courage in her convictions, with a very strong will.’
Jessie thought Beth may have chatted to a stranger if the conversation centred on her faith but she did not believe Beth was the sort of person who spontaneously changed her routine to help them. She would never have willingly got into a car with a stranger.
There were no leads into Beth’s disappearance at home either. She never married. She had lived with her sister Lou and her second husband Bill for 26 years. ‘Apart from a few minor irritations that happen when people live together, my wife and I and Beth all got on very well together’, 81-year old Bill told the Coroners Court.
But it had been a difficult year for both Beth and Bill. Lou had suffered a stroke and died earlier in the year. Beth had devoted herself to caring for her beloved sister until her death, even missing church to do so. When Bill had needed hip surgery, she had cared for him too.
By all accounts, Bertha Beatrice Miller was the embodiment of a kind, caring, God-fearing woman.
Delay in missing person report
Unfortunately, a combination of circumstance meant it took Bill 16 days to report Beth as missing. Elderly and still recovering from hip surgery, he had been labouring under the misapprehension that Beth was staying with a friend in Prahran. Jessie too assumed Beth’s absence from church was due to her caring responsibilities for Bill and her friend. Bill did not have a car and, combined with his injured hip, would have been restricted in his capacity to look for Beth beyond High Street anyway.
After she had been gone for two weeks, Bill finally grew suspicious about her whereabouts. He began asking around the Prahran church if anyone had seen her. It soon became clear that no-one had seen her for some time. He went to the police and reported her missing but crucial time was lost in the investigation.
As the weeks passed, the mystery deepened. The extraordinary thing about Beth’s case was how there was absolutely nothing to go on. No evidence turned up, no lost belongings were found, no witnesses saw her, no-one remembered seeing a car or anyone around High Street at all.
It was almost like Beth had disappeared into thin air.
The Mystery of Margaret Elliott
Beth Miller’s disappearance was not the first mystery to visit Glen Iris.
On the afternoon of 15 April 1975, two young boys searching for their football on Eric Raven Reserve stumbled across the naked dead body of 26 year old Margaret Elliott in the shallows of Kooyong Koot (Gardiner’s) Creek behind the pavilion. Someone had beaten her to death around the head and upper body with a blunt instrument.
Until her tragic murder, Margaret lived a normal happy life in Berwick with her husband and two young children. When he reported her missing the next day, her husband Brian told police she had not returned home from a visit to a close friend and her newborn baby in Box Hill Hospital the day before.
Today, Box Hill and Berwick are well over 30 minutes drive away from each other. Back then, it would have taken Margaret even longer to get to Box Hill: up the Mulgrave Freeway to its abrupt end in Dandenong, then through the streets of Rowville, Wantirna and Nunawading to the Eastern Freeway. The journey back would have been a similar duration and Margaret told Brian she did not expect to be back until at least 8.30 pm.
When she still had not returned long after 8.30 pm, Brian spent the night driving the route looking for her, convinced she had gone home through the Dandenong Ranges. Perhaps her car had driven off one of the steep turns on way home? But there was no sign of her until her body inexplicably turned up where the South Eastern Freeway ended in Glen Iris.
Police found Margaret’s car near the hospital. It had been driven between 140 and 170 kilometres, a far greater distance than the trip from Berwick to Box Hill.
Police had no clue why or how her body came to be in Glen Iris. The most likely scenario was that someone had followed her to her car after she left the Hospital, beaten her over the head, bundled her inside it, driven her around for some time before ending up at the end of the Freeway in Glen Iris. Access to the dump site on Eric Raven Reserve required a convoluted drive around 100 m up High Street, down Albion Road and Estella Street before parking at the Reserve. After dumping her body, the person or persons had then returned the car to Box Hill, probably to pick up their own car.
The dump site perhaps suggested some familiarity with the area but the truth was: nobody saw anything in Box Hill or Glen Iris.
With so little to go on, the investigation into Margaret Elliott's murder came to nothing.
Her murder devastated her family and friends. A heartbroken Brian drank himself to death and her children grew up troubled. One eventually committed suicide, the other lives with the awful knowledge that forty-seven years later, his mother’s murder remains unsolved.
As Brian Elliott foretold in the Age in 1975, ‘when this happens one person doesn't die – other people and other precious things die with them.’
Beth is found
Four months after Beth disappeared, Melbourne was gearing up for a scorching hot summer. On 6 December 1980, a couple of rabbit hunters found skeletal remains in isolated bushland adjacent to Brew Road in Tynong North. No attempt had been made to bury the body, it was merely lying in dense scrub.
When the police arrived and combed the area, they found not one but three bodies, all female.
Forensic analysis revealed two of the bodies were young females, the other much older. The first identified was 18 year old Cranbourne woman Ann-Marie Sargent.
As it happened, Beth was one of only two missing elderly women on the police books at the time. The other woman had since been located, leaving only Beth Miller unaccounted for.
Jessie More and Bill Ross identified the second body as his sister-in-law Beth by the fabric of the dress the remains were still in. Both remembered seeing her often wearing the dress.
The other body was 17 year old Catherine Headland.
The Tynong North Killer
Police immediately launched a full scale investigation. It helped that Beth Miller was the aunt of the Chief Commissioner of Police. But, despite widespread press coverage such as this below, there was very little to go on.
The remains were too decomposed even to establish a cause of death; the area the bodies were found in carefully chosen for its simultaneous accessibility and remoteness.
Police could find no connection between the three women except that they were all murdered within the past few months; had all been making their way to public transport in broad daylight; and their bodies were all dumped in the same location. Knowledge at the time on killers suggested that they had a ‘type’ making the range of ages of the three women highly unusual. In addition, the two young women were found naked, but Beth was fully clothed.
As time passed, police interviewed over 2,000 people and generated over 11,000 documents. Theories emerged but none generated any concrete suspects or even leads.
It turned out 1980 was quite a prolific year for unsolved murders of women, with 27 of the 52 open murder cases being female murder victims. Two other murders were added to the Tynong North Killer’s portfolio: Allison Rooke and Narumol Stephenson. Their bodies had been dumped in a similar fashion, except closer to Frankston instead of Tynong North.
At some point, the Glen Iris connection between Margaret Elliott and Beth Miller came up as a possible lead. But investigation revealed this could be readily explained away as coincidence and no evidence emerged connecting the two women or their deaths beyond Glen Iris.
Years passed. The case went cold. When Beth’s nephew, the former Chief Commissioner Mick Miller retired, he had a crack at trying to solve it. But to no avail. The police sporadically put fresh eyes on it, convinced the answer was somewhere within the reams of documents.
Sadly, to this day, the murders of all six women remain unsolved.
As Brian Williams wrote in his comprehensive book on the murders, the aptly titled Somebody Knows Something: on the trail of the Tynong North and Frankston Serial Killer (2020) there were three pillars to a potential cold case investigation:
The killer gives in to the insatiable human compulsion to confess to a trusted source who then reports it to the police;
A previously established alibi collapses; or
DNA and other forensic discoveries occur that shed new light on the case.
Unfortunately, as far as the public record goes, none of these scenarios have yet occurred for the dead women found in Tynong North and Frankston. Time is running out.
A $1 million reward still awaits anyone with information on the murders of Beth Miller, Ann-Marie Sargent, Catherine Headland, Allison Rooke, Narumol Stephenson or Margaret Elliott, among many others.
So this week, on the 42nd anniversary of the murder of Beth Miller, remember a kind, helpful Glen Iris woman who lived a worthy and valuable life until it was stolen from her.
This post was written based on PROV documents on the inquests into the deaths of Beth Miller and the other victims, as well as newspaper articles from the time. ‘Early Glen Iris’, by Gwen McWilliam, describing the founding of Glen Iris, is available from Boroondara libraries. Somebody Knows Something: on the trail of the Tynong North and Frankston Serial Killer is also available at the Balwyn and Hawthorn libraries and for purchase from Readings.