BY LUCY SLADE
It was the early ‘70s and football fans were cheering on their teams at the North Adelaide versus Norwood state league match at the Adelaide oval.
On this unseasonably warm August day, two young girls went to the toilet at three-quarter-time and were never seen again.
This was the day that the small city of Adelaide lost its innocence – two families lives were shockingly altered.
Forty-four years later, Suzie Ratcliffe, the sister of one of the girls who disappeared, is calling for police to re-search wells, to thoroughly investigate barrels and other evidence found on a main suspect’s property.
In 2015, Suzie was given a personal guarantee by South Australian major crime detectives that “no stone will be left unturned” in the search for the girls, but two years later, Suzie is unconvinced.
Suzie has been working with a private detective to try and follow leads. Suzie believes samples handed into police by detectives in 2009, should be re-tested as advancements in DNA technology could solve the case.
“Over the years technology has come in leaps and bounds and improved the chances of finding somebody’s remains because you have the DNA from that time.
“At the time police said they had no idea what they were dealing with because it was all new to them,” Suzie said.
Suzie also believes wells located on the suspects Yatina property were not thoroughly searched.
“All the wells on his property weren’t searched because the concrete cap hasn’t been broken and the one next to the shed is so over grown, it doesn’t show any signs of being tampered with,” Suzie said.
To this day the Adelaide oval abduction and the Beaumont children, are the only two unsolved cases of multiple child abductions, not involving parents, in Australia.
Despite not being born at the time, Suzie knows all too well what happened on that Saturday afternoon. This is what she has been told by those who were there:
The Ratcliffe family were sitting in their usual seats among the regular crowd, watching the South Australian Football League game on August 25, 1973.
Mrs Rita Huckle, a friend of the Ratcliffe’s, was a part of the “usual crowd” and took her grand-daughter to the game for the first time.
Joanne Ratcliffe, 11, and Kirste Gordon, 4, instantly became friends and together played with other children while the adults watched the football.
The Ratcliffes only had one rule – the children must be back by the final siren to ensure they do not get lost in the departing crowd.
Joanne, remembered as a motherly and mature girl, always followed the rules and seemed to be enjoying the responsibility of looking after Kirste.
So, when Kirste needed to go to the toilet at three-quarter time, Joanne was more than happy to take her.
What seemed to be a harmless errand has haunted the families since – the girls never returned.
A possible eye-witness came forward – a groundskeeper said he saw two girls playing with stray kittens, talking to an older man.
Others witnesses said they saw a man walking out of the grounds with a small girl under his arm and an older girl trying to ‘shoo’ him away.
In 1973 the news shocked Adelaide as this was the city’s second multiple-child disappearance since the Beaumont children were abducted, just seven years earlier.
Remarkably, the search for the girls is still ongoing and there may yet be a resolution. New information released by South Australian police confirms suspect Stanley Arthur Hart was interviewed immediately after the girls’ abduction.
Bryan Littlely, an ex-investigations editor at The Advertiser, said police “confirmed the initial interviews with Hart”.
In 2009, Mark Trevor Marshall, the grandson of Hart, wrote a confession claiming he knew what happened to the girls.
Suzie and a team of private investigators are now treating this statement as a lead. It is a welcome development in a case which has led to suspicious evidence being discovered.
Littlely became interested in the case when Marshall’s confession document turned up at The Advertiser in 2009.
At the time, Littlely said he didn’t know why a “handwritten 40-page scrawl, spoken in child-like terms” was of any significance.
But a short time later, Littlely realised the letter was written by Marshall, a convicted paedophile currently in prison, who was linked to the case.
“I went through, pieced it together and worked out who his grandfather was,” Littlely said.
The Advertiser said Hart’s family described him as “a known paedophile” but Hart died in 1999.
Littlely also said Marshall and his parents were at the football, but cannot confirm Hart was there although “he would normally go”.
Suzie has a copy of Marshall’s statement and said he described where “barrels are buried” and talked about “wells on the property”.
“He said he was there (at the Adelaide Oval) on the day Jo and Kirsty were kidnapped but he was only three or four at the time and he said he was in the van the girls were put into,” Suzie said.
Littlely said the document, written by Marshall, was part of the never-to-be-released Mulligan inquiry, which considered the abuse of children in state care. Littley took the document to South Australian police and asked if they had investigated it. But at the time police officers told him it was “fantasy”.
In 2009, private investigators searched the property and followed the statement’s directions as to where the barrels were located. An investigator, who wishes to remain anonymous, said he searched the Yatina property (near Peterborough far north in South Australia) and followed the “map Marshall had drawn” to where the barrels were located. The investigator said he found “the barrels” Marshall described and “an apron, a hat, part of a girl’s shoe and bones”.
“Marshall described Hart (an ex-butcher) as wearing an apron in the confession,” Suzie said.
In the statement Marshall wrote where he saw his father murder “Kirste girl”. The investigator said he went to the spot he thought Marshall was describing and “found bones”.
Two years ago, this investigator took Suzie to Hart’s Yatina property, to show her where they had found the barrels. At the time, the property was abandoned.
“There was a tunnel that led to the dam and on the tunnel, there were big metal gates which had not been disturbed,” Suzie said.
“They (the investigators) had to break open the gates and the water was high so one of the investigators went in there and he found two barrels.
“They pulled them both out and there was a honeycomb substance inside which had a reddish colour to it.”
Suzie said they immediately had the substance tested. “It was independently tested with a vet who had no knowledge of the history/where it had come from and it came back positive for blood,” Suzie said.
The investigator said, “I handed into police the substance from the barrel along with everything else I found because I was trying to do the right thing. I had a lawyer present and have kept the evidence receipts as proof”. The investigator stayed in contact with police but they eventually told him they “lost the evidence”.
The investigator went back and gave a second sample from the barrel but a few days later he claims he received “a letter from the Attorney General” asking him not to pursue the case.
The hat found matched the description witnesses gave at the time, as sketched on the front page of The Advertiser in the days after the abduction.
Andrew McIntyre, a child sexual abuse victim, believes his father Max McIntyre, “probably had something to do with it”. Andrew said his father “knows what happened to the Beaumont children” but Max died earlier this year.
Suzie believes a link between her case and the Beaumont’s “is certainly possible” because “it was around the same time and the photo fit is similar and the circumstances (a public area) are very similar”.
But Andrew cannot provide anymore information because he “wasn’t around then”.
“I was around (my father) at the time the Beaumonts went missing but my sister, Rachel, is seven year younger so she may know more”. Rachel was unavailable for comment at the time this article was published.
“I don’t talk to my brothers and sisters about what happened because I don’t want to get my memory mixed up with theirs”, Andrew said.
Liz Porter, a true crime author, said “they (the investigators) would be looking for clothing”.
Porter, who has won awards as a legal reporter, also suggested that if the children were kept there for a few days, you might look for drawings on walls.
In 2014, Littlely was given an exclusive when police searched Hart’s property. He said he ran it on the front page of The Advertiser but Suzie said she thinks “the police searched the wrong wells”.
“All the footage we have seen of the property through the media shows flat ground and they are not actually the ones up near the house,” Suzie said.
Suzie’s parents have told her she was born after Joanne’s disappearance, on advice from doctors, as a way for them to cope with the abduction of their first daughter. But when Suzie was younger she realised that “mature, kind and loyal Jo”, was someone who could never be replaced.
“I still remember when I was four or five years old, I used to sneak out of my bedroom at night to talk to Joanne in the photo and I could hear mum and dad crying in the other room,” said Suzie.
Michael O’Connell, commissioner for Victims’ Rights SA, works with police to help those who are missing a loved one manage their grief. “The longer a loved one is missing, the greater the sense of loss and anguish,” he said. O’Connell also explained that the term ‘cold case’ is jargon police use when the “lines of enquiry have gone cold”. But recent lines of enquiry seem to be far from cold.
Suzie continues to look for the girls, not to serve justice on whoever abducted them, but to “be able to bury the girls with the dignity and respect they deserve”.
“That’s what keeps us fighting, there is always that hope, especially when there are other long-term cases which are solved,” Suzie said.
Although this is a more well-known case, O’Conner, Suzie and Littlely are all working together to help people who are coping with missing loved ones.
O’Connor has written two pamphlets for families of missing persons and unsolved homicides, which are available on the South Australian Commissioner for Victims right’s website.
Suzie has started a foundation called Leave a Light On, named after the way her parents used to leave the front porch light on every night so Jo could find her way home. The Leave a Light On Facebook page is for families of missing people to connect. The foundation is also holding a yearly event, to be held in October in Melbourne this year.
If you have any information about a missing person call Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000
Or if someone in your life is missing contact Leave a Light On via Facebook.