Teen’s chilling murder confession

 

After spending the day at a Wollongong beach with her family, three-year-old Cheryl Grimmer disappeared without a trace.

Less than 18 months later, a man came forward to police and admitted to abducting and violently killing the child.

Yet, the 17-year-old self-confessed killer wasn't charged. And even when police finally caught up with him almost 50 years later, he walked free from court.

The tragic story of Cheryl Grimmer and her devastated family featured in a 60 Minutes segment on Sunday night, telling of the guilt and grief that consumed her three brothers.

And it showed how the failures of the justice system broke a career cop and saw him walk away from the job.

Ricki Grimmer recalled the fateful summer day in January 1970 when he was seven, and begged his mum to take the family to the beach.

The Grimmers had just arrived in Australia from their native Bristol in the UK and weren't overly familiar with the surf.

"It was a beautiful day, it was a really nice day and you know kids being kids building sand castles and Cheryl up and down the water line as we did," Ricki told 60 Minutes.

But the weather turned after a few hours and there was a mass exodus of people from the packed sand.

 

Cheryl Grimmer, right, was three when she vanished after a day at the beach in January 1970.
Cheryl Grimmer, right, was three when she vanished after a day at the beach in January 1970.

 

The stretch of beach at Wollongong where Cheryl Grimmer vanished.
The stretch of beach at Wollongong where Cheryl Grimmer vanished.

 

"My mother asked me to take Steve, Paul and Cheryl up to the shower blocks to wash the sand off, to walk back to the hostel," Ricki recalled.

After washing off, little Cheryl ran into the women's change shed and wouldn't come out, with Ricki remembering her laughing and smiling, cheekily playing by staying put.

"I was a boy. I didn't want to go into the girl's shower block, there was other girls in there. I didn't want to go in, you're told not to go in."

He and his two brothers, Stephen, five, and Paul, four, went back to the beach to fetch their mum Carole.

When they returned to the shower blocks only a few minutes later, Cheryl had disappeared.

"Nothing seemed to be wrong until mum was just shaking me and saying where did you leave her?" Ricki said.

 

The Grimmer brothers returned to Fairy Meadows beach almost 50 years on from Cheryl’s abduction.
The Grimmer brothers returned to Fairy Meadows beach almost 50 years on from Cheryl’s abduction.

 

The three brothers returned to Fairy Meadows Beach with 60 Minutes to speak of the split-second moment that changed their lives forever.

"For me it's like living the day every day of my life," Steve said.

Their father Vince, an army veteran, took it especially hard and would often blame the boys and their mum for "losing my baby daughter".

He was particularly harsh on Ricki.

"Unfortunately if he'd have a drink too many the blame would come out. "Why did he leave her, why did he leave?" You hear that enough and you start to question, why did I?"

Cheryl's disappearance sparked a massive manhunt and the army was brought in to help, but there was no sign of her.

A few people reported seeing a young man with a toddler, but there were no leads.

RELATED: UK family who saw Cheryl Grimmer abducted from Wollongong tracked down

 

Cheryl Grimmer (centre) with her brothers Paul and Stephen.
Cheryl Grimmer (centre) with her brothers Paul and Stephen.

 

Steve, Ricki and Paul are still haunted by the disappearance of their sister Cheryl.
Steve, Ricki and Paul are still haunted by the disappearance of their sister Cheryl.

 

In 2016, Wollongong detective Frank Sanvitale was handed a cold case and asked to look into it. It was a case he knew well, as most people in the Illawarra region did.

"I knew how old the case was I'm like a dog with a bone and when I picked it up I couldn't let it go," he said.

He teamed up with fellow detective Damian Loone and they went through boxes of material, which included a dusty confession from 1971.

It was made by a 17-year-old runaway who came forward to confess to the abduction and murder of Cheryl.

"I come around the front of the pavilion behind her and grabbed her," the man told police at the time.

"There was some bloke sitting on the wall in front of the pavilion so I had to put my hand over her mouth to stop her screaming because if she had of screamed he would have heard it.

"I went over the big drain and stayed in the scrub area and got near a creek near the main road. I tied a handkerchief and a shoelace around her mouth to stop her screaming and with the other shoelace I tied up her hands.

"I was going to have sexual intercourse with her … she started to scream as soon as I took the gag off her.

"I put my hands around her throat and told her to shut up. I guess I must have strangled her. She stopped breathing and stopped crying and I thought she was dead, so I panicked and covered her up with bushes and run for it."

Cheryl's body has never been found.

 

Wollongong detective Frank Sanvitale was handed the cold case in 2016 and found the stunning confession that had been ignored in 1971.
Wollongong detective Frank Sanvitale was handed the cold case in 2016 and found the stunning confession that had been ignored in 1971.

 

Cheryl Grimmer disappeared from a Fairy Meadow beach near Wollongong in 1970.
Cheryl Grimmer disappeared from a Fairy Meadow beach near Wollongong in 1970.

 

60 Minutes tracked down one of the original investigators who took the confession from the man, who admitted he thought the claim was credible.

But the officer in charge wasn't convinced, believing the teenager was making up the tale for attention, so the junior officer went along with the decision.

The two detectives who took on the cold case were able to corroborate several key details from the man's 1971 confession, including his description of landmarks and the what Cheryl had been wearing down to features of the patch of farmland where he claims to have left her body.

 

Cover of the Daily Mirror newspaper.
Cover of the Daily Mirror newspaper.

 

Chillingly, the man also described in his confession seeing Ricki lift Cheryl up to have a drink from a water bubbler outside the change sheds.

"I don't remember the asking for a drink. I could just see she wanted a drink so I just helped her up. It's surreal … he was there watching, waiting. Waiting for his opportunity."

Frank Sanvitale tracked down the man who made the confession, now 65 and living free in Melbourne. They spoke on the telephone, the detective revealed.

"He says, 'What do you need to speak to me about?' And I said, 'You tell me'. There was a very long pause. then he says to me, 'It's something I did when I was very young which I regret every day of my life'.

"He said those words to me. It's in my statement. And then he says, 'Is it about a young girl at Fairy Beach?' He didn't use Fairy Meadow, he just said Fairy, I remember that."

 

The brothers were devastated to discover a confession had been made and that the family was never told.
The brothers were devastated to discover a confession had been made and that the family was never told.

The man met with the two cold case detectives at a police station in Victoria but he insisted he had never been to the beach.

After questioning, he was arrested and charged with Cheryl's murder and extradited to New South Wales to appear in court.

The man, who cannot be identified, pleaded not guilty and was held on remand awaiting trial, scheduled for May this year.

But at a pre-trial hearing, his lawyers asked for the original confession to be thrown out, arguing it was inadmissable because it was given by a youth without a parent or guardian present.

At the time, it wasn't a legal requirement for police to question a youth in the presence of a guardian or lawyer but judge hearing the case agreed to apply it retrospectively.

The case was considered unwinnable without the confession and so it collapse, with the man walking free.

"How can this happen? This is not real? Surely? Are we just sitting in a play?" Ricki said of the outcome.

"I mean this is just stupidity. It can't happen twice surely. We're not going to let it happen."

 

Cheryl Grimmer’s brother Ricki still feels enormous guilt over her disappearance.
Cheryl Grimmer’s brother Ricki still feels enormous guilt over her disappearance.

 

Frank Sanvitale said the decision "broke" him and he quit the police force after a 21-year career.

"That was a time I knew I couldn't be a police officer anymore. That's when I just can't do it anymore. That was the final straw."

But he's refusing to give up on Cheryl, saying that while he might not be a cop anymore, the case is still his.

"I see Cheryl in my dream. It's a dream not a nightmare. I see her standing on the beach. The little blonde girl, just keeps on saying don't let go, we'll get there."

Vince Grimmer with his daughter Cheryl before she went missing in 1970.
Vince Grimmer with his daughter Cheryl before she went missing in 1970.