Anita Cobby was a caring nurse and a beloved daughter, sister and friend. Then on her way home from work her life was ended in the most terrifying and sickening way. In Australia, this has been called the vilest crime of the century. Anita's family are working to make sure her life is never, ever forgotten.
She was beautiful with a dazzling smile. As a teen, Anita Cobby won beauty pageants. But rather than pursuing a modelling career, she followed in her mum Grace’s footsteps by training as a nurse. Anita found her calling in caring for others.
Most nights, she’d work late at The Sydney Hospital and catch a train to Blacktown, Sydney before calling her dad Garry from the station payphone, so that he’d collect her. On the evening of 2 February 1986, Anita’s call never came. Garry wasn’t worried. He assumed that she’d stayed with friends. But next morning, Anita didn’t turn up for her shift. Her parents reported her missing, becoming more fearful as time ticked by. It was another 24 hours – the morning of 4 February – before they received the knock on door from police, come to tell them the dreadful news.
A woman’s naked body had been found in a farmer’s field in the western Sydney suburb of Prospect, 2km from Anita’s home. Covered in deep bruises, with several broken bones, her throat had been cut, almost severing her head. She had defensive wounds, including sliced fingers, pointing to a desperate fight for life. Her eyes were open, indicating that she’d been conscious when she’d died. It was Anita Cobby.
The killing sparked one of the biggest manhunts Australia had ever seen. The police worked around the clock. As days went by, the public became increasingly fearful. The state government announced a $100,000 reward.
Finally, an informant pointed suspicion at troubled John Travers, 18. His friends Michael Murdoch, 19, and Les Murphy, 22, were also arrested. Soon, two other men were hauled in – Les Murphy’s older brothers, Gary, 28, and Mick, 33. With a whole gang under suspicion, there was public outrage – demonstrations outside the police station and calls for the return of the death penalty.
Initially, all five men protested innocence. But as the trial began, in March 1987, John Travers changed his plea – to guilty. In court, his true character was revealed. The sadistic teenager was suspected of previously raping 20 women and men. He’d even boasted about sex with sheep before slitting their throats and roasting their bodies on barbecues. Michael Murdoch and the Murphy brothers pleaded not guilty of abduction and kidnapping, sexual assault, robbery, malicious wounding and murder.
In his opening address, Crown Prosecutor Mr Alan Saunders, QC, told the jury: ‘You’d be less than human if you’re not horrified at what you’ll subsequently hear.’ The men were accused of dragging Anita to a car, stripping her before Travers raped her. After buying petrol with money from Anita’s purse, they’d driven to a field and dragged her out, pulling her through a barbed wire fence. There, away from the road, they’d beaten and kicked her. Raped her repeatedly. A frenzied, sordid attack.
But how had Anita ended up dead? A chilling voice recording shed light on matters. When he’d first been arrested, John Travers had asked police if his aunt – known as Miss X in court – could bring him cigarettes. Unbeknown to him, Miss X had agreed to let police hide a microphone between her bra, taping the pack to her back. In a tense conversation, replayed to the court, she’d weedled a confession from Travers.
‘We were all drunk and she’d seen us,’ he explained, saying that the other men had told him: ‘Do your thing, Trawnie.’ He said that was why he’d turned around with his knife, as the others had gone back to the car. Bending over defenceless Anita, who lay crying for help, he’d grabbed her head and slit her throat.
The other men insisted in court that their involvement was minimal – that ring leader Travers instigated everything. But the jury saw through their lies. In June 1987, Justice Alan Maxwell jailed all five men to life imprisonment, plus additional time, never to be released. Describing Anita’s murder as ‘one of the most horrifying physical and sexual assaults’, he said that it was ‘a calculated killing done in cold blood.’
For the rest of their lives, Anita’s parents dedicated themselves to helping families of other murder victims by running a support group and working tirelessly with Sydney police. Thirty years on from Anita’s murder, her younger sister Kathryn is determined to keeping her memory alive. In 2015, an emotional memorial was held at the park which now stands where her body was found. Meanwhile, her killers will rot in prison for the rest of their days.