In May 1997, Bruce Burrell kidnapped his former boss’ wife and demanded a ransom, before brutally murdering her. Years later, he was found guilty of an almost identical crime – but the mystery of where he hid the bodies remains unsolved.
Busy Australian mum-of-three Kerry Whelan popped out early one morning in May 1997. She told her husband Bernie she had an appointment at a salon. He thought nothing of it. But Bernie would never see his wife again.
Hours later, he received a typed letter from a man saying he’d kidnapped Kerry – and demanding $1million (around £500,000). Follow all instructions or your wife will die, the note said.
The man was Bruce Burrell. He’d worked for Bernie before being made redundant seven years earlier. A few weeks before the kidnap, Burrell secretly visited Kerry at the family home in Sydney. His plan was to kidnap her there and then – but it was scuppered when he found her youngest son was home from school that day.
So, a few weeks later, he lured her to a local hotel. Once captured, it’s thought Bruce took Kerry back to his remote farm near Goulburn, New South Wales, and issued his ransom note.
As soon as he got the note, Bernie phoned the police – who promptly put the rest of the family under FBI protection. Armed police swamped the family’s hometown while officers scrambled to piece together what had happened.
Bernie withdrew the money and nervously counted out $1million. He was a successful businessman, but it was still more cash than he’d ever seen in his life.
The media went wild. It was the biggest kidnap and ransom story in Australian history. Meanwhile, Bernie sat by the phone, wearing a bulletproof vest and surrounded by police trained in hostage negotiations.
He waited for the phone to ring with information about where to drop off the money. Officers carefully guided him through what to say when the call came. ‘You’ve got to ask for proof of life, you must insist on hearing Kerry’s voice,’ the negotiator explained.
Bernie’s car had been rigged with tracking devices and a police helicopter was on standby. There were even snipers prepped to spring into action the second the information was received.
Hours passed. Then days.The call never came. It was then, out of desperation, Bernie made a tearful televised appeal. ‘Kerry, if you can hear what I’m saying, I want you to know that we all love you and we will do anything to get you back. Don’t give up,’ he pleaded.
Afterwards, investigators began to hone in on their prime suspect – Bruce Burrell. They headed to his farm to search for evidence.
In his home, they discovered an array of weapons, chloroform and papers that revealed details of his kidnap and ransom plan. But Kerry – or her body – was nowhere to be seen.
A team of officers was drafted in to search for her. They scoured vast swathes of woodland, abseiled into caves and dived into rivers – still nothing could be found. It was hardly surprising. Burrell had eerily told friends he could easily hide a body where it could never be found…
As the weeks turned into months, the Press gradually lost interest and the investigation was scaled back. Bernie and the couple’s children were left tortured about what’d happened to Kerry. But taskforce commander Dennis Bray wasn’t ready to give up. For him, the case became a murder investigation. And there was something else that raised his suspicions about Burrell.
Two years earlier, in May 1995, elderly widow Dorothy Davis had vanished without a trace – just like Kerry. When Dennis discovered Burrell knew the wealthy grandmother and, just before her disappearance, she’d demanded repayment of a $100,000 loan (around £50,000) she’d given him, he was convinced Burrell was to blame.
The case was eventually taken to the Supreme Court.Jurors heard how the similarity between the cases of Kerry and Dorothy – and the common link back to Bruce Burrell – was too strong to be coincidence.
But there was a gap in the story of what happened the morning Kerry went missing. She told Bernie she was going to a beauty appointment, but instead drove straight to a hotel to meet Burrell. Was she having an affair? Or was he blackmailing her?
Prosecutors insisted it was the latter. However, crucial evidence against Burrell – such as the discovery of chloroform at his home – wasn’t allowed to be heard in court. So, it took two trials before Bruce Burrell was finally convicted, in 2006, of both murders and given a life sentence.
After, Kerry’s husband Bernie said, ‘Bruce Burrell was once my friend. He was welcomed into my home. He cuddled my children, then he betrayed me in the worst way imaginable. He’s not an insane man – he’s just a cold-blooded killer who would do anything for money.’
Throughout the case, and after he was jailed, officers begged Burrell to reveal where he’d hidden the bodies so the families could lay them to rest and gain closure – but he repeatedly refused.
He died from liver cancer this August, aged 63. Now, all hopes of ever finding the bodies have been crushed.