MURDER AT THE BEACH
VICTORIA CAFASSO WAS MEANT TO BE ON THE HOLIDAY OF A LIFETIME — BUT THINGS TOOK A SHOCKING TURN
It’s 23 years since young Italian student Victoria Cafasso flew to Australia to visit her cousin Simon, a writer living on Tasmania’s north-east coast.
She arrived at the tranquil seaside hamlet of Beaumaris – population 350 – on Friday, Oct. 6, 1995, and quickly settled into its laid-back, coastal lifestyle.
Victoria, a British-italian citizen, had deferred her law studies, wanting to travel the world. But, five days after arriving in Tasmania, the 20-year-old was dead – stabbed multiple times in a killing frenzy as she’d lain on the beach.
The murder sent shockwaves through Tasmania’s north-east and beyond.
With Victoria’s death following the disappearance two years earlier of German cyclist Nancy Grunwaldt, who’d vanished cycling down the coast to Hobart, locals became worried: could there be a serial killer in their midst?
Victoria’s sister Alexandra declined to talk about the deeply painful case, but Beaumaris resident Geoff Adams, 87, still vividly recalls the afternoon of Wednesday, Oct. 11, when he discovered Victoria’s body on the beach.
“Memories of that day remain with me forever,” he tells New Idea. “Our neighbour, Margaret Mcintyre, now deceased, came over to see us and she seemed to be in shock,” Geoff ’s wife, Norma, 88, recalls.
“She said, ‘I’ve just been down to the beach. There’s something there that looks like a body. But I’m not sure; perhaps it’s a mannequin and someone’s playing a practical joke.’”
Geoff and local tradesman Russell Harwood, who was at their home fixing the chimney, headed straight to the beach, “and there was this young woman lying there, dead”.
Victoria’s bikini bottom was missing and her bikini bra was loosely hanging from one shoulder. She’d been stabbed and bashed repeatedly about the head and chest.
“She had marks on her arm where it looked like she’d put up a fight,” Geoff recalls.
“Russell ran to call the police while I stayed with the body until they arrived.”
The shock experience affected him so deeply that he’s only been back to the beach, across the road from his house, twice since Victoria’s murder. “It changed everything for us. I’ve never been back to the beach in 23 years,” Norma sighs.
At Victoria’s inquest in 2003, Launceston Coroner Donald Jones concluded Victoria was probably murdered between 11.30am and 12.35pm.
At around 8.30am that morning, the law student had apparently told her cousin Simon de Salis, with whom she was staying at a rented cottage,
“MEMORIES OF THAT DAY REMAIN WITH ME FOREVER,” SAYS GEOFF
that she was going to the beach.
She’d been observed by another local sunbaking on the beach at about 10.10am, an hour or so before she was killed.
“The killer approached her as she lay on her stomach, reading her book,” retired detective inspector Graham Hickey, who headed the murder investigation, tells New Idea.
“He belted her on the backside with a hard object. We think she then turned over and fought him off, and he then whacked her face with such force he knocked out three of her teeth. He then began slashing her with a knife.
“It was obvious from her wounds that she put up a fight. Victoria was a strong, athletic young woman, but eventually he stabbed her in the heart, fatally wounding her.”
He adds, “The killer then put her in the water, no doubt hoping she’d float away. She didn’t though, she came back in, and she was found by the shore.”
By then the killer’s DNA had been washed off by the salt water, hampering police investigations. But other vital clues were also lost due to mistakes made by the three police officers first attending the crime scene, who failed to make a thorough record of all the footprints in the sand surrounding Victoria’s body.
While some of her belongings were found on the beach, Victoria’s trousers, towel, T-shirt, shell necklace and floral bikini bottom have never been found.
Police were later criticised by the coroner, who said the entire scene should have been closed off and recorded on video and that a state forensic pathologist should have attended.
“The crucial start of the investigation was blundered, yes,” admits Graham Hickey, who was interstate when police enquiries began. “Certain things were overlooked and in that short window of opportunity before the tide comes in, we lost vital clues. We have no idea how the killer left the area.”
Once he was appointed to head the murder investigation upon his return a few days later, he says, “we called all the townsfolk together and told them, ‘You’re all suspects if you live here!’”
From there, locals were extensively interviewed and interrogated about their movements on the day of Oct.11. “It was a long, painstaking process.” But unfortunately, the police weren’t able to establish who was behind the savage murder of Victoria.
“It’s one of the most puzzling cases I’ve ever been involved in,” says the former detective. “This murder remains a mystery. We still do not have enough evidence to know who actually committed the crime.” He adds, “I do believe it was carried out by someone
living on the east coast of Tasmania. They may easily still be living here.”
Victoria’s death came just two years after the disappearance of German tourist Nancy Grunwaldt, 26, last seen cycling along the Tasman Highway in Beaumaris. Her body has never been found, nor her bicycle.
“We never used to lock our door when we went out, but after these two tragedies we certainly became a lot more security conscious,” says Norma.
Though many locals believe the deaths of the two women must be linked, Mr Hickey believes it’s highly unlikely.
“Two anonymous tip-offs over the years led us to conclude Nancy was probably a victim of a hit-and-run, possibly by a motorist who then panicked and hid her bicycle.
“I do think somebody, somewhere knows something which could help police with their investigations, both with Nancy’s death and also Victoria’s,” he says. “It’s impossible for their bereaved families to have full closure until somebody is brought to justice for these terrible crimes.”
At times Graham Hickey admits he’s been verbally abused by business operators in northeast Tasmania, worried that his occasional media appeals for public help in solving the deaths may keep tourists away.
“My role was always to do everything I could to try to solve these crimes,” he shrugs.
He remains convinced that “someone knows who’s behind Victoria’s death and hopefully they’ll come forward.”
Geoff and Norma Adams haven’t given up hope either. “I’d like to see the killer nailed,” says Geoff, as Norma nods. “Many of our friends from Beaumaris have either moved away or died since Victoria’s murder.
“We never wanted to leave the town. But certainly it left its mark. We can’t ever forget what happened.”
Tasmanian police are now reactivating enquiries into Victoria’s death.
There is a $100,000 reward for anyone providing police with information leading to the arrest of her killer. Words by Jacqui Lang Photos by Peter Rigby
“THE KILLER APPROACHED HER AS SHE LAY ON HER STOMACH, READING HER BOOK,” SAYS GRAHAM HICKEY
Victoria Cafasso (left) was just 20 years old when she was stabbed to death on this Tasmanian beach. Geoff Adams (right) discovered her body.
Victoria’s parents Xenia and Giuseppe Cafasso (left) remembered their daughter at a press conference. The murdered girl’s family visited the beach (below). But Victoria’s killer has never been found.
While some of Victoria’s belongings were found, many remain unaccounted for. Retired Detective Inspector Graham Hickey (main) describes the case as one of the most puzzling he’s been involved in.