Cold Case – Worse Than Mur­der

The de­tec­tive who tracked down a dou­ble mur­derer speaks about what haunts him the most

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Front Page - AS TOLD TO SI­MON BOUDA

FOR 41 YEARS, SYD­NEY PO­LICE DE­TEC­TIVE DEN­NIS BRAY worked many vi­o­lent and trau­matic mur­der cases. In 1997, he be­came the chief in­ves­ti­ga­tor in a case that would haunt him for many years to come. That case in­volved Kerry Whe­lan, a Syd­ney wife and mother, who was kid­napped in broad day­light. Though the kid­nap­per, Bruce Bur­rell, was even­tu­ally caught and locked up, Kerry’s body has never been found. Bur­rell died in 2016, and with him all knowl­edge of the where­abouts of Kerry’s re­mains. Bray, now 61 and re­tired, says not be­ing able to give clo­sure to Kerry’s fam­ily has made this case worse than mur­der. This is his story.

On May 7, 1997, I was act­ing com­man­der of the North West Re­gion Homi­cide Squad, based in Parra­matta in Syd­ney’s west­ern sub­urbs. At about lunchtime, I re­ceived a tele­phone call from Par­ra­matta po­lice af­ter a man had re­ported his wife miss­ing the pre­vi­ous night. He’d said she dis­ap­peared ear­lier that day and had been wear­ing jew­ellery worth $50,000. While at that stage it was clas­si­fied as a ‘miss­ing per­sons re­port’, it trig­gered sus­pi­cions that this was some­thing much more.

It was so out of char­ac­ter for Kerry Whe­lan to dis­ap­pear. She and her hus­band Bernie were plan­ning to fly to Ade­laide that af­ter­noon. By this stage she’d been miss­ing some 20 hours – this was not right.

At about 7.30 that night, news came through that a ran­som note had been re­ceived.

Ear­lier that day, Bernie Whe­lan, a wealthy ex­ec­u­tive who worked at Crown Equip­ment, a fork­lift com­pany, had ar­rived back at his prop­erty in Kur­ra­jong, a small town 75 kilo­me­tres north-west of Syd­ney. Wait­ing for him was a let­ter that had ar­rived in the fam­ily’s let­ter­box. The let­ter was a ran­som note.

It ran for sev­eral para­graphs but one line par­tic­u­larly stood out to me.


It was clear to me this was a gen­uine ab­duc­tion. I had lit­tle doubt the per­son would carry out the threat.

The day be­fore, on May 6, Kerry had a beauty ap­point­ment in Par­ra­matta and Bernie knew she of­ten parked in the Park Royal Ho­tel carpark. He found her car there, aban­doned. He wasted no time, and – just as any sane per­son would – im­me­di­ately called the po­lice and was ad­vised to re­port her miss­ing.

That was be­fore he’d re­ceived the ran­som note de­mand­ing US$1 mil­lion for her safe re­turn. It had ar­rived at the Whe­lans’ home by reg­u­lar mail on May 7 but wasn’t dis­cov­ered un­til later that even­ing. It warned Bernie not to go to the po­lice or me­dia or Kerry would die. But by then it was too late – Bernie had al­ready con­tacted the po­lice.

The bal­loon had al­ready gone up. This was a prob­lem be­cause we didn’t know who was in­volved – it could have been any­one: fam­ily mem­bers, friends or some­body who had Bernie’s prop­erty un­der sur­veil­lance. There were a lot of peo­ple at the house when Bernie opened the note, so we had to re­quest them to re­main silent about what had tran­spired.

I was con­cerned that who­ever was re­spon­si­ble may have known po­lice had been in­formed. But, there was still hope for fur­ther con­tact from the kid­nap­per or kid­nap­pers and we had to work on that ba­sis.

MY FIRST TASK was to set up an in­ves­ti­ga­tion and plan to re­spond to the note and its de­mands. That in­volved a covert op­er­a­tion to make con­tact with the kid­nap­per and to com­ply with the de­mands for Kerry’s safe re­turn. Then we could launch an in­ves­ti­ga­tion as to who was re­spon­si­ble. It was also cru­cial that the kid­nap­ping didn’t leak to the me­dia.

The ran­som note gave us seven days to act.

For all we knew the kid­nap­per could be watch­ing the house so we had to mount a counter-sur­veil­lance op­er­a­tion. We had to work out how to get crit­i­cal staff in and out of the house with­out be­ing de­tected. We also had to en­sure no elec­tronic sur­veil­lance equip­ment such as bugs had been placed by the kid­nap­per or kid­nap­pers.



The in­ves­ti­ga­tion was code named Task Force Bel­laire, an au­to­mat­i­cally gen­er­ated code name.

Later that night, De­tec­tive In­spec­tor Mick Howe and I drove to Mr Whe­lan’s Kur­ra­jong home.

The drive from our Par­ra­matta of­fice to the Whe­lan prop­erty took about 40 min­utes and by the time we ar­rived it was the early hours of the next day, May 8. It was dark.

Bernie opened the door. He im­me­di­ately struck me as gen­uine – here was a man des­per­ate for news of his wife. Ca­su­ally dressed in shirt and trousers, he was a softly spo­ken man and was clearly dis­traught over why his wife was miss­ing. The con­ver­sa­tion started off com­posed but he soon broke down.

I’ve seen many crocodile tears over the years, but to me, Bernie was gen­uinely up­set about his wife.

It was clear he had a lov­ing re­la­tion­ship with Kerry and his chil­dren. He agreed to do what­ever he could to co­op­er­ate with us to help find his wife – safe and well.

I’d be ly­ing if I said Bernie wasn’t ever con­sid­ered a sus­pect – he was. He was a sus­pect un­til we had thor­oughly in­ves­ti­gated his back­ground and un­til we were sat­is­fied that he wasn’t in­volved.

Bernie’s fam­ily and friends had gath­ered at the home the pre­vi­ous even­ing in the hope Kerry would make con­tact. They’d even called hos­pi­tals. This be­came a big hur­dle

be­cause so many peo­ple now knew that Bernie had con­tacted the po­lice. We needed to find those friends and fam­ily, swear them to se­crecy and ask them to re­turn to their homes and not say an­other word.

The con­tent of the ran­som note was de­signed to con­vince the reader that the au­thor had knowl­edge of po­lice prac­tices and pro­ce­dures and would know if Bernie Whe­lan had de­vi­ated from the de­mands.


So, ev­ery­thing we did had to be covert with risk as­sess­ments con­tin­u­ally made to make sure no harm would come to Kerry Whe­lan.

We asked Bernie and Amanda Min­ton-Tay­lor, the chil­dren’s nanny, to tell us what they’d done and where they’d gone in the weeks lead­ing up to Kerry’s dis­ap­pear­ance.

Amanda re­called a man, driv­ing a Jaguar, had vis­ited the Whe­lans’ home on April 16. Kerry in­tro­duced this man as ‘Bruce, a fam­ily friend’. Af­ter ‘Bruce’ had left Amanda heard Kerry mut­ter: ‘That bas­tard, why did he do this to me?’

And so ‘Bruce’ be­came a per­son of in­ter­est. With Amanda’s help, we com­piled a Penry photofit like­ness of ‘Bruce’. We also asked her to see if she could iden­tify ‘Bruce’ from the Whe­lans’ fam­ily photo al­bums. Sure enough, she found him: Bruce Bur­rell, a for­mer Crown em­ployee who had pre­vi­ously vis­ited the Whe­lans’ home for a work party. Bruce Bur­rell be­came sus­pect No. 1. That was par­tic­u­larly con­cern­ing. I never told Bernie, but in the back of my mind, I feared that Kerry was in peril be­cause I couldn’t see how Bur­rell could let her go be­cause she could iden­tify him.

I had worked scores of cases in my ca­reer, but none like this. What struck me with this case was how one in­di­vid­ual could be so de­vi­ous and cal­cu­lat­ing. How his ac­tions could im­pact the lives of so many. I was de­ter­mined to find the per­pe­tra­tor be­cause I feared that if the per­son got

away with this, there may be more. It was just such a sin­is­ter crime.

ON MAY 21, the in­ves­ti­ga­tion went pub­lic. Bernie Whe­lan ap­peared on TV.

“… for rea­sons un­known to us the kid­nap­pers have stopped con­tact. On be­half of my fam­ily, I beg them to con­tact me. I will do what­ever they ask and I will go any­where to get the safety of my wife.

“This crime against us can only be de­scribed as men­tal ter­ror­ism and the chil­dren and I have only kept our san­ity due to the love that we have for each other and the love from close friends …”

It was then that we learned of the 1995 dis­ap­pear­ance of Dorothy ‘Dot­tie’ Davis, a well-off el­derly lady who had mys­te­ri­ously van­ished and had been an ac­quain­tance of Bur­rell’s.

It soon be­came clear Bur­rell was a cal­cu­lat­ing and cun­ning foe. He was go­ing out of his way to be seen to be co­op­er­at­ing with the po­lice when in fact he wasn’t. It was only some time later – af­ter he’d been charged over the pos­ses­sion of two stolen cars – that he re­ceived le­gal ad­vice not to talk to us.

But it was his brash­ness and bravado that gave us a tremen­dous in­sight into his char­ac­ter. It be­came clear we were deal­ing with a so­ciopath. Here was a per­son who made plans but didn’t think through the con­se­quences. He thought he was smarter than the po­lice – he be­lieved that he would never be caught.

Piece by piece, Task Force Bel­laire built a case against Bruce Bur­rell. We had charged him with pos­sess­ing two stolen cars and pos­sess­ing un­li­censed firearms. The pres­sure was on and it was in­creas­ing. We care­fully searched Bur­rell’s home. We found an empty bot­tle of chloroform, a num­ber of firearms and a small elec­tric type­writer.

Bur­rell was ar­ro­gant and, now in the me­dia spot­light, he ap­peared on 60 Min­utes. On it he de­nied any in­volve­ment in Kerry Whe­lan’s dis­ap­pear­ance and clearly wanted to be seen as co­op­er­at­ing with po­lice.

Not long af­ter the pro­gramme aired, Mick Howe and I vis­ited Bur­rell’s prop­erty, Hil­ly­dale, in Bun­go­nia.

“G’day Bruce, how have you been?” I asked as we ap­proached him at the rear of his house.


ad­vice of my le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tive, I do not wish to say any­thing fur­ther.”

It was clear Bur­rell was never go­ing to con­fess, so as the search for ei­ther Dorothy Davis’s or Kerry Whe­lan’s bod­ies con­tin­ued, Bel­laire in­ves­ti­ga­tors con­tin­ued to build a cir­cum­stan­tial case. We dis­cov­ered se­cu­rity footage taken at the Park Royal Ho­tel.

A closed-cir­cuit TV cam­era, fac­ing in­wards, had recorded im­ages that were re­flected off a glass door in­side the ho­tel. The im­ages showed move­ment on the street and re­vealed the im­age of a car. That car matched Bur­rell’s two-door Mit­subishi Pa­jero.

I ex­am­ined a street di­rec­tory we found in one of Bur­rell’s stolen cars. In­ter­est­ingly, I dis­cov­ered a route to Phillip Street marked in pink highlighter – the ad­dress of the Park Royal Ho­tel.

I was con­vinced that Bur­rell had care­fully planned Kerry’s kid­nap­ping for some months be­fore she was ab­ducted. He was in fi­nan­cial trou­ble and was look­ing for a way out.

In May 1995, Dorothy Davis, who had loaned Bur­rell $100,000 from her home loan, dis­ap­peared.

He had got away with it once; he thought he could get away with it again.

The ran­som note in the Whe­lan case was a key. It had been typed on a type­writer, which, when the ‘ Y’ key was hit at the same time as the ‘shift’ key it typed a faulty ‘Y’. That er­ror was found in the note.

Then there were two dot-point notes we found in Bur­rell’s house. I be­lieve

they were an out­line of the kid­nap plan. One read:

Has been K No P Let­ter within 2 days Noth­ing un­til re­ceived Stress ‘2’

The ‘K’ re­ferred to ‘kid­nap’ and ‘P’ to po­lice. The points were con­sis­tent with the for­mat of the ran­som note.

Bruce Bur­rell was sub­se­quently charged with both murders.

IT TOOK TWO TRI­ALS be­fore Bur­rell was con­victed of Kerry Whe­lan’s ab­duc­tion and mur­der. Bernie Whe­lan wasn’t in court when the jury re­turned the guilty ver­dict. I tele­phoned him to break the news. God bless, he broke

down. It was an in­cred­i­bly emo­tional mo­ment and I strug­gled to hold my emo­tions in check as I could hear Bernie sob­bing with re­lief. A tear rolled down my cheek.

In 2006, Bur­rell was sen­tenced to life be­hind bars. He was tried separately for the Dorothy Davis dis­ap­pear­ance and sus­pected mur­der. For that, he was jailed for 28 years.

Bernie later told me he felt that if he had fol­lowed the in­struc­tions in the ran­som note – and de­liv­ered the money with­out con­tact­ing the po­lice – Bur­rell would prob­a­bly have killed him as well.

Bur­rell had led a dou­ble life. Early in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion he had pro­jected him­self as a wealthy farmer, a suc­cess­ful coun­try gen­tle­man, but in fact he had no as­sets and possessed two stolen cars with false reg­is­tra­tion plates.

Bernie Whe­lan passed away in Novem­ber 2015, never know­ing what hap­pened to his wife.

On Au­gust 4, 2016, Bruce Bur­rell died from lung and liver can­cer.

Bur­rell had am­ple op­por­tu­nity to re­veal his se­crets – he never did. Right to the end Bur­rell felt he was in con­trol.

It’s some­thing I think about every day.

I think about her three chil­dren, thrown into a world of tur­moil, a world of fear, a world of tor­ment. They were only in high school and to lose their mother must have been so trau­matic.

They suf­fered greatly. At least they came to know why their loved one dis­ap­peared.

The Bur­rell case left an in­deli­ble mark on my polic­ing ca­reer. It was an enor­mous chal­lenge. There were times when I felt we wouldn’t be suc­cess­ful; but then there were times when a fresh piece of ev­i­dence would emerge and we, as in­ves­ti­ga­tors, were sparked up.

What sticks with me is the fact that we never found Kerry’s body. That is in­cred­i­bly hard for fam­i­lies to en­dure – not be­ing able to lay their rel­a­tives to rest so they can move on with their lives. Some call it clo­sure.

I of­ten think about how a per­son’s greed and mur­der­ous in­ten­tions can im­pact the lives of so many. Like a stone dropped into a still pond – the rip­ples be­gin to spread and they never re­ally stop.


Syd­ney grand­mother Dorothy Davis, 74

Bernie and Kerry Whe­lan were hap­pily mar­ried for 17 years

De­tec­tive Chief In­spec­tor Den­nis Bray

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