Cold Case – Worse Than Murder
The detective who tracked down a double murderer speaks about what haunts him the most
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.
‘THERE WILL BE NO SECOND CHANCES. FOLLOW ALL INSTRUCTIONS OR YOUR WIFE WILL DIE.’
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.
‘TO ENSURE HER SAFE RETURN YOU MUST AT NO TIME BRING IN THE POLICE THE PRESS ANY AUTHORITIES OR OUTSIDE ASSISTANCE …
‘THE CONSEQUENCES OF BREACHING THIS RULE WILL BE DIRE FOR YOUR WIFE.’
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.
‘WE WILL KNOW IF YOU BREACH ANY CONDITIONS AT ANY TIME AND YOU AND YOUR FAMILY WILL NOT SEE HER AGAIN. THIS IS OUR ONLY GUARANTEE.’ WHAT STRUCK ME WITH THIS CASE WAS HOW ONE INDIVIDUAL COULD BE SO DEVIOUS AND CALCULATING
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.
WE FOUND AN EMPTY BOTTLE OF CHLOROFORM, A NUMBER OF FIREARMS AND A SMALL ELECTRIC TYPEWRITER
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.
I OFTEN THINK ABOUT HOW A PERSON’S GREED AND MURDEROUS INTENTIONS CAN IMPACT ON THE LIVES OF SO MANY
Sydney grandmother Dorothy Davis, 74
Bernie and Kerry Whelan were happily married for 17 years
Detective Chief Inspector Dennis Bray