The Australian Women's Weekly
“My mother’s murderer stole my life”
In the winter of 1993, the haunting image of fluffy-haired newborn Jake Blair found its way onto the front pages of the national news, tragically famous for being the baby boy whose mother had been brutally murdered by one of Australia’s most infamous serial killers. While the name of the sadistic killer who had stabbed and strangled 22-year-old Debra Ann Fream was yet to make headlines, the poignant photo of the 12-day-old infant became the innocent face of the terrifying murders that sent a sleepy Melbourne bayside suburb into lockdown.
Twenty-five years later, Jake Blair has ventured back into the spotlight to tell The Weekly what it has been like growing up with the agonising legacy of one of Australia’s most horrific and notorious crimes – and why the monster who robbed a child of his mother, and two other families of their children, should never be released. “I’ve lived my entire lifetime with what the killer did that night,” Jake says sadly. “He took everything from me. He took the happy life that was waiting for me.”
The chilling discovery of Debbie Fream’s body, in an isolated paddock in Carrum Downs on July 12, 1993, just one month after the stabbing murder of Frankston TAFE student Elizabeth Stevens, 18, generated fear and panic across the city’s south-east, where an intensive murder hunt was underway. Over the coming days, the horrifying prospect of a serial killer stalking the streets of Frankston took a more alarming twist as the media speculated about a possible connection between the crimes and other unsolved murders, including the likely abduction of Sarah MacDiarmid, 23, who had disappeared without a trace in 1990.
Three women had already been plucked from the streets at night – including an attempted abduction an hour before the new mother’s kidnapping – prompting police to warn local women not to venture out alone after dark. The suburb became a ghost town.
With a killer on the loose, dozens of extra officers were drafted into Frankston, where a door-knock of every home was undertaken. Police also held public meetings, studying the audiences, convinced the killer could be under their noses and enjoying the panic generated by his reign of terror. They believed it was only a matter of time before he struck again.
On July 30, the body of Frankston student Natalie Russell, 17, who had failed to return home from school, was discovered on a local reserve, her throat savagely slashed and, like the two previous victims, she had been repeatedly stabbed and strangled.
But this time the killer had left crucial clues behind, including his hair on the victim’s body and skin beneath her fingernails.
The net tightened when a postal worker reported seeing a man slouched in a rusty Toyota watching the girl through binoculars at around the time she was murdered. The car belonged to Paul Charles Denyer.
On July 31, the suspect was taken to Frankston Police Station, casually informing detectives in a video-taped interview that he had passed the crime scene that morning and had watched police conducting inquiries in his street. Observing cuts and abrasions on Denyer’s hands, they asked how he had hurt himself. Fixing the fan belt on his car, he answered calmly.
For hours, Denyer denied any knowledge of the crime, then did an
astonishing turnaround and admitted to all three murders after being warned DNA evidence would identify Natalie Russell’s killer.
Why did he do it, the detectives asked.“I wanted to know what it felt like,” replied Denyer casually. “I hate women.”
In December 1993, at the Victorian Supreme Court, Denyer was jailed for life after Justice Frank Vincent heard there was no treatment for a killer with a sadistic personality disorder who murdered for pleasure. He later appealed against the sentence and was granted a minimum non-parole term of 30 years.
Now, with Denyer’s non-parole term just five years away, the young man who made headlines as a baby has stepped back into the spotlight to tell The Weekly his mother’s killer should never be released.
Today, Jake’s name is virtually unknown beyond a few remaining relatives and a handful of friends who live in Mount Gambier, the South Australian town that Jake Blair has called home for the past nine years. This solitary young man cuts a vulnerable figure as he sits alone in the autumn sunshine, staring out across the town’s famous Blue Lake and reflecting on a life unlived.
“This is what I lost – the life I was born into,” he says, producing an album of faded photographs and pointing to a snapshot of his parents, Debbie Fream and Garry Blair, 24, taken on June 26, 1993, while his mother was in labour. Other snapshots follow, capturing the happiness of two young parents proudly cradling their first-born child and embracing a new chapter in their lives.
It is what Vikki Petraitis, author of The Frankston Murders, describes as the loss of limitless potential and infinite possibilities. “There is a tragedy about motherless children,” she says in her book, which is being re-released to coincide with the 25th anniversary of Denyer’s crimes. “That indescribable thing a mother brings – unconditional love and understanding based on primal connection – is forever lost with the death of a mother.”
Jake was asleep in his cradle on the night of July 8 when his mother nipped out to the local shops for some milk and never came back. At first, the police speculated that the missing mother might have been suffering from postnatal depression and had sought refuge with a friend. It was a theory they dismissed the following day when Debbie’s abandoned car was discovered in a nearby street with blood stains on the front seat.
Jake’s father, Garry, had last seen Debbie when he’d left for work at
1pm the previous day. She had been standing on the front porch with their baby in her arms, reminding him, as they kissed goodbye, that she had invited a workmate around for dinner to show off their beautiful son.
Garry never saw her again. Shortly before 7pm, Debbie realised she had no milk for the omelette she was cooking and asked her friend to watch the baby while she popped out for a few minutes to the shop. At 7pm she parked her grey Nissan Pulsar outside her local milk bar and raced inside, unaware she was being watched.
One hour earlier, Paul Denyer had made a bungled attempt to snatch another woman near Seaford Station. He was on the prowl again when he noticed Debbie dash into the shop, leaving her car unlocked. She was immediately in his sights. Denyer, who once slit the throat of the family’s cat and hung it from a tree, had been stalking women in the area for at least three years. In February 1993, he had broken into a neighbour’s home, slaughtered her kittens and scrawled death threats on her walls in blood. He had been fantasising about killing women since he was 14, and his fantasies became horrifying reality with the murder of Elizabeth Stevens on June 11. He had slashed the teenager’s throat and carved a sinister criss-cross pattern into her chest with a knife.
Now he slid unnoticed into the back of Debbie’s car and, when she
returned, he forced her at knife-point to drive to an isolated paddock, where he stabbed her to death. The outgoing young mother with everything to live for died lonely and terrified, choking on blood from multiple stab wounds while Denyer tried to strangle her.
After the crime, he drove his victim’s car back to Seaford, dumping it within walking distance of her home, but later returned to retrieve her purse, curious to know the name of the woman he had so savagely murdered.
Two weeks later, he was back on the prowl again, stabbing and strangling Natalie Russell in his most brutal attack yet.
Paul Denyer’s frenzied six-week killing spree left many casualties. But for Debbie Fream’s baby, he left a tragic legacy of grief and loss.
“Not a day goes by when I don’t wonder what my life might have been like if I’d had a mother,” says Jake, staring at his photographs with his mother’s striking blue eyes. “If she’d lived, I might have been a lawyer or a doctor, like her grandfather… I might have been anything. Instead I’m lost.”
Jake remembers little of his early life, though his albums reveal a happy tot with his mother’s sociable personality – a boy who rode bikes and scooters with a dad who struggled to smile on his birthdays. He recalls a pervading sadness surrounding his birthday, which falls 12 days before the anniversary of his mother’s murder. He felt it keenly as a child, though he never understood it, because it was many years before he learned what had happened to his mother.
Jake’s memories of his father are of a damaged young man who spent a lifetime avoiding his son’s questions about his absent mum, distracting him with gifts and overcompensating with monetary rewards in the hope he might forget the gaping void in their lives. “I didn’t only lose my mother that night,” says Jake. “I lost my father too.”
He says his father was a good man who tried to do his best for his son but struggled with the grief and guilt that only survivors of tragedy truly understand. He sought solace in the bottle and, for a while, used hard drugs to numb his pain.
“It was hard for my father, raising a baby on his own, and he didn’t cope,” explains Jake, his voice trailing away. “He was always palming me off onto his mates or onto relatives. It was difficult for me growing up with that.”
Garry’s depression sparked a restless, itinerant lifestyle of destructive relationships, ever-changing homes and schools, which left Jake feeling different – as if he didn’t belong anywhere. School holidays were spent with his maternal grandparents, who answered their grandson’s questions about his mother with cheerful stories and half-truths. The special bond he formed with his paternal grandfather’s new wife, Margaret, who became the mum he’d never had, ended with her premature death, leaving the little boy inconsolable.
Even when his father finally formed a stable relationship with a mother of four children, his son still felt lost – growing up with someone else’s mother, never knowing what had happened to his own.
“Dad wouldn’t talk about it – though I guess he was only trying to protect me from the truth.” His cryptic explanations were confusing: “She’s gone, mate ... she’s not coming back.”
Jake was in Grade Three when a classmate, who has noticed him walking to school on his own each morning, asked why his mother didn’t drop him off. Did he even have a mother, the boy asked.
The question terrified the nine year old who had never considered this.
But the classmate wanted a story, and as children do, Jake gave him one. In a tale much closer to the truth than he imagined, he spun a yarn, telling the boy that his mother had been stabbed 38 times in a car on a cliff overlooking the ocean. “I was there ... in the back seat watching,” he
elaborated, his gruesome yarn satisfying the child’s curiosity.
But delving into his own dark imagination made him wonder whether perhaps something truly terrible had happened to his mother. He began to hyperventilate, experiencing the first in a lifetime of panic attacks that still paralyse him today. His teacher sent him to the office, where the principal called his father who came to collect him. The matter was never discussed again.
“Afterwards I started having paranoid thoughts, worrying that if something terrible had happened, it might happen to me too,” he says. At the back of the little boy’s mind there also lurked the crippling fear that his mother had ‘gone away’ because he was too unlovable.
In September 2004, a TV crime series, Forensic Investigators aired, opening with “The Frankston Murders”. Jake, then 11, was at
Scouts when it screened and recalls his father arriving late and driving aimlessly around until the show had finished. But the next time Jake asked about his mother, Garry handed him an old copy of The Australian Women’s Weekly that featured an article about the serial killings.
“After all the lies, I was so relieved to know my mother had not left because she didn’t love me,” Jake recalls sadly. “It had never made sense to me that a mother who loved her baby would leave him. But I felt so angry because I’d spent years feeling afraid and anxious, when the truth would have been easier to handle.”
In 2012, the boy who had already lost too much suffered another crushing blow when his father passed away. Garry was just 43. Three years earlier, while out dirt racing with his son, Garry had been involved in a freak motorbike accident that left him paralysed from the neck down. The months in hospital and rehab made him dependent on prescription painkillers. After years of trying to feel nothing, Garry no longer felt a thing and ultimately lost all hope. Sitting beside his dead father, Jake realised this was the first time he had ever seen him free of pain, though his own was so intense he had to be restrained when undertakers removed Garry’s body from the house.
Jake soon began to follow the same destructive path of self-medication that had not worked for his father and would not work for him. “Counselling never really helped,” says Jake. “But I learned to create a filing cabinet in my head and compartmentalise my emotions so I could function.”
Today, Debbie Fream’s motherless son still struggles to find his place in the world, though he dreams of following her passion into a career in IT. Recently, he finally watched the Forensic Investigators show that his father had shielded him from. It shed new light on the details of Denyer’s horrific crimes, though his chilling police interview raised other questions. “What had been going through Denyer’s head when he took that knife and murdered a new mum who just wanted to be a good mother to her baby?” ponders Jake, now older than his mum was when Denyer killed her. His fantasies of revenge – of waiting outside the prison gates – have faded. What he really wants now is to look Denyer in the eye and ask him why. Perhaps, when Denyer finally applies for parole, Jake will get his chance, before urging the authorities to reject the killer’s bid for freedom.
Denyer has spent Jake Blair’s entire lifetime behind bars, while, in the world outside prison, Jake continues to serve a life sentence of his own. He remains sceptical about the killer’s reinvention in prison as a transgender woman called ‘Paula’ Denyer who blames her crimes on the confusion surrounding her sexual identity.
“The authorities were right,” he observes scathingly, to refuse Denyer’s request to legally change his name, to wear make-up and women’s clothes or undergo hormone therapy for the gender reassignment surgery that will allow him to transition into the woman of his dreams. It makes no sense to Jake that a predator who spent years fantasising about killing women now wants to be what he most reviled. Did Paul Denyer really covet what he hated and kill because he coveted it? Jake Blair doubts it.
“Paul or Paula, in the end Paul Denyer remains a dangerous, sadistic offender with a terrifying propensity for violence,” he says. “We have seen what he is capable of. He is where he needs to be and he needs to stay