One winter’s night in 1978, teenager Trudie Adams asked her mum to wait up for her as she headed to a dance at Newport Surf Life Saving Club on Sydney’s northern beaches. Adams left home at 7pm to attend a preparty with friends and walked up Barrenjoey Road.
A motorist stopped to give her a lift to her friend Debbie’s house, and from there Adams and Debbie walked to the Newport Hotel, arriving at 8.30pm, and stayed until closing time, which was 10pm. Adams was excited about her upcoming trip to Bali in six weeks. The girls then travelled in a friend’s car to the Newport Surf Life Saving Club. Shortly after midnight, Adams ran outside, upset, apparently after an argument with her boyfriend Steve Norris, telling no one where she was going.
Through a window in the club, Norris saw her leave, heading for Barrenjoey Road. He assumed she would try to get a lift as he had no car. (It was common in those days to hitch rides on the northern beaches, as little or no public transport was available.)
He followed her, concerned about the way she loved hitching rides — even from strangers at night — but as he was crossing the carpark Adams had reached the road and was getting into a fawny-beige 1974-76 Holden panel van with no side windows that had stopped to give her a lift. It then sped up Barrenjoey Road towards Palm Beach.
Adams never made it home. Her disappearance transfixed Australia. The tabloids had a field day. Her body has never been found.
What happened to Adams that night? Why has nobody ever been brought to justice? Across three absorbing episodes, Barrenjoey Road, which started last week and is streaming on ABC iView, leads to a dark place in an Australia that doesn’t seem to have changed all that much: drug deals, multiple murders and sexual assaults against women.
Barrenjoey Road is led by Ruby Jones, an award-winning investigative journalist who has worked across Australia, reporting on social affairs, youth, and crime and justice. The series is written and directed by the veteran Marc Radomsky, recently responsible for Struggle Street, the highest rating locally commissioned documentary in the history of SBS.
Jones is an imposing presence, but there’s a hard evaluative edge to her persona, and an acute awareness of the ethically tricky nature of true-crime TV and the way real lives — often people still suffering great loss — can so casually be treated as spectacle. Is every gory detail presented in a kind of tabloid cavalcade in the many series in this genre because producers believe we care about victims, or because we simply crave excitement?
It is a problematic subject and has been since Truman Capote wrote In Cold Blood. After all, what is the relationship between journalist and subject? As Janet Malcolm famously put it, “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”
But while Jones, like any journalist, is after a good story and doing whatever is required to get it, she proceeds with a persuasive blend of altruism, passion and responsibility. Although she structures her narrative around her interactions with friends, family and police who investigated Adams’s disappearance, they don’t eat significantly into the story. Nor does she appear to manipulate the evidence in any way, moulding it to support the case she develops, an accusation made about several recent true-crime successes such as Making a Murderer and The Jinx.
Hearing that Adams’s brother refuses to be part of the program, Jones decides against interviewing any of the family, to save them the pain of reliving the experience. But the disturbingly high rate of violence against women in Australia — family and domestic violence, sexual harassment and assault, violence in residential settings, and online violence and harassment — is of great concern to her as a journalist.
And her anger at times seems to drive her in this investigation — as much as she’s chasing a more interesting alternative to an already intriguing story — especially when Adams’s disappearance takes on even more sinister dimensions. For her the investigation goes to “bigger things” she says. “Violence against women has often gone unpunished but things have changed and … there’s a reckoning.”
Jones was born a decade after ’s disappearance, so she teams up with veteran crime reporter Neil Mercer, who has an insider’s handle on the 1970s and Sydney’s underworld culture. As they examine the alarming case, they use all kinds of dramatic conventions to vitalise their journalistic storytelling. The lupine Mercer is an authoritative second banana, a Walkley awardwinning journalist, celebrated for his work on Gangs of Oz and The Life and Times of Roger Rogerson, and for breaking major news stories such as the illegal bugging of dozens of NSW police in 2012, which led to an inquiry by the state ombudsman.
Their objective is to make sense of persuas-
SUDDENLY ADAMS’S DISAPPEARANCE TAKES ON THE DIMENSIONS OF A JAMES ELLROY NOVEL
ive but conflicting evidence and investigate suspects who, for reasons that remain mysterious, weren’t fully probed in the past. It will turn out to be a harrowing experience.
“The last 10 months have been a confronting journey for all of us,” the filmmakers say in their statement. “Slowly, unevenly, we have come to know something of Trudie Adams and understand the sense of loss still felt by her family, friends and community. Adams’s liveliness, hopes and sense of humour underline the tragedy of her suspected murder as well as the failure to find and punish those responsible.”
Jones starts by retracing the events on the night of the disappearance, filling in details as she drives along Barrenjoey Road and its surrounds. “Did she run away?” she asks. “Was she abducted in a random attack or targeted by someone who knew her?” She discusses the confusion among witnesses as to whether Adams in fact got into a green Kombi van or a Holden station wagon — confusion that has dogged the case from the start. (It would not be the last time the green Kombi van would mysteriously appear in the investigation.)
Former detective Gavin McKean sets the context for Jones early on. “I think you’ll find there’s organised crime, there’s police corruption, there’s informants, there’s drug dealing and importation and there’s the culture you’re dealing with in the 70s,” he tells her impassively. He talks, too, of a “criminal monster” with police connections who roamed free for years, picking up hitchhikers, raping them, and committing vicious acts with weapons.
Suddenly Adams’s disappearance takes on the dimensions of a James Ellroy novel, a violent alternative history of the once laid-back holiday paradise of Sydney’s northern beaches, crammed with labyrinthine conspiracies and blood-soaked set pieces. Visiting the State Library to peruse the press records, the investigators discover evidence of other abductions and rapes; other young women came forward with frightful stories of assaults on or around Barrenjoey Road.
They were abducted at gunpoint and forced into a car by men often wearing disguises: cheap plastic wigs, dark glasses and fake beards. Compelling circumstantial evidence and discussions with police who investigated lead Jones and Mercer to a place where the rapes probably took place, deep in the wilderness of Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, power lines humming in the distance.
In this week’s episode they examine theories about how a booming beaches drug trade could have been a factor in the taking of Adams, the young woman sometimes linked to the recruitment of drug runners.
Her mother believed she was killed because she refused to be a courier hustling drugs to Bali, a theory discounted by police. They head to Roselands in Sydney’s southwest to solve the mystery of the green Kombi and close in on a career criminal who was responsible for another brutal attack in the bush near Barrenjoey Road. It remains to be seen whether this investigation will have the same impact as the ABC’s recent look at the disappearance of two-day-old Tegan Lane and the conviction in 2010 of her mother, Keli Lane, for her murder, but it’s certainly absorbing true-crime TV. Tuesday, 8.30pm, ABC; also streaming on iView.
Investigative journalists Ruby Jones and Neil Mercer on Sydney’s Barrenjoey Road; Trudie Adams, left