One of the first cases he covered for the Adelaide Advertiser newspaper was of a particularly gruesome murder.
John, ‘Joanne’ Lillecrapp, was a cross-dressing truck driver who had taken two women, Donna Casagrande and Nicole McGuinness, into her home in an attempt to help them with their drug addiction.
The pair later turned on Joanne in the most horrific way, stabbing her to death for cash and then butchering the body to dispose of it.
Hacking the 50-year old-to pieces, they de-fleshed each segment, scattering the remains in the victim’s beloved strawberry patch.
They went on to dump pieces of the torso in several different locations including a rubbish bin for the head and arms, which they then set alight.
For many, sitting through such a grisly case would be too harrowing. But for Sean it was the start of a 16-year career that has involved some of the most horrendous stories of human brutality.
‘It wasn’t my pain or suffering. It was Joanne’s and her family’s and, as I saw it, if I could use my words to humanise her and give victims a voice that was an important role,’ Sean tells New Idea. [Joanne] was not just dismembered body parts. It wasn’t just all the gruesome details. [The victims] are real people who are loved and lost and need to be remembered.’
This was also one of the driving forces behind Sean’s book, City Of Evil, which is a true-crime compilation of cases from Adelaide. The current Channel Nine series of the same name is based on the book and examines some of the most shocking cases. ‘There’s this mythology that Adelaide is the serial killer capital of the world,’ Sean says, explaining how cases like the Snowtown bodies in the barrels murders have contributed to this unfair reputation.
‘It’s not true. It’s disrespectful to victims and glorifying of the criminals,’ he says. ‘The truth is that there’s a heavy emphasis on bizarre crime in Adelaide. This is the place where you don’t just get murdered, you’re poisoned by a curried egg sandwich.’
Of the 18-24 murders that occur annually in Adelaide, Sean agrees many are still of this bizarre kind.
‘I’m passionate about Adelaide but I’m also passionate about the truth,’ he says. ‘We can’t turn
a blind eye to it but, without sensationalism, we have to look at why this is happening and how to stop it.’ With a new, younger breed of criminal, including an uptick in women involved in rapes and murders, Sean says that, while there seems to be no stopping it, the state does have an outstanding police force which solves crimes fast.
‘Extraordinary crimes require extraordinary police officers and Adelaide does have those,’ he says.
BODIES IN THE BARREL
These horrific killings were reported around the world and Sean, who was a junior reporter at the time, remembers how the Supreme Court of South Australia was besieged with international reporters on the first day of the trial.
John Bunting, Robert Wagner and James Vlassakis were charged and found guilty of, between them, murdering 12 people over a seven-year period.
Mark Haydon was also convicted for helping to dispose of the bodies.
The case hit the headlines in May 1999 when police made the horrifying discovery of eight dismembered corpses rotting in barrels in Snowtown, a sleepy rural town 140 kilometres north of Adelaide.
The victims were friends and even family of the accused and, while the motivation for murder is not completely clear, it seemed Bunting led his gang to believe the victims were paedophiles or homosexuals.
With further bodies being discovered, gruesome details about their deaths were revealed, with most having been horrendously tortured with an electric shock machine, pliers and hammers before their eventual murder.
Parts of one victim, David Johnson, were even fried up and eaten by his killers.
‘Bunting, particularly, had a traumatised background,’ Sean says after sitting through hundreds of hours of evidence in what was one of the longest trials in Australian legal history.
The killer was found to have been sexually abused as a boy.
‘You can see why he thought the way he did, but there’s no excuse for it,’ Sean says.
The other tragedy is that the crimes ruined the reputation of Snowtown, a place which ironically didn’t play a central part in the so-called Snowtown murders, except for the fact it was where the bodies were discovered.
THE ROWE FAMILY MASSACRE
On November 8, 2010, 18-year old Jason Downie broke into the house of Chantelle Rowe, a girl dating his friend, and one he was completely infatuated with.
What followed was a deeply traumatic family massacre which Downie still appears to show no remorse for.
Woken by the intruder, Chantelle’s father, Andrew Rowe, was attacked and stabbed 29 times. Her mother, Rose, was stabbed around 50 times and, after witnessing her parents die and hiding under her bed, 16-year-old Chantelle became the focus of Downie’s attention. She too was stabbed to death and then raped while she lay dying.
Following the attack Downie removed her damaged clothing and re-dressed her in clean clothes.
The resulting crime scene was described as blood-soaked and even veteran police of officers attending were left distraught and traumatised.
‘It was among the most harrowing cases I’ve ever covered,’ Sean admits. ‘For a 90lb [41kg] weakling to commit such carnage to such lovely people is heartbreaking.’
For Downie there was no apparent reason for his murderous behaviour. No abuse or disturbing childhood.
‘He was a selfish young man,’ Sean says. ‘He felt entitled and when he couldn’t get what he wanted, he snapped.’
Downie was arrested just over a week later and pleaded guilty to three counts of murder. He is serving a 35-year prison sentence for the triple murder.
The Rowe family, including Chantelle’s brother Christopher, who had been on holiday in Queensland at the time of the killings, listened to the harrowing details in court during sentencing.
‘I have so much praise for Christopher,’ Sean says sadly. ‘He has shown so much bravery pulling his life together.’
THE ONLINE PREDATOR
Adelaide was the scene for the world’s first ever murder by an online predator, and again the case shot the city into international headlines for all the wrong reasons.
It started in 2006 when 14-year- old Carly Ryan thought she had met her dream boyfriend on the internet. His name was Brandon Kane and he was an 18-year-old musician from Melbourne.
Over the next 18 months Carly fell for this boy who was in fact the creation of 50-year old paedophile Garry Newman.‘We didn’t know what the internet was capable of,’ Sean says. ‘Nobody thought an internet chatroom could be a murder weapon. No-one was prepared for it.’
Newman, however, had a very clear plan. Meeting up with Carly, he tried to seduce her as Brandon’s father ‘Shane’ and when she rejected his advances he vowed to ‘fix up’ Carly. In February 2007 Newman lured Carly to a remote spot in South Australia. There he beat her, held her face in the sand, suffocating her and then threw her into the water to drown.
Eleven days after her death police pounced on Newman, finding him chatting online to another teenager in Perth. He had 200 different online personas.
‘The question I’ve always had is how many girls that age had an online boyfriend who disappeared [when Newman was taken into custody]’ Sean asks. ‘We know he’d done it twice before and he was preparing for a fourth time.’
Newman was jailed for life and Carly’s mum, Sonya continues to campaign for internet safety.
‘Hero is the one word I have to describe Sonya,’ Sean says. ‘To take the greatest trauma a parent can experience and use it as motivation to protect other children is heroic. She is one of the most incredible people I have had the fortune to get to know.’
THE KILLER TAXI DRIVER
Mark Errin Rust started out as a pervert, exposing himself to women. But over the years things escalated. It became assault, then rape, then finally murder.
His first victim was Maya Jakic who he admitted to killing in April 1999 after she refused his offer of ‘a lift and some fun.’
Two years later he murdered Japanese student Megumi Suzuki giving no reason other than ‘because I did.’
‘He was obsessed with gratification and enjoyed people reacting,’ Sean says. ‘After Maya’s death he called Crimestoppers with information and put notes on police cars.’
Shortly after Suzuki’s death Rust was arrested for a separate offence. While on remand, he boasted to inmates about his crimes, telling them he had Suzuki’s CD player in his cell. The student’s body was found at the Wingfield dump after officers trawled through 10,000 tonnes of rubbish.
‘He was happy to confess because he wanted his moment in the spotlight,’ Sean says.
He argues however that his book and the TV series don’t play into that same need for recognition that many criminals harbour.
‘We’re not saying he’s an amazing master criminal,’ Sean says. ‘He’s an ugly gremlin with a sexual fetish. It’s important to talk about him as a pervert taxi driver who did horrible things so people are aware of what he did but instead of venerating criminals we are stigmatising them.’