Evil under the sun

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 July, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 July, 2004, 12:00am

It could have come straight from the pages of an Agatha Christie novel. An attractive young woman leaves the big city and starts a new life on an idyllic holiday island. Outgoing and vivacious, she has a string of affairs with local men.

Two years later, 29-year-old Janelle Patton is found dead, hacked to death by an unknown assailant, her body dumped at a cliff-top beauty spot. The murder case has transfixed Sydney, Patton's home town, a city which thrives on scandal and innuendo. Despite an exhaustive police investigation, the killer has not been caught.

Much of the fascination with the murder is tied up with the dark history of far-flung Norfolk Island, where Patton was killed. In the 19th century, the British used the volcanic outcrop, which lies 1,600km northeast of Sydney in the South Pacific, as a penal colony for their most hardened convicts.

It acquired a reputation for barbarity and cruelty, 'a place of the extremest punishment short of death', in the words of one colonial official. Later, it was populated by descendants of the Bounty mutineers, 200 of whom were moved from their cramped home on Pitcairn Island, another tiny dot in the Pacific, in 1856. Even today, about one-third of Norfolk's population is descended from the mutineers.

They are famously secretive, and speak to each other in a strange patois which combines Polynesian words with 18th century English. It was against this backdrop that Patton arrived in 2000. She found work in the tourism industry and began a series of relationships with local men.

On Easter Sunday, 2002, she went for her daily stroll through the rolling hills. It was the last time she was seen alive. Her body, found wrapped in plastic, bore the marks of a desperate struggle, including a 15cm stab wound to the chest and 63 other injuries.

The murder sent shockwaves through Norfolk's close-knit community. It was the first violent killing in nearly 150 years. Police were called in from mainland Australia, and hundreds of locals and tourists were fingerprinted. Detectives failed to find a match to clues found at the murder site. A reward of A$300,000 (HK$1.7 million) also failed to help solve the mystery. Last month, after three days of exhaustive evidence, an inquest recorded an open verdict.

In the latest twist, however, an Australian politician has claimed that police know the killer's identity but cannot arrest the male islander because of a lack of proof. The authorities are considering reopening the inquest. In the meantime, the rumour-mill continues, with speculation that Patton was killed either by a spurned lover, or a jealous wife or girlfriend.