He forced her to call her parents to say she was running away. They weren’t to worry about her. She was fine, she just wanted to hit the roads and find herself. With the knife against her throat, she delivered a performance she hoped would save her life.
The teenager was tied to the bed again to await the next round of torture and rape. She had been abducted a few days earlier by a couple and driven back to a nondescript house in the middle of suburbia where the real horror story began for her. The year was 1986.
Flash forward to 2005, and I found myself wondering if I was responsible for the death of one of the Australia’s most brutal serial killers and trying to understand my own feelings.
I’d released a book on serial killers,River of Blood and was writing another one on Australian crime. I have been researching serial crime for so long that I can’t actually remember how it all began. Nonetheless, I find myself as a female true-crime author, a title that is a great ice breaker at parties, has brought the media knocking on my door and has also made people recoil in horror.
For my next book, I wrote to killers, families and law enforcement personnel to get my case studies correct. This was how I ‘met’David Birnie. Birnie, along with his de facto wife (pictured below), killed at least four women. Each was repeatedly raped and sodomised before being brutally murdered and dumped in a remote forest. His final victim luckily escaped.
Birnie was not someone you’d choose as a friend. He was a brutal rapist and a killer. I intended to keep a careful distance from him as I did all my research subjects. People outside criminological circles always believe that killers are obvious, that they are easily spotted in a crowd. But if that were the case, how many potential victims would get into a car with some kind of drooling madman? Not many. Killers are often suave, enticing, charming, and engaging. Killers likeDavid Birnie.
I began corresponding with Birnie several years earlier when I sent a stock letter with very leading questions to hundreds of killers around the world. I received dozens of responses, some were offensive and therefore ignored, others welcomed the chance to chat with someone new. I steered clear of the usual suspects, Charles Manson, Richard Ramirez etc. I had corresponded with Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy, but they also produced pretty mundane responses.
David Birnie , however, was keen to spark up a conversation. He rarely had "penpals" because he didn’t want to be exploited. From the very beginning, I made it clear that I was interested in the case. I was not a groupie, I was not interested in sending lingerie photos, pornographic material, or anything inappropriate. Ground rules were set: no profanity, gratuitous pictures, or jokes. David agreed. I think he liked that I meant business.
From that point on, we both wrote weekly. I asked questions and he’d reply with a neatly typed letter. We discussed the case in detail and covered hundreds of other topics. He was interested in politics, religion, and ancient civilizations. I solicited his opinion on current crimes and listened with interest to his disgust of other criminals, particularly pedophiles.
After three years of written correspondence, we began telephone conversations. It was a more emotional and expressive form of communication. We talked about his younger years and where he thought he went wrong. We discussed other cases in the news.
When I had asked him about being in jail with a sentence of "never to be released," he said: “The first seven years are the hardest. After that, each day is no different.” He seemed resigned to the fact he was never getting out, though he was eligible to apply for parole.
Somehow, in 2005, my role changed from writer to counselor when an investigation of the rape of a fellow inmate began. According to the media, David was the prime suspect. He had confided in me and I saw a downward spiral in his demeanour. No longer an engaging conversationalist, he now was morose and talking about "the end."
There the moral dilemma began: Does one convince a serial killer to die, or to live?
I had spent several years getting to know this killer as a person and now he relied on me to get him through each week.
On the day of his suicide he rang me. I did not realize until later that it was a goodbye call. He thanked me for being there as a friend over the years, saying I was the only one who understood him. He also explained that the prison was cutting off our contact. His last words to me were a quotation fromHitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “They say things can’t get any worse, then they do."
The following day, a friend e-mailed me a story about his suicide. I didn’t know how to feel. I didn’t care about the death of other murderers I had interviewed. One less killer with the possibility of being released, was my usual response. But now I questioned my own emotions. Should I feel sad that Birnie had died? Could I have stopped him killing himself? Would I?
I realized then that it didn’t matter. He was a brutal killer who paid little time for his victims' deaths. He didn’t grieve for their deaths, so why should I grieve for his? He was buried in a pauper's grave inside the prison soon after his death. I guess his sentence of "never to be released" really meant forever.
A month later, I received a letter from one of the other inmates. It was a thank you, on behalf of David. He had told this other inmate about me and how I had "changed’ his life.'
I guess he had changed mine too, it made me see the human side of a killer’s psyche and how easy it is to be a victim.
Perhaps in some strange way I am also one of his victims?
Amanda Howard is an Australian true-crime author who has appeared on many documentaries and news programs in Australia and overseas.Tweet