Grace The Cold Case


Tommy Wraith at his birthday party hosted by the infamous Richmond crime matriarch Kathy Pettingill (background)

Tommy Wraith at his birthday party hosted by the infamous Richmond crime matriarch Kathy Pettingill (background)

The commotion upstairs stopped abruptly, like a radio on full volume was switched off that night in London in late 1974. The neighbours, a middle-aged couple, had heard voices -two women and a man. An argument had raged for hours, but after midnight, all went quiet. Some time later there was a rhythmic “thump, thump, thump” down the iron backstairs of the building in Seymour Grove Paddington. From their kitchen window, the neighbours watched two people in the car park struggling with a heavy rolled-up carpet. They had tossed the carpet into the boot of a lime-green Ford Cortina and driven away.

The couple on the second floor had maintained a passing acquaintance with their Aussie neighbours. They were an unusual pairing. The woman was a handsome dark-eyed lady in her mid-30s. Though the bloom of youth had faded, she carried herself like a lady, a gloss of rich red lipstick and powder. She was courteous and polite when they passed her on the stairs with the baby in a pram. There was no in-depth conversation but the woman just gave off a good vibe.

By comparison, the man was shifty and sly, much younger than his partner. There were lots of Australians living in the Paddington area, so two more were unremarkable. They had been quiet and easy going. That is, until a second woman had arrived on the scene a few days before. She was big, brassy and loud with the hard eyes of a prostitute. For the first few nights there had been laughter and music into the night upstairs. But this night it had turned nasty and now there was this deathly silence. They hadn’t called the Old Bill, despite their concerns. You learn to mind your business living cheek by jowl in London’s inner-city.

On the same night, the telephone had rung in the apartment of an English villain well-known in London’s Australian circles. He struggled out of bed to answer it, annoyed to be woken so late. This man was the West End’s top distributor of illicit pornography and adult products. He did a sideline fencing whatever goods would sell. Business was good but the hours were long. People just didn’t buy dildos during business hours. And the Aussies kept him up late too. They pitched up at all hours, looking to fence some hot gear or to ask his help in a jam. What the Aussies did not know was that this man had connections in the Flying Squad. The price of his criminal franchise was a steady flow of information back to the Sweeney. He liked the Aussies and they trusted him, but he had to look after number one. Business was business.

The caller was Tommy Wraith. A small time thief in Melbourne, Wraith was a minor player in the West End, trading false passports, stolen traveller’s cheques and credit cards. He hadn’t even made the Australian Index in the Police Gazette, such was his lack of form and reputation.

It had been a surprise to many that Wraith had hooked up with the best female take of the day, Grace “The Case” O’Connor.

By mid-1974 Grace now 36 was living with Wraith in a top floor flat on Seymour Place, Paddington. They had a child together, born in England, and seemed set to stay. It was a shame, other members of the Kangaroo Gang had said. A top thief like Grace could make money for all of them. It was a waste of a good earner for her to be tending house for Tommy Wraith.

Grace "The Case" O'Connor. Not just a headpuller but a top thief in her own right.

Grace “The Case” O’Connor. Not just a headpuller but a top thief in her own right.

But now, Grace was dead, Wraith told the informer. He needed to get rid of the body before morning. The informer was torn. He had made good money from the Aussies but this was too hot to hold, so he rang his handler at the Yard. He recounted Wraith’s story and asked what he should do. The detective told him to go down there as requested by Wraith. He should confirm there had been a murder and confirm the victim was Grace O’Connor. But then he must beg off and let the Old Bill take over. Nobody would ever know he had shopped Wraith.

The informer hurried over to meet Wraith. He recognised the other woman in the flat when he arrived.  “Val” (not her real name) had been working in London and on the Continent since the late 60s. Nicked in Teneriffe, Spain in April 1969 for theft, Val had slipped back and forth into London using passports in assumed names. She had just returned from a few months lagging in Germany. She wasn’t in Grace’s class, just a head puller for whoever would take her on. Grace was the lady thief, living “respectably” on her hoisting. She had put away a tidy float if things ever turned sour. She didn’t need a man, while Val was entirely dependant, a survivor. She had slept with many of the Aussie thieves over the years, but she was no beauty, a big blousy blonde, with a hard jaw and thin cruel lips.

She was still drunk when the informer arrived there. She seemed unconcerned at the scene before her. On the bed lay Grace’s lifeless body, a stocking lashed around her throat. Wraith filled in the details for the informer.

He had been sleeping with Val behind Grace’s back. Grace had found out and an argument had broken out. Dead drunk, Wraith had watched the whole thing unfold, sitting by when the women came to blows. Grace had run into the bedroom with Val in hot pursuit. The smaller woman hadn’t stood a chance against an attacker of Val’s size and strength. She had proceeded to choke the life out of her on the bed. By the time Wraith got in the bedroom, the murder was well under way. He could have stopped it, but killing Grace had seemed the best option at that moment.  Everything that was hers became his instantly.

The informer didn’t want a bar of this and as per orders made his apologies and left.

The following morning at 4 o’clock, PC Carol Bristow mustered with 20 other officers at Harrow Road Police station, two miles from Seymour Place. They were briefed on the information to the Flying Squad had been given, but warned there could no mention of the informer or the murder allegations. They could not risk the informer being exposed, as much for their convenience as the informer’s well-being.

The flying Squad could not afford to have its informers exposed.  They were to execute a ruse, pitching up to the Seymour Place flat with a search warrant for stolen cheque books, credit cards and passports. Once in, they could search for evidence of the murder. A back up squad of 18 members was ready to pounce if the villains jerried.

At 5:30am when Bristow and a detective-inspector knocked at his door Tommy Wraith had been cool and calm. He welcomed the police in. There was just him, the wife and their baby at home, he told them. Val emerged from the bedroom, with Grace’s baby in her arms. Where Wraith had been cool and accommodating, Val was sneering and belligerent. Furious the baby had been woken, she had let fly with a foul-mouthed tirade. When she calmed down, Val was asked her name. Without hesitation, she told them: “Grace O’Connor”

Bristow’s heart leapt into her mouth. She and the DI had to stop themselves challenging the blatant lie. They searched the flat and, finding a cache of stolen chequebooks and credit cards, hauled Wraith and “Grace O’Connor” back to Harrow Road station. They would be remanded on conspiracy but these were just holding charges, until murder could be proven. Clearly Val was not O’Connor, but the lie was allowed to remain until the demise of the real Grace could be proven. Meanwhile, detectives were secretly despatched to Australia to recover items from Grace’s mother that might help with identifying a corpse, if and when they found one. They came back with hair from brushes and clothes and dental charts.

Meanwhile a search was mounted London-wide for O’Connor’s body. There was a tip that Grace had been dropped into a grave with a table-top in Hampstead Cemetery, someone else said Highgate Cemetery. Officers flipped the lids on hundreds of graves with no success.  There was also a story that Wraith had buried Grace in one of London’s eight Royal parks, which narrowed the search area to a mere 20 square kilometres.

A week later, Wraith’s lime-green Cortina, possibly a hire car, was located at Southwark police depot. It had been abandoned not far away from Seymour Place. The carpet from Wraith’s flat was still in the boot, but there was no other evidence linking it to Grace O’Connor.

Police delayed taking the holding charges to court as long as they could, but never revealed the true reason. Bristow would sit in back of the prison van with Val as she went to and from court. She didn’t expect a confession. She wanted to see how this person could take someone’s life then steal her identity and her baby. As a woman, PC Bristow had begun to identify with Grace. She wanted to tell this foul-mouthed oaf of a woman what she thought of her but she always bit her lip.

Eventually,Val admitted she was not Grace O’Connor but still she was never questioned over the murder. She and Wraith were tried on the cheque fraud and sentenced in late 1974 to nine months jail and deported in March 1975. With the suspects out of England, the Metropolitan Police gave up the investigation into Grace’s disappearance without ever opening a murder docket. It is not known what happened to Grace and Tommy’s child. That’s what made the case stick in PC Bristow’s mind when I met her in London in March 2009. Over the next 20 years she would often check the file at Missing Persons section of the Criminal Records Office. There was never any progress. On the day she retired, she checked the file one last time, still nothing. Grace’s case was closed and forgotten. Though the police knew there had been a murder and who had committed it, Grace’s file would never see the light of day again.

In 1982, legendary Melbourne detective Sergeant Brian “The Skull” Murphy took a call from a junior colleague. The young policeman was in quite a state.  He feared some villains were trying to harm his family over an incident that had taken place in England nearly 10 years earlier. His wife was an agency nurse posted to a small psychiatric hospital in suburban Melbourne. One evening, a patient had told her an extraordinary story of how he had killed the mother of his child.

The private hospital was one of many treating a range of mental illness with one brutal, catch-all therapy. Electroconvulsive (ECT) therapy involved sending an electrical charge of up to 120 volts through a patient’s head in order to “reset” the brain chemistry.  It had been a popular therapy in many hospitals for treating addictions and depression, but in this institution just about every patient got a burst of ECT. Some it actually helped but the nurse suspected nothing would help this man. When she first laid eyes on Tommy Wraith he was strapped to his bed in a Posey restrainer, a kind of strait jacket that kept the patient flat on his back in his bed.

He was trying to come off heroin for the umpteenth time and as he went through the horrors of withdrawal staff kept him sedated and strapped to the bed. His chart said he was in his 40s, but he looked much older. His arms were covered in track marks from needle use. Most of the veins in his arms and legs had collapsed and among his many tattoos there were scars and fresh sores. The staff cut his greying unkempt hair short at the temples in preparation for the ECT electrodes.

After a zap or two, Wraith seemed to pick up a little. Though he was a hopeless junkie, the nurse could see he had lived another life before this dismal descent into substance abuse.  One evening on her rounds, she stopped at Wraith’s room and they began talking.

Wraith already seemed a shell of a man, just waiting for death. Something, more than the heroin, had hollowed him out. He had died years before, the nurse thought. As police of the day would say he had “the hopeless expectation of impending doom.”

He was haunted by guilt. He had killed someone in England, he said. She hadn’t believed him at first but, as he spoke, the clarity of his story changed her mind.

Wraith said he had murdered a woman in his home and buried the body in a park or wood 10 years earlier. She recounted her meeting with Tommy to her husband that night and he was straight on the phone to “Skull” Murphy, who organised a meeting with Victoria Police’s Bureau of Criminal Intelligence. A message was sent to detectives in Scotland Yard and word came back that Wraith had indeed been a suspect in the disappearance of Grace O’Connor. Murphy was thunderstruck, he had nicked O’Connor in the early 60s for housebreaking and she had given up a whole team of her associates. She had been helpful and polite. To help find her killer, not to mention her mortal remains, was the very least he could do. But it wouldn’t be easy: there was no way Wraith would repeat his confession to a policeman. So it was decided that the nurse would go back to Wraith and gently probe him for more information. If she could find out where Wraith had buried the body, Scotland Yard would almost certainly re-open the case. The nurse was terrified, but with a little cajoling she agreed. In their second chat, Wraith told her that he had taken the body to Hertfordshire. He said it was buried in “beautiful country.” It wasn’t much to go on though it had narrowed down the potential burial site to 634 sq miles. In 1973, police been looking for Grace’s body in London, so Hertfordshire was new information. It was a logical place to bury a body. From Seymour Place, the murderers could have been in the pleasant countryside of Herts county in just 45 minutes. Though just 26 miles away from the West End, this was farmland and country estates, the setting for Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. In his novel Howard’s End, E. M. Forster described Hertfordshire as “England at its quietest.” It was a perfect place to bury a body in the middle of the night.

Meanwhile, Wraith had picked up enough to be discharged from the hospital. He hadn’t died after all, so perhaps he thought his confession might come back to bite him. One night after work, the nurse was followed all the way home by a man in a black utility. “Skull” Murphy’s inquiries suggested the car was Tommy Wraith’s. The nurse and her family could well be in mortal danger, he said. Shortly after, someone broke into their home, nothing was taken, but it was enough to spur Murphy into action. He rang a mate of Wraith’s and told him to relay a message that Tommy had nothing to fear from the nurse, but if he kept bothering her there would be trouble. “Tell him that if he doesn’t stop bothering her, I will personally come and shoot your wife and kids in front of you, okay?”  That was enough for the Wraith camp to drop off.

In 1983, Sgt Murphy received a call from a woman named Rae Elizabeth Collingburn,asking for his help. It was a surprise, given that Murphy and another policeman had stood trial for the 1971 manslaughter of her husband, Neil Stanley Collingburn. They had beat it, but the widow had persisted with a civil action for wrongful death. Finally she had dropped off and disappeared. Now, out of the blue, she needed his help. Her de facto husband Tommy Wraith was beating her and threatening to kill her. She feared she would have to kill him first to survive. Murphy begged her to come in and report Wraith but she refused. Our people don’t lag each other, she said. Murphy resolved to pay a visit on Wraith to quieten him down. But before he got there, tragedy had intervened.

In the midst of another drunken beating, Rae Collingburn had grabbed a tommy axe to protect herself from Wraith. He had pulled his gun out but before he could shoot her, she had smashed the axe down on his head.. With a few more blows, she made sure he was dead and then covered the body with a cloth “so the kids wouldn’t see,” prosecutors told the Victorian Supreme Court in 1985.

She then rang her sister to say: “You know what he was always going to do to me? Well I’ve done it to him.” She was found innocent of murder but was convicted of manslaughter.

Murphy noted, on behalf of Grace O’Connor, that Wraith had ended up with his right whack.

Someone knows where the body of Grace O’Connor still lies buried. My information is that Val remains alive.

2 thoughts on “Grace The Cold Case

  1. Grace was my Auntie.
    Her beauty apparently ran far deeper than her skin. What a wasted life. The auntie I never met yet who intrigues me so much! Her legacy lives on in our hearts!
    Thank you for this article!

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