Growing up in the shadow of a grisly crime

In 1971, Rosalyn Nolte was brutally murdered not far from my home town. Many years later, as teenagers, we were warned not to trust friends with cars. Read on to find out why.
volcano, mt napier

I don’t remember exactly when I was told what happened to Rosalyn Nolte. I seem always to have known about what happened to her, as though the story of her death was as much woven into the fabric of the town as the drinking water.

Rosalyn Nolte

When I was a kid, it was the 1980s. I was in rural Australia and felt like my ‘city’ of 10,000 people, which was the centre of the region, was a pretty big town. Like nearly everywhere else, it was an open and fun kind of place, close enough to the beach (1 hour), close enough to extended family (2 hours), good waterfalls and bush locations within 50 km. Kids at school would shoot foxes to get $1 per tail from the Shire Council as part of their introduced pests eradication policies, and apart from the summer water restrictions it was a great place to grow up.

As me and my best friend got into adolescence, and enjoyed the attention of the 18-year-old hoons with cars who drove around the town, our parents started to worry. I remember strutting down the street as a 14-year-old in tight jeans and a bodysuit (bless the early ’90s), with great boobs, incredible, fluffy red hair, an attitude the size of Jupiter, and gawped at by horny young blokes driving past. It was as good as it got. Maybe it was being raised to believe that we could do anything we wanted, but we didn’t have any of the crushing anxiety about sex and gender that kids seem to now. We knew that the ladies in the bookshop were lesbians, and we all loved them anyway. We knew that the lady in the lingerie shop liked ladies and measured them with her hands, and nobody much cared (apparently her bras were always a super fit). As older teenagers, we had friends who were bi or gay and even our parents never cared much.

Anyway. So, the young Leticia was a strutter when she was young. Imagine then my parents’ panic, and about all of the possibly horrific futures that would cross their minds. Everything from teenaged pregnancy to abduction. Just because we were out in the bush it didn’t mean that it was all lovey-dovey-let’s-all-be-mates kind of thing. We were surrounded by awesome people and weirdos and crazies. Just like in the city (wow, surprise, the breadth of humanity).

So as we got older, sprouted boobs, our parents’ warnings started to change. They stopped being the usual ‘don’t get into cars with strangers’, and became ‘don’t get into cars even with people that you think are your friends’.

That might strike you as odd. But for us, growing up, it’s because of the grisly shadow that fell across the town in the early 1970s.

‘Remember what happened to the Nolte girl,’ our parents would say to us. ‘She got into a car with people she thought were friends, and they killed her. Don’t trust anyone.’ Stranger Danger became Even-Friends-Might-Be-Strangers.

 

For you, dear reader, you may not know. Rosalyn Nolte was 15, and out walking her dog in my home town of Hamilton, in Western Victoria, an Eastern state of Australia. Official stories like this one state that she was abducted. It’s a different story to what we were told: That some young men in a vehicle stopped to talk to her and offered her a lift home. Knowing them, she took it willingly. But she didn’t get home. She was murdered.

Rosalyn Nolte

The story we were told was that Rosalyn was driven to the top of Mt Napier, which isn’t far out of town, tied up with ropes, raped, tortured (including having her nipples cut off while she was alive), and left to die. One of the official stories is almost more grisly: That they stomped on her and beat her repeatedly, then hung her with electrical cord so that her own bodyweight strangled her, and then threw her, bound, into the bush before they left.

It was a brutal, horrific incident.

Newspaper Cover 1971

When it happened, it was 1971. At that time, the horror that is today’s Daily News wasn’t the news of then. I wasn’t born until 1980 but even in the ’80s the horror of today’s daily life was uncommon. So imagine, if you can, the scale of the horror on the population, on a beautiful family. My parents weren’t even living in Hamilton when it happened. They were married in 1974, and were still in Northern Victoria where they were from.

The way our parents went on about it in 1991 gave the incident a timeless quality. It wasn’t like it happened in the very early ’70s (to us).

 

Chris Lowery (one of the two perpetrators – the other being his mate, Charles King), was the last man sentenced to death in Victoria. At around this time, the state was moving away from the death penalty, so their sentences were commuted to 60 years, with a minimum of 50.

Imagine then our shock when Lowery was released in 1992.

Herald Sun Newspaper Cover 1992

I remember being gripped by a vague fear. For those around me, it seemed that people held their breaths for a while, seeing whether the two would come home. And, if they did, how much time it would be before there would be another Rosalyn Nolte, a round of suffering all over again.

Lowery is dead now; he did return to petty crime, but suicided a number of years ago. King, on the other hand, once released, sank away from criminal life and lived an inconspicuous life; by all accounts haunted enough by his early doings to try to make amends any way he could.

As a teenager, I didn’t know when it was that Rosalyn Nolte died. It felt like yesterday. It was as if the timeline was absent. We all knew about The Nolte Girl’s Death, and the lessons we should learn about that. In a town like Hamilton, you don’t need to leave it much unless you have to do shopping somewhere else or family outside of town. It’s very easy to live in a little bubble and feel like your entire world extends only as far as the boundary roads. It was safer than the cities (according to the news anyway), and we were sheltered from much of the horrible stuff.

Except for that. Except for the idea that we could be dragged out of town, sliced up, and left to die in the scrub by someone we knew. Except for the fact that the people we knew might harbour dark desires that you can’t ever know.

In a sense, becoming a teenager in a time with that message, and the message that you can do anything you want to, enabled us to become powerful people. On the one hand we knew that that world was our half-dozen oysters. On the other, we knew Constant Vigilance, certainly enough to stay aware of what went on around us.

You know, just in case.

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