‘The worst criminal offences in Victorian history’: the shocking murders of Ashley Coulston

Ashley Coulston had dreams to become famous. In fact, his actions would be so shocking, he would eventually become infamous.

It’s 1992, and a cold winter’s evening in Melbourne at the height of the Barcelona Olympics. Ashley Coulston is about to strike.

He’s arranged to meet Kerryn Henstridge and Anne Smerdon at their Burwood house in Melbourne, after answering an ad for a flatmate. Anne’s brother-in-law, Peter Dempsey, is also spending the night.

The next morning, when there’s no answer at the door, Kerryn’s mother is forced to break in to the house. The TV and iron are still on. Last night’s dishes still waiting to be washed.

Inside a bedroom she finds the body of her daughter, Kerryn. Anne Smerdon is dead in the hallway, naked from the waist down. And Peter Dempsey is in the lounge room, also dead. All three have been bound with cable ties and killed by a single bullet to the crown of the head.

Mick Stefanovic was part of the investigation into the triple murder. He recalls the crime scene vividly to Michael Usher. “Those murders were one of the worst criminal offences in Victorian history. We thought we were dealing with someone who enjoyed it, and had taken pleasure in their execution.”

“It was a shocking scene to attend. To manage to control three people like that… Either you’ve been trained to do something like that, or you’ve developed it through experience.”

Unknown to the police at the time, 35-year-old Ashley Coulston, a sailor who earnt money by delivering yachts for wealthy clients, was hiding in plain sight at Western Port Marina, less than an hour’s drive from Melbourne. Coulston lived here with his girlfriend, Jan McLeod.

Just five weeks after the Burwood murders, fears the killer would strike again are realised when young Melbourne couple, Richard and Anne Shalagin, are attacked in the Botanic Gardens.

They are returning to their car on 2 September 1992 when Ashley Coulston steps silently out of the shadows.

Coulston is carrying his kill kit in a bag – a sawn-off gun, silencer, and a bag full of cable ties. As the Shalagins get into the car, Coulston points his gun at Anne, just centimetres from her face.

Ashley Coulston forces Anne and Richard out of their car and makes them walk to a darker part of the Botanic Gardens, under trees and away from lights, and forces them face-down on the ground.

He’s got the bag, and I notice he put the gun down,” Richard recalls, still upset by the experience. “I knew if I didn’t do something, then we were dead. And I could see him go into the bag and pull out the ties, and I launched myself at him. I’ve actually grabbed him from behind, around the neck, and I’m yelling at my wife to run okay. Just run.”

“She’s run towards St Kilda Road and I grabbed the gun and threw [it] probably a metre or two, and thought, ‘I’m creating a situation where I can get away.’ I’ve got him and I’m just throwing him and ran with my wife, and that’s where we saw the security guys down there.”

The Shalagins quickly explain their story and point to the silhouette amidst the trees, and the security guards quickly pursue Coulston. He immediately begins firing at the two security guards, even managing to hit one in the hip.

As Coulston flees, the police also arrive at the Botanic Gardens. Surrounded, he has his gun pointed directly at a policewoman, ready to shoot. Paul Sycam, one of the security guards, acts swiftly, side-kicking him in the head.

Coulston was in custody. He claims he was just trying to rob the Shalagins, but there was nothing spur of the moment about this attack. It was no attempted robbery, and very quickly it becomes clear that the case against Ashley Coulston is much worse than anyone feared.

Mick Stefanovic remembers the suspicion police had about Coulston. “He’s 36 and he’s killed three innocent wonderful people at Burwood, and attempted to kill two more a month later in St Kilda Road. What’s he been doing in the intervening 20 years?”

It was while interviewing Coulston that Stefanovic first got an insight into his character. “You never know what you’re looking for, but he was just a bland nothing of an individual. He was someone who hasn’t achieved much in his life, generally speaking in terms of a profession. His relationships with other people had or seemed to have failed.”

As he dug deeper, Stefanovic uncovered Coulston’s disturbing juvenile record.

At only 14 years old, his first victims are two primary school teachers, 20-year-old Halinka Wilson and 21-year-old Carol Scott, in the small town of Tangambalanga in north-east Victoria. He breaks into their house and holds them at gunpoint. Initially forcing them to watch TV and play card games with him, he eventually orders them to drive to Sydney.

After crossing the border into New South Wales, Halinka and Carol seize a chance at freedom when they pulled into a service station at Gundagai, where they are able to alert the attendants.

For his abduction of the two teachers, he’s given a three-month sentence in Melbourne’s Turana Boys Home. There, he makes friends with another teenager serving a sentence, who asked not to be named.

He recalls Coulston being a loner, and quiet, but he remembers him clearly for talking very coldly, about his perverse plans when he got out of Turana.

“Yeah, kidnap women, keep them for his own, well use your own imagination, I guess,” Coulston’s former friend explains. Coulston also told him he planned to kidnap and rape women in a secluded location once he was out. “In a big hole, be very hard to find, he was quite confident.”

After Ashley was released, the Coulston family packed up and left country Victoria and settled in Kyogle in northern New South Wales.

Six years later, a series of brutal rapes and armed robberies began on the Gold Coast and Tweed Heads in Northern New South Wales. The attacker became known as the Balaclava Rapist.

Brian Knight was one of the lead detectives. “A lone offender typically on a motorcycle would approach couples in lovers’ lane-type scenarios. He would then bind the male and then rape the female.”

In the short time between December 1979 to February 1980, a young masked intruder raped three women and committed two armed robberies. The style was almost identical to the method used by Coulston some years later in his triple murder in Melbourne.

Catching the Balaclava Rapist became one of the biggest police operations in NSW and Queensland history. However, geography and good old-fashioned interstate police politics had the investigators hamstrung from the beginning.

The Balaclava Rapist’s audacious crimes culminated in the murder on 2 February 1980 of Jeff Parkinson. The night of the attack, Jeff is on a date with Lorraine Harrison.

“[They] left the club after dinner and dancing about 1.15am,” Brian Knight explains. “They walked out through the back door of the Twin Towns Services Club and across a small park into where Jeffrey Parkinson had parked his vehicle. He then opened the door for Lorraine and he walked around and hopped into the driver’s side. It was that time that he was confronted by a male person brandishing a gun. He then hopped into the back of the vehicle.”

They drive to the Balaclava Rapist’s normal secluded place, dark with no witness. Parkinson then did something he didn’t expect – Parkinson attacks. He grabs the gun and shouts for Lorraine to get out and run.

As Lorraine makes her escape, five shots are fired, but she manages to get away and alert the police. When they go to check the car, they find Jeff has been fatally shot.

At the time, there is no reason to believe Coulston is behind the murder of Jeff Parkinson. But he is close by, living on the family farm near Kyogle. Years later, as Mick Stefanovic is investigating the Burwood triple murder, he visits the property himself.

Stefanvoic unearths evidence that leaves him disturbed. “We found real-life detective story magazines, American ones that contained stories of serial killers and rapists,” he reveals. “[There were] boxes of keys from motel rooms across New South Wales. We found a trinket box which contained two fired .22 calibre projectiles. We also found several weapons. We found a shotgun and another .22 calibre rifle.”

It confirms what Detective Stefanovic feared – that Ashley Coulston was hiding a dark past, and the bullets could lead to other murders.

Coulston surfaced in Sydney in 1980, shortly after Jeff Parkinson’s murder in Tweed heads – and the sudden end to the series of Balaclava rapes.

Cathy Walker knew a reserved, shy Ashley Coulston in the mid-1980s. He’d only recently moved from Queensland to Sutherland in Sydney’s southern suburbs. For a time, he lived with Cathy and her then husband.

Coulston turns up working for Hertz rental car, at Sydney airport.

His boss at the time, Mygyn Plater, remembers some disturbing behaviour from Coulston. “I had one set of girls who all had long blonde hair and tans, good-looking females, and he began to stalk them,” she reveals. “Followed them home. Just sit outside their home and just stay there, just sit out the front.”

Away from work, Coulston, the would-be adventurer, would lose hours building his hero project. His ill-fated, ill-shaped boat – G’Day ’88 – which he was planning to use to sail to New Zealand for the Australian bicentenary.

Cathy Walker believes Ashley had very specific reasons for building the boat. “Fame, I think, real fame. That’s what he was hoping for. He was going to build this boat, sail away, because he wanted to be famous.”

In 1985, there are at least five vicious attacks in the Sutherland area. In every case, a man in a balaclava abducts women and couples with a sawn-off gun, and rapes the female victim.

The Sutherland rapes bore striking similarities to the attacks by the Balaclava Rapist in 1979 and 1980.

Mygyn Plater was also noticing more suspicious activity at Coulston’s workplace. “I had a missing car on the Hertz fleet. It was a blue Corolla that he was siphoning petrol out of. I terminated his employment. I thought, I think this guy’s going to go and burn my house down today, because I had this sense coming across from him that he was really going to do something sinister.”

On Australia Day 1988, Coulston set off in G’Day ‘88 to break the record for the smallest boat to sail from Australia to New Zealand. However, just as he had New Zealand in sight, he was caught amidst Cyclone Bola. G’Day ‘88 was ravaged and decimated. Coulston jumped ship and was rescued by a passing tanker.

The level of disappointment must have matched that of Coulston’s arrest following the St Kilda Road ambush of Richard and Anne Shalagin. Just hours before Mick Stefanovic began interviewing Coulston, a clever forensic expert in Victoria police had made a startling discovery: the gun used that night was the same one used in the Burwood triple murder, five weeks earlier.

At the trial, Coulston pleaded not guilty and refused to give evidence.

His partner Jan McLeod provided Coulston with an alibi, maintaining that at the time of the murders he was visiting her in hospital. However, the jury didn’t buy it, and Coulston is now serving three life terms with no parole.

It’s 2000, and Ashley Coulston has now been behind bars at Victoria’s Barwon Prison for eight years. Police successfully win a court order to force Coulston to give a DNA sample.

Collecting his DNA is a crucial step in matching Coulston to the unsolved Balaclava and Sutherland crimes. But somehow, that DNA was never uploaded to the National Database, which can be accessed by police in other states.

Besides the missing DNA, Mick Stefanovic also wants to know what happened to the two bullets he retrieved from Coulston’s family farm – bullets that could help solve the murder of Jeff Parkinson in 1980.

During Sunday Night’s investigation, correspondence was uncovered dating back to 2001 to then NSW Police Commissioner Peter Ryan and the State Coroner. The letters written by senior police officers urge the re-opening of investigations into Ashley Couslton’s involvement in the Sutherland rapes, and the murder of Jeff Parkinson.

But those letters were ignored. No action was taken.

Mick Stefanovic will not rest until all the victims involved in New South Wales and Queensland receive justice.

And, he argues, just because Coulston is locked up doesn’t mean its case closed.


Reporter: Michael Usher

Producers: Lisa Ryan & Thea Dikeos