Looking for Spider-Man
Missing William Tyrrell
By Caroline Overington. HarperCollins, 304pp, $34.99
Review by ROSS FITZGERALD
In ‘Missing William Tyrrell’, journalist and author Caroline Overington provides a series of compelling questions and answers regarding the most infamous recent case of a child who seems to have simply vanished. In doing so, she has produced her best book yet. The disappearance of three-year-old William, on the morning of September 12, 2014, from a quiet street in the mid-north-coast NSW village of Kendall is one of Australia’s most baffling and harrowing mysteries.
The boy was last seen playing in the garden of 48 Benaroon Drive where he was staying at his foster grandmother’s house. He was dressed in his favourite, fire-engine-red Spider-Man suit.
Initially it was thought William was lost in local bushland. But after intensive searches, NSW police came to believe he had been abducted. Yet, after untiring efforts of police and volunteers, not a skerrick of evidence has been unearthed. It now seems likely that he was taken by a person, or persons, unknown.
The more I read this excellent book, the more I was reminded of the similarities between William Tyrrell and the disappearance of another three-year-old, Madeleine McCann, who in May 2007 was snatched from her parents’ hotel room in Portugal’s Praia da Luz.
But unlike the McCann case, William’s family circumstances are complex, and crucial to Overington’s narrative.
William’s biological mother and father are from Sydney’s west, but his devoted foster parents, in whose care he had been since infancy, live in Sydney’s north.
As Overington explains, it is against the law in NSW for anyone, including herself as author, to reveal the identities of anyone in either family. This is primarily to protect the privacy of William’s sister, ‘‘Lindsay’’, a pseudonym given to her by the Children’s Court.
At the time William went missing, he, Lindsay, who was then four, and their foster parents were visiting Kendall to see the children’s foster ‘‘Nana’’, whose house on a bush block at Benaroon Drive they had often visited between 2012 and 2014. As Overington writes, “They just loved it there.”
There was never any relationship between William’s biological and foster parents. But soon after William disappeared, detectives in Kendall focused their inquiries on his biological parents. As Overington writes: “The idea that they had taken him was statistically more likely than a random snatch.” But as she documents, his biological parents were not in Kendall the day William vanished.
Overington makes clear that her book is a tribute to William’s two families. “They have shown tremendous courage and resilience in the face of a monstrous crime. Their suffering is unimaginable. To lose a child. To never know what happened. We can’t leave them to that fate.”
‘Missing William Tyrrell’ is a moving and meticulously researched book and it chronicles how well-meaning police made mistakes in their investigations.
A key section concerns Bill Spedding, a white-goods repairman who fixed a washing machine for William’s foster grandma a few days before William disappeared. As Overington reveals, “he was targeted by police and, in the process, lost his home and his livelihood”. As she stresses, no evidence has been found linking Spedding to the crime.
Woven into the narrative are some tantalising clues. These include a claim by William’s foster mum that, on the morning of September 12, 2014, she had seen two battered cars suspiciously parked between driveways in Benaroon Drive. So far no one else has verified this claim.
As well as acknowledging the ongoing work of NSW police, Overington singles out for praise two retired homicide officers. These are Hans Rupp, the first lead detective from Sydney to work on the case, and Gary Jubelin, who believes he has been made a scapegoat for the failure of the investigation. Having devoted four years of his life trying to find William, Jubelin was estranged from some of his colleagues. In January 2019 he was taken off the case.
An arresting photograph in the book is of Jubelin before he quit the force, announcing, on the second anniversary of William’s disappearance, an unprecedented $1m reward for anyone with information that might reunite the boy with his loving families. On April 7, a magistrate will deliver his verdict in the trial of Jubelin for four breaches of the NSW Surveillance Devices Act.
At the time of writing, an inquest into William’s disappearance was ongoing. Like Rupp and Jubelin, many serving police officers insist the case must remain active. Overington agrees. “We have to find William!” she writes. “It is not too late. We will keep searching until we bring him home.”
In her fine book, Overington makes it clear that she is passionate about this case and wants to see it solved, however long that takes.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.
The Weekend Australian, March 21-22, 2020, review, Books p 17.