The ‘Scarlet Letter’ murder mystery
Beth Barnard was having an affair with her married boss, which police believe is the reason the letter "A" was brutally carved into her chest.
She lived with her parents on idyllic Phillip Island, a five-thousand-strong beach community, and worked as a farmhand for the Camerons, a well-liked and wealthy family from the area. Fergus Cameron was a founding shareholder of the Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit, a lucrative venture, but nevertheless he continued working for the family farm.
It soon became common knowledge to numerous townsfolk that 23-year-old Barnard and 36-year-old Fergus Cameron were engaged in an illicit relationship, complicated by Cameron's marriage and his two sons.
His wife, Vivienne Cameron, had started to hear the rumours.
On the evening of September 22, 1986, Fergus left work early and spent a few hours at Beth's parents' house, taking advantage of the fact they were out of town. During this time his wife Vivienne called the farmhouse and ascertained that he wasn't at work like he'd claimed he'd be. Evidence of Fergus's affair was starting to become undeniable and, as she waited for her husband, she stewed.
At 9.20pm, Fergus returned home and Vivienne confronted him about the affair. Blindsided, he confessed all. In a fit of rage, she smashed a wine glass across his head and back, causing injuries so severe, she needed to take him to hospital. The pair arranged for Fergus's sister Marnie and her husband Ian to come around and watch the two kids.
Marnie and Ian were greeted with a blood-and-glass strewn house, which they dutifully cleaned up.
The couple returned from the hospital about 12.30am, in a much calmer state. Discussing their splintered marriage, the pair decided to divorce. Given the Camerons were a prominent family on Phillip Island, it was decided Fergus would stay there with the kids; Vivienne would move back to Melbourne and stay with her parents, while she figured out her next move.
She dropped Fergus off at his sister's house and returned home.
A LATE-NIGHT VISIT
About 3am, Robin Dixon's husband was woken by a phone call.
Robin's friend Vivienne Cameron was on the phone, requesting the pair come over to look after her children while she took her husband to the hospital - a trip that actually happened hours earlier. Robin agreed to the request and arrived at the house to find both adults gone, with the children sleeping soundly. Robin noticed Vivienne had left her purse behind. This would become a relevant piece of information.
According to the official timeline, shortly after making the call to Robin, Vivienne hopped into her husband's Toyota LandCruiser and made her way to Beth's house.
The LandCruiser was seen by Beth's neighbour about 3.30am, then was next spotted about 5am at the Phillip Island Bridge, where it would stay until police located it 10 hours later. When they examined the vehicle they found it contained, among other items, two packets of cigarettes, a carving knife and a face washer covered in blood.
Fergus was woken at his sister's house the next morning by a call from Robin, asking why Vivienne had not yet returned for the children. Fergus's thoughts turned to his mistress, Beth, and the violent fight with his wife the previous night. Rather than check on her himself, he asked his brother Don and brother-in-law Ian to pay her a visit.
A VIOLENT MURDER
The scene Don and Ian walked in on was truly horrific. Beth Barnard's nightgown had been lifted up to her neck, and her body bore the results of numerous frenzied slash and stab marks. Her throat had been deeply sliced, and an unmistakeable "A" had been carved into her chest.
"You're talking about four slashes one way, 10 slashes the other and five across. That's not just someone gently carving an A," former detective Rory O'Connor, who headed up the investigation, explained to True Crime Scene.
Her hands had defensive cuts on them and paper towels near the bathroom sink were stained with blood, as was much of the house. A knife had been disposed of near her body. A few stray cigarette butts were found, suggesting the killer was in no real rush to leave; nor were they particularly concerned about covering their tracks.
One thing was clear. This murder was personal.
"This was a vicious and frenzied attack," O'Connor continued.
"It was personal all right. There is no doubt about intent whatsoever."
The "A" carved on her chest was of most interest. Police theorised that this was a reference to The Scarlet Letter: A Romance, the decidedly unromantic 1850 novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Set in Puritan Boston, the novel centres on a young woman who gives birth to a baby out of wedlock. Her public trial involves her having to wear a scarlet "A" on her chest for the rest of her life - a sign to the community that she was an adulteress.
The connection to Beth Barnard's affair was clear. Vivienne Cameron quickly became the obvious suspect.
As police searched for Vivienne, they came across her LandCruiser parked near the bridge - knife and blood inside - but saw no sight of Vivienne.
She was never seen alive again and, considering where her car was parked, the previous evening's revelations, the hospital visit and the evidence in the car, it was assumed Vivienne Cameron murdered Beth Barnard, then drove to the bridge where she killed herself in the early hours.
"I am satisfied that (Vivienne Cameron) is dead and that she leapt from the San Remo Bridge into the water below, and I am satisfied that the deceased contributed to the cause of (Barnard's) death," coroner BJ Maher found in 1988.
The case was closed, and the Cameron family were allowed to carry on with their lives.
Still, doubts remained, and continue to plague the residents of the small island.
SOME OF THE EVIDENCE DOESN'T ADD UP
One phone call completely throws out the official timeline police were working with.
Glenda Frost received a phone call about 10am on September 23, a call she swears was from Vivienne Cameron. This call came five hours after Cameron's vehicle was first spotted near the bridge, when it is presumed she leapt to her death. Frost is adamant it was Cameron. The pair spoke about sewing patterns and of details that only Cameron knew. Cameron also maintained she hadn't mixed the days or time up, as a friend had visited that morning who confirmed the details.
Vivienne's purse, the one seen inside her house by Robin Dixon, was also found inside the LandCruiser, further muddying the official timeline. It would have had to have been placed in the vehicle sometime in the hours leading up to the Landcruiser's discovery at 4pm.
DNA testing done during the 1990s did find the blood on the handle of the knife at the crime scene belonged to Vivienne, yet none of Vivienne's DNA was on or around Beth's body. The only places Vivienne's DNA was recovered were on isolated items: a towel, a knife and on the cigarette butts found in the house.
The towel found in the bathroom contained Vivienne's blood, yet none of Beth's. If Vivienne had murdered Beth in such a brutal fashion, then used this towel to clean up, it seems impossible this towel would contain none of Beth's blood.
Vivienne's blood was also found in the Cameron house, despite hospital records stating she was not treated during their visit, with only Fergus being seen to. This blood would have had to appear sometime after 12.30am.
New Zealand true crime show Sensing Murder sent a private investigator to Phillip Island in 2006. While the show's main premise - charging three physics with speaking to the dead murder victims to help solve cold cases - is decidedly unscientific, the investigator uncovered a lot of evidence that blasts holes in the official version of the story.
The investigator found it odd that no other reported suicides had ever been registered at the bridge and that Vivienne's body failed to be found in the waters below, despite an extensive search.
He uncovered recordings of Beth describing a former partner who was stalking her just before she was murdered. She didn't seem scared by the man's attention, more amused, but he followed her around, waited outside her house on various occasions, left her flowers - and left Phillip Island shortly after her murder.
Police say they cleared this suspect, who has never been publicly named.
Most shocking was a piece of paper with Beth's blood on it that the private investigator said was found in another Phillip Island home. This paper was seen in the house before midnight, hours before Beth was claimed to have been killed, again throwing out the official timeline.
Details of the witness, the DNA results, and the house were legally suppressed, so the veracity of this final detail remains uncertain.
Still, it all casts doubt on whether Vivienne acted alone. Or at all.
THE LOCALS ARE SCARED
Author Vikki Petraitis, who wrote the 1993 book The Phillip Island Murder, became fascinated with the case after attending a professional development course to help teachers better aid the children of divorce. She was told the story of Vivienne Cameron, the premise being that her own parents' separation later triggered her mental breakdown upon the dissolution of her own marriage. It seemed to Petraitis like a straightforward premise for a book.
"Woman snaps, girlfriend is murdered, woman suicides," she tells news.com.au.
"But a closer inspection revealed it to be so much more complicated and not as clear as it first seemed. There are so many theories and all we know is that we don't know what really happened on the night. What we do know is that the official version doesn't really make sense."
Petraitis visited Phillip Island to interview locals and research the case, but was met with a curious level of resistance, and a climate of fear.
"When I first went to the island to start my research, I was warned off writing the book, so I knew from the start there would be opposition", she explains.
"What kept me going were the people who were willing to speak to me off the record about how they felt justice hadn't been done. They certainly felt that if the official version was correct, Vivienne had acted out of character. The case also brings up the question: would a woman commit that kind of brutal crime? Could a woman hold on to murderous rage for seven hours?"
This aspect of the crime seems to most fascinate the public. Petraitis tells news.com.au that although her book came out over 25 years ago, she is still regularly contacted by those with theories on what happened. But, as she explains, "The police can't act on theories. They can only act on facts and evidence."
While researching her book, she contacted the forensic scientist who originally examined the evidence from the crime scene. He revealed his uncertainty that the knife found near Beth's body - the one that DNA testing later found to contain Vivienne's blood on the handle - was actually the one used in the murder, pointing out the double cuts on her clothing were inconsistent with the blade.
This suggests a separate murder weapon, and possibly planted evidence, containing Vivienne's blood. Add this to the locals' unease at being interviewed for her book, and it would seem there are those who may know more than they are letting on.
"Many refused to be interviewed when I first wrote the book," Petraitis recalls. "Some would only be interviewed off the island. It seemed like people were scared to speak about it. I have no idea why."
When the book was published, Phillip Island bookstores refused to stock it. An excerpt ran in The Sunday Age, which local newsagencies and corner stores wouldn't sell.
Luckily, time has made those on the island more open to discussion.
"Thirty years later, people are much more willing to talk. It is still a topic of regular conversation among many locals," Petraitis says.
"People need an ending to the case that makes sense. They need to feel justice has been done."
Fergus Cameron still lives on Phillip Island and is deputy chair of Destination Phillip Island, the tourism organisation tasked with attracting holiday makers to the beautiful, peaceful destination. News.com.au does not suggest Fergus Cameron had anything to do with Beth Barnard's murder.
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