My sister, 3, vanished without a trace 50 years ago – I'm wracked with guilt
SPLASHING in the waves in her blue swimsuit, little Cheryl Grimmer didn’t have a care in the world.
The three year old, with her blonde hair and sunburnt nose, paddled happily at Fairy Meadow beach, 50 miles from Sydney — a perfect day in her perfect new life in Australia, after her family emigrated from Bristol to the New South Wales town of Wollongong.
But in a heartbeat, every parent’s worst nightmare would unfold and that dream day would turn into one of horror and heartbreak.
Watching from the beach on January 12, 1970, were Cheryl’s mum Carole, 26, and brothers Ricki, seven, Stephen, five, and Paul, four. Her father Vince, 24, was at work in the Australian Army.
When a sudden sandstorm sent families scrambling off the beach, Ricki was charged with taking his siblings to a shower block at the top of the beach to wait for his mum while she packed up.
At 2pm, Ricki glanced over and saw his little sister a few feet away in the doorway of the women’s changing block. It was the last time she would ever be seen.
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Like Madeleine McCann 37 years later, blue-eyed Cheryl vanished into thin air, and her disappearance would become one of Australia’s longest unsolved crimes.
Within hours, a huge search operation began, involving 500 army personnel. The story dominated both the Australian and UK media, while Cheryl’s family on both sides of the world desperately prayed for good news that never came.
In May 2011, 41 years after Cheryl vanished, an inquest held at Wollongong Coroner’s Court ruled she’d been abducted and killed.
Six years later, following a cold-case review by the NSW Police Force, a man was arrested and charged with her murder, but a legal technicality saw the case against him collapse in 2019.
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This year, BBC podcast Fairy Meadow has revived interest in the story. Presented by reporter John Kay, the series focuses on the impact the disappearance had on Ricki, now 58 and living in Victoria, south-east Australia, and sets out to try to establish what really happened to Cheryl.
Meanwhile, Cheryl’s family continue to search for answers, and have petitioned both the UK and Australian governments, calling for a fresh trial of the man previously charged with her murder.
“We keep campaigning for Cheryl,” says her niece Melanie, a 40-year-old mum of four from Wollongong. “She never had the chance to grow up and be my auntie, so I want her voice to be heard.”
Melanie was just three when she learned of the dark tragedy in her family history.
“I saw a photograph of my dad Ricki on the front page of a newspaper and asked my grandparents about it,” she recalls. “That’s when they explained to me about their missing daughter, Cheryl.
“I grew up with that knowledge. I wasn’t sheltered from it but it was something that wasn’t talked about.
“My dad never discussed it and I felt that it just wouldn’t be right to ask questions. It hung over the family like a shadow.”
A few days after Cheryl’s disappearance, police in the nearby town of Bulli received a ransom note from somebody who claimed to have Cheryl and demanded $10,000 and a pardon.
The mayor of Bulli put up the ransom money and the location and time of the handover was publicised.
On January 17, outside Bulli Library, crowds gathered in the hope of witnessing the handover, but it never happened. Police later said the letter was a hoax.
Weeks and months passed without news. “No one talks about the repercussions that ripple out through the family,” says Melanie.
“There’s all the initial interest and shock that a child has gone missing, but after six months the story goes cold. Meanwhile, the family is there devastated, trying to come to terms with it.”
We keep campaigning for Cheryl. She never had the chance to grow up and be my auntie, so I want her voice to be heard.
In April 1971, a troubled 17 year old, given the code name “Mercury” by police, and whose real identity cannot be reported for legal reasons, claimed to have information about Cheryl’s disappearance.
When police interviewed him, he said he’d taken her, strangled her and dumped her body in the hills above the beach, and he made a signed confession.
Police investigated and made the Grimmer family aware, but discounted his confession, believing he was a fantasist.
Decades passed and the weight of the tragedy continued to bear down on the family.
Carole and Vince carried on for the sake of their children, going on to open a restaurant in their adopted hometown of Wollongong. But the tragedy overshadowed their lives.
Cheryl’s brother Paul told the Fairy Meadow podcast: “Dad was only a young fella, with a wife and four beautiful kids that he wanted a better life for, so he brought us to Australia.
“When Cheryl went missing, it absolutely shattered him. It changed my dad, which changed our whole family.
“To this day, I won’t let even my own kids and grandkids out of my sight. When we go out, I don’t enjoy the day.
“My family enjoy it, but I’m just too busy checking numbers, counting heads, making sure that everyone is there.”
Meanwhile, Melanie’s father Ricki blamed himself for his baby sister’s disappearance.
Married three times, he’s battled alcohol addiction and depression, and cut himself off from his family for many years, even changing his surname.
His marriage to Melanie’s mother Anne ended when she was three, and she went on to have a fractured relationship with her father.
Dad was only a young fella, with a wife and four beautiful kids that he wanted a better life for, so he brought us to Australia. When Cheryl went missing, it absolutely shattered him. It changed my dad, which changed our whole family.
“I wasn’t in Dad’s life that often,” Melanie tells Fabulous. “I was always in contact with my nan and grandad, so I knew about Cheryl.
“I had blonde hair and blue eyes like her, so I reminded him of everything, and he was trying to shut all that out.”
In 2004, Vince died, aged 58, and a decade later Carole passed away, aged 70 — both going to the grave without ever knowing what had happened to their daughter.
Then, in 2016, two Australian detectives, Frank Sanvitale and Damian Loone, began a cold case review, examining eight boxes of dusty statements and evidence that had lain untouched for years.
The duo re-read the 1971 confession and realised it contained information that, with the benefit of hindsight, implicated Mercury.
Surprisingly, Ricki had never been interviewed, but when Sanvitale and Loone spoke with him, he described seeing a “big kid”, who matched Mercury’s description.
Ricki also told the detectives that just before Cheryl went missing he had lifted his sister up to drink from the water fountain by the changing rooms.
This detail, never reported in the media, was mirrored in Mercury’s 1971 confession, in which he said he saw a boy lifting Cheryl up to get a drink.
Cops surmised that Mercury could not have recounted the scene if he wasn’t there.
At a press conference at the beach appealing for new information, Ricki, who by then had been through counselling, spoke emotionally about his baby sister, describing her as: “Our little princess. She was cheeky and cute, always cheerful.”
He said: “It’s affected me all my life. Everyone says it wasn’t my fault, but come and stand where I’m standing and see what it feels like.
“Just let us know where she is, give us something so we can mourn. It’s cost me and my family everything.”
Melanie, who had not had contact with her father for two years, recalls seeing him cry for the first time at that 2016 press conference.
“It was a different side of him. He had never cried or showed any emotion about Cheryl or anything to do with that part of his life. He could never verbalise what he felt,” she explains.
It’s affected me all my life. Everyone says it wasn’t my fault, but come and stand where I’m standing and see what it feels like. Just let us know where she is, give us something so we can mourn. It’s cost me and my family everything.
“I stayed in the background and went and sat on the beach and cried. Everything hit home. He came up to me and we hugged.”
From that day, things changed between father and daughter.
“He calls or messages me every day now. He is there for the grandkids. I can have a conversation with him. I couldn’t before. It is very different,” says Melanie.
Following the press conference, police traced Mercury, who was by then 63 and had changed his name. Like the Grimmers, he’d also emigrated from the UK and was living in Melbourne, Victoria, with his second wife.
He was arrested, but denied the allegations and said he’d never even been to the beach in question.
He was extradited to Wollongong in March 2017 and pleaded not guilty at an initial hearing at the Supreme Court of New South Wales in September 2018.
A trial was set for the following year in Sydney, but at a pre-trial hearing, Mercury’s lawyers argued his confession was inadmissible, because in 1971 he’d been questioned without a supporting adult present, was in a disturbed state of mind and of below average intelligence.
The judge ruled the confession inadmissible and the trial collapsed. Mercury was freed in February 2019 without ever having to answer the charges against him.
Devastated, the Grimmer family unsuccessfully lobbied NSW Attorney General Mark Speakman to have a new trial held, then launched a public petition online calling for Mercury to face a judge and jury.
Following the collapse of the trial, the police announced a major case review and a $1million reward for information leading to a conviction.
He calls or messages me every day now. He is there for the grandkids. I can have a conversation with him. I couldn’t before. It is very different.
In January 2020, in an emotional ceremony, Ricki, Stephen, Paul and other family members unveiled a memorial plaque to Cheryl on Fairy Meadow beach.
It reads: “To this day, her loss continues to haunt her family and is unforgotten by the local community.”
It’s now, 52 years since Cheryl vanished on that sunny day, and the Grimmer family is still in a painful limbo, feeling frustrated and angry.
The ripple effect of Cheryl’s disappearance remains profound for Melanie, who suffers from anxiety and struggles to let her children Ethan, 11, Frank, nine, Olivia, four, and Tristan, two, out of her sight. Her husband Ben is a volunteer lifeguard at Fairy Meadow beach.
“When we go there with the kids, we are like hawks,” she says. “We are constantly watching, and the kids pick up on that anxiety.”
Melanie has come to accept Cheryl is dead and it’s unlikely her remains will ever be found. However, she believes she owes it to the aunt she never met to keep her name and memory alive.
“I teach my children that, although Cheryl is lost, this is who she was and this is the history. They will teach their children and Cheryl will live on.
“If we forget, she fades away — and I don’t want that to happen.”
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