In the southern reaches of New South Wales, Australia, lies the quiet hamlet of Kalaru. Tucked away south of Bega, this close-knit community, with its lush green pastures and rolling landscapes, was home to a mere 400 residents in 1997. In the heart of prime south-coast dairy country, Kalaru boasted a tranquil rural lifestyle, where neighbours knew one another by name.
Amidst the unpretentious dwellings, a service station, and a humble caravan park, there was a sense of security and familiarity. Surrounded by pristine bushland and picturesque beaches, the area was a haven for horseback riding and swimming enthusiasts. However, the tranquility and peace that defined Kalaru were shattered in 1997 when two local teenagers vanished under unsettling circumstances, revealing the grim consequences of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
14-year-old Lauren Barry and 16-year-old Nicole Collins were best friends and students at Bega High School. They bonded over their shared love for horse riding and bushwalking. Lauren was soft spoken but was also extremely outgoing and full of life. She wanted to work with small children or animals. Her father, Garret Barry, was Bega Valley Shire Council town planner, and her mother, Cheryl, was a stay at home mom. She was exceptionally close with her older brother, Nathan.
Nicole too was a social butterfly who loved people. She worked part-time as a checkout in Coles Supermarket in Bega where she was known as a hardworking and dedicated employee. She had aspirations of becoming an interior designer or chiropractor. Her father, Graeme, was a vet and her mother, Delma, was a nurse in the local day surgery.1
Among Lauren and Nicole’s circle of friends were Sarah Brennan and Rebecca Kemble. The group of friends had planned a camping party at White Rock in Kalaru. White Rock was in the Evans Hill area – an area that both girls knew very well. It was only one or two kilometres away from their homes. Lauren was a champion long-distance runner and had run numerous bush tracks in the area.
The camping party was to celebrate Lauren’s upcoming 15th birthday and they invited a number of other local boys and girls as well as Nathan, Lauren’s brother. After setting up camp 3 October, 1997, the group relaxed around the campfire, swam and rode horses.2
Throughout the camping trip, the girls returned home to get showers and fresh clothing. On Saturday, Nicole returned home briefly to wish her mother a happy birthday. Meanwhile, Lauren attended a family dinner at her home. Afterwards, both girls returned to the campsite and on Sunday morning, Nicole’s parents visited the campsite to see how everybody was getting on. She said that all of the teenagers were in high spirits and chatted to them before they returned home.3
Teenagers had often camped at White Rock and there had never been any problems and as they believed, it was a safe area. At approximately 9PM on Sunday the 5th of October, the girls left their other friends at the campsite, stating that they were going to a party seven kilometers away at Jellat Jellat.
Earlier in the evening, two boys who were at the camp headed off to the party and later on, the girls decided they wanted to go too. Nicole believed that her ex-boyfriend would be at the party and she wanted to talk with him.4
The girls were experienced in the bush and had gone on numerous horseback rides along the trails. They were carrying only a flashlight and no supplies or clothing, indicating that they planned on returning to the campsite. However, the girls never returned that night and they never showed up to the party.
The alarm was raised the following morning when Nathan woke up and found that his sister and Nicole still hadn’t made it back. Nathan rushed back home to see if maybe the girls had stayed overnight at the family home, but they weren’t there.5
When the girls were nowhere to be found, their families alerted police and a search party was assembled. The officers were assisted by sniffer dogs and SES volunteers. The search party scoured the bushland near Tathra looking for more clues which could hopefully lead to the pair. The police air-wing Polair also hovered overhead but were unsuccessful in finding any more clues. On day two of the search, it was called off due to heavy rainfall and poor visibility but it continued at 7AM on the third day.
Initially, police announced that they didn’t speculate foul play in the teenagers disappearance. “At the moment there’s nothing to indicate there’s a major problem,” said Constable Trish Swilks of Bega police.6
Due to the fact that Lauren and Nicole were teenagers, many questioned whether they had quite simply just ran away from home. One rumour that circulated around the area was that they had run off to join a hippy commune near Bega or had ran off to Melbourne. Lauren’s father, Garrett, denounced this theory, stating that his daughter would never dream of running away.
He said: “There is no reason to believe she or Nicole would do that. She is such a happy, outgoing girl, very considerate. She always phoned us to tell us where she was, even if she was just down the road.” Nicole’s father echoed this belief and said that he was also certain that his daughter would never get into the car with somebody she doesn’t know.7
In the immediate aftermath of the disappearance, there were a number of reported sightings of the girls, some as far as Sydney and right down to Melbourne. However, they all led to dead ends. “We have received and checked out quite a few sightings but most of them have been reported simply because people have seen two girls about their ages,” said a police spokesman. They also announced that they were confident that the two girls weren’t lost or injured in the bush somewhere.8
It wouldn’t be long until worry turned to fear when at around 4:30PM on Monday, a local man named Alan Lane discovered a jumper and flannel shirt while on his way to a local tip. It was located around 1KM away from the camping ground and in the opposite direction of where the girls had supposedly been heading. The items of clothing were identified as belonging to Lauren and Nicole. The discovery led to fears that Lauren and Nicole had met with foul play but police said that they would be keeping an open mind.9
One witness did come forward to say that they had spotted the two girls walking along the Snowy Mountains Highway while another witness said they were certain they had seen Lauren and Nicole talking to someone in a cream-coloured four cylinder sedan at around 9:30PM. After these reported sightings, police soon declared that they believed that the girls may have hitchhiked or were “taken” and began actively looking for the car.
Lauren and Nicole’s parents made emotional pleas on national television, urging anybody with any information to come forward. Nicole’s father, Graeme, shared his belief that his daughter and best friend had been abducted. “It’s a parent’s nightmare to think that they’re not going to see their children again. It’s been obviously a worry all along that somehow or another they’ve been forcibly removed from the area. If they have… we’d just like any information at all,” he said. He even addressed the girls’ potential captor, urging him to have some human decency and let them know if their daughters are alive or dead.
Both families were extremely proactive in the search for Lauren and Nicole. Nathan spent hours searching the rugged bushland near where the girls were last spotted. “I feel she’s around here somewhere. It’s where some of her clothes were found. I’ve hardly slept since Sunday, just a nap here and there,” he said.
The shock of the girls’ disappearance reverberated through the idyllic Bega Valley surrounding Kalaru. Locals assisted in the search and handed out flyers of the missing girls. Classmates of the missing girls returned to school from their holidays in a sombre mood; many had spent sleepless nights out searching for Lauren and Nicole. Bega High School formulated a strategy to cope with the outpouring of grief from the students and friends of the girls. Counsellors were called in and quiet rooms were set aside for those who needed a moment to themselves.
As the search for Lauren and Nicole entered its second week, the police were no closer to explaining the strange disappearance as they were on day one. By this point in the investigation, police were stopping cars along the Snowy Mountains Highway and questioning the drivers. One driver told police he had seen the girls walking on the Tathra Road around 25 minutes after they left the campsite. He told police that the girls were alone. Police also decided that they would re-interview the friends and family of the girls but they offered no further insight as to where they could be.
The hope of finding the girls was quickly fading with every day that passed. The possibility that they had been abducted and killed continually gained momentum with each passing day. Police had a theory that they had been abducted after they walked through the bush and came upon the busy Snowy Mountain Highway, where they were last seen. They still wanted to speak to the driver of the cream coloured sedan but as of yet, nobody had come forward to identify the driver.
Police next focused their investigation to the Tathra area after they received a tip that the girls had been spotted in the area at around 11:15PM on the night they vanished. Police went door-to-door asking locals if they had seen or heard anything suspicious that night. One local said that at around 11:45PM, they heard a vehicle racing towards the beach and heard screams from two women. The screams did not bode well for the two missing girls and police issued a statement which read: “Police wish to speak to anyone who might have witnessed or heard these events or – if they events are not connected – the two women in the car at the time. If these two women could come forward and speak to task force members they could be eliminated from the inquiry.” 10
The news was devastating to Lauren and Nicole’s family. They had been on a rollercoaster of emotions and this new update made their hope that they would see their girls alive again almost completely dissolved to nothing. Graeme spoke to the media: “We’ve felt like they were abducted, well I did anyway, from within the first hour of them reported being missing. It’s just not like them to wander away end even after a quick search here and there for something that might have been usual, they weren’t there. When we found out from the other kids what their intentions were, I thought they’ve walked out on to the road ad I’ll bet they’ve got in car.”
He relayed the belief that the screams from inside the speeding car came from Lauren and Nicole. He said that both families were completely drained from the ordeal and that he was finding it difficult to shake the feeling of defeat each night.11
There was little traction in the case until the 12th of November, when police announced that they had arrested two men in relation to the disappearance. Police placed the families on notice and said that a breakthrough in the case was imminent but did not elaborate any further. The men had been arrested after an informant called police and said the men had been speaking suspiciously about the case and that they were in Bega around the time of the girls’ disappearance. When police brought them in for questioning, they found evidence in a car which had been stolen by the two men. Initially, they were tight-lipped about what they had found but later disclosed that they had found bloodstained clothing.12
In another development, AFP divers began searching a section of Lake Burley Griffin, near Lennox Gardens. They announced that they were looking for a possible weapon. The girls’ families – as well as the public – were left in the dark as police and the AFP refused to comment. Was the fact that they were looking for a weapon confirmation that Lauren and Nicole were dead?
The following day, it was announced that the badly decomposed bodies of Lauren and Nicole had been discovered lying beside the bank of Fiddlers Green Creek near the Cann Valley Highway. There was no attempt made to conceal their bodies. Police confirmed that they had both been sexually assaulted and then stabbed repeatedly. “They’ve been here for some six weeks and we will have some difficulties determining what’s happened,” said Victorian Homicide Squad Head, Chief Inspector Rod Collins. He also disclosed that they had reason to believe that Lauren and Nicole had been there since the day they disappeared and that they had been murdered where they were found. “They have been taken down a very steep incline, across the creek, and we believe that’s where they lost their lives,” said Collins.
Detective Shane Box – who had become close with both families – had the task of sharing the crushing news to them. The discovery of the bodies ended the agonizing six week search for the two girls and shattered the innocence of their quaint town.
Graeme admitted that he and his wife, Delma, had been expecting the worst but said that the details about what his daughter and her best friend had suffered was worse than he imagined. He had asked to see his daughter’s body so that he could “share her pain” but his request was turned down. Inspector Shane Box said that he had been protecting Graeme by not allowing him to see his daughter’s body. Instead, the families visited the site where their girls’ were killed.13
The names of the two men – aged 23 and 23 – were not initially released to the public but police did confirm that they had led police to the bodies and that they had found the murder weapon in Lake Burley. One of the two men was currently on bail after his trial on child sexual assault charges was aborted. He had been facing 10 charges of sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl but the charges were aborted because of what the judge said were “extraordinarily prejudicial” comments by the New South Wales Minister for Police, Mr Paul Whelan. Three weeks after this, Lauren and Nicole were abducted and killed. The grim revelation led to many questionings why such an offender wasn’t under close surveillance.
The two men were finally identified as Leslie Camilleri and Lindsay Beckett.
Leslie Camilleri was born in Liverpool in May of 1969. By 1981, he was a familiar face in Minda Children’s Court after charges of breaking and entering and stealing. Over the next five years, he was a regular in the juvenile justice system for charges of theft, car offences, carrying a weapon, possession and absconding. Around 1968, he headed to Queensland and in 1989, he was in trouble with the law once again. He was charged with 15 counts of unlawful use of a car, 8 counts of breaking and entering and 92 counts of charging.
When he broke into home, Camillieri would steal anything, from TV sets and stereos to ice lollies and dog leads. In April of 1997, Camilleri was charged with possessing stolen goods. In October of 1995, he, he had been charged on 10 counts – including 6 of sexual intercourse with a child and one of indecent assault – committed against an 11-year-old girl. He went to trial in September of 1997 but as mentioned earlier, the trial was aborted after the judge ruled comments from a police officer as “extremely prejudicial.”14
Lindsay Beckett was born in one of the poorest parts of New Zealand. He was the product of rape and was born when his mother was just 15-years-old. He never knew his father but was abused by his stepfather who was an angry drunk. By age 13, he was drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana. As a teenager, he abandoned his family and fled to Australia where he drifted through southern New South Wales, living a life of crime. He funded his lifestyle by breaking into cars and assaulting and robbing people.
Then he met a young mother named Lauralee Tatt at Griffith Hospital where she was recovering after an assault. The two moved in together and over the course of six years, Beckett routinely beat and raped Tatt, who bore him three children. While Beckett was a career criminal, he was certainly no criminal mastermind. He didn’t hide his tracks or attempt to conceal evidence and was pretty easy to catch. In April of 1997, Beckett was suspended from driving after a high range drink driving offence. The following month, he was fined $100 for offensive conduct and the following week, charged over marijuana found in his car. Then in June, he was committed to trial on charges of sexual assault but was given bail.
With both men on bail, they headed towards Canberra.
In the wake of the murders, many questioned how Camilleri and Beckett had been allowed by the justice criminal system to roam through New South Wales without fear of being locked up. Both men had over 200 criminal convictions between them both. The tragic tale lurking beneath the murders was that both men should have been locked up at the time of the murders; Beckett, especially, should never have been released on bail.
As it turned out, in the run up to the murders, Beckett was ordered to meet with a parole officer but never showed up. Nevertheless, there were no repercussions and nobody thought to re-arrest him. Beckett had a litany of court cases raging from sexual assault to drug charges and 54driving with an unlicensed vehicle. The majority of the crimes were committed while Beckett was out on bail yet each time, he was able to avoid incarceration.
These two men had repeatedly waltzed through the criminal justice system.
As a timeline of the murders was being determined, a memorial service was held for Lauren and Nicole in Bega. Around 90% of local businesses closed to allow employees to commemorate the lives of the girls. The open air service was held in Littletown Gardens and was conducted by Salvation Army Chaplain Captain Rob Anderson. More than 3000 people crammed in to the gardens to attend the memorial. Those who spoke at the service described Lauren as a talented athlete with a smile to die for and of Nicole being always boisterous and the centre of attention. The girls’ fathers, Graeme and Garrett, thanked the community for its constant support since the girls disappeared.
On the 16th of November, Beckett re-enacted the sequence of events that ended with the murders of Lauren and Nicole. The route took Beckett to sites in Canberra on the Far South Coast and across the Victorian border to eastern Gippsland.
The night of terror began when Camilleri and Beckett picked Lauren and Nicole up in a white Ford sedan outside Kalaru, near Bega, at around 10PM. The men pulled up alongside the girls and told them they were going to the beach for some beers and invited them along. Sadly, Lauren and Nicole agreed.
They did indeed go to the beach for a while but as they were driving back to the campsite, the car began scraping on the surface of the dirt track. According to Beckett, Camilleri went into hysterics and shouted at the girls. He pulled over to the side of the road and produced a knife and threatened the girls to comply to what they demanded of them. They first of all drove to Wallagoot Road in Kalaru where Camilleri raped Nicole while Beckett raped Lauren. They then headed to Ben Boyd National Park where both men raped both girls and then again in Eden where Beckett had once worked on a fishing trawler.
They drove around for around 8 hours, periodically stopping to rape the girls and physically assault them. At one point during the night, Camilerri left the car with Lauren, leaving Beckett and Nicole alone in the car.
Seemingly aware of their fate, the girls began to question their captors if they were going to be killed and begged for their lives. The two men denied that they were going to kill them and said they were just going to tie them up so that they could escape. According to Beckett, Camilleri then instructed him to find a secluded area off the road. The girls were then gagged and led around 250 metres down a steep embankment to Fiddlers Green Creek.
Here, the men ordered the girls into the creek to “wash away any evidence.” Next, they hogtied Lauren beside the creek and tied Nicole to the tree around 30 metres away from Lauren. Once rendered unable to move, Camilleri returned to the car, telling Beckett to “do his thing.”
Beckett first of all attempted to drown Lauren in the creek by holding her head underwater. However, while flailing in the creek, Lauren splashed water on Beckett. Infuriated that his jeans were wet, he produced a knife which was in his pocket and stabbed her in the neck, cutting his own thumb in the process.
Next, Beckett turned his attention to Nicole. The forest was eerily quiet; there was no doubt that she heard her best friend struggle for her life and when that sound stopped, she almost certainly knew that Lauren was dead and that she too was going to die. When Beckett approached Nicole, she said “you’re going to kill me, aren’t you.” Beckett ordered Nicole to shut up before cutting her throat and stabbing her twice in the chest while aiming for her heart. Despite her fatal injuries, Nicole was still alive. Beckett mercilessly punched and kicked her until she stopped moving.
Following the murders, the men drove to Canberra where they burnt Beckett’s blood-stained clothing and the ropes used to tie the girls up.
The following year, Beckett pleaded guilty to two counts of murder. In a pre-sentencing hearing, it was revealed that Camilleri and Beckett had abducted and raped an unnamed 19-year-old women 3 weeks before the murders. The woman was held for 12 hours but managed to escape and hide in a wombat hole before running to get home.
Camilleri, had yet to enter a plea but it was announced that Beckett had turned Crown witness and would give evidence at his committal hearing. Beckett’s defence lawyer, Mr Patrick Tehan, said that the Justice Frank Vincent should take into consideration Beckett’s youth, his guilty plea, and his promise to give evidence against Camilleri, when it came to sentencing him. He said that Beckett was abused by his stepfather and was the father of three children so could appreciate the grief felt by the girl’s families.
Justice Vincent described the evidence as some as the most horrible he had ever heard: “In an extensive exposure to violence, which now almost encompasses 40 years, I do not think that I have ever heard a more terrible or moving description of a death of a person.” He sentenced Beckett to two concurrent life terms with a 35-year minimum. It was one of the longest non-parole periods in Australian criminal history 15
The details of the crime were so horrendous that Justice Vincent was on the verge of tears as he delivered his 27-page summary: “You took your knife out and stabbed Lauren Barry because, to use your own words, you were pissed off when your knee became wet as you attempted to drown her. Your description of the death of Nicole Collins was one of the most chilling I have encountered over many years in that it was totally devoid of any recognition that you were speaking about the killing of an innocent girl.”
The following week after his sentencing, Beckett was back in court but this time, he was testifying against Camilleri in a pre-trial hearing. Camilleri pleaded not guilty. A psychologist with the NSW Department of Corrective Services said that Camilleri had been suicidal and was afraid of jail. She said she believed he was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. Magistrate Wendy Wilmouth ordered Camilleri to stand trial.
The trial opened in February of 1999. In opening statements, Crown prosecutor Graeme Hicks told the court room that Camilleri raped and murdered Lauren and Nicole. He said that Camilleri will ask them to believe that he was on heroin and asleep while Beckett raped and murdered the girls. Camilleri had told police that he awoke from his slumber in the car to see Beckett “emerging from the deep forest covered in blood.” Hicks walked the jury through the final terrifying hours of the girls’ lives.
The woman who had been raped by Camilleri and Beckett also took to the stand to detail her traumatising ordeal. She said that Camilleri had threatened her with a knife, telling her that he wouldn’t “hesitate to kill.”16
After taking turns in raping her over the course of several hours, the men began discussing how they would kill her. Her ordeal practically mirrored the ordeal of Lauren and Nicole but unlike them, this unnamed woman managed to escape.
Beckett also took the stand to describe how Camilleri ordered him to kill the two girls. Beckett testified that he told Camilleri that he didn’t want to kill both of them himself but Camilleri said if he didn’t, then he would kill him. Hicks addressed Beckett; “Your initial objection was not so much to killing a girl yourself but just killing both of them, is that right?” Beckett replied “yes.”
Forensic scientist Maxwell Jones testified next. He told the jury that a semen sample found on the shirts of one of the victims matched Camilleri.17
He said that the chances that a member of the general Victorian population having the same combination of DNA types was expected to be rarer than one in a million.
In April, after 48 hours of deliberation, Camilleri was found guilty of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The verdict was a relief to both families.18
The families spoke to the media outside court, with Graeme stating: “We’re just looking forward to putting all the ugly bits behind us and getting on and remembering our girls the way they were.”
In 2012, Camilleri confessed to the murder of 13-year-old Prue Bird, who had disappeared from her Glenroy home in February of 1992. He was sentenced to an additional 28 years.
The small hamlet of Kalaru was never really the same after the murders of Lauren and Nicole. Their killers represented the darkness where local women and children now feared to walk. The murders left the tight-knit community with traumatic images of the fear, trauma and pain that Lauren and Nicole experienced on that horrific night. To be a human is to understand pain and fear and to know that we all have an equal right to a life. The case of the Bega Schoolgirl Murders highlighted the fact that some people in this world, however, do not have that innate human understanding. As Camilleri and Beckett languish in prison, we know that they’re finally exactly where they belong and where they should’ve been on that fateful evening they crossed paths with Lauren Barry and Nicole Collins.
- Illawarra Mercury, 9 October, 1997 – “Missing Girls Baffle Police”
- The Sydney Morning Herald, 9 October, 1997 – “Two Missing Teenage Girls May Have Been Abducted, Say Police”
- Illawarra Mercury, 11 October, 1997 -“Parents’ Journey to Hell”
- The Sydney Morning Herald, 9 October, 1997 – “Two Missing Teenage Girls May Have Been Abducted, Say Police”
- Illawarra Mercury, 10 October, 1997 – “Kidnapped? Desperate Dad Fear Daughters Abducted”
- Illawarra Mercury, 1 October, 1997 – “Heartbroken Brother’s Tragic Search”
- Illawarra Mercury, 13 October, 1997 – “High School Prepares for Grief”
- Illawarra Mercury, 25 October, 1997 -“Screams Clue to Missing Bega Teens”
- The Sydney Morning Herald, 18 October, 1997 – “Town That Won’t Give Up”
- The Age, 14 November, 1997 – “Girls Assaulted, Stabbed – The Bega Murders”
- Illawarra Mercury, 19 November, 1997 – “Bega’s Day of Sorrow”
- The Age, 27 November, 1997 – “Two Raped Bega Girls Repeatedly, Court Told”
- The Age, 15 August, 1998 – “Life in Jail Urged for Bega Murders”
- The Advertiser, 21 August, 1998 – “I Hope You Rot In Hell; Sobs Fill Courtroom”
- The Sun Herald, 13 September, 1998 – “Why Did That Monster Have To Kill Our Girls?
- The Weekend Australian, 18 February, 1999 – “Fateful Decision that Led to
- The Age, 17 March, 1999 – “DNA Used Against Suspect”
- The Sun Herald, 11 April, 1999 – “Our Girls Can Rest in Peace”