JOHN Landos was just 13 when he went missing during a family holiday in Lorne in 1973. It wasn’t until the death of another boy a year later at the hands of a notorious paedophile, that police started to believe John might have suffered a similarly horrendous fate. NEW PODCAST - LISTEN NOW.
THE evening John Landos went missing, the Wheal family was at the kitchen table of their house overlooking the road from Lorne to Deans Marsh.
Wheals’ was the last house before Lorne’s outskirts ran into bush. So when they saw a slight teenage boy walking away from town, they wondered why.
The sun was setting, shadows were deepening in the Otways and the boy was moving purposefully.
“Where’s he going?” Peter Wheal would recall one of his parents asking as the small figure walked on.
They were the last to see him alive.
DOWN the hill in the Erskine River caravan park, Nikki Landos was uneasy.
John, at 13 the oldest of her three children, was well-behaved but resented being treated like a little boy. He had stamped off in rage after his father and others had gone rabbit shooting without him.
Nikki is an old woman now, a grandmother of adults.
As she tells the story of the few hours that changed her life, her eyes burn with pain that 40 years have not dimmed.
The Landos family, relatives and friends had started camping at Lorne each Christmas in the 1960s. There was no hot water and no electricity in the camp but they loved it because it was near the beach - and the bay reminded them of the coast of their native Cyprus.
Earlier that afternoon, John had been playing with friends in another tent.
His father Kyriakos had told him he could go shooting with him and the others in the evening if he was ready at 5pm. Kyriakos wasn’t a keen shooter - he went for the exercise and the company - but his son wanted to be included.
The men gathered to go but John hadn’t turned up. His father shrugged and said he would take him next time.
When John returned to find he’d been left behind, he was angry.
“He was crying and his face changed colour,” his mother recalls.
She tried to calm him but he started to walk off, holding the hand of his little brother Andrew, then 7.
His mother said to leave Andrew with her, and he did.
She went into the tent to do something. Later, someone asked “Where’s John?” and she said “He’s outside.”
But he wasn’t.
They searched the caravan park but found no sign of him.
Nikki could speak little English and took a teenage girl, a friend’s daughter, to the police station to help report him missing. They were fobbed off, she says.
A policeman told them the boy had probably gone to the local picture theatre, and to wait until the film ended before bothering him.
Nikki knew John had never wanted to go to the cinema and had no money to buy a ticket. She remembers a policeman saying: “If he’s old enough to go, he’s old enough to come back.”
When the men returned later that night - they’d been spotlighting - the hope that John had somehow reached them was shattered.
It was more than 20 kilometres to Deans Marsh, too far to walk, but his mother hoped he might have hitched a ride.
In fact, he most likely did accept a lift. But the driver suspected of picking him up was a serial paedophile who would rather kill than go back to jail.
He was known to police because he’d been offending for 20 years but no one thought to knock on his door until another boy went missing nearly two years later.
By that time John Landos’s father Kyriakos had criss-crossed the country, from Tasmania to northern Queensland, going anywhere there had been a sighting of a boy matching John’s description.
Kyriakos chased every rumour and hoax call.
A theory that John could have joined a wandering group of surfers led him to drive up the coast, posting reward notices in every town and begging for any information that might lead to his lost boy.
Nikki stayed home at Gresford St, Sunshine, trying to create a normal life for Kathy, then 11, and little Andrew.
Added to her torment was her fear that her husband would run off the road and kill himself on his lonely odysseys interstate.
The family pushed away the fear John had met foul play, willing themselves to believe he had run away and would be found.
In the beginning, they had stayed on at the campsite in Lorne, hoping John would return - from what or where they didn’t know.
Friends, family and workmates gathered and they scoured the district from Colac to Geelong.
When they went home to Sunshine, they agonised at leaving the place where they’d last seen him. So they scrimped and saved to buy a decrepit old house in Lorne’s main street.
They worked on it every weekend, cleaning and painting, finding solace in the work because to them it was for John.
They wanted the house as a lookout, a base in the place he’d gone missing.
They scanned every passing face for a clue. Years passed and they never stopped looking, until the false leads petered out.
By the 10th anniversary of John’s disappearance, his father had aged 20 years and had driven all over Australia in his dogged search.
“Every time I hear of a body my heart misses a beat,” he told a reporter.
Kathy and Andrew grew up in the shadow of their missing brother, trying to fill the hole in their parents’ hearts.
The family never stopped hoping something might turn up.
If not John himself, then some proof of what happened to him. But there was nothing except the appalling silence.
ANY tiny difference would have saved Greg Cowie, a chirpy boy with red hair and freckles and a grin, third child of a Manchester-born carpenter and his wife who’d migrated in search of a new life and found horror.
If only Greg hadn’t gone to his friend’s house after school that Thursday night.
If only he hadn’t had an argument with the friend and been told to walk home by the friend’s mother.
If only Greg’s father hadn’t had two flat tyres on his way home from Stawell to Haddon, where the Cowies were living near Ballarat; he could have handled one flat but when the second tyre blew out his wife had to rescue him, which meant she wasn’t there to fetch Greg.
A neighbour saw the boy walking as she drove into town and thought she’d pick him up after she had run her errand.
But by the time she returned, he was gone.
Soon after, someone noticed a grey utility parked on the wrong side of the road near an empty farm building.
Many hours later, at 3.05am, a police “divvy van” stopped a Ford utility in St Albans, in Melbourne’s western suburbs, for a routine check.
Senior Constable Russell Walsh saw a fair-haired child, apparently asleep, under a blanket in the passenger seat. The driver said it was his nephew and the policeman waved him on, routinely noting the car and driver.
Before dawn the utility turned into a remote track in the Wombat State Forest.
Back in Haddon, Greg Cowie’s parents, Eric and Margaret, were frantic with fear. The Ballarat police took them seriously. The Cowies spoke good English.
It took all day for the description of the ute seen at Haddon to filter through the system and match up with the one pulled over in St Albans nine hours later.
It was registered to a man with a record stretching back to 1952, when he’d picked up a 11 year-old boy and raped him.
He had offended twice more by 1957 and again in 1964, when he had been sentenced to 10 years. He had got out of jail in early 1972, 18 months earlier.
It was a matter of finding him and testing his alibi.
It was Friday the 13th of September, 1974.
Greg Cowie’s mother never let her family leave the house on Friday the 13th for the rest of her life.
JACK Powles was an old-style country copper. He didn’t worry about his arrest rate and was more interested in training trotters than in traffic fines, but he knew everyone who could cause trouble around Meredith.
Powles had got home from a trip late that Friday night to bad news: a boy was missing near Ballarat and detectives there wanted him to check a sex offender who’d moved into his patch the previous year.
He knew the man: Reginald Edward Isaacs, born 20 June, 1927. Powles had kept an eye on him.
In fact, Isaacs had asked him to arrest him if he ever saw him drinking, because alcohol unleashed his sick urges.
“He was an ‘iffy’ sort of bloke,” recalls the old policeman.
When Isaacs landed a job as an attendant at a local swimming pool, Powles had quietly got him sacked. He also knew a neighbour had threatened Isaacs with a shotgun, warning him to keep away from his family.
Powles drove out to the bush block at She Oaks where Isaacs camped in a hut.
He called on a neighbouring farmer and friend, Joe East, as “back up” and they walked to the hut. East knocked and called out because Isaacs would not suspect he was with a policeman.
When Isaacs opened the door, Powles smelt the guilt.
It was late but Isaacs was still fully dressed and he was shaking. When Powles asked him questions, he recalls, “I didn’t like the answers”.
Isaacs was evasive and agitated. Powles edged him away from a rifle next to the bed.
They took him next door to Easts’ farmhouse so Powles could telephone Ballarat police.
Leila East made small talk and cups of tea for the grim-faced policeman, her husband and the shivering neighbour.
After midnight Powles took Isaacs to Meredith and handed him to detectives who’d arrived from Ballarat.
“Don’t let him go,” he warned them. “He did it.”
Isaacs told the police what they already knew - he had a “problem” and a past - but denied picking up Greg Cowie.
He insisted that at St Albans he’d had his whippet dog under the blanket, not the boy the policeman had seen. He admitted driving as far as Beaufort on the day in question and trying to pick up a schoolboy in Maryborough but was vague about Haddon.
They were getting nowhere until Isaacs said he trusted a Geelong detective called Joe Flynn, who had spoken to him over the shotgun incident.
Flynn was getting ready to see Collingwood play Hawthorn in the first semi-final when he got the call that would keep him busy all day and most of the night.
He went to Ballarat instead of the MCG.
It took him a few hours to get Isaacs to admit knowing where Greg Cowie’s body was. And a few more to persuade the killer to take him and another detective to look for the shallow grave in the Wombat State Forest.
Flynn was a good detective - and he was stationed at Geelong, so he was conscious of the disappearance of John Landos at Lorne nearly two years earlier. It bothered him.
Five weeks later, Flynn quietly returned to the forest with a dog-loving policeman, Geoff Bate, and his trained bloodhound to see if the hound could find another body. It didn’t.
The next week, the homicide squad took Isaacs from Pentridge to Russell Street and Flynn questioned him about John Landos.
Isaacs admitted using the Deans Marsh road in early 1973 while cutting tea tree in the area, but denied seeing the boy.
That night, he attempted suicide.
Isaacs was committed to stand trial for Greg Cowie’s murder in early 1975. The boy’s family heard that someone put a razor blade in the van that took Isaacs to court but he didn’t use it to kill himself.
He was automatically sentenced to death but the sentence would be commuted to a minimum life sentence.
But on April 30, 1975, he was found dead with towelling knotted around his neck in a cell in Pentridge’s D Division.
His death was written off as suicide (which he had attempted before several times) in a cursory inquest brief but some police and prison officers guessed he “had help”.
In a television interview shot shortly before he died last month, former 1970s prisoner Mark “Chopper” Read declared he and another prisoner had killed Isaacs.
Jack Powles left the force 30 years ago but still thinks about the case.
“If ever there was a spooky night it was that one,” he says of the midnight arrest.
Powles says he was waiting for the appeal period to end so he could discreetly visit Isaacs in jail and persuade him to tell the truth about John Landos.
But the chance died when Isaacs did.
That act of jailhouse justice (or suicide) robbed the Landos family of any chance of finding the truth - and any real chance of finding his remains.
The homicide squad had suspected Isaacs for the Landos case since Greg Cowie’s death but it would take 30 years to tell the family that.
They didn’t hear Isaacs’ name until 2003, when the cold case unit came calling.
HOMICIDE detectives see too many bad endings to remember them all but this one would stick in Brent Fisher’s mind.
When Fisher was handed the Landos file in late 2002 it had one sheet of paper in it. His job was to find enough information for an inquest on a disappearance that had happened when he was 5 years old.
He found John Landos’s parents at the same house in Sunshine. And the family still had the Lorne house site: Kathy and Andrew had redeveloped it into a bakery and a restaurant. Their brother’s disappearance there had shaped their lives.
Fisher was not surprised that Kathy - married with children of her own - was sceptical about raking over the case after three decades. But Andrew and his parents still nursed the hope that something might unravel the mystery.
The quiet detective built a 200-page brief for the coroner.
Reginald Isaacs had been born to a church-going Baptist couple in a village near Bristol in 1927.
He joined the British Army but was discharged medically unfit and migrated to Australia in 1948. His parents and much-younger sister and brother had followed in 1952, settling in Geelong, where his father Albert worked at the Ford factory until retirement.
In 1952 Isaacs was arrested for sexual assault of a boy, the first of a series of offences his shocked parents kept secret from the younger children.
Fisher took fresh statements from the living to add to the scanty records he could find.
It all suggested that Isaacs was prime suspect for John Landos’s death but it fell short of proving it.
Coroner Heather Spooner concluded in November 2003 that John probably died on January 8, 1973. But whether he perished in the bush or “met with foul play as indicated by police inquiries,” she could not say.
The police don’t have too many doubts. Neither did a magistrate who heard the evidence after Fisher urged the family to apply for crimes compensation.
“She burst into tears,” he says.
During his time sifting through the case, Fisher interviewed the killer’s brother, who told him that some time before Isaacs’ arrest he had gone to the property at She Oaks.
When he arrived, Isaacs had a shovel and had been digging in a rocky outcrop in a bush paddock. He said he was getting a sample to show the local shire in case it could be sold for road making.
The brother said he’d wondered about the incident later, after Isaacs was charged with Greg Cowie’s death.
“I was waiting for you to call,” he told Fisher.
Police later searched part of the property with probes but found nothing.
The brother, who lives in country Victoria, believes they should mount another search. He nominates a specific place but it is hard to tell if he suspects something or guessing.
For the relatives of the missing and murdered, the shadow lingers.
Greg Cowie’s mother, who was heavily pregnant when her boy was taken, would have that child and another, but drank and smoked her way to an early grave.
Kyriakos Landos lived until 2010, and never quite stopped searching and hoping. He is buried at Lorne, a picture of his son on his gravestone.
Andrew Landos - successful husband, father and businessman - still carries what happened to the 7-year-old he was in 1973. The sense of horror and loss has become muted with time but when he relives that night his eyes are glassy with emotion.
His mother Nikki Landos did not let fear and grief destroy her the way it can destroy parents of the missing.
She says the need to raise her other children forced her to survive.
“But you are never comfortable,” she tries to explain. “You always wait.”
Mrs Landos has five grandchildren. In the house in Sunshine she came to as a bride in 1958 she has photographs of them all.
One is of her oldest grandson, a strong and good-looking young man, playing football for his school. He has since joined the family business at Lorne and recently won an award as Australian and New Zealand apprentice of the year.
His name is John, after the uncle he never knew.