Daniel Morcombe was a twin teenager and was abducted from a public place; so too, was Michael Sheppard’s brother, Daniel. Even though Daniel Morcombe’s disappearance was entirely unrelated, the coincidences hit a raw nerve.
Sadly, Daniel Sheppard’s case has never been solved. But now there’s a new homicide investigator on the block – Detective Brevet Sergeant Simon May – who has just started looking at the case with fresh eyes. May knows he’s been handed one of South Australia’s most challenging murder investigations, but believes one piece of the puzzle may be all that’s needed to solve it.
The Sheppard boys grew up in West Lakes and spent their afternoons and weekends fishing, swimming in the lake, riding their bikes and catching lizards. They loved football and regularly went to Alberton Oval to barrack for Port Adelaide. A slight boy, Daniel didn’t play much sport himself – he left that to his bigger brother, Michael. The boys had five sisters, too, but the girls were so much older that they’d already left home by the time the twins were born.
Sadly, when Michael and Daniel were 15, their dad passed away, so their mum, Patricia, raised them on her own. “We didn’t have a lot of money,” Michael recalls. “We lived in a (Housing) Trust home.” But home life was peaceful, which counted for a lot.
At 18, Daniel started working in a powder-coating factory. Michael got a job producing metal parts. “We didn’t do Centrelink or anything,” Michael says. “We just wanted to work. And Daniel loved it. Everything he did he took great pride in.
“We weren’t getting paid a lot, just enough to go out on weekends,” Michael says. “We used to go down to the Bay. We’d go into the city sometimes and other times we just knocked around at home.”
The boys were so fond of their freedom they weren’t ready for steady girlfriends either. “We were too busy carrying on with our partying and going out with our mates,” Michael says. One such party, on New Year’s Eve 1994, would turn out to be a night to remember, but for all the wrong reasons.
“We all met at a friend’s place at Cheltenham around six or seven o’clock. We had a couple of drinks and caught the train and then the tram to Glenelg,” Michael recalls. The group of eight friends kicked off the festivities at a nightclub called Lennie’s, but after midnight, they went their separate ways. “Daniel went with one of his friends and his girlfriend. I didn’t,” Michael says. “I just caught the tram into the city and the train home on my own.”
Daniel went with Ben Silvani and Ben’s girlfriend, Desiree Leyton, to Rave nightclub in Hindley St, followed by Empire, a pool joint in nearby Rose St. Ben and Desiree left Empire at about 3am, but Daniel stayed chatting to a woman named Pamela Tanner for about half an hour. Tanner later told police that she last saw Daniel at about 4am.
IT WAS around that time that Daniel left the club and walked to Adelaide Railway Station, just a few minutes away, where he ran into another group of acquaintances – Eliza Noack, Ami McNeill, Nicole Slabskyj and Nicholas Wright. At 4.13am they all boarded a train and Daniel sat talking with the girls, while Nicholas kept company with another group of friends. Daniel told the girls he was going home to bed and waved them goodbye when they got off at Alberton. A few minutes later, when Daniel reached his stop, he said goodbye to Wright, who watched as Daniel left the train at Port Adelaide.
It was 4.35am on Sunday, January 1, 1995, and even though it was just a 10-minute walk home, Daniel never made it.
Detective Brevet Sgt May has never shied away from the tough jobs – the Organised Crime Investigations Branch, Prison Corrections and now Major Crime, where he has been posted to investigate some of the state’s gravest felonies.
Daniel’s disappearance – and probable murder – has been investigated by many fine detectives over the years, yet it is so perplexing, so bereft of clues, that no one has put a dent in it. But as May re-investigates the case from scratch, he brings with him a wealth of experience at second-guessing some of South Australia’s worst crooks.
That makes him the Sheppard family’s greatest hope.
“It’s certainly very mysterious,” May says. “Daniel was obviously out for a good night and from speaking to all his friends who he was out with that night, he was in good spirits and having a good time, which makes his disappearance very unusual.”
Michael remembers when he first realised his brother’s head never hit the pillow. “It was the next day after we’d been out,” he says. “I’d come home and Daniel wasn’t at home. I thought he must be back with our other mates at Cheltenham.” Michael phoned them to make sure. “I said, ‘Where’s Daniel?’ They said, ‘We don’t know. He went home.”’
Right away, Michael and his mum didn’t like the sound of it. It just wasn’t like Daniel. “We started to ring around other people, and we thought, ‘This isn’t right.’” Once they’d exhausted all of Daniel’s friends, Patricia Sheppard reported her son missing. “It was a terrible time. Everyone was crying. It was woeful. It was awful,” Michael recalls. “My gut feeling – it wasn’t good – ’cos you just don’t believe someone’s going to disappear then bob up later…”
The police didn’t like the look of it either and began extensive searches of the area from Port Adelaide Railway Station to the Sheppards’ home in West Lakes. They also combed the riverbed to look for any sign of the missing teen.
“Police divers were used to search vast areas of the Port River,” May says.
“They grilled a lot of people. They grilled one of our mates. They grilled one of the people he worked with, too,” Michael recalls. “Mum was like, ‘Maybe they did [make Daniel disappear],’ but I was like, ‘Mum, no. I know at the local level the guys he worked with were great. They loved him.’ He was like that – a very likable fellow.”
In fact, 19-year-old Daniel didn’t have any enemies and there was no obvious reason why anyone would have wanted him gone. “I would’ve been truthful to the police and said, ‘My brother’s a loose unit,’ but he wasn’t,” Michael explains.
After a while, the original investigators speculated that Daniel had decided to walk somewhere other than home that morning. “There was a possible sighting on Grand Junction Rd at Rosewater, which is in the opposite direction,” May reveals. “A person driving by was positive he saw Daniel, but it can’t be confirmed.”
The Sheppards appreciated news of the sighting, but didn’t believe Daniel would have changed his plans on a whim.
“I knew his character well enough to know what he would and wouldn’t do,” Michael says. “It wasn’t just him. And my mum was like, ‘No, I don’t believe it.’”
SIGNIFICANTLY, Daniel was a homebody, and his brother Michael knew that whenever Daniel said he was heading home, he meant it. “He knew what train to get on and where he was going. He was street smart; he wasn’t completely naive. I would say he was heading home to his bed,” Michael says decisively.
Three weeks after Daniel disappeared, police tried another tack. “I did a re-enactment,” Michael says. “I put on a wig. I went down to the [Port Adelaide] station and they filmed me coming off the train.”
The re-enactment of Daniel’s last known movements was shown on TV in a bid to extract more information from the public. The public did come forward with more information and police followed up every lead, tip-off and rumour.
“There was every theory you can imagine and they’ve all been investigated to the nth degree and they’ve come to nothing,” says May. Among those theories was that Daniel had disturbed a group of skinheads who were breaking into the local rugby club. That theory was investigated, but police could find no substance to it. Of course, police had to consider the possibility that Daniel had simply had an accident.
“It’s possible, but you’d think if he had gone missing he would have been found somewhere,” May says. “If he’d fallen into the Port River or fallen over somewhere, you think he’d turn up. I think it’s unlikely.”
“We’d have found him by now,” Michael says. “At least we could accept that.”
One piece of information that came through to Crime Stoppers was that Daniel had a drug debt,” May says, “but that wasn’t consistent with his lifestyle. “He seemed to be a social cannabis user, but there was no indication he was into hard drugs, so I doubt that’s the case.”
Police were also told that a man from the Port Adelaide area, after consuming an intoxicating mix of cannabis, cocaine and amphetamines, allegedly implied that he had been involved in Daniel’s disappearance. “He was a suspected drug dealer and there was a suggestion Daniel was supposedly buried in his backyard under concrete,” May says. “Police searched the area using ground-penetrating radar. They found that old asbestos was buried there, which suggested the ground had not been disturbed for some time. There have been a number of those types of scenarios, but they’ve all been discounted.”
Police even investigated the bizarre claim that Daniel was murdered by an occult group and another suggestion he was kidnapped by sex offenders. Both tip-offs led to dead-ends. “They’ve been investigated as much as they can, but they’ve led to nothing,” May says.
MORE specifically, one suggestion linked Daniel’s disappearance to The Family, a group whose members abducted, drugged, sexually abused and murdered young men aged 14 to 25 in the late 1970s and early ’80s.
Only one “member”, Bevan Spencer von Einem, is serving time behind bars, and that’s for the 1983 murder of Richard Kelvin, the son of Adelaide’s favourite newsman, Rob Kelvin.
It was certainly not unreasonable for the public to speculate that members of the group might still be active in the mid-1990s, when a number of deviants suspected of being involved in the notorious group were still alive and kicking. And not only was Daniel in the target age bracket for those monsters, but, at just 165cm, the affable teenager would have been vulnerable to predators. It is a sickening possibility that is never far from Michael’s mind. “What I’m thinking is someone’s planned to go out and do something on that night,” May says. “You think of The Family because they pulled off those stunts. If it was someone trying to get a wallet, you might get a black eye but you’re still there next day.”
“It would appear to me that it was not a targeted attack,” he says. “Daniel had been in town and his decision to say ‘I’m going to go now’ was on the spur of the moment.
“The time he chose to leave the club was known only to Daniel and not anyone else, which takes away from a targeted attack.”
The likelihood that his brother was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time will always plague Michael, who, like most people, finds the crime unfathomable.
Five or six years after Daniel disappeared, Michael, his sisters and their mum went on an outing, which was part commemoration, part research. “One New Year’s we went out at four in the morning and put flowers at the railway station,” Michael says.
“We wanted to see the kind of people who were out at that time. There were all sorts. Some were wobbling home after drinking all night and some were just going fishing.” It astounds the family to this day that, with so many people out and about, no one saw what happened to Daniel.
As he spearheads the new investigation, May’s hope now is that the passage of time will work in his favour. Even though old leads have gone cold, there is the hope that, as allegiances shift, people with information will come forward.
“People’s personal situations change over time,” May explains, “The people who those with information might have been hanging around with 20 years ago may be different now, which may prompt them to come forward. It’s only that one piece of information you need that could set the whole thing in motion.”