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The Graeme Thorne kidnapping is the name given to the 1960 kidnapping and murder of Graeme Thorne for the money that his father, Bazil Thorne, had won in a lottery. A crime which caused massive shock at the time and gathered huge publicity, it was the first known kidnapping for ransom in Australian history. The police investigation that led to the capture and conviction of his murderer, Stephen Bradley, is justly regarded as a textbook example of forensic investigation.
In 1960, the construction of the Sydney Opera House was proving expensive and so the New South Wales Government initiated a lottery to help raise money. The £100,000 (equivalent: AU$5 million in 2006 values) prize was won by Bazil Thorne in the lottery drawn on 1 June. There was no option of privacy for lottery winners at the time, so the details of the Thornes' lottery win were published on the front pages of Sydney newspapers.
The Thornes lived in Edward Street, in the Sydney suburb of Bondi. Eight-year-old Graeme Thorne's customary routine was to wait at the corner of Wellington and O'Brien streets, where a family friend, Phyllis Smith, would pick him up and take him to school. On the morning of 7 July 1960 Graeme left for school as usual at 8:30am, but when Smith came to collect him Graeme was nowhere to be seen.
Smith drove to the Thorne's home to find out if Graeme was going to school. His mother confirmed that he was and wondered if he might have arrived at the school by some other means. Smith drove to the school, The Scots College in Bellevue Hill, but Graeme was not there. The police were notified that Graeme was missing.
At 9:40am, 70 minutes after Graeme had left for school, a man telephoned the Thorne household. Sergeant Larry O'Shea of Bondi police had already arrived. Unfortunately he was unaware that the Thornes had recently won the lottery.
Pretending to be Bazil Thorne, O'Shea answered the telephone. The kidnapper demanded £25,000 before 5pm, or "the boy will be fed to the sharks." O'Shea expressed doubt as to his ability to get hold of such a large sum of money. The caller then said that he would call back at 5pm with more details, and hung up.
The kidnapper phoned again at 9:47pm but the telephone was answered by a different police officer. The kidnapper gave instructions that the money was to be put in two paper bags, but then hung up abruptly without giving further instructions.
On 16 August Graeme Thorne's body was discovered in Grandview Grove, Seaforth in Sydney. Wrapped in a blue tartan rug, Graeme Thorne was still wearing his school uniform. The rug containing the body had been there for some time; some local children had known about it but it didn't occur to them that it might have been anything significant. The discovery was only made when two of them mentioned it in passing to their parents.
Examination of the body showed that the boy had died from either asphyxiation or a head injury or a combination of the two. He had been alive when hit on the head. Examination also established that he had been murdered within 24 hours of the kidnapping and that his body had been dumped soon afterwards.
There were other pieces of evidence. Some weeks before the kidnapping, a foreign man had called at the Thornes' residence and asked them to confirm their telephone number. Also, on the morning of the kidnapping some witnesses had seen an iridescent blue 1955 Ford Customline double-parked at the corner of Francis and Wellington streets, near where Graeme was usually picked up. Investigations soon established that there were 4000 cars matching this general description.
Forensic examination of the blue tartan rug found with the body showed two plant types, Chamaecyparis pisifara and Cupressus glabra, that were not present at the vacant lot where the body was found. In addition, soil scrapings from the body showed tiny fragments of pink mortar. Forensic experts deduced that the body had been lying under a brick building at some stage.
Police searched for a house with pink mortar and with the two plant types growing in the yard. Although cypress plants could be found growing in many people's yards, only one of the plant types was common, making the combination of the two plants together very rare. Following a tip-off from a postman, a pink house was identified with a blue Ford outside and the two plant species in the garden. The house was in Moore Street in the suburb of Clontarf.
Police visited the house on 3 October and learned that it had been rented by a Hungarian immigrant named Stephen Bradley, born István Baranyay in 1926 in Budapest. However Bradley had left Australia on 26 September, sailing for London with his family aboard the SS Himalaya.
Bradley had owned an iridescent blue 1955 Ford Customline, which he had sold. Detectives found the car waiting to be sold at a nearby car lot and forensically linked it with Graeme Thorne's body. They amassed a body of evidence which conclusively established that Bradley was the kidnapper.
The Himalaya arrived at Colombo, Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon), on 10 October. Two Sydney policemen were waiting for Bradley but Australia had no extradition treaty with Ceylon. After legal wrangling, Bradley was flown back to Australia on 18 November, allegedly making a confession to an escorting officer just before the aircraft landed in Sydney.
Bradley admitted the kidnapping, but said that Graeme Thorne had accidentally suffocated while locked in the back of his car. Forensic experts disproved this by connecting a breathing mask to the inside of the boot and breathing the air from the boot for seven hours, without ill effect.
Bradley's trial for murder lasted nine days, at the end of which he was sentenced to life imprisonment. His appeal was dismissed as the evidence against him was simply overwhelming. It was widely predicted that for his crime against a child, he would be a pariah in prison.
Bradley's wife returned to Europe after the trial. Bradley was kept protected from other prisoners, but he was not the outcast that had been expected. He died in prison on 6 October 1968, aged 42.
The Thornes, with their daughter, moved to another suburb, but never quite recovered. Bazil Thorne died in 1978.
Lottery procedures in Australia were changed after the Thorne case, with all lottery winners being given the option of remaining anonymous when collecting their winnings. Very few have opted for publicity.
The late crime journalist Alan Dower was of the opinion that Graeme was not Bradley's initial target. Dower's theory was that Graeme's younger sister was Bradley's target and that he had no intention of killing her. She was young enough that, if she had been kidnapped and then released, she would not have been able to give any useful information that could identify her kidnapper. However, she was also so young that she was never away from her parents and so Graeme was abducted instead.