The Crawford Family Murders – Can you help catch a killer still on the run?
If you’re anything like me, you may find yourself poring over every news story you can when the most horrific of crimes occur: family annihilation.
The motivation isn’t ghoulish. It’s human nature to try to understand what could drive a man (and yes, family annihilators are usually men) to kill his entire family, and then usually, himself. We all know that meaningful responses across all levels of the community are essential to raising awareness of the dynamics and prevalence of family violence.
Not to mention helping women access the practical help and support they need to activate a safe escape plan.
Tragically, many women and their kids don’t get that opportunity. And despite instances of family annihilation making regular headlines in recent years, it’s sadly not a recent phenomenon.
Where The Crawford Family Murders Story Started
In the early afternoon of 2 July 1970, tourists at the blustery Loch Ard Gorge, near Port Campbell National Park on the south-west coast of Victoria, saw something odd. 16 metres below, at the bottom of a cliff, not far from where the waves were crashing on the rocks, teetered a battered white 1956 Holden sedan. The windscreen was smashed, and the vehicle’s front end was badly crumpled like it had been involved in a head-on collision.
When police arrived, they found the vehicle was balanced too precariously on the rocks to be thoroughly searched immediately. Cliff rescue personnel were called in and lowered down onto the ledge. A hose attached to the rear exhaust pipe of the car was pushed through the drivers’ side window.
When rescuers looked through the windows of the vehicle, they noticed the backseat was missing. In its place was a dark tarpaulin and a pile of blankets. The dashboard and front seat were spattered with blood. When they opened one of the back doors, the stench of death was evident. Blood was smeared on the interior roof. The cliff rescuer found a loaded .22 calibre rifle and family photos among the jumbled detritus in the car.
He also found a 15-metre electrical cord with a plug at one end and an extension cord socket on the other. Five small leads running from the main cord had alligator clips attached. It was an extremely odd scene.
The Crawford Family
The Holden’s registration was traced to an address in the north Melbourne suburb of Glenroy. It was the home of 40-year-old Elmer Crawford, his 35-year-old pregnant wife Therese, and their children, 13-year-old Katherine, 8-year-old James, and 6-year-old Karen. Crawford was born in Canada in 1930. His mother hailed from Derry in Northern Ireland, and it was there that he grew up with his grandparents before emigrating to Australia in 1951 at age 22.
Since the mid-1950s, Crawford had worked as an electrician for the Victoria Racing Club at Flemington racecourse.
When police knocked on the front door of the family home at around 6 pm, no one answered, and there was no sign of anyone inside. Several neighbours told officers they hadn’t seen Therese or the kids that day but mentioned that they’d just missed Crawford. He’d been seen in the home’s driveway only half an hour earlier when he walked to the front gate and looked around. But no one could say where he’d gone.
Unable to gain entry to the home and with no signs of a disturbance, the officers returned to the station.
The Search for Elmer Crawford Begins
By this time, homicide detectives had arrived at Loch Ard Gorge to examine the scene. It appeared to be a suicide. Therese had experienced postnatal depression following Karen’s birth, so was that what happened here?
Around 10 pm, police again returned to the darkened Crawford home, where they knocked on the door. There was no response. Fearing for the entire family’s safety, police broke in. No one was home. Instead, they found blood-soaked bedding, blood-spattered walls, and a trail of blood leading from bedrooms into the kitchen.
A still-foaming bottle of carpet cleaning detergent was among the evidence in the house that someone had tried to clean up the bloodstains. Police also found a letter from Therese to her older sister. The contents revealed Therese wasn’t happy about the fourth pregnancy. She was 2½ months along, and it seemed as though her husband wanted her to have an abortion, which conflicted with Therese’s strict Catholic beliefs. But there was still no sign of Crawford himself, nor his wife and children.
The Bodies of the Crawford Family Are Located
On the morning of 3 July, the search of the Holden resumed. Inside the car, where the backseat would have been, police found the bodies of Therese, Katherine, James and Karen. But Elmer was missing. Police quickly realised he wasn’t another victim but the killer they were looking for.
The autopsies showed the four victims had met a brutal end. Therese, Katherine and James had signs of electrical burns to their ears and hands. A blow to the head had subdued Therese. The alligator clips attached to the electrical cord had been fastened to her ears before she was electrocuted. Katherine and James met the same fate after sustaining fractured skulls from a savage beating from a sharp weapon.
Little Karen had been bashed to death with a hammer, which was also found in the car.
It Wasn’t a Car Accident – It Was a Family Annihilation
As police attempted to track down the elusive Crawford, they delved into the family’s financial affairs. Two weeks before Therese died, she and her husband had prepared new wills. Should anything happen to Therese, Crawford would inherit a sizable estate, including $3,000 in cash, the Glenroy house, and blocks of land in Queensland. Police also uncovered evidence that Crawford had been stealing from his employer and on-selling the goods.
In 1971, the Victorian coroner determined that before the murder, Crawford had removed the backseat from the Holden to create more space inside. After Therese and the kids went to bed on 1 July, Crawford brutally murdered his family as they slept. Still dressed in their pyjamas, he then wrapped them in blankets. In the winter darkness, he loaded the bodies into the Holden and covered them with the tarpaulin. He also brought a motor scooter, fuel cans, a rifle, and a hose along on his trip.
He made the 200km drive to Loch Ard Gorge, where he moved Therese’s body into the drivers’ seat and connected the hose to the exhaust, feeding it through the window. Leaving the hand brake off, he pushed the car off the cliff, hoping that it would appear to be a murder-suicide committed by Therese. He planned to tell their family and friends that Therese had left him and taken the kids. But unbeknownst to Crawford, the vehicle became stuck on the ledge below instead of plunging into the icy Southern Ocean.
Elmer Crawford Goes on the Run
Crawford returned home on the scooter and was in the process of cleaning up the crime scene when police came knocking in the early evening. Crawford stayed quiet. Realising the law was onto him, he changed his plans. After the police left, he vanished into thin air and was gone when officers forced entry into the home several hours later. He’d left the scooter behind.
Why Did Elmer Crawford Kill His Entire Family?
There are competing, intriguing theories about why Crawford disposed of his family in such a callous and premeditated fashion. One is that he was angry with Therese’s refusal to terminate the pregnancy. Another is that Therese discovered her husband was stealing from his workplace, and she threatened to report him or demanded a divorce.
If the couple split, Crawford would’ve had a lot to lose. But…where did he go after fleeing Melbourne? Well, no one knows. Or if they do, they’re not saying anything. Despite extensive police efforts and widespread enquiries across the country, Crawford was never seen again. Or…was he?
Possible Sighting of Elmer Crawford
In 1994, a woman in Bunbury, Western Australia, swore blind that she’d seen Crawford at a local hotel because she knew him well. Despite the man’s insistence that he wasn’t Crawford and that he was visiting from New Zealand, police believe this sighting was genuine. 14 years later, a $100,000 reward was announced for information leading to Crawford’s arrest.
In 2010, the most promising development in the case to date emerged. Victoria Police and the FBI were working to confirm the identity of a man who’d died in Texas five years earlier, whom they suspected could be Crawford. The man had clearly lived a life on the run, having altered his fingerprints and carrying documents where he went by numerous aliases. Hopes were dashed, though when DNA obtained from a relative of Crawford’s did not match with the mystery man’s.
Have You Seen Elmer Crawford?
Therese, Katherine, James and Karen are buried in Fawkner Cemetery. Should Crawford be alive today, he would be 91 years old. While there’s nothing to suggest he has died, it appears increasingly likely. Anybody with information about the whereabouts of Elmer Crawford is asked to call Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.
To read more about the case, you can pick up a copy of Almost Perfect: The True Story of the Crawford Family Murders by Greg Fogarty, published by iUniverse, Inc here.