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Cold Case murders reassessed

While most true crime series focus on the criminals who committed some of Australia’s worst crimes, Seven’s new series Million Dollar Cold Case has a clear point of difference; sadly, the killers are still out there.

Million Dollar Cold Case will examine 10 murders committed in Victoria from 1984 to 2006, with a police reward of $1 million being offered for new information that leads to the conviction of those responsible for each of the brutal crimes.

“Victoria Police changed the reward policy a few years ago, we had identified a number of jobs we believed were viable to solve,” explained Det-Insp. Mick Hughes, head of Victoria’s homicide squad, on how the show was developed.

Good response to media releases about the increased rewards led to discussions about trying an innovative way to catch killers by appealing directly to the public via television.

“Traditionally rewards are one of the last things you consider but because we have investigations sitting there that haven’t been solved, we are saying ‘Well let’s go to the reward, almost go backwards, let’s see if there are people out there’,” Det-Insp. Hughes said.

Det-Insp. Hughes, near right, said the idea for seeking media help came from Det-Sen.Sgt Peter Trichias, left, who runs the Homicide Cold Case Team and walks viewers through the cases on the series. The police media unit then suggested they speak to Seven.

The show was a year in the development and making because of the sensitivities involved.

“We wanted it done in a very professional, very sensitive way,” Det-Insp. Hughes said.

“We know it is going to still be difficult for some family members but we just thought we’d do something innovative and try a different approach.”

“One of the things when we went public with the earlier rewards is you naturally have other families saying to you ‘why aren’t you considering ours’ and that was a hard thing to talk about, I guess.

“We have to prioritise the possibility or probability of solving some of these, so we put them through a bit of a triage system to do evaluations and these are the ones that stood out that there was a real potential there to solve.”

The series opens with the brutal 1984 murders of Margaret Tapp and her nine-year-old daughter Seana which disturbed experienced investigators and devastated the Tapp family, particularly her surviving teenage son who had been staying with his grandparents at the time.

Million Dollar Cold Case Margaret Tapp with Seana and her son
Million Dollar Cold Case Margaret Tapp with Seana and her son

Crime scene photos, re-enactments and interviews with family and friends combine to build a heartbreaking story.

“If you’re not safe in your own home … that’s certainly one that touched me,” Det-Insp. Hughes said.

“I have done time in cold case myself about 10 years ago … they (cases) really do get into your blood, once you start looking into them, it’s pretty hard to put any of them down.”

Also featured in the first episode is the 1989 bashing murder of father of two Christopher Philips, while the second episode examines the murder of a 16-year-old schoolboy at a shopping centre and the stabbing of a mother at work.

Det-Insp. Hughes said it was not unusual for families to fall apart in the wake of such crimes.

“As sad as that is to say it puts immense pressure on families,” he said.

“We often say we represent the victim and the families and we try to do that without fear or favour (and be) as impartial as we can but there are some catastrophic cases over the years where you see families torn apart for a variety of reasons.

“They always impact on the investigators and impact on the family, so going back to them is always hard but at the end of the day I think any family member would want their loved one’s case solved.”

Margaret Tapp
Margaret Tapp

He said it could be raw going back to speak to the original investigators but they appreciated technology had changed in the decades since the cases were first investigated.

“If I am talking to an investigator, I will say ‘I know one thing you and I have in common is we both want to solve this case’.”

Det-Insp. Hughes said they had about 150 cold cases on the books in Victoria although sometimes they were not unsolvable.

“To get to cold case it must have been through the coronial process, sometimes it may even have been through a criminal process where we have had a suspect and he has been either eliminated or not convicted and we still look at every aspect around that.

“You really have to keep an open mind, Peter and I and Paul Rowe, his sergeant, we go in with an open mind. Even if we have been told ‘We think it is this person’ we don’t take that at face value we go back and pull the whole investigation apart.”

He is grateful so much evidence was well preserved and some had been able to provide DNA evidence.

“Although we didn’t have the understanding and capacity to collect it at the time but we are now going back to some of the cases and identifying it,” he said. “Even now when we are putting a lot of our investigations so to speak into that unsolved bucket, the first thing I say to people is ‘Don’t think about what’s available today, think of what might be available in 10 years time’,” he said.

“We know technology is going in leaps and bounds.”

If the show is a success he imagines expanding it nationally could be discussed between the various heads of homicide at their annual meeting.

“Although I can’t say yes I think you’d look at it pretty strongly if Victoria has some good results.”

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