Beyond the grave / The Somerton Man … ABC TV, September 6th. The full transcript.
Introduced by ABC journalist Fiona-Ellis Jones
Aired Monday September 6 on ABCTV, iview and Youtube. 8 pm.
- ProducerBen Cheshire and starring Professor Derek Abbott and wife Rachel, again.
FIONA ELLIS-JONES, ABC REPORTER: Hi, I’m ABC News journalist Fiona Ellis-Jones. Two years ago, I investigated the mysterious case of the Somerton Man for an ABC podcast series. Earlier this year, more than 70 years after the body of the smartly dressed man was found on an Adelaide beach, he was finally exhumed. Detectives hope DNA testing will solve one of the country’s most intriguing mysteries. Was he a spy? A scorned lover? A wayward war vet? But for one family, the Somerton man is much more than a cold case
PROF. DEREK ABBOTT, ADELAIDE UNIVERSITY: Today is phenomenal. It’s a credit to the SA police force that they’ve managed to get the approval for this exhumation. I’ve been working and studying this case since about 2007. There’s so many strange things about it that nothing about it ever surprises me anymore.
DET. SUPT DES BRAY, SA POLICE: It’s important for everybody to remember the Somerton Man is not just the curiosity or a mystery to be solved. It’s somebody’s father, son, perhaps grandfather, uncle, brother. And that’s why we’re doing this and trying to identify him.
DR ANNE COXON, FORENSIC SCIENCE SA:
The length of time that it may take is a little bit difficult to predict. We need to look at the condition of the remains and whether there is DNA present, the fact that the remains have also been embalmed adds another complication.
PROF. DEREK ABBOTT: My wife is taking an interest in this. As people know there’s a possible connection. It’s not certain yet. I would rather just let the DNA evidence speak for itself and see what comes of it.
RACHEL EGAN: There’s a long-running mystery that’s been going on now for over 70 years. You have a body on a beach of an unknown man and I may have some sort of connection to the case. The Somerton case for Derek is an obsession. He’s fascinated with it and I think he always will be.
PROF. DEREK ABBOTT: The body was found just over there.
RACHEL EGAN: if it wasn’t for the Somerton Man case, I don’t think our paths would ever have crossed
PROF. DEREK ABBOTT: If he wasn’t lying here in 1948, we would never have met.
RACHEL EGAN: Weird isn’t it?
RACHEL EGAN: It’s almost like we have a double love story happening with two plots that have become intertwined over a long period of time. There are so many twists and turns in this case. It’s like are you following the yellow brick road, are you Alice in Wonderland falling down the rabbit hole? The truth may be something that’s very confronting and it may reveal things that we’d rather not know on one level. Whatever the case those questions need to be asked and those answers need to be given and we need to learn the truth.
DR CAROLYN BILSBOROW, DIRECTOR ‘MISSING PIECES’ DOCUMENTARY: On the first of December in 1948 the body was found by two trainee jockeys early in the morning that were out on the beach exercising horses.
NEIL DAY, FORMER JOCKEY: We went over to see if he was alright. And we got fairly close to him and couldn’t see him breathing and he never took any notice of us, so Horrie Patching hopped off his horse and took hold of his leg, and he was dead.
STUART LITTLEMORE, ABC REPORTER, 1978: There’s nothing unusual about finding a man dead in a public place like this, and the police assumed that someone would soon come forward with a missing persons report and the case would soon be closed. But that didn’t happen.
PROF. DEREK ABBOTT, ADELAIDE UNIVERSITY: A number of people did come and view the body but were unable to identify him. One of the intriguing things about the case is that all the clothes the man was wearing had the labels removed off them. So this is what made some people think, “Oh maybe this guy is a spy”.
DR CAROLYN BILSBOROW, DIRECTOR ‘MISSING PIECES’ DOCUMENTARY: It was strange that nobody came forward to identify the body, which led to suggestions that he was from overseas, possibly from Europe, possibly from America.
STUART LITTLEMORE, ABC REPORTER, 1978: When the autopsy was carried out on the body, it soon became obvious that the man didn’t die of natural causes. The doctor who carried out the post-mortem examination said the stomach was deeply congested with blood and in his opinion, death had been caused by heart failure due to poisoning.
DR CAROLYN BILSBOROW, DIRECTOR ‘MISSING PIECES’ DOCUMENTARY: The Somerton Man had a very interesting body. He was obviously athletic of some kind. He had particularly big calf muscles, which a ballet dancer may have similar calf muscles.
GRAEME HUDSON, FORMER BALLET DANCER: Up to 1948, the dancer’s body would have been more solid, more muscular, to be a dancer, a man had to have more developed calves and legs. So it’s possible that Somerton Man, you know, if he had large calves, could have had dancing calves.
DR CAROLYN BILSBOROW, DIRECTOR ‘MISSING PIECES’ DOCUMENTARY: The police knew that they wouldn’t be able to keep the body forever so they had him embalmed and then they called in a taxidermist to make a death mask.
“MISSING PIECES” DOCUMENTARY: On the 14th June 1949, the unknown man is quietly buried at West Terrace Cemetery.
DR CAROLYN BILSBOROW, DIRECTOR ‘MISSING PIECES’ DOCUMENTARY: A group of locals came forward and wanted to give him the respect of being buried with a headstone so they actually paid for the headstone, they paid for the plot and his headstone reads, “Here lies the unknown man”.
PROF. DEREK ABBOTT, ADELAIADE UNIVERSITY: There was an inquest shortly after the man was buried. The finding was that they didn’t know the cause of death.
GERRY FELTUS, FORMER DETECTIVE: I think that the general consensus from experts in that field was that he died as a result of a poison which had dissipated very quickly from the body.
PROF. DEREK ABBOTT, ADELAIADE UNIVERSITY: The Coroner summed it up as being an unnatural death and they couldn’t rule out murder and so the case was left hanging.
DR CAROLYN BILSBOROW, DIRECTOR ‘MISSING PIECES’ DOCUMENTARY: A couple of months later they found a tiny scrolled up piece of paper in the man’s fob pocket. When they unrolled it, it said “Tamam Shud”. It was a mystery as to what this actually meant.
PROF. DEREK ABBOTT, ADELAIADE UNIVERSITY: And it was printed, it wasn’t handwritten, so it was like it was torn out of a book. So the police advertised this in the local newspaper of the time saying, “Has anyone got a book with these words ripped out of the back?”
GERRY FELTUS, FORMER DETECTIVE: And it was a newspaper reporter who was well read, and said it came from the ending of a book called The Rubaiyat written by Omar Khayyam. And it meant ‘the end,’ or ‘the finish.’ And this brought forward the theory that perhaps he had committed suicide.
CAROLYN BILSBOROW, DIRECTOR ‘MISSING PIECES’ DOCUMENTARY: A man came forward to say that he had found a copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and it did have the last page torn out. He handed it into police, he said it had been thrown into the back seat of his car 6 months earlier.
PROF. DEREK ABBOTT, ADELAIDE UNIVERSITY: So on the back of the book were some strange letters that the police couldn’t make any sense of, and a phone number belonging to a young 27 year old woman, who happened to live only five minutes walk away from where the man was found dead.
DR CAROLYN BILSBOROW, DIRECTOR ‘MISSING PIECES’ DOCUMENTARY: The police paid the young nurse a visit but she was very reluctant to talk to them. The police took the young nurse to the Adelaide museum to have a look at the death mask to see if she knew him. Paul Lawson, the taxidermist says that she nearly fainted, she was so stressed by being there. To him, it was obvious that she knew the man.
(Excerpt from Missing Pieces doco)
PAUL LAWSON, FORMER TAXIDERMIST, ADELAIDE MUSEUM: She took one look at it and looked straight down at the floor. Leane said, “Have you ever seen this man before?’
Can you help us in any way?
By this time, I was walking behind her because I thought she was going to faint.
PROF. DEREK ABBOTT, ADELAIADE UNIVERSITY: After that incident, basically they were stumped, there were no other leads. And it basically hit a brick wall, the whole case.
GERRY FELTUS, FORMER DETECTIVE: I would say everyone who worked on the case was starting to become frustrated with it. Everyone working on the case or had an interest in the case always thought that something would come up tomorrow, but tomorrow never came.
DR CAROLYN BILSBOROW, DIRECTOR ‘MISSING PIECES’ DOCUMENTARY: Over the decades, interest in this case has continued to grow and it’s actually considered now as one of Australia’s greatest unsolved mysteries.
Hello and welcome to the mystery files, where we look at some of the weirdest mysteries in the world today.
There’s a crazy online world around the Somerton Man mystery. There’s various blog sites that have been set up by people all over the world and each has their own theory about who the man is, why he was on the beach and how he died.
(American amateur sleuth)
Items have been destroyed, no one knows where the book is.
I think I’ve solved it.
DR CAROLYN BILSBOROW, DIRECTOR ‘MISSING PIECES’ DOCUMENTARY: A few years ago, a detective named Gerry Feltus was assigned to the case of the Somerton man. Strangely, the police had never recorded the name of the young nurse who they’d interviewed back in 1948. So Gerry Feltus set out to find her.
GERRY FELTUS, FORMER DETECTIVE: I was fortunate enough to purchase a 1947 phone book. Each night, for about a half an hour. I would go through a few pages. I eventually located the phone number that was the back of the Rubaiyat. I did eventually have two conversations with her. She was very evasive. I came to the conclusion that in some way, or somewhere, or some time they both knew one another. That was the only conclusion I could come to. I found that she continually changed addresses. It seems like someone who is running away from something, or running away from being found, or identified.
DR CAROLYN BILSBOROW, DIRECTOR ‘MISSING PIECES’ DOCUMENTARY: But even though Detective Feltus had now identified her, he kept her name to himself because she was a potential witness.
PROF. DEREK ABBOTT, ADELAIDE UNIVERSITY: I teach electronic engineering at Adelaide Uni. I just happened to be sitting in a laundrette watching my washing going around, and there was a stack of magazines beside me, and I picked one up and it was an article about the top 10 unsolved mysteries in Australia. And the second one was the Somerton Man case.
PROF. DEREK ABBOTT, ADELAIDE UNIVERSITY: The great thing about the maths we do is it’s not the pie in the sky maths, it’s the type of maths that has great practical value.
PROF. DEREK ABBOTT, ADELAIDE UNIVERSITY: And so I thought, “Hey this would make a great project for my students”. I have done a bit of work for the police before, I was an expert witness on the Snowtown case. And so I started building up a lot of history and background on the case. And I think that just sucked me in ’cause I just got fascinated by it.
PROF. DEREK ABBOTT, ADELAIDE UNIVERSITY: Here is the Somerton Man’s so-called code. It looks like a bunch of letters that no-one can understand…
DR CAROLYN BILSBOROW, DIRECTOR ‘MISSING PIECES’ DOCUMENTARY: Professor Abbott and Gerry Feltus worked together on the case for several years, but unfortunately they ended up having a falling out. I suspect they both wanted to be first to crack the case.
PROF. DEREK ABBOTT, ADELAIDE UNIVERSITY: So in trying to solve the case, it seemed to me the key was to find the identity of the young woman. So I researched her name independently. I made use of hospital records and electoral role records. I was then able to find a photograph of her, went to see Paul Lawson, the man who made the plaster bust and whose office she came to in 1949 to view the bust. And he says “Why, this is Mrs Thomson.” And so I knew straight away I had found the right person, Jo Thomson. It turned out by the time I had found out who she was, she had already passed away two years before. That was a little frustrating because I was hoping that she would have some information about who this man was, and perhaps after so many years she would be prepared to say who it was. So then what I did was I thought, “well does she have any descendants?” Because maybe she might have told them, for example. So I found out that she had a son by the name of Robin Thomson, and by the time that I had figured out that name and how to contact him. Alas, he had passed away just two months before I’d figured that out, so I just missed him.
DR CAROLYN BILSBOROW, DIRECTOR ‘MISSING PIECES’ DOCUMENTARY: But the really intriguing thing about Robin Thomson is that he was a ballet dancer of all things. He actually danced with the Australian ballet for several years.
GRAEME HUDSON, FORMER BALLET DANCER: Robin Thomson, I met at the Australian Ballet School. He was long and lean. He had a very good shape for a dancer. He had a beautiful jump, a natural beautiful high jump. Robin was a very useful dancer, but he never was promoted to soloist. Robin’s mum Jo always came to the ballet. Always there on opening night.
PROF. DEREK ABBOTT, ADELAIDE UNIVERSITY: What was going through my mind were reports that I have read that the Somerton Man’s calf muscles were like that of a dancer. So this is what sent me on the track of wondering whether they were related. Is he Robin’s father?
PROF. MACIEJ HENNEBERG, ADELAIDE UNIVERSITY: Professor Abbott asked me to look at the teeth and the ear of Somerton Man and compare to the same features of the person who is supposed to be his son. I found they are similar.
PROF. MACIEJ HENNEBERG, ADELAIDE UNIVERSITY: “The ear lobe here is completely attached at the face on both of them…and they both are missing lateral incisors.”
PROF. MACIEJ HENNEBERG, ADELAIDE UNIVERSITY: Combination of two similarities doesn’t happen that often, probably one in ten-thousand times. Therefore, it is likely that the Somerton Man and the person suggested to be his son are actually related.
PROF. DEREK ABBOTT, ADELAIDE UNIVERSITY: After I’d found that Robin had died, that was unlucky and sad. So then I thought, “Well does he have any descendants?” So it turned out he did, and that’s when I located Rachel, his daughter.
RACHEL EGAN: I grew up in New Zealand. I didn’t have any brothers or sisters. And I guess I always felt a sense of disconnection with my family. One of the things was that I had a passion for ballet. In my family there was no ballet connection. So when I was at university, I received a letter and I was told by a social worker that I had in fact been adopted. I was relieved, I felt a sense of happiness. It also gave me hope for the future to think that somewhere out there I had another family. So I made contact with my birth mother, her name is Roma. I formed a close relationship with her and I moved from New Zealand to Brisbane. She met my birth dad when she was at the Australian ballet school. Then my birth dad, Robin got a job with the Royal New Zealand Ballet Company, and she went over to New Zealand with him. Then I was an accidental conception, and they didn’t have the means to keep me. So I was adopted out in New Zealand
PROF. DEREK ABBOTT, ADELAIDE UNIVERSITY: Based on everything I looked at in this case, I developed a hypothesis that the Somerton Man and Jo Thompson knew each other. They had a child, Robin Thomson. And if this is the case, then his daughter, Rachel is the granddaughter of the Somerton Man.
RACHEL EGAN: The first time I heard about the case of the Somerton Man was a letter that arrived and it was sent by Professor Derek Abbott. And it just gave a background to the case. It said, “I believe that you may have a link to someone involved in this case.” His hypothesis seemed to be way too crazy. Too fanciful. It was like something that could have been made up in some fictional novel.
PROF. DEREK ABBOTT, ADELAIDE UNIVERSITY: So I went to Brisbane to meet Rachel, and we went out to dinner in a French restaurant, and talked about the case.
RACHEL EGAN: Derek said that he was hoping to see if that genetic link had also played out with myself, and he wanted to look at my ears and my teeth. He was also after my DNA. It’s probably the first request I’ve had for a man to do that. By then however, I was captivated by the case, and I wanted answers, so I was a willing victim. So the relationship moved pretty quickly… Yeah there was some sort of spark there.
PROF. DEREK ABBOTT, ADELAIDE UNIVERSITY: Something just magically drew us together. By the following day we had decided we were going to get married. It all happened remarkably fast.
(Derek and Rachel)
PROF. DEREK ABBOTT, ADELAIDE UNIVERSITY: I think basically the next day you proposed to me, didn’t you, love?
RACHEL EGAN: That’s something I do not remember. I do remember you in your hotel room begging me to marry you.
PROF. DEREK ABBOTT, ADELAIDE UNIVERSITY: No, no. It was you dear. (groan)
RACHEL EGAN: So Derek and I got married in 2010 and we now have three beautiful children together. The impact that had on my relationship with my mum, it was hard. Roma like a lot of people I think felt that our relationship had progressed way too quickly. She was worried that Derek had married me for my DNA. So the relationship between Roma and myself and Derek broke down and we no longer have contact with each other.
DR CAROLYN BILSBOROW, DIRECTOR ‘MISSING PIECES’ DOCUMENTARY: Professor Abbott has been investigating this case for so many years now and it’s completely consumed his whole being, he’s become known as one of the world leading experts on the case.
PROF. DEREK ABBOTT, ADELAIDE UNIVERSITY: How he died is a bit mysterious, but one theory that was forming in my mind is that perhaps he did come to see Jo Thompson and his son and died for whatever reason there out on the beach, and perhaps it was in her interest to de-identify him.
CAROLYN BILSBOROW, DIRECTOR ‘MISSING PIECES’ DOCUMENTARY: She was in a relationship with another man, George, who would go on to be her husband. Professor Abbott believed that she just didn’t want this ghost from the past coming back to mess up her current existence.
GREG O’LEARY, FRIEND OF JO THOMSON: In later years, she had told me that she was always grateful to George because he married her when she was pregnant, even though he wasn’t the father. I remember her telling me that George wasn’t the father of Robin.
PROF. MACIEJ HENNEBERG, ADELAIDE UNIVERSITY: It looks like it was all planned, because you have to take the little piece of paper from the last page of the book and place it into the fob pocket, you have to remove labels from clothing. It seems to me that it is an attempt, a fairly elaborate attempt, at confusing investigators.
RACHEL EGAN: The truth may not have a fairytale ending. There could be a situation where Jo was involved in the demise of Mr Somerton.
DR CAROLYN BILSBOROW, DIRECTOR ‘MISSING PIECES’ DOCUMENTARY: It’s possible that Professor Abbott actually has the truth of the story. But it’s also possible that he may be off the beaten track as well. I actually believe the poor man committed suicide on the beach. I believe that overnight his belongings were taken, any pills that he had taken had been stolen. I think Somerton Man did know Jo Thomson, but when he came back to visit her, she rejected him. The only way to really find out now is through DNA.
PROF. DEREK ABBOTT, ADELAIDE UNIVERSITY: So the plaster cast, embedded in the cast are hairs. So I thought to myself perhaps we can extract DNA from these hairs. We managed to get some hairs. We were only able to extract two percent of the amount of DNA that we really need to form an identification. We needed much higher concentration levels, which we could do with the Somerton man’s teeth or his ear bone, for example.
VICKIE CHAPMAN, SA ATTORNEY GENERAL: I studied it at law school, like many students, because it’s a case of intrigue and mystery. And so obviously now for 40 years it’s been on my agenda. Well in South Australia, to exhume a body, it needs the Attorney General’s approval, for obvious reasons. And I’m quite happy to give my approval
PROF. DEREK ABBOTT, ADELAIDE UNIVERSITY: Whereas the previous Attorney General knocked back the idea, what’s nice is the present Attorney General um really wants this thing solved.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR JODIE WARD, NSW HEALTH PATHOLOGY AND UTS: I’m a forensic DNA specialist. So I have a particular interest in using DNA to identify unknown human remains, in particular compromised human remains that are either very old or very degraded. I would be very confident that after 70 years, we would likely be able to recover some DNA. So yes, I would like to see this case resolved, as I would all of our unresolved, unidentified remains cases in Australia. There are a number of limitations with the Somerton Man case, and they particularly relate to the fact that we don’t have many reference samples for comparison. So we do have the alleged granddaughter. But my understanding is that the son was cremated. But I definitely think it’s worth trying.
VICKIE CHAPMAN, SA ATTORNEY GENERAL: But I think for his sake, myths or truth, I’d like to see how he died, and who he is.
RACHEL EGAN: I essentially think about him every day and I wonder every day, literally, about the truth and where I fit into all this and where he fits into all of this and how we fit into all of this as a family.
PROF. DEREK ABBOTT, ADELAIDE UNIVERSITY: It’s a whole sequence of events and one slight change to that event, those events, and we might not be here today.
RACHEL EGAN: In the playroom we have a painting of my grandmother, of granny Jo, and next to it sits a painting of Mr Somerton, how we think he may have looked. Our children have a lot of unanswered questions with regards to their family history and origins. And to date, we don’t know how to answer those questions. I think it’s important for them. It’s part of their story too. It’s become part of their story. Whether or not I’m genetically connected to Mr. Somerton we need to find out the truth, whatever the truth may be. I want every aspect of what his DNA can tell us and as many answers to this case and story as possible. His name, his identity, who his family were or are. By exhuming the body and giving Mr Somerton an identity, it will finally bring closure to this case and to the lives of a lot of people. There’s a family out there somewhere who have lost somebody. Somebody needs to own him.
SA Police is leading the investigation to identify the Somerton Man, whose remains are with Forensic Science SA.
A variety of forensic tests will be conducted over the coming months.
Rachel Egan has provided a DNA sample.
Note: no mention made of Professor Colleen Fitzpatric and no mention of her DNA finding linking Rachel Egan to the Thomson family.