Sylvia Benedetti, Beverley Leggo and Julie turner were the adult victims of Leonard John Fraser

PREDATOR: How can the law protect us from serial killers?

13th May 2019 1:00 AM
Premium Content Subscriber only

This is the fourth in a five-part series. Read Part 1: Key to My HeartPart 2: Filthy Animal, and Part 3: Unlikely Heroes here. Read the related story about Natasha Ryan, 'the girl in the cupboard'.

PRISON guards and police who knew Leonard John Fraser knew, when he was released from jail in 1997, that it would be just a matter of time before he was back behind bars.

By that time, he'd spent more than half his life in prison. He had repeatedly violated women in brutal attacks. So why was Fraser allowed back on our streets?

Morning Bulletin editor Frazer Pearce, who followed the Keyra Steinhardt case through court, still believes the New South Wales authorities failed women when they let Fraser out on parole seven years into a 21-year sentence for a series of violent rapes.

He said "they were just letting a wild animal loose on society", a monster who would go on to kill.

During that prison sentence, Fraser had been diagnosed as an untreatable psychopath.

But back then the legal system didn't have any legislation where sex offenders might face indefinite detention.

Since the death penalty was abolished in 1973, life in prison without the possibility of parole has been the harshest sentence that could be handed down in Australia.

Lenny Fraser and cops. peter pic - Leonard John Fraser. Photo: The Morning Bulletin
Leonard John Fraser is escorted to Rockhampton court in 2000. ROK290115fraser6

Usually, though, that punishment is reserved for the most serious killers.

And there's no evidence Fraser had killed in the 1970s.

"He was a ticking time bomb and ended up killing four people," Frazer said. "So, that was always hard to bear I think, that knowledge that there was nothing to protect us from him and he should never have been released. Obviously, they could tell there was no process to protect us."

Although there was no way to protect our community from Fraser, there is no doubting the professionalism of the police involved in catching him in Rockhampton and building a solid case against him.

"I just really admire the police for the way they put this case together because it was very difficult," Frazer said.

"They did a terrific job, they did everything they could, and they used all their experience and skills to get the evidence to get a watertight case.

"We had a lot of media attention. No one wants that media attention but that's just life. It happens. That's something that will forever be in the chapter but we're a safe place as long as the authorities do their job with untreatable psychopaths."

Leonard John Fraser's life.
Leonard John Fraser's life. Morning Bulletin

But what can be done with psychopaths like Fraser? Could anyone have stopped him becoming a murderer?

Dr Wayne Petherick, a criminologist from Bond University, believes there's almost nothing that could have prevented Fraser's escalation from rape to murder.

Wayne is an Associate Professor of Criminology and has extensively researched and written about serial crime, forensic victimology and forensic criminology.

He's also worked with police on several homicide and stalking cases.

Scientists and medical professionals don't necessarily have the tools to predict which offenders will become serial killers.

"Really, all we have is being able to react to them as swiftly as possible and try to prevent the impact, that is usually trying to stop them from accruing a higher victim count through things like investigation, good modern scientific principals and techniques," Wayne said.

Fraser was believed to have a relatively low IQ, to the point where he had trouble writing or spelling his own name.

Wayne said this also indicated he would have had problems predicting the consequences of his behaviour, was probably quite impulsive and would have let his emotions and anger control his actions.

"There is a bit of a tendency to believe that serial killers are somehow different to other people and that therefore they must have you know what is commonly referred to as a 'Mark of Cain' that is some sort of identifying features or characteristics that actually sets them apart," Wayne said.

"The harsh reality though is that most serial killers are actually normal people. They live relatively normal lives outside of their killing and they can be employees or employers.

"They can be parents, they can be brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and aunties and uncles. A lot of them actually get away with their crimes because they are quite unremarkable."

DANGEROUS MAN: This is the Leonard John Fraser that Sylvia Benedetti thought she was being helped by. He was pictured here laying turf at The Caves School in the mid-1990s while on a prison work scheme.
DANGEROUS MAN: This is the Leonard John Fraser that Sylvia Benedetti thought she was being helped by. He was pictured here laying turf at The Caves School in the mid-1990s while on a prison work scheme.

Serial offenders, not just serial killers, do seem to have similar personality traits though.

They're not all psychopaths, but Wayne explains these offenders do tend to have personality disorders with similar characteristics to those of psychopaths.

"They tend to be very glib and they have a lot of superficial charm but when you scratch the surface there's not really anything behind that," Wayne said.

"Because they commit crimes over and over again, one of the things they don't tend to have is empathy for other people and they also don't have remorse for their crimes.

"If they were to do something, for example like crying, that would usually be very self-serving because that helps them convince you that they're sorry for what they've done when really what they're sorry about is getting caught in the end.

"They also tend to live lives pretty filled with deceit and they tend to be cunning and manipulative, shallow emotions, quite poor behavioural control as well. They can have early behavioural problems or at least some very unusual behaviour in the early years."

It's estimated that 15 to 20 per cent of people in American prisons are psychopaths, and studies show they tend to commit crimes and re-offend more frequently than non-psychopathic people.

But as Wayne explains, this is disproportionately high compared to the number of people with psychopathy among the general population.

The term is sometimes used interchangeably with other terms, including sociopath.

The difference generally lies in where the behaviour stems from.

It is usually suggested that psychopaths are "effectively born that way", while sociopathy is developed through experiences, interactions and failures.

"The actual behavioural characteristics, things like being egocentric, lacking remorse, lacking empathy, not wanting to be held responsible for their actions, are characteristics that are basically the same. It's just really the origin: one being nature and one being nurture," Wayne said.

According to Wayne, there is little chance of rehabilitating a psychopath like Fraser.

Leonard John Fraser
Leonard John Fraser

In fact, he said trying to change a psychopath could even make them a more volatile predator.

"They've done research on people who are psychopaths especially and they've found that when you put them in treatment programs it very often doesn't make them better," he said.

"It very often makes them much worse psychopaths because they get put into group environments where people talk about their feelings and what makes them upset and basically that just gives the psychopath more ammunition."

Queensland was the first state in Australia to introduce harsh preventative detention laws aimed directly at sex offenders.

If similar laws had existed in New South Wales in the 1970s, Fraser could potentially have been detained rather than being released on parole.

In hindsight, it's obvious Fraser shouldn't have been released on parole and there could have been grounds for indefinite detention.

But as Wayne explains, indefinite or preventative detention is a contentious issue.

"Realistically, what we're talking about is a fairly small population of offenders who commit a disproportionate amount of crime, but I guess it comes back to whether or not you want to spend a large amount of money to try to deal with what is effectively a small offender population," he said.

That landmark Queensland legislation was the Dangerous Prisoner (Sexual Offenders) Act.

It was introduced in 2003, just a few months after Fraser became Queensland's first convicted serial killer.

However, the main rationale for the law was the impending release of serial sex offender Robert John Fardon, who had an appalling history of crimes against children.

He served another decade in prison on preventative detention orders, until he was released on strict supervision orders in 2013. The harshest conditions were dropped earlier this year.

When the Dangerous Prisoner (Sexual Offenders) Act was introduced, Fardon challenged it in the High Court. But Australia's highest judicial power ruled the Queensland law was acceptable.

There was only one other similar Australian law before the 2003 act and the High Court had already struck that out on the grounds it was unjust.

The previous laws had been introduced in New South Wales, as the Community Protection Act in 1994. The problem was it essentially ended up referring to just one prisoner, which was found to be unlawful.

In Queensland's 2003 act, it was a section or type of offender who was being singled out. In this instance, sex offenders who have committed particularly violent acts, or acts against children.

The preventative detention orders lapse after one year, when the prisoner can be released on strict supervision orders, or the application can be rejected.

len10c o530/14 Leonard John Fraser. Lenny Fraser arrives in Rockhampton. peter pic Photo: The Morning Bulletin
Leonard John Fraser in Rockhampton in 2000. ROK290115fraser5

Under the laws, the state must prove the prisoner is a danger to the community.

This is where legal professionals have raised some concern, because the standard of proof for evidence in these applications is less than that required to convince a jury in a trial.

Hypothetically, if Queensland's laws had been in place in the 1990s the state might have been able to argue for Fraser's continued detention and Julie, Beverley, Sylvia and Keyra might still be alive.

But that didn't happen. Instead, families lost people they loved. And to understand what that means, you need to understand one of those families.

We need to talk about what happens when the case is closed, the killer is dead, the media goes silent.

Because grief can't be summed up in a headline or a soundbite. Grief is a constant ordeal.

So how does a mother carry on nurturing a child when she's also grieving her daughter's murder?

PREDATOR PART 5: LIFE REBUILT will be released next Monday. 


This series is based on interviews with Treasa Steinhardt, Snr Sgt Carl Burgoyne, Eddie Cowie, Frazer Pearce and Allan Quinn. Michelle Gately also reviewed original Morning Bulletin reports (with thanks to the History Centre at Rockhampton Library), interview transcripts (provided by Treasa Steinhardt), and court documents.