Back From The Dead
This story originally aired on Sept. 24, 2005.
It's never happened before on "48 Hours Mystery," and maybe not ever in history. One of a serial killer's presumed victims showed up at her alleged killer's trial. Correspondent Bill Lagattuta reports from Rockhampton, Australia.
Imagine the nightmare. Five women and girls were missing. Keyra Steinhardt, age 9; Natasha Ryan, 14; Sylvia Benedetti, 19, Beverly Leggo, 37, and Julie Turner, 39, vanished one after another from this picturesque small city in Queensland.
Around town, many people stopped going out. They wouldn't drive at night, not even to a movie theater. Rockhampton was in a state of fear.
Early on, the police got a lucky break and brought in a suspect who had a long and violent history. "He had the hallmarks of a serial killer," says Dave Hickey, who led the homicide task force on the case. "Lenny Fraser is a psychopath," declares Prosecutor Paul Rutledge. "He is a very dangerous man."
Nonetheless, it was a difficult case for the police, who had found little evidence and had not even found all of the bodies. To get a conviction, they needed a confession.
So, to catch a criminal, they turned to a criminal. Allan Quinn brags that he is Australia's greatest con man. And he was about to embark on the biggest con of his career.
For Quinn, it was "a chance for me to turn my life around to compensate for the terrible life I led." He was determined to find out what had happened to the missing people of Rockhampton.
But before the case was all over, a murder victim would rise from the grave and walk right into court.
Kookaburra And Crocodiles
From its unspoiled beaches to its desolate outback, Australia is a continent filled with great beauty. But if you're not careful there's great danger, too. There are the furry, friendly animals we all know about. But there are also sharks that can take your head off, rivers filled with crocodiles, deadly spiders and vicious snakes. As the Australians say, "if you're not prepared, there're no 'beg your pardons!'"
It's true: There are more creatures that can kill you in Australia than anywhere else on earth. People who live Down Under have learned to live with them.
But there is one dangerous animal that they have never come to terms with: the human predator.
It all began with the disappearance of a 9-year-old girl named Keyra Steinhardt. The little girl was snatched in broad daylight, as she was walking home from school along a main road.
The news shocked the residents of Rockhampton. This is a small town near the Great Barrier Reef, known as the region's beef capital. "We don't wake up to the sounds of sirens and cars and things," says Mark, a local barber. "We wake up to the sound of kookaburra and kangaroos grazing on the front lawn."
The whole town joined an around-the-clock search for Keyra, from cops in cruisers to cowboys on horseback to Cub Scouts on foot.
The night Keyra vanished, police picked up their suspect, who had been spotted in her neighborhood. He was a local oddball with a history of violence.
Everyone seemed to know about Leonard John Fraser, the man with the icy stare. He was a meat cutter at the local slaughterhouse, and he had done time in prison for assault. "I don't think you'd really want to meet him in a dark alley, to be honest," says Detective Darren Lees. "First thing he said to me was, 'I'm no child molester.'"
But Fraser refused to confess.
While searchers probed the banks of the crocodile-infested Fitzroy River looking for Keyra, Lees searched Fraser's car for clues. He found blood in and around the side of the vehicle that was later positively identified as Keyra's blood.
In jail and under police pressure, Fraser finally cracked and led detectives to Keyra's body.
As Prosecutor Paul Rutledge reconstructs the crime, Lenny Fraser attacked Keyra as she was walking home from school, knocking her to the ground. Investigators believe he raped the victim at the scene. At some point, she was murdered with a cut to the throat. The murderer put the body in the boot of his car and dumped it in a bush area outside the town. The body would remain there for about two weeks.
When Keyra's body finally was found and her family arranged for her funeral, hundreds came to say goodbye to the little girl, including many who had helped search for her. By that point, says her mother, Theresa, "Keyra was everyone's daughter."
Then, the police made another gruesome discovery. More blood -- different blood - was found in Fraser's car. The discovery put the authorities and all of Rockhampton into a panic.
Had other people disappeared since Lenny Fraser hit town? The answer was yes, four of them. Sylvia Benedetti, age 19, was missing, as was Beverly Leggo, 37, and Julie Turner, 39. Most ominously, another young schoolgirl, a 14-year-old, was unaccounted for.
Her name was Natasha Ryan. Natasha Ryan was lovingly nicknamed "Grasshopper," says her father, Robert Ryan, because "when she was little she'd -- instead of crawl -- she'd hop here or hop over to there, or something like that."
Natasha was last seen alive outside a Rockhampton movie theatre. The disappearance of the free-spirited teenager was soon national news, and all of Australia became obsessed with her fate. As news reports soon made clear, police feared that the teenager was another victim of a serial killer.
But if Lenny Fraser had murdered Natasha and the other missing women, he wasn't admitting it, according to Dave Hickey, who led the homicide task force on the case. There was no crime scene, no body and no tangible evidence. Every lead had been exhausted.
Their frustration convinced authorities to go along with a wild scheme put together by a man you'd never suspect of wanting to help the police: Allan Quinn, self-described as "Australia's greatest con man."
"I've conned lawyers, judges, doctors," brags Allan Quinn, who was interviewed aboard a boat. "I lived the good life. The quicker I got the money, the quicker I spent it." He adds that he liked Dom Perignon - for breakfast. Among Quinn's dubious accomplishments as a lifetime criminal are multiple appearances on Australia's Most Wanted television series, once for ripping off retirees.
To police, he also claimed that only he could crack the Rockhampton case wide open. With four people missing and all other avenues exhausted, the police agreed to let him try.
At the time of the Rockhampton murder investigation, Quinn was in jail -- caught for a con when a bank customer recognized him. In prison, he ran into Leonard Fraser, then accused of little Keyra's murder.
Frazier was eventually convicted of killing Keyra. But he had never confessed to the murders of Natasha Ryan or the three other women.
And that made Quinn furious. "In a flash, I thought, 'it's my job, he's speaking to me,'" Quinn recalls. "I'll befriend this guy and I'll get the information."
In an old prison yard, Quinn and Fraser would walk and talk every day during their exercise period. Quinn's plan was to work Frazier as a good con man works any "mark," gain his confidence and trust slowly over time, and then get him to give Quinn what he wanted.
In this case, he wanted information. He wanted to know what Fraser did with the bodies of his victims.
"Fraser was so excited when he talked about serial killers," Quinn recalls, "I said to him, I said, 'look, Lenny, if you want to be a serial killer, you can't be a serial killer unless anybody knows what you done.' I said, 'you'll have to give up the bodies of your victims; you'll have to tell them the story.'"
He learned that Fraser wanted to be transferred from prison to a psychiatric ward. Quinn promptly convinced him that telling all would get him the transfer.
Eventually, police set Quinn up with secret recording gear. Fraser kept talking, eventually describing his crimes in grisly detail. Over the course of two years, at great risk to himself, Quinn even got authorities to put the accused serial killer in the same cell with him.
Over time, the stories got more detailed and more grisly. But police needed more than stories. They needed bodies.
That leads us to another twist in the story. Quinn, the con man, agreed to stay in prison beyond his release date in order to help build the case. "I've hurt a lot of people in my life," Quinn explains. "I've got to do something good, so that is why I set in after Fraser."
It would take Quinn nearly nine more months of volunteer time in prison to crack the case. "I used every trick in the book," recalls Quinn, "and all of a sudden it came out..."
Incredible as it seems, Quinn conned Fraser into admitting everything, then lined up the governor's personal jet to fly him and Fraser to the crime scenes, and Fraser still didn't realize he was being conned. He willingly stepped onto the plane.
They wound up in the thick jungle-like landscape just outside of Rockhampton. You'd be hard pressed to find anything in there, but Fraser seemed to know the way. He lost his sullen manner and became happy and excited as he led Detective Dave Hickey, with Quinn not far behind, deeper into the bush.
Fraser led them to an isolated tropical setting, where skeletal remains were found. Remains later identified as those of Julie Turner were found in one spot. Beverly Leggo's remains were found in another. The body of the third woman, Sylvia Benedetti, turned up near the beach.
Nothing was found of Natasha Ryan. But Fraser gave Quinn several maps to Natasha's body.
Try as they might, the police could not find Natasha's grave. But with Quinn's help they were able to make their case.
A Shock In The Court
Three years after she disappeared, her parents held a memorial service for Natasha Ryan.
"I decided that I wanted it to be on Natasha's birthday," says her father, Robert Ryan. "It was my way as the dad to say good bye..."
So, with Lenny Fraser finally confessing to Natasha's murder, her family and friends gathered to remember her.
It had taken Quinn a year to con Lenny Fraser into revealing where he buried Natasha. He drew a map that led police to an eerie stretch of road between Rockhampton and the coast, to a burial site behind an empty house. He described how he killed Natasha under a mango tree, and then buried her on the property using a mechanical trench digger.
Police searched the property with cadaver dogs and via foot searches. They never found Natasha's grave.
Still, Prosecutor Paul Rutledge felt there was powerful evidence to convict Fraser for all of the murders, including Natasha Ryan's.
At the trial, Natasha's father Robert Ryan led the victims' families.
"I just sat in that courtroom and made sure I sat in that same seat," Ryan recalls. "I was in that courtroom every morning. When they handcuffed Leonard Fraser, the moment he walked in the door, he had me -- he was looking at me..."
And then it happened, the extraordinary event that would have all Australians shaking their heads in disbelief. The trial was in its 12th day. Witnesses were preparing to testify as to how and why Lenny Frazer would have murdered Natasha Ryan. The court was in its daily recess for lunch when Prosecutor Rutledge got a phone call. As soon as the call ended, he went looking for Robert Ryan.
Paul Rutledge's words to me were, 'We found Natasha.' And I just slumped down," recalls Ryan. "And then Paul says to me, 'she's alive.'"
Rutledge told her father that Natasha was being taken to the police station, and that he would need to speak to her by telephone to identify her.
"I said to the voice on the other end of the phone, 'if you're my daughter, what would your dad call you?' Ryan said. He remembers her reply: "Dad, it's me, Grasshopper, and I love you and I'm sorry."
At that point, Robert Ryan dropped the phone, and he now recalls the rest of the day as pretty much a blur.
Confused? So was everyone in the court, as moments later, Paul Rutledge made the announcement: "I told the court: 'I'm pleased to inform the court that Leonard John Fraser is not guilty of the murder of Natasha. Natasha Ryan is alive.'"
Natasha was alive and well, and she'd been living right under their noses the whole time.
Australia Is Abuzz
Enter Natasha Ryan, the only murder victim we know of who has ever come back to life.
According to Australian crime reporter Paula Doneman, an anonymous letter arrived at the Rockhampton police station suggesting that if someone called a certain phone number they would find Natasha Ryan alive and well.
When they were reunited, Robert Ryan had a million questions, but he couldn't bring himself to ask them. "I just said, "I love you and we'll try to sort through this," he recalls.
Natasha's mother Jenny Ryan had a different reaction. "I hated her," she says. "I could have grabbed her and just shook the hell out of her. But when I seen her...You forget all that. And she looked at me, and she just said to me, 'I'm sorry,' and she had tears rolling down her eyes..."
When Natasha Ryan emerged from hiding, it turned out she'd been hiding less that a mile from her mother's house. She even came down to the beach, but only at night so no one would see her. Natasha had run off with Scott Black, a local deliveryman about 20 years old who had earlier dated her older sister.
Natasha and Scott spent much of the time in a house with tightly drawn curtains. She hid inside a closet anytime someone came to the door.
All of Australia was desperate to hear Natasha's story. But she chose to speak only with reporters who would pay her. We wouldn't, but the Australian version of 60 Minutes did. For $100,000, Natasha revealed how she had spent her days (cooking, sewing, watching television) and showed the famous closet where she had crouched until, one day, the police opened the closet door.
When asked why she did it, Natasha's answer was less than convincing: "I just felt angry at everybody and everything. I didn't want to be at school, I didn't want to be at home, I didn't want to be there in that life," she says.
Natasha's parents say they were both close to their daughter, although they had been divorced for several years. At the time she vanished, Natasha was living with her mom.
After she ran away, Natasha was afraid to go home. "I thought that I would be sent to prison," she says. "I thought that I would be sent away." She insisted that she had run away entirely of her own free will and, despite her age, had not been overly influenced by her adult boyfriend.
Among those who are not sympathetic is Theresa Steinhardt, mother of nine-year-old murder victim Keyra. "Natasha Ryan needs a slap across the face!" she says, adding, "How dare she put her family through that?"
Natasha does not disagree. "I do not want to go to jail. But I do deserve it," she told the media. "I do deserve to be severely punished for what I've done."
And speaking of punishment, why would Leonard Fraser confess to a murder he didn't commit?
Fraser may have been playing with the authorities, giving bits and pieces of false information along with a few factual nuggets. Certainly, the confessed serial killer enjoyed the notoriety.
Quinn, who now perhaps knows the killer better than anyone, agrees: "I believe it's that serial killer thing," he says, adding, "He wants to be known as a serial killer."
Natasha's reappearance came as a relief to everyone, but her deception threw the Fraser murder case into disarray. If Fraser had lied about killing Natasha, could he be lying about his role in the other killings? And, could he get off on a technicality? The whole case seemed about to come apart.
Now alive and well, and under subpoena, Natasha Ryan marched into a courtroom to testify that she was not in fact murdered by Leonard Fraser. This created a challenge for the prosecutor.
"It was an intriguing situation. ... I've been known to say that I am the only prosecutor who has cross-examined the deceased," Rutledge says.
In effect, Natasha Ryan testified on Fraser's behalf. The defense wanted the jury to ignore Fraser's confessions -- the best evidence the prosecution had in the case. Their approach, says Rutledge, was, "'Well, if he falsely admitted to killing the girl Natasha Ryan, how could you possibly rely on anything he said?'"
Rutledge countered that there was powerful evidence revealed on tape by Fraser that only the killer could know.
In the end, Natasha's testimony didn't matter. Leonard Fraser was convicted and sentenced to prison for all the murders of which he was accused - except, of course, Natasha's.
Justice for Leonard Fraser, who is serving indefinite prison sentences for the murders of Keyra Steinhardt, Beverly Leggo, Sylvia Benedetti and Julie Turner.
But what about Natasha Ryan? Australians are a forgiving lot, but her amazing return from the dead was tough to take.
"I think the whole town was the same ... we were angry," one resident says. "We were happy she was alive, but we were angry because of what had gone on for so long."
The search itself cost more than half a million dollars, and that's not including the hundreds of volunteers.
At home, Ryan's mother, Jenny, is facing her own tough choices about Natasha.
"At the moment, I don't trust her, she's got to regain that trust," Jenny Ryan says. "As for forgiving her, probably could forgive but never forget."
To this day, Natasha Ryan has never publicly apologized. Her boyfriend, Scott Black, was convicted of lying to police and is serving a one-year sentence. And now authorities have decided it's time for Natasha to answer for her deeds.
The police have charged Natasha, along with Black, with causing a false investigation. Their long-awaited trial has just begun.
Although they won't face jail time with this charge, if convicted, Natasha and Black will each face fines of $5,600, and police could seek up to $120,000 from the couple to cover some of the costs of the lengthy search.
And what about Australia's greatest con man, Allan Quinn, who helped crack the Leonard Fraser case? It has been three years since the trial, and Quinn seems to be making out just fine.
"It goes straight to my heart," he said recently. "I've done something really good for once in my life; turned my life around from being a bad boy to being a good boy."
These days, he's got a pretty girlfriend. He gets to the track once in a while. He's writing a book about his greatest con. And, he's trying to get the authorities to pay him for his crime-solving efforts.
So far no luck, but even some of the hard-boiled detectives who would in the past have arrested him now consider him a friend. Says Hickey: "He's a likable rogue, and I'll go and share a beer with him any day."
Of course, with a con man, there's always that question of trust. And trust is the central issue over at Natasha Ryan's place too. "At the moment, I don't trust her," says her mother. "She's got to regain that trust. As for forgiving her, probably could forgive, but never forget."
As for Natasha's Father, Robert Ryan, once so relieved and hopeful, he has a new heartache. Tragically, he has lost contact with his daughter ... again.
"I have not spoken to Natasha or seen Natasha for nearly a year," Robert Ryan says. "She's had a baby ... the only way I knew she had a baby was the media told me. I don't know the baby's name."
The baby's name is Corey, a 2-year-old boy. The father is Scott Black, the man she hid with for five years.
"I'll never know why she did it. And that's something that every day of my life I say 'why?'" Robert Ryan says. "The day that Natasha will tell me is when she's probably leaning over my grave or they're putting my coffin in - if she attends my funeral - and then she'll probably say why."
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