Catherine Birnie was imprisoned for four life sentences for the Moorhouse serial killings with her sadistic husband but now wants to be set free from jail.
Inside Bandyup maximum security prison for women, the most infamous female inmate in Western Australian history has celebrated her 70th birthday.
Perhaps not the oldest female prisoner, but one of the most manipulative, Catherine Birnie likes to pass herself off as a harmless prison librarian patiently waiting for her parole date.
But Birnie is no reformed little old lady criminal in Bandyup prison greys.
Apart from being WA’s longest-serving prisoner, she has the dubious notoriety of being Australia’s worst female serial killer.
Although quadruple baby killer Kathleen Folbigg also killed four, they were her own infants and she was convicted of just three counts of murder and one of manslaughter.
Birnie is serving four terms of life imprisonment for the kidnap, rape and murder with her de facto David Birnie of four women in the notorious Moorhouse serial killings.
Although life can mean just 20 years in WA, Birnie has been in prison for 35 years since her spree of evil crimes in Perth’s suburbs in 1986.
Those opposed to her release say her innocuous demeanour behind bars is misleading, with the Birnie case investigating detective Paul Ferguson calling her an “evil parasite”.
Although she reportedly starred in a prison production of the musical comedy, Nunsense, and is a co-operative inmate, Birnie is said to be clever at conning prison officers.
A decade ago, Birnie shared a prison wing with inmate Jessica Stasinowsky.
Then aged in her late 50s, Birnie built up a rapport with the vampire wheelie bin killer who was in her early 20s.
Perhaps Birnie saw something of her own savage cruelty to women in the younger offender’s heinous crime.
Stasinowsky and her lover, Valerie Parashumti, bludgeoned and strangled a vulnerable 16-year-old girl in the inner Perth suburb of Lathlain, the same suburb where Catherine Birnie spent her troubled childhood.
Catherine Birnie was allegedly found in possession of a knife after acting as a go-between for Stasinowsky and Parashumti, putting her hope for parole on hold.
The wheelie bin killers, who are serving strict security life imprisonment sentences, had been split up following an uproar over their close placement inside Bandyup.
This was despite a judge’s recommendation the lovers be incarcerated separately.
Parashumti was moved to another prison from which Birnie allegedly facilitated correspondence between the two.
A security clampdown ensued, but WA prison authorities later said there was no knife in Birnie’s possession.
However, The West Australian interviewed a prison source who said of Birnie: “There’s been a problem because they over trust her.
“They give her too much freedom and too much scope to move around the prison wherever she wants.
She’s got them bluffed basically. She is the best con artist I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Years ago, Catherine Birnie used the same cunning to trick women into the car to become victims for the psychopath who was her common law husband, the depraved David Birnie.
The pair played a sinister game to select the victims that would satisfy David’s perverted urges.
A decade before Claremont serial killer Bradley Robert Edwards was preying on young women, the Birnies were in fact trawling the same areas for victims.
Called the “puppeteer” of their deadly play, Catherine Birnie was the lookout as the pair drove around for potential prey.
On sighting a potential victim, she would say, “I’ve got the munchies.”
If David Birnie liked the look of the vulnerable female Catherine had spotted on the street, he would seal the girl or woman’s fate by uttering the words, “I’ve got the munchies too.”
Luring women into accepting a lift with her falsely reassuring presence, Birnie helped David slake his bloodlust.
Once back at their house, the victim was chained to a bed.
Catherine Birnie would cheer on, photograph and record David Birnie as he raped and tortured the women, finally murdering them.
The Birnies’ sadistic crimes have been compared to those of the world’s most heinous killer couples, including Myra Hindley and Ian Brady’s Moors murders of five children in the 1960s in the UK.
Fred and Rosemary West, who like the Birnies had childhoods of incest and neglect, raped and killed at least 12 young women over 20 years, including their own children.
The Wests’ house at 28 Cromwell Street, Gloucester, teeming with victims’ dismembered remains, was demolished in 1996.
The Birnies’ own house of horrors was 3 Moorhouse Street, Willagee, a working-class Fremantle suburb.
Their killing season took place in the spring of 1986 when Catherine Birnie was a 35-year-old mother of six children.
She had abandoned her children and their father to reunite with David Birnie and embark on their dreadful rampage
Her twisted relationship with the sex-addicted monster David Birnie, however, stretched way back to their early teens.
FILTHY HOUSE, INCEST
Born in the first half of 1951, both Catherine Harrison and David Birnie had difficult childhoods.
When she was two years old, Catherine’s mother died giving birth to a baby brother, who then also died.
Catherine moved to South Africa, where she was abused by her father, until being taken back to Perth by her maternal grandparents.
When her strict and isolating grandmother had an epileptic fit, Catherine was shipped off to her aunt and uncle in the inner southeastern Perth suburb of Lathlain.
Living next door was a smart, wild young teenager, David Birnie, the oldest of five children to an alcoholic mother and physically handicapped father.
The house was notoriously filthy and Mrs Birnie an ill-kempt woman known to exchange sexual favours with taxi drivers in lieu of payment and possibly engaged in incest.
When lonely, motherless 12-year-old girl, Catherine Harrison, moved in next door, she and David struck up a friendship which would become sexual before they turned 14.
David Birnie was a big reader, of everything from politics to science to the Egyptian pyramids, and he enthralled Catherine.
But after years of welfare officers repeatedly removing the neglected Birnie children which eventually saw them all sent off to foster homes, David Birnie lost touch with Catherine.
HURT ANIMALS, EXPOSED HIMSELF
Small in stature like his father, David Birnie was skinny and bullied at school, which he left to become a jockey.
Apprenticed at Ascot Racecourse in central Perth, David Birnie earned a reputation for both hurting the animals and for exposing himself.
When he tried to rape an elderly lady at his boarding house after breaking into her room naked with a stocking over his head, David was fired from his job.
In the small Perth community of the mid-to-late 1960s, David Birnie again met up with Catherine Harrison who had left school to work as a machinist in a window blind factory.
David had a record for petty theft, burglary and assault, and had also become addicted to pornography, fetishism and sex.
One of David’s brothers would later say that if David did not have sex every night he would go mad.
PUT HARD WORD ON HIS BROTHER
Once after a couple of nights of going without, David asked his younger brother to have sex with him.
When the teenager declined, he woke up to find David in his bed trying it on with him.
In 1969, both aged 18, David Birnie and Catherine faced Perth Police Court charged with break, enter and steal of a safe at a local drive-in theatre.
David Birnie went to prison. Catherine, pregnant to another man, was put on probation.
When David Birnie was released from prison in mid-1970, he teamed up with Catherine, and they subsequently committed more thefts.
David Birnie returned to jail and Catherine was imprisoned for six months in a detention centre, her infant child taken away by welfare authorities.
Behind bars, she was convinced by an officer her life would be better without David Birnie.
On release, with her child returned to her, Catherine secured a job as a nanny and housekeeper with the respected McLauchlan family.
When she became pregnant to one of the sons, Donald McLauchlan, they were allowed to marry on her 21st birthday in 1972.
They would have seven children, but the first, Donny Jr, was hit and killed by a car in their driveway while just an infant, Catherine witnessing the accident.
Catherine proved unskilled at keeping house, and the children ran wild.
David, meanwhile, had married a woman, Kerrie, and they had a child.
But by about 1983, Catherine and David Birnie had started seeing one another again and embarked on an affair.
In 1985, Catherine left her husband and six children, when the youngest Peter was just three years old, to live with David Birnie.
The couple was never legally married, but Catherine changed her surname by deed poll to Birnie.
They moved into 3 Moorhouse Street in Willagee,
David Birnie got a job selling car parts at a wrecker’s yard in Myaree, a four-minute drive from the house, where he was known as reliable, intelligent and happy-go-lucky.
HOUSE OF HORRORS
At home, where neighbours considered them quiet people who kept to themselves, the Birnies smoked cannabis, took heroin and prescription drugs.
David Birnie wanted sex up to six times a day and would inject anaesthetic into his penis to extend his performance.
He needed constant gratification, and the pair experimented with sex toys.
David Birnie did several more stints in prison for theft and had begun having sexual fantasies of rape and murder.
David asked Catherine to help him abduct, bind and rape a young woman.
She was a willing participant, whether it was for herself or just to keep David happy.
ADVERTISING FOR MURDER
In September 1986, David Birnie placed an advertisement in a local paper, ostensibly for a companion flatmate.
The ad read: “URGENT. Looking for a lonely person. Prefer female 18 to 24 years, share single room flat.”
Meanwhile, a young woman, Mary Frances Neilson, had approached David at the spare parts yard to buy some tyres.
The pretty, young psychology student with long, wavy brown hair was working part-time at a delicatessen in Attadale, not far from Willagee, while studying at the University of Western Australia.
When he suggested she visit his home for new tyres at a special cut-rate deal, the 22-year-old agreed.
On the evening of October 6, 1986, Ms Neilson knocked on the door of 3 Moorhouse Street, an unimpressive, single-storey home with a neglected garden.
As soon as she was inside, Ms Neilson was chained to a bed, and David raped her as Catherine watched.
David Birnie then expressed a desire to kill their young victim.
The pair drove Ms Neilson to a location then known as the Glen Eagle State Forest picnic area, around 50km southwest, where she was raped again.
As she begged for mercy, David Birnie strangled her with a nylon cord.
He stabbed Ms Neilson and mutilated her body, the couple burying it in a shallow grave.
Around two weeks later, Susannah Candy, 15, was hitchhiking along the Stirling Highway in Claremont, near the same spot where the Claremont serial killer victims were abducted a decade later.
Smart, pleasant and a straight-A student at Hollywood High School, Susannah was the daughter of one of Perth’s most respected ophthalmic surgeons, Dr Douglas Candy.
Usually Dr Candy, who was uncertain about his young daughter working part-time at a restaurant, would meet her after work and take her home.
But on October 20, 1986, a Monday, Susannah was making her way home alone when an innocuous-looking couple in their 30s offered her a lift.
The presence of a woman in the car had to have reassured the teenager.
The Birnies drove Susannah back to Moorhouse Street, tied her to a bed, and he repeatedly raped her.
Over several days, Susannah became the couple’s sex slave.
FOUGHT FOR HER LIFE
They forced the teenager to write letters to her parents, saying she just needed time away from home to sort out some problems.
Finally sick of her, David Birnie produced a nylon rope and put it around her neck, but the young girl became hysterical and fought him off.
The Birnies forced sleeping pills down Susannah’s throat.
When she was comatose, David Birnie picked up the rope again and said to Catherine, “Prove you love me.”
Catherine Birnie then strangled Susannah to death.
The couple drove her body to the Glen Eagle forest and dug a shallow grave near where they had put Ms Neilson.
The Birnies posted one of Susannah’s letters, and two weeks later posted the second.
The Candy family had reported Susannah as a missing person, and the letters did not convince them, but police believed she was a runaway.
On November 1, 1986, a Saturday, Noelene Patterson was driving home from work when her car ran out of petrol.
The elegant, attractive and accomplished 31-year-old had worked as a (now defunct) Ansett Airlines flight attendant, on entrepreneur Alan Bond’s private jet, and at Nedlands Golf Club.
She lived with her mother in Bicton, on the Swan River, in eastern Perth.
Standing by her car, Ms Patterson was relieved when a couple drew up beside her.
She knew the Birnies, who had helped her wallpaper a room in her house just a few weeks earlier, and got into the car.
Her relief turned to horror when David Birnie, produced a knife to her throat, and she was driven to the house at Willagee.
They chained her to the bed, gagged her and repeatedly raped her.
Over several days of this abuse, however, Catherine Birnie began to feel insecure because she knew David actually liked Ms Patterson.
David was showing signs of reluctance in disposing of Ms Patterson, always putting it off.
After three days, Catherine held the knife to Ms Patterson’s throat and demanded David choose, “it’s her or me”.
David forced sleeping pills down Ms Patterson’s throat and strangled her as Catherine watched, and they drove her body to join the others in the Glen Eagle forest grave.
Catherine threw dirt in the dead woman’s face as a final insult to a potential rival for David’s affections.
HARD TO KILL
Three days later, on November 4, part-time computer operator and babysitter Denise Brown was standing at a bus stop on the Stirling Highway.
She had just left a tavern in the Fremantle suburb of Coolbellup, when a friendly couple drew up in a car.
The 21-year-old accepted the offer of a lift, but once in the car a knife was held at her throat.
Ms Brown was taken back to Moorhouse St, chained to a bed and raped repeatedly.
The couple forced her to phone her parents and tell them she was OK.
After two days, Catherine Birnie decided she had enough of Ms Brown being alive, and the couple drove the victim to the Gnangara Pine Plantation.
It was still daylight, and David Birnie raped Ms Brown again.
When night fell, Catherine held a torch above Ms Brown, as David cut her neck with the knife while raping her again.
Not dead but making gurgling sounds from her neck wounds, Ms Brown lay still breathing until Catherine retrieved a larger knife from the car and David plunged it into her chest.
The couple dug a shallow grave and put her in it, but as they were tossing earth over her, Ms Brown sat up and gasped for breath.
David Birnie struck Ms Brown over the skull with his shovel, but she still tried to sit up.
Finally, David Birnie bludgeoned her head with an axe.
Catherine would later say the encounter had left her squeamish about committing further murders.
But after 27 days of raping, torturing and murdering, David’s bloodlust was on a high.
NIGHT OF TERROR
Seventeen-year-old Kate Moir was hitchhiking along the Stirling Highway after a Sunday night out with friends.
It was November 9, 1986 and she was “very drunk” when she accepted a lift from a harmless-looking couple.
Driven to her family home, she tried to open the car door, but there was no interior handle.
David Birnie pulled a butcher’s knife from his ugg boot and held it to her throat.
When she asked: “Are you going to rape me or kill me?”, David replied, “We’ll only rape you if you’re good.”
Kate would later recall she heard Catherine Birnie say while she was in the car, “I’ve got the munchies, have you got the munchies?”, the secret sign that they had found their next victim.
“You know you’re gonna die, but you don’t acknowledge that to yourself, you just live it,” Kate said.
Taken to Moorhouse St, Kate was quizzed about who she was, and was made to take a shower, smoke cannabis and sit down to watch movies.
She was made to dance to the Dire Straits song Romeo and Juliet in front of the Birnies.
She remembered the mustard-coloured dressing gown her rapist wore and the shiny, cold chains they used to secure her.
“I had a 200 per cent chance of dying and 5 per cent chance of getting away,” she said in a 2017 interview.
David raped her the first time just after midnight while Catherine Birnie watched and took notes.
During the night, she was given a pen and paper to write “goodbye letters” to her loved ones.
Made to shower again and moved to the master bedroom, she was raped again.
David Birnie handcuffed her foot to his and gave her some pills to take, and she was told to go to sleep.
Kate hid the pills under her tongue and later put them under the mattress, figuring if she went to sleep “I’d never wake up”.
The next morning, the Birnies made her call her parents and tell them she’d been really drunk.
David Birnie told her that if she said anything to alert them, she would be “murdered like the others”.
It was now Monday morning and David Birnie, who was well regarded at his workplace, left the house for his first day of the working week at the spare parts shop.
His departure gave Kate a faint hope and she began to plan.
She hid her lipstick and a piece of paper with her phone number in the room where she was, her chains currently unshackled.
When someone knocked on the front door and Catherine Birnie answered it, the teenager broke the lock on the one of the bedroom windows and pushed it open.
Falling out the window onto the driveway, she got up and ran to the nearest house.
She tried three houses, but nobody was home.
Wearing only black leggings and a singlet, she found a shop with a man standing outside it.
Hysterical, she pleaded with him, “Help I’ve been raped. Please take me inside and call the police.
“If a woman comes here and says I’ve had a fight with her and I’m her daughter, don’t believe her. I’ve been raped.”
The man took her to the police station.
Kate told Fremantle Police about her ordeal at the hands of the sex-crazed couple and the clues she had left at the house.
She described David as having an abnormally long, hooked nose and Catherine as a short woman with a permanent frown and high cheekbones.
When officers arrived at 3 Moorhouse Street, no one was home.
Catherine had gone out searching for the latest victim, terrified David would blame her for not having resecured the girl’s chains.
Police arrested her when she returned and took David from the spare parts shop into custody.
Interviewed in a separate room to Catherine, David Birnie initially claimed the young girl had willingly gone to the house to smoke marijuana and have sex with him.
The interview stretched into the late afternoon, and homicide detectives investigating the disappearance of four women had been brought in to interrogate the Birnies.
Finally, one detective said to David Birnie, “It’s getting dark, why don’t you just show me where the bodies are, so we can dig them up.”
To his surprise, David Birnie replied, “OK, there is four of them.”
In another interview room, Catherine Birnie was told of David’s confession and finally she broke her silence.
The detectives decided they would take both accused in handcuffs on the trip.
Late on Monday night, on the edge of a pine grove in Gnangara, near Pinjar 30km north of Perth, the team of detectives made their first grim discovery.
Between lines of trees, the naked remains of Denise Brown had been lying there for almost a week.
CATHERINE SPITS ON BODY
Before sunrise, the team had travelled back down through Perth and 80km south to another location in the Glen Eagle forest.
David Birnie told them they were looking for three more graves, but initially he had trouble pinpointing the burial grounds.
Eventually, they drove up a bush track, stopped at a spot indicated by David and began digging.
Another short drive, more digging, and another body was found.
These were the remains of Mary Neilson and 15-year-old Susannah Candy.
Catherine Birnie said she wanted to show them the next grave. Back to the highway and along yet another track lay a body covered with gravel, Noelene Patterson.
When she saw the body, Catherine Birnie spat on it.
BONES AND UNDERWEAR
On November 12, police charged Catherine and David Birnie each with four counts of murder, two counts of aggravated sexual assault on the 17-year-old girl and one count of deprivation of liberty.
Detectives wondered whether the Birnies had murdered other women still missing from Perth and began a further search.
On November 13, a team of 10 workers with two excavators began lifting sections of drain in Harrison St, around the corner from the Birnies’ house.
Workers laying pipes had, several months earlier, found pieces of bone, a pair of shoes and women’s underwear.
Police searched the drain for four hours but found nothing further.
TEENAGER WHO GOT AWAY
A 19-year-old female student came forward after the murders hit the news.
She claimed she was walking home from her university when a couple tried to pick her up. She felt uneasy about getting in the car when she saw what she assumed was a young boy or girl laying in the back seat.
The timing suggested that the body was that of Ms Brown, drugged by sleeping pills and passed out.
The student declined a ride and the car soon drove away. Her description of the driver and the woman in the passenger seat matched David and Catherine Birnie.
CRUEL AND RELENTLESS
At a hearing in February 1987, both Catherine and David Birnie pleaded guilty to all charges.
Justice Alkin Wallace sentenced David Birnie to life in prison, stamping his record “never to be released”.
The judge remarked: “Each of these horrible crimes were premeditated, planned and carried out cruelly and relentlessly over a comparatively short period. (He) should never be let out of prison.”
Catherine Birnie received the same sentence but was given a minimum term that would make her first eligible for parole in 2007.
However, Justice Wallace pronounced that “strict security life imprisonment” should mean exactly that for her.
When the sentencing was over, Catherine Birnie was dragged screaming and kicking and spitting to the van that would take her to Bandyup prison.
In the court, members of the public screamed at David Birnie who smiled and blew them a kiss.
LIFE IN PRISON
David Birnie’s violent nature was untempered by prison, where he was often engaged in fights, got beaten up, and spent much time in the prison infirmary.
Catherine Birnie revealed in her first full year of incarceration that she missed her de facto and blamed herself for their capture.
Catherine Birnie told one visitor: “I could have stopped that girl. I should have, but it all had to come to an end.”
For four years, the Birnies exchanged 2600 letters between Bandyup and David Birnie’s cells in Fremantle prison.
Catherine Birnie’s six children visited her in prison, as did David’s first wife.
She told visitors of her hopes to be released on parole and claimed she was confused and distressed, “coming down” from heroin addiction.
Catherine Birnie allegedly told one visitor, “If I get out when I’m 55 we might get together, but we’ll be too old to do anything.”
In 1990, David Birnie claimed that being apart from Catherine was sending him into a complete physical and mental breakdown.
DEATH IN CELL 12A
Catherine Birnie had initially wanted to marry David in jail, but by 1997 that desire had waned, and the letters from her to David dried up.
Catherine had begun her own campaign for parole and decided she stood a better chance by cutting him off.
She told detectives she participated in the killings only because of her infatuation with David, and she took part in sexual assaults on their victims to demonstrate her love for him.
Catherine Birnie told police she “was prepared to follow him to the end of the earth and do anything to see that his desires were satisfied’’.
Some time after his letters to Catherine went unanswered, David was prescribed antidepressant medication in prison.
In 2005, he was charged with the sexual assault of a fellow prisoner, and his computer was confiscated after it was found to contain pornographic images.
In early October 2005, a bureaucratic error meant that paperwork for David Birnie’s antidepressants was lost in the system and his supply was cut off.
On the morning of October 7, 2005, prison officers entering cell 12A in the protective custody unit of Casuarina Prison found the body of 54-year-old David Birnie.
He was hanging by a sheet from an air vent.
No one claimed his body, and he was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave.
A close relative of Catherine Birnie’s had previously said that David’s death would precipitate Catherine’s.
“I don’t think she would take her own life unless David kills himself,” Leonard Nock told News Corp reporter George Williams.
“But if he dies there is every chance she may do it.”
‘SHE’S A PARASITE AND AN ACTOR. NEVER LET HER OUT’
But Catherine Birnie had her own future outside jail in mind.
She had expressed her sorrow for her victims, in particular the youngest, 15-year-old Susannah Candy.
She took up painting, and began working on her dream of parole.
In 2007, Catherine applied for the first time and, although found to be at a low risk of reoffending, she was rejected because of the extreme nature of her crimes.
In 2013, her application was again rejected.
Under WA law, Catherine Birnie’s case for parole must be reviewed every three years, and in 2016, the Prisoners Review Board recommended not to release her.
Perth QC Tom Percy has repeatedly called for Catherine Birnie’s release because she is a quiet “church mouse” and keeping her locked up is an exercise in “pure revenge”, Perth Now reported after the decision.
The chief investigating detective on the Birnie case, Paul Ferguson, disagreed.
“I honestly believe that woman has never given those victims one ounce of consideration, both the dead victims and the families of the victims,” he told Perth Now.
“She’s an actor. The person I met is all for herself, and she will do whatever is necessary.
“They were parasites who lived off each other, the most evil people I’ve ever, ever come across.”
In 2016, the Birnies’ surviving victim, Kate Moir, launched a petition to end victims’ re-traumatisation by the possibility of their attackers getting parole.
Due for another parole review in 2019, Catherine Birnie’s hopes were dashed the year before when the WA Attorney-General introduced a new law into parliament.
John Quigley drafted new laws that meant rules allowing even the worst killers to apply for parole every three years would be scrapped.
This meant persons convicted of three or more murders on the one day or two or more murders on different days could be banned for parole consideration for up to six years.
Kate Moir found an ally in her fight to change Australia’s parole laws to stop killers like Birnie from ever being released in Peter, one of Catherine Birnie’s children.
Peter told Channel 7 he had been “emotionally destroyed” knowing his mother was a serial killer.
Peter was only six when Catherine abandoned her family to link up with David Birnie.
He said that after she was caught, Catherine had written a chilling letter to her children.
“I never stopped loving any of you kids I am not proud of what has been said about me but I have to live that and the memories,” she wrote.
“Maybe you’ll write to me because I really like to hear from all of youse (sic). I love you kids.”
Peter said he had cut contact with his mother, but that “she wants to see me, she wants to see the rest of the family” because she is eligible for parole.
“She wants to get close to one of us family members to say, ‘Oh yeah they can take on the responsibility if you do get out.’”
But Peter told Seven he did not want his mother released from prison and supported the death penalty for her.
In 2017, he told Yahoo 7 if Catherine died: “It wouldn’t bother me. It would be 30 years of stress off my shoulders.”
When asked what he’d say to his mother one last time, he said: “Hurry up and die. Quickly.”