The coastal town of Busselton is 220 kilometres south west of Perth, Western Australia. It is globally recognized for its beauty, fresh air, clear sparkling water, remarkable wildlife, local produce, and charming villages nearby. Busselton provides an idyllic atmosphere to raise children and takes pride in having one of the lowest crime rates. For Susie Gilmore it is where her worst nightmare began – a nightmare which raises the question of whether closure, by its generally accepted definition, is possible.
In 1967 Susie was a 15 year old girl living in Busselton. She lived with her parents and was the youngest of two brothers and five sisters. She and her friend went to the shop for a milkshake. They parted ways at their usual spot, an equal distance from both their homes. Susie was so close to home that she could see her front door when a car pulled up and a man asked for directions. Upon approaching the car to assist, she was suddenly grabbed and forced inside. Her friend heard the scream but thought she had imagined it when she went back to investigate and saw nothing.
Susie was taken by three men to an old abandoned scout camp in Lesmurdie, 21 kilometres from Perth. Michael Otley, Jock Dempsey and David Bush held Susie captive, used her as a sex slave and planned to kill her so their identities would remain unknown to the police. Asked what thoughts and feelings she had during her ordeal Susie says, “I didn’t think I was going to survive. I thought I was living my last days on earth and wished they would just kill me rather than prolong my misery.” Her mind and body shut down. Susie continued by saying, “The ‘here and now’ was absolutely terrifying and unbearable so my mind went elsewhere.” It was this that enabled her to consider the possibility of survival.
On the tenth day, Otley released her. He told her to follow him to the bathroom, where he turned the shower on and left the water running, pretending she was having a shower. He then snuck her to the back door where he allowed her to escape. Asked why she thought he did that Susie says, “He said to me he was already going down for kidnapping and rape. He didn’t want to go down for murder as well.” Susie ran a couple of streets away. She banged on a couple’s door and told the lady who answered that she was the young girl from the paper. Susie says, “I must have looked absolutely awful. I hadn’t showered in ten days. I was full of adrenaline and had been completely traumatised.” The ladies husband called the police and the couple took her to the police station. One officer showed compassion and offered Susie something to eat and drink. Another officer accused her of being a runaway, “one of those girls”, and suggested she had been with her boyfriends. His poor treatment caused Susie to completely shut down. Her brother came to identify her and the police took her to Longmore Detention Centre (now Banksia Hill). Asked why they did that Susie says, “I still have no idea why! I was left there wondering what I had done wrong.”
Susie was able to give the police all three names. Otley was the first to be caught. He already had a criminal record and had been caught breaking into houses getting food. Bush was picked up over east. A relative of Dempsey’s, from the UK, recognised his name and informed police of his whereabouts. Susie says, “The justice system was so different back then. In court I was made to sit in the public gallery next to Bush’s mother. She told me she didn’t think badly of her son.” She continued by saying, “A detective showed a lot of compassion towards me. He said his heart broke for me and warned me that the lawyer would attempt to raise questions that scrutinised my character and mental state. He advised me to simply answer yes or no and I’ll get through it. I took his advice and afterwards he said I had done incredibly well.” All three men were found guilty. Otley was sentenced to 23 years, Dempsey nine and Bush five.
Asked how people responded to her ordeal Susie says, “I was in shock and very much alone. When I tried talking about it Mum responded with the expectation that I pretend as though nothing had happened. My sister’s didn’t acknowledge anything either. Dad didn’t say anything about it but my sister’s later told me it was because he felt guilty that he didn’t protect me.” She continued by saying, “My church and school treated me like damaged goods. I wasn’t allowed to get married in my church because I wasn’t a virgin. I was a bright student who enjoyed school but I left when other students continuously pointed and talking about me.” Susie stayed home for a couple of years before being offered a job at a bakery. “My boss was great,” Susie says. “I loved working there. I kept eating the jam donuts until one day he told me to start making them and I’d have to eat each one that wasn’t perfect. I haven’t eaten a jam donut since!” She enjoyed working out back, being unnoticed and feeding kittens in secret.
Susie is now 63, a mother of three, and lives in Bunbury with her partner, a folk musician. They met when Susie travelled to Adelaide after they had been chatting online for some time. Susie says he is her best friend. They enjoy a nice Moscato under the patio some evenings while he plays music. In recent years Susie has shared parts of her story with students at a Busselton school, encouraging them to be aware and make safe decisions. After her first talk, the students wrote letters to Susie, giving them to a teacher to pass on to her. The letters accumulated and after a few days the teacher put them in a box and sent them home with Susie’s son. Susie treasures these letters from young people who wrote about the personal impact her story has had on them. Susie says with fondness, “The students gave me hugs and told all their friends about me so the school invited me to talk to nine other classes!”
Asked what her thoughts and feelings are when she reflects upon her past and considers her future Susie says, “I have lost so much that I should have been able to enjoy back then. I grieve the loss of innocence so young and am quite bitter about it.” Regarding her future she says, “I take each day as it comes now as it is the only way I can survive. I live for today as the promise of tomorrow went when I was young and naive.” She says her PTSD gets to her at times and it’s in those moments that she needs to talk openly and honestly. When asked what she hopes for people to grasp from sharing her story she says, “People view legal proceedings as an avenue to get closure. The offenders may be sentenced to prison but the devastating effects in people’s lives remain.” She continues by saying, “Offenders serve their sentence and walk out free. Their victims don’t.”