It happened in a house only five minutes’ drive from where I’m now sitting.
Late one Sunday night, 17-year-old Kate Moir tried to hitch a ride home. It wasn’t long before a car pulled over to the side of the road. The driver had a woman with him, which Kate found reassuring. She jumped in.
But once in the back of the car, Kate discovered there was no door handle on the inside. Grinning at the woman, the man said: “I’ve got the munchies.”
She smiled back and said: “I’ve got the munchies too.”
It was the cue for the man to pull a knife out of his boot and hold it to her throat. This is it, Kate thought. These people are going to kill me.
Kate didn’t know it then, but the couple in the car had already kidnapped, raped and murdered four other women in the previous month alone. Their killing spree had only whetted their appetite for more.
Kate Moir was meant to be victim number five.
The couple took Kate home and then, in a bizarre twist, made her watch “Rambo” with them on their VCR; the man changed into a mustard-coloured dressing gown and watched from the sofa while his wife made Kate dance to Dire Straits’ “Romeo and Juliet”.
He raped Kate twice on the bed as the woman watched on and took notes. Afterwards, Kate was herself given a pen and paper and told to write “goodbye letters” to her loved ones.
She had to spend a desperate and sleepless night in the couple’s master bedroom, her foot handcuffed to the man’s. It is hard to imagine what must have been going through her head. In an apparent act of kindness, the couple offered her pills to ‘help her sleep’. But Kate knew if she took them, she’d never wake up, so she spat them out and hid them under the mattress.
On the morning of Monday November 10, 1986, Kate watched as the man had breakfast and got ready for work, as if nothing had happened.
Soon after he left, there was a knock at the door. The woman went to answer it, leaving Kate unguarded for a moment – and unchained. Kate knew it was now or never; she forced a lock on a window, threw herself out and ran.
She banged on the doors of three houses and got no reply, jumped a gate and was attacked by a dog. Hysterical and barefoot, she finally ran into the arms of a man standing outside a vacuum cleaner store at the end of the street. She begged him to call the police.
But her troubles still weren’t over.
Senior detectives at the local police station thought her story unbelievable. One of them fetched a rookie policewoman called Laura Hancock, fresh out of police college, and told her to take a statement – the first of her career – with the instruction: “Stitch her up for a false report.”
But though she was just a rookie, Laura wasn’t inclined to do what she had just been told. Her instincts told her this was no hysterical teenager; it seemed to her that Kate gave too many details for this to be a hoax. She listened as Kate told her about hiding the two sleeping pills under the mattress, about watching “Rambo” on the video player, about the chains and handcuffs in the bedroom.
And although her captors used false names in front of her, Kate had had the presence of mind to remember a name she saw on a medicine bottle in the bathroom – David Birnie.
Laura left the interview room several times to plead with the other officers at the station to take the story seriously. Finally, her nagging wore them down. One of them did some checking and discovered that a ‘David Birnie’ had a lengthy criminal record. Major crime detectives, investigating the disappearance of another woman called Denise Brown, were called in.
The next day, police obtained a search warrant and entered Kate’s House of Horrors.
As Kate sat in a police car outside, Laura Hancock accompanied senior detectives into the house and noted that everything was as Kate had described it; the chains and handcuffs in the main bedroom; the Rocky tape was still in the VCR; even the sleeping pills Kate had pretended to swallow there under the mattress.
David Birnie and his wife, Catherine, were interrogated separately. Catherine denied everything but David eventually broke and confessed to abducting Kate Moir. But there was more. He then led police to the graves of four other women – Mary Neilson, 22, Susannah Candy, 15, Noelene Patterson, 31, and Denise Brown, 21.
Thanks to the grit of young Kate Moir, and the persistence of a rookie constable, the killing spree was at an end. Without them, the Birnies may have gone on to rape and murder countless more women.
What is almost impossible to comprehend is that at the time of their killing spree, Catherine Birnie was the mother of six children. Her youngest was a girl of ten, not much younger than Kate herself.
David Birnie was sentenced to four terms of life imprisonment and hanged himself in his cell twenty years later. Catherine Birnie is still in prison, her papers marked: ‘never to be released.’ It is now believed the Birnies were responsible for at least two other murders.
In 2017 her youngest son, Peter, called for her execution. Her daughter, Tanya, has never married and had no children, stating “I don’t want to spawn another David Birnie”.
Their dark legacy continues.
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