Love tangle masks murder on South Pacific paradise

A murder mystery worthy of Agatha Christie has gripped a tranquil island in the South Pacific, where an Australian woman was murdered two years ago.

A murder mystery worthy of Agatha Christie has gripped a tranquil island in the South Pacific, where an Australian woman was murdered two years ago.

Police told an inquest yesterday that nine people "of interest" had been identified in the case of Janelle Patton, 29, Norfolk Island's first murder victim in 148 years. She was stabbed and beaten to death in March 2002, her body was wrapped in black plastic and dumped at a picnic spot.

Detective Sergeant Bob Peters, of the Australian Federal Police, named Ms Patton's former lovers and her elderly parents, Ron and Carol, who arrived on the island the day before she died. He said all of them had come under police scrutiny, but not enough evidence had been found to charge anyone.

Norfolk Island is a former penal colony settled by English sailors who rebelled against Captain William Bligh. The mutineers initially sought refuge on remote Pitcairn Island but later made their way to Norfolk, a rocky outcrop 1,000 miles north-east of Sydney.

The case has unleashed a torrent of "dem tull", the local term for gossip. But the coroner, Ron Cahill, warned the court it was unlikely anyone would be charged. "This is not like Jessica Fletcher in Murder She Wrote," he said. "Angela Lansbury is not going to walk in the door and say, 'He or she or they did it'." Ms Patton's skull, pelvis and three ribs were fractured, and a stab wound punctured her lung.

Mr Peters, who headed the murder investigation, said there was a "strong possibility she knew her killer and was murdered because of something in her past. Police suspect she was grabbed by someone in a car while walking home from work.

Mr Peters said: "She had strong personal opinions and was not afraid to express them, sometimes without diplomacy or tact." Ms Patton, from Sydney, had gone to Norfolk Island in 1999 to make a new start after disastrous relationships, including one with an Australian sailor who broke her jaw.

The inquest was told she began seeing a man called Larry Perrett after moving to Norfolk, but split with him after a row about cannabis. A work colleague at the local supermarket, Susan Fieldes, suggested she move in with her neighbour, Charles "Spindles" Menghetti.

But the friendship between the women soured after Ms Patton accused Ms Fieldes of having an extra-marital affair with Mr Menghetti. Ms Fieldes slapped her and was charged with assault. Ms Patton then moved in with Mr Menghetti's brother, Paul, with whom she began having a relationship.

Ms Fieldes and Paul Menghetti are among the "persons of interest" named by police. One witness claims to have seen Mr Menghetti pulling Ms Patton's hair at another local club, warning her: "Stop this shit or I'll sort you out." Charles Menghetti told police Ms Patton had "personality problems" and would stay up drinking on the verandah until 3am.

Ms Patton moved into another flat and started began seeing a man called Laurie "Bucket" Quintal. The liaison lasted three months. Mr Quintal is also on the list.

Mr Cahill stressed that those named should not be regarded as suspected murderers. He said: "There are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of people who have suspicions or theories. It's important to realise that suspicion ... is no substitute for evidence. Someone must know something, particularly on this island, that will help solve this mystery."

Ms Fieldes, a New Zealander who runs a pizza restaurant with her husband, Brian, gave a DNA sample to police after the murder. Many of the island's 1,800 residents refused to cooperate when police attempted to conduct mass DNA testing.

Robyn Murdoch, who later married Paul Menghetti, is another "person of interest", as is his 20-year-old daughter, Dana, and a social acquaintance of Ms Patton, Raymond Yager. Police said green paint found in Mr Yager's truck was similar to particles on Ms Patton's body. Mr Peters told the inquest: "Janelle partly blamed Dana Menghetti for the breakdown of her relationship with Paul Menghetti."

Mr Quintal is among many islanders descended from the Bounty mutineers and their Polynesian wives. The island's slim phone book contains 18 people named Christian, descended from Fletcher Christian, Captain Bligh's second-in-command.

In the 19th century, Norfolk had a fearsome reputation as the most brutal penal colony in Australia. Although it is now popular with elderly Australian tourists, it remains an introverted place. It still has a manual telephone exchange, which has made it difficult for police to tap telephones. A torrential downpour on the day of the murder washed away much potential forensic evidence.

Some islanders have seized on the murder to fuel long-running feuds. Mr Peters said potentially valuable information had been debased by rumour and innuendo. One local man, Neville Bigg, told police he saw Ms Fieldes driving near the murder spot on the day of death. Mr Bigg said she had "a look of anger", and appeared to be holding something down on the passenger seat. Mr Bigg "later gave evidence he believed she was holding a person's head", Mr Peters said. But he warned that it was unusual for a witness to remember events in clearer detail after time passed.

Ms Patton's parents were investigated because of the coincidence of the timing of their arrival. But the inquest was told their daughter was looking forward to their week-long visit.

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