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Mysterious Vanishings on Australia’s Highway of Death

Meandering across a portion of Queensland, in northeast Australia, is a stretch of road called the Flinders Highway, which spans 500 miles between Townsville and Mount Isa. The highway passes though some phenomenal scenery and some desolate expanses of Outback, and it seems like just any other secluded remote road. Yet, this strip of road has accrued quite a sinister reputation for the large number of accidents and mysterious disappearances that have occurred here, earning it a more ominous nickname: “The Highway of Death.”

The spate of high-profile unsolved murders along this slash of forbidding road began in 1970, when two young girls, 7-year-old Judith MacKay and her sister Susan, were raped and murdered by stabbing and strangulation at Antill Plains Creek off the Flinders Highway. In 1972 two teenage girls named Robin Hoinville-Bartram and Anita Cunningham mysteriously vanished in the area, and Robin’s body was later found under a rail bridge at Sensible Creek, near Charters Towers, with bullet holes to the head. No sign of Cunningham has never been found despite intense search efforts, and she remains listed as missing.

Judith and Susan MacKay

The deaths and disappearances did not end there. In 1975, a young 18-year-old woman named Catherine Graham, was found dead at a place near the highway, also at Antill Creek, raped and killed by blows to the head with a rock. A few years later, in 1978, the bodies of three people, Karen Edwards, Gordon Twaddle and Timothy Thompson, were found with gunshots to the head not far from Mt. Isa, and in more recent times there have been vanishings here that have left authorities completely baffled.

One of the more well-known such strange vanishings along Flinders Highway is that of a Perth native named Tony Jones, who in 1982 was out backpacking and hitchhiking in the area of Antill Plains Creek as part of a 6-month hiking excursion across Australia, when he simply stepped off the face of the earth for no apparent reason. His last known communication was a call he made to his father and girlfriend on November 3 from a phone box in Townsville, telling them that he was on his way to Mt. Isa. He would never arrive, all activity on his bank records ceased, and no trace of Jones has been found since.

In the following years there were some leads, such as an anonymous letter to police from a writer claiming to know where the body was, but these led nowhere. There was also a prisoner at the Townsville Correctional Centre by the name of Michael James Laundess, who claimed to have brutally killed a man near Mt. Isa at around that same time, but no connection or evidence were ever found, and Laundess died in prison to take any secrets he had to the grave with him. There was also a witness who claimed to have seen Jones with another man, and even gave a description for a police sketch, but the mysterious individual remains unidentified and this lead has also hit a dead end. Interestingly there was a conspiracy that the sketch looked an awful lot like police superintendent Mervyn Henry Stevenson, suspected of corruption, but this was never actually substantiated and he was never officially questioned on the disappearance.

Flinders Highway

In later years we come to some other strange disappearances near a town called Charters Towers, just off the Flinders Highway. The first was in 2017, when 26-year-old Reece Kearney stopped at a gas station to fill his motorcycle and then drove off down the highway to never return. Then there was the case of Jayden Penno-Tompsett, who vanished into thin air at Charters Towers in January of 2018. Jayden had just been passing through on his way to Cairns on New Year’s Eve, along with his friend Lucas Tattersall, and they decided to visit a place called the Puma Roadhouse along the way. When the two left, Jayden was described as being very agitated and unruly, cryptically saying that there was a warrant out for his arrest, and the two men got into an argument, after which Jayden pulled the car over on a back road and stormed off into the night. This would be the last time he would ever be seen again.

An extensive search was mounted, but this was somewhat stalled by the fact that Tattersall was unfamiliar with the area, and the monotonous outback scenery meant he was not totally able to identify the exact area where Jayden had gotten out of the car with confidence, but authorities believe it was a place called Stockroute Road. Tattersall, who was the last to see Jayden alive, was not found to be suspicious and has never been considered a person of interest in the case, but other than that there has been no headway made on the case at all, and Jayden Penno-Tompsett has never been found.

Jayden Penno-Tompsett on CCTV, shortly before his vanishing

In total there have been 12 such killings and disappearances along the “Highway of Death,” all without resolve, but in later years there have on occasion been some tantalizing leads in some of these cases. For instance, in 2014 a known incarcerated killer by the name of Andy Albury allegedly confessed in prison to a killing spree along the highway between 1970 and 1980, but there was no evidence to corroborate these claims. There was also the confession of suspected child serial killer Arthur Stanley Brown, who was charged in 1998 of murder and was long thought to be possibly connected to the rape and murder of Judith and Susan Mackay, and was implicated in a string of other unsolved killings. Unfortunately, he died in prison in 2002 at the age of 90, and we will never know for sure.

In total at least 12 vanishings and deaths have occurred along this stretch of rural highway, none of them solved, despite the leads and clues, leading to whispers that it is actually cursed. Interestingly, the highway is also said to be a magnet for traffic accidents, although this may or may not have any connection at all. As of yet, none of these crimes have been conclusively solved, and whatever killed or took these people remains shrouded in darkness. With its long stretches of wilderness and nothingness, the road is perhaps a fitting place for such macabre accounts, and a perfect playground for a serial killer. Yet, for now the killings and vanishings seem to have stopped, and we are left to wonder whether the killer or killers have all been apprehended, or if they are just biding their time, waiting for a chance to pounce again. In the end we are left with a very beautiful, yet spooky expanse of highway, that holds to it a series of strange deaths and mysteries that may never be solved.