Real Life

Suzie Ratcliffe wont rest until she finds her sister

Fourteen months before Suzie Ratcliffe was born, her sister, Joanne, was abducted by a stranger at Adelaide Oval.

On a cold August day in 1973, two little girls were taken. It was brazen; they were in a public place, in broad daylight, among a large crowd at a football match. 

They would vanish completely. No trace of them has ever been found. 

The Ratcliffe family were dedicated followers of the Norwood Football Club. With their season tickets, Les and Kathleen Ratcliffe always sat in the Sir Edwin Smith stand at the Adelaide Oval. Their two kids knew their way around the grounds. On August 25, 1973, they were sitting next to a woman who was there with her four-year-old granddaughter, Kirste Gordon. Knowing her parents were engrossed in the game, when Kirste needed to go to the toilet at 3.45 pm, late in the third quarter, 11-year-old Joanne Ratcliffe offered to take her. When they hadn’t returned by the third quarter siren, Kathleen became concerned. By the time the fourth quarter started, she was really worried. 

She went to the office to ask that an announcement be made over the PA, but was denied entry. The Ratcliffes looked everywhere; all over the grounds, the tennis court, the basketball court. 

Suzie holding a picture of her missing sister.

Tony Kilmartin, then 13, was selling sweets and ice-cream when he noticed a commotion under a grandstand at the end of the final quarter. He saw a man pick Kirste up and put her under his arm. Joanne was trying to fight him off, pulling and screaming the words “no” and “let her go”. Tony watched them move towards the gate, thinking the man was the girls’ father. He would give the police a description of the man for an identikit picture. A narrow-faced man, around 40, in a brimmed hat. 

By the time the office finally agreed to announce the lost children over the PA, the game was over and most people were leaving or had left the grounds. Joanne’s father, Les, said she would not have left the oval voluntarily and that she knew how to use a telephone to call an emergency number. 

The assistant curator of Adelaide Oval, Ken Wohling, had seen the man and the girls behind the grandstand, trying to coax a kitten out from under a car. Joanne might have been lured by the kitten. She loved animals and wanted to bring every stray home. 

Another witness, driving past, saw them on a bridge near the Adelaide zoo, a distressed Joanne tugging at the man’s arm, kicking him, pushing him and screaming. Concerned, he slowed down and nearly stopped, but again thought it was a father taking his children home from the zoo. It wasn’t until the case hit the papers the next day that he realised what he had witnessed.

 And by then the girls were gone. 

There was no evidence, nothing left behind. 

Suzie with a news article about her missing sister, Joanne Ratcliffe.

Suzie Ratcliffe grew up in the shadow of what she describes as “ambiguous loss”. Born 14 months after Joanne Ratcliffe disappeared, the abomination, the absolute tragedy of what happened to the sister she never met has shaped her life. She was born into a gaping, raw wound. 

“I became quite obsessed a number of years ago, to the point where I was living and breathing the case,” she tells The Weekly. “It just consumed me – wanting to know what happened, researching and speaking with as many people as possible.” She became “sort of narrow-minded about what was going on in my life. It was all focused on that.” 

By creating the Leave a Light On Foundation, to raise awareness for families of people who are missing, Suzie says she has “been able to refocus some of that energy into helping other families, so they don’t have to live for 50 years not knowing what happened. It helps heal that part of me.” 

The name of the foundation is a reference to her parents always leaving their porch light on for Joanne. 

Innocence had been taken from the Ratcliffe family and Suzie’s childhood. Her parents tried to create a sense of normalcy for Suzie and her older brother, David. “They tried to put on a brave face as much as possible,” she remembers. “We’d go camping and fishing and to playgrounds and stuff.” 

But Suzie could see the sadness that would engulf them. At night, she says, “I’d hear Mum and Dad crying in their bedroom with the door closed, trying to be as quiet as possible.” And Suzie would get up and talk to the big sister in the photo. 

Les, who was a bread cutter for Tip Top bakeries, would start work at three in the morning, finish his shift around lunchtime, come home, shower and change. And “while he was doing that, Mum would be preparing a travel bag for him with some food, and then he would kiss Mum goodbye, hop in the car and just go driving around looking for answers. Anything or anyone who might be able to help. He pounded the pavement for a number of years after the girls disappeared, hoping for something.” 

Les reached out to journalists. “He’d be in contact with them a couple of times a week to see if they were running a story.” 

Suzie Ratcliffe with her parents.
Suzie with her parents Les and Kathleen Ratcliffe.

And both parents were hypervigilant about their surviving children. Suzie was never let out of their sight. There was always someone watching, protecting. All through her childhood she lived with the fear that “someone was out to get me. There was all that underlying awareness about who was around.” 

She was never on her own. 

“I couldn’t even walk around the corner to the house that was behind ours without Mum standing on the corner of the street watching me, and then she’d run home and call to see that I had made it. I couldn’t go to the playground by myself, or go to parties, I wasn’t allowed in the front yard.” She couldn’t walk to school on her own. “Mum would always walk with me.”

Suzie felt that Joanne was always part of the family. Her parents talked openly about her, answering Suzie’s endless questions. “I know it caused them a lot of distress. I was told that a bad man had taken her and they hadn’t been able to find her,” she says. 

Suzie often thought about her sister’s courage. “People forget that she was only 11. She was given the responsibility of looking after Kirste and she stuck by that, even if it meant sacrificing herself.” 

Les Ratcliffe died in 1981. “Right up until Dad died, he never gave up hope,” says Suzie. 

In 1986 her mother moved the family to Coober Pedy to be close to relatives. She came from a big “working-class” family, and in this small town, “where everybody knew everybody by face or name,” she finally felt more relaxed. 

Kathleen experienced tremendous loss in her life, but “throughout it all, Mum refused to give in. She just endured and stayed positive,” Suzie says. “Mum’s motto was ‘just keep putting one foot in front of the other. And if you stumble and fall, pick yourself up, brush yourself off and keep going.’ It inspires me to do whatever I can, not just to find Jo and Kirste, but to help other families. Because if she could have that strength, I should be able to as well.” 

Les Ratcliffe.
Les Ratcliffe never gave up hope on finding his abducted daughter.

At the time the girls disappeared Adelaide, city of churches, was the home of a number of known paedophiles and an extraordinarily dangerous place for children. In 1966 the three Beaumont children had disappeared from Glenelg Beach. 

Between 1979 and 1983 the bodies of five young men were found – all had been subjected to “surgery”, dismembered and mutilated. They were known as “The Family murders”. Police believe that a core group of four people and up to eight associates were involved. Bevan Spencer von Einem was convicted of Richard Kelvin’s murder in 1984 and charged with the murders of Mark Langley and Alan Barnes in 1989, but not convicted. Testimony given during his trial alleged he was involved in both the Beaumont and Oval abductions. 

It wasn’t until 1980 that Sue Laurie realised she’d witnessed the abduction of Kirste and Jo, but had thought it was a family dispute. She had been 14 at the time. It was when she was watching TV news about the abduction, rape and brutal murders of Judith and Susan Mackay, aged seven and five, in Townsville, that she recognised the same man she’d seen 25 years earlier steering Kirste and Jo out of Adelaide Oval. 

“The child was crying,” she told Adelaide radio station 5AA, “and a second girl was running after the man, thumping and punching into him and shouting ‘we want to go back’.” 

A man called Arthur Stanley Brown looked strikingly similar to the identikit picture of the Townsville abductor. Various relatives came forward in the early ’80s claiming he had molested them as children. He was never convicted of any of the crimes he was charged with, which included the rape of six children, the Mackay murders and 45 sexual assault charges, because he was deemed incompetent with dementia. 

Suzie, though, believes it was probably a known Adelaide paedophile with almost the same name, Arthur Stanley Hart, who abducted Joanne and Kirste. Seven years before they were taken he had been charged with six sex offences against an 11-year-old girl. 

“His grandson actually came forward and claimed it was his grandfather who took Kirste and Jo,” Suzie tells The Weekly

Joanne Ratcliffe as a child.
Suzie Ratcliffe never met her sister, Joanne.

Hart had access to property around the area. “There’s a possibility he had a vehicle parked close by and utilised that to take them to a property close by and then to where he actually lived, in Yatina, north of Adelaide. It was farmland, so there were no houses close to his to hear any screams or cries.” Hart rarely missed a North Adelaide football match. 

But both Hart and Brown have died, taking their secrets with them. Kathleen Ratcliffe passed away in March 2019; Suzie’s brother, David, in April 2020. Suzie is on her own now. She’s currently recovering from breast cancer, which has made finding answers feel all the more urgent. 

“I’m not going to give up hope,” she says. “While I have got breath in me, I’m going to keep fighting for answers.” 

Eight years ago she realised she didn’t want revenge anymore, to see the perpetrator suffer as her family had. She’d wanted to be there when he was interrogated, had wanted to tell everyone in prison that he was a paedophile. 

“We gave up a long time ago [trying to] find out who did it and why,” she says. “I don’t care who did it. I’m not going to let him rent space in my head, he’s not worth it. I just want to bring [Joanne and Kirste] home and bury them.” 

And she wants to make life a little easier for other families who have lost someone they love. “When we created Leave A Light On it was for Jo and Kirste and all these other missing loved ones,” she explains. 

Suzie works part-time at a butchery, which allows her to also focus on her voluntary work for the foundation. She knows what it’s like for families who have been through so much suffering. “They don’t have the strength or the energy left to be able to fight. That’s where we step in.” 

She says a lot of families don’t even know who’s handling the case for their missing loved one. “It’s hard because these cases get put to the bottom of the pile when a new case comes in. We need a dedicated missing persons unit for cold cases if there’s going to be any chance for these families to get answers. There are over 700 sets of human remains in Australia that are unidentified. That’s an extremely worrying number.” 

Detectives working to identify the abductor of Joanne Ratcliffe.
An identikit of the man suspected of abducting Joanne Ratcliffe and Kirste Gordon.

Suzie works to raise awareness of long-term missing persons and be a voice for those who have been forgotten by the public. “There are so many cases that get very little to no coverage at all,” she says. “Ultimately, it’s the public that’s going to come forward with the information that’s going to locate a lot of these people. People could have been in the area when someone went missing, they might have seen something but not realised it.” 

But if they don’t know about the case, they have no reason to come forward. 

“Quite often,” Suzie says, “families struggle to interact with the media and get media attention – that is where we step in. It is heartbreaking for the families because there is just not enough media or publicity around a lot of these cases.” 

Often investigations and media coverage are confined to a single state or territory, but “missing persons know no borders,” Suzie insists. “A case can be lying dormant with nobody coming forward because they don’t know about it.” 

Leave a Light On makes contact with as many families as it can, “and we share as many cases as possible,” Suzie says. “There are a lot of missing persons you’ve never heard of before.” 

Most families just want and need to bring the remains of their loved ones home. “A lot of people think that once someone’s convicted, that’s the end of it,” she adds. “But it’s not, because at the end of the day the families still don’t know where their loved ones are.” 

Resolving unsolved cases, like the Beaumont children’s and Jo and Kirste’s, is important because a perpetrator – somebody who is predatory and dangerous – has got away with murder, and could have continued causing suffering to other families for many years. 

Solving these cases is also important because there’s a family in agony, overwhelmed by guilt that they were unable to protect their child from evil. 

“Unfortunately there are so many out there,” says Suzie. “It’s something I wouldn’t wish on any family or person. It’s heartbreaking. And it’s really debilitating going through ambiguous loss because there is no resolution. There is no peace at all.” 

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