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In the early 1960s, a string of seemingly random murders shook the sleepy coastal city of Perth, Australia, to its core.
The killings — shootings, stabbings, hit-and-runs, stranglings — ultimately claimed eight lives; others survived and were scarred for life. Three men were arrested for the crimes and were all convicted. But only one of them was responsible: Eric Edgar Cooke, aka “The Night Caller,” a married father of seven with a cleft palate and speech impediment who’s gone down as one of Australia’s most prolific serial killers.
His story, and the collateral damage he left behind among his victims, including the wrongly imprisoned John Button and Darryl Beamish, the citizens of Perth and a maligned police force, is recounted in “The Night Caller.” The gripping four-part docuseries from filmmaker Thomas Meadmore premieres Tuesday on Sundance Now.
Meadmore, a Perth native, spoke to The Post about Cooke’s reign of terror.
Why did you want to tell this story?
At the time it was all anybody could talk about. It was an urban legend if you grew up in Perth. Because of the trauma, the way people there experienced it was so extreme…a free and easy paradise was turned into a place where you had to stay indoors at all times and couldn’t trust anybody. Growing up, I would hear these stories and how shocking it was — a guy going around knocking on people’s doors and just shooting them.
The story’s narrative has so many disparate elements.
It’s been one of the most challenging filmmaking experiences of my career, to date, because of the story’s complexity and weaving the threads together and making them all speak to each other. It’s very relevant: the film explores the theme of accountability — of the community members and the roles they played regarding the men convicted, and of the police. The beautiful irony is the ultimate redemption at the center of the story.
You interview Cooke’s wife, Sally. Was that a coup for you?
She defined the series for me. I reached out to her very early on. I was so nervous about contacting her because I thought there’s no way she’s going to talk to me. I found her name in the [phone] book and rang her. She’s from Liverpool, and she said, “What do you want to know? I’ll tell you everything. It’s no problem. I was taught that you stay and face things and don’t run and hide.” The moment she said that to me, this woman was a hero. That was the linchpin of the story. She had more accountability, more backbone, than the “trusted” public servants who found Cooke and put him away.
What do you think drove Cooke to murder?
People speculate a lot. A few people close to him, who I spoke to off-the-record, confirm that the most insistent narrative is that he had a real resentment against the wealthy parts of the [Perth] suburbs and people he thought had mistreated him…and the world in general. He began to target people who were the “haves” and moved in exclusive social circles. Terrifying them and getting away with it gave him an immense sense power. He felt like God. That’s the most consistent narrative: revenge.
Cooke didn’t appear to have any remorse.
Estelle [Blackburn, who wrote a book about the murders and is featured prominently in “The Night Caller”] talks about him having a conscience in the sense that, even though he did all of this and was lacking contrition in his testimonies, at the same time he was a loving father to his kids and loved his family. He did have awareness on some level about the impact of what he’d done, as evidenced by his actions after he was caught. He went to great lengths to continue to confess and to do the right thing and exonerate Beamish and Button. You could could argue that he was trying to aggrandize himself…but you can’t ignore the fact that even up to his death he was trying to make people hear him.
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