true crime

Anne and Kerryn were interviewing for a new flatmate. They opened the door to their killer.

Warning: This article contains mentions of murder and violence, and may be triggering for some readers.

In a typical Melbourne home, in a typical Aussie suburb, two 20-something women did a typical thing; they put an ad in a newspaper for a flatmate.

Their names were Anne Smerdon and Kerryn Henstridge, who were both 22, and both nursing students from country Victoria. The friends shared a home on Summit Road in Burwood, which was a quiet, middle-class suburb of Melbourne.

On the night of July 29, 1992, along with Anne’s brother-in-law Peter Dempsey who was visiting them, they would interview at least two men who responded to the ad. 

The first man told police he left at 8:10pm. 

The second man, 35-year-old Ashley Coulston, would arrive at 8:30pm, and do something that led to the three occupants’ almost immediate violent deaths.

The murders would become infamously known as ‘The Burwood Triple Murders’.

Ashley Coulston has been dubbed as one of Australia’s worst and most violent criminal offenders. Post continues below.

Video by Sunday Night

According to Emily Webb, author of Murder in Suburbia, Kerryn was due to move home to Hamilton the next day; which is why the friends had advertised for a replacement flatmate in the Herald Sun.

On the night of July 29, Anne’s brother-in-law Peter, 27, who was a Telecom engineer, was visiting the house. He was married to Anne’s sister, Liz, for three years.

According to police, at 8pm, a man answered the ad at the home. He told police he left after 10 minutes, making him the last person known to have seen the victims before they were murdered.

At the time, Ashley Coulston was living on a yacht in nearby Hastings Marina. Janice McLeod, his partner, was recovering from surgery in hospital; she claimed in court that Coulston had been with her that evening. But she also said he left sometime after 7pm.

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Ashley Coulston
Ashley Coulston was one of the men who responded to Anne and Kerryn's ad for a roommate. Image: Sunday Night / Channel 7.

What Coulston did when afterwards would end the lives of three people.

Armed with a .22 rifle fitted with a homemade silencer, and cable ties, Coulston attended the interview for a new tenant. 

He tied up Kerryn, Anne and Peter in separate rooms, and covered their heads with material to obscure their vision.

And then he shot each of them once in the head.

Kerryn’s mother found the bodies the next morning, when she was forced to break into the house, after not hearing from her daughter. According to reports, the television and iron were on, and the sink was filled with dishes waiting to be washed.

Kerryn was found in a bedroom. Anne, semi-naked, was in the hallway. Peter was in the lounge room. All three were dead.

Ashley Coulston
Image: Sunday Night / Channel 7.
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Mick Stefanovic, who was involved in the subsequent murder investigation, told Michael Usher in 2018: “Those murders were one of the worst criminal offences in Victorian history. We thought we were dealing with someone who enjoyed it, and had taken pleasure in their execution.”

So, how did a 35-year-old, with no recorded violent history as an adult, become a killer?

Coulston was born in 1956, and grew up on his family's dairy farm in Tangambalanga, Victoria. It was reportedly a loving home, although Coulston did struggle at school.

At 14, Coulston abducted two teachers at gun-point. He forced them to drive him to New South Wales. When the car stopped at a roadhouse, the terrified women got the attention of a truck driver, who rescued them. 

For his criminal behaviour, Coulston was sentenced to time in youth detention in 1971.

Years later, during the Australian centenary in 1998, Coulston attempted to sail a self-built boat across the Tasman. He ran into trouble and was rescued by a passing tanker.

Later in 1988, Coulston successfully sailed from New Zealand to Australia.

The next time the country hears his name is after the Burwood murders.

Soon after July 29, 1992, Coulston attempted to kidnap – again, at gun-point - Richard and Anne Shalagin, as they entered their vehicle on a Melbourne street.

In a quiet location, Coulston went to tie Anne with cable ties, but as he did so, her husband overpowered him. The couple were able to escape, and alert nearby security guards.

After a pursuit, Coulston was arrested. His gun was eventually identified as being the same one for the triple murders. 

At his sentencing in 1995, Justice Norman O’Bryan told the murderer that, “The Burwood murders … will be remembered as one of the most heinous multiple killings in this state.

“You have forfeited forever your entitlement to live outside the confines of a prison.”

Coulston was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences.

Coulston, who is now 62, appealed his guilty verdict as many times as he could, but he was finally refused further appeals in February 2017. He remains incarcerated in Barwon Prison.

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He has since been linked to other crimes, such as the rapes by ‘the Balaclava killer’ on the Gold Coast and Tweed Heads between 1979 – 1980.

Those crimes remain unsolved.

Ashley Coulston
Image: Sunday Night / Channel 7.

Burwood was a quiet and stable community, and its peace was shattered by the shocking, random violence. In particular, it was difficult for the public at the time to comprehend why innocent young lives of decent people, with no criminal or dubious connections, had been taken in such a brutal manner. 

Coulston’s cold-blooded execution of three strangers baffled the public, and the murderer would never offer an explanation.

Author Emily Webb said, “To this day, Coulston has never uttered a word about the crimes. 

“He answered ‘no comment’ during the police interviews about the murders at Summit Road and stood mute during his trial.”

Coulston’s silence is cruel for the victims’ families; but at the very least, he will never be a free man again.

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home.

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