"Can I carry your bags, Madam?"
Dorothy Beencke, 78, was strolling home from her local shops in Sydney's Lane Cove when a man approached her. He was middle-aged, well-dressed, and appeared pleasant. A gentleman, it seemed.
The man lugged Mrs Beencke's groceries the remainder of the short walk down a laneway to her unit.
She offered him a cup of tea in return for his kindness, but he declined and went on his way.
Later that November 2 afternoon in 1989, down that same laneway, that same man bludgeoned 85-year-old Margaret Pahud across the back of the head.
The woman's body was found in a pool of blood. Her clothes had been rearranged, her shoes placed at her feet. Her handbag, stolen. It was the third time in eight months that elderly women on Sydney's north shore had been found this way.
And it wouldn't be the last.
"We were starting to believe we had a serial killer."
Former Detective Inspector Mike Hagan was among the police officers on the trail of the mystery murderer.
Speaking to Mamamia's True Crime Conversations podcast, he recalled the first time the 'granny killer' — as he'd been dubbed by the press — struck.
The victim was Gwendoline Mitchelhill, an 82-year-old woman who was beaten to death with a hammer at the entry to her Mosman unit block on March 1, 1989. Her handbag was missing, and investigators initially assumed it was a mugging gone wrong.
"The police had no eyewitnesses or any leads and there was nothing concrete. So there was no forensic evidence available at that time," Hagan said. "Good-intentioned neighbours thought that she'd fallen over, because initially, that's how it looked. So they washed down the crime scene acting in good faith."
Two months later, another body was found. Lady Winfreda Isabel Ashton, the 84-year-old widow of one of Australia's most famous painters, Sir John William Ashton. Lady Ashton was found dead in a bin alcove at her Mosman unit block. She'd been beaten, strangled with her own pantyhose, and robbed of her handbag.
"Here again, we've got a vicious assault, several weeks after the first murder, where money has been stolen out of her purse, and we say to ourselves, 'Well, is there a similarity between these two murders? What evidence is there to combine them?'" Hagan recalled. "We made the decision that these murders were connected. Basically, at that second murder of Lady Ashton, we were starting to believe we had a serial killer."