true crime

Granny Evil: Kath Pettingill is the matriarch of Australia's most notorious crime family.

Kath Pettingill has an eerie, terrifying stare – her left eye always sitting slightly off centre.

In 1978, she was shot in that eye through a closed door at the Collingwood Housing Commission of Victoria flats, and she has worn a glass replacement ever since.

Jo Chandler writes for The Age that Pettingill has a distinctive “nicotine-stained chortle,” especially at the memory of Lenny Rogers (who was actually an undercover policeman by the name of  Lachlan McCulloch) whose testicles she offered to buy, unattached, for $20,000. $10,000 each.

Pettingill was the inspiration for Jackie Weaver’s character in Australian crime film, Animal Kingdom, released in 2010. Although it was met with critical acclaim, Weaver herself winning an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, Pettingill was hardly a fan.

Listen: Kath Pettingill is Australia’s most infamous matriarch. Post continues after podcast. 

“I’ve seen the movie and I’m not impressed. She’s supposed to have read books about me and studied me for the part, but it doesn’t come off,” she said.

“We’re both short and blonde, but that’s where the similarities end. If this is supposed to be a film about the life of me and my family, it couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Pettingill takes particular issue with Weaver telling her boys to “give her a kiss and then planting one on their mouths”.

“If I’d done that to any of my boys, I’d have copped a smack in the mouth, not a kiss. It was disgusting. No mother behaves like that,” she said.

The Pettingill family is the subject of the most recent episode of True Crime Conversations, in which host Jessie Stephens chats to Adrian Tame, the author of The Matriarch.

Born in 1935 to a working class family, Pettingill’s upbringing was far from ordinary. Men came and went. Pettingill grew up believing that her father had died in WWII, but would later discover that he died by suicide.

At 16 years old, Pettingill met Dennis James Ryan and gave birth to her first son, Dennis Allen, who would become one of the most heinous criminals Melbourne has ever known. It is believed she went on to have nine more children, six of whom we know about. All ended up with criminal convictions, and three have died.

Jackie Weaver's character in Animal Kingdom is based on Kath Pettingill. Image via Sony Pictures.

Pettingill worked as a sex worker for a number of years, which at the time, was illegal in Australia. Before long, she began running brothels herself.

As her children grew up, they became increasingly involved in crime, with her eldest, Dennis, being convicted of a brutal rape in 1973. Sentenced to 10 years in prison, he only served five.

Men entered and exited Pettingill's life, so the matriarch remained a constant for her sons, friends, and acquaintances of her children. She would bail them out of jail, or offer them a place to stay if they were in trouble with the law. She was directly and indirectly associated with countless crimes.

Dennis became known as 'Dr Death', and Pettingill's autobiographer, Adrian Tame, referred to him as "a truly frightening human being" and "pure evil". People started disappearing, or would be found dead around Melbourne.

Dennis was addicted to speed, and Tame writes that he "used seven grams of pure speed a day," injecting as often as every half hour. He dealt drugs in a house on the same street as the brothel his mother owned.

Dennis Allen. Image via ABC.

On one occasion, Pettingill dropped in to Dennis' after work one night, and found a wounded young man, sprawled on the floor with a meat cleaver in his head. On another, she was woken up in the middle of the night to assist in cleaning up after the murder of Wayne Stanhope. She told Tame;

"He was going to kill Stanhope right from the start. But I didn’t think he’d shoot him in the house in front of all those people. But that’s Dennis. He shot everybody in front of people. He always wanted an audience. Anyway there was a load of shit written about the clean-up, about dragging the body onto the tile floor. He died in one small square of carpet which the police took up later for forensic reasons. But he’d had my vacuum cleaner which had a tin base. And that’s what he used to vacuum up his brains and that. And then he burnt my bloody vacuum cleaner, which he didn’t have to do because it was tin."

Throughout his criminal activity, Dennis served as an informant, and largely avoided prosecution. He was eventually arrested for murder, and died of heart disease in prison while awaiting trial in 1987.

Pettingill's reputation as 'Granny Evil' was drawn from the crimes of Dennis, but also of her other sons.

"Granny Evil". Image via Getty.

Victor Peirce and Trevor Pettingill were charged with the murder of two Victorian police officers in 1988, Constables Steven Tynan, 22, and Damian Eyre, 20.

Known as the Walsh Street police shootings, the two officers responded to a report of an abandoned car at approximately 4:50am, in Walsh Street, South Yarra.

They were ambushed while inspecting the car, and both died on the scene. It is believed they were purposely lured there by an armed robbery gun, and thus their murders were premeditated.

Victor and Trevor were acquitted by a jury, but in 2005, the widow of Victor, Wendy Peirce, gave an interview to the media where she stated that her husband had indeed planned and carried out the murders.

The crimes of Pettingill's remaining sons are extensive and abhorrent, and a life of crime also runs in the blood of  her grandchildren.

She believes in God despite the crimes of her family, but once quipped with a friend, "I won't be going to heaven..."

After a pause, she added, "I wouldn't know anyone."

To learn more about the most notorious criminal family in Australia, listen to the most recent episode of Mamamia's crime podcast, Australian True Crime.

You can buy any book mentioned on our podcasts from iBooks at, where you can also subscribe to all our other shows in one place.