Police stand beside Thomas Cooper’s car in Beaumaris.
Police stand beside Thomas Cooper’s car in Beaumaris.

Killer in a cowboy hat: Why was teen gunned down?

The disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain wasn't the only high-profile case to attract attention 40 years ago. A dingo took Lindy Chamberlain's baby daughter on August 17, 1980 and it became huge news for decades. Apprentice plumber Thomas Cooper, 18, was shot dead the following day in front of his girlfriend at a popular lovers' lane in Victoria. The shocking murder was prominent in the media for several days, but gradually dropped off the news cycle radar - until now.

While the gunman has so far got away with killing Thomas Cooper, a $1 million reward revealed by the Herald Sun on Tuesday could be the key to getting murder charges laid.

It was dark when Mr Cooper parked his HQ Holden sedan at the Ricketts Point car park in Beaumaris.

He and his 16-year-old girlfriend went there about 7.15pm to have a serious discussion about where their relationship was headed.

Thomas Cooper.
Thomas Cooper.

 

The Sun newspaper reports his murder.
The Sun newspaper reports his murder.

 

Homicide squad detective Jack Jacobs at the murder scene, pointing to a bullet casing found next to where the first of three shots were fired.
Homicide squad detective Jack Jacobs at the murder scene, pointing to a bullet casing found next to where the first of three shots were fired.

Mr Cooper, of East Bentleigh, was murdered within a few minutes of arriving after a man wearing a hat smashed the driver's side window.

His now dead girlfriend, who we will call Maree because her name has been suppressed by the Coroner, graphically described the horror attack in her 1980 statement to police and to the Herald Sun decades later.

WHAT'S THIS GUY DOING?

"Thomas parked the car facing the water up against the fence, like we always did," Maree told the Herald Sun before her recent death.

"I was looking at Thomas' face when I saw a male person through the rear driver's side window.

"This person was approaching our car. I was thinking to myself 'what's this guy doing'.

"All of a sudden there was a large crash and the driver's window of his car was broken.

"Thomas was swearing, and he reached to the keys and started the car.

"This person was just standing near Thomas' door. He was holding something that looked like a small pipe with both hands.

"It didn't click with me that it was a gun.

"As Thomas started the car this person just said 'don't'.

"Thomas backed the car out fast and we hit something. Thomas was yelling 'duck'. I was yelling 'go, go'.

"During the time we were trying to turn around I heard two large bangs. I thought to myself 'guns'.

A police identikit of the killer.
A police identikit of the killer.

"I was yelling 'go'. I was terrified and just wanted to get out.

"We were heading in the right direction across the car park. Thomas said, 'he got me, he got me, God'.

"Thomas' head went backwards, and he wasn't saying anything else.

"The car slowed down. I was saying 'go, go', but Thomas wasn't doing anything.

"I leant over and pushed his leg down on the accelerator and steered the car out onto the road.

"I just let go of the wheel when I got onto the road and the car ran off the road and hit a fence.

"I tried to get out my door, but it wouldn't open so I climbed over the seat and got out the back door.

"I ran onto the roadway and moved my arms and was jumping up and down.

"I stopped a Ford car. I started screaming everything to this guy and he was saying 'don't worry; I will get the police and ambulance'.

"This person drove off and I ran back to the car. When I got to the car there was a young guy who had the door open and was feeling if Thomas had a heartbeat."

The car hit a fence in a desperate bid to get away from the gunman.
The car hit a fence in a desperate bid to get away from the gunman.

HELP ME, HELP ME

That guy was student Kenneth Armanasco, who was 20 at the time.

He later told police he and his girlfriend, Heather McDermott, were parked at Ricketts Point when they heard a crash.

"We both turned around to see what had caused it and saw a white Holden sedan had crashed into the fence," Mr Armanasco said.

"I then saw a girl get out of the back left hand door of the car and this girl was yelling 'help me' help me'.

"She then ran out onto the centre of the road and by that time I had just about reached the car.

"The girl managed to stop a dark coloured Falcon station wagon with two fellows on board.

"By the time she had stopped this car I reached the driver's side door of the white Holden.

"I saw the driver had his head leaning on the driver's side door, tilting back slightly. The driver's window was also smashed.

"There was blood coming from his nose and my first impression was he had injured himself when he had the accident.

"While I was doing this the girl was still screaming out, but I couldn't understand what she was saying.

Kenneth Armanasco, 20 at the time, recalls the moment he heard the crash and came to help.
Kenneth Armanasco, 20 at the time, recalls the moment he heard the crash and came to help.

"I then opened the driver's door of the white Holden sedan and I had to hold the driver up to stop him from falling out.

"I felt for his pulse in his right wrist and I couldn't find a pulse.

"The girl came running over saying 'is he dead, is he dead'.

"I then told the two guys who were in the Falcon to go and call the police. They then drove off.

"The girl was still screaming out 'is he dead, is he dead' and she was frantic.

"I felt for his pulse again, but this time I felt for it in his neck and I still couldn't find a pulse in his neck.

"I told the girl he was alive, it's all right, just to calm her down."

Tragically, it wasn't all right. Mr Cooper was dead.

He had been shot three times, once behind his right ear and twice to the right side of his body.

One of the bullets from the .22 rifle used by the gunman penetrated Mr Cooper's lung. It proved to be the fatal shot.

Where Thomas was murdered. His car travelled 508m from where it was parked to where it crashed.
Where Thomas was murdered. His car travelled 508m from where it was parked to where it crashed.

Police discovered Mr Cooper's car travelled 508 metres from where it was originally parked to where it crashed six metres east of the Beaumaris Yacht Club in Beach Rd.

For most of that distance, the terrified Maree, desperate to evade the attacker, was steering the car from the passenger seat with her left hand while leaning over to use her right hand to press the leg of her dead boyfriend on the accelerator.

While there have been a few suspects over the years, Victoria Police homicide squad boss Dean Thomas yesterday stressed detectives were keeping an open mind about who pulled the trigger.

Detective Inspector Dean Thomas told the Herald Sun the motive for the murder remained unclear.

"There are a number of possibilities, including that the shooting was sexually motivated and the girl in the car may have been the target," he said yesterday.

The sister of Mr Cooper's girlfriend Maree yesterday welcomed the posting of the $1 million reward.

"That is a life-changing amount of money and I thank Victoria Police for making it available," she told the Herald Sun.

"Let's hope it is enough to bring forward those who know who murdered Thomas."

I WILL ALWAYS BLAME MYSELF

Maree's memories of the awful night of the 1980 murder were as strong when the Herald Sun spoke to her before her death as they were when she made her statement to the homicide squad at the time her boyfriend was shot dead.

It pained her that the gunman she described as wearing a cowboy style hat - probably an army slouch hat - with long dark hair and a moustache, had so far got away with murder.

She suffered from kidney failure and needed regular dialysis.

"I am not very well, and I do have a grave fear that I am going to die without ever finding out an answer," Maree told the Herald Sun in 2016.

"During the times when I nearly go unconscious, when I get sick on dialysis, straight away the thought comes to my mind, what if I die now without getting justice for Thomas or even knowing why he was killed.

"I will always blame myself because I believe it was my fault we were there.

"It's a thing I liked to do, parking at the beach. I will carry that sense of being responsible forever.

"All the time I think about what Thomas's life might have been like.

"Would he have travelled the world? Would he have had kids? Would he have been with me and would he have had a happy life.

"My life has just been filled with outrage about what happened to Thomas and the effect it had on me.

"That's obviously nothing to what Thomas' family must have gone through for all these years."

Thomas Cooper as a young boy. Picture: Kylie Else
Thomas Cooper as a young boy. Picture: Kylie Else

 

With his sister, Julie. Picture: Kylie Else
With his sister, Julie. Picture: Kylie Else

 

Julie Cooper spoke to the Herald Sun in 2016. Picture: Kylie Else
Julie Cooper spoke to the Herald Sun in 2016. Picture: Kylie Else

Mr Cooper's mother Joy, in the first media interview since her son's death, told the Herald Sun in 2016 that the murder devastated her, her husband Jef and daughter Julie, who was 15 when her 18-year-old brother was shot dead in 1980.

"Thomas was an ordinary lad, he did the ordinary things that boys do," Mrs Cooper said.

"He was a normal sort of a kid who hadn't been in any sort of trouble."

At the time of his murder, Mr Cooper was living with his parents in East Boundary Rd, Bentleigh.

He went to Ormond state school then Brighton Grammar before leaving school to initially work as a handyman at the Cabrini hospital in Malvern and then starting as an apprentice plumber.

His parents were active members of St John's Church of England in East Bentleigh, as was Mr Cooper.

It was through his attendance at the St John's youth club that Mr Cooper met his girlfriend Maree five months before the murder.

Mrs Cooper said she and her daughter Julie had missed out on all the things a mother and sister expect to experience, such as Mr Cooper marrying and having children.

The police identikit of the killer has been updated to what he might look like in 2020.
The police identikit of the killer has been updated to what he might look like in 2020.

 

Police hope the $1m reward will help solve the case.
Police hope the $1m reward will help solve the case.

 

Contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.
Contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.

Julie Cooper told the Herald Sun in 2016 she still had vivid memories of being told as a 15-year-old in 1980 that her older brother had been murdered.

"In the days and years that followed it was a crash course in living life without my brother," she said.

"The sadness and grief that my mum and dad must have been feeling still tugs at my heart strings.

"I look back on what my parents went through, the ups and downs of it all. There were times I could see they were grieving and coping in their own way, then grieving together.

"My mum is my strength, my rock, and my inspiration.

"It's hard to imagine life without the people we love and how wrong it is that Thomas wasn't with me as I moved through life.

"My brother never got to see me finish school. He never knew about my career.

"He wasn't there to celebrate my wedding, or see his niece and nephew, or have a beer with my husband.

"I could never pick up the phone and have a chat with him, a laugh or enjoy a birthday with my family, or a Christmas.

"I wonder what he'd be like, what he'd be doing and where he'd be living.

"Would he be married and have a family?

"I wonder what he'd think of me.

"I carry this sense of wonder in everything I do, but it's my way of keeping him with me while living a life I know he'd be proud of."

Anyone with information about the murder of Thomas Cooper should call Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000 or submit a confidential crime report online through www.crimestoppers.com.au

 

FURTHER READING

MORE TRUECRIME STORIES

THE BOMBER THOMPSON INTERVIEWS

 

 

Originally published as Killer in a cowboy hat: Why was teen gunned down?



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