Considering how many involve law enforcement corruption, true crime stories suggest that without accountability cops can’t be trusted to behave properly in obtaining confessions, charging individuals, or admitting to their mistakes regarding unjust convictions. The Night Caller is both a sprawling serial-killer mystery and a saga about legal exoneration. Yet by its conclusion, it primarily proves to be another infuriating non-fiction portrait of police malfeasance and—worse still—unwillingness to own up to, and correct, their own wrongdoing.
Writer/director Thomas Meadmore’s four-part Sundance Now docuseries (premiering Jan. 19) takes place in the Western Suburbs of Perth, Australia, an affluent enclave that, in the ‘50s and ‘60s, offered residents a comfortable, carefree and safe life in which they were free to leave their doors and windows unlocked and to sleep on their verandas during the hot summer months. Those good times came to a crashing halt, however, in 1959, with the brutal murder of single mother Pnina Berkman in her bedroom. When her boyfriend Fotis Fountas promptly fled the country for his native Greece, authorities assumed he was the culprit. Nine months later, though, another similar slaying took place in Perth: that of 22-year-old chocolate empire heiress Jillian Brewer, who was savagely slain in her bed with a tomahawk and a pair of scissors.
Cops swiftly pinned the latter offense on 18-year-old Darryl Beamish, a deaf-mute local who signed a confession and was sentenced to life in prison. With the apparent culprit in prison, Perth’s citizens once more relaxed. As The Night Caller reveals, that reverie was again shattered four years later when, on Jan. 26, 1963—Australia Day—five individuals were shot, two of them fatally, by a mysterious gunman. Since those victims were seemingly chosen at random, and attacked in their cars and at their homes, terror swept through the community, amplified by detectives’ inability to deduce who was responsible for it (their only evidence, a single rifle cartridge, led them nowhere). Then, two weeks later on Feb. 9, 1963, teenager Rosemary Anderson was killed in a hit-and-run accident—although in this instance, cops came to the conclusion that her 19-year-old boyfriend John Button had been behind the wheel, based largely on the fact that his car boasted bumper and fender damage as well as traces of blood.
The Night Caller details this crime spree through interviews with locals—many of them intimately involved with some of the murders—as well as Button himself, who despite maintaining his innocence, signed a confession and was consequently convicted of manslaughter. Especially in its earlygoing, the series also relies quite heavily on dramatic recreations that fail to generate unease or to impart a sense of the crimes’ logistical execution. Meadmore’s employment of these superfluous staged sequences is all the more frustrating given that he otherwise uses archival footage of Perth to convey a potent sense of the atmosphere in which his story took place, and the way in which these scattered atrocities helped transform the local culture. That change only escalated when, six months after the Australia Day massacre, Shirley McLeod was shot dead while babysitting, and a fingerprint left at the scene led to a massive fingerprinting operation that resulted in no leads.
Police finally lucked out when the rifle used to end McLeod’s life was discovered beneath a bush in the front yard of a residential home, and after staking out the area, the owner of the weapon returned to recover it. That man, Eric Edgar Cooke, was a husband and father of seven with a long record of petty thefts and peeping-tom charges, and a rifle cartridge discovered in his vehicle confirmed that he was McLeod’s killer. Cooke confessed his culpability to his wife Sally, who in a new interview recalls her husband’s fateful admission. As it turned out, he was also guilty of plenty of other offenses. Soon, he was taking cops around to various crime scenes to detail his heinous actions—and wouldn’t you know it, two of the killings he claimed to have committed were the shooting of Jillian Brewer and the hit-and-run of Rosemary Anderson.
At that point, The Night Caller shifts gears from being a puzzling whodunit to a case study in police misconduct. Armed with signed confessions from Beamish and Button about the Brewer and Anderson homicides, respectively, law enforcement refused to accept Cooke’s statements. More disgracefully, they buried his confessions to numerous other crimes—some shootings, some hit-and-runs—because they knew that, should that information come out, it would be clear that they’d known they had a serial predator on their hands, and thus that their prosecutions of Beamish and Button were unfounded. Thanks to the tireless efforts of journalist Estelle Blackburn, the since-freed-on-parole Button mounted an appeal to legally clear his name. And when that worked, Blackburn turned her attention to Beamish, with similarly triumphant results.
What The Night Caller ultimately becomes, then, is a stinging evisceration of the Perth police force and its star detective Owen Leitch, who on the basis of Beamish’s capture and conviction was promoted to commissioner. Through interviews with Button, Beamish, Blackburn, retired detective sergeant Max Baker, and many other men and women connected to Cooke’s murders, Meadmore’s docuseries takes direct aim at the systemic injustices perpetrated by cops who knew that what they were doing was shameful, and then upon being publicly confronted by their misdeeds, doubled down on their positions rather than correcting their errors. Even today, Baker won’t admit that Button was innocent, and it’s that intractability—born from prioritizing personal and organizational reputations ahead of the rights of everyday citizens—that’s arguably the most galling aspect of this entire affair.
Awash in stories about the dead, their grieving families, and the wrongly persecuted, The Night Caller offers a multifaceted view of the often-inescapable scars left by trauma. However, in a closing passage about Sally Cooke’s perseverance in the face of her husband’s monstrousness, epitomized by her son Tony’s celebrated career as a crusading politician, it’s also a reminder that even the most horrific ordeals can sometimes be overcome.