LEFT: Stacey Lee Kirk was raped then choked to death with a pair of underpants. Ian Sargent was proven to be the offender, 18 years after the attack.TO the poor folk called to the scene, the mangled wreck seemed like just another semi-trailer crash on a notorious stretch of the Pacific Highway which had claimed the life of another young truckie and father.
But when Ian Raymond Sargent’s big rig ploughed into a tree near Grafton on February 22, 2002, it kickstarted a series of events which would end up solving a murder mystery that had haunted Maitland for almost two decades.
In a previous life, Sargent used to help manage the Gangster Shooting Gallery – a popular attraction in the seriously weird and wacky work of sideshow alley which travelled from country show to country show to fleece the locals of their coin in return for mangy prizes.
And it was in this job, and when he was spending his nights at the Maitland Show in 1984, that he first laid his eyes on Tenambit teenager Stacey Lee Kirk.
STACEY LEE KIRK: The 16 yo found murdered at Maitland Show on February 18, 1984.
Police would later prove, according to formal findings by then State Coroner John Abernethy, that Sargent was the person who had lured the 16-year-old schoolgirl behind a toilet block just 20 metres from sideshow alley, sexually assaulted her before strangling her to death with a pair of underpants.
The undeniable piece of evidence was the matching of Sargent’s DNA profile from blood taken from his body following the accident to evidence at the murder scene some 18 years earlier.
Sargent’s family, who said after the findings in 2003 that they were never told there would be an inquest, have repeated their claims that Sargent was not to blame.
But there was no doubt, according to investigators, and the evidence was strong enough for Abernethy to formally find Sargent responsible.
It is fair to say that Stacey Lee Kirk entered more than just the front gates of Maitland Showground when she ventured under the neon buzz of the show on that Thursday night, February 16, 1984.
She had also entered the sleazy and unpredictable world of the show workers, “carnies” as they are sometimes called, where secrets were kept, infidelity was rife and talk of group sex were as common as fairy floss.
In fact, Coroner John Abernethy was to briefly touch on the “brotherhood” within the show circuit during his findings.
GRIM SITE: The toilet block at Maitland Show where Stacey Lee Kirk’s body was found.
“On the evidence before me, showmen and show workers are a difficult breed of ‘suspects’, if I can put it that way,” he said. “They are clannish and close and they are on the move. First names are the order of the day with the workers.”
Stacey Lee Kirk was a country girl with a trusting nature. The friend who went with her to the show that fateful night was to later tell police of some teenage flirting between her friend and the young carnie.
Sargent was just 18 and battling to make ends meet with his girlfriend, who was five months pregnant with their second child.
He would later tell police he flirted with the attractive local girl.
It was about 9.30pm when Stacey Lee Kirk was summoned into the darkness by an unknown man.
The girls agreed to separate but also agreed to meet later outside the main gate.
As the coroner was to say: “Sargent was the one show worker who showed interest in Miss Kirk and she, to some extent, in him. She appears to have gone to a quiet spot at the show with him. From that point she was never seen again.”
When she failed to return home by morning, her father, Trevor Kirk, began to get worried. And by the following afternoon, he received the worst news imaginable – his daughter’s body had been found by a cleaner – stuffed under a tarpaulin probably at the spot she had been murdered.
She had been raped and strangled with a pair of men’s underpants and her partly clad body discarded. Her own underpants were stuffed in her mouth. Instantly, detectives were behind the eight-ball.
The killer had a couple of days on them, torrential weather had ruined most of the crime scene as well as ruining the end of the show and prematurely sending the carnies on to their next gig.
Murder investigation of Stacey Kirk of Tenambit, at Maitland show.
But the investigators did their best. They identified a number of suspects and continued to chase leads for as long as they could.
They never had the technology for DNA. They needed someone to break into the secretive world of the carnies and get to the truth.
Sargent was one of the suspects identified but was given an alibi by his girlfriend.
Horrifically incorrect rumours also muddied the waters.
The case ran cold.
One of the five suspects identified was later charged with her murder but had it dismissed in 1991.
Then, in 2002, police received a DNA profile from the sexual assault kit taken at the time of the murder.
Police covertly obtained the DNA from four of the former showmen on their suspect list, and none of them matched.
And they were still looking for Sargent, only to find he had been killed in the crash.
It was never lost on investigators that they got incredibly lucky.
First, someone took a sample of Sargent’s blood during autopsy.
It was a single-vehicle prang, and many times when the only person involved has been killed, it is a report to the coroner and move on to the next one.
But not only was it taken, it also wasn’t destroyed after the usual three-month period.
Somehow, a sample still existed and could be tested against the semen found at the scene.
It was a match, Abernethy later adding: “prospects of the DNA belonging to a person other than Sargent are fewer than one in 10 billion”.
There was also a match, along with Stacey Lee Kirk’s DNA profile, to a pair of underpants taken from Sargent at the time of the murder.
Two partial DNA profiles were also found on the underpants found wrapped around Stacey Lee Kirk’s throat. But the samples were too weak for statistical calculation.
Police had given evidence they did not think Stacey Lee Kirk had been gang raped or there were others involved.
Sargent’s family were highly critical of the process towards the inquest and identifying him as the murderer.
They said he couldn’t defend himself, that they were never told of an inquest before he was named, and that he may have had sex with the teen but would not have killed her.
Seasoned detectives and the coroner thought differently.