In a chart-topping new podcast, BBC reporter Jon Kay tells the tragic story of a Bristol family who have endured a lifetime of heartbreak since their baby sister disappeared on a beach in Australia 52 years ago. In an eight-part series, Jon delves into the twists and turns of the investigation, telling the extraordinary story of three-year-old Cheryl Grimmer and her family’s fight for answers…
Six years in the making, Fairy Meadow is one of the latest true-crime podcasts to top Apple charts around the world. Narrated by Bristol-based BBC journalist Jon Kay, listeners are taken back to the fateful day of 12 January 1970, when the lives of one Bristol family were changed forever.
Three-year-old Cheryl Grimmer was playing on the soft sands of Fairy Meadow beach in Wollongong, an hour south of Sydney, with her mother, Carol, 26, and three brothers, Ricki, 7, Stephen, 5, and Paul, aged just 4. The young family, along with father Vince, 24, had recently emigrated to Australia under the ten pound assisted passage scheme funded by the British and Australian governments. Known widely as ‘Ten Pound Poms’, more than one million Britons headed Down Under between 1947 and 1981. As the name suggests, the scheme allowed for affordable travel to Australia, with the cost of an adult ticket a mere tenner, and all children travelling for free. The scheme was part of Australia’s ‘populate or perish’ nation-building initiative. Upon arrival, many migrants lived in camps while looking for permanent accommodation. The Grimmers lived in one just 300m from Fairy Meadow beach – a suburb named after its fairy-like beauty. To the family from Brislington, it was a utopia.
On the afternoon of 12 January, when a wild wind suddenly swept the coastline, as it frequently did, the Grimmer family, along with many others, quickly packed up to head home. Cheryl and her three brothers were told to wait for their mother by the changing room block at the top of the beach. When Cheryl cheekily ran into the female toilets, rejecting her eldest brother’s pleas to come out, Ricki ran back to get his mother. When they both returned 90 seconds later, Cheryl had disappeared without a trace.
The case sparked one of the country’s biggest ever manhunts but Cheryl was never found. Since that day, 52 years ago, the family – especially Ricki, who has always felt immense guilt for leaving his sister alone – have endured a life sentence of heartbreak. Despite thousands of hours of searching, no one has ever been convicted. In 2011, Cheryl was declared dead in absentia.
Although Ricki and his brothers have never given up hope, this Bristol story had lain dormant for decades. It wasn’t until a news notification pinged Jon’s phone in 2016 that he first learned of Cheryl’s disappearance. Most extraordinarily, though, as Jon started to explore the twists and turns of the case, reaching out to family in Bristol and New South Wales, connecting with Ricki and his brothers, the investigation suddenly started to regain momentum.
At the beginning of the podcast, we find out that the local police have come across a confession made a year after Cheryl’s disappearance by a man they code-named Mercury – a court order prevents him from being named. As the eight-part series unfolds, we follow Jon on his trips to Australia to meet Ricki and his brothers, their children and grandchildren. He speaks to the former detectives who once stood at the helm of the investigation, he tracks down new witnesses who have never before spoken about their memories, talks to those who helped look for Cheryl and retraces the last steps that Ricki took with his baby sister; all in a bid to uncover the truth. It’s a heart-wrenching story from the outset; one full of possible sightings, bizarre claims, false leads and a mysterious ransom note, but mainly one of a local family stricken by grief, desperate for answers, but too often left hanging on the brink of a breakthrough.
“This story has definitely gripped me and obsessed me over the last few years,” says Jon. “I first heard about the Cheryl Grimmer case when I was covering the disappearance of Madeleine McCann for BBC News. In some ways, the cases are hauntingly similar. I think anyone who’s ever lost sight of a child will know that heart-stopping feeling when you suddenly can’t see them – even if it’s only for a few seconds. But what if that feeling goes on forever?
“When I was a kid, my baby brother was taken by a stranger. Thankfully, he was found, safe and sound, a short time later, but I’ve always wondered, what happens to a family when there is no conclusion?”
As Jon peels back the layers of this complex case, it soon becomes clear that the fallibility and malleability of people’s memories certainly played a part in stalling the investigation. Sadly, each time the trail went cold, the consequences were profound.
What’s more, many of the eyewitnesses were themselves migrants, living in the camp for only a short while. When they found a permanent place to live and moved out of Fairy Meadow, they took their memories – and any useful information – away with them.
“It’s really hard to overstate how important migration was in that community,” says Jon. “The camp where the family lived with hundreds and hundreds of other migrant families was full of rows and rows and rows of huts. Everybody there had come from somewhere else and they were in and out. Part of the challenge for the police at the time, and part of the challenge for us trying to find people, was that families were there for three days, three weeks, three months before moving elsewhere, maybe changing their names, maybe going back home. People’s memories of that day were dispersed all over Australia and all over the world,” Jon explains. “Ricki repeatedly says his memories of that day are tattooed in his mind, but we’ve heard from people since we launched the podcast who have conflicting memories of the same sort of day and the same sort of time. Trying to find consistent memories has been so difficult.”
Furthermore, as the series continues and Jon begins to meet the members of the wider Grimmer family, we hear the pain in the voices of Ricki’s children and grandchildren, cousins and distant relatives, many of whom weren’t even born until decades after Cheryl’s disappearance. The ripple effects of that tragic day, however, have never entirely ceased and the memories of 12 January clearly live on through each generation.
“There are relatives here in Bristol, younger cousins, teenagers, the great nieces and nephews of Cheryl Grimmer, who might not have ever met Ricki but know about what happened to their great auntie on a beach on the other side of the world. They say it affects the way they’ve been brought up today, their parents have always been really anxious about them and their safety. It is amazing how the legacy of a split second can dominate lives, young lives, even today.”
Jon, a regular presenter on BBC Breakfast’s red sofa, is one of the corporation’s most respected journalists. He has worked on big crime stories all over the world, including the murder trial of Bristol businessman Shrien Dewani in Cape Town, which gained worldwide attention. Based in Bristol for the last 20 years, he has completed stints in Washington DC, Los Angeles, Iraq and across Europe, and built a reputation for producing powerful and insightful, yet respectful, journalism.
Cheryl Grimmer’s case is very much a Bristol story and Jon was determined to establish this project in the city where she was born. “I think it helped Ricki and the family in Australia that I literally knew where they were coming from. They are a Bristol family, Cheryl Grimmer was one of us, she was a Bristolian. Ricki took me to the house in Brislington where they’d grown up and to Victoria Park where he used to push Cheryl on the swings. I think he feels a special connection to her when he’s in Bristol because it reminds him of the normal life he had before she disappeared.
“It was also important to me that we made the podcast in Bristol. It was made by BBC Audio in Bristol. Chris Ledgard, the producer, is based in the city and Elizabeth Purnell, who composed the beautiful music, lives in Harbourside, so it was very much a Bristol project.”
After six years of research, four hours of tightly focused storytelling, we wonder whether Jon will ever be able to overcome his obsession with the case. “No, definitely not,” he says. “We’re still getting emails now from people who think they have information. Every time one appears, I just wonder if it could be relevant. I’m not claiming that we’re going to solve it but we’re encouraging anyone with information to talk to the police – there’s a AU$1,000,000 reward in Australia at the moment. It would be fantastic if the profile from this podcast gets someone to come forward with information that helps the police.”
As for the Grimmer family, Jon says that although parts of the process have been painful and difficult to hear, the family are pleased the story is out there. “It’s been number one on the Apple chart in all categories in Australia. This means that in the country where she disappeared, in the country where someone might have information, the story is being heard.”