At the height of the Cold War, a brilliant physicist and the wife of his colleague are found dead ‘in flagrante delicto’. Was it murder? Was the motive jealousy or espionage? Will we ever know for sure?
Australia, 1963. It was the height of the Cold War and the dawn of the Sexual Revolution. At 7:45am on January 1st in the respectable, middle-class Sydney suburb of Chatswood, two boys were combing the banks of the Lane Cove River in search of stray golf balls. What they found instead was to spark off one of the most sensational, and still unsolved, murder mysteries in Australian history.
On a narrow dirt track by the river the boys saw a man in a suit lying face down on the ground. They thought he was just a drunk sleeping it off after the New Year’s Eve revelries of the previous night, but when they found him in the same spot an hour later they went closer to investigate. There was a purplish patch on the man’s face and blood had trickled from his right nostril. There was no sign of violence, but the man was decidedly dead. When the police arrived they made an even more bizarre discovery. The man was not fully clothed as he seemed, but naked from the waist down, his suit having been painstakingly placed over his body. Papers in his wallet identified him as Dr Gilbert Bogle.
Twenty yards away, in a shallow dip right on the edge of the river, the police made another discovery. Under a few sheets of old cardboard was the body of a woman. She was lying face up. The skirt of her floral frock was bunched up around her waist, her bra had been pulled down to expose her breasts, her own underpants were some distance away, but a pair of men’s underwear lay between her bare feet. This was Mrs Margaret Chandler.
Again there was no sign of violence, but the stench of vomit and human excreta made it obvious that the couple had been poisoned and that the poison had taken effect as they were in flagrante delicto. Despite being known as a lovers’ lane, the track by the river was not the most salubrious spot for a romantic tryst. It was dirty and occasionally smelly, and there were more pleasant spots nearby. But the car had been left in good order and the lovers had even thought to bring a piece of carpet from the car to lie on, so it was unlikely they had been forced there. Yet, another person had been there, for someone had covered the bodies after they died.
This titillating scene alone would have been enough to set Sydney society on its ears, but there was more. Not only had the couple been caught in the act, not only were they both married to someone else, but both Dr Bogle and Mrs Chandler’s husband, Geoffrey, worked for the CSIRO — the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization — where Dr Bogle was doing ground-breaking research in physics. Here was a heady mixture of murder and sex with a strong whiff of Cold War espionage.
The story sparked a war between Sydney’s two afternoon newspapers, the Sun and the Daily Mirror, which would go on for months and sell millions of copies. Throughout the long and inconclusive investigation, the editors of both tabloids pressured their journalists to find more and more new angles, even where none existed. When the sex leads were exhausted, they milked Cold War fears for all they were worth, while indulging in baseless and irrelevant speculation and sensationalist theories. Their editorialising sought to influence public opinion and put undue pressure on the police to solve the crime, a task they would pursue with great diligence but little result. What few facts they did uncover led nowhere.
The previous night Dr Bogle and the Chandlers had attended a New Year’s Eve party at the Chatswood home of a CSIRO colleague. It had been a small, fairly staid affair. Dr Bogle had been the life of the party, but it was obvious he and Mrs Chandler had eyes only for each other, even though they had only met for the first time at a barbecue less than a fortnight earlier. Mr Chandler had brought his wife to the party, but at about 11:30 he left, ostensibly to buy cigarettes, but his search for a shop open at that time of night took him as far as inner city Balmain where a much livelier party was underway. There Chandler spent some time with his lover, Pam Logan, but by 2:30 he had returned to the party in Chatswood.
Chandler, a bearded associate of the bohemian Sydney ‘Push’, was aware of his wife’s interest in Gilbert Bogle. It would have been no surprise to him. Dr Bogle was an outgoing, attractive man, well-known for his numerous extra-marital affairs. Nor did it perturb him. He and Margaret were relatively happy in their ‘open’ relationship. Chandler had extramarital affairs, and was not so hypocritical as to expect his wife not to do the same. When she confessed to him that she wouldn’t mind having an affair with Bogle, Chandler told her: ‘If you want to have Gib as a lover, if it would make you happy, you do it.’ And he would have been well aware that Bogle was on the verge of leaving Australia for the United States to work in the Bell Research Laboratories.
Back at the party, Chandler could see how matters stood between Margaret and Bogle. After ensuring that Bogle would take his wife home, he agreed to leave his own house available to them and left to return to Balmain. Between 4:15 and 4:30 both Dr Bogle and Margaret left the party, but were careful not to make it obvious they were leaving together. In the meantime, Chandler had arrived at Pam Logans’s flat where he found her in bed. He got her up and she drove with him to pick up his children from his parents-in-law who were looking after them. They took the children back to Pam’s place to leave the Chandler house free as had been agreed. By ten o’clock the children had grown restless so Chandler took them home. Margaret was not there, but that was no surprise, so Chandler went to bed, only to be woken at one o’clock by the police with the grim news.
Since the dead couple was in the midst of an adulterous affair, the police’s first line of enquiry was sexual jealousy, and, of course their suspicions immediately fell on Geoffrey Chandler, the cuckolded husband. In the conservative Australia of the time, it was unthinkable that a husband would not be jealous of his wife’s sexual liaison with another man. The fact that Chandler knew about the affair and had given it his blessing only made him all the more suspect in the eyes of the police. But much to their chagrin, although they browbeat Pam Logan for hours, hoping to break her story, Geoffrey Chandler’s alibi was water-tight.
Mrs Bogle, a heavily pregnant mother of three, who, like a respectable woman, had stayed home from the party to look after her children, escaped suspicion, but there was another candidate on Dr Bogle’s side, his lover of three years, Margaret Fowler. Though no longer employed there, Mrs Fowler, a scientifically trained librarian, had known Dr Bogle while working at the CSIRO in the Radio Physics Library. Her husband was a chemical engineer and the newspapers were quick to suggest he could have used a secret, undetectable chemical to kill Dr Bogle through jealousy.
When that line led nowhere, the police and the newspapers leapt onto the suggestion, first raised by Mrs Bogle, that Dr Bogle had been killed because of his scientific research. After all, he was a physicist. It was not difficult to find others who would support such a theory.
Catherine Dalton, the widow of the head of the Research Establishment of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission, was a friend of Dr Bogle’s. She firmly believed her own husband, George Dalton, had been poisoned for helping the Dutch acquire nuclear-enriched fuel and thus raising the ire of the American atomic establishment. She proposed that Dr Bogle had also been assassinated to prevent him disclosing American atomic secrets. Peter Wright, a former MI5 operative and author of Spycatcher in which he controversially accused Sir Roger Hollis, head of MI5 between 1956 and 1965, of being a Soviet Mole, believed Dr Bogle had been recruited by Hollis and eliminated for being a Russian agent.
However, Dr Bogle’s research had absolutely nothing to do with atomic power. He was researching the possible application of maser (microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) technology — not to be confused with laser technology — to radio astronomy.
How likely was it that Dr Bogle was killed by Cold War spies? One man who might have known was Geoffrey Chandler himself. He recently disclosed that he had been a double agent: a member of the Communist Party and an informer for Australia’s own spy agency, ASIO. But, sensational as this news might be, it, like all the other sensational titbits that have surfaced over the years, leads nowhere.
While the police pursued old-fashioned detective work, forensic scientists and toxicologists subjected the victims’ tissues to a barrage of tests for every conceivable poison known to man, but still could not find what poison had killed the couple, nor how and when it had been administered. It was not until many years later that they discovered that they had been working all that time without crucial evidence that might have pointed them in the right direction and saved a great deal of unnecessary and unproductive effort. For the sake of decency, the police had failed to inform them of the exact details of how the bodies had been discovered, details which would have narrowed the toxicologists’ search to fast acting toxins. By the time they were fully informed no tissue samples remained to be tested.
The police’s reticence was shared by the coroner who also deliberately withheld evidence from the inquest as to how the bodies were discovered. Despite all the evidence presented, he could only come to the general conclusion that Dr Bogle and Mrs Chandler had died from ‘acute circulatory failure. But as to the circumstances under which such circulatory failure was brought about, the evidence does not permit me to say.’
So there the case lay for over forty years, to be raked up occasionally on an anniversary, to show up in books and television programs about great crimes of the twentieth century, to fuel sporadic speculation about government cover-ups, until 2006, when, perhaps, a plausible solution was aired in Peter Butt’s film Who killed Dr Bogle and Mrs Chandler? The documentary was the highest rating program on ABC television for many years.
So, who did kill them? Was it a jealous lover or spouse? Was it the CIA or KGB? Had they been experimenting with party drugs cooked up in the CSIRO labs? Were human agents involved at all? Well, the answer to that last question is ‘yes’ and ‘no’. The culprit was the Lane Cove River, or to be more exact, the pollution — industrial waste and sewerage — that had been poured into it for the preceding sixty years. The still, cool morning, that New Year’s Day, had produced the perfect conditions for nitrogen sulphide to bubble up out of the water and settle close to the ground, in the hollow the lovers had chosen. The concentration of the toxic gas would have been so dense that they would have been overcome before they could smell it, become disoriented and staggered about before falling dead.
So who was the third person, the one who covered the bodies? Peter Butt believes it was a local greyhound trainer, Eddy Batiste, who was out exercising his dogs early that morning. Like the police and the coroner, he was a man of his time who found the scene indecent and so covered the half-naked bodies to give them a little dignity, yet could not bring himself to call the police. Again, we will never know why. By a tragic coincidence, Batiste himself had almost died in a boating accident in that very spot as a child, so perhaps the scene brought up traumatic memories. Or it may be because it was he who took Mrs Chandler’s handbag, emptied it of its valuables and dumped it further down the river bank. Or he may just have been reluctant to get involved in what he knew would certainly be a scandalous affair.
But why did Dr Bogle and Mrs Chandler choose the track by the Lane Cove River for their tryst when a comfortable bed had deliberately been left vacant for them? Perhaps they were too overcome with passion to make the 20km trip. Or perhaps it was to indulge Dr Bogle’s predilection for sex in the open air. Not being residents they may have heard of the lovers’ lane by the river, but not have known how insalubrious it was. Whatever their reasons, we are never to know, but it was a decision that was to cost them their lives.
Butt’s solution is contested, of course. As no blood or tissue samples survive on which to carry out new tests, it can never be irrefutably proved or disproved. However, the purplish tinge observed in the blood at the time, and the purple patches on the victims’ skin does support the theory. Perhaps we will never know. But after months of sensational news reports, damaging accusations and innocent lives being turned upside down, it seems both a letdown and a fitting conclusion that it should have been the river ‘what done it.’
© Pauline Montagna 2016
Postscript: new evidence has emerged that there may have been witnesses to the deaths which upholds Peter Butt’s hypothesis.
Who Killed Dr Bogle and Mrs Chandler? by Peter Butt, New Holland Publishers, 2012