Corner store murder still baffles
AT 7AM on the dot, Frank Newbery walked downstairs from his flat and opened the door to his convenience store, swinging the sign on the window over, and settling in behind the counter, its old-fashioned cash register as much a fixture as old Frank.
It was the same morning routine the 87-year-old had followed every day since he first opened Frank's Ham and Beef in 1949. But on March 12, 2007, Newbery's life would be brutally snuffed out, in broad daylight.
Eleven years since the slaying, police are no closer to finding out who beat Newbery to death. A new review of this killing, alongside roughly 570 other cold cases being re-examined by NSW Police, aims to put this particular mystery to bed.
For 58 years, Newbery had built a reputation as the "gentleman grocer" in the Newcastle neighbourhood of Cooks Hill, remembering regulars' names and orders, offering home delivery services to elderly residents, and generally being a genial, constant presence in his community.
His home delivery service was so thorough that Newbery would bring the groceries inside and even pack them away in fridges and cupboards. Regular customers could not remember a single day in which Newbery hadn't greeted them cheerfully from behind the counter.
In 2001, he was voted World's Best Grocer by his customers, who banded together to ensure "Old Frank" took out the award. Later that year, Newcastle Council announced plans to demolish the store to make way for a new entrance to a carpark.
The community was outraged and protested the development with a ferocity not usually seen in the quickly developing city. The plans were shelved and Frank's Ham and Beef remains standing.
The morning he was murdered, Newbery left the store briefly to attend the funeral of colourful Cooks Hill identity Lillie Wood. Just 10 days earlier, Wood had been bashed to death on the veranda of her home, less than a kilometre from Newbery's store.
She was 88 years old, and the brutal killing sent a ripple through the community.
Known affectionately as The Cat Lady, Wood was an eccentric, who carried a large silver glomesh purse around town and slept on the veranda of her Dawson St home where she was murdered.
The day after Newbery was found beaten to death, a regular customer told The Sydney Morning Herald he had been "devastated" by Wood's murder. The customer had entered the store the morning before and, although the pair exchanged their usual pleasantries, Newbery was clearly affected. "He asked me if I'd had a lovely weekend, but he was still upset about (the funeral); he couldn't speak," the customer recounted.
While Newbery was at the funeral that morning, the store was manned by a lady who had worked at Frank's Ham and Beef for nearly 20 years. That day, as usual, she left at 3pm, leaving Newbery to man the counter until the 5pm closing time.
At 4.12pm, Newbery served his final customer, a woman who later gave details at his 2012 inquest. At this stage, there were three people inside the store: Newbery, this woman and a man she described as having long blond, curly hair, wearing a cap and a grey polo shirt.
She was unable to give further details; not unusual given the regular air of the afternoon.
Six minutes later, one of Newbery's regulars came to the store to find the front glass doors shut. Thinking this unusual, he peered through the tinted windows and saw a man with long hair wearing either a beanie or a cap crouching down near the counter. He was placing something into a green enviro-bag. This was undoubtedly the same man the previous customer had seen. There was no sign of Newbery.
The shopkeeper was found roughly 10 minutes later, slumped near the counter of his shop. He had been brutally beaten around the head, and was barely alive. He was covered in bruises and lying in a pool of his own blood.
Frank was rushed to hospital but died that evening, as stunned locals crowded the front of his store. When news of his passing spread, the gathering turned into a vigil, with dozens trading stories about the gentleman grocer well into the night.
Despite a $100,000 reward, no evidence has turned up strong enough to force a conviction. There are no suspects known by name. Eight possible witnesses captured by a security camera attached to the nearby Newcastle Workers Club provided no information, and police are confident they spoke to every one of Newbery's customers that day - aside from the aforementioned man spotted in the store around the time of the murder.
A Port Stephens man was reportedly boasting about the murder, but was found to be lying. A schizophrenic drug addict who had broken out of a nearby psychiatrist hospital twice that same day was a leading suspect, but was also cleared, despite his driver's licence being found in the store. Strike Force Rynan, set up to investigate the case, encountered dead ends for years.
Even the motive for the murder seems unclear.
The official cause of death was blunt force trauma, seemingly from two separate weapons. This may suggest two attackers, or improvisation. The old-fashioned cash register was opened, however it is unclear if any money had been removed. Police initially operated on the theory of a robbery-gone-wrong, but Newbery had $1500 in cash in his pocket at the time of his death. If this was a robbery, it was a brazen and badly conducted one, given this remaining cash on his person, how busy the store was usually and that the murder was conducted in broad daylight.
Police were clinging to this theory during the 2012 inquest, telling the coroner they believed it was a bungled robbery. The coroner wasn't convinced, and delivered an open finding.
By 2015, police had shifted their thinking, admitting that Newbery may have been specifically targeted by the murderer.
"While we believe that 'robbery gone wrong' has always appeared to be the most likely scenario, we will consider and explore all possibilities, including that the incident could have been a deliberate attack upon Mr Newbery,'' Detective Sergeant Matthew Faber told the Newcastle Herald.
A NSW Police spokesperson provided a short statement to news.com.au on where the case sits: "Police are continuing their appeal for information. The reward is still in place. No arrests have been made. It remains as an unsolved homicide." In other words: they've got nothing.
For now, the key to solving this homicide is finding the man who was in the store moments before Newbery was murdered. As time goes by, the chances of finding him grow slimmer.
Strike Force Rynan has ordered extensive DNA testing in the past which uncovered nothing of note, however this latest review of the case will see NSW Police use a previously unavailable genetic genealogy DNA database - similar to the type used by ancestry services such as 23andme - as well as DNA phenotyping, which can develop a facial likeness based on DNA code. These are substantial leaps in technology that may yield positive results.
For now, Frank's Ham and Beef is still open, Monday to Friday, in the same old building. It is owned and ran by a former customer Jenny Boswel, who last year described Newbery's murder to the ABC as "a tragedy that people just can't get over in our town".
For now, she is running the little store by the same principles as Newbery, although she does close an hour earlier than he did.
"Hard work never killed anyone," Newbery told the Newcastle Herald in 1999, when a reporter marvelled at his longevity.
"I never got tired of working here: five days a week, from 7am till 5pm."