Written by By Staff Writer
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By giving the case the right attention at the right time, trauma experts at the University of New South Wales were able to discover and preserve clues that helped crack the case of a Sydney woman’s murder almost two decades ago.
On April 8, 1991, Melbourne University student, Eleni Dendle, 19, disappeared from Rose Bay in Sydney’s east. Dendle was with her friend in the shorefront bar, The Penthouse, when a man wearing a ski mask and disguised with white surgical gloves entered the bar.
He demanded to see Dendle, before ripping off her gold band. But the 19-year-old Australian had been raped before fleeing, and was last seen running towards the Darling Harbour entertainment district. Dendle never returned home to her family.
The case of Eleni Dendle, Sydney’s youngest murder victim, was reopened after new forensics technology and investigative techniques helped detectives probe the investigation. Dendle’s body was found in the bush at Waterfall on January 7, 1992, almost two weeks after her disappearance. She had been strangled to death.
Much of what happened between the time Dendle left the bar and her body was never publicly known, but the now-sealed case was reopened in 2017 following the introduction of new investigative techniques.
Detective Superintendent Jarelle Efrat, head of the homicide squad, told CNN that it was a passion project for the team, who, since moving to Sydney from Melbourne, believed there was more to the investigation.
‘Toward the end of the case, there was an interest in new forensics techniques,’ Efrat said. “The technology that we had at the time was not utilised.”
With input from forensic experts from other states, the team began to investigate DNA found in three different envelopes on Dendle’s body. It was not obtained or presented in the investigation, the detectives said.
Because each envelope had a different type of DNA material, they carried out a collection and analysis of saliva and DNA from the envelopes in an effort to generate a comparison.
In May last year, detectives were able to confirm that the saliva they had recovered matched the DNA in Eleni’s purse and purse purse. This evidence was enough to indicate that Dendle had been assaulted and killed.
“If we hadn’t been working with other experts and forensics experts, all those sort of advances that are coming through, the forensic science just wouldn’t have been able to resolve this case,” Efrat said.
An agreement was reached with Eleni’s next of kin to access the DNA extracted from the envelopes, and her body was exhumed for further testing. On January 7, the pathologist confirmed that she had been strangled to death.
In addition to the DNA, detectives connected the case to a historical crime in which a weapon was used to kill a man from nearby, according to court documents.
Detectives found one woman whose purse was stolen in 1994 from the bottle shop next to the pub where Eleni Dendle was last seen alive.
The woman, who was aged 19 when she was killed, was sexually assaulted before her corpse was dumped in the bush. The weapon used in the crime was then linked to the murder of Eleni, investigators say.
Both detectives and officials at the University of New South Wales have commended the work of the university’s forensic team.
University senior lecturer and former police officer Dr Tony Jessop, who headed the new team that examined the case, said that his team’s work “brought the case up to date, got new information, by identifying additional victims and linking it up with historical crime and some historical corroborating evidence” — some of which had not been publicly available at the time.
“We’re not just applying science but we’re applying computer engineering and ultimately intelligence,” Jessop said.
Peter Sweatman, principal forensic computer scientist at the University of New South Wales, also explained that one of his team’s big areas of focus was DNA profiling — a process that was not widely available at the time Dendle was murdered.
Sweatman said that DNA sampling for decades to come will require constant support and guidance from authorities, while there is a possibility that the reliability of DNA samples will decrease over time. “You’re always looking at new technology and the implications of that,” he said.