Australian Horror Story: How evil teen ripped apart her family

AS an eight-year-old girl, Brittney Dwyer first showed her dark nature. She struck fear into the heart of her older brother, Ryan, by chasing him around their Queensland home brandishing a knife.

He was so fearful that he locked himself in the toilet before his little sister waved the weapon under the door.

Their mother, Tonya Dwyer, revealed the incident in her statement to police after Brittney was charged with murdering her 81-year-old grandfather, Robert Whitwell, in Adelaide, in August 2016.

Tonya Whitwell with her father Robert Whitwell.
Tonya Whitwell with her father Robert Whitwell.

"Ryan told me a few years ago that Brittney used to chase him around the house with a knife," Mrs Dwyer said.

"Ryan was 13 at the time and wasn't a fighter.

"He would just run to the end of the hallway and lock himself in the toilet. He told me Brittney would wave the knife under the toilet door."

Mrs Dwyer said both children told her about the incident almost a decade after it happened.

"I didn't think much about it at the time other than it was the kids talking about past times," she said.

Brittney, 20, and friend, Bernadette Burns, 22, will on Tuesday be sentenced to life imprisonment for the stabbing murder of Mr Whitwell during a plot to steal his life savings.

It is a crime that has been described as a "premeditated, pre-planned, almost sociopathic killing".

In April 2016, Brittney and her girlfriend, Shelby Lee Angie Holmes, drove from Queensland to Adelaide to rob Mr Whitwell.

Shelby Lee Angie Holmes and Brittney Dwyer. Picture: Facebook
Shelby Lee Angie Holmes and Brittney Dwyer. Picture: Facebook

She knew her grandfather kept a large amount of money - about $111,000 - at his Craigmore home but wasn't sure where it was stashed.

Before leaving Redbank Plains, on the fringe of Brisbane, the couple packed a sports bag filled with bolt cutters, a knife, tin snips, gloves, a hammer, a torch and cable ties.

They drove almost 2000km and stayed in a motel near Mr Whitwell's home, before scoping out his movements. As Holmes was checking out the house, she sent text messages to Dwyer. One said: "He said hey to me omg he's lovely."

His granddaughter replied: "He is very lovely. Don't get attached to him. He might have to die."

The following day, the pair returned to the Craigmore home. Holmes jumped over a fence, which caused the sensor light to come on before opening the roller door to the garage so Dwyer could come inside.

But Dwyer and Holmes were spooked by noises coming from neighbouring properties so decided to abort the plan and return to Queensland.

After the failed robbery, the relationship between Dwyer and Holmes broke down. Dwyer settled back into everyday life in Redbank Plains and moved into a house with Burns. A couple, Jodie Greaves and Jamie Dennis, moved into the house in July 2016.

Bernadette Burns. Picture: Facebook
Bernadette Burns. Picture: Facebook

In early August, Dwyer again made the journey to Adelaide - this time with Burns.

It was 11am on a Friday when Dwyer knocked on her grandfather's door, wearing gloves and concealing a knife. Burns waited in the car and applied her make-up.

Mr Whitwell started to show his granddaughter some photos of her and Ryan as children and Dwyer decided she couldn't go through with killing him.

She sent a text message to Burns saying she was pulling out. But Burns talked her out of it, saying her mother would know she'd visited her grandfather if she didn't go through with it and that she needed to "harden up".

As Mr Whitwell walked his granddaughter to the front door, she stabbed him in the neck, before he turned around and placed his hands on her shoulders. She then stabbed him in the chest and again in the neck.

Bleeding profusely, Mr Whitwell asked his granddaughter why she had attacked him. She did not respond. He then walked to the kitchen and grabbed a band-aid.

Incredibly, Dwyer helped him apply the band-aid and handed him a cloth before she started washing the dishes as he passed away.

Robert Whitwell died as his granddaughter Brittney Dwyer did the dishes.
Robert Whitwell died as his granddaughter Brittney Dwyer did the dishes.

She then texted Burns: "It's done." Burns then came into the house and the pair started to look for her grandfather's life savings - without luck.

Instead, they stole $1000 from his wallet, some coins and a two digital cameras.

At noon - less than an hour after the murder - Burns posted to Facebook: "The story of my life, I knew better but I did it anyway."

In her police statement, Ms Greaves said her housemates' behaviour had changed after the trip.

She said Burns approached her and asked if she could "tell her something".

"She went on to tell me that her and Brittney's trip to Adelaide was for the purpose of robbing her grandad.

"Bernadette said that before they had set off for the trip, Brittney had made a joke to her that she was going to kill her grandad but Bernadette told me she didn't think she was serious at first."

She said Burns then confessed everything that happened on August 5.

The Craigmore house where Mr Whitwell died. Picture: Greg Higgs
The Craigmore house where Mr Whitwell died. Picture: Greg Higgs

"I asked Bernadette if she was joking and she said 'no' and burst into tears and started crying uncontrollably," she said. "Bernadette then told me it took about 20 minutes for him to die and Brittney did the dishes while he was dying.

"I was pretty silent for a while after she told me this as I was totally shocked. I told Bernadette that I was shocked and I wasn't sure if she was playing a joke on me.

"Bernadette told me it wasn't the first time Brittney had killed someone.

"She said that Brittney's friend caught herpes from a bloke and Brittney went and killed him and dumped his body in a lake."

Ms Greaves said she told her boyfriend about the conversation and the couple moved out.

Mr Whitwell's body was found on August 8 and police later uncovered $98,000 cash inside a shed as well as a further $13,000 in the house.

Court documents show that when Burns left for Adelaide, her bank account was overdrawn by $24. The following day it was overdrawn by $70 and, by August 5, it was overdrawn by $470.

After the discovery of Mr Whitwell's body on August 8, his grieving daughter, Tonya, son-in-law Garry and grandchildren Ryan and Brittney arrived in Adelaide and mourned with other family members.

Tonya Whitwell leaves the Supreme Court with a supporter. Picture: Greg Higgs
Tonya Whitwell leaves the Supreme Court with a supporter. Picture: Greg Higgs

His brothers, Geoffrey and Peter, consoled Brittney as she appeared to come to terms with the devastating loss. "We welcomed you into our home, embraced you and comforted you. All the while you wept with your fake tears and made comments like 'My poor poppa'," Geoffrey Whitwell said in his victim impact statement at her trial.

"You are a master of deception, I will give you that."

In his statement to police, neighbour Stephen Clay said he saw Dwyer on the kerb outside her grandfather's house. He asked her if she wanted to pat his dog and she told him her grandfather had died.

"I said to her that I was sorry for her loss and hoped that she was OK. I then asked her if she would be all right and she said that she doesn't know what's going to happen to all of her grandfather's money now.

"At the time I didn't think much of it but, a bit later, I thought it was odd that she would mention the money so soon after such a loss."

At 8.55pm on August 22, an anonymous phone call was made to Crime Stoppers saying Dwyer and Burns were responsible for the death of Mr Whitwell. They were arrested four days later and charged with murder.


Bernadette Burns.
Bernadette Burns.

In her first interview with police, Dwyer denied any involvement but confessed to everything in her second chat with investigators.

About a month later - in the Adelaide Magistrates Court - she pleaded guilty to murder.

In July, the Supreme Court heard Dwyer had invented an 11th-hour lie accusing her grandfather of sexually molesting her as a child.

"It is a most unpleasant assertion. It's unfounded in any other material," prosecutor Jim Pearce told the court. "It's insidious to a man who was murdered in that way."

Craig Caldicott, for Dwyer, said his client wasn't sure whether "her flashbacks" were real or not and it would not be presented as a motive in the killing.

He said the motivation was to steal money from her grandfather. Later, the court was told another motivation for the killing was the TV show American Horror Story.

“There are no mitigating factors except for her extreme youth,” Justice Nicholson said of Brittney Dwyer.
“There are no mitigating factors except for her extreme youth,” Justice Nicholson said of Brittney Dwyer.

"The motivation is obviously robbery of money from Mr Whitwell but it seems to be, to a certain extent, motivated by a TV program called American Horror Story," Mr Caldicott said. "That aspect is very troubling."

The show is an anthology series based on gruesome crimes with different characters and in different locations.

Mr Caldicott said Dwyer had a very troubled upbringing. "On the outside, it appeared she was in a loving family relationship but there were aspects of self-harm ... and then got into a life of drug taking," he said.

But Justice Kevin Nicholson questioned this, saying she had a "pretty good upbringing".

"She leaves school and goes crazy in terms of her lifestyle. There are no mitigating factors except for her extreme youth," he said.

He described the crime as "callous" and "inexplicable".

"I have to consider whether (Dwyer) is a very dangerous person who, at 18, has gone from zero to premeditated murder," he said.

Brittney Dwyer.
Brittney Dwyer.

"This was not a crime of passion, there's no alcohol or drugs involved. This is just a straight out 'I'm going to do it'."

He said Dwyer appeared to have an "extreme lack of empathy".

"When someone is of that nature, it's hard to measure contrition. It may be that she is just not capable of it, which is a worrying factor," he said.

Anthony Allen, for Burns, told the court his client, 22, would be deported back to New Zealand once released from custody given she was not an Australian citizen.

"She feels great shame and sorrow for what she did," he said. "Through me, she says that she is sorry."

Dwyer pleaded guilty to the murder, while Burns pleaded guilty to murder without intent, which has the same mandatory non-parole period of 20 years.

Holmes was given a 17-month jail term with a non-parole period of nine months, suspended on the condition she be of good behaviour for three years, for the trespassing in April.

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