Part of the journey — and it has been just that from Stuttgart to Bombay in a campervan, then a flight to Australia, and then more campervanning along the east coast – writing my book, ‘Betrayed’, has involved delving into sometimes sensitive family secrets. We all know how sensitive a topic ‘family’ can be. While the genesis for the book goes back to the original manuscript I tackled in 1983 after the 5 March Labor victory, as new Prime Minister Bob Hawke assumed power in Canberra followed by the announcement not long after of the Drug Grannies’ release on licence, the extensive additional research during COVID in 2021 and re-working of the book took me to people I’d never before met, let alone even knew existed.
Florice ‘Beezie’ Bessire had two siblings growing up in Wisconsin and Oklahoma, and it was her sister Virgil (or Virgie as she was called) with whom she was closest. Virgie and her husband Len had a son to whom I was introduced, first by mail and then by phone as I lobbied US politicians in Washington DC during the women’s incarceration. It is his wife and offspring in Virginia who introduced new character elements for me to consider as I tackled the manuscript afresh. In the main however, they were unaware of the deep detail of the women’s case. Importantly they were welcoming and supportive of my commitment to writing ‘Betrayed’ and telling the story. I have valued their willingness to speak with me and answer my many questions, and I have shared with them photos and memorabilia of their Aunt Beezie.
Vera ‘Toddie’ Hays had four siblings: two younger sisters, and two older brothers. It was one of her brother’s children — Vern Jnr — who duped and betrayed Toddie and Beezie, sending them on an all-expenses paid “trip of a lifetime” which ended so badly in an Australian jail cell, sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment. While I had met both of Toddie’s sisters, and some of their children in Los Angeles while researching the case in the early 1980s, neither of her brothers (Vern Snr and Grover) ever expressed an interest to meet me. In fact, there was a view among the three women that their two brothers didn’t have much sympathy for the Drug Grannies, and more or less said their gullibility and naivety was what got them in a pickle, and it was therefore their fault they were in jail. Vern Snr wrote once to the women, via their lawyer, when news first broke in the US of their arrest in early 1978, but never again.
Vera’s two sisters were supportive and caring for the entirety of Toddie and Beezie’s imprisonment. However, their children and grandchildren were told various versions of what had happened to their aunties Vera and Florice, one version of which I heard for the first time more recently as I made contact with relatives in Texas. One story that was told had it that the pair had rented a campervan, driven north to Canada, and on their return through US Customs, had been found to have a small bag of marijuana in the glovebox. And that was it!
Another one of Vera’s relatives whom I tracked down at work in a California power station was none too happy with my call. He knew about the Drug Grannies, he knew about nephew Vern’s betrayal, and he acknowledged the awful pall infusing the entire Todd family at the time. It seemed in our conversation he really didn’t want the past being dredged up 45 years later.
And finally, what about the family Vern left behind in Australia when he fled in 1978 as the Federal Bureau of Narcotics’ dragnet was closing in on him? Well, I tried to speak with his first wife, a New Zealander who made Australia home, in the early 1980s, and then again more recently through an intermediary. The clear response on both occasions was “go away … I have nothing to say”. I have not approached his two sons because I consider they were so young at the time of this crime, they’d have had little or likely no knowledge of what occurred, let alone the ultimate consequences of their father’s disappearance. In any case, it’s unfair to attach the sins of their father onto them. Interestingly, several of nephew Vern’s close friends from the 1960s, 70s and 80s in Australia and Los Angeles did speak to me at length and offered a rare insight into a man for whom they had the fondest memories, and the warmest regard. Several friends and former business associates refused to say anything on the record.
While much of the material I gathered in my latest research helped to fill in the gaps and plug the holes in my original manuscript, and will help to make ‘Betrayed’ much more exciting in addressing questions I know readers will have about the case, there is another purpose to which it will be put in the coming weeks. I’ll share news about that as we get closer to the release date of the book: 1 June 2022.