“What the hell happened down there?” That is the question investigative journalist Melenie Ambrose has asked herself repeatedly in the two years since she first started researching the unsolved disappearance of Raelene Eaton and Yvonne Waters, teenage cousins who vanished from Scarborough almost 50 years ago. And while most West Australians are sadly familiar with the names Hayley Dodd, Lisa Govan, Jane Rimmer, Sarah Spiers and Ciara Glennon, less are aware of the story of Raelene and Yvonne, who were just 16 and 17 when they went missing after attending a Sunday session at the White Sands Tavern on April 7, 1974. The cousins and what happened to them is the focus of The West Australian’s groundbreaking new true crime video series, Vanishing Cousins: Evil by the Beach, which not only tells the story of Raelene and Yvonne but also uncovers new leads, witnesses and lines of enquiry including possible bikie links to the case. Ambrose first came across the story in 2020 when she was digging around for something new to work on. “I do all manner of things but my preferred genre is crime,” she says. “I was looking for a potential pitch and this came up. I found a Facebook page called Help Find Raelene Eaton and Yvonne Waters and I remember looking at the pictures of the girls and thinking, ‘am I seeing this right? This is two girls, not just two girls, but cousins, who have disappeared in Perth and all I had was a vague recollection of the case’. So I thought, well there’s something here.” After doing more research and talking to investigators, friends and family, Ambrose wrote a story that ran in Marie Claire magazine but she knew there was still more information to uncover and couldn’t give up on it. “It has been quite extraordinary in the sense that you can’t walk away from this case, the minute I did there would be another clue or another person coming forward,” she says. Ambrose approached Natalie Bonjolo, head of The West Australian’s digital production department which has produced several award-winning series including Foul Play: The Tiny Pinder Story, Catching Lisa’s Killer: Fear and Murder in Kalgoorlie, Bikie Code: Murder, Revenge and the Gypsy Jokers, My Ukraine: Inside the war zone and The Boy in the Blue Cap: The Gerard Ross Story, about producing a series together. Bonjolo, a veteran television reporter and producer, knew it was a project she wanted to be involved in. “These aren’t women who went missing in the United States, these are girls who disappeared from Scarborough Beach,” she says. “And that’s what we want to offer our subscribers, the same high end production you would expect from the big streaming platforms, except our stories are local.” And as it turns out, Bonjolo was already familiar with the case. “I first heard about it in 2015 when I was Executive Producer of Today Tonight and we aired a story as part of the cold case review,” she says. “It stuck with me, particularly because of the girls’ mothers, who never ever gave up hope. When Jean Eaton, mother of Raelene, was interviewed for Today Tonight in 2015, she was 92 and was still begging anyone for information to come forward. That was her last ever TV interview. “Both of these mothers lived long lives, holding out for a miracle. Raelene’s mother Jean died in 2018, aged 95, while Yvonne’s mother Alice died in 2021 at the age of 100. “So when Melenie came to me late last year with this idea of creating a series, I was immediately onboard. “She’d already been digging around for 12 months and had spoken to dozens of people, including new witnesses with fresh information. Given we’re dealing with a case that’s almost five decades old, it was tenacious journalism.” After they initially considered doing a podcast, Ambrose and Bonjolo decided the best way to tell the story was in a five-part video series. “They say a picture paints a thousand words so that’s why I wanted to bring it to the screen and bring the story of those two cousins to life,” Ambrose says. “You really need to see this decade and the times.” But there was a key problem, there was no archival footage or CCTV from the time, very few photographs and not much media coverage. “Being a 50-year-old case, we knew historical footage is going to be really limited but compounding that, is the sparse media coverage of the cousins’ disappearance,” Bonjolo says. “We trawled archives across the country, newspapers and television, and found very little in the way of footage or news clippings. “Imagine two teenage girls going missing today, it would spark a media frenzy. In this case, that never happened and it never ever gained momentum. Even the 10, 20 or 30-year anniversaries of their disappearance, there’s no media coverage. “That’s just heartbreaking, to think the girls’ families never had that opportunity to use those milestones to generate public interest and appeal for information.” Vanishing Cousins explores why the story never gained the momentum it deserved, a lot of which has to do with prevailing attitudes at the time and the assumption that the girls were runaways, despite evidence to the contrary. Detective Senior Constable Peter Shanahan, who was the investigating officer for Operation Trace, the 2016-2019 review into the case, says police today would approach the investigation very differently. “The missing person file remained with the same investigator for six to seven months so my understanding is it was still treated as a missing persons file for that period of time then it was transferred to the homicide squad,” he says in the series. That meant vital clues that might have been collected in the first 24, 48 or 72 hours, were never found. “Because of the era, the girls’ disappearance initially wasn’t taken seriously and by the time it was, it was almost too late,” Bonjolo says. “Then of course, other serious high profile cases, such as the Birnies in the 80s and the Claremont Killings in the 90s happened and I think Yvonne and Raelene just got lost.” So while there wasn’t much visual footage to work with, what producers did have on their side was the willingness of Raelene and Yvonne’s family and friends — including Yvonne’s sister Jill and family friend Jennifer Winter along with Raelene’s three best friends — to talk on camera, in the hopes that they could bring about some closure for a mystery that has haunted them for almost five decades. Around the interviews, producers painstakingly recreated the world of Scarborough in the early 70s. Historically accurate re-enactments involved casting actors, getting their hair and make-up right, sourcing clothes, furniture, props, locations and cars. “Melenie was hunting ops shops and scouring Facebook for vintage clothes, shoes and jewellery,” Bonjolo says. “Then, there’s all the set dressing, rotary dial telephones, old-fashioned lamps, even old currency. The attention to detail is extraordinary and particularly for anyone who lived through the 70s, it really feels like you’re stepping back in time.” Several local businesses opened their doors for filming and the families offered up many treasured items including photographs, jewellery, trinkets and Raelene’s bank book to add an extra layer of authenticity to Vanishing Cousins. “Probably the most important thing was the family opened their doors and provided original keepsakes from the girls,” Ambrose says. “The thing about this series that’s really amazing is not just the synchronicity of events but the way things are falling into place, it’s quite extraordinary and almost spooky. I really feel like this series was meant to be made.” Vanishing Cousins takes many extraordinary twists and turns, including two additional fatalities of people close to Raelene, several potential suspects and new avenues of enquiry. Ambrose says she feels privileged that Yvonne and Raelene’s family and friends have trusted her to tell the story. “As a journalist it’s the type of story you might come across once in your career and it’s not just because of the twists and turns in that story, even though they are enough to grab you — there’s serial killers, the underworld, murder, shocking tragedy, broken lives — but then there’s the fact these people have been almost forgotten. “It’s just been buried for so long and it needs to come out into the light and I feel enormous privilege to be able to do that. I wouldn’t have spent two years on it if I wasn’t being driven by the family. I want to help them. There’s a been a hell of a level of trust in not just myself, but The West Australian in putting this series out there.” With a $2 million reward for information that could lead to an arrest and conviction, those involved in the case hope the incentive is there to shake loose a few secrets. “Someone’s got to know something or somebody’s got to have talked to somebody,” Ambrose says. “Now, almost 50 years later, with people getting older, this probably is the last chance to throw everything at it and really appeal to the public to come forward,” Bonjolo adds. “These girls mattered to family and friends right here in WA and we want to tell their story in the hope it gets them one step closer to justice.” Vanishing Cousins: Evil by the Beach episodes one and two are available to view at thewest.com.au with more to follow.