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It was a balmy January evening in Melbourne, and there was excitement in the air with the Australian Open being hosted at Rod Laver arena. In the crowd, was Vicky Rockefeller, wife of multimillionaire Herman.
Her husband was out of town for business, and she expected him home later that evening. Herman, always diligent in keeping his wife informed about his movements, sent a text, saying that his flight was delayed. By Vicki’s calculations they would have arrived home at more or less the same time, to their grand-but-understated home in the leafy suburb of Malvern East.
After an exciting night out, Vicki got ready for bed as soon as she got home. She was expecting Herman to walk through the door at any minute. When he was not home by midnight, she called his cell phone, but there was no answer. This was completely out of the ordinary, she had always been able to reach him. Why was he not picking up his phone?
As minutes dragged into hours, Vicky was convinced that something bad had happened to her husband. She called police to inform them of the situation. What Vicky could not have predicted, was that her life was about to be turned upside down. The investigation into her husband’s disappearance revealed his secret double life – years and years of deception had all become undone with one fatal decision.
Mario Schembri and Bernadette Denny lived a quiet life in Hadfield, Melbourne. Neighbours thought well of the couple, regarded them as reliable and nice, albeit a bit on the rough side. Bernadette, in her early forties, was an alcoholic who had had some bad luck in love. 57-year-old Mario was born in Malta, but his family migrated to Australia when he was just a young boy. He was semi-literate and struggled to hold down a steady job. When he did work, it was usually in garbage removal.
Bernadette was born in Australia to Italian-Egyptian parents, who were first cousins. Strictly Roman Catholic, they raised their children in the church. Bernadette’s eldest brother was 13 years older than her and left home when she was only 4 years old. Her other brother was severely mentally disabled and was sent to a care facility. Because both of her brothers were absent, she always felt like a single child. Her mother struggled with depression and her father worked long hours to keep the family afloat.
Because of her grim home life, Bernadette often went out, to find friends. She was vulnerable with no one looking out for her and suffered sexual abuse by an older man who lived in her neighbourhood. After four years of systematic abuse, she finally told her mother, who did not do much to help her. Her view was that most women suffered abuse at some point in their lives, and it was never brought up again.
Bernadette dropped out of school at 16 and took a job as a secretary. At the age of 20, she was in a serious car accident that left her with chronic pain. To deal with it, she turned to alcohol. She lived with a man called Rob for 12 years, and they had two daughters together. Bernadette and Rob had a volatile and sometimes violent relationship. Rob died from cancer when she was 30. Widowed, with two young daughters, Bernadette continued drinking excessively to cope with the stress of it all.
In March of 2009, Bernadette was walking her two teenage daughters home from school one day, when she stopped to pat a neighbour’s dog. The neighbour introduced her to his uncle, Mario, and the two of them hit it off. Within two days, Mario moved in with Bernadette and her daughters. The daughters hated the idea of sharing their home with the short, bald and moody man. Mario had seven children and a couple of grandchildren of his own – all of them grown up – and was a disciplinarian. This was very unusual for the girls, who was used to their walk-over of a drunk mother.
When conflict between Bernadette, her daughters and Mario reached fever pitch, the daughters realised they would be safer at their grandparent’s home. They moved in with Bernadette’s parents and didn’t have any contact with her for about a month.
Mario was originally from Malta and moved to Australia with his parents and five siblings when he was only two years old. In Australia, the family grew even more and eventually the Schembri’s had nine children. His parents worked as labourers and they did not have much growing up. The Schembri siblings remained close into adulthood and knowing Mario, meant knowing his family.
The more Bernadette fell into her relationship with Mario, the more curious she became about experimenting with sex. The couple had their first threesome with a sex worker, at a Formula 1 hotel in July 2009. Bernadette lapped up the experience and wanted more and more. But this was an expensive pastime, and if she wanted to keep things interesting in the bedroom, she had to get more creative. She looked in newspapers and magazines and eventually found something that she thought was the perfect solution: an advertisement, looking for a couple interested in swinging.
Meanwhile, in a different sphere of Melbourne’s society, family man Herman Rockefeller seemed to have it all. Despite his own tremendous wealth, and being born in Akron, Ohio, it is important to note that he was not related to the well-known American Rockefeller family. Herman’s family migrated to Australia in the 1960’s, when Herman and his two brothers were small children.
All three Rockefeller boys went to the prestigious Geelong College, where Herman stood out academically. He graduated from Law School at the University of Melbourne in 1982, after which he returned to America, to attend Harvard Business School.
His career quickly took off, and after a short stint in Melbourne, he went to New Zealand for a job. There he fell in love with a co-worker called Vicky Lawson. They got married in July 1990 and lived in Vicky’s native New Zealand for ten years before returning to Melbourne. Herman had many lucrative business ventures, and the family never wanted for anything.
In 2010, at the age of 51, Herman had been married to Vicky for 20 years and was able to provide a very comfortable life for his children. The Rockefellers lived in the affluent Melbourne suburb of Malvern East with their two gifted teenage children.
Herman worked as the financial director of a property development firm – the Rockefeller family business. His brother Robert was the co-director and worked from their offices in Hobart. Herman’s wife Vicky worked with him from their home-office in Melbourne.
By all accounts, Herman was a mild-mannered man, a devout Christian, and frequent churchgoer. He kept in shape and had a balanced life: he had a happy family, a lucrative career and a healthy body. He was an avid marathon runner who ran up to 15 kilometres every day. He regularly had his teeth whitened and always took care of his appearance.
With his Australian roots in Geelong, it was no surprise that he was a fierce supporter of the Geelong Cats, a local Australian Football League team. From the outside-in Herman was a well-to-do, suburban family man, nothing more.
But the life Herman and Vicky built in Melbourne was about to come crashing down. On the evening of January 21st 2010, Vicky grew concerned when he didn’t return home from a business trip. Herman had actually been to Newcastle in New South Wales but seeing as though he bought his return ticket last-minute, he had to fly home via Brisbane in Queensland.
Vicky had been out that night, watching tennis at the Australian Open. Herman tried to call her, but she missed the call, because her phone was on silent. When she saw the missed call, she sent a text, saying:
“I’m still at the tennis. Feels like it could go 5 sets, so I’ll probably get home at the same time as you xx”
Herman replied by text, saying that his flight was delayed and would only arrive in Melbourne at 10:30pm. By Vicky’s calculations, that meant he would be home around 11:15. But by midnight, there was still no sign of him. Vicky was beside herself – Herman was reliable and responsible and always came straight home from the airport. She tried calling him, again and again, but he did not answer. And at some point the calls started going straight to voicemail – his phone had been switched off. Vicky immediately knew that something wasn’t right.
In the dark of night, Vicky called police to inform them that Herman never came home. He was always punctual and diligent when it came to checking in with his wife.
When a multimillionaire goes missing, the first assumption is that it could be a kidnapping for ransom. But in this case, there were no clues as to where Herman could be. Vicky assured police that they did not have any marital problems and that Herman was a family man who – in her words:
“…wasn’t even the type to stop on the way home for a drink.”
Herman’s brother Robert flew in from Hobart to help Vicky and the police in the search for his older brother. He was baffled and told investigators that Herman was upbeat and happy during his business trip in the days before he came up missing.
On 24 January 2010, his disappearance made headline news. Herman’s wife, Vicky and his brother Robert made a public plea, asking for any information regarding Herman’s whereabouts. They were distraught and confused, as there were absolutely no clues whatsoever. At the press conference, an emotional Vicky said:
“It’s terribly baffling. There’s just nothing… Nothing. You just can’t imagine what it’s like. It’s just unbearable...”
As a rule, the Rockefeller family was very private. But with the public appeal – information was out there about private conversations and text messages between them. At this point, what happened to Herman, was anybody’s guessing game.
Police’s first port of call was to Melbourne’s Tullamarine airport and they checked all arrivals on the night Herman disappeared. Investigators made a curious discovery… Despite the fact that Herman told his wife that the flight was delayed and he would only arrive at 10:30, he actually arrived at 9:35pm. This set off alarm bells, and investigators wondered why he would lie to his wife. And more urgently, where did he go from the airport?
CCTV footage shows him exiting the airport, with his laptop bag, a carry-on wheelie bag and a grocery bag with three grapefruits. He does not seem distressed or in a hurry, he simply walks out like all the other passengers. He then goes to the long-term carpark where he retrieves his car, and a short while later he leaves the parking lot, paying at the boom gate with his credit card. Then he disappears into the night, leaving no clues as to where he was going. After this point, there was no further spending on his credit card, and he did not use his phone again.
On Herman’s 52nd birthday, Vicky went on live radio, appealing yet again for the public’s help in locating her husband. ABC’s Jon Faine asked about Herman’s life, and if they had any problems, or if Herman was unusually stressed before his disappearance. Vicky bravely answered the questions and clearly stated:
“No disputes, no conflicts, nothing. No problems. When he’s at home – we actually work from home, I work for the business as well – we sit in the same office. It’s not a very big room, so I hear all his telephone conversations. There’s just no…”
Then Faine said:
“No secret life?”
To which Vicky answered:
72 hours had passed since Herman had left Tullamarine Airport. Police were on high alert to find Herman’s blue Toyota Prius. They knew if they found the car, they were more likely to find Herman. And then, one of Jon Faine’s listeners came through with a clue…
Truck Driver, Craig Smith, was offloading sheep at the stockyard at Carween Lane. He noticed a blue Prius next to the road, and it seemed out of place. When he heard the radio broadcast, he immediately called police. The car was located in Wallan, 80km from the airport, in the opposite direction from his home.
Inside, the car was undisturbed. There was no sign of Herman, his bag, his laptop or his cell phone. Police had to consider the possibility that Herman left on his own accord. But something didn’t add up. Herman had never done anything like this in his entire life. His family and friends all confirmed how reliable he was, and no one knew of any reason why Herman would want to walk out on his life.
Then information reached police about a blue Toyota Prius, matching the description of Herman’s, that was spotted at another location before it was discovered in Wallan. Residents in Hadfield spotted the car being taken away on the back of a tow truck, after being parked there for a couple of days. The incident was memorable because of a loud argument between the stocky bald man loading the car and a frumpish woman who tried to help him.
Then, on Monday, 25 January, Vicky Rockefeller received an unexpected phone call, that pulled the rug out from under her. The caller was a woman called, Liza Horsfall, who claimed that she was Herman’s mistress. She said that she spoke to Herman on the night he went missing. Vicky was shocked to learn that her husband of 20 years, had had a mistress on-and-off for 27 years. But Vicky was so deeply concerned about his well-being, she had to push her personal feelings aside, and listen to what her husband’s lover had to say.
Liza said that she too was concerned about Herman and offered to talk to police about everything she knew. To police, it was unexpected to learn that a man like Herman had another woman in his life. Nothing in his life indicated that he was a womaniser or that he was disloyal to his wife in any way. However, Liza told police that Herman had four secret cell phones, that he used to communicate with her, without ever raising any suspicion with his wife.
Liza said that Herman told her he had disconnected one of his phones, but she still had the number. She accidentally sent a text to the disused phone and was surprised that someone else replied. At first, she thought it was Vicky who had found the phone, but soon learnt it was a man in Sydney, who had recently purchased a phone contract and was allocated Herman’s old number. The man co-operated with police and told them that he received many strange messages. Most of them referred to an advertisement in a ‘sex paper’, and many messages asked if he was still into swinging.
Police were interested to know what else Herman was hiding… They went through his home office and found a locked drawer. Vicky did not know what was inside, and it was obvious that Herman did not want her to see the contents. Police found an envelope containing explicit sexual photographs with Herman Rockefeller and multiple women. His mistress was not one of them.
They also found a clipping of a classified advertisement, of a man asking to meet married couples who would be open to having sex. Investigators then tracked down the publication – a magazine called Australasian Sex Paper – who confirmed that Herman Rockefeller was the one who had placed the ad. Shockingly, he had been using the magazine as a platform for 10 years prior to his disappearance, using a variety of names to advertise in the magazine’s swinging directory. He spoke highly of himself, boasting that he was handsome or attractive. In one ad, using the fake name John Robertson under the heading ‘Seeking daytime fun’, he went on to describe himself:
“Ex male model, 39-years-old and extremely attractive. Seeks daytime fun filled sex with females or couples. Mondays or Fridays. I’m experienced and uninhibited. Only honest people reply.”
But it was another newspaper that led police to the last place Herman visited on the night he went missing. On the backseat of his abandoned car was a newspaper, dated 21 January – the day Herman was last seen. Inside, was a Sudoku puzzle, completed in blue pen. On the same page – in Herman’s handwriting was an address. There was no name, time or reason, only the address. Forensic investigators simultaneously found the same address in the GPS of Herman’s car. This was the clue that broke the case wide open.
Police went to the address in Hadfield, owned for more than five years by Bernadette Denny.
Bernadette and Mario’s life was quite obviously vastly different from the upper-middleclass environment Herman Rockefeller was from. So why would he visit their home? Police kept surveillance on the couple and noticed that neither of them seemed to work. Mario spent a lot of time at his friend, Jack’s house on View Street, Glenroy. He kept a lot of junk in his friend’s backyard, always tinkering and seeing what he could sell as scrap metal.
Police had no other plausible suspects, and decided it was time to speak to the couple about Herman Rockefeller. They took them in for questioning and sent a forensic team to Bernadette’s house in Hadfield. They found blood evidence on the tiles and on a sofa.
Mario and Bernadette had seen the news of the missing Herman Rockefeller on TV. They were mortified to realise that the missing person on their TV screen, was a man they knew as Andrew Kingston. They panicked, but did not call the police.
Both Bernadette Denny and Mario Schembri were arrested on Thursday 28 January. Bernadette’s children who were supposed to move back in with her and Mario that very same day, were forced to remain with her parents. Things didn’t look good for Mario, who – as it turned out – had a criminal record. In 1991, he received a nine-month prison sentence for assault. He was managing a garbage dump when a man came to dump his trash. Mario Schembri asked the man to move it, and the man refused. A physical altercation ensued, ending with the man on the ground and Mario continuing the attack by kicking him.
Police found record of a phone call from a Glenroy resident to police on Australia Day, reporting someone burning something in the backyard. The caller was the neighbour of Mario’s friend, Jack. This was only a year after the Black Saturday bushfires that ravaged Victoria. In the height of the unforgiving Australian summer, fires were banned, and it’s not surprising that someone reported the fire. Also, the neighbour mentioned in her phone call that the fire smelled horrible, and she couldn’t bear it. Fire officers went to the location where they saw a short, European man tending to a fire in a drum. They made him kill the fire with water, while they watched. This man was Mario Schembri.
In police custody, Bernadette told investigators that she and Mario met a man called Andy Thompson when they responded to an ad in a swingers’ magazine. He advertised on behalf of himself and his wife and said that they were looking for discreet sexual encounters. They replied, lying about their age:
"We are in our late 30s. Can meet during the day times and discretion is assured... No single males please."
At their first meeting – at the beginning of January – Andy showed up at Bernadette’s home, but he did not bring his wife along. He said that she had a chest infection and promised he would bring her the next time. Mario wasn’t happy with the situation, but Bernadette was ready to go. Fuming in the corner, Mario watched as Bernadette and Andy commenced to have sex on the sofa in the front room. Andy confessed to Bernadette that his real name was Andrew Kingston. It’s not clear why Herman Rockefeller felt the need to tweak his fake name.
Either way, they agreed to meet at Mario and Bernadette’s home on 21 January, for a second encounter. Andrew Kingston, or rather Herman Rockefeller showed up alone again, and said his wife, Jenny, couldn’t make it after all. The hosts were not happy about this, because the whole idea was to have a swinging experience, not a threesome. Herman was undeterred and initiated sex with Bernadette. She was not into it and said that when Herman touched her, she felt dirty.
A verbal argument soon turned physical when she pushed him back. Then Mario, who was standing nearby attacked Herman, wrestling him off of Bernadette. The brawl continued through the house, moving from one room to the next. They ended up in the garage, where Herman reportedly fell over backwards and hit his head on the concrete floor. He did not get back up.
According to Bernadette, her and Mario panicked and went back inside the house. They weren’t sure what to do next, but they felt that, the man they knew as Andrew Kingston had to be moved from the property. They went back into the garage, picked him up and placed him in the trunk of Mario’s car. Bernadette claimed that he was still breathing. The decision was made to drive out to Heathcote [Heath-cit], where they would dump his body. Heathcote is about an hour and a half north from Bernadette’s home in Hadfield – a place where they went for daytrips sometimes. During the drive, Bernadette could hear moans coming from the back of the car, and she heard tapping, as the man their captive wanted to get out of the trunk. When they arrived in the bushland of Heathcote, they dragged him to a place that was not completely isolated, less than five minutes from the dirt road.
Bernadette insisted that Herman was alive when they dumped him. Police went to the exact location she described, with Bernadette along for the ride to provide information. However, she became unsure about where they had parked that night. Police launched an extensive search of the area. After spending an entire day, searching an area of three-square-kilometres, they gave up and concluded that Herman Rockefeller was definitely not at the location.
The judge who would preside over Bernadette’s trial, called her behaviour ‘reprehensible’. She led police on a wild goose chase in Heathcote and gave them false information, wasting valuable time and resources in the investigation.
Mario Schembri’s account was more arrogant. He answered most questions with ‘no comment’. His lawyer then encouraged him to reveal the location of Herman’s body. Mario relented, and confirmed Bernadette’s version of events – of so-called ‘Andy’ showing up for sex alone. Mario was furious, because that was not their arrangement. According to Mario, he…
“…felt he was being taken for a fool, taken for a ride.”
He admitted to knocking Herman Rockefeller unconscious in the garage and loading him into the trunk of his car and then driving to Heathcote. But they didn’t leave him there, instead, they returned home, where they found he was no longer alive.
He eventually told police about the fight with Rockefeller and how the visitor did not stand a chance with him. He said:
“How could you go up against Muhammad Ali? It was like that with him. He didn’t have the anger that I had in me ... I lost it ... I didn’t know I could get that angry or that forceful. I’ve never hit that hard with anybody.”
Faced with Mario’s confession, Bernadette was forced to reveal what they did with Herman Rockefeller’s body. She said that when she realised Herman had expired, she took his car keys and went to his car to find his phone. She saw messages and missed calls – all of Vicky’s attempts to reach her husband, and then turned it off. The drove to Heathcote with the intention of leaving him there, but couldn’t do it, so they returned home. They left Herman’s body in the garage overnight, while they talked about what to do next. Bernadette turned to alcohol to deal with the stress and was drunk during most of the aftermath of the murder.
The following morning Mario fetched his rickety tow truck from Jack’s yard in Glenroy, to remove Herman’s Prius from their street. The clumsy attempt to load it and the argument between Bernadette and Mario, was what neighbours recalled when police came knocking.
Mario drove the truck with Herman’s Prius on the back out to Wallan where he left it. Then he picked up Bernadette and they went to Bunnings – a homeware store – where they purchased the following items: coveralls, masks, a drop sheet, a dustpan, a shovel and a chain saw.
The murderous couple arrived home where Herman’s body was still in the garage and set about the grisly task of dismembering him. Bernadette could not stomach it and went into the house. Mario later confessed that he didn’t think he had the QUOTE balls to do it UNQUOTE, but that he knew there was no other way out. Bernadette was in the house and heard the sound of the chainsaw cutting through human flesh and vomited. The body parts were placed into small plastic grocery bags. Mario then took the parcels to a friend’s house in Glenroy. In the backyard, he burnt the remains in a 44-gallon-drum. Herman’s cell phones, laptop and carry-on suitcase were also thrown into the fire.
Forensics were able to identify bone fragments at the home in Glenroy. But the fragments were so small, they could not positively link them to Herman Rockefeller. However, the tow truck Mario used had the vital evidence that was needed: wedged in next to the passenger seat, was a bag with ashes, the same as those found at the Glenroy address. This time, they found teeth, intact to such a degree that they could extract DNA. The chainsaw in Bernadette’s garage had not been cleaned properly and the tissue found on the blade was also linked to Herman.
The trial took place at Victoria’s Supreme Court and started in July 2010. Both Mario and Bernadette pleaded guilty to manslaughter. Herman Rockefeller’s family had to sit through a presentation of the timeline of events that ended their son, husband, father and brother’s life.
The Crown prosecutor explained that Herman bought himself some time, by lying to Vicky about his delayed flight. He used the opportunity to go to Bernadette’s house, for what he called a ‘quicky’. It was clear to the couple that he had done this many times before, and they realised he was never going to bring a sexual partner for Mario. Offended and enraged, Bernadette was the first to snap, quickly followed by Mario. Herman, who was in good shape, put up a good fight, but when he fell backwards onto the garage floor, succumbed to his injuries. Then Mario and Bernadette took desperate measures to conceal what had happened.
In court, Herman’s mistress also testified and said that she was the love of his life. They had met in 1982, while she was studying interior design at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. She married another man in 1986 and continued her affair with Herman on-and-off. She claimed that she was not involved in the swinger-scene but had suspicions about Herman for some years.
In September 2010, Mario Schembri was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to nine years in prison with a minimum of seven.
Bernadette’s lawyer described his client to the court, and said that she was:
"…not very clever person, who was trying to protect the man she loves and was fighting in her own primitive way".
In the end, she was sentenced to seven years, with a minimum of five. The judge concluded that the murder occurred spontaneously, because the couple felt Herman Rockefeller, who presented himself as Andrew Kingston, wanted to take advantage of them. Ultimately, it was Mario Schembri’s reaction out of anger that led to Rockefeller’s death. To Mario, who self-confessed the fact that he had trouble controlling his anger, the judge said:
‘‘Every serious punch that is thrown has the potential to kill. Those inclined to settle their arguments with fists must be deterred if possible.’’
While Bernadette Denny sat crying uncontrollably, Justice Terry Forrest continued:
‘‘Herman Rockefeller made some unorthodox choices in his adult life. So too did you, Mario Schembri, and you, Bernadette Denny. None of those choices was in itself unlawful, nor is it the function of this court to pass judgement on them. The upshot of the choices you made, however, is that the scene was set for the totally unnecessary death of a man. His parents, wife and children are devastated. The harm that you have caused them is profound. They will always carry some legacy of it and so will you.’’
Mario Schembri completed his sentence in Australia and was immediately deported to his native Malta on release. He pleaded his case, hoping to be able to remain in Australia, stating that he had spent most of his life there, but authorities refused his request to remain.
Bernadette Denny was sent to Dame Phyllis Frost Centre – a woman’s prison in Victoria. There is no information about her release, but she presumably was paroled somewhere between 2015 and 2017.
Mario Schembri and Bernadette Denny were of course not responsible for Herman Rockefeller’s life of secrets and the lies he told his family. But mutilating his body and charring his remains, and then preventing the course of justice, by lying – could have been done differently.
Vicky Rockefeller and her children were left to pick up the pieces after Herman’s death. A psychological report accompanied Victoria’s victim impact statement:
‘‘The world as it was known prior to her husband’s death is no longer safe or predictable. The trauma that she has experienced and continues to re-live have imposed a life sentence. She is isolated, set apart and defined by her husband’s death, horrendous disposal of his body and the discovery or his secret life.’’
Liza Horsfall sued Vicky Rockefeller for a portion of Herman’s estate. The case was settled out of court when Vicky agreed to give her husband’s lover a six-figure sum.
During Mario Schembri’s police interview, he said this about Rockefeller:
“What an idiot. He had all the money in the world. He could have hired a hooker… He could have bought a whole whorehouse rather than see us. What was his fuckin’ problem? It doesn’t take much, 100 bucks, 200 bucks, whatever it is. Is it worth the hassle? What he did, cheat people. He was doing this to a few people obviously, I think.”
A man of Herman’s wealth could have paid for sex in any way or form he preferred it. Yet, he chose to advertise himself out, and moved in lower class circles to get off. And why use swinging as a way to get free sex? Was there power in the feeling that he showed up alone and slept with another man’s wife, in the man’s house, in front of him?
Why Herman made the choices he made, we’ll never know. His family and friends were left to mourn the memory of a man, they only knew in part. The other part, the one that hurt them to their core, was eventually the one that cost him his life, his reputation and his family’s legacy.
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