How a dogged detective overcame incredible odds to nab a tip killer
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It was a porcelain-white human hand in a mountain of rubbish that first caught excavator Steve Anderson’s eyes.
Tip staff and police had spent four gruelling days in mud, stench and rain desperately searching for missing mother Ju “Kelly” Zhang, 33, who it was feared head been murdered and dumped in a sprawling landfill site at Wollert.
Ju Zhang was murdered by Joon Seong Tan (top right) at her home in Epping in February 2021. Bottom right: The search for Zhang ’s body.Credit: Nine News; Supplied
It was, on face value, an almost unsolvable case; a woman missing for more than four months, with growing fears she’d been bundled into a suburban wheelie bin and collected by a rubbish truck.
Sitting in the front row of the Supreme Court on Friday to hear Zhang’s killer brought to justice, was Detective Senior Constable Samantha Russell, who, against all odds, found Zhang’s remains by co-ordinating one of the most challenging searches Victoria Police had ever undertaken.
“Respect goes to all that were involved, especially Sam,” excavator operator Anderson told the court.
“She stood in the stench and the filth of the Wollert tip for days on end and in the rain when Ju was finally found, she kept her dry. The dignity, the care and the compassion she showed still moves me to tears.”
Detective Samantha Russell.Credit: Justin McManus
In May, a jury heard 38-year-old Malaysian national Joon Seong Tan had met Zhang online in the weeks before her disappearance, but after learning she was also speaking to other men he grew increasingly jealous.
On February 1, 2021, he visited her Epping home and shared dinner with Zhang and her eight-year-old son, Jack, before the pair argued and the 33-year-old was fatally stabbed in the bedroom.
Tan hid her body in a laundry cupboard before taking her son on a fictitious search, cruelly telling the boy his mother had simply vanished. He then returned to the crime scene to wash the bedsheets and dispose of the murder weapon.
The following morning, Tan stuffed his slain girlfriend’s body into a wheelie bin and drove it to Heidelberg for collection, returning to watch the bin be emptied into a rubbish truck.
He then researched phrases online including “how many years for killing a person in Australia” and “how is stinky garbage disposed” before reporting her missing with a story that she’d vanished from her home in a pink dressing gown.
Months later, amid an extensive missing person squad investigation, Tan was arrested at Melbourne Airport as he attempted to board a flight out of Victoria.
But what happened to Zhang, in early 2021, remained a mystery.
Over the following four and half months, led by Russell, police recruited tip staff to help track the suburban rubbish truck’s route and pinpoint just where in the landfill Zhang might be.
Ju “Kelly” Zhang’s mother and father arrive at court on Friday.Credit: Joe Armao
On a drizzly, cold June morning in 2021, months of painstaking investigation paid off and Zhang was found.
“It was one of the biggest challenges to ever face Victoria Police finding Kelly in that landfill. To talk about a needle in a haystack doesn’t do it justice,” an officer not authorised to speak publicly about the case told this masthead.
In May – following a month-long trial – Tan was found guilty of murder. On Friday he was jailed for 28-years with a non-parole term of 23.
Justice Amanda Fox described the murder as a devastating, jealousy-fuelled crime that had inflicted unspeakable grief and vicarious trauma on many.
Joon Seong Tan (left) arrives to the Supreme Court of Victoria in Melbourne on Friday.Credit: Joe Armao
“One troubling aspect of this case, after a relationship of only one month you became so jealous … that when faced with rejection you were capable of murder,” Fox said.
“You literally treated her like rubbish.”
Fox praised the “thorough and clever” investigation by Russell, who sat in the front row as she’d done for every day of the trial.
Nearby, Wollert landfill staff also watched on, wearing items of pink in honour of a woman they never met, but helped find.
Russell was named Victoria Police’s detective of the year in 2021 for her dedication to the case.
The officer who watched Russell’s work on the case said they would forever remember her reaction to Zhang’s body being found.
“When they actually found her, Sam was there, standing [like a] sentry guard, watching every bucket load come out of the tip in a highly toxic and harmful environment. Stooped over, hands on her knees, the air just went out of her,” the officer said.
“If you ever doubt how important this work is to the people who do it, this moment encapsulated it. Sam lived and breathed this case.
“Despite the gruesome knowledge of what happened, her family can find some comfort in knowing she was found.”
Tan is likely to be deported to Malaysia after serving his sentence.
A fundraising page has since been set up for Jack.
If you or anyone you know needs support, you can contact the National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service on 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732).
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