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Friends ‘flabbergasted’ as top Aussie artist and sons charged with murder

Friends ‘flabbergasted’ as top Aussie artist and sons charged with murder


FRIENDS have expressed shock over the arrest of an award-winning Australian artist and two of her sons over the alleged murder of the family’s elderly matriarch.

Melissa Beowulf, 60, Thorsten Beowulf, 31, and Bjorn Beowulf, 29, have been locked up in Canberra’s only jail, the Alexander Maconochie Centre, since late last month.

Ms Beowulf’s mother-in-law Katherine Panin, 81, was found dead at the foot of a flight of stairs at her home in Red Hill, Canberra, on October 12, 2015.

Initially, it was believed Ms Panin had fallen accidentally.

It has since emerged that officers from ACT Policing quietly launched a homicide investigation one month after her death.

In June last year, detectives executed search warrants at the Red Hill house and another property at Belconnen and three of the family’s vehicles.

“It was that same June that detectives approached Melissa, Thorsten and Bjorn for the first time to allege their involvement in the murder of Katherine Panin,” a Canberra-based lawyer with knowledge of the case told news.com.au.

It is understood that the trio’s plans to apply for bail on September 20 had to be shelved last week after police froze their assets, leaving them unable to pay for legal representation.

All three have entered not guilty pleas.

Ms Panin’s alleged murder came just two months after her son, internationally respected sculptor and bonsai artist Thorhammer “Thor” Beowulf, succumbed to stage 4 pancreatic cancer at a Canberra hospital after a brief illness.

Thor and Melissa Beowulf were regarded as a powerhouse couple in the art world, dividing their time between their up-market Sydney gallery and the family’s Red Hill property.

Mr Beowulf was considered Australia’s premier bonsai artist and his love for the ancient art was inspired by his mother’s early life in China; Ms Panin migrated to Australia from Shanghai in 1951 as a post war refugee.

Ms Beowulf’s 2001 portrait of Australia’s most decorated servicewomen, Nancy Wake, is hanging in the National Portrait Gallery and her likeness of fellow artist Ken Done was a finalist in the Archibald Prize.

The Beowulfs lived an unconventional lifestyle, sharing their Canberra home with their sons Thorsten, Bjorn, Thorin and Beren as well as Mr Beowulf’s former partner Dianne McGowan and their son Niels Beowulf-McGowan and Ms Panin.

“It wasn’t a polygamous situation, more a polyamorous one,” Mr Beowulf-McGowan, a university student in Canberra, told news.com.au.

He said his father’s death, closely followed by his grandmother’s, had been hard on the family, particularly his mother Dianne who had been close to Ms Panin.

“Katherine was eccentric but awesome,” Mr Beowulf-McGowan said.

He said he was not in the house when his grandmother died. He said Ms Beowulf, whom he regarded as a stepmother, raised the alarm after allegedly finding her mother-in-law lying in the backyard at the foot of a set of stairs.

“I was the one who identified my grandmother’s body,” he said.

“I volunteered to do it because Melissa was too distraught. I was only shown her face. I’m not sure how she died, or if police actually know what the cause of death was.”

He and his mother Dianne moved out of the Red Hill property just one week after Ms Panin’s death after tensions over his father’s and grandmother’s estate escalated to the point where they became uncomfortable living there, he said.

A Beowulf family friend of 15 years, who spoke on condition of anonymity, expressed shock and disbelief after being informed by news.com.au of the murder charges against Melissa, Thorsten and Bjorn.

“I’m just amazed and flabbergasted,” the friend, who is also an identity in Australia’s bonsai scene.

“It doesn’t make any sense knowing the boys and Melissa. I spent a lot of time with them over the years and I was as close to them as a person could be. I never saw any evidence of discontent within the boys, they never rolled their eyes when their grandmother said anything and I can’t imagine them hurting her. Melissa and the boys couldn’t kill.

“Melissa is smart and funny and a hard worker and I always found her to be placid and non-aggressive. I’m also good friends with Dianne (McGowan), who is a lovely person.

“I remember at one stage when Dianne found herself with nowhere to live and she and Niels moved in with Melissa and Thor at Red Hill and they just got on with it as a family, three parents and five sons.”

The friend said he recalled Ms Panin had been looking forward to moving into a smaller, age-appropriate unit which had been bought with the proceeds of the sale of the Woollahra art gallery, which she owned.

Property records show Ms Panin bought the residence at 23 Queen St for $700,000 in 1998.

It sold for more than $2.7 million in August 2015, just days after Mr Beowulf’s premature death from cancer, and less than three weeks before Ms Panin’s alleged murder.

“Katherine was very independent and she had been looking forward to moving into this new place, whether it was a retirement home or a separate flat I’m not sure,” the family friend said.

“But I did hear that after her son died, there was a woman who was whispering in her ear, so to speak, about what she should do with her money and I think that was unsettling. I’m not sure how much influence this woman had but I think it rocked the boat a bit.”

The friend described Ms Panin as a remarkable, accomplished woman who spoke fluent Mandarin and Japanese and once delighted the Japanese ambassador to Australia with her command of the language at a party.

“When I first met Katherine she would have been in her mid to late 70s and you could see she had been a beautiful woman in her youth,” he said.

“In fact she was still a beautiful woman. She had a very refined bone structure and she was elegant and always beautifully groomed. She had very dark hair which she pulled back from her face and that suited her. She had a sort of Spanish look about her.”

A statement issued by Canberra Police on August 25 announcing the laying of murder charges against Melissa, Thorsten and Bjorn Beowulf detailed the “complex” nature of what had been a 23 month long investigation.

“Detectives have been working tirelessly on this investigation,” Detective Superintendent Ben Cartwright said.

“They have followed every lead resulting in these arrests.

“The complex nature of homicide investigations, such as these, require expertise, commitment and immense sensitivity … we need to provide some closure to the family and friends of Katherine.”

The trio are scheduled to reappear at ACT Magistrates Court on December 5.