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Melanie Morningstar arrived in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, one Saturday afternoon this past September toting a backpack full of books and speaking the fractured Spanish one might expect from a blond gringa tourist. Little did the clerk checking her into the Honduras Maya Hotel imagine that the slightly ditsy visitor from Miami Beach was really an intrepid reporter hot on the trail of an internationally wanted fugitive.
Actually Morningstar, a 41-year-old freelance reporter and television producer, didn't have much of a trail to be hot on. In pursuit of a tip for an Australian news program, she had arrived in Honduras with just a single contact person and not even a decent photograph of the man she was hunting. But after six weeks and countless journeys to dozens of towns and villages throughout the country, Morningstar successfully tracked down alleged pedophile Robert "Dolly" Dunn, Australia's most notorious fugitive, wanted since 1995 on nearly 100 sexual assault and drug charges. Dunn is now at the Federal Detention Center in downtown Miami awaiting the outcome of extradition proceedings.
How Morningstar and an imported television crew located a character that Australian police and Interpol couldn't, and how he was finally nabbed in an elaborate sting operation that nearly ran amuck, and how he ended up here -- well, it's a long and fascinating story, a condensed version of which was documented in a segment on the Australian program 60 Minutes, which is similar to the U.S. show but not affiliated with it.
Dunn's arrival in Miami on November 11 received some local coverage, but federal authorities holding him haven't publicized the key role a local citizen played in his capture. Australian media, though, have been all over the story. Morningstar, a Sydney native who has lived in Miami Beach for close to six years and who is better known here as a fixture of the South Beach nightlife scene, has suddenly become a celebrity in her homeland.
"Melanie, let me say, did an excellent bit of footwork on this," acknowledges veteran 60 Minutes producer Steve Barrett, speaking via cell phone from the beach in north Queensland, where he's taking a late spring vacation. It was Barrett who, at the end of August, got "one of those magic phone calls like Deep Throat" -- an anonymous voice telling him to look for Dunn in Honduras. The accused child molester had been on the lam for more than a year, surfacing on an Indonesian island in early 1996, eluding capture, then disappearing again.
Dunn, now 56 years old, had been a science teacher at a Catholic school in Sydney until he was jailed in the early Nineties on drug charges. Police had known of his alleged "boy-loving" (in pedophile lingo) activities, however, since the late Eighties, and in fact had arrested him at one point for dealing in child pornography. He never went to jail for that because three state police detectives allegedly accepted a bribe to reduce the charges. Dunn was subsequently granted immunity in 1995 to testify against the police in a highly publicized judicial inquiry. But before testifying, Dunn bolted.
After that the newly formed New South Wales Child Protection Enforcement Agency (an arm of the state police), investigating pedophile activity in Sydney, began locating dozens of young men who claimed they'd been assaulted by Dunn years earlier. Authorities also discovered numerous graphic videotapes showing sexual encounters between Dunn (and other men) and the boys. "The public was shocked and horrified when they saw those videotapes of Dolly Dunn and his partners going on holidays and preying on these young boys," recalls Barrett. "Some had running commentary, saying things like, 'I'd like to get inside his bum' -- and more shocking stuff." The police issued a warrant for Dunn's arrest. According to Barrett, he was charged with 85 counts of sexual assault on children and 6 counts of supplying narcotics to minors.
The reported sighting of Dunn in Indonesia in early 1996 (Barrett contends that no one actually saw the man) came about after a Sydney newspaper tracked him to the island of Lombok. In the process, it inadvertently alerted him to the presence of Australian federal police, who had already arrived and later claimed they were about to arrest him. Dunn vanished.
So when Barrett got his anonymous tip eighteen months later, he and his colleagues at 60 Minutes held a top-secret strategy session. "We didn't want to be in the position of tipping him off again," Barrett recalls, "and then the authorities get all huffy with you while he goes off again around the world goosing young boys."
Barrett spoke with his state police contacts, who told him they too had information that Dunn was in Honduras and, they suspected, was probably trying to work as an English teacher. But since state police had no jurisdiction outside New South Wales, they were seeking help from the Australian federal police, who in turn were required by protocol to go through Interpol to ask Honduran authorities for cooperation in searching for the fugitive. Progress on the Honduran front had been excruciatingly slow.
So the 60 Minutes staff decided to mount its own effort to find Dunn. "Melanie had worked for 60 Minutes for ten years," explains producer Gareth Harvey. "We'd done a lot of work in Colombia together. I knew she spoke Spanish and was indefatigable. I made contact with her and -- really with just a little bit of information -- we sent her down there. She had the names of a few charity organizations that worked with street kids and she had a few newspaper clippings. I personally know of no other person who could have done what she did in Honduras."