A life taken by a predator: how Karen Chetcuti fell victim to the monster next door

LOCKED UP FOREVER: Michael Cardamone arrived at Wangaratta courthouse on Friday.
LOCKED UP FOREVER: Michael Cardamone arrived at Wangaratta courthouse on Friday.

Even the prosecution was astounded when starting the case against Michael Cardamone this week, noting it would “sound like something from The Sopranos”.

But sadly, this was not fiction.

It was the very real and horrifying tale of how a well-loved woman living alone in a small town was preyed upon by the sexual predator living next door.

Karen Chetcuti (nee Verbunt) was a 49-year-old mother of two teenage children who was separated from her husband.

The pair shared custody and she worked as a records coordinator at Wangaratta Council while living at what was described as her “dream home”, a semi-rural property known as “Jade Valley” in Whorouly.  

She had a good life and was adored by her friends, but she had also caught the eye of Cardamone. Their two properties were divided by a wire fence and they had only occasional contact as neighbours.  

MONSTER NEXT DOOR: Michael Cardamone has decades of his life in front of him to be spent behind bars. In the 18 months he has spent in custody, his health and appearance have deteriorated.

MONSTER NEXT DOOR: Michael Cardamone has decades of his life in front of him to be spent behind bars. In the 18 months he has spent in custody, his health and appearance have deteriorated.

​​​​Just before Christmas 2015, Ms Chetcuti told a workmate she was worried about unwanted attention from Cardamone.

He had been offering to do some things around the farm for her.

On the face of it, that might seem like an innocent offer, but Ms Chetcuti knew the man’s history as a convicted rapist and her friend warned her to stay clear of him as much as possible.

Cardamone had other ideas.

Phone records showed he called her at 9.09pm on January 12, 2016, the night she was last seen alive.

She was sending messages to friends over Facebook around that time and appeared to choose to ignore Cardamone’s call.

About 15 minutes later he drove to her house.

WELL-LOVED WOMAN: Karen Chetcuti (nee Verbunt) was a happy woman in her life, adored by her friends and her two teenage children.

WELL-LOVED WOMAN: Karen Chetcuti (nee Verbunt) was a happy woman in her life, adored by her friends and her two teenage children.

What exactly occurred in the hours after this point is unclear because despite pleading guilty, Cardamone has never fully explained his actions. Crown prosecutor Gavin Silbert could say only that it was possible the man held Ms Chetcuti in his shed, which seemed likely because he was seen hosing it out days later.

Police tracking Cardamone’s phone found he drove between Myrtleford and Whorouly in the early hours of the next morning before going to Lake Buffalo, where the victim’s body would eventually be found.

“The prisoner murdered Karen Chetcuti by physically attacking her, subduing her and binding her wrists and ankles using cable ties, duct tape and rope,” Mr Silbert told the court.  

“He gagged her mouth and administered the animal tranquilliser Xylazine, either orally or by intravenous injection, as well as methamphetamine.  

“He sexually assaulted her in an unknown way, bashed her about the head fracturing her skull, and injected her with battery acid.  

“He then proceeded to douse her body with petrol and set her alight while she was still alive, causing her death by burning.  

Mother Clary Verbunt and sister Leny Verbunt were present at Wangaratta Supreme Court this week to sit through all the disturbing details as Michael Cardamone pleaded guilty.

Mother Clary Verbunt and sister Leny Verbunt were present at Wangaratta Supreme Court this week to sit through all the disturbing details as Michael Cardamone pleaded guilty.

It was not the first time Cardamone committed a violent sexual crime.

He had served nine years in jail for the brutal rape of a 15-year-old girl when he worked at a Myrtleford tobacco farm in March 2005.

The girl had been told to strip before Cardamone raped her digitally and forced her to give him oral sex before he turned her onto her stomach and masturbated.

The fact he could be on parole for such a crime and be allowed to live in an isolated place like Whorouly will be used by campaigners as an example of why laws need to be tightened for violent, sexual offenders.

Cardamone’s arrest on January 17, five days after taking Ms Chetcuti, did not stop his propensity for violence.

The red Citroen belonging to the victim was discovered set alight in Halls Road, Myrtleford in the days after her death. The movements of the car formed a key part of the murder case.

The red Citroen belonging to the victim was discovered set alight in Halls Road, Myrtleford in the days after her death. The movements of the car formed a key part of the murder case.

He made friends in prison, but one friend was willing to throw him under the bus if it helped his own case.

The prisoner, who cannot be named, was talking to homicide police about an unrelated matter when he told them Cardamone was looking for someone to “knock” a prosecution witness.

He then introduced Cardamone to the undercover police officer posing as hitman Matty Thompson.

Mr Silbert told the court Cardamone had very specific instructions for how to kill Eddie George, the man who helped him burn Ms Chetcuti’s car after her death.

“Thompson should attend George's house in Carcoola Avenue, Myrtleford at around midnight under the pretence that he was there to purchase drugs,” he said.

“Once inside the house, he should force George to write two suicide notes that contained a false confession by George to the murder of Karen Chetcuti.  

“Further, that one letter should be left at the scene and the other sent to the prisoner's lawyer, that George should then be given a hot shot of drugs to make his death appear non-suspicious, that Thompson was to take a photo of George dead to confirm that the job had been done.”

Cardamone enlisted the help of his 78-year-old mother to hire the hitman and the pair used the codeword “gnocchi” to discuss cash during their phone conversations.

She paid undercover police $9000 as a deposit for the agreed $25,000 total.

When the fake hitman passed on the news the job had been done, Cardamone said his mother would be fine to handle seeing the photographic evidence of the dead body.

It of course did not exist.

A search of the Lake Buffalo finally located the body of Karen Chetcuti.

A search of the Lake Buffalo finally located the body of Karen Chetcuti.

Maria Cardamone is due to be released from custody after three-and-a-half months when she pleads guilty to incitement to murder in Wangaratta County Court this week.

She will never see her son as a free man again.

Michael Cardamone’s health has visibly deteriorated in the 18 months since his arrest: his hair went more grey, he put on weight and struggled to walk around well.

Justice Lex Lasry noted Cardamone suffered from a circulation issue and had been on a coagulate medication for 15 years, but that did not deter his decision to impose a life sentence and remove any hope of release on parole.

“You have no mental health problems of any consequence and there was no psychiatric or psychological condition that played any part in your offending,” he said.

“Clearly you have no insight into your offending, then or now.”

The Border Mail