Local News

Mark Caleo murdered Rita Patricia Caleo: The woman who was married to a monster

When a Sydney mother was murdered in her luxury home, she knew the killer was coming, so she left a clue. Thirty years later, police have finally got their man. Genevieve Gannon reports.

By Genevieve Gannon

One of the last things Rita Patricia Caleo ever did was host a lavish dinner party for four close friends at her Double Bay home. A glamorous, successful restaurateur and doting mother to two small daughters, Rita was "kind, generous and fun to be with", her brother David Chye recalled.

The day of the party, Rita, 39, had arranged for alcohol to be delivered from one of the restaurants she owned with her husband of five years, Mark Caleo. The hostess was in her element as she served course after course for her dear friends. Twice, the evening was interrupted by phone calls to the house, but when Rita answered, she heard only silence. As midnight approached the plates were cleared away and Rita farewelled her guests. Mark was still at their restaurant in Brighton-Le-Sands. A cold distance had crept into their marriage. Rita believed Mark, who was 12 years her junior, was having an affair with another woman. She had called him around 11.30pm to ask what was keeping him, because it was not like Mark to work so late.

As Rita climbed the stairs on that winter night in August 1990, the house was still and quiet. The Caleos's nanny, Lai Chan Chor, and their girls, aged four and 16 months, were asleep, so Rita was alone as she slipped into her en suite. On her dainty wrist was a Rolex watch. Mark liked cars, and owned a Porsche, a Mercedes-Benz and a Rolls-Royce. But Rita's weakness was gold, buying up to $50,000 worth of jewellery at a time.

True Crime is gripping the nation. Find out why everyone is intrigued by Chris Dawson

Suddenly, a figure emerged from the darkness. Rita screamed and a man lunged at her with a knife. At just 156cm tall and weighing only 50kg, delicately built Rita didn't stand a chance. The intruder stabbed her 23 times. He then ran to the bedroom and snatched some of Rita's jewellery from her bedside table. In the next room, Lai was woken by the commotion.

She heard the front door slam and ran downstairs to see blood smeared on the door handle. She hurried back upstairs and found her employer lying on her bathroom floor in a pool of blood. By the time the police arrived, Rita was dead.

The crime scene looked like a robbery gone wrong but police suspected foul play. There was no sign of forced entry. The burglar had not ransacked the bedroom. He knew exactly where to look for Rita's gold. Investigators' suspicions seemed to be confirmed the next day when they discovered the victim had left them a clue.

Three months earlier, Rita had visited her lawyer, John Morrisey, and cut her husband out of her will. She was angry that Mark had betrayed her with another woman and said he already had enough money. While she was at John Morrisey's office, she hand-wrote a letter and sealed it in an envelope on which she wrote: "To be opened only if my death has been deemed unnatural." What police found inside was witness testimony from beyond the grave. "In the event that my death is unnatural, direct the investigation to my husband Mark Caleo," Rita wrote. "Please do not let Mark get away with this."

Rita was 39.
Rita was 39.

A family tragedy

"I received a phone call from my mother in Malaysia," Rita's half-sister Angelina Chye said. "I can still recall my mother's voice cracking up."

Angelina was mourning the loss of her brother, Dr Michael Chye, when her family was rocked by the news Rita had also been slain. Michael was a successful doctor, living in the affluent Sydney suburb of Woollahra, when he was shot three times at close range in his garage, just 10 months before Rita was killed. The murders were both carried out in an eerily similar way – an execution with all the hallmarks of a contract killing.

"My brother and I were told by my parents not to attend the funeral because they were scared for us," Angelina told the NSW Supreme Court earlier this year. "On the day of the funeral I sat alone in my room crying and grieving ... I never got to say goodbye."

The most shocking real crime stories...

Angelina tearfully shared her memories of a big sister who would cut her hair and pass on fashionable clothes. She explained how difficult it had been to grapple with the fact that Rita was now lost to her forever, and how "imagined visions of my sister's last minutes used to keep me up at night".

While homicide detectives were sifting through the facts of Rita's murder, the people responsible for killing Michael were still at large. But Rita's letter held a clue to that mystery, too. In it, she told investigators that she believed her husband, Mark, was responsible.

Grief-stricken and afraid, the Chye family retreated from their son-in-law. Rita's murder, Angelina said, not only robbed her of a sister, but a relationship with her nieces. She was always looking over her shoulder for danger and, "the sense of loss and helplessness lingers".

Despite Rita's letter, the police investigation stalled. In 1991, the NSW coroner held an inquest into the deaths of the siblings, Michael Chye and Rita Caleo. Mark refused to give evidence on the grounds that he did not want to incriminate himself. By then, he was living in Kuala Lumpur with Janice Yap (the woman for whom he'd betrayed Rita) and his and Rita's two daughters, who cannot be named. The inquest heard evidence that implicated Mark in the murders of both Michael and Rita, but the coroner delivered an open finding and referred the case back to police.

Prime suspects

At the time of Rita's murder, Mark, then 27, had been working in Brighton-Le-Sands, a mere 20-minute drive away. His staff said it was "highly unusual" for him to be there so late, but nevertheless, there were eyewitnesses who could verify that he was not at his house when his wife was killed. An analysis of evidence from the crime scene revealed that blood from two people had been present – one sample was Rita's, the other belonged to an unknown person. Police suspected that the killer had cut himself as he brutally stabbed the victim. As the case dragged on, forensic crime-fighting tools became more sophisticated, but the killer's blood was never analysed because somebody lost the sample. With no solid leads, the trail of Rita's killer slowly went cold.

Years passed. In 1993, Janice Yap ended her relationship with Mark. He married another woman, who took Rita's daughters to Japan, where she raised them as her own, supporting herself and her stepdaughters by working long hours in a high-stress job. Mark would visit but was disinterested.

For years, Rita's daughters did not know where they came from or what had happened to their family. The younger daughter told the NSW Supreme Court in July that their stepmother, who also cannot be named, had told them that their birthmother had been killed in a car accident.

"My father was never there for us," the younger daughter said. And when he was, he said nothing to his daughters about their mother. "It made me think, was she a bad person? Why would nobody talk about my mother?" In Japan, the sisters were "always walking on eggshells, trying to be helpful", aware they were a burden on a woman who cared for the children of a neglectful husband.

They were plagued by nagging questions: "Where is our mother and who are we? Where is our childhood? Where is our family?"

"I always wondered as a child: why has my biological family not tried to look for us?" the younger daughter told the court. "It turns out they were afraid."

Mark was sentenced in 2018.
Mark was sentenced in 2018.

Eventually that marriage dissolved, too. In 2002, Mark worked as a used car salesman and began dating a customer. He told the woman that one of his previous wives, Rita, had died of cancer. The pair married in 2003 and, a year later, his new wife found a handwritten note in the couple's garage that referred to Rita being killed. She immediately Googled Rita's name and found that she had been murdered.

"I almost died and freaked out," she said in a statement to police. "I started fearing for my life. I feared that, if Mark had lied to me about Rita Caleo's death, then I was at risk of being killed." She confronted Mark but he denied having anything to do with Rita's death.

"I remember becoming really scared of Mark," she told police. "I didn't know what to do. I was financially committed to him."

The hitman

Ten long years later, cold case investigators began, once again, to investigate Rita and Michael's murders. They approached a woman whose identity has been protected by the pseudonym, Cindy. In 1990, Cindy had been a 15-year-old, drug-addicted former stripper, pregnant to a Kings Cross bouncer named Alani Afu. But by the time cold case detectives approached her, decades later, Alani Afu had returned to Tonga and she had left her troubled life behind. So, when the police asked her to assist in their investigation, she said yes.

Police learned from Cindy that, in addition to manning the door at The Paradise Club on Darlinghurst Road, Alani Afu had sometimes sold cannabis to customers who knew him as "the Tongan". One of those customers was a young man named Anthony Stambolis, who had started working at the Caleo family's restaurants at the age of 16, and was a trusted employee.

Early in 1990, Mark had asked Anthony if he could arrange for an "insurance job": Mark would pay $2000 for someone to break into his home and steal hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of his wife's jewellery. Anthony Stambolis approached "the Tongan", and Alani Afu agreed. At the time Rita was seeking comfort and safety with family and friends in Malaysia. She had been shaken by the murder of her brother and was desperately worried that Mark was having an affair. While in Malaysia, Rita confided in her friend, Angela Cheah. In April 1990, Angela overheard a phone conversation between Rita and Mark. "She was saying things like, 'Mark, how could you do this to me?' 'Okay, you want a divorce, that's okay.' 'No, split the property 50-50 down the line'," Angela told police.

After the call, Rita was very upset, and told Angela that Mark had confessed to the affair. On May 3, Rita returned to Australia. Before she left, she said to her friend: "Angie, I can't take anything away from him. I must leave him something or he will go crazy."

Two weeks later, Rita went to see her lawyer and cut Mark out of the will. "He has been unfaithful to me during the course of our marriage on at least two occasions of which I am aware," she wrote by way of explanation. This was the day she also wrote that fateful letter. "He gets very desperate when he is squeezed financially like what I'm doing to him as a result of his affair with Janice Yap," Rita wrote.

In the meantime, the offer to the Tongan had changed. Now, instead of being paid $2000 to fake a robbery, Alani Afu would be paid $10,000 to commit a murder and make it
look like a robbery gone wrong. He accepted the offer, and the money, without hesitation.

For more than 20 years, Alani Afu seemed to have got away with his role in Rita's murder. He was living in Tonga with his wife and six children when, in October 2014, a warrant was issued for his arrest for the murder of Rita Caleo. Four months later, Mark was charged with murdering his wife. When he finally faced court, he was up on two charges: soliciting the murders of both his brother-in-law and his wife.

Alani Afu was jailed for 20 years for murdering Rita Caleo. Mark was cleared of any involvement in Michael Chye's murder but a Supreme Court jury found him guilty of soliciting the murder of his wife.

"[Rita's family] knew deep down my father was the one who killed her. But they were scared," his daughter said. "What my father did was not just a terrible crime that happened over one night, it was a lifetime crime which will stay in my family forever."

In July this year, Mark Caleo was jailed for 12 years. He will be eligible for release in eight. Nobody has ever been convicted for the murder of Rita's brother Michael.

read more from