"It's never too late to find your missing person."
That's the message Melissa Pouliot has for suffering families after her missing cousin, Ursula Barwick, was recently found following a 30-year search.
Ursula, aged 17, had died in a car accident on the Hume Highway, near Tarcutta, in 1987, only weeks after she went missing.
Ursula had been living in Sydney under a new name, Jessica Pearce, and it was that name her new friends provided to investigators after the crash.Author Melissa Pouliot, left, with her cousin Ursula Barwick, who went missing in 1987, aged 17. Photo: Supplied
The authorities failed to track down her family and Ursula was buried in Emu Plains cemetery under the name of Jessica, where she lay undiscovered until Ms Pouliot re-sparked the search.
The Merimbula-based author wrote the crime fiction novel, Write About Me , as a way to honour Ursula's memory, but it created the momentum that saw the case reopened by police and Ursula found.
The theme of this year's campaign is "Still waiting for you to come home".
Like Ursula, 25,000 of the 38,000 people reported missing in Australia each year are under the age of 18.
Teens aged between 13 and 17 are six times more likely to go missing than the rest of the Australian population.
Young women are the most susceptible.
While the majority of missing people are found within a short period of time, there are more than 2000 listed as long-term missing, which means they have been missing for more than three months.
Australian Federal Police national coordinator missing persons and exploited children Marina Simoncini said for every missing person there were family, friends and colleagues left behind, still waiting for them to come home.
She said, in some circumstances, disappearing might be viewed as the only option to escape a bad situation, but in some extreme cases, a young person might have become a victim of crime.
Ms Simoncini said young people went missing for a range of reasons, including miscommunication, misadventure, or because of a misunderstanding.
While Ursula has been found, the police case finally closed, and a memorial held at the Emu Plains Cemetery earlier this month, Ms Pouliot said the family's quest continued.
"The long journey of her death is not over yet," she said.
"We are still trying to join dots that connect Ursula and the fictional character of Jessica Pearce, who she created for her new friends in Sydney."
The details and circumstances of Ursula's death are now with the NSW Coroner.
Ms Pouliot said she hoped for clear answers to the many unanswered questions.
But she said Ursula had left a clear legacy for the families and friends of missing persons.
"[Ursula's] legacy, the thing that will inspire others for many years to come, is that it is never too late to find your missing person."
To view Australia's national register of missing persons, visit the National Missing Persons Coordination Centre website at www.missingpersons.gov.au , where information about support services across Australia can also be found.
Anyone with information relating to a missing person is urged to contact their local police or Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.
For me, a bestselling crime writer based on the stunning Sapphire Coast, where you’ll find some of the best mountain bike tracks in the world, they are intrinsically linked. As part of the launch of my fifth crime novel FOUND , I shared with Sapphire Coast Tourism how the bike trails I ride inspire my writing. I also shared some excerpts from my new book, which the Australian Federal Police launched in Canberra on July 27, 2017.
The morning is warmer than usual and it won’t be long before I won’t need my gloves or beanie beneath my bike helmet. I look to my right and admire the swans gliding gracefully on Wallagoot Lake.
The water is so still it looks like glass. To my left I hear a rustle in the thick bush and wonder if it’s the lyre birds I see from time to time, building their nest, or something more sinister.
I shift gears as I reach a slight incline and look down at my handlebars. Something flashes past my face and my heart skips several beats as wildly look around to see what it is.
It appears again, then multiplies. Butterflies. One, five, ten, twenty. They dance around my head then disappear into the bush. A few moments later they return, then they’re gone again.
They follow me like this as I ride past the boat ramp, along the corrugated dirt road and to the entrance to Bournda National Park. I stop for a drink and admire their quiet presence, wondering if I will be quick enough to capture them on my camera. I’m not.
I keep riding. There’s a steep section and I’m so distracted that I forget to change gears and nearly don’t make it up. The butterflies are still with me when I reach Wine Glass Bay, and they follow me to the steps leading down to Turingal Head beach.
My thoughts flutter to the fifth book I’m writing and by the time I’m back home, I have a new chapter already written in my head.
Ant was ahead of her, gesturing and pointing out things while Andy quizzed him. Occasionally Andy would crouch down, Ant standing awkwardly by his side. Rhiannon walked silently, also in front, and Christine watched a butterfly land on her shoulder. It was bright yellow with small dark spots on its wings. It was a Eurema smilax or small grass yellow butterfly. Quite common, but something Christine had never noticed in the city.
She watched it cling onto Rhiannon’s white cotton shirt with its tiny sticky feet, a slight breeze making its wings move ever so gently. Christine focused on the butterfly to calm her mind. She became transfixed, wondering in her foggy drug-induced mind, if it was a sign from Annabelle.
Annabelle loved yellow. The butterfly was yellow.
Annabelle was here!
She was trying to tell her something. A strong gust of wind dislodged the butterfly and Christine watched with panic as it flew away. She raced after it, convinced it would lead them to Annabelle.
Nobody noticed at first, until Andy called Rhiannon over to show him something and Ant looked back to see Christine running in the opposite direction.
‘Hey, Christine! Where you going?’ Ant called.
Christine didn’t answer, it was taking all her energy to not lose sight of the butterfly which was leading her deeper and deeper into the bush. She pushed through shrubs, she was off the path now, panting heavily from the exertion. She rolled her ankle as she scrambled through the dense undergrowth and pain shot up her leg, but she kept running.
Ant tore after her. ‘Christine, what is it?’
Rhiannon and Andy started jogging after Ant, while Christine dashed and darted after the speeding yellow butterfly, pushing through branches and around trees.
‘Show me Annabelle, show me where you are,’ she whispered hoarsely.
Finally the butterfly stopped. It settled on the flower of a Christmas Bush, its yellow standing out strongly against the white. Christine hunched over, trying to catch her breath.
Within minutes Ant was behind her. ‘What the fuck are you doing?’
‘Shhh,’ she said. ‘Don’t move.’
Rhiannon arrived next; a few minutes later Andy crashed through the forest.
‘Shhh,’ Christine hushed him. ‘ Quiet! Don’t come any closer.’
Her eyes remained firmly fixed on the butterfly.
Ant leant in close, clearly annoyed. ‘What. Are. We. Doing. Here?’
Once Andy stopped the loud puffing of a detective who was unfit, overweight and spent far too much time at his desk, Christine spoke. ‘See that yellow butterfly there?’
They all peered amongst the mass of flowers on the bush, eventually making out the tiny yellow shape. ‘Yes,’ they said in unison.
‘It’s a sign from Annabelle! It landed on your shirt when we first arrived, and now it’s brought me here. To this spot.’
‘ Well? Don’t you get it? Yellow is her favourite colour. The butterfly is yellow. The butterfly has led us to Annabelle. The butterfly is Annabelle! This is where you need to look. Don’t you understand, this is the spot. She’s here, somewhere! Start looking!’
She was crying and shaking, clearly distressed. ‘She’s here, I know she’s here. Have a look, you’ll find her. I’m sure of it.’
Ant stepped in close and wrapped his arms around her.
Andy walked away first, then Rhiannon. Ant stayed and hugged Christine tightly. Through her tears, she stared at the tiny yellow butterfly, before it lifted gracefully off its flower and disappeared deep into the forest, never to be seen again.
BONES IN THE BUSH
It’s the first time I’ve ridden this track on my own; it’s always made me feel slightly uneasy but with a riding companion, there’s nothing to worry about. Right? Right.
I duck to avoid a low hanging branch then quickly swerve to avoid a large stick hidden underneath the thick mat of crunchy leaves.
I’m getting deeper and deeper into the bush and start to feel disoriented as I come to a fork in the track and wonder if I should go left or right. It’s a common theme in my book; my runaway teens including Annabelle Brown and Keely Johnson never know whether to turn left or right, and more often than not, take the wrong track.
I stick left. I nearly fall off my bike when something hits the back of my helmet at full force. I’m terrified. The track narrows and the bush closes in around me. I hear a buzz over the loud crunching my wheels make. It gets louder and louder, then something hits my helmet again, and again. I scream, and get off my bike, flailing my arms about, fighting with the giant buzzing creature that is swarming around my head. I can’t get away from it.
I jump back on my bike and pedal as fast as I can to escape, but it keeps up with me. It won’t leave me alone. My legs are burning and I can hardly breathe. I feel it land on my back and I writhe and wriggle to free myself from its dangerous grip. There is no sun in here, and I am completely spooked.
I keep pedalling, searching for the light at the end of the tunnel. I know it can’t be far away. Something catches my eye on the ground, tangled in the leaves and undergrowth. It’s a black jumper. My imagination is going wild. What is the jumper doing here? Who does it belong to?
I’m not sure if I’ll ever escape the ‘the spooky forest’, and it becomes a recurring theme in all my books. It’s where terrible things happen, deep in the Australian bush.
teph’s daughter Sara, Annabelle’s best friend, was home for a school friend’s engagement party, so first stop was her room.
‘Hey, Sairs, got any plans tonight?’
Sara looked up from the book she was reading, leaning over her bed at full stretch to turn down the volume on her cassette player. ‘Not really. Why, what’s on?’
‘Want to come out to Lee’s with me?’
Something in her Mum’s tone scared Sara. ‘Don’t tell me,’ she said, snapping her book shut and getting off the bed to move closer.
‘No, not that. But Lee’s in a fret. The news tonight, more bones in the forest.’
‘ Annabelle,’ Sara said quietly.
‘Maybe,’ Steph wrapped her arms around her daughter. ‘Best place for us is with Lee, on the couch, with chocolate.’ ‘And cups of tea,’
Sara tried not to go into a panic. They’d been here before. Waiting, watching, wondering. Watching every news bulletin for that glimpse of information that might connect bones to Annabelle. Daring the phone to ring, wondering how long it would take for detectives Andy Cassettari and Rhiannon McVee, and the seemingly slow-turning wheels of the police system, to match bones in the forest with Annabelle’ s.
Within half an hour Lee and Steph were on the couch, Sara in the kitchen making tea and preparing a platter of sweet treats.
‘I hate this Steph.’
‘Me too, Lee. The not knowing, it’s so hard.’
‘Should I call Rhiannon and ask?’ Lee posed this question every time. She and Steph went around in circles, like they had many times before, and eventually talked themselves out of it.
‘You’re right,’ Lee said, after they’d been over it from all directions. ‘They’ll have it in hand. Of course they’ll be checking against her file. Rhiannon will let us know.’
Sara handed them their steaming cups of tea, slipping easily into her role of chief carer. She never contributed much to the conversation, letting their words wash over her while she did everything she could to cheer up Lee and look after her every need. Sara kept her thoughts for her diary, the one she was planning to give Annabelle when she came home.
Sara stubbornly refused to entertain the possibility these bones could be Annabelle’s. She refused to let conversations like these filter through to her inner belief that Annabelle was still alive and well. That didn’t mean she didn’t feel paralysed right now. With so many bones being discovered, and all this talk of a serial killer on the loose, her hope of seeing her best friend again was at risk of shattering, piece by tiny piece.
One of the perks of being an
author is an excuse to have a book launch party! And this year I'm thrilled to
be having not one, but two book launches for FOUND
fifth crime fiction novel.
1. Who better to host the launch of a crime novel than the Australian Federal Police?
Thursday July 27, MUSE Canberra
It's difficult to find the right words sometimes, and one of those times
was when the AFP National Missing Persons Coordination Centre asked if
they could host a launch of FOUND in Canberra.
Let me think about it...for less than a millisecond! This means so much to me, as they hold a very special place in my heart for the support they've given me since I published Write About Me. I will always remember my first meeting with them, clutching my new book in my hands, to see if there was anything I could do to help reinvigorate my cousin Ursula's case.
They have endorsed all my novels and taken them to international conferences, and because of the work they do, they understand the layers and meanings that surround every word I write. I'm proud to be helping raise awareness through fiction about the far-reaching impacts when someone goes missing, and beyond excited that they're launching FOUND.
is welcome, and your friends too!
Beers, Burgers, Books and Blues is BACK! Thursday August 3, Merimbula
After the success of the launch of You'll Never Find Me last year at Dulcie's Merimbula, they've invited me back! This launch has it all - live blues music by Mojo, and the best burgers you'll ever taste. Beer (or wine), an atmosphere you need to experience to believe and the friendliest (and coolest) staff on the South Coast. And of course, books! Your ticket includes a copy of FOUND, a burger and a beer or wine.
Last week I was special guest at the Bega Evening VIEW Club dinner, a club whose history stems back to 1960 when George Forbes, then General Secretary of The Smith Family, saw the potential for an organisation which allowed women from all walks of life to develop interests outside the home, providing friendship, education and mental stimulation. At the same time he hoped to offer these women the means to assist others less fortunate through The Smith Family.
It was a special evening and a generous audience of women who had all worn red in honour of having their local ambassador for Day for Daniel at their table. It was an absolute privilege for me to share the story of balancing my professional career with my role as wife and mother. Added into the mix is my passion for writing crime mystery novels in my 'spare time' and my volunteer community advocacy to raise awareness for missing people, driven by my personal quest to find my missing cousin Ursula who disappeared in 1987.
What fascinated me most about the VIEW club was its history. I would have liked to meet George Forbes, who spoke up for women at a time when women were discouraged from having a voice in the community. George believed society needed a better balance in decision-making processes at the local, state and national governance levels. He believed that this imbalance could be rectified through the creation of a supportive network of women that worked across these levels.
“People nowadays who insist that ‘A woman’s place is in the home' are living in the dark ages.” VIEW World issue 1, 1971
VIEW was underpinned by the ideal of providing opportunities for women to engage with other women and ideas, to develop not only their social capital but also their knowledge and self-confidence, enabling them to think and act in new ways.
“Since inception, VIEW Clubs have enjoyed a rate of growth unmatched by any similar organisation.” R. Turner, The Smith Family General Secretary, 1977
Reading this makes me appreciate just how fortunate I have been in my professional career, which started in newspapers before I formed my own company 17 years ago, which I still love as much as I did when I first started. I am working in an era where women can and do. Where women can have a family and a career. An era where women support women. An era where women make change.
So what happens when women get into a room together and make plans to help others in their community? What is behind the success of women's groups both past and present? One Australian woman I admire greatly, Ita Buttrose, knows the answer.
“I believe that VIEW’s success is founded in friendship. Australian women coming together and doing what they know best: caring for each other and for society.” Ita Buttrose in her address at the 1999 Melbourne Convention
I agree wholeheartedly. While we live for today and plan for tomorrow, I think we also need to look back at those who helped forge our path. With more than 300 clubs and 17,000 members across Australia, and its heart still very much in the right place, I encourage all women to take on this special VIEW of the world.