The small village of Kendall on the NSW Mid North Coast is said to bear the name of the much-loved 19th century poet, Henry Kendall, who once lived there.
But it’s another name which has since come to be most strongly associated with the town – that of William Tyrrell, the three-and-a-half-year-old boy clad in a Spider-Man suit, who vanished without trace on the morning of September 12, 2014 while playing in the grounds of a house on the town’s bushy outskirts.
Henry Kendall’s most famous poem, Bellbirds, celebrates the sounds of the Australian bush. But this week harsher sounds echoed down the streets near the two-storey brick home: the roar of chainsaws, the grind of excavators, and the hum of activity from more than 100 police officers embarked on an intensive new search for answers.
Police search a site near Kendall for the remains of William Tyrrell.Credit:Wolter Peeters
The media have been given a ringside seat, with one experienced crime reporter saying she couldn’t remember such untrammelled access to a police operation.
Also watching on has been 64-year-old Margo, from nearby Port Macquarie, who joined the first ground search for William seven years ago and has kept tabs on every police search since. A former foster child herself, she says this time the hunt has felt “so incredibly different – the energy, the way it’s been carried, it’s just got a different feel about it. I’m hoping this time please [let’s] find him – every time we have been let down”.
The latest search is highly targeted, concentrated on a garden bed beneath the house, the underfloor area including the garage, and on two specific patches of bushland nearby.
In the most stunning development, the spotlight has fallen heavily on William’s foster mother, a well-to-do woman in her mid-50s from Sydney.
Along with her husband she’s spent the last seven years campaigning tirelessly to keep the case before the public eye. Over the years the pair have participated in podcasts and TV programs (always with their true identity shielded), driven a high-profile website dedicated to keeping William’s cause alive, and lobbied hard and successfully for the state government to attach a $1 million reward to the case.
Forensic archaeologist Tony Lowe speaks to NSW Police on Wednesday as they gather to search a site for the remains of William.Credit:Wolter Peeters
The couple, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, have always denied wrongdoing, painting themselves as the victims of a heinous crime against William. They were ruled out as persons of interest early on, along with the boy’s biological parents.
However on Tuesday, NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller told 2GB’s Ben Fordham that “there is certainly one person in particular that we are closely looking at”. With every passing day it’s become clearer that that person is the female foster carer.
Dr Xanthe Mallett, a UK-trained criminologist and forensic anthropologist now based at the University of Newcastle, who’s followed the case closely, says the strong signalling from police has raised the stakes considerably.
“If they don’t find something I’m not sure where they go after the rhetoric of the press conferences,” she says. “They are very clearly targeting one person of interest, so if they don’t back that up, it’s going to be highly problematic for them.”
Lines of inquiry
William entered the foster couple’s lives in March 2012, at around nine-months-old, having been removed from his struggling young birth parents by welfare authorities.
The early days of the search were driven primarily by a “little boy lost” thesis, but investigators soon turned towards the idea of an abduction.
Police eyes fell on a succession of potential “persons of interest”, including a white goods repairman, Bill Spedding, who’d been due to make a return visit to fix a washing machine in the days around the time of William’s disappearance (but was subsequently cleared), and an elderly neighbour living opposite the house where the child was last seen.
Later attention fell heavily on convicted paedophile Frank Abbott, found to have dwelt in a caravan in the district at the time William disappeared. (Abbott was subsequently jailed for unrelated child sex offences). And at one stage senior police singled out an alleged paedophile “ring” in the Mid North Coast area as a key focus.
All these lines of inquiry eventually fell away. Strike Force Rosann, as the taskforce set up to find William was dubbed, was slowly losing resources. And the coronial inquest, which began hearings in December 2018, was throwing up no new leads.
NSW Police search the gardens below a balcony at the home from which William Tyrrell disappeared in Kendall.Credit:Wolter Peeters
Two months ago the first signs began to emerge that the police investigation was taking a sharp new turn. A Daily Telegraph story in early September said police were turning their attention to a person of interest who had previously been ruled out. While that did not identify the foster mother, the story drew a furious reaction from the couple, who issued a statement denouncing what they said was an attempt by others to “objectify William for personal gain”.
Then on Monday news broke that the coroner had subpoenaed hours of conversations with the foster parents recorded by Channel 10 journalist Lia Harris, for her podcast, “Where’s William Tyrell?”.
The same day, the director of state crime command, Detective Chief Superintendent Darren Bennett, called a press conference to announce that police, acting on the coroner’s orders, would be deploying hundreds of officers over several weeks in a new, “high intensity” search of sites near the house.
Those sites were “not speculative in any way”, he said, indicating police were acting on fresh intelligence. And he made it clear they believed they were now looking for the child’s remains.
On Tuesday came Fuller’s discussion with Fordham, in which the commissioner also directed several barbs at earlier phases of the investigation, saying the current investigation team had “inherited what was a bit of a mess” and had “really cleaned [it] up”.
This has reignited a damaging rift with the man who used to head the investigation, the once much-lauded Gary Jubelin who was taken off the case in early 2019, and was subsequently tried – and convicted – on four counts of making illegal recordings of interviews with one of the former persons of interest in the case.
By Wednesday, police had charged the foster parents over the alleged assault of a child at a home in Sydney, with the pair set to appear at a local court early next week. They are understood to be preparing to defend the charges.
Police also revealed they’d seized a grey Mazda that once belonged to the boy’s foster grandmother which had been at the Kendall property on the day of William’s disappearance.
Detectives have seized a grey Mazda that once belonged to William Tyrrell’s foster-grandmother for forensic examination as the quest to discover what happened to him gathers momentum.
It was also clear – from their keen interest in the garden bed just below a five-metre high balcony at the property – that they were re-examining the idea of a fatal fall from that balcony.
On Thursday AFP technical officers spent several hours running ground-penetrating radar over a concrete slab under the house, to no avail. The search team also includes experts on forensic archaeology, hydrology and anthropology, among them forensic grave expert Tony Lowe who has worked for years on ‘missing in action’ recoveries for the Australian Defence Force and defence forces overseas.
When the Herald spoke to Lowe on Thursday, he was helping police scope out a targeted patch of bushland near the corner of Batar Creek Road, and Cobb and Co Road, less than a kilometre from the house, examining the likely pattern of flood deposits from a nearby creek and analysing soil strata.
“My role is to be able to identify archaeological features and put together a search methodology that could help identify areas that we may find remains in,” he told the Herald.
Gary Jubelin, the former police officer who was in charge of the earlier Tyrrell investigation, attends the inquest in 2019.Credit:Janie Barrett
“William’s family, and so much of NSW, and I dare say Australia, would like closure on this.”
By Friday, the team was pumping water from a nearby creek and had recovered a small piece of blue cloth, which together with red threads recovered the day before have been sent for forensic testing.
Fuller told Fordham the areas had been searched previously but now police were going back with a “fresh set of eyes” and new technology.
But what forensic traces are realistically likely to be detectable after seven years? Not much if it’s on the surface outside, says Mallett. However the possibilities were more promising if police locate a covert burial site.
“[They will be] looking for areas that look as though they have been disturbed seven years ago,” she says. “So they will be looking at disturbances in foliage, or trees that may not have grown compared to [others nearby]… If they identify areas of potential interest they may use geophysical techniques to look beneath the soil. They will not find human remains with [the radar], what they might find is what looks like an anomaly [where] a hole has been dug.”
The seized car could potentially yield valuable insights because vehicles can maintain forensic evidence for decades, Mallett says. “They are a fairly protected environment.”
However Mallett – a friend of Jubelin’s – is, like Jubelin himself, wary of this week’s pivot to the foster mother. “I just find it a little inconceivable that that kind of level of deception could have been maintained over all this time. I find it incredible to be honest,” she says.
The relevant time window is incredibly tight. Essentially, it lies between 9.37am, when the last known photo of William was taken on the rear deck at the house, and 10.56am, when the foster mother made her 000 call to police to report his absence. She says she thinks William went missing at around 10.30am. Her husband had driven to a larger, nearby town to make a Skype call. She had been on the deck with her mother, where William was playing with dice and crayons, before he got bored and raced away into the large garden around the corner of the house, pretending to be a tiger.
She heard him roar, and then “nothing”, she said. Worried by the sudden quiet, she went looking for him but he had vanished, seemingly into thin air. She told police she spent around 20 minutes searching frantically for him up and down the street and in a patch of bushland on a corner near the main road, before returning to the house and being joined by her husband who had come back from the town. He, too, then joined the search. A police dog, PD Gov, was brought in to help but no scent of the boy was ever picked up.
Asked during the 000 call whether she had noticed anything suspicious, the foster mother said “no, no, not that I’m aware of”, though several days later she would recall two cars, one white and one grey, parked very close together near the house. Those cars were never identified and investigators later discounted this as a lead.
The foster mother was very conscious she and her husband would come under close scrutiny in the earliest phases of the investigation. In July 2019, she told reporter Harris, “if they didn’t completely investigate us I would be absolutely gobsmacked because you’ve got to rule us out. We all know statistically it’s the last person [to see a missing individual] or family member that typically does something like this. … In this instance we didn’t do it, we had nothing do to with this, we had nothing to hide, we gave them everything”.
One striking feature of the earlier phase of the investigation was how close the foster parents grew to Gary Jubelin, who took charge of the strike force in early 2015.
NSW Police at the Kendall property where William was last seen. Credit:Wolter Peeters
Jubelin had zeroed in on the elderly neighbour across the road, Paul Savage, who he believed raised a number of “red flags”. But Savage was later declared no longer of interest, and ironically, it was Jubelin’s intense focus on Savage that would trigger his own removal from the case, when several unauthorised recordings he had made of interviews with the elderly man came to light.
Jubelin, one of the most seasoned investigators in the force, resigned as an officer in April 2019.
That development devastated the foster couple, who fought in vain to have him reinstated and to testify at the inquest. Their hostility to the current leadership of the NSW police has since intensified, and they have accused the police of growing “cold” towards them when Jubelin left. They have also claimed that some within the force sought to use William’s case as an internal political football.
On Thursday, Jubelin took his turn on Fordham’s program to hit back at Fuller’s criticisms of the earlier stages of the investigation, particularly the police commissioner’s observation that time had been “wasted” on persons of interest who were “clearly not”.
That, claimed Jubelin, showed a “lack of understanding of what a homicide investigation is … homicide is about exploring all the possibilities”.
The former detective said he’d interrogated the parents thoroughly himself, had covertly surveilled them and “saw no signs of William’s mother being involved in it”. He described her as a “very decent human being”.
Mallett says the sole focus now should be on William, “a little boy who’s vanished and is probably deceased”.
For NSW police, looking from afar at the success of their Western Australian colleagues in bringing home little Cleo Smith recently, it would be a blessed relief to finally find some answers to the fate of William Tyrrell.
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