Amanda Therese ROBINSON
*Editor's note - yes, I know I shouldn't be using this copyrighted photo so if the owner would like to donate the original copy to the website, I will be most grateful!
The State Coroner, John Abernethy, lashed out yesterday at the handling of the original investigations into three missing women, saying it was extraordinary that leads were never followed up, statements never taken and detectives taken off the unsolved cases.
He said he could not understand why it had taken 23 years for the disappearances - presumed murders - to be referred to a coroner.
Nor could he understand how the investigations were "shut down" and had "died" within a year of the women going missing.
Leanne Goodall, 20, Robyn Hickie, 18, and Amanda Robinson, 14, disappeared between December 1978 and April 1979 while waiting for or getting off buses at bus stops on the Pacific Highway in Newcastle. In the case of Ms Goodall, a formal investigation was never launched.
At the inquest yesterday, Mr Abernethy asked Norm Sheather, who was in charge of Newcastle district detectives at the time, why the Goodall disappearance was never looked at by a detective.
"I don't know. It should have been," said Mr Sheather, now retired.
Mr Sheather also could not give a reason why further lines of inquiry were never followed up in relation to Amanda Robinson and Ms Hickie and why the investigations had "died" by the end of 1979.
In a dramatic outburst, Mr Abernethy said detectives should have analysed the cases after two years and, given they were unsolved and resources had been withdrawn, referred them to a coroner.
Mr Abernethy: "Could I suggest that no-one, you nor anybody else, did that analysis and these cases just slipped through the cracks?"
Mr Sheather: "Well, that's the way it appears."
Mr Abernethy: "What I want to ascertain is whether these cases are just because of the system or the leadership of criminal investigations in those days. Nothing was done to finish them off, one way or the other."
Mr Sheather said his position was "virtually administration," and it was the responsibility of the then divisional officer, Mervyn Squires, who supervised the detectives.
Mr Abernethy said he found it "incredibly difficult" to accept that as head of Newcastle region detectives Mr Sheather was not responsible for overseeing the investigation.
Mr Abernethy: "You are suggesting on oath the buck stopped with Sergeant Squires?"
Mr Sheather later conceded he was responsible for ensuring the integrity of the investigation and the allocation of resources, and it was up to him or Sergeant Squires to refer the matters to the coroner.
He did not know why two detectives who were sent from Sydney to investigate the Amanda Robinson abduction were recalled after just two weeks.
The inquest continues.
The decades of torment are etched in the faces of the parents. They have aged - perhaps quicker than most - while the images of their daughters, Amanda, Robyn and Leanne, have remained frozen in time. Eternal youth.
Their torment has deepened in the past year as the last glimmer of hope - in the form of a coronial inquest - has provided few answers. "At the start of the inquest we thought there might be a good outcome but I now know there will be no crucial findings. They won't be solved," Jim Hickie, whose daughter Robyn vanished in 1979, said this week.
Six suspects, including backpacker killer Ivan Milat, have given evidence at the inquest. And while police have their "hunches" over who was responsible there is no concrete evidence. What has become clear, however, are the major flaws and "gross incompetence" of the original police investigation. It seems that there was never much hope of finding what happened to their children. How could there have been?
Leanne Goodall, 20, last seen alive at the Star Hotel, Newcastle, on December 30, 1978, was treated by police as a runaway. No formal investigation was ever carried out. Not one detective looked at her case.
Robyn Hickie, 18, who went missing on April 7, 1979, after arranging to meet a
netball team-mate at the Belmont Hotel, was labelled by police as "a known
hitchhiker". Her disappearance earned a few weeks of intense investigation, but
she was regarded as another runaway and only two statements were taken.
The disappearance of Amanda Robinson, 14, who vanished 13 days later on her way home to Swansea after a school dance, was taken more seriously. Because of her age two homicide detectives from Sydney were sent to Belmont to investigate. But after two weeks they were recalled. They gave local detectives several lines of inquiry to follow up. It was never done.
The homicide detectives told the inquest this week they were sent to concentrate "exclusively" on Amanda's case and so did not examine the possible connections with Robyn's disappearance two weeks earlier.
Words such as "unstructured and largely dysfunctional", "lazy police work" and "direction-less" were among the descriptions used in court to capture the police effort. And it is likely these will be reflected in Abernethy's findings today.
The coroner has already voiced some criticism of the investigation, or lack thereof, saying this week it was extraordinary that records were not kept, statements never taken and the investigation shut down within a year of the three going missing. He could not understand why it had taken 23 years for the matter to be referred to a coroner. He said the records before the inquest were so inadequate that "it's all guesswork".
It was not until 20 years after the three went missing that the first major investigation began with the formation of Strikeforce Fenwick.
In his criticisms of the original police investigation, Detective Superintendent Ron Smith, head of Fenwick, told the inquest last year that police should have treated the disappearances as suspected homicides. Instead they were treated as runaways. Investigators failed to consider a serial killer, he said.
While there was no direct link, the three went missing within four months of each other while waiting at bus stops or alighting from buses near their homes on the Pacific Highway. They were all young females, they went missing on a Saturday and their bodies have never been found, despite extensive searches in recent years.
One of the prime suspects is Milat, who worked on road crews and lived in the area at the time. "Personally I have very strong suspicions of Milat in these matters," Inspector Wayne Gordon, deputy commander of Fenwick, told the inquest.
Milat had been staying at various hotels in the vicinity of the Pacific Highway, or in or near the suburbs where the three disappeared. Police searched the sand mine site at Belmont because it was near a motel where Milat stayed at the same time. They found gun pellets and empty cartridge cases during a search for a grave thought to contain the body of one of the three.
When Milat gave evidence last year, amid a large security presence, he said he had picked up about 15 hitchhikers but not in the Hunter. "I had nothing to do with whatever happened to their children. I can look at them people, right in the eye, and say, 'I had absolutely nothing to do with your children going missing'," he told the court.
A man testified that he had seen Milat at the Belmont hotel the night before Robyn disappeared. There was evidence Milat had boasted to an associate that there were body pits and grave sites all over the Hunter.
Another suspect who gave evidence was Neville Drinkwater. He was questioned two weeks after Amanda disappeared. Aged 19 at the time, he had some unusual sexual habits, and when police arrested him they found scissors in the glovebox of his car, as well as tape and pornographic magazines. He was reinterviewed last week over inconsistencies in his version of where he was on the night Amanda vanished.
Convicted rapist Kelvin John Macey was questioned over Robyn's disappearance. He was jailed for seven years after he raped a hitchhiker after picking her up on the Pacific Highway, Belmont, on June 20, 1979. He denied any knowledge of Robyn's disappearance.
Since the four-year reinvestigation began, 51 sites have been searched in the Hunter. More than 120 witnesses gave evidence at the inquest.
Robyn Hickie's father is grateful for the intensive police work during the past four years but believes it came too late. "There was no hope from the start because they didn't put the effort in when Robyn went missing. First of all they wanted to believe that our daughter was a runaway."
Hickie, whose life has been consumed by his daughter's disappearance, is "convinced" he knows who killed Robyn but the evidence, particularly without a body, is not strong enough.
He expects Abernethy will find today that the three were abducted and murdered by an unknown person/s. And then, Hickie says, the torment will continue.
"Our daughters' cases will lie in the police records. Unless someone comes up with a confession, nothing will happen. That's the truth in the matter."
A deputy state coroner, Carl Milovanovich, will hear police evidence about the women, Gillian Jamieson and Deborah Balken, last seen at a Parramatta hotel in 1980.
Milat was previously named at inquests into the disappearance of young women and couples from the North Shore and the Hunter dating back to the late 1970s. Unlike on those occasions, Milat, 60, will not be given a day out of Goulburn's high-security Supermax prison to give evidence.
The parents and other relatives of the two nurses are expected to attend the day-long hearing at the Westmead Coroner's Court. Detectives are expected to detail for the first time undisclosed information on police efforts to find the women, who were both 20 when they disappeared.
In 2001 Milat angrily denied at an inquest at Toronto Local Court that he was responsible for the disappearances of Robyn Hickie, 17, Amanda Robinson, 14, and Leanne Goodall, 20, all from Newcastle, who vanished separately in the Hunter in 1978 and 1979.
In August he was named by police at an inquest before Mr Milovanovich as the person most likely to have killed the Berowra schoolgirl Michelle Pope, 18, and her boyfriend, Stephen Lapthorne, 21, who vanished along with their green van from northern Sydney in August 1978. Neither the vehicle nor their bodies have been found.
For the past three years a team of Parramatta detectives has re-examined the disappearances of Ms Balken and Ms Jamieson. They were last seen with a man wearing a floppy black cowboy hat in a back bar of the Tollgate Hotel in Church Street, Parramatta, at 7.30pm on June 12, 1980.
Detectives interviewed Milat a year ago inside the Supermax prison, where he is serving a life sentence for the abduction, stabbing and shooting murders of five women and two men in the Belanglo State Forest in the Southern Highlands between 1978 and 1992.
Milat, who was working in 1980 at the Granville depot of the then Department of Main Roads, is understood to have been interviewed about his movements and vehicles he owned, including a lime green Valiant Charger sedan.
As in previous investigations into other missing women or couples in which Milat has featured since 2001, police have been frustrated by the fact that no bodies have been found.