Coroner concludes Hilda Billman - missing since 1996 - is deceased following inquest; says Victoria Police did a 'reasonable' job trying to locate her

Hilda Billman was a frail 73-year-old when she disappeared from a Bendigo psychiatric centre on a wintry afternoon on September 6, 1996. 

After discussing treatment options with her doctor and family, the Quarry Hill grandmother asked to leave the consulting room at the psychiatric unit of Bendigo Health Care Group in Eaglehawk to make a drink. 

That would be the last time her family, including husband of 53 years, Syd, saw her.

A week-long search ensued, with police, state emergency service personnel and members from the Melbourne search and rescue squad scouring bushland across the region with the help of a police air wing and the dog squad. 

The search for Mrs Billman gained renewed impetus five days into the operation, when she was seen leaning against a backyard fence in Wesley Street, Kangaroo Flat.

The woman who sighted Mrs Billman offered her a cup of tea, but was unable to strike up a conversation with her and she eventually ran off.

Another three sightings proved fruitless for the search party, with search coordinator Senior Sergeant Gordon MacKenzie telling the Bendigo Advertiser he had never been involved in a search like that before, suggesting it would be easier to find a prison escapee whose actions were more predictable.

“But in this case we have frail 73-year-old woman and it’s impossible to predict what she might do,” he said on September 14,1996.

Mrs Billman’s disappearance featured on the missing persons week media campaign in 2000, was revisited in 2002 and 2004 and was transferred to a cold case operation in 2008.

In 2015, a Bendigo detective met with Mrs Billman’s son, who provided DNA to help with the investigation and affirmed his belief his mother had fallen down a disused mine shaft, according to Coroner Peter White.

In mid-2017, twenty years after Mrs Billman’s disappearance, Coroner White was asked to provide a finding on her suspected death.

A report detailing Coroner White’s inquest into the death of Mrs Billman was published late last month. 

In it, Coroner White stated:

“I am satisfied that although I am unable to determine the place, cause and manner of her death, Mrs Hillman, late of Harkness Street, Quarry Hill, is likely to be deceased.”

Coroner White reached the conclusion based on the fact Mrs Billman, who would now be 95 years of age, had not accessed the public health system since her disappearance, and police had received no information on her whereabouts since 1996.

Coroner White also suggested efforts made by Victoria Police to locate Mrs Billman were “reasonable in the circumstances”.

Since 2014, all deaths of people placed in custody or care required a mandatory inquest, unless the Coroner was satisfied the death occurred due to natural causes.

The Bendigo Advertiser attempted to contact the detective who reported Mrs Billman’s suspected death to the Coroner in 2017.