true crime

No one had seen Karlie Pearce-Stevenson for 7 years. Then a familiar blanket appeared on the news.

The insidious illness had stalked Colleen for four years.

She knew it would come to this; the most recent prognosis had been that it was terminal.

In an Alice Springs palliative care unit, Scott held her hand and put on a brave face when she repeated the question he couldn’t bear to answer.

‘Are Karlie and Khandals here yet?’

Back in 2008, when Colleen had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer, Scott had waited until his wife was out of earshot before sneaking back into the specialist’s office for the honest truth. He was a no-bullshit kind of man who wanted it straight — how bad was it?

One year at best, he was told.

Listen to Jessie Stephens interview author Ava Benny-Morrison on the case of Karlie and Khandalyce. Post continues after audio.

Colleen had staved off breast cancer for four years, unwilling to let it beat her. She’d had a mastectomy and been through rounds of chemotherapy but the cancer had spread to her lungs.

Still she held on longer than doctors had estimated. Something gave her the will to live. She yearned to find her daughter and granddaughter.

Since the missing person’s report had been closed in 2009, irregular text messages and calls from Karlie continued.

On 11 September 2010, after Colleen had undergone an operation as part of her cancer treatment and was recovering in an Adelaide hospital, she received a text message from Karlie. According to Tanya, the message stated that Karlie was living in Noosa Heads and needed money.

Colleen had also received another phone call, in either 2010 or 2011, from Karlie’s phone. The female voice sounded muffled and explained that she was hiding from someone and had two phones.

Watch: The press conference that would ultimately share the truth about Colleen’s granddaughter, Khandalyce. Post continues after video. 

Video by SA Police
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Colleen’s sister, Sharon, would tell police that Colleen deposited $500 into Karlie’s account in January 2009, after Karlie called her from a pay phone in Queensland. Karlie claimed she was in Mount Isa and needed money to travel to Alice Springs. In September that year — five days after the missing person’s report was closed — Colleen deposited another $500 into Karlie’s bank account. Without telling Scott, Colleen, ecstatic at the thought her daughter and granddaughter were finally coming home, would transfer money after each request, even if it was the last bit of cash they had left at the time.

Scott suspected these loans to Karlie were being blown on drugs and was not happy when he discovered the money missing from their account.

And when Karlie never came home, Scott’s confusion turned to anger. He began to wonder what he and Colleen had done wrong. What was so bad that Karlie couldn’t come home? Karlie knew before she left Alice Springs that her mother had found a lump in her breast but the only times she heard from Karlie was when she needed money. It felt selfish and careless.

And when Karlie’s grandmother, Connie, died in September 2011, Karlie didn’t return for the funeral. Her absence infuriated her stepfather even more.

Now, Colleen lay in palliative care, heavily medicated. The doctors suggested that Scott and Tanya get Colleen’s affairs in order because they didn’t know how much time she had left. Then a nurse pulled Tanya aside and mentioned that Colleen had asked after Karlie and Khandalyce a number of times. The dying woman had posed the same question to Tanya, Scott and her sisters, Ray and Sharon, when they came to visit her in the ward. Where was Karlie? And when was she coming home?

During her final days, Colleen hallucinated that Karlie and Khandalyce were standing in the corner of the room.

As the family prepared for the inevitable, Ray went into Alice Springs Police Station and asked an officer to try and get in contact with Karlie. Her mother was about to die and the family wanted her to be at the funeral.

According to Ray, the police tried unsuccessfully to find Karlie, but she was no longer living at her last-known address and phone calls to her last-known boyfriend, Daniel Holdom, went unanswered.

On 6 February 2012, at forty-four years of age, Colleen died without knowing what had become of her daughter and granddaughter.

‘I was holding her hand when she died and I knew then Karlie was not coming,’ Scott said years later.

The pink child’s coat, with the faux fur around the collar, seemed familiar to Tanya. She’d spotted the distinctive jacket while reading a news story about child’s bones found in a suitcase in Wynarka in South Australia. Other images caught her attention too: a pair of purple silk boxer shorts with a teddy bear print, pink girls’ pants and Holdenbranded shorts.

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As she read through story after story, Tanya found herself in tears in front of the computer. She couldn’t help but think of Karlie and Khandalyce. Since the young mother and daughter had left Alice Springs almost seven years earlier, Tanya had thought of them often, wondering where they were and how they were doing. Khandals would be nine by now, Tanya would think, and probably looked just like her mum: slim, fair, with brown eyes.

Now Tanya was uneasy, a feeling that only intensified following a day spent with Karlie’s stepfather, Scott. After the death of her best friend, Colleen, Tanya had eventually left Alice Springs and settled in Darwin, where she’d set up a business from home with her husband, Michael. Coincidentally, Colleen’s widower, Scott, had moved to Darwin too, and the two old friends had simply picked up from where they’d left off.

On 3 October 2015, they’d caught up for a few drinks at a local pub on the afternoon of the AFL grand final. In the early evening, Tanya and Scott’s new partner, Brenda, retired to Scott and Brenda’s balcony overlooking a glistening bay in Darwin’s west while the men had one last beer in town. The images Tanya had seen of the clothing in the suitcase were playing on her mind and she discussed her niggling fears with Brenda. While Brenda, a compassionate and warm woman, hadn’t met the missing mother and child, she knew that their absence had caused Scott’s family enormous pain.

‘Karlie used to dress Khandals in boxer shorts when she was hot. She’d run around with them over her nappy,’ Tanya said. She also pointed out that Khandalyce fitted the description of the unidentified child — two-and-a-half to four years old, blonde hair, Caucasian.

Scott had recognised the coat too, Brenda said, and had spent hours poring over news stories about the Wynarka investigation. Then he’d spoken to his sisters, who’d remarked that a unique quilt found in the suitcase looked exactly like the quilt Scott’s late mother had given to Khandalyce after she was born.

In a bid to put his racing mind at ease, Scott had told Brenda he’d go to a police station and report the names of Karlie and Khandalyce. Hopefully, the police would rule out Khandalyce as a potential victim and confirm that his suspicions were far-fetched. Karlie and Khandalyce would still be missing but it was more comforting than the alternative.

But when the Wynarka case broke, Scott was working out of Adelaide, overseeing a huge logistics operation. He’d been working around the clock and when a colleague’s son died unexpectedly, his workload increased. In short, he’d not managed to get down to a police station.

As Tanya listened to Brenda relay Scott’s concerns, she decided she needed to categorically rule out the possibility that the girl in the suitcase was Khandalyce. The following morning, she would call Crime Stoppers and put forward the toddler’s name.

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But while she’d made the decision, following through proved much more challenging. It felt like a physically impossible task. Every time she picked up the phone, she put it down again, convinced she was overreacting.

Sure, Khandalyce had similar clothing but it was all mass produced. Hundreds of other children probably had the same coat and boxer shorts.

As for the quilt, another family could’ve picked it up at a second-hand shop. She knew Karlie was planning to travel to Adelaide or Melbourne, and there had also been whispers she was in Queensland in recent years. Karlie could’ve dumped that quilt in any town during her travels.

It took another restless night’s sleep for Tanya to make the call. Finally, on 6 October, she dialled the number. She got through.

After hanging up the phone, Tanya spoke to Brenda. Concerned about causing Scott unnecessary grief over an unconfirmed hunch, they decided to hold off telling him until they knew more. If it turned out to be true, he’d be the first to know, but, until then, they didn’t see the benefit in worrying him further.

As she waited for a follow-up phone call from South Australia Police, Tanya searched nervously for evidence that might link Khandalyce to the suitcase. On finding a USB stick that had once belonged to Colleen, she plugged it into her computer and began trawling through old photographs of happier times in Alice Springs.

A series of photos of Khandalyce appeared and she stopped and hovered the cursor over them. They were clearly all taken at the same time, and were of Khandals in a black headband and a dusty pink dress with faint stripes. In all the photos the little girl was holding onto a pram.

Tanya’s stomach dropped. Pulling up an internet browser, she punched the words ‘Wynarka’ and ‘suitcase’ into a search engine and waited. She found what she was looking for, a photo of a tiny, pink dress with faint stripes and cap sleeves laid out beside a forensic ruler.

Tanya placed the photo of the clothing and the photo of Khandalyce side by side on her screen. The dresses were identical.

It had been twenty-four hours since Tanya had contacted Crime Stoppers and she hadn’t heard anything. So when police still hadn’t been in contact the following day, 8 October, she contacted them again and said she had photos she needed to send them.

That night Detective Sergeant Blake Horder, from the Major Crime Investigation Branch, called Tanya and asked her to email the photographs to him.

She did, and less than an hour later, Horder rang to say the police had tracked Karlie and Khandalyce and they were alive and well. Relieved, she sent Brenda a message updating her on the development. But as Tanya got into bed that evening the old frustration returned: why hadn’t Karlie called her family?

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The-Lost-Girls
The Lost Girls, by Ava Benny-Morrison, explores the story of what happened to Karlie Pearce-Stevenson and her daughter Khandalyce. Image: Supplied.

The following morning Tanya found a new email from Horder and she was instantly alarmed. The email contained a list of detailed questions about Karlie and Khandalyce. In her response, Tanya asked whether Karlie had been found. Horder rang an hour later to confirm that police had not located Karlie as they’d first thought.

The sick feeling in Tanya’s stomach returned and she forwarded Horder’s emails to Brenda.

Brenda decided it was time to tell Scott what was going on.

When he heard about the Crime Stoppers report, Scott contacted his two sisters again and asked if they’d had any luck finding photographs of Khandalyce.

Scott’s older sister, Sue, distinctively remembered the unique quilt her mother had given Khandalyce during a visit to Adelaide in 2007. It was the last blanket her mother had made before she died of cancer in December that year. Like the rest of her family, Sue had long wondered what had happened to Karlie and Khandalyce.

The last she’d heard from her niece was around November 2008 when Karlie texted to say she was in Adelaide and wanted to drop by for a visit. Sue had heard that Karlie was keeping some unsavoury company, but she would never have denied her request. It was the people Karlie would turn up with that Sue was worried about. As it turned out, the next day Karlie changed her mind but reassured her aunty that they’d catch up soon.

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During the years that followed, Sue bore witness to Colleen’s unwavering hope that Karlie and Khandals would one day return. When Colleen was in Adelaide for medical treatment, she often stayed with Sue and they’d discuss the latest contact from Karlie. It was always a text message, never a phone call. More often than not, it was a request for money so Karlie could buy petrol or fix her car so she could make it home. ‘This time she means it,’ Colleen would assure Sue.

After Scott’s request for photographs of Khandalyce, Sue found herself rifling through cupboards looking for the familiar quilt. Sue had moved into the family home after her mother died and had many of her old blankets.
She didn’t find the quilt, but she did find a photograph of Khandalyce, sitting in a stroller with the distinctive quilt behind her. The top third of the photograph showed the multicoloured musical notes that made up the quilt’s unique edges.

Sue’s daughter had taken the photograph inside their home during Karlie and Khandalyce’s visit in 2007.

‘I sent the photograph to my brother,’ Sue recalled later. ‘We were dumb struck. We didn’t know where to go or where to turn.’

Scott compared the photograph against the image of the quilt found in the suitcase. There was no doubt the fabric matched. It was a sobering moment and all but confirmed to Scott that the little girl in the suitcase he had been reading about was the granddaughter he had been looking for.

He knew he’d seen the clothing before but it was the quilt, made by his mother in the same way she carefully sewed his clothing as a young boy, that was the missing piece of the puzzle.

On 11 October, Scott emailed the photograph of his granddaughter’s blanket to Horder.

The following day, when they still haven’t heard back, Sue called Crime Stoppers. ‘I think I have some information on the child in the suitcase in Wynarka,’ she told the operator. ‘We found a picture and we believe it’s the quilt they have been looking for.’

Unbeknownst to Sue, since Tanya’s call detectives had been sourcing Khandalyce’s medical records and organising a DNA comparison.

On 12 October, two detectives from the Major Crime Investigation Branch turned up at Sue’s home. They sat around the dining table, dialled Scott’s number and put the mobile phone on loudspeaker.

As Sue listened to Detective Amanda Bridge, she knew her brother’s heart was breaking.

‘I’m really sorry to say, but it is Khandalyce.’

This is an extract from The Lost Girls by Ava Benny-Morrison, published by ABC Books and now available at all good bookstores and online.

Tags: features , true-crime
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