November 26, 2019 13:58:46
How does a teenage girl disappear without a trace? Ursula Barwick’s family endured 30 years of heartache as they searched for their daughter. But the answers were sitting in the police files all along.
In the late spring of 1987 as the jacarandas began flowering, a worried father reported his daughter missing at the police headquarters in Sydney.
Ursula Barwick had boarded a train at Tuggerah on the Central Coast, bound for a big adventure in Sydney.
And then she vanished.
She had just turned 17. A country girl, trusting and naive in her denim jacket and jeans. “She was in a joyful mood,” her father Peter tells Australian Story.
“Never in our wildest dreams when she got on that train, did we ever, ever think that that would be the last time we actually saw her.”
What he didn’t know then was that just weeks after he reported Ursula missing, she was found. But he would not learn the truth for another 30 years.
Instead, carrying a photo of his daughter in his wallet, Peter Barwick began a search that would take him into the sinister underbelly of society. “You soon realise what sort of deviant people are out there. And it was pretty sad to see it all firsthand.”
He swallowed his pride and walked into Kings Cross brothels asking questions.
As that sweltering summer passed, as weeks turned into months and then a year with no word, Peter knew “something possibly sinister had happened”.
How could a girl as outgoing and friendly as Ursula simply disappear? Because the possibility that she was alive but refusing to make contact just didn’t make sense.
Tumultuous teenage years
Those closest to Ursula described her as confident, bubbly, and always smiling. But her life was marked by tragedy from an early age.
She grew up in Quirindi, a New South Wales country town of about 3,000 people on the edge of the Liverpool Plains. She was a country girl who loved the outdoors.
She was very close to her older brother, Lee Andrew, who died from a rare health condition at the age of eight. Another brother, Christopher, also died soon after birth.
Her parents’ marriage collapsed under the pain of all the bereavement.
Peter met and married Elizabeth and had two more children, Andrew and Kate. They moved down to the Central Coast and Ursula would visit in the holidays. “The kids adored her and she adored the kids,” Elizabeth says.
Her cousin Melissa Pouliot remembers Ursula having a natural way with their baby cousins too. “I always had that feeling, no matter what she did with her life, it would involve lots of children.”
In Year 10, Ursula’s mother Cheree organised for her to go to Sydney to do work experience as a nanny.
Glittering Sydney was everything her country town was not. “And I think that’s when it was sown in her mind, that’s what she wanted to do, was to get to the city and work and do something like that,” Peter says.
Stifled by life in her small country town, adolescent Ursula was in full rebellion, fighting with her mother. “I think she had a great need to be wanted and liked,” her school friend Melissa Donnelly says. “Her risk taking became more extreme: excessive drinking, passing out at parties, not knowing what was going on around her.”
Another school friend Heidi Williams says: “Ursula was dabbling in things, some small drugs, being a little promiscuous … It started a rumour mill, which started off through the school, but then went through the wider community, and I think Ursula became quite scared, embarrassed.”
Struggling to cope with Ursula’s behaviour, her mother Cheree asked Peter to take her for a while. Ursula was happy to spend time with her siblings, but soon tensions grew between father and daughter.
Peter was furious when he allowed her to go to Sydney for the day and she stayed away for a couple of days.
“We did have a fairly boisterous argument. Because she basically said, ‘Well, I’m 17, I can leave home, the government’s told me this, I can do what I like’.”
Ursula told her father that she had found a job in Sydney.
Not wanting to push her away, Peter and Elizabeth agreed to support her to make the move. “As parents we had to accept the fact that we had to let her go. We thought, well at least we’ll have some contact and we’ll know what’s going on.”
Elizabeth’s father drove her to the train station mid-week. Peter had given her some cash to get settled, and he and Elizabeth were to go down to Sydney that weekend to bring her linen and other essentials. She was to call with her new address, but they never heard from Ursula again.
Time ticks by: Missing 30 years
After Ursula disappeared, Peter buried himself in work. It was better than wondering if she had run into someone like notorious killer Ivan Milat.
“My doctor wanted to put me on anti-depressants. So I went back and I worked a lot harder,” he says.
“I didn’t have the time to put myself in the situation where I could sit down and think about it. I let go of hope of having her alive after we got to that period of probably eight to 10 years.”
As the years passed, every now and then a police officer would call and say they’d taken on the case. But no family members or friends were ever formally interviewed.
Seventeen years after her disappearance, Ursula’s mother Cheree was diagnosed with bone cancer. She died without knowing what had happened to her only daughter.
Ursula’s brother Andrew became a police officer, partly in the hope that he could find his missing sister. When a colleague of his, Senior Constable Adam Marsh, got a secondment to the Missing Persons Unit, Andrew told him about Ursula.
“He said, ‘Yeah mate, if I can, I’ll have a look’. I was not hopeful … but someone having a poke around is always handy.”
Many years later that conversation became vital to solving the case.
In 2010 the Australian Federal Police featured Ursula in a major campaign using new age-progression technology. Digitally altered images of how she might look aged 40 appeared in airports and on TV. But nothing came of it.
When Ursula’s cousin Melissa saw the images, she became concerned. “Her hair colour was wrong, her eye colour was wrong, and the date she went missing was wrong.”
She made phone call after phone call, hoping to get the errors fixed. But she was told nothing could be done unless someone in the New South Wales Police Force reopened the case.
Fake name created identity confusion
In 2014, Kings Cross detectives Kurt Hayward and Amy Scott were assigned Ursula’s case as part of a statewide push inside the New South Wales Police Force to clear up stalled missing persons cases.
Family members were interviewed for the first time, and cousin Melissa helped connect them with Ursula’s school friends.
Detective Sergeant Hayward came to the conclusion, Peter says, “that it was a missing persons case gone wrong. He felt it wasn’t a homicide, it was something else”.
Elizabeth Barwick says the detectives kept them constantly informed of any lead they were chasing. “That’s what made us feel part of it this time, and that maybe this is it. Maybe this is our time.”
In 2015 Ursula was the face of the NSW Missing Persons Week campaign. This time it prompted a call to Crime Stoppers about a sighting, which turned out to be a mistaken identity. But inside the police, that campaign stirred memories for Andrew Barwick’s former colleague, Senior Constable Marsh.
Five years earlier in 2010, Senior Constable Marsh had been working on an operation at the Missing Persons Unit, comparing long-term missing person cases with unidentified remains.
While reviewing a file about a young female car crash victim, he noticed similarities with Ursula’s case, especially when he compared the photos.
He tried to confirm the victim’s identity. She’d been named as “Jessica Pearce” by a friend who saw the body at the morgue, but Senior Constable Marsh couldn’t find any trace of this mystery friend.
Could this be Ursula Barwick, but under a different name?
He prepared a media release in the hope someone might recognise her, but it was sidelined. Senior Constable Marsh has since made an official statement that his concerns were dismissed by his superiors and he didn’t mention any of this to the Barwick family at the time.
But when Senior Constable Marsh saw Ursula Barwick all over the news during Missing Persons Week 2015, he saw a different photo to the one he had previously seen on her file.
According to his statement, he “immediately got a chill down my spine. The photographs strongly resembled the photographs I had seen of the deceased female”.
By this stage, he had moved on from the Missing Persons Unit, but he wasn’t ready to let Ursula’s case go. He passed on his suspicions to the new detectives Kurt Hayward and Amy Scott.
The detectives showed the photographs of “Jessica Pearce” to Peter and Elizabeth Barwick.
“The first photograph he showed us was a body on a slab,” Peter says. “And I thought, my godfather, this is a bit horrific. But then I looked closer. Her eyes and her teeth were Ursula.” Then they got to the last photo.
“Her lying there in her jeans and her top, the clothes that she wore that we knew were exactly what she had to wear. I just looked at Lib and she looked at me and she said, ‘That’s your Ursh’.”
Peter got up and went and sat on the bed.
“I couldn’t handle it. Everything we had hoped for, dreamed of, was gone. It was the end of it. And the sad part was it happened three weeks after she disappeared. That was the hardest thing.”
Body unclaimed for months after oversight
Now, finally, they were able to put the pieces together of Ursula’s last days. Ursula had arrived in Sydney, but she didn’t really have a job as she’d told her parents.
Instead of phoning them as she had promised, she ended up in Kings Cross, hanging out and playing pool with a group of street kids. She had found a boyfriend called Mark, from Melbourne, and a kind of family with the runaway kids who lived in squats and moved around.
“She had a spark,” says Hans Tangen, one of those kids. “She was a sweet girl and very innocent compared with us. A real country bumpkin.”
She decided to introduce herself as “Jess”, a name she’d chosen for a future daughter, not knowing it would become her name for the next three decades.
On October 27, 1987, Hans, Ursula, Mark and another friend Robert left on an adventure to Melbourne. Hans had stolen a car and drove the first leg as far as Yass. But when his mate Robert took over, he turned on the cruise control.
In the early hours of the morning, and travelling at speed, the car veered into the path of a semitrailer.
Mark would become a paraplegic due to the accident. Hans would go to prison for stealing the car, Robert for reckless driving causing death.
When her body was brought into the morgue in Sydney, no-one came to claim her. It seemed that no-one mourned or missed her. As Ursula’s distraught family searched, the body of the girl known only as “Jessica” lay in the morgue for 15 months.
She was the same height as the missing girl, Ursula. They were both fair with blue eyes, in the same age range.
Eventually, “Jessica” was buried at Emu Plains Cemetery in an unmarked pauper’s grave. There was no-one to come to a funeral.
Because the police did not crosscheck Ursula’s missing persons report against unidentified bodies in the morgue, the Barwick family grieved and wondered and suffered for nearly 30 years.
Sunday Telegraph journalist Ava Benny-Morrison says Ursula’s case has highlighted massive issues with the way not only police, but other government agencies, deal with missing persons.
“You have got New South Wales Health that looks after the morgue. Then you’ve got New South Wales Police who are in charge of the investigation. They all have different records, and databases, and systems that aren’t talking to each other,” she says.
“When you have an unidentified body turn up, it’s not automatically matching against a missing person report.”
In a statement, NSW Health Pathology told Australian Story it is “working with NSW Police to support identification of complex long-term cases where this has not been previously possible”.
Right now in Australia there are an estimated 2,600 long-term missing persons cases, and more than 500 sets of unidentified human remains. While there are some efforts underway to look for matches, experts say it’s still not happening in an efficient and effective way at a national level.
Forensic DNA specialist Jodie Ward has recommended a national missing persons program be established to improve these processes. It would focus on populating Australia’s DNA database with DNA profiles from all of the unknown bones and relatives of missing persons.
“Current capability in DNA forensics could allow us to match up remains with some of these missing persons cases, and potentially give families relief,” she says.
An inquest to officially identify the car crash victim “Jessica” as Ursula Dianne Barwick was held in December 2018.
Next year there will be a second inquest where the coroner will explore why the investigation into Ursula’s disappearance went so wrong for so long.
Benny-Morrison says Ursula’s case has sparked a lot of change within the New South Wales Police Force. In a statement to Australian Story, it says it has replaced its Missing Persons Unit with a new stand-alone investigative unit, to “rectify past problems and create solutions for now and into the future”.
It says the team is currently reviewing and developing new standard operating procedures.
A final farewell
In 2017, the coroner granted the Barwick family special approval to finally have a memorial service for Ursula, which they held at Emu Plains Cemetery, close to where they think her body may be.
They’ll never know for sure because of poor record keeping at the time.
“We wanted to do what didn’t get done back in 1987. That was all Pete wanted. He just wanted to officially have that service for her,” Elizabeth says.
Even 30 years later, more than 50 family and friends came to remember her.
“It was a beautiful morning and afternoon,” Peter says. “The three police who were closely attached to it were there, and Ursula’s school friends.”
Peter says he was expecting her friends to be 17, like Ursula was when she disappeared, not the nearly 50-year-old women they’d become.
“I just thought to myself, there was a lot of other people who would have been touched if she had have survived, that would have got to know her,” he says.
“She probably would have children, she could have had anything. That was a whole myriad of things that had just disappeared in one moment.”
But the Barwicks take solace in having finally learned the truth about their daughter, something thousands of families of missing persons are still searching for.
November 26, 2019 05:57:17