New Idea - - Official Magazine - By John Par­rish

Watch­ing chil­dren play, Jenny Zahra feels her anx­i­eties be­gin to fade.

“It’s the happy lit­tle faces and laugh­ter,” she smiles. “It re­minds me of the good times and makes me for­get the bad.”

There’s a lot to for­get. On Oct. 25, it will be three years since Jenny lost her beloved niece and god­daugh­ter, Zoe Buttigieg.

The 11-year-old was sex­u­ally as­saulted and mur­dered in her own bed.

The bru­tal crime shocked Aus­tralia and brought Jenny un­done. Only now is she be­gin­ning to heal.

Jenny’s chil­dren, Jess and Nathan, were al­ready in their teens when her brother Steve Buttigieg and his part­ner Janelle Saun­ders had Zoe. “It was lovely to have an­other baby in the fam­ily,” Jenny re­mem­bers. “I doted on her.” Steve and Janelle asked Jenny to be Zoe’s god­mother. “I’m from a Mal­tese back­ground,” she says in an ex­clu­sive in­ter­view with New Idea. “Be­ing a god­par­ent is a big deal to us. I was hugely hon­oured, and vowed I’d take care of Zoe if any­thing hap­pened to my brother and Janelle.” Sadly, when Zoe was six, Steve com­mit­ted sui­cide.

“I grieved for my brother, but also for my dev­as­tated niece who’d lost her daddy. It was an aw­ful time.”

Not long af­ter, Janelle moved from Mel­bourne to Wan­garatta.

“It was two hours away, but Zoe of­ten came to stay,” says Jenny. “She was such a happy lit­tle girl and a joy to be around. As she got older we kept in touch by phone and on so­cial me­dia too.”

The pair shared a love of shop­ping. “Zoe was such a girly girl,” Jenny laughs. “We used to aban­don my hus­band Peter and go off tour­ing mar­kets to­gether, buy­ing jew­ellery kits and head­bands. She was like a daugh­ter to me.”

In Au­gust 2015 Zoe turned 11. “She was a smart, beau­ti­ful and sporty girl with a huge smile and the world at her feet,” says Jenny. “I felt so

lucky to be in her life.”

In late Oc­to­ber, Jenny caught up with Zoe at a fam­ily gath­er­ing. “We jumped to­gether on a bouncy cas­tle and then she chased me, hit­ting me on the head with a bal­loon,” Jenny laughs. “Af­ter­wards, I kissed her good­bye and she said, ‘Love you Aunty.’ I thought I’d see her again in a few weeks, but those were the last words she ever spoke to me.”

Back home in Wan­garatta that night, Janelle and her part­ner had a few peo­ple over for drinks. Among them was Bowe Maddigan, re­cently re­leased from prison for armed robbery.

Janelle had met him through her part­ner a week be­fore. As ev­ery­one chat­ted and smoked cannabis, Maddigan slipped away. He went to Zoe’s bed­room … Later, he told de­tec­tives the sleep­ing child looked like an an­gel. That didn’t stop him sex­u­ally as­sault­ing and then stran­gling her.

Janelle dis­cov­ered her daugh­ter’s body the next morn­ing and Jenny learnt of the hor­rific mur­der when a rel­a­tive called her.

“I col­lapsed, scream­ing,” she shud­ders. “It changed me for­ever.” Janelle was paral­ysed by grief. “She needed me there to sup­port her when she gave a po­lice state­ment and then I helped or­gan­ise Zoe’s fu­neral,” says Jenny. “I had to put my grief on hold.”

Jenny per­son­ally dressed Zoe for the fu­neral in a white cardi­gan and dress. “It was the hard­est thing I’ve ever had to do.” For the next few weeks, Jenny man­aged to hold her­self to­gether. Then cracks emerged.

“I couldn’t shake the feel­ing that some­thing ter­ri­ble was go­ing to hap­pen to my kids,” she sighs. “I be­came de­pressed and anx­ious.”

She went on med­i­ca­tion, but still found it hard to cope, un­able to get over what had hap­pened.

“Zoe was such a sweet, in­no­cent lit­tle girl and what he’d done was so evil. I couldn’t make any sense of it,” Jenny ex­plains.

Each week­end she drove the two hours to Wan­garatta to visit Zoe’s grave, where she says she felt “close” to her niece.

Her mar­riage broke down and she gave up the in­sur­ance job she loved.

Jenny at­tended Maddigan’s trial, where the court heard he told po­lice “it was like a bad movie, I couldn’t stop the but­ton, I couldn’t pause the but­ton, I couldn’t rewind the but­ton.”

He was jailed for life with a non-pa­role pe­riod of 28 years, with the judge de­scrib­ing the crime as “in­com­pre­hen­si­ble and in its own way, gra­tu­itous”.

But the out­come didn’t make any dif­fer­ence to how Jenny felt.

“Zoe was gone for­ever,’ she says sim­ply. She cre­ated a photo shrine to Zoe at her Mel­bourne home and reg­u­larly vis­ited her grave site. It’s only re­cently she says she’s be­gun to slowly emerge from the fog of de­pres­sion – vol­un­teer­ing at Sun­shine Hospi­tal.

“Zoe was such a happy lit­tle girl. Even­tu­ally I came to re­alise she wouldn’t have wanted me to be so down,” Jenny ex­plains.

“I started by help­ing el­derly pa­tients get around and feed­ing them. I was mak­ing a dif­fer­ence and found that by help­ing oth­ers I was heal­ing my­self.”

But it was the play­ground for the pa­tients on the chil­dren’s ward that re­ally lifted her mood.

“Just watch­ing the kids play, chat­ting with them, made me feel bet­ter,” she says. She’s cur­rently com­plet­ing the pa­per­work to work on the chil­dren’s ward.

Jenny also bought a home at Corowa, 25 min­utes from Zoe’s grave, so she can visit more eas­ily. On the an­niver­sary of the mur­der she’ll take daf­fodils to the ceme­tery, “Zoe’s favourite flow­ers,” she says.

The gloom of that day has now been tem­pered by a cel­e­bra­tion of new life too.

Zoe had a half-sis­ter, Chloe, from her dad’s pre­vi­ous re­la­tion­ship. Chloe has re­cently given birth to a baby boy, Aaron. She chose Jenny as a god­mother.

“No­body can stay un­happy around a new baby,” Jenny smiles.

She’s en­rolled in a diploma in men­tal health and aims to work in child pro­tec­tion when she fin­ishes it. “Noth­ing can bring Zoe back,” she says. “But keep­ing other chil­dren safe will be my legacy to her.”


Jenny (pic­tured with her niece Zoe left and above) will never for­get the last con­ver­sa­tion they shared.

Zoe was just 11 years old when she was mur­dered in her own bed in a crime that shocked Aus­tralia.

Zoe’s mum Janelle (right) had met Bowe Maddigan (left) through her part­ner just a week be­fore the killing. But when he came round for drinks he be­trayed their trust in the most hor­rific way.

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