THE KILLER IN THE BEDROOM
THREE YEARS ON FROM THE CRIME THAT SHOCKED AUSTRALIA, ZOE BUTTIGIEG’S FAMILY REMEMBER HER
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.”
“IT WAS LIKE A BAD MOVIE,” MADDIGAN HAS SAID OF HIS EVIL CRIME “ZOE WAS SUCH A SWEET, INNOCENT LITTLE GIRL AND WHAT HE’D DONE WAS SO EVIL...”
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.