Fif­teen years after their son’s mur­der, Denise and Bruce Mor­combe are set to open Daniel House, a place of safety and heal­ing for chil­dren in cri­sis. They share their heart­break­ing jour­ney, and a lit­tle light-hearted grand­par­ent time, with Sue Smethurst.

The Australian Women's Weekly - - Contents - P H OTO G RAP H Y by RUS­SELL SHAKE­SPEARE

learn­ing to live again 15 years after Daniel’s death

Win­ston Mor­combe races along the beach stomp­ing the waves, gig­gling as he splashes Nanna and Pa. He squeals with de­light when they catch him and Nanna scoops him up, nuz­zling his neck, soak­ing up his essence.

The two-year-old with fa­mil­iar blue eyes is bliss­fully un­aware of the joy his ar­rival has brought to a fam­ily that has suf­fered im­mea­sur­able heartache.

“He’s been the turn­ing point in our lives,” says Denise Mor­combe. “The minute he was born and we saw that lit­tle face, we were in love. He gives us such joy. He has two speeds – fast and asleep,” she grins, “and he has big blue eyes just like Daniel’s.”

In De­cem­ber the Mor­combes mark 15 years since their son Daniel, then 13, dis­ap­peared.

His ab­duc­tion and mur­der sparked the big­gest man­hunt in Aus­tralian his­tory.

For the fam­ily, the day will be spent qui­etly re­mem­ber­ing, but soon after the Mor­combes will ful l a pledge to Daniel that he would never be for­got­ten when they open Daniel House, a per­ma­nent home for the Daniel Mor­combe Foun­da­tion from where they pro­vide coun­selling ser­vices for child vic­tims of abuse and con­tinue their ground-break­ing na­tional child safety work.

“I hate an­niver­saries, par­tic­u­larly that day, it’s aw­ful,” says Denise, “but we’re de­ter­mined to cre­ate a legacy to Daniel that will help oth­ers.”

There’s an over­whelm­ing fa­mil­iar­ity when you meet Bruce and Denise Mor­combe, an in­cli­na­tion to reach out and bear hug them like you’ve bumped into an old friend, un­til you re­mem­ber why you recog­nise them.

Bruce, 59, and Denise, 57, are the very hu­man face of a crime that shocked Aus­tralians to the core and broke our hearts.

On 7 De­cem­ber, 2003, their son Daniel left his fam­ily home at Palm­woods on Queens­land’s Sun­shine Coast to catch the bus to the nearby shop­ping cen­tre so he could buy his mum a Christ­mas present. Daniel asked his twin brother, Bradley, and older brother, Dean, to go with him, but on that day, nei­ther was par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested. So, as he had done many times be­fore, Daniel

wan­dered down the road to catch the bus. But this time he never re­turned.

Daniel wasn’t the sort of kid to run away and Bruce and Denise im­me­di­ately knew some­thing was wrong. Soon, his big dim­ply smile and blue eyes ap­peared on news ser­vices around the coun­try as the hunt for Daniel be­gan. No one could for­get the grief in Denise’s voice as she bravely fronted the me­dia along­side Bruce, one week after Daniel van­ished and begged, “I just want him to come home, we want Daniel back.”

It was the be­gin­ning of a tire­less cam­paign to nd their son dur­ing which they cre­ated a web­site (daniel­mor­, gave press con­fer­ences, sparked a red rib­bon cam­paign, or­gan­ised a Day for Daniel and placed posters and im­ages on ev­ery space they could nd. Ev­ery wak­ing minute was ded­i­cated to nd­ing Daniel, but he’d van­ished with­out a trace.

The Mor­combes pur­sued dozens of the hun­dreds of tip-offs they re­ceived in the im­me­di­ate years after Daniel dis­ap­peared. At ev­ery op­por­tu­nity, they knocked on doors, met strangers in car parks, sat with psy­chics and spent hours search­ing back­roads and bush­land for any sign of him.

Fif­teen years on, some of those mo­ments are seared into their mem­ory, such as the blis­ter­ingly hot day, three years after Daniel’s dis­ap­pear­ance, when they were down on their hands and knees in bush­land on the Sun­shine Coast hin­ter­land, des­per­ately dig­ging at the earth, cling­ing to the hope the sweat-stained scrap of pa­per in Bruce’s pocket would at last help them nd his body.

A rush of adrenalin surged through them when they came across a run­down weath­er­board shack and a clear­ing in the mid­dle of the bush, two of the land­marks on the scrawly, hand-drawn map which had been smug­gled out of Bris­bane prison. But after hours of dig­ging they stopped, hugged and cried. Ex­hausted, de­hy­drated and ut­terly de ated, they’d been led on a wild goose chase again. It was time to go home.

“There were many ru­mours about where he was,” Denise says, “so we found our­selves trawl­ing through all sorts of strange, haunt­ing and un­wel­come places.”

But they never gave up. Not for one day. Not for one minute.

Along the way, their ef­forts to nd Daniel grew into the Daniel Mor­combe Foun­da­tion. At rst, the plan was to keep Daniel’s im­age and plight in the news, but they soon re­alised there was need for much more.

“We couldn’t have imag­ined there would be peo­ple in the world so evil, and we naively thought hav­ing three boys made our kids safer,” Denise says. “We saw no rea­son our boys wouldn’t be safe. Our eyes were opened to the world very quickly.”

The foun­da­tion, which be­gan in 2005, gave them a pos­i­tive place to chan­nel their en­ergy while keep­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion alive. Since then, they’ve driven more than a mil­lion kilo­me­tres around Australia vis­it­ing schools to teach kids how to be safe. In Queens­land alone, they’ve ad­dressed 260,000 stu­dents, vis­ited over a thou­sand schools and com­mu­nity groups and have been ap­pointed Child Safety Am­bas­sadors for the Queens­land Gov­ern­ment.

“We were just an av­er­age fam­ily, we didn’t know of child abuse. Now we know it can hap­pen to any­one,” Denise says.

In Au­gust 2011, the Mor­combes nally had an an­swer when fa­ther of three Brett Cowan was charged with Daniel’s mur­der. Cowan had al­ready been jailed twice for sick­en­ing at­tacks on chil­dren, the rst against a sev­enyear-old boy in Bris­bane, the sec­ond against a six-year-old boy in Dar­win. Cowan lived not far from the Mor­combes’ home and was one of the rst per­sons of in­ter­est po­lice in­ter­viewed in the days after Daniel’s dis­ap­pear­ance.

Eight long years later dur­ing a covert po­lice sting, Cowan led de­tec­tives to a macadamia farm close to the Glasshouse moun­tains where he

“We naively thought hav­ing three boys made our kids safe.”

had taken Daniel’s body, eerily close to where Bruce and Denise were search­ing that day years be­fore.

Ini­tially, the fam­ily weren’t al­lowed to visit the site for fear they may con­tam­i­nate ev­i­dence, but nally po­lice agreed and took them to a view­ing spot nearby where they could wit­ness the search for their son un­fold.

“We needed to see it,” Denise says. “We were all dressed in full white foren­sic suits and had to have blood tests be­fore we went there, so our DNA was listed. It was aw­ful, like noth­ing we’ve ever en­coun­tered and I never want to see that again. I will never for­get the pain on the boys’ faces.”

The search for Daniel’s re­mains took six weeks dur­ing which the Mor­combes were ful lling a long­planned cal­en­dar of school vis­its for the Foun­da­tion.

“It was so drawn out,” Denise ex­plains, “a shoe here, a bone there, the po­lice would al­ways con­tact us to say they’d found some­thing. Some­times we were in the mid­dle of a school visit when we’d get that aw­ful call.”

“We were about to walk into a class­room full of chil­dren one day when the Po­lice Com­mis­sioner called to say they’d found Daniel’s shoul­der,” Bruce adds. “We took a moment out­side the class­room to com­pose our­selves, then opened the door to all of th­ese chil­dren look­ing up at us, and we just had to put on a smile and get on with it. It was gru­elling but it was point­less sit­ting around wait­ing.”

It was an­other 15 months be­fore they were able to bury Daniel. Po­lice kept his re­mains for foren­sic ev­i­dence needed for Cowan’s trial, but on 7 De­cem­ber, 2012, nine years after he van­ished, the Mor­combes were nally able to farewell their son. More than 2000 peo­ple at­tended his funeral ser­vice.

“Daniel’s funeral was signi cant for us. The day after, Bradley and Dean were like dif­fer­ent peo­ple. It was like a big weight had been lifted off them and us,” Denise says. “His grave helps. It gives us com­fort hav­ing a place we can go to hon­our him.”

“Any par­ent will tell you there’s noth­ing worse than bury­ing your own child,” Bruce adds. “The day it­self was ter­ri­ble, but the day after there was a sense of re­lief. We felt we’d done the right thing by Daniel.”

Amaz­ingly, Bruce and Denise be­lieve that among stu­dents they’ve pre­sented their safety mes­sage to are the chil­dren of the man who killed their son, in­no­cent vic­tims of an evil fa­ther.

“We’ve been to the schools we sus­pect they go to,” Denise says. “We think about them, what their fa­ther did is not their fault. What a dread­ful bur­den they must live with.”

“We feel sorry for them,” Bruce adds. “One day they’re go­ing to re­alise what their fa­ther has done. That’s a lot to live with and the im­pact on them is enor­mous. We hope they are get­ting a lot of sup­port.”

The day Daniel dis­ap­peared Bruce and Denise joined a rare but mis­er­able club no-one wants to join, of par­ents un­wit­tingly thrust into the spot­light un­der the worst cir­cum­stances. They’ve of­fered and re­ceived coun­sel from Lindy Cham­ber­lain, Gerry and Kate

McCann whose daugh­ter Madeleine went miss­ing in Por­tu­gal in 2007, and the fam­ily of miss­ing NSW tod­dler Wil­liam Tyrell. At the drop of a hat, they’ll travel many miles, of­ten through the night, to have a cup of tea with fam­i­lies whose chil­dren have van­ished, happy to help when­ever they can.

After speak­ing with Bruce and Denise, Kate McCann sent a heart­felt note thank­ing them for their sup­port and they’ve re­mained rm friends. “You, un­like most peo­ple, will be able to ap­pre­ci­ate the pain, anx­i­ety, anger and aw­ful in­de­scrib­able ex­is­tence of not know­ing,” she wrote.

It helps know­ing they can be of com­fort, but their life’s work now comes from keep­ing kids safe in the rst place.

In Oc­to­ber they will once again hold the Day for Daniel and will con­duct “Australia’s Big­gest Safety Les­son”, an online pro­gram teach­ing per­sonal safety to kids in ev­ery cor­ner of Australia. Last year, more than 100,000 stu­dents watched the les­son si­mul­ta­ne­ously. In Au­gust, the Foun­da­tion re­ceived their fourth Queens­land Child Pro­tec­tion Week Award for their work. Soon, they’ll also launch a new pro­gram of safety lessons for three to eight year olds, and a grand­par­ents’ in­for­ma­tion pack.

Re ect­ing on the past 15 years, Bruce says, “in some ways it’s a long time, but in other ways it feels like yes­ter­day. We know we’ve achieved a lot with the work of the foun­da­tion and we take com­fort in that.

“There is a pub­lic im­age that we’re strong be­cause we put for­ward a brave face and we’d never give up. But be­hind closed doors it was hard, and we had days when we were re­ally strug­gling. Not many peo­ple saw the pri­vate per­sona. Our whole life was turned upside down.”

“Daniel’s dis­ap­pear­ance never leaves us,” Denise adds. “We can both tell you dates, times and con­ver­sa­tions as clear as the day it hap­pened. We have our sad days but I can walk past Daniel’s photo now and not cry all day as I would’ve done.

“Birth­days and an­niver­saries are hard. Try­ing to cel­e­brate Brad’s birth­day when it should be Daniel’s too hurts. Mother’s Day is dif cult and at fam­ily events there’s al­ways one miss­ing. Some­times we head away some­where quiet rather than face it.”

Hap­pier times are ahead. The cou­ple re­cently cel­e­brated their 35th an­niver­sary and are count­ing down to Dean, 30, and girl­friend Alice’s wed­ding.

Right on cue Win­ston, the son of Daniel’s twin Bradley, snug­gles up to Nanna, ready for a nap.

“We look for­ward to the fu­ture with Win­ston,” she smiles. “He takes us to a happy place. Be­ing together with the fam­ily gives us joy and brings us peace. We trea­sure all those mo­ments, even if they’re some­times tinged with sad­ness.”

“But Win­ston needs a brother or sis­ter to share the lime­light!” Bruce smiles. “He’s spoilt rot­ten!”

To do­nate to the Daniel Mor­combe Foun­da­tion or par­tic­i­pate in the Day for Daniel on Fri­day 26 Oc­to­ber, visit daniel­mor­

“Be­ing together with the fam­ily gives us joy and brings us peace.”

Win­ston has brought longed for joy to Denise. LEFT: Bradley, Daniel’s twin, and wife Anna wel­comed their baby in 2016. Daniel

In hap­pier times, the Mor­combe fam­ily en­joy a day on the wa­ter with sons Daniel, Dean and Bradley. LEFT: The Mor­combes have vis­ited thou­sands of schools and have been ap­pointedChild Safety Am­bas­sadors.

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