MORCOMBE FAMILY EXCLUSIVE:
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.
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 (danielmorcombe.com.au), 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 danielmorcombe.com.au
“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.