Surviving twin’s guilt
Could a criminal’s confession be credible?
She clung to the belief her son was still alive
Young Daniel and Bradley were at a loose end. Off school for the holidays, Daniel wanted to go to the shopping centre a short bus ride away for a hair cut and Christmas shopping.
Their parents Denise and Bruce were out, and their older brother Dean, 16, was going to a friend’s house.
Daniel begged his twin to join him but Bradley fancied playing computer games at their home in Queensland, Australia.
So Daniel showered, dressed, and left the house.
‘I heard him say goodbye... but I didn’t turn around. He just walked out, off on his own,’ Bradley said.
Daniel walked 20 minutes to a bus stop at an underpass on Kiel Mountain Road.
Witnesses reported seeing a ‘scruffy man’ talking to Daniel and a blue car nearby. But the boy was never seen again.
When he wasn’t home by dinnertime, frantic Denise called the police. A manhunt was launched, but Daniel had vanished.
Weeks turned into months, then years.
Denise clung to the belief that her son was still alive, kept Daniel’s pyjamas folded on his bed, ready for his return.
But, slowly, the family accepted the truth. Daniel wouldn’t ever be coming home again.
In 2006, Denise packed his clothes away.
Yet their turmoil and distress continued.
In October 2010, an inquest into Daniel’s disappearance heard how he’d tried to flag down a passing bus.
The driver, running 40 minutes late, had been told not to stop for passengers. Instead, a shuttle bus was following five minutes behind.
But, by the time it reached Daniel’s stop, he’d gone.
He was likely snatched in those precious minutes by an opportunistic – and predatory – paedophile.
Meanwhile, the police reviewing the case were interviewing known sex offenders. These included convicted child rapist Brett Cowan, 36.
In 1987, Cowan had tried to strangle a 6-year-old boy in Brisbane. And, in 1994, he’d been jailed for seven years for the abduction and sexual assault of another boy, 6, in a caravan park.
A 45-minute gap in Cowan’s alibi on the day of Daniel’s disappearance made him the main suspect for the police. Yet they needed concrete evidence.
So, in August 2011, detectives launched a sting to elicit a confession. Using a controversial operation known as the Mr Big Sting, undercover officers set up a fake organised crime gang. Posing as gangsters, they invited Cowan to join them. First, he was given a small ‘job’ and paid $150 (around £100) to collect takings from a brothel. Slowly integrated into the gang, he was eventually offered a huge sum to take part in the next ‘job’. Only, first, he had to prove he was trustworthy. An undercover officer, known as Joe, told him it was well known he was suspected of the Daniel Morcombe murder. ‘So what’s the truth?’ he asked. The officer promised Cowan that, if he told them, the ‘gang’ could sort him an alibi, make
the problem go away.
‘Tell us...otherwise we can’t let you do the job,’ Joe told him. Finally, Cowan confessed. He admitted offering Daniel a lift and driving him to a remote spot, before strangling him and dumping his body.
Undercover detectives now convinced Cowan to take them to where Daniel died – to ‘get rid’ of possible evidence.
But, as they arrived at the spot, officers swooped and Cowan was arrested.
For two months, detectives searched the undergrowth. They found Daniel’s belt and shorts, remnants of his underpants and 17 fragments of bone. DNA results confirmed they were Daniel’s.
In February 2014, Brett Peter Cowan, 44, stood trial at Brisbane Supreme Court. He pleaded not guilty to murder, indecent treatment of a child and interfering with a corpse.
The prosecution said Daniel was dead ‘within an hour’ of being abducted. Its case hinged on Cowan’s confession, and the recording was played in court. In it, Cowan admitted Daniel’s murder was his ‘deepest, darkest secret’.
‘I spotted this kid at the bus stop, asked him if he wanted a lift,’ Cowan says.
He claimed he drove Daniel to a remote house, 30 minutes away, where he planned to molest him.
‘I never got that far,’ Cowan said.
‘I was starting to pull his pants down and he said, “Oh, no!” and started to struggle.
‘He started to panic and then I panicked, so I grabbed him by the throat, and before I could do anything, he was dead.’
Cowan was then heard saying that he dragged Daniel’s body into the bush, covered it with branches then threw his clothes in a creek.
Cowan didn’t give evidence, but his defence team slammed the controversial police sting.
It claimed Cowan was promised money and status by undercover officers, leading him to make a false confession.
‘Just like the police were pretending to be a gang of crooks, he pretended to be the person who killed Daniel Morcombe,’ his lawyer told the jury.
The defence pointed the finger at an alternative suspect – a convicted sex offender who’d been released a month before Daniel vanished, and who was in the area that day.
But, giving evidence by prison video link, the man denied that he had anything to do with the case.
In its closing arguments, the prosecution reminded the jury that Cowan led officers to the area where Daniel’s bones were found.
So was Cowan a victim of a controversial sting and duped into a false confession, or had he abducted and killed the boy?
A decade after Daniel Morcombe vanished, it was up to the jury to decide.
His defence slammed the police sting
Brett Cowan was found guilty of Daniel’s murder and sentenced to life in prison, to serve a minimum of 20 years.
Judge Roslyn Atkinson said Cowan’s crimes were ‘horrific and disgraceful’, and that he ‘tragically and pointlessly snuffed out a young life’.
Daniel’s father Bruce said, ‘Sitting in the same room as you revolts me.’
Bradley Morcombe, now 29 and a married father, is still haunted by his decision to stay home that day.
‘I wonder what might have happened if I’d gone with him – it’s likely he’d still be here,’ he said.
As for Daniel’s mum, her agony will never end. ‘He’ll always be a 13-yearold boy,’ says Denise.
Cowan: previous conviction for raping a child
DANIEL: Just 13 years old
Still suffering Bruce, Denise, Bradley and Dean arrive at court
Cowan: ‘horrific, disgraceful’ crime