Sur­viv­ing twin’s guilt

Could a crim­i­nal’s con­fes­sion be cred­i­ble?

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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

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