The Australian Women's Weekly
My little girl was killed by an internet predator
Ten years ago, Sonya Ryan’s daughter, Carly, became the first Australian to be murdered by an online predator. Since then, Sonya has fought tirelessly to ensure that those who prey on children online are brought to justice, writes Genevieve Gannon.
Sonya Ryan was only 20 years old when her daughter, Carly, was born. Sonya was young and single and life, at times, was tough. When she was struggling to make ends meet, it was the knowledge that her daughter needed her that gave her strength.
“In a strange kind of way, Carly saved my life a number of times and gave me purpose when I was a young woman,” says Sonya.
“We’ve just always had this really strong bond. We always had each other.”
In photos, Carly and Sonya look like a matching pair. They have the same warm brown eyes and chestnut hair framing pretty, heart-shaped faces. Their chins are similar and the daughter’s smile is an echo of the mother’s.
As Carly grew, the bond between mother and daughter evolved, but never faltered. Sonya became a confidante to her teenage daughter, a sharer of secrets and a provider of wisdom.
When Carly met a boy online whom she connected with – a musician named “Brandon Kane” from Melbourne – she didn’t hesitate to tell her mother. Sonya would occasionally look over her daughter’s shoulder as Carly chatted with the boy on her computer, but she never saw anything to alarm her. For 18 months, Carly wrote to “Brandon” and by the time they were planning to meet, Carly believed herself in love.
Tragically, there was no “Brandon”. The object of Carly’s affection was a creation of a 50-year-old paedophile named Garry Francis Newman, and when Carly went to meet him one evening in February 2007, he murdered her.
Shocked and shattered, Sonya struggled to come to grips with what had happened. Carly had been her reason for living and now she felt her own life was over.
Eleven days after Carly’s body was found, police pounced on Newman. When they raided his Victorian home, he was once again online, chatting to a girl in Perth. He had 200 different online personas. Sonya vowed that she would do everything in her power to ensure that no parent ever had to suffer what she did. “Something really special happened,” says Sonya. “I kind of guess that love connection between myself and my daughter sparked this national campaign to protect children from suffering.”
Ten years after her death, a law bearing Carly’s name was passed in the federal Parliament on June 15. Thanks to Sonya’s tireless work, law enforcement officers no longer have to wait until a predator acts before they can charge them.
In August, Carly’s Law was used for the first time. Police swooped on a 35-year-old convicted sex offender who they allege was pretending to be a young woman online in order to groom children. The Adelaide man is facing a total of 14 charges, including sharing child pornography and grooming children online.
“The idea that this guy has been arrested, taken off the internet and out of the lives of these kids [gives me] a sense of huge relief,” says Sonya.
“I just want to jump into the next dimension and hold Carly in my arms, and tell her what her legacy has done.”
Sonya now conducts seminars to educate people on how to stay safe online. The Carly Ryan Foundation has developed a safety app called Thread and a family internet usage contract to give parents tools to help keep their children safe.
The United Nations recently pledged support for her efforts and has asked Sonya to appear at online safety seminars around the world. Motivated by love, Sonya is charging on with her mission with unblinking focus. She has had one victory, but as she tells
The Weekly, her crusade has only just begun.
Once, “stranger danger” was something that threatened children when they went outside. It lurked in empty streets and deserted parks. Kids had it drummed into them not to get into a car with a person they didn’t know. Yet the internet age has brought the predators into our homes. And now, with smartphones, they can reach a child in their bedroom, at all hours. “Stranger danger” has become something children carry around in their pockets.
The UN estimates there are up to 750,000 sex offenders online and in our interconnected world, national borders are meaningless. “They can be anonymous,” Sonya says. “They can literally find many hundreds of thousands of children online, on their phone in their bedrooms every night. From a criminal’s perspective, what a
wonderful platform to infiltrate the life of an innocent child.”
Sonya wants parents to know how easily these shadowy creatures can access their children.
“When you come from a normal functioning family, I just think you’re not prepared,” she says. “You can’t even imagine that someone would literally spend their waking hours creating lives that don’t exist. It just doesn’t enter your mind.
“That’s certainly what happened to us.”
In 2007, this new threat had not fully revealed itself. Carly was the first person to be murdered in Australia by someone who had groomed her online. And it happened despite precautions taken by her mother.
Newman’s subterfuge extended to the creation of “Shane”, a fictitious stepfather to the fake “Brandon”. On January 26, 2007, “Shane” attended Carly’s 15th birthday party in Adelaide. He gave her a present of lingerie and a nurse’s outfit. After the party, Carly told her mother that “Shane” had touched her in a sexual way. Sonya tracked down “Shane”’s email address and warned him to stay away.
She received an abusive email from the address, firstname.lastname@example.org. “B**CH PLEASE!”, it began. “That email was so full of lies and heresay [sic] and I am disgusted me [sic] that someone of a reasonable intelligence could believe such crap to be true.
“The thing’s [sic] you called me were totally defaming and I have forwarded the email onto my solicitor for further action.”
Sonya took away Carly’s access to the internet and confiscated her phone.
“I didn’t realise he already had his hooks in as ‘Brandon’,” she says.
Carly had been manipulated and Sonya believes the predator would have told her to lie about where she was going on the night she snuck out to meet the person she thought was ‘Brandon’. “I’m sure Carly must have been thinking, finally, after all this time, finally she’s going to meet the boy that adores her,” says Sonya, “and that’s the lure that he used to get her out of the house, away from her safety network.”
On February 19, Carly told her mother she was going to meet up with some girlfriends and would stay overnight. She was all dressed up when she skipped off the veranda and called out, “Love you, Mum!”
It was the last time Sonya ever saw her alive. Carly’s body was discovered early the next morning in the shallow water of a beach near Port Elliot in South Australia. She had 19 separate injuries from at least six to eight blows to the head. An autopsy found she had died as a result of drowning associated with craniofacial trauma.
Investigators believe that Newman pummelled Carly so severely either with his fists or a blunt instrument – forensic scientists could not be sure which – that she was most likely unconscious when she was left face down in the water.
“Even now I can’t believe what unfolded,” Sonya says. “When I talk, I feel like I’m telling a story out of a movie – a horror movie. This is real. This is reality, this is everything that Carly has lost. Still talking about it today, it seems unreal.”
After he killed Carly, Newman didn’t stop. “Brandon” was chatting to a girl in Perth when police raided his home.
“When they opened his drawers, there were literally books, pages and pages, of fake ages, fake names, fake passwords,” Sonya says.
“The lengths he went to to get his hands on Carly were just something [police had] never seen before. He used looped live vision of a boy actually typing.”
These days, the sight of password records and material to support the creation of online personas would not shock law enforcement officers. Not only is online grooming more common, the predators are more sophisticated. Sonya says paedophiles are now making contact with children online and meeting up with them within a matter of weeks.
Following the August arrest of the 35-year-old Adelaide man, Australian Federal Police Commander Lesa Gale said Carly’s Law had potentially saved a life. “Sonya campaigned tirelessly for a law that would give police more power to intervene before a predator has a chance to act,” Commander Gale said.
The legislation is “fundamental” to police being able to protect children from harm, she said.
Senator Skye Kakoschke-Moore, from the Nick Xenophon Team, who tabled the Carly’s Law bill in Parliament, says an important gap in legislation has been closed. “During the past seven or eight years, when Sonya had been campaigning, law enforcement agencies, particularly the AFP, were crying out because they saw the need,” she says.
I didn’t realise he had his hooks in as ‘Brandon’.
“The way the law works now is if you’re an adult and you’re using a carriage service like the internet to communicate with a child under 16, and in that communication you’re planning to or preparing to cause harm to that child, then you’re caught by Carly’s Law. We’ve captured the lying about their age quite clearly in the legislation.”
Having achieved this, Sonya is still living and fighting for her daughter. “She was so loving and trusting, and very forgiving,” says Sonya.
“She was the kind of child who would always come to me and say things like, ‘My friend’s upset,’ or ‘I’m worried about my friend, what can I do?’ She was always very compassionate and caring.”
In addition to her efforts to educate about online safety, Sonya is lobbying policy makers to review current sentencing practises for child abusers. “There’s no use having this legislation if when these creeps get
When it comes to protecting children, the sky’s the limit.
into the system, they’re getting a suspended or very minimal sentence, and that’s kind of the next step,” she says.
In this battle, she has Senator Kakoschke-Moore behind her.
“The Nick Xenophon Team will always support Sonya when she’s doing work in this space because we know what she’s been through and she’s clearly identified where the laws are weak,” Senator Kakoschke-Moore said.
The Senator may well have her work cut out for her.
“Who knows where this is going to end up?” says Sonya. “As far as I’m concerned, when it comes to protecting children, the sky’s the limit.
“I’ll do anything to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”