Quiet Brisbane park becomes site of brutal killing

By Greg Ansley

Sophie Collombet was brutally murdered in Brisbane last month.
Sophie Collombet was brutally murdered in Brisbane last month.

Kurilpa Park is a small oasis on the banks of the Brisbane River, a quiet reserve with footpaths and cycle path winding beneath the graceful William Jolly Bridge and the stark modernism of the Kurilpa Bridge.

It is a comfortable walk from here to the Gallery of Modern Art and to the city's central business district, well used by walkers and joggers.

Just down from a gas barbecue is a small picnic rotunda. Its seats and tables are decked in flowers, many bearing heart-wrenching tributes. Someone has left a large pale blue teddy bear; another a koala.


Benjamin James Milward.

It is here where on March 28 a passerby discovered the naked body of 21-year-old Sophie Collombet, a French student completing a master's degree at Griffith University a hemisphere away from her home in the alpine village of Saint-Julien-Mont-Denis.

It took almost three days to confirm her identify. Her boyfriend in France recognised five unique pieces of jewellery posted on the internet.

Sophie's brutal death, battered about the head with a blunt instrument, struck deep into Brisbane's heart. In the preceding four months three other young students, from Singapore and South Korea, had been murdered. Their deaths were not related, and the alleged killers have been arrested.

The city has poured out its grief. One card at Kurilpa Park bears a photo of Sophie stroking a kangaroo and says in French and English: "Your beautiful shining eyes, your infectious smile, will be forever in everyone's hearts."

Another reads simply: "I'm sorry your life was lost in our city. I hope you are at peace now."

On Thursday fellow students will gather for a memorial service at Griffith University's Nathan Campus. Later a candlelight vigil will begin at King George Square in central Brisbane and wend its way by the riverbank to Kurilpa Park.

Sophie's family will send a tribute to be read at the vigil. Her brother Guillaume had earlier written on Facebook: "In every corner of the sky, in every drop of water, in every iceberg, in every lake or river, in every flower, the blue of your eyes will be with us."

Rain was pelting down the night Sophie died, heavy tropical sheets that drove people from the streets, deepened the dark of night and drummed out other sounds.

A fellow student offered to drive Sophie home, but she declined and took the bus. CCTV shows her catching a bus at about 8.30pm, wearing a beige tank top, dark denim jeans and black ankle boots, carrying an umbrella and a shoulder bag containing a purse, iPod and mobile phone.

Half an hour later she left the bus and began walking. Kurilpa Park is dimly lit at night, but not especially threatening. In the past year there have been a number of petty crimes and assaults and robberies, but police do not consider it a high-crime area. But that night, with torrential rain drowning out any possible screams, Sophie was bludgeoned to death, stripped and dumped near the rotunda. Her clothes and bag have not been found.

At first completely mystified, the 60 police working the case have now focused on a 25-year-old Ipswich itinerant, Benjamin James Milward, known to frequent the area and until Sophie's death living at a men's shelter at nearby South Bank.

Milward, wearing a black singlet and long black pants, was caught on CCTV in the area the night of Sophie's death. He has not contacted family or friends, has not accessed his bank account and is believed to have been consuming booze and the methamphetamine known as ice on the night of the murder. Police issued a nationwide alert, but are not yet accusing Milward of involvement, naming him only as a person of interest. But Detective Rod Kemp said: "The longer it goes, the more suspicion's aroused with this person."

This is what Milward's family and friends fear. They urged him to report to the police. "We love you, Ben, please come home," his mother, Diane Milward, told the Courier Mail. "Why don't you call us to sort it all out?"

ABC News reported last night that Milward had been arrested in Coffs Harbour.

- NZ Herald

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