Little girl lost: On the trail of Tiahleigh Palmer's killer

Tiahleigh Palmer's body was found a week after she was allegedly killed. Photo / News Corp Australia
Tiahleigh Palmer's body was found a week after she was allegedly killed. Photo / News Corp Australia

For better or worse, catching a killer sometimes necessitates a little smoke and mirrors.

For nearly 11 months, detectives investigating the murder of 12-year-old Brisbane schoolgirl Tiahleigh Palmer told one story of her disappearance publicly.

Privately, they've suspected, for at least six of those months, that none of it was true.

As they worked, squirrel-like, behind the scenes, gathering the evidence that would prove what they now allege, they continued to tell it.

It gave them the time they needed to ensure their case was solid. It had to be.

Because who ever would have thought the salt-of-the-earth man who opened his idyllic rural home to a disadvantaged 12-year-old girl would be charged with murder?

And who ever would have thought the rest of his family - the seemingly good-hearted foster mother and her two adult sons, who also welcomed Tiahleigh into their lives - would be charged with allegedly covering up the heinous crime?

Right up until last week, when investigators seized a blue Ford Falcon they described as a "vehicle of interest" in the investigation, police maintained that Tiahleigh was last seen when, on the morning of October 30 last year, foster father Rick Thorburn dropped Tiahleigh off at Marsden State High School about 8.15am.

Detective Superintendent David Hutchinson in an early appeal for information over Tiahleigh's death. Photo / Regi Varghese, News Corp Australia
Detective Superintendent David Hutchinson in an early appeal for information over Tiahleigh's death. Photo / Regi Varghese, News Corp Australia

She never made it inside the school gates.

It was said to be the last time she was seen alive.

The prevailing public theory was that Tiahleigh had a secret, prearranged meeting with an unknown stranger, and that person was the one who killed the schoolgirl and dumped her semi-naked body on the banks of the Pimpama River, 30 kilometres away.

Detectives trawled her social media accounts and found no evidence that would point to such a meeting.

However, the investigation was complicated by the sometimes-unreliable memories of children.

Tiahleigh Palmer was allegedly murdered at the Chambers Flat property where she had lived as a foster child for 10 months. Photo / News Corp Australia
Tiahleigh Palmer was allegedly murdered at the Chambers Flat property where she had lived as a foster child for 10 months. Photo / News Corp Australia

Among the hundreds of students they interviewed, there were those who were adamant they had seen her the morning she vanished.

There was even one who claimed to have seen her in a nearby McDonald's before school, however, a review of CCTV footage did not corroborate the sighting.

Also uncorroborated was Thorburn's version of events.

Nothing supported the claim he dropped his foster daughter at school that morning.

Because, police will allege, he didn't.

He had allegedly killed her the night before.

Rather than the mysterious stranger, it became apparent to detectives the killer they were seeking may have been much closer to home.

Inside Tiahleigh's home, it will be alleged.

The Thorburn family, Rick, Josh, Julene and Trent, are all accused of involvement in Tiahleigh's murder. Photo / News Corp Australia
The Thorburn family, Rick, Josh, Julene and Trent, are all accused of involvement in Tiahleigh's murder. Photo / News Corp Australia

Throughout the high-profile hunt for the person who murdered the pre-teen, few outside the investigative team even considered Rick and Julene Thorburn and their sons, Josh and Trent, as possibly being involved in her death.

The couple raised the alarm with authorities that Tiahleigh was missing when they turned up at Marsden State High School on October 30 to collect her and were informed she had not attended that day.

At her funeral, Rick Thorburn was one of six pallbearers clad in purple T-shirts, bearing the words "RIP Tiahleigh", who carried her small white coffin and grieved the loss of her young life along 600 other mourners.

In the many public appeals for information, it was her absent mother, New Zealander Cindy Palmer, who lost her daughter to foster care after a jail stint in 2011, that faced the cameras as the grieving loved one desperately seeking information.

The Thorburns were nowhere to be seen, although their absence was explained by the strict privacy controls that govern foster carers.

Until this week, few in the media even knew their names.

Publicly, many expressed sorrow for them.

In an interview with the Weekend Australian earlier this year, Foster Care Queensland executive director Bryan Smith said the Thorburns had their hands tied by the Child Protection Act, that any public appeal for information they made would put them at risk of prosecution.

"­Carers are told very clearly that their hands are tied and to essentially sit on them and wait," he said.

"It's absolutely heart-wrenching. These kids are family members."

A Marsden State High School student lays flowers for Tiahleigh, after her body was found. Photo / Jack Tran, News Corp Australia
A Marsden State High School student lays flowers for Tiahleigh, after her body was found. Photo / Jack Tran, News Corp Australia

As a matter of protocol, from the outset, investigators turned their attention to the Thorburn family.

But it was Facebook that blocked them from finding a crucial piece of information, something that could have cracked the case much earlier.

A court was told this week that Trent Thorburn, then 18 and the youngest member of the family, allegedly used Facebook Messenger to confess to a cousin he had sex with his 12-year-old foster sister.

He further went on to reveal his fears that Tiahleigh was pregnant.

It's a powerful potential motive for murder.

Before Tiahleigh was reported missing the message was deleted.

When detectives applied to Facebook in the early stages of the investigation to examine the family's social media profiles, their request was refused.

Trent Thorburn was allegedly involved in a sexual relationship with Tiahleigh. Photo / News Corp Australia
Trent Thorburn was allegedly involved in a sexual relationship with Tiahleigh. Photo / News Corp Australia

In the beginning, the theory that a prearranged meeting with a stranger led to her death was the most likely one.

By March, however, when a $250,000 reward and indemnity from prosecution was put on the table for anyone who would provide the information that would catch Tiahleigh's killer, it was clear the direction of the investigation had changed.

There was talk of there being more than one person involved in her death and it was hoped the financial carrot would prompt one of the less involved to turn.

The Thorburn family, however, allegedly maintained their silence.

It was an anonymous tip in April that gave the detectives the breakthrough they needed.

At this point, Cindy Palmer remained in the dark. When investigators seized a blue Ford Falcon for forensic examination last week and declared it a "vehicle of interest", she was not told who it once belonged to.

Police will allege Rick Thorburn used the car to drive his young foster daughter's lifeless body from his home, where he is alleged to have killed her, to the banks of the Pimpama River, where her decaying body was found a week later by fishermen.

After her death, he sold the car online.

Cindy Palmer learned the car once belonged to the Thorburn family through a third party.

Its seizure, and the inference that the family were suspects in her daughter's death, appeared to be as much a bombshell revelation to her as it was to everyone else.

Cindy Palmer, who described herself as "extremely upset" over the allegations Tiahleigh's foster family had killed her. Photo / Lyndon Mechielsen/The Australian, News Corp Australia
Cindy Palmer, who described herself as "extremely upset" over the allegations Tiahleigh's foster family had killed her. Photo / Lyndon Mechielsen/The Australian, News Corp Australia

On the "Justice 4 Tiahleigh" Facebook page, she expressed her disbelief.

"The car that was seized is identical to the one that ... and ... had, the one they had sold within days of Tiahleigh's body being found," she wrote. "And as the news and police depicted this car was in the possession of a new owner who was NOT a suspect in their investigation ...

"... and ... were the carers of Tiahleigh, the people who were intrusted [sic] where [sic] her care and wellbeing, the same carers who are publicly selling up everything they own."

It came, as homicide Detective Inspector Damien Hansen said the following day, at a "crucial stage" in the investigation.

It came just as police were granted access to the family's Facebook profiles, where they were able to access the vital message Trent Thorburn had allegedly deleted.

Their case was building but they were not yet ready to swoop.

Ms Palmer was ordered to take the post down but it was too late.

Media outlets had picked up on the explosive new twist in the mystery and soon it was everywhere.

The police had no choice but to move.

Detective Inspector Damien Hansen described the 11 month investigation into Tiahleigh's murder as one of the most complicated of his career. Photo / Jack Tran, News Corp Australia
Detective Inspector Damien Hansen described the 11 month investigation into Tiahleigh's murder as one of the most complicated of his career. Photo / Jack Tran, News Corp Australia

The Thorburn family was all taken into custody for questioning.

Rick Thorburn, the 56-year-old family patriarch, was soon after charged with the murder of his foster daughter and interfering with her corpse.

Thorburn, who refuses to co-operate with police, according to Insp Hansen, apparently did not take the development well.

He is alleged to have overdosed on pills while in custody at a Beenleigh watch-house in a bid to take his own life.

Tiahleigh's foster father Rick Thorburn has been charged with her murder. Photo / Jack Tran, News Corp Australia
Tiahleigh's foster father Rick Thorburn has been charged with her murder. Photo / Jack Tran, News Corp Australia

After being rushed to Brisbane's Princess Alexandra Hospital, he was transferred on Friday to the Arthur Gorrie Correctional Centre.

Trent Thorburn was charged with incest, two counts of perjury and attempting to pervert the course of justice.

He was denied bail in Beenleigh Magistrates court on Wednesday and also remains in custody.

It's understood the 19-year-old will make a fresh bail application to the Queensland Supreme court at a later date.

Julene Thorburn, 54, and her son Josh, 20, have also been charged.

Both face one charge each of attempting to pervert the course of justice and perjury.

The family is alleged to have all lied to the Queensland Crime and Corruption Commission in coercive hearings, in which they were questioned about Trent's sexual relationship with Tiahleigh and their involvement in her murder.

The corruption watchdog has the power to compel people to answer questions.

On Friday, Insp Hansen said both Julene, 54, and Josh, 20, had provided statements to police, in which they are believed to have provided a lot of information.

Julene Thorburn with one of her horses at her property in Chambers Flat on Friday. Photo / Jack Tran, News Corp Australia
Julene Thorburn with one of her horses at her property in Chambers Flat on Friday. Photo / Jack Tran, News Corp Australia

The pair has returned to their rural Chambers Flat home, the alleged scene of Tiahleigh's murder.

In bizarre scenes, Julene Thorburn has been seen feeding horses as forensic police search her property.

It remains a crime scene and is likely to for some days, Insp Hansen said.

Forensic police have been scouring the property for clues in the homicide investigation and on Friday began digging at parts of the acreage with an excavator.

Key to the evidence they are looking for are the school uniform and pink backpack Tiahleigh was believed to be wearing when she died.

The items have not been seen since she vanished.

Despite the circumstances that led to the rapid expedition of the investigation this week, Insp Hansen on Friday declared himself pleased with the progress of the investigation.

"I'm very happy with where it sits," he said.

Now, the focus shifts to the judicial process.

In her first public statement since the bombshell arrests of her daughter's foster family on Friday, Ms Palmer urged the public to be cognisant of the potential ramifications commenting on the case may have.

After 11 long months of not knowing what happened to Tiahleigh, the arduous legal process stretching ahead of her now begins.

"I miss my daughter terribly every day and a piece of my heart is missing," she said.

"I'll not let Tiahleigh's death be in vain.

"The time has come to get justice for Tiahleigh and I ask everyone to let the judicial system work.

"Please refrain from speculating or spreading any information that may damage the hard work the Queensland police have done."

Hundreds of Marsden residents gathered for a candle light vigil at a local park to pay their respects to schoolgirl Tiahleigh Palmer. Photo / Scott Fletcher, News Corp Australia
Hundreds of Marsden residents gathered for a candle light vigil at a local park to pay their respects to schoolgirl Tiahleigh Palmer. Photo / Scott Fletcher, News Corp Australia

Insp Hansen during the week described the case as one of the hardest of his career.

Hundreds of police have been enlisted to help with reviewing hours of CCTV footage and following more than 3500 lines of inquiry.

"One person doesn't solve a homicide and particularly something like this. This is one of the most difficult I've ever worked on," he said.

"We've had dedicated police on this for a long period of time, 11 months ... it's just been a great team effort."

At times since Tiahleigh's death, it seemed no one would ever be charged in relation to her death.

And while it has taken nearly a year to arrive at this week's charges, Insp Hanson said that, for the little girl who loved to dance, his team's work is far from done.

"By no means is it over. There's a lot of work to go on with yet," he said.

- news.com.au

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