Aussie mother begs daughter's killer to break 18-year silence

By Marnie O’Neill

"I was so lucky to be her mother," Loraine Bright says of her daughter Michelle (pictured), who was murdered at 17 on February 27, 1999. Photo / Sourced: News Corp Australia
"I was so lucky to be her mother," Loraine Bright says of her daughter Michelle (pictured), who was murdered at 17 on February 27, 1999. Photo / Sourced: News Corp Australia

The mother of a schoolgirl murdered in a tiny country town has issued an extraordinary plea to the "monster" who killed her.

Monday marks 18 years since Michelle Bright, 17, vanished after being dropped off outside the Commercial Hotel in Gulgong, in NSW's Central Tablelands, on the night of February 27, 1999.

Her body was found dumped face down in long grass on the side of Barney's Reef Rd, about 1km from her home, three days later, reports News.com.au

Despite a coronial inquest and a standing reward of $500,000 - the second highest in the state behind the $1 million on offer in the case of missing boy William Tyrrell - her killer has never been identified.

Time has not dulled the distress Michelle's mother Loraine Bright feels at the loss of her "best mate". If anything, the pain has intensified with every year that has passed without justice served.

"Michelle has now been gone for longer than she was with us," Loraine, a school librarian assistant, told news.com.au.

"Yet the horrible person who took her has lived a life for 18 years. He's probably had a career, travelled, been married and had children of his own - all the things that he stole from my daughter.

"You would think it gets easier as the years go by but it doesn't. I wake up to the same nightmare every day: my daughter is still dead and that monster is still out there."

Now Loraine has a powerful message for Michelle's killer and those he may have shared his terrible secret with. She is hoping with all her heart that her plea will strike at their consciences - if not their hearts - and compel them to do the right thing.

"What I want to say to him, my daughter's killer, is this: 'Look at your children. Do you have a daughter? Go and watch her while she's sleeping. Look at her peaceful, innocent face and imagine someone doing to that to her'," she said.

"What you did destroyed my life. It destroyed my marriage. Nothing has been the same since you took Michelle. I live with this every day, the pain never goes away. It's not getting any easier because of all the milestones that Michelle would have had.

"I've been to all her friends' weddings. They're all starting to have babies and some of them are on to their second and I feel so sad because Michelle will never get to experience any of that.

"It's not their fault and I'm so happy for them and it's wonderful to be a part of their lives but it's a constant reminder of what we have lost.

"Michelle's death just destroyed her father, it broke him and her brothers. They felt like it was their job to protect her and they couldn't protect her. They know it's not their fault but it haunts them that they couldn't save her.

"You've had a life for 18 years, you've lived 18 years that you stole from my daughter. It's time. Please, it's time now to come forward and turn yourself in."

Loraine Bright, pictured holding a photograph of her murdered daughter. Photo / Sourced: News Corp Australia
Loraine Bright, pictured holding a photograph of her murdered daughter. Photo / Sourced: News Corp Australia

Like Michelle's many old schoolfriends, with whom she has stayed in close contact, Loraine has an unshakable feeling in her gut - that mother's instinct that can't be rationally explained but must always be taken seriously - that her daughter knew her killer.

"The irony is we used to do self-defence classes together and the teacher used to have to pair her up with people who were bigger than her because she was so strong," Loraine said.

"There's no way Michelle would have gone with someone she didn't know, she would have fought so hard. She was terrified of the dark and she would never have walked down (Barney's Reef Rd where she was found) on her own or with someone she didn't feel safe with."

And if Michelle knew her killer, Loraine says, there was a good chance her family did too.
"I do wonder: 'Did we know him? Has he been in the house for a cup of tea?" Loraine told News.com.au. "The thought of it is just horrible. The betrayal."

As the days and weeks dragged on with no arrest in sight, the Brights found themselves scrutinising fellow locals with suspicious eyes.

Life in tiny Gulgong became increasingly unbearable and the family moved away. No amount of distance could ease the pain and Loraine and Greg Bright's 32-year marriage broke down.

In 2009, a coronial inquest into the case named five persons of interest but failed to uncover sufficient evidence to identify Michelle's murderer.

"Since the night of the murder, a black cloud has been hanging over the township of Gulgong and will continue to do so," Deputy State Coroner Malcolm MacPherson said in his findings.

Kate Hayes, one the many childhood friends who regularly honours Michelle with tributes, birthday wishes and appeals for information, agrees.

"I think the case really tore apart the town," Ms Hayes told news.com.au.

"There was a lot of speculation and a lot of false information circulated at the time. I believe that this was not a well planned, premeditated crime. I think the person who did it was being very opportunistic when they saw Michelle alone, and probably just intended to assault her.

"I know being a teenager with Michelle, sometimes you would muck around, try and dunk each other in the pool or whatever. She was small, but she was strong.

"She grew up with two older brothers and she was scrappy! I was much bigger than her, but I had no chance. I think she would have put up one hell of a fight when someone attacked her, and I think it got out of hand.

Michelle Bright, 17, was murdered in Gulgong, NSW in 1999. Photo / Sourced: NSW Police Force
Michelle Bright, 17, was murdered in Gulgong, NSW in 1999. Photo / Sourced: NSW Police Force

"But they must just live in constant fear of being caught and they must have surely slipped up somewhere."

Ms Hayes said Michelle "had character beyond her years".

"She was super charismatic, warm and fun. She had a big heart, a cheeky grin and everyone just loved her and wanted to be around her," she said.

"I think the reason we have all tried so hard to keep Michelle's memory is because she was actually just awesome. She was so much fun, a really vibrant girl and everybody loved her.

"Her death kind of ended a really idyllic upbringing for most of us. Growing up in a small community like ours was amazing, but it was really tainted after that. It was never the same, and we just couldn't believe something like that could happen there.

"Michelle's family were like her, good people - warm and generous. It broke them, what happened to her. They've been living with this for as long as she was alive now. I don't think there is anything in life I wish for more than her case being solved."

The fact that Michelle's killer remains at large also weighs heavily on Detective Inspector Cameron Whiteside, who worked on the case as a young officer and is now crime manager at Mudgee Local Area Command.

Inspector Whiteside, who was singled out by Deputy State Coroner MacPherson along with Loraine Bright for his impressive character and conduct throughout the investigation and the inquest, would dearly love to solve this case.

"There is no greater honour for a police officer to investigate the death of another (person) and I cannot deny that this case is close to me both professionally and personally," he told News.com.au.

"But what it means to me is just one per cent of what it would mean to her family if her killer was caught.

"At the end of the day, it's a terrible burden, a lot of baggage for someone to carry around and it's had such tragic consequences. It's ruined the lives of Michelle's family and her friends and personally I hope it is weighing heavily on (the killer).

"It may well have been a tragic accident, the person may not have set out to kill Michelle that night. There's a reason why people do things and I would ask that person to come forward and tell us the reason, why Michelle died.

"I can't imagine how heavy the weight of knowing an innocent 17-year-old girl lost her life, leaving her mother and father without a child, and her brothers without a sister, would be on a conscience.

"We have received incredible support from the Gulgong community and will continue to follow lines of inquiry to bring justice for Michelle and answers to her family."

Anyone with information about Michelle's murder is urged to contact investigators at Mudgee Police Station on 02 6372 8599 or Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.

- news.com.au

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