The Murray River in southwestern New South Wales was the last stop in a bizarre roadtrip across two states that tragically ended with a mother holding her two young sons' heads underwater and killing one of them.
The five-year-old's little body, still in a pair of Batman swimmers, was found about 250m downstream in the tiny country town of Moama, two days later.
His brother, 9, was older and stronger so when his mother grabbed his head and forced him underwater he put up a fight. The 27-year-old woman then sat on him, using her weight to push him to the bottom of the river. He felt the sand as he started to swallow water and "suffocate". But she couldn't keep him down and he eventually broke free from her grasp and escaped.
She then turned on the younger child. The surviving boy later told police that when he made it to the bank he looked back at the river and saw his mother "shaking my brother" in the water.
"She grabbed my brother … He couldn't breathe and then he died," he said.
It was March 2, 2017 but an unusual chain of events in the lead up to the killing had been set in motion some 24 hours earlier.
The day prior, the woman who can't be identified for legal reasons, told her parole officer she had a "gut instinct" she wasn't safe but didn't explain why. She was on supervised parole after having been released from prison, on aggravated break and enter offences, just four weeks earlier. The officer noted she was "agitated, staring and pacing around the room".
At 3pm that day, she picked her two sons up from a primary school in Deniliquin. They appeared happy and were well behaved, she later told police. She loaded them into her mother's car, which she had borrowed, and announced she was taking them for a swim. Instead, she picked up a male friend, and the group travelled about 165kms south to meet another couple of friends who were staying at a motel in Bendigo, Victoria. The woman's mother was the primary carer for the children, who lived with her in Deniliquin, and so became concerned when her daughter's phone went unanswered and the family hadn't returned by 7.30pm.
She called the police to report them missing several hours later. Meanwhile, her daughter and the two boys slept in the motel. About 9.30am the next day, the group was "down the street in Bendigo" when the woman "went ballistic" for an unknown reason at some of the friends she was with. The others were concerned by her behaviour and so dispersed. The woman then called a taxi and travelled with her two sons about 30kms northeast to the small Victorian town of Goornong, where they arrived just before 11.30am. She went inside a general store and told staff she was looking for her aunt who lived in the area before she used a staff member's mobile phone to make a series of aggressive calls. "Don't worry about coming and getting us, you will never see us and the boys again," the woman told her mother during one of the calls.
The woman's mother immediately contacted police who started trying to find her daughter and grandsons. The shop owner later described the woman as "confused and didn't really seem to know what was going on".
The woman called a second taxi at 1.30pm and headed back to Bendigo with her kids. Once there, she convinced two of the friends she had verbally abused earlier that day to travel with her and the boys in her mother's car to Moama. They piled in and headed to an acquaintance's semirural premises adjacent to the banks of the Murray River. On the way, they stopped at the BP petrol station in Elmore, where the woman bought several items including a fishing line, at 3.45pm. Fifteen minutes later, they arrived in Moama, and carried some fishing gear down to the river. The woman was soon left alone with her two sons and lured them into the water.
The situation quickly took a turn for the worse when she uttered three chilling words to her nine-year-old son: "dunk your head". He refused. So she did it for him. Fortunately, he managed to escape his mother's clutches but was mauled by a dog that appeared on the riverbank amid the commotion.
A witness who heard screams ran to the river and saw the older boy being viciously attacked by the dog. He carried him away and the blood-covered boy said words to the effect of: "I think I'm the only survivor," the rescuer said in a statement.
Tragically, he was right. He never saw his blonde-haired and blue-eyed little brother, who loved Batman, again.
At 6pm, a man in a nearby boat saw the mother floating on her back down the river. It was later revealed she was trying to kill herself. He noted that she was no longer there when he passed the area a second time about an hour and a half later.
Just after 9pm, several passing motorists saw the woman walking along Perricoota Rd, in Moama. She wasn't wearing any shoes and appeared disoriented, erratic and frazzled. Some of the witnesses reported that she seemed to be leaning in towards the cars, as if she wanted to be struck. The woman eventually walked into Echuca Police station where she told authorities: "I killed my kids."
Following an extensive search by authorities, the youngest child's lifeless body was found in the river two days later. The nine-year-old was taken to hospital with life-threatening injuries and spent the next three days on a ventilator with aspiration pneumonia from the attempted drowning.
On Thursday, Justice Richard Button delivered a "not guilty" verdict on one count of murder and another of attempted murder, on the grounds of mental illness, after a judge-alone trial in the NSW Supreme Court in Wagga Wagga.
The judge said the woman believed she was doing her sons "a kindness" after irrationally convincing herself a former partner would rape and murder her in front of the boys before killing them.
"The evidence is overwhelming, undisputed, and indeed formally admitted by the accused that she caused the death of (her five-year-old son) by holding his head underwater and drowning him," Justice Button said.
"The evidence is similarly incontrovertible that she made a concerted effort to visit the same fate upon (her nine year old son)."
But he said that mental illness — including borderline personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and major depressive disorder — had caused her to "fail to appreciate what she was doing was wrong".
During the four-day trial, the court heard from two psychiatrists, who had supported claims the woman was suffering from undiagnosed mental illness at the time of the incident.
"At the time of (committing the) profoundly violent acts against her sons the accused was suffering a disease of mind which led to a defect of reason," Justice Button said.
In delivering the verdict, Justice Button said that although the woman "will not be held criminally responsible for her actions … there is no question but that her acts directly caused the death of the younger boy, and came close to causing the death of the elder. boy".
"The utter irrationality of a parent believing that the solution to his or her children allegedly being in mortal danger is for them to be killed requires no elaboration by me," the judge said.
"Nor does the fact that being forcibly drowned to death is unquestionably a terrible death."
The court heard the woman will be committed to the long term care of the Mental Health Review Tribunal in a specialist unit at the Mulawa Correctional Centre, Silverwater, in Sydney's west.
"The tribunal must not release the accused into the community unless and until it's satisfied the accused will not endanger (anyone else) or herself," Justice Button said.
"I extend my condolences to all who have suffered and will suffer into the future including the accused herself who will come to see, if she hasn't already, the enormity of what she has done."
The boys' estranged father later lashed out over the decision, in a statement to news.com.au.
The man, who can't be named, described the woman's actions as "despicable and vile (acts) committed against my innocent children … which resulted in my son being (killed)".
"(It was) the evil, twisted act of a monster," he said.
In a statement tendered to court and viewed by news.com.au, the woman said she "caused the death of (her) child by drowning him" and that it "was (her) intention to kill" both of the boys when she took them into the river.