By GREG ANSLEY
Late last week Queensland detectives quietly pulled Robert Ryan aside as he prepared for another gruelling day in Brisbane's Supreme Court, watching a child killer and rapist stand trial for the murder of his 14-year-old daughter, Natasha.
Stunned almost beyond belief, Ryan was asked to speak to a woman at the other end of a telephone to confirm if she was Natasha, supposedly dead for four years, eight months.
Ryan asked if she knew the private pet name he had called Natasha since she was a little girl. The woman whispered back: "I love you, Daddy, and it's Grasshopper."
Shortly after, prosecutor Paul Ruttledge rose in court with the startling news that the charge of murdering Natasha Ryan, now 18, would be dropped against Leonard John Fraser, an already convicted killer also accused of the murders of three other women in the central Queensland city of Rockhampton.
"I am pleased to inform the court that Leonard John Fraser is not guilty of the murder of Natasha Anne Ryan," Ruttledge said. "Natasha Ryan is still alive."
Ryan had been living as a recluse with her milkman boyfriend, 27-year-old Scott Black, ignoring heart-wrenching appeals from her parents, avoiding huge searches and successive police investigations, and finally hiding in a cupboard at the rear of a house just 2km from her mother Jennifer's home.
The revelation was a thunderbolt in Queensland, igniting anger and outrage, threatening Fraser's trial, raising serious issues of law and police investigation, bringing the possibility of criminal charges against Ryan and Scott, and unleashing a global media frenzy culminating in a bidding war that secured the story for Kerry Packer's Nine Network, reportedly for A$200,000 ($220,700).
There is no precedent for this in Australia, and legal experts now fear for the value of police evidence in cases where a victim's body has not been found.
In terms of media value, there is little that can eclipse the story of a 14-year-old runaway spending most of her teens as a virtual hermit in suburbia, emerging at the most critical moment for the man accused of brutally killing her and disposing of her remains under a mango tree.
Psychologically, Ryan is an enigma, her choice of seclusion with a much older boyfriend likened by some to the Stockholm Syndrome, defined after four Swedish hostages became attached to their captors during a bank siege.
As entertainment, Australia has seen nothing to match it since Gold Coast singer Fairlie Arrow staged her own kidnapping in 1991, trying to use headlines to crash into the big time before the scam crashed around her ears.
Ryan will have no such trouble. Dressed in new Nike gear and surrounded by a possessive film crew, she was out on Wednesday doing location shots at the houses she and Black used as hideaways following her disappearance in August 1998.
Her story will appear on Australia's 60 Minutes programme on April 27, helping Nine in its ratings war as Channel 10 begins its third series of the hit reality TV programme Big Brother.
But it will be a hard road for Ryan, her family, and Rockhampton, a city of 68,000 that nestles between the tropical Capricorn coast and the Berserker Ranges, a series of low hills named, for no reason that is readily available, after Norse warriors famed for the maddened frenzy of their slaughtering.
It was first a gold rush town of the mid-1800s, now a major cattle centre that salutes its breeds with statues at the approaches to town and earns its major praise in the Lonely Planet travel guide as a "great place to tuck into steak".
Ebullient celebrity agent Max Markson, who was on a plane from Sydney to Brisbane almost before the first news flashes had ended, is already talking of book and film rights.
For the locals, "Rocky" is a place of warmth and community where it remains hard for secrets to be kept and where knowing your neighbour's business - and they knowing yours - is part of life.
On a slow news day the local Morning Bulletin can lead its front page with the loss of a widow's wedding ring or overflowing sewage pipes, become embroiled in debate over a cattle tick dip at the local saleyards, and record minor traffic accidents and even skateboard injuries.
Such is life in a city that sees itself as a big, friendly country town, where the ghastly simply doesn't happen. But it does.
About the time Ryan disappeared, Rockhampton was agonising over its youth: a teenage pregnancy rate twice the state average, and pack rapes by teenage gangs.
Four months earlier, on Anzac Day 1998, 16-year-old Rachel Antonio had vanished from Queen's Beach at Bowen, north of Rockhampton. Neither her body nor any trace of her clothing has been found.
A 26-year-old labourer, Robert Paul Lynch, was initially found guilty of her manslaughter, but the conviction was overturned on appeal and Antonio's presumed murder remains a mystery.
Natasha Ryan, meanwhile, was growing into her troubled teens in North Rockhampton, a sprawling development rising to the foothills of the Berserker Ranges, where new housing estates encircle three major shopping malls and nudge industrial plants.
The big restaurants are theme chains: Lone Star, Hog's Breath Cafe, Cactus Jacks and Sizzlers. At the Great Western Pub, cowboys compete every week at indoor rodeo and bull riding.
Ryan's parents Jennifer and Robert had divorced, Robert moving south to the sugar city of Bundaberg and re-marrying. Natasha was a smiling bridesmaid for her stepmother, Debbie.
At home with her mother, Ryan was a difficult child. She ran away briefly several times, tried cutting her wrists once, apparently used cannabis and other drugs, and told friends and a school counsellor she was pregnant shortly before she vanished.
By mid-1998 she was involved with Black and on July 12 disappeared when she took the family dog for a walk.
Police found her later the same week at the Rockhampton Music Bowl, discovered she had been staying at a hotel, and charged Black with abduction. That charge was dropped after Ryan vanished in August, but Black was fined A$1000 for obstructing the earlier police investigation.
At 8.15am on August 31, Jennifer Ryan dropped her daughter - dressed in her maroon uniform and carrying a Rip Curl backpack - at the gates of North Rockhampton State High in Berserker St.
Jennifer Ryan was to later say that until then her daughter had appeared to have been in an excellent state of mind since her return home in July. This was the last Jennifer was to see of Natasha for more than four years.
Two days later Ryan was seen playing video games at a cinema complex before leaving with a man in a car. It was almost one month before the news of her disappearance was made public and, while expressing "grave fears" for her safety, it was clear the police believed she had run away again.
Constable Robert Newton asked Natasha through the media to pass on the fact that she was safe through a third party, and asked the public to report the licence number of any car in which they may see Ryan. There were good reasons for this.
Ryan's previous history aside, Australian Bureau of Criminal Intelligence figures show that 30,000 Australians are reported missing every year to police, the Salvation Army and the Red Cross.
Most are found quickly - 85 per cent within a week, 95 per cent within a month - and about half make contact or return home themselves. But as the months passed, Ryan's continued silence gathered ominous, tragic clouds.
Within six months two more women disappeared - "It's unusual for a teenage girl and two women to go missing in such a small city in such a short space of time," noted Bond University criminologist Professor Paul Wilson - and even worse news was to come.
On April 22, 1999, little blond-haired Keyra Steinhart, 9, dressed in her green school uniform, walked home from North Rockhampton's Berserker St primary school.
Leonard Fraser was waiting for her at an empty allotment at the corner of Robinson and Dean Sts, where he had been seen loitering and watching Keyra the day before. No one had reported this to police.
On this afternoon, Fraser had left his girlfriend at an associate's flat, driven in his red car to Robinson St and waited.
Fraser moving quickly up behind Keyra, smashing her on the back of the head, and concealing her in the grass of the allotment before returning with the car and dropping the child into the boot.
Two hours later he picked up his girlfriend and dumped the body.
The public agony of the search that followed, and the appalling nature of a crime so close to home, began to convince many that Natasha Ryan, too, was dead at the hands of a serial killer.
Jennifer Ryan said she could not believe her daughter would allow her to suffer such pain if she was still alive.
At the Bundaberg Crematorium Chapel, Robert Ryan and 70 friends and relatives bade a final farewell to Natasha at a memorial service on what would have been his daughter's 17th birthday.
They watched a video of Natasha as her stepmother's bridesmaid, heard Robert speak of a vivacious, caring daughter who had given up one Christmas to visit the sick and needy, and suffered with him as he mourned: "I could go to the grave never knowing what happened to my beautiful girl."
Suspicion began to fall on Fraser, now serving an indefinite term, for Keyra's brutal killing. He had a violent criminal history stretching back to childhood.
In 1974, within a week of being released on parole from a five-year sentence for robbery, Fraser raped one woman, later bashed two others in attempted rapes, and finally confessed to the much earlier rape of a French tourist in Sydney.
Within two weeks of release in 1982 from seven years of a 21-year term, Fraser had attacked another woman and, in 1985, raped yet another on a beach at Mackay, north of Rockhampton.
Police psychologists described him as a "classical psychopath" and a borderline psychotic, suffering severe personality disorders exacerbated by low intelligence. He had never shown remorse.
The sentencing judge in Keyra's murder case described Fraser as a "sexual predator of the worst kind", devoid of any regard for the rights of women and children.
In prison, Fraser at one stage denied killing Natasha Ryan, telling Detective Sergeant David Hickey the teenager was still alive and in hiding somewhere in Rockhampton.
But police, suspecting Fraser as a serial killer responsible for the deaths of three women as well as Ryan, set out to trap him with the help of fellow inmate Alan Quinn, serving time for fraud.
Quinn used a double scam on Fraser, convincing him to write a confession for the murders under the name of "Squeaky", a fictitious killer now wanting to clear the air and - by extension - Fraser.
Secretly taped by police, Quinn persuaded Fraser to have "Squeaky" reveal details of the murders only the killer could have known: that Beverly Leggo, 36, was strangled with her own underpants, which were left around her throat; that Julie Dawn Turner, 39, was throttled with her bra; and that Sylvia Maria Benedetti, 19, was bludgeoned with a log.
And in evidence quoted to the court, Fraser told Quinn he had met Natasha Ryan at a cinema, given her a lift to Yeppoon and attacked her in the car.
"Well, I hit Natasha and she was unconscious," Fraser was quoted as saying. "I drove her to the showgrounds and that's where I murdered her. I took her body out to the pink lily pond near the airport."
Although Ryan's body had not been found - Fraser had taken police to the remains of Keyra Steinhart and his other victims - prosecutors had little doubt that the teenager was dead at Fraser's hand.
In fact, Ryan was very much alive. Throughout the exhaustive police hunt for her, and the heavy police suspicion and investigation of Black, she had remained in hiding, first at a house in Athena St, Yeppoon, then, since late last year, at a brick and weatherboard house at 346 Mills Ave, just a few minutes' drive from her mother's home in North Rockhampton.
No one had any idea she was there. When Black's relatives called, she hid in a cupboard, sometimes for hours at a time. Neighbours knew Black as a quiet, polite but reclusive man, living alone.
Ryan's washing never appeared. Only Black's laundry was pegged to the line.
Workmates at the Demidale dairy factory, where Black had been a milkman for six years, were similarly kept in the dark.
Ryan apparently left her hiding place only six times, mostly to paddle in the tiny waves that lap the beach at Yeppoon. Her life otherwise was spent cooking, sewing, reading, or surfing the internet.
Ryan told police she stayed in hiding because "the lie had become too big".
Nor did she welcome discovery. Said a police spokesman: "She made it very clear that she did not want to be found and she did not want to come with us when we found her."
Mystery still surrounds the events that led to her dramatic reappearance.
Three weeks before Fraser's trial began, Ryan is believed to have called the Kids Help Line counselling service, using the name "Sally" and telling a counsellor she was a runaway living with her boyfriend, but that a man was to be tried for her murder. On April 2, the counsellor made an anonymous call to police relaying "Sally's" message. The officer on duty - now facing an internal inquiry - tried to trace the call, failed and took no further action.
On Wednesday last week, police received an unsigned note claiming that Ryan was alive and giving a telephone number for her. Police tracked the number, raided the Mills Ave home, found Ryan in the cupboard and took her and Black away for hours of questioning.
It is not certain what will happen to them. The police are furious at the couple and have indicated they may seek restitution of up to A$500,000 spent in the search for Ryan, and that other criminal charges could follow.
If charges are laid, possibly for perverting the course of justice, prosecutors may be able to confiscate any money received for the sale of her story under Queensland laws against profiting from crime.
Max Markson, the celebrity agent whose clients have included the Labor Party and stars of sports and entertainment, says the Ryan family will receive no money, but will not say where the Packer cash will go.
Robert Ryan said the thought of selling the story "is atrocious".
Psychologists want to understand Ryan's motivation, suspecting family or personal problems before she ran away may have been compounded by solitude and sole reliance on Black for all her physical and emotional needs.
"He was bringing in the food, he was providing the house she could hide in, and the longer that went on the more dependent she was on him not to have to face up to the consequences of her running away," psychologist Bob Montgomery told AAP.
For Ryan's parents, Natasha's return from the dead has been traumatising.
"Mrs Ryan was in shock," family lawyer Ross Lo Monaco said. "It was something that was very distressing for her."
Robert Ryan almost collapsed. "I didn't say hardly anything when I saw Natasha," he told reporters.
Natasha called out "Daddy". To her father, it was like seeing a ghost.
"She is very beautiful, very pale and very confused and frightened," he said. "But she's alive, and that means more to me than anything."
By GREG ANSLEY