The story of missing teenager Niamh Maye has been shared regularly with Australians ever since her disappearance somewhere between Jingellic, Batlow and Tumut in March 2002, but last night the ABC shared a different perspective – that of Ms Maye’s elder sister, Fionnuala Hagerty, and their family.
The interview was part of the ‘You Can’t Ask That’ series and can be viewed online through iview.abc.net.au. Through the program, the families of seven missing Australians were asked a range of taboo questions about their experiences.
The victims’ situations ranged from the disappearance of 11-year-old Joanne Ratcliffe in 1973, through to the death and discovery of Daniel O’Keeffe in March 2016. Most are still missing, with the exception of Mr O’Keeffe and 13-year-old Daniel Morcombe, who was abducted in 2003. Daniel’s remains were found in August 2011.
Ms Hagerty spoke clearly of her sister’s disappearance, describing the early days of the family’s tragedy, when Ms Maye went camping in Jingellic and was offered a ride back to Batlow to catch the bus to Sydney.
She never caught that bus, and the man who gave her a ride was arrested in Brisbane roughly six months after Ms Maye’s disappearance on charges of raping a 19-year-old woman. He died by suicide while in police custody.
“When we found that out, we thought that was it. We would never find her,” Ms Haggerty told the program.
The seven families shared stories which were parallel at points, but ran in entirely different directions in other areas.
The O’Keeffe family shared as many pictures of Mr O’Keeffe as they could find, showing him in different angles and lights and at different weights.
Ms Haggerty said her family shared only one or two pictures of Ms Maye, wanting to keep the rest as their own private memories of her sister.
One of the boldest questions asked, “Is it better to be dead or missing?” but there was no consensus among the answers.
Ms Haggerty replied simply, “Home.”
Loren O’Keeffe, the sister of Daniel O’Keeffe, described how years of delayed hope can be “excruciating and exhausting” while others spoke of not being able to move on without answers.
Sassoon Simonian, whose brother Sevak Simonian was last seen in October 2014 in the Blue Mountains, said he’d been told by others that they missed the days when they still had hope of their loved ones returning.
The families reflected on shared feelings of guilt, describing how they wished they had spent more time with their missing family members or been more attentive. Daniel Morcombe’s father, Bruce, said he had discovered too late that money and business paled in value after the disappearance of his son, and he wished he had been a “better father.”
Like others, Mr Morcombe spoke of the strain of having nowhere to grieve and no certainty while Daniel was still missing.
Ms Hagerty said her family held a memorial service for her sister, about six months after she disappeared, but she still dreams of Ms Maye.
“I still remember sitting outside Mum and Dad’s house, looking up at the stars and thinking, ‘She’s under the same stars somewhere,’” she said.
The program runs a little over 35 minutes and was put together with the assistance of the Missing Persons Advocacy Network, which was established by Ms O’Keeffe, and Leave A Light On, a movement created by Joanne Ratcliffe’s sister, Suzie, to raise awareness and provide support for families of missing persons.
Other questions answered in the program included: When was the last time you saw them? When did you realise they were missing? What did the cops do? Were there any clues? Why did you pick that photo? Do you worry they’re trapped in a creep’s basement?
Ms Hagerty said that for now, the “obvious theory” about Ms Maye’s disappearance is that “the person who said he dropped her off didn’t drop her off and that she’s buried somewhere in that area.”
According to the National Missing Persons Coordination Centre, more than 38,000 people are reported missing to police in Australia each year. Most are found within a short period of time, but there are currently close to 2600 people listed as long-term missing persons.