It might never be known conclusively how toddler Daniel Thomas died, but his inquest this month has made it sickeningly clear his short life was one of terrible abuse by those who should have been his protectors.
ROSEMARIE Loader appeared in a grainy television image and her emotionally strangled cry cut through the audience in the Wangaratta Coroner’s Court.
“The guilt we have lived with,” she said.
“If we had of gone the next day and said something, that little boy might still be here.”
The story of Daniel Thomas, who went missing on October 17, 2003, is one of the country’s most infamous child homicides.
A photo of grinning Daniel, sitting on play equipment, his face framed by wispy dark hair, has become unforgettable as a result of the countless media stories speculating on how he had died and who was responsible.
Many people will always be haunted by what happened to two-year-old Daniel.
This month’s inquest at the Wangaratta Coroner’s Court laid bare Daniel’s short life in the quest for long-awaited answers to his death.
The blame game was played out in public — shifting between the two women suspected of being involved — his mother Donna Thomas, 43, and Mandy Martyn, 46, the woman known as “the babysitter”.
Both refused to give evidence on the basis of self-incrimination.
But the inquiry also unearthed disturbing information that had never been made public.
There was the weeks of horrendous abuse Daniel suffered.
And then there was those people who knew about it but were unable to change the little boy’s fate.
The evidence offered by Rosemarie Loader, via video link from Brisbane last Friday, was among the most raw and emotional.
Ms Loader’s daughter went to the same Myrtleford school as Ms Martyn’s daughter. She spoke about the first time she had met Ms Martyn and Ms Thomas when they visited, two weeks before Daniel disappeared.
Ms Loader and her husband David Munro gave evidence that they had seen a bruised Daniel forced to “spread-eagle” on the floor behind the couch and stare at a spot in the lino.
Ms Loader said she believed that the way Daniel was treated, he would not live to his fifth birthday or he would be in and out of jail all his life if he somehow survived.
The couple said they had reported what they saw to Mungabareena Aboriginal Corporation in Wodonga days later. They feared that if they went to child protection services or police, there could be reprisals from Ms Martyn who was well known in Myrtleford for violent outbursts.
“We did the only thing we felt we could do — we went to our own people,” Ms Loader said.
“I should have gone to police.”
That visit was a snippet of an insight into the hell going on behind the walls of the Standish Street house.
The Coroner’s Court heard Daniel was abused by both his mother and Ms Martyn.
He was tied to a bed, pushed underwater, forced under the house and ordered to stare at spots on the floor for hours. He had been gagged and bound and placed in a cupboard for up to two days.
This torture was Daniel’s punishment for “sooking” or staring at Ms Martyn’s children who were seven, 11 and 12 at the time.
The women had met through the Mungabareena corporation after Ms Thomas was told there was another Aboriginal woman in Myrtleford.
“Apparently she was all alone and I wanted to have friends in Myrtleford,” Ms Thomas said.
Ms Thomas’ rental home in Lawrence Street was less than a kilometre away from Ms Martyn’s home and their friendship started with visits before Ms Thomas moved into the Standish Street house seven weeks before Daniel was reported missing.
Ms Thomas told homicide squad Detective Sgt Russell Sheather she had moved in to get help from Ms Martyn to look after Daniel, who suffered from food allergies, asthma and severe eczema that meant he was bandaged almost head to toe.
“She (Ms Martyn) wasn’t happy with the way they (authorities) were dealing with it and her methods were a lot better,” Ms Thomas told Sen-Constable Sheather.
Ms Thomas later made admissions that she, too, had helped to “discipline” Daniel out of fear of MsMartyn’s response.
“I’m easily led astray and easily influenced,” she told Sen-Constable Sheather at the end of their first interview.
“I don’t feel grown up or anything, I feel like the young teenager.”
Sheree Johnstone didn’t want to go back to the Standish Street house.
What she had seen there a fortnight earlier was enough for her to ask her boss, Jenny Murray, at the Home Care Service of NSW, that she never be asked to return.
“I told her it made me feel sick,” Ms Johnstone said.
“Jenny said she would get on to Carmen (Denniss, from Mungabareena) about it, and I assumed that she would make some sort of report to health services. About a week later, Jenny asked me to give it another go.”
It was Monday, October 13 — four days before Ms Martyn would report Daniel missing.
Ms Johnstone said Daniel was in exactly the same spot he had been a fortnight earlier — boxed in by furniture in the lounge room facing the wall with scratches or cuts on his face.
She said he had turned his head and looked at her and she smiled a small smile at him.
“Did he smile back?” Ms Johnstone was asked while giving evidence at the inquest.
“Sort of,” she replied.
Ms Johnstone said she reported to her supervisor all of what she had seen during her two visits to the house — including the fact that she believed Ms Martyn had self-injected morphine.
"I don’t agree with the abuse and neglect of children,” she told the court. Anyone who is responsible for that sort of behaviour should be put in jail for life."
Under cross-examination, Ms Johnstone was asked why she didn’t immediately report the incidents to the Department of Human Services.
“Usually it’s your supervisor’s job to do that — you report it to your supervisor,” Ms Johnstone told the inquest.
“It’s her job, I’m under her. I report to my supervisor.”
The inquest heard there was evidence to suggest Daniel had died and his body had been disposed of before Ms Martyn reported him missing on Friday, October 17, and possibly as early as Monday of that week.
Sgt Sheather said bank records and a bus passenger had confirmed Ms Thomas caught an early morning bus to Shepparton on Wednesday, October 15, to attend a nursing class.
Her teacher confirmed she was in the class until Friday and relatives corroborated Ms Thomas’ assertion she had stayed in the town.
A Myrtleford veterinarian confirmed Ms Thomas’ movements on Tuesday afternoon as she went back and forth to his clinic to gain help for her cat.
An acquaintance of Ms Martyn, David Williamson, told police he went to the Standish Street house to collect $10 his partner was owed.
“Mandy was there alone and told me Donna was at a nurses’ course in Shepparton,” Mr Williamson said.
“There was no sign of Donna’s child.”
D & K’s Topend Takeaway co-owner Dora Kneebone said Ms Martyn had come to her shop at 7am on the Friday.
“She appeared to be in a real foul mood as she said: ‘Have you got any f---ing nappies, extra large. What sort of f---ing mother leaves her kid’,” Ms Kneebone said.
Ms Thomas told Sgt Sheather during her first police interview that Ms Martyn had called her later that day.
“All she said was: ‘Daniel’s missing, Daniel’s gone’,” Ms Thomas said, before Ms Martyn handed the phone to a police officer.
Both women say the other killed Daniel.
Ms Thomas told Sgt Sheather she heard a thump either on Monday or Tuesday night and found Daniel motionless on the floor of his bedroom with a bloodied towel underneath him and Ms Martyn in the room.
Ms Martyn told two people — her drug counsellor and a friend — that she had seen Ms Thomas strangle Daniel to death.
She also told Jane Richards, the drug counsellor, she had placed Daniel’s body under Ms Thomas’ Lawrence Street house on Wednesday night, the day after Ms Martyn said Ms Thomas had strangled Daniel.
Sgt Sheather said Ms Martyn had her solicitor Peter Dunn fax a handwritten note to police in early 2004, claiming Ms Thomas was setting her up and declaring in large letters, “I did not kill Daniel”.
Ms Martyn wrote a second letter stating her innocence after Daniel’s remains were found under the Lawrence Street house in 2008, and had given it to Ms Richards for Mr Dunn.
There was no evidence presented to the inquest that could confirm who killed Daniel or how he died. Ms Martyn’s three children, who are now 22, 21 and 17, may have been in the house at the time of his death but say they cannot remember.
Ms Martyn’s eldest daughter, who has finished studying social work, said her siblings went through a lot and they had disconnected from the events of 2003 as a “coping mechanism”.
“I don’t agree with the abuse and neglect of children,” she told the court.
“Anyone who is responsible for that sort of behaviour should be put in jail for life.”
Daniel loved the outdoors and he was fascinated by water.
Between February and September 2003, Ms Thomas had dropped Daniel off every Wednesday to Elizabeth Evans’ Myrtleford home where he was cared for in her absence.
Ms Evans said she remembered him as an active two-year-old.
“He loved to jump into puddles,” she said.
“The last time I saw Daniel he was a healthy, two-year-old child.”
Daniel never went back to childcare after September 7.
The little boy was often covered in bandages to dress the eczema that often flared up, but Ms Thomas told Sgt Sheather they didn’t stop him running around and climbing.
“He was always at my hip,” she said.
“He wanted to be with mum all the time.”
Ms Thomas’ interview with Sgt Sheather went for more than two hours.
Sgt Sheather put to Ms Thomas that despite Ms Martyn’s influence and her fear of the woman, Daniel was always her responsibility and she had several opportunities to escape.
“You could have gone somewhere, anywhere, but you didn’t,” Sgt Sheather said.
Ms Thomas told him she should have saved her son.
“In your eyes, I’m to blame, too,” Ms Thomas said shortly before the interview tape stops.
“I should’ve done more than I did.”
Coroner Jacinta Heffey, who this year also presided over the inquest into the death of Wodonga baby Charlotte Keen, will next year set a date to hand down her findings in the Thomas inquest.
Click here for a gallery of photos showing the search for Daniel from the day he went missing in 2003 through until the inquest.
Stories from the inquest: