It was the middle of spring 2015 in Queensland, Australia, and local girl Tiahleigh Palmer had been away from home for six days. State police had been treating the girl’s disappearance as a missing person case, until three fishermen on a nearby river made a gruesome discovery. As the police investigation became a murder hunt, it proved to be the start of a mystery that fascinated and repulsed Australia for many months.
In October 2015, Tiahleigh Alyssa Rose Palmer – known as Tiah – was a 12-year-old schoolgirl living in Logan City, close to Brisbane in Southeast Queensland. Although she was a popular and friendly student at Logan’s Marsden State High School, Tiah’s outgoing personality masked a less-than-perfect family life.
Tiah’s mother, Cyndi, was just 18 years old when she had her daughter. And the young mom sometimes found it a struggle to raise a child on her own. In fact, when Tiah was born in 2003, a neighboring family in Marsden who had become close friends with Cyndi acted as “kinship carers” for the baby girl. Then, in 2011, Cyndi found herself in trouble with the law.
With her mother in police custody, young Tiah was placed in foster care. Over the following years, the young girl was shuttled from home to home. She finally ended up in the care of 55-year-old Richard and 53-year-old Julene Thorburn, who lived on an expansive property in the Chambers Flat area of Logan City. With two grown up sons of their own, the Thorburns also ran a daycare service for children.
By the time Tiah was being fostered by the Thorburn family, Cyndi had begun to get her life back on track. About to be released from a prison sentence, she hoped to regain custody of her daughter once more. Meanwhile, Tiah was settling in to life with the Thorburns and the then 18-year-old Trent and 19-year-old Joshua.
But, according to Sue Palmer, Tiah’s grandmother, the young girl was settling in so well, and enjoying life at Chambers Flat so much that she was reluctant to reunite with her mother. Apparently, she had developed feelings for Trent, and become attached to the horses that her new foster family kept on their grounds.
Then on Friday, October 30, 2015, everything changed. According to Richard, he dropped Tiah outside Marsden State High School at about 8:10 a.m. However, the seventh grade student didn’t show up for any of her classes that day. In fact, the young girl had appeared to have vanished into thin air.
Later that day, the Thorburns reported Tiah as missing, and local police launched a tentative investigation. However, they were aware that the troubled girl had run away from her foster homes before, and they did not go public about Tiah’s disappearance. Later, a number of people felt that the authorities were slow to treat her case as suspicious.
Despite the police inaction, an image of Tiah in her school uniform had begun circulating on Facebook. But, although the post reached thousands of social media users, it threw up no sightings of the missing girl or clues to her whereabouts. Then, on November 5 – six days after she went missing – police finally released official photographs of Tiah along with an appeal for more information.
On the same day that the police stepped up their hunt for Tiah, three fishermen stumbled upon a shocking find by the Gold Coast’s Pimpama River. The site was a mere 18 and a half miles from where the little girl had disappeared. There, on a bank beside the water, the anglers discovered a decaying set of human remains.
Gruesomely, the semi-naked body was in such an advanced state of decomposition that the police were unable to tell if it belonged to a male or a female at first. However, on November 6, they were able to confirm everyone’s worst fears – the remains belonged to Tiah. Evidently, the police appeal had been a case of too little, too late.
Suddenly, the police’s less-than-intense missing person case was transformed into a full-blown murder investigation. Suspecting that Tiah had been killed and her body dumped, Queensland homicide detectives began searching for her missing uniform and school bag. Meanwhile, on November 14, a funeral service was held for Tiah, during which more than 600 mourners commemorated the tragic young girl’s life. Richard Thorburn acted as a pallbearer.
For months the murder investigation dragged on, with detectives no closer to finding Tiah’s killer. Then, in April 2016, Quuensland’s authorities received a worrying tip off about the Thorburns. Apparently, police suspected Richard of being responsible for a number of serious crimes independent of Tiah’s case. In response, the state revoked the Thorburn’s daycare license.
Five months later, a Ford sedan automobile was seized in connection to Tiah’s death. And while police didn’t release the owner’s name at first, Cyndi knew that something was up. On her Facebook page, the grieving mom announced the name of the suspect – none other than the man who was meant to be responsible for Tiah’s care.
As a result, the police now had to move fast. So on September 20, 2016, Richard Thorburn was arrested and charged with Tiah’s murder. According to police, they believed that he had killed the girl the day before her disappearance. They said Richard’s version of events – including claiming to have dropped Tiah at school – had been a string of lies.
But why would Richard want to harm his foster daughter? In a sinister twist to the already upsetting case, the answer might lie with his youngest son. On the same day that Richard was arrested, Trent was also charged by police – with attempting to pervert the course of justice, perjury, and incest.
According to a cousin of Trent’s, the teenager had made some startling revelations during a 2015 Facebook chat between the two relatives. Apparently, he had confessed to having had sexual relations with his foster sister. Moreover, the cousin claimed that Trent was afraid he had gotten Tiah pregnant.
The following day, Julene and Joshua, Trent’s elder brother, were also arrested and charged with perverting the course of justice. Meanwhile, Richard was scheduled to appear in court. However, it transpired that the suspect had collapsed soon after being taken into custody, and doctors had subsequently placed him in an induced coma.
During the ongoing investigation, more evidence emerged that Trent had indeed been sexually abusing his foster sister. Furthermore, a friend of Tiah’s alleged that Julene had been aware of the situation. Had Trent’s parents really hoped to spare their son from punishment by killing their 12-year-old foster child to cover up his crime?
In July 2017, Joshua was sentenced to three months behind bars for helping to conceal the truth about Tiah’s death. In the following months, Julene and Trent both also received jail terms. The mom was handed an 18-month sentence for attempting to pervert the course of justice and perjury. Trent was facing four years for the same offenses plus the more serious crime of incest. Meanwhile, Richard is awaiting trial for Tiah’s murder – the tragic loss of a young life he was supposed to protect.