It’s a winter day in Queensland, Australia, when teenager Natasha Ryan disappears without a trace. After an extensive search turns up nothing, her family abandons hope of finding her alive. But when a notorious serial killer stands accused of her murder, an unexpected guest appears at the trial.
Natasha was born in 1984 and grew up in Rockhampton, a tight-knit community in Central Queensland on the eastern coast of Australia. Her parents, Robert and Jennifer, divorced while Natasha was still young, and Robert subsequently relocated 180 miles south to Bundaberg, where he married a woman named Debbie.
Although Natasha acted as a bridesmaid at Robert and Debbie’s wedding, she lived primarily with her mother in Rockhampton. Unfortunately, she grew into a troubled teenager, prone to instances of self-harm and dabbling in drugs. Then, in 1998 she met an older man named Scott Black, and the two became romantically involved.
On July 12, 1998, Natasha left home to walk the family’s dog. However, she never came back. The police were notified, and the teenager was eventually discovered at a local venue for live events called the Rockhampton Music Bowl. Apparently, she had spent the past few days sleeping in a hotel.
While Natasha was sent home to her mother, Black, who was in his twenties at the time, found himself facing abduction charges. However, it was far from the end of the Ryan family’s troubles. In fact, they were about to be plunged into a nightmare that would haunt them for the next five years.
On August 31, 1998, Jennifer dropped Natasha at her school, where Natasha was due to spend the day attending classes. At the time, Jennifer felt that her daughter had been happier since her ordeal the month before. The 14-year-old disappeared again, however, and her family had to make another call to the police.
A couple of days after her disappearance, Natasha was spotted exiting a cinema complex with an unidentified man. But after that, the trail went cold. At first, the authorities thought that Natasha had simply absconded again. However, when a large-scale search failed to turn up any leads, the police began to grow more concerned.
According to experts, most runaways make contact with their parents soon after their disappearance. But when months went by with no word from Natasha, some began to suspect that she had fallen victim to a crime. Worse still, earlier that year another teenager had disappeared from a nearby beach – and her whereabouts had never been discovered.
So, was something sinister happening in Central Queensland? Well, by early 1999 another two women had disappeared in the area. Natasha, meanwhile, was still nowhere to be found. Then, on April 22, nine-year-old Keyra Steinhardt vanished while on the way home from her North Rockhampton primary school.
Soon, the crime was linked to Leonard Fraser, a local man with a long history of rape. And two weeks later, Steinhardt’s body was recovered from a nearby race course. While panic began to set in around the Rockhampton community, many started to suspect that Natasha had met with a similar fate.
On September 7, 2000, Fraser was sentenced to life in prison for Steinhardt’s abduction, rape and murder. While he was behind bars, police began to question him about his possible involvement in other unsolved cases. And even though Fraser initially denied murdering Natasha, he eventually confessed to killing the teenager – along with four other victims.
Although Natasha’s body still couldn’t be located, it nonetheless seemed as if the mystery had been solved. And in 2002 – on the day of the teenager’s 17th birthday – her family held a memorial service to finally say goodbye. Alongside 70 mourners, Natasha’s father Robert gave a heartfelt speech about the daughter whom he now presumed to be dead.
However, Natasha’s alleged killer had yet to face justice for his crimes. On April 11, 2003, Robert was at the Supreme Court in Brisbane, preparing for Fraser’s trial. Detectives then approached him with some shocking news. Apparently, they had traced a woman whom they believed to be Natasha – and she was alive and well.
Over the telephone, Robert was able to confirm Natasha’s identity by asking her to tell him the nickname that he’d given her as a child. When she answered correctly, her father was overwhelmed by shock. Meanwhile, when Natasha’s mother Jennifer was told that her daughter had been found, she initially thought that the police had located Natasha’s corpse.
That day, the charges relating to Natasha’s murder were dropped, and Fraser’s case was adjourned. At the same time, investigators struggled to get to the bottom of the teenager’s disappearance. Apparently, police had received a tip off about the girl and had searched a North Rockhampton home the night before.
There, they found Natasha, then 18, concealed in a bedroom cupboard. Apparently, she had been living in the property with Scott, whom reports referred to as her boyfriend, for the previous six months. Before that, it emerged that the pair had been residing in Yeppoon, a town some 25 miles away.
According to reports, Natasha had been leading a reclusive lifestyle with Scott, keeping the curtains closed and hiding in the cupboard whenever visitors dropped by. But despite these challenging conditions, she had never tried to contact her grieving parents.
While Natasha was reunited with her parents, Fraser’s case resumed. Although one victim had been found alive, he was still suspected of the other killings. And on April 30, Natasha appeared in court – in effect, attending the trial of her own murderer. There, she testified that she did not know Fraser and that he had played no role in her disappearance.
Fraser was later found guilty of two murders and one count of manslaughter, spending the rest of his life behind bars before his death in 2007. To this day, nobody knows for sure why he confessed to a crime that he did not commit. Meanwhile, Natasha has remained quiet about the real reasons behind her disappearance, expressing only regret that she has caused her family so much grief.
Scott was found guilty in 2005 of perjury for misleading police over Natasha’s disappearance and sentenced to three years in jail. However, he was released after 12 months. Meanwhile, prosecutors argued – unsuccessfully – that Natasha should have to pay back some of the costs of the investigation, particularly in light of the money that she had subsequently made from exclusive interviews with the press. Two years later, both Jennifer and Robert were present when Natasha and Scott tied the knot – perhaps a sign that they are all finally moving on with their lives.