At 8:10 AM on Friday, October 30, 2015, 12-year-old Tiahleigh Palmer was dropped off at the front of her Australian primary school by her foster carer. A few classmates saw her that morning, but when the bell rang at 8:25 AM she wasn't sitting at her desk. Something happened to Tiahleigh in that 15-minute window. Those few sightings were the last times she was seen alive.
Six days later, on Thursday, November 5, three fishermen discovered Tiahleigh's body near a bridge crossing in the Pimpama River, about a 45-minute drive from her school in Waterford West, Queensland. There wasn't, and still isn't, any known cause of death. When Tiahleigh was found her remains were so heavily deteriorated that the post-mortem indicated she could have been dead up to a week.
In early November the story dominated Australian headlines. There were repeated calls from Queensland Police for information and social media bubbled with theories and updates. But updates were few and far between. No one was arrested, and nothing new was uncovered. The story just slowly slipped from the spotlight.
It's now February, three months after Tiahleigh disappeared, and I can't let the story go. The whole thing seems so unbelievably sad and unfair, and generally odd that something like this could occur near my own home. So one weekend, on a whim, I decide to go for a drive and follow her most likely final movements, starting with the school.
Hard to watch: Police released CCTV footage of Tiah in her classroom a few days before she disappeared. Video
As I drive west into Logan, an area just south of Brisbane, the landscape begins to change. I start passing sidewalls with murals of cows and farm animals. I see more hardware stores, trees, a Pet Motel. That's about the point when I hit the sign for Waterford West, a small residential suburb of Logan City. Off-white houses in neat yards, a few convenience stores; the streets are quiet. I start to think about the sort of people who live here.
Tiah, as her friends and family called her, had been a ward of the state since 2011. Her upbringing seems to have been a happy one but not without complications. Her mother, Cyndi Palmer, gave up her daughter as a teenage mom and Tiah was passed from carer to carer.
Julie Pemberton, one of Tiah's previous foster carers, described Tiah to the Daily Mail as "no angel, but no child is." She said Tiah often ran away and seemed proud of the fact she'd been passed up by her previous guardians after only 24 hours. "She was a gorgeous girl, she really was," said Julie. "A wild horse—you might have been able to tame her but could never have broke her. She had a lovely spirit that kid."
But this fact—that Tiah was a wild spirit who regularly ran away—is something that's seriously complicated the investigation.
When Tiahleigh went missing, Queensland Police waited six days before going public. This decision has received a lot of criticism, although police have since defended the choice. The Child Protection Act prevents government bodies from naming children in care, and while exceptions can be made in missing persons cases, police officers are generally reluctant to distribute photos of children online. This was the main reason police waited nearly a week before posting a report, which in retrospect wasted those first vital days.
We know that public notification can be highly useful in recovering missing children. In the US, AMBER Alerts have saved 794 children since the program began in 1996. Tragically, in Tiah's case, her body was found only three hours after the media was first notified.
In the wake of her death, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk ordered a review into the way the identities of foster children are protected. It wasn't the first time foster laws had affected criminal investigations. In 2014, three-year-old William Tyrell went missing from his foster carers' home in NSW. Due to privacy laws, his carers were not initially allowed to speak out to the public. His body has not yet been recovered.
When I get to Marsden State Elementary School, I stand outside the front gates, where I'm greeted with paper posters of Tiah. "Can you help?" they ask me. It's a weekend and I'm the only one around, so I go to the bus stop and check the timetable. It's plausible Tiah could have got on a bus to her death, but apparently it's one of the few things police have ruled out.
Detective Superintendent Dave Hutchinson, who is in charge of the investigation, told me that gathering evidence about Tiah's disappearance was difficult from the start. "Many of the issues revolved around the memories of the various students," he said. "For example, information was received that Tiah was seen getting on a bus that afternoon. After considerable inquiries, it was determined this occurred on a different day."
Despite these problems the detective superintendent told me they've been able to deduce Tiah left of her own accord. "We know that Tiah walked out of the school willingly at about 0820 hours," he said.
The school is strangely quiet, and I walk around looking for someone to talk to, but no one will. Actually, this is a recurring issue over the next few weeks. The investigation of Tiahleigh's death is still open, which means media snooping is frowned upon. That she was a foster child with a difficult family history makes things even more difficult. I drive around Logan thinking that restricting people from talking—and therefore keeping the story out of the news—might be somewhat counterproductive. Still, over and over again I'm met with the same response: "Sorry, I'm not allowed to talk about that."
I leave the school and head to the local McDonald's where Tiah was known to hang out. The police department has gathered enough information to be positive that she was planning to cut class that day—and if we're working under the assumption that she encountered a predator, there are two main plausible theories. One is that Tiah was planning to meet someone and that's why she left school. The other is that she was planning to leave school and was abducted. The shopping precinct seems a likely enough setting for either.
It's in a busy area with lots of traffic, a KFC, a 7-Eleven, a Red Rooster, an Aldi, a Subway, and a Dominos. One classmate told police she saw Tiah here on the morning of the disappearance, but CCTV footage has revealed no evidence of this. I decide to keep moving.
The drive out to the Pimpama River, where Tiah's body was found, takes about 40 minutes and I'm forced to take a toll road. I wonder if the toll cameras were checked—could they provide any evidence? In any case, the police officers had told me they could only comment generally on Tiah's movements that morning, so I don't know for sure. I'm on the highway for a while, and when I get off, I reach a desolate stretch of dusty bitumen that leads to the river. One way or another, Tiah was on this road too.
I get out to take some photos of a road sign. As I'm walking back to my car, keys in hand, a vehicle pulls up alongside me. I'm silently freaking out, but it's a construction worker who wants directions. I can't help and he drives off, and I exhale. "Wimp" is a word to describe me, but it's also a creepy road. It's out of the way, empty, and surrounded by bushland. It's also not the closest river to the school, and it is surprisingly close to an infinitely nicer ocean. There's no reason any young girl would come here on her own volition.
I find the place where Tiah's body was recovered. It's just past a recycled water treatment plant on the north side of a grated bridge. Barbed wire lines the bushland and the riverbank. It's not exactly what I'd call beautiful.
I look at the stagnant water where Tiahleigh was found semi-naked. She went to school wearing a uniform, carrying a purple Mambo backpack. Then she ended up in this filthy, barely-moving water, while the backpack and the uniform disappeared. I think about where they are now, and wonder if the fisherman who found Tiahleigh received counseling.
Currently there are around 20 police investigators on the case, trying to work out whether Tiah's abductor was known to her. They have looked into sex offenders in the area and scoured the 12-year-old's social media accounts and internet logs. However, there is a complication: Tiah did not have a phone or personal computer. All of her online interactions are spread across computers and phones belonging to her friends, foster carers, and her school. Finding out what happened to her is complicated, for a whole series of reasons.
Whatever happened in Waterford West, it led to the tragic death of a 12-year-old girl.
If you have any further information about her disappearance, please contact Queensland Police or Crime Stoppers at 1300 333 000.