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Inside a City Reeling from the Murder of a Fostered Schoolgirl

It's been nearly three weeks since Tiahleigh Palmer's foster father was arrested for her murder and the story's become only murkier since.

by Donna Lu
Oct 7 2016, 12:00am

A plea for information outside Marsden State School earlier this year. Photo by Mimi LaMontagne.

This article originally appeared on VICE Australia/New Zealand

It's been nearly three weeks since Tiahleigh Palmer's foster father was arrested for her murder. In photos of him being led to the police station, Richard "Rick" Thorburn looks far older than his 56 years. He's handcuffed, deep bags under his eyes, face fuzzed with stubble.

Just as ubiquitous have been the Instagram shots of Rick's son, Trent Thorburn. It's hard to imagine he's the same guy who's been charged with incest, perjury, and attempting to pervert the course of justice. In every selfie the baby faced 19-year-old poses with a blonde fade slicked to perfection. He wears an unreadable expression.

The mood in Brisbane swings between disgust and fascination. Incest and murder are crimes on a Shakespearean scale. We aren't really used to this sort of drama. Obsessively unpicking the details of this strange story, it's easy for a city to forget that a school girl has lost her life.

The section of the Pimpana River where Tiahleigh's body was found by fisherman. Photo by Mimi LaMontagne

Twelve-year-old Tiahleigh Palmer went missing on October 30, 2015. Six days later her remains were found on the banks of the Pimpana River, far from where she'd been dropped off at school.

By the next morning, the front page of the Courier-Mail read "Failing Tiah: An Unfolding Tragedy." Papers across the country printed her picture—Tiahleigh, dressed in her favourite colour, purple. Tiahleigh wearing a floral backpack and apparently on her way to school. Neither her backpack or school uniform have been recovered.

Kids at Tiah's memorial service. Photo by Vincent Chen

In November, hundreds came together for a candlelit vigil, leaving tributes outside the gates of her school—Marsden State. They arranged flowers, photos, letters, and candles to spell out "Tiah" as she'd been known to friends and family.

At Marsden State High School, she was active in dance and cheerleading groups. When she disappeared, her face was plastered onto the back of local council buses. The picture showed her wearing a lime-green dance outfit. A former foster parent described Tiah as "a gorgeous, gorgeous little girl."

But for police the case quickly cooled. It took more than 3,500 separate lines of enquiry and 11 months to gather enough evidence against the Thorburns. Now it's a case of coming to terms with what happened.

The Thorburn home as seen from the driveway. Photo by the author

Tiahleigh lived with the Thorburns in Chambers Flat, a rural suburb about 40 kilometres south of Brisbane. There was Rick, his wife Julene, 54, and their two sons Trent, 19, and Joshua, 20.

Originally a truck driver, Rick had retired with a back injury and opened a food van business. Both his sons helped to operate the food van on weekends.

Josh and Trent described themselves as dancers. Until recently, Josh even had a profile on Starnow.com. Trent was halfway through a metal fabrication apprenticeship.

The entrance to the Thorburn property in Chambers Flat. Photo by the author

The Thorburn property is now empty. An incongruous remnant of police tape flaps from the front gate, the only indicator the property is a crime scene. Stretches of greenery are dotted with sheds, tractors, and cockatoos. It's a quiet community and the locals are reluctant to talk. "We're all on acreages, so we keep to ourselves," one tells me.

A few days after Rick's arrest, police brought in earth moving equipment to search the Thorburn's property. Media speculated they were searching for Tiahleigh's missing school uniform and backpack, but nothing was found. A few weeks on, when I visit the house, the tarps and excavators are gone and nothing looks amiss. It's very quiet.

A few months before she died, Tiahleigh had the chance to leave the Thorburn's. "She said she wanted to stay because of [Trent]," explained Sue Palmer, her biological grandmother, in the Courier-Mail. "We didn't have any idea as to what was actually happening there—just that she had a crush on the boy and that was the main reason she wanted to stay."

When Trent faced court on September 21, prosecutors alleged he had sex with Tiah in the week before she died. A Facebook message was revealed to the court in which Trent told his cousin he was worried he might have made her pregnant. Under Queensland law, sex between step or foster siblings constitutes incest.

Rick can be seen carrying Tiah's coffin, second on left. Image via Wikipedia

Rick Thorburn was a pallbearer at his foster daughter's funeral last year. In a now-deleted Facebook post on April 8, he invited friends and foster families to an event "to remember her on what would have been her 13th birthday." He also wrote of plans to start a foundation called "We Won't Forget You."

Prosecutors now allege that Rick killed Tiah in an effort to bury the entanglement between her and his son.

Media scrutiny intensified after Rick's arrest, when he collapsed in custody in the Beenleigh watch house. He had reportedly swallowed a handful of pills and was taken to the Princess Alexandria Hospital, where he was put in an induced coma. The following day, Trent fronted court without his father.

On the same day, Queensland Child Safety Minister and local Waterford MP Shannon Fentiman announced that the Queensland Family and Child Commission (QFCC) would review the approval processes for foster carers.

"The death of any child is a tragedy and the allegations relating to the death of Tiahleigh Palmer are abhorrent," Fentiman said in a statement to VICE. "While we have strict approval processes in place for foster carers and Blue Card holders, we will do everything we can to strengthen and improve the systems."

The Thorburn family. Trent is on the far right. Image via YouTube

Rick and Julene were both approved foster carers, and all four Thorburns held valid Blue Cards. But while no foster children were placed with the family after Tiahleigh's death, the Thorburns continued to run a family day care centre from the property. It was only suspended in April when police tipped off Fentiman's department and the Queensland Department of Education and Training that the Thorburns were under investigation.

Rick has since awoken from his coma. His case has been adjourned until December 21—some two months after his wife and oldest son are expected to face court. Julene and Joshua have both been charged with perjury and attempting to pervert the course of justice.

Most recently, on September 27, Trent Thorburn was bashed by prisoners at the Arthur Gorrie Correctional Centre where he is awaiting trial. He received only minor injuries.

Tiah's school friends at her vigil last year. Photo by Vincent Chen

"Tiahleigh will always be fondly remembered as a member of the Marsden State High School family," said Marsden State High School's executive principal, Andrew Peach, in a statement. "As a school community our thoughts are with Cyndi Palmer and her family at this difficult time."

Back in July, the community had organised a memorial "Walk 4 Tiahleigh" event. Hundreds of supporters left the gates of Marsden State High School on a Sunday morning, snaking through Waterford West streets. They ended the walk by releasing balloons in Havenbah Park, where candlelight vigils had been held the previous November. The balloons, of course, were Tiah's favourite colour: purple.

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