Tasmanian cold case being treated as a murder investigation with family desperate for answers
A lot can change in 10 years: toddlers become teenagers, relationships are made and others dissolve, careers change and people move on.
But not for the Munnings family.
They are stuck in the moment on July 23, 2008 when 20-year-old Helen Munnings disappeared in the seaside city of Burnie.
She told her family she was making the short walk from their home to the doctor.
In fact, she had arranged to meet Adam Taylor, the father of her two-year-old son.
Her mother Karel Munnings cried as she recalled that day.
“She said she had to go down to the city medical and she left her keys on the table — and that’s the last we saw of her,” she said.
Mr Taylor was the last known person to see her alive.
The builder first slept with Helen Munnings when he was 30 and she was just 16. The age of consent in Tasmania is 17.
The relationship continued in secret after she turned 17, with her mother pushing police to charge Mr Taylor with having sex with a minor and Mr Taylor still living with his long-term partner.
Shortly before she disappeared Helen Munnings told friends and family she was pregnant again and Mr Taylor was the father.
The 2012 inquest into Helen Munnings’ disappearance heard Mr Taylor did not want her to keep the baby.
“I’d been to the police, I’d been out in the street yelling at him, literally. I got charged for doing it,” Karel Munnings said.
“Helen wanted that family unit because my children were brought up with one parent and Helen must have thought ‘well, it would be nicer with a family’.”
Mr Taylor told the inquest the pair had driven around the greater Burnie area talking and he had dropped her off on the highway near the old pulp mill about 6:00pm before heading home to his partner.
She has not been seen since.
The family, including Helen’s Munnings’ sister Kathryn, is still searching for answers.
“It’s probably been hardest to watch my mum, to be honest. She’s just heartbroken,” she said.
“What do you say? ‘It’s OK’? Because it’s not OK, what’s happened, and it’s just really hard.”
Coroner could not rule out self-drowning
A 2012 inquest found no evidence to indicate Mr Taylor played a hand in Helen Munnings’ disppearance. (ABC)
An inquest was unable to shed much light on the case.
Coroner Robert Pearce found it was unlikely Helen Munnings had deliberately disappeared to start a new life.
He found while “it would take a remarkable effort of human resolve to deliberately stay under water to the point of drowning” he could not rule out that she had drowned herself.
The inquest identified Mr Taylor as a person of interest.
But while the coroner found the relationship between Mr Taylor and Helen Munnings was “tumultuous and turbulent” and at times “characterised by ill will”, the evidence before him did not support a finding that Mr Taylor was involved in her disappearance.
He made no formal recommendation or comment concerning Helen Munnings’ death except to indicate that the police investigation into it should remain open, because “further evidence may become available”.
‘This is a murder investigation’
The Cold Case Unit has now identified a number of new leads, with the investigation being led by Detective Inspector Rob Gunton.
“I’m investigating this as a murder,” he said, adding that police have one person of interest.
“This is very much an active investigation and will remain an active investigation until such time that we’ve resolved the matter,” he said.
“I have my suspicions but my suspicions and my beliefs are certainly not enough.
“It’s not about what we believe, what we think or even what we know — it’s what we can prove.”
The disappearance was too much for Kathryn Munnings, who left Burnie because of it.
“Everybody will talk about who’s sleeping with who but they keep their mouth quiet about a murder — it never has made sense to me,” she said.
“That’s the reason I don’t live down there. It’s too frustrating.”
A $100,000 reward for information about the disappearance has so far not loosened tongues but police hope over the past 10 years circumstances that stopped people speaking out may have changed.
The family members are pinning their hopes on it, with Kathryn Munnings desperate for someone to have the courage to come forward.
“To sit in the sidelines and watch us suffer, literally screaming out for help and answers … I don’t know how they sleep at night because I sure as hell don’t,” she said.
The Munnings said the disappearance not only robbed them of Helen but also of regular contact with her son Donovan, who lives with the Taylor family, and the baby she was carrying.