By Detective Senior Sergeant Chris Knight, Queensland Police Homicide Investigation Unit; and Detective Senior Sergeant Paul Fletcher, Logan Child Protection & Investigation Unit
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Detective Senior Sergeant Chris Knight joined the Qld Police Service in 1990 and for most of his service since 1992 has performed duty in a range of investigative positions including covert operation and several C.I.B positions in both Metropolitan plus rural and remote districts. Since 2009 Detective KNIGHT has been appointed to State Crime Command and during that time has worked in the Homicide Investigation Unit for about 8 years where he is an Operations Leader.
Detective Senior Sergeant Paul Fletcher has been a sworn member of the Queensland Police Service since 2001 and performed his entire career to date within the Logan District. He was appointed to an investigator position in 2005 at the Logan Child Protection & Investigation Unit and gained Detective classification in 2009. Currently he is the Officer in Charge of Logan Suspect Child Abuse & Neglect (‘SCAN’) team and is dedicated to child protection investigations.
On a Friday afternoon in October of 2015, the registered foster carer of a 12-year-old girl named Tiahleigh (Tia) Palmer entered the Browns Plains Police Station in Logan City, south-east Queensland, and filed a missing persons report. His name was Richard Thorburn.
Thorburn told Queensland Police that he had driven Tia to school that morning at approximately 8.10am and watched her walk inside. He submitted that he then continued on, from the drop-off point, to attend to his own business. He claims he was alerted to Tia not being at school after she failed to attend a scheduled meeting with a counsellor at 11.30am. The counsellor rang the Thorburn household and spoke to Richard Thorburn who, in turn, presented at the school at 12.40pm. When he was unable to locate Tia, he became upset and quite hysterical and decided to report Tia as missing to local police.
In response, Browns Plains Police initiated inquiries to find Tia, but she was not located. They contacted her friends and made ongoing inquiries during the following week.
At 5.15pm on Thursday 5 November 2015, the small body of a girl was found on the bank of the Pimpama River, not far from Dreamworld on the northern end of the Gold Coast. The body was in an advanced state of decomposition and was clothed only in underpants.
The body was found by some people who were kayaking along the river and was partially submerged in water near the muddy river bank. There was no indication of how long the body had been there, although it was the opinion of investigators that the deceased had not drifted in the river to this location. The position in which the body was found was slightly off the road; essentially, where a person could drive to the end of a dirt track and dump the body a few metres away.
The kayakers were interviewed by police and provided statements that day, however they played no further role in the investigation; they were merely people enjoying an afternoon paddling on the river.
THE CRIME SCENE
A crime scene was declared in the vicinity of 334-338 Kerkin Rd North, Pimpama. The investigation commenced by inquiries with residents who lived nearby.
Although this crime scene was in a rural area, the road that passes through it had high levels of motor-vehicle traffic. It was also a popular area for fishing.
Extensive forensic examinations of the scene were undertaken. Despite this, no forensic evidence of investigative significance was recovered from the deceased or the crime scene.
DOING THE GROUNDWORK
Detectives believed it was highly likely that the deceased was one of two young girls who had been reported missing in the vicinity at that time. An open mind was being kept about the possible identity of this girl, but it seemed logical to start by investigating the possibility that the deceased was one of these missing girls.
Unfortunately, due to the state of decomposition, visual identification of the body was not an option. The only identifying feature on the body was a pair of underpants, which were ripped at the left hip area. Detectives did not know where the young girl had come from or how the body came to be at that location. We had very little information at this early stage except for a very rough, approximate age.
Detectives requested a Scenes of Crime Officer (SOCO) to attend the Thorburn residence where Tia lived. The SOCO fingerprinted some personal items belonging to Tia, including her school diary, school books, and some personal items in her bedroom.
As a result of these examinations, some good latent fingerprints were developed on the items taken from the missing girl’s home and were later compared with the fingerprints obtained from the young girl’s body. As a result, she was soon positively identified as the missing person, Tia Palmer. It was a crucial step for the detectives, all of which took place within 48 hours of the body being found.
There was little information to go on at that early stage, but one thing was clear – a murder investigation was now underway.
On 6 November 2015, a Post Mortem examination was undertaken by Pathologist Dr. Dianne Little. Scans failed to detect any obvious (major) injuries likely to contribute to her death. The only injury noted was a bruise on her scalp. Due to the advanced state of decomposition of the body, it was difficult to comment on just when the girl died, and entomology failed to clarify a ‘time of death’.
TIAHLEIGH (TIA) PALMER
Tia, who was just 12 years of age, was a year 7 student at Marsden State High School, also located in Logan City. On 16 January 2015, Tia took up residence with the Thorburn family in Chambers Flat, Queensland. This is where she had been living for 10 months leading up to her disappearance. She had been in seven foster care placements in the five years leading up to her time with the Thorburn family.
Tia was a well-behaved child, her attendance level at school was very good, and she was involved in dance lessons. However, as most of her activities were structured, she would be dropped off and picked up by her foster parents.
Once Tia had been identified, police had a starting point. She had been reported missing on 30 October 2015 and her body was found on Thursday 5 November 2015.
By the time Tia’s remains were located, it had been six days from when she was reported missing. With the extra time that it took to positively identify the body, it was necessary to focus very significantly on what can be referred to as perishable evidence, such as CCTV, phone data, in-car dash-cam footage from commercial and private vehicles and transport records such as traffic cameras and road toll points. Identifying potential witnesses was also a priority because, as time progresses, an eyewitness’ recollection of events can diminish.
The opportunity to recover domestic CCTV is time sensitive as it often starts to tape over itself or get dumped within 7 to 10 days. This timeframe is a rough guide that police work on, so it became an urgent priority and massive resourcing was dedicated to this task.
The task of identifying and gathering relevant CCTV was made more complex because, in the initial stages of the investigation, there was nothing to indicate where Tia had gone after leaving the school on Friday 30 October 2015. It was unknown if she had left the school on foot or in a vehicle, whether she left by choice or willingly; all of these were unknowns.
Initially, the police investigation was guided by the account of Richard Thorburn when he reported Tia missing. His account was corroborated by friends of Tia at school, who stated that they had spoken with Tia on the morning of 30 October 2015. Tia’s friends said that she wanted to borrow some money and when they were unable to give her any, she became agitated. They further stated that when the school bell rang, Tia left the school via the same gate she had just entered.
It was established that this was the same gate where Thorburn says he dropped Tia off at school that morning. School records for 30 October 2015 confirm that Tia did not attend any classes.
The witness accounts of Tia’s movements prior to her being reported missing absolutely correlated at that early stage with the version that had been given by Thorburn.
ESTABLISHING AN INVESTIGATION CENTRE
Police from Coomera Police Station were the first on the scene when the body was found. Shortly after establishing the crime scene, detectives from Coomera alerted the Homicide Investigation Unit to the fact that the body of a young girl had been found in the Pimpama River.
A team of homicide detectives were quickly pulled together and an initial investigation centre – which is the hub for all enquiries that are conducted – was set up at Coomera Police Station. All information, intelligence and evidence is processed through the investigation centre and follow-up actions and tasks are generated, allocated and monitored.
The investigation was significantly supported by local police resources. The investigation centre initially included Homicide Investigation Unit staff, Logan CIB and Logan Child Protection Investigation Unit (CPIU) staff and these were supported by State Intelligence services and Forensic Services Branch experts. Despite the relative inexperience of some investigative staff, their contribution created a valuable working environment in which the investigation progressed.
The Homicide Investigation Unit work in partnership with regional detectives under an arrangement known as a ‘level two engagement’. All operational decisions are shared. The engagement model used in Queensland is unique compared with other homicide squads across Australia and, in recent years, the Homicide Investigation Unit has prided itself on the strength of the relationships it has established throughout Queensland.
There was no obvious connection between the location where Tia’s body was found and where she was last seen alive, but the decision was made to move the investigation centre to the Logan District as that was where Tia was last seen alive.
ALWAYS START WITH THE FAMILY
At the time of her death, Tia was in foster care and lived with Richard and Julene Thorburn on a property at Chambers Flat, a short distance from Marsden High School. Richard and Julene had two sons (Trent and Joshua) who were in their late teens when the investigation began.
From day one of the investigation, those people identified as primary witnesses were interviewed as a matter of priority. Statements were taken from all four members of the Thorburn family.
In the days immediately following the identification of Tia, police went to the Thorburn home and, by consent, conducted a forensic examination of Tia’s bedroom. Various forensic techniques were implemented to look for any evidence or indication of violence or any signs of communications that would indicate what was going on in Tia’s life immediately prior to her disappearance.
The Thorburn family was very cooperative in that regard. There was a significant amount of investigative work conducted at the Thorburn home; periodically, and in the early stages of the investigation, with the consent of the family members.
All four members of the family were interviewed collectively as information about aspects of Tia’s life were identified or brought to the attention of investigators through the significant volumes of information being provided by the public.
They were very accommodating during these early stages of the investigation. They were very willing to provide additional information as the investigation progressed. All members of the family provided conventional witness statements and later participated in cognitive interviews during which detectives sought to try and exhaust their memories in order to identify all possible clues.
This process, involving ongoing interviews with the family, continued from early November right through until the end of April 2016. During that period of time, Rick and Julene were interviewed four or five times and both of the boys were interviewed three times.
This phase of the investigation was more of an exploratory-type investigation. The family was not under caution when they were interviewed – they were not suspects at that moment in time.
THE SEARCH FOR CCTV FOOTAGE
Some of the factors investigators had to consider in gathering and reviewing CCTV was that there was no known or suspected Vehicle of Interest (VOI) or any Person/s of Interest (POI), that is was unknown what direction of travel Tia had taken when she left the school that morning, and that six days had transpired between Tia being reported missing and when her body was located. Further complicating this task was the sheer number of students enrolled at Marsden High School (2300), where a strict uniform policy is in place. Combining all of these factors it is not hard to see why the process of identifying, securing and reviewing relevant CCTV footage was a daunting proposition for those allocated with this vital investigative task.
Given the broad parameters that detectives had to work with, extensive resources were allocated in the search for CCTV footage. As previously mentioned, CCTV footage is considered perishable evidence and must therefore be preserved at the earliest opportunity. This was now a ‘time critical task’ and was prioritised as such.
POTENTIAL SOURCES OF CCTV
Investigators canvassed sources including:
all Q-Rail footage for the period of 30 October 2015 – 15 November 2015 for all train stations between the suburbs of Trinder Park and Helensvale;
footage from theme parks including Dreamworld, Wet & Wild, Movie World and SeaWorld;
shopping centres including Marsden Park, Grand Plaza (Browns Plains) and Harbour town (Helensvale), plus fast food outlets within these relevant areas;
traffic-monitoring camera sources;
all commercial and private CCTV sources in the vicinity of Marsden High School and the wider Pimpama area; and
mobile “dash-cameras” for all known bus operators as well as commercial and private motor vehicles operating within the identified areas of interest.
Over 50,000 hours of footage was recovered and preserved.
Capturing this footage before it was lost was critical. It was achieved with a lot of effort by the investigative team and great support from the community but, in hindsight, gathering the evidence probably turned out to be the easiest part of this strategy.
Having gathered the CCTV footage, it is incumbent upon investigators to review and consider all of the footage. While the purpose of the CCTV strategy is to gather evidence to progress the murder investigation, consideration must (at all times) be given to both inculpatory and exculpatory evidence that might be contained in the CCTV.
About 21,000 hours of footage was ultimately deemed ‘essential’ for review, before any court or coronial proceedings. This stage of the investigation was supported by about 100 police recruits from the Queensland Police Academy, but it was obvious that the task of effectively reviewing this amount of footage was beyond the existing capabilities of the investigation.
Research was undertaken to identify an innovative solution to overcome the inability of investigators to review the 21,000 hours of footage in a sufficiently timely manner.
A company by the name of SeeQuestor Ltd was identified and, after some preliminary testing of its capabilities, arrangements were made for two detectives to travel to London to undertake the task. The 21,000 hours of footage was comprehensively reviewed by the two detectives in four days. Given the ever-increasing use and availability of CCTV as an investigative tool, this exercise is likely to be of benefit to many future investigations.
Detectives liaised with the Office of the State Coroner to request cell tower data from Optus, Telstra and Vodafone. The data requested related to all telco data from towers at Marsden and Pimpama for the period from 30 October 2015 until 5 November 2015.
The time period for data from Marsden was 8am – 12pm on Friday 30 October 2015, coinciding with the reported last sighting of Tia as she was dropped at school. The time period for data from Pimpama was 8am on 30 October 2015 to 5pm on 5 November 2015. This coincided with the time that Tia’s body was located.
There was much discussion within the investigative team in relation to this strategy. After much debate it was decided this was a difficult but essential task.
Detectives were conscious that the broader the timeframes the more difficult the task became but believed it was necessary to use these timeframes as the specific time and date that Tia’s body was dumped could not be reliably established.
The sheer size of this request and the potential download of information was unprecedented in Queensland. The primary objective of the data was to identify telephones that appear in both locations. Challenges were anticipated in relation to the task of digesting and interpreting the volume of telco data that was being sought but given the limited information that was available to investigators in these early stages, we had to consider every option. This was a realistic investigative option, but it was anticipated that this strategy would also involve a huge effort and would require comprehensive planning and infrastructure to complete.
On 25 November 2015, the Coroner issued a ‘requirement’ under S.16 (Duty to help investigation) of the Queensland Coroners Act 2003 on the telcos and the enormous task of analysing the copious amounts of data began.
$250,000 REWARD OFFERED
Applications for a reward for persons providing information in relation to homicide investigations are not unusual. In relation to this investigation however, an application for a reward was considered and submitted much earlier than would normally be the case.
The application for a reward in this investigation was made in December 2015 – only about a month or so into the investigation. Despite the magnificent community support, the huge amount of information flowing into the investigation centre, and the tremendous amount of resources that were dedicated to the investigation, no firm suspects had been identified in the first four weeks.
The investigation team members discussed the question of seeking a reward and ultimately the decision was made to put forward an application. An indication of the level of community interest and support that the investigation had generated is perhaps reflected by the decision, on 2 February 2016, to approve a reward for $250,000.
The reward was published and along with other media strategies it had the impact of rejuvenating the media interest. It wasn’t that media interest had dwindled, but the reward was a good conversation point and helped keep the investigation in the public arena.
BREAKTHROUGH PHONE CALL
On Friday 10 May 2016, a community source contacted Crime Stoppers Victoria. The anonymous caller stated that a Facebook message was sent by Trent Thorburn, about one or two weeks before her disappearance, and that the message had something to do with Tia.
The caller stated that on the evening before Tia’s disappearance, this Facebook message had triggered a Thorburn family meeting relating to a concerning relationship between Tia and Trent Thorburn.
There was no indication whatsoever in relation to who had made the call. Early in the investigation detectives had conducted extensive inquiries in relation to Tia’s use of social media—particularly Facebook—but there was nothing found to suggest anything like what had been mentioned in the anonymous phone call. Application had been made to preserve all the Facebook messages that related to the Thorburn family, and that message referred to in this phone call certainly wasn’t visible to the investigation team.
The timing of this call was incredibly interesting as it correlated to another allegation that had been received against Rick Thorburn concerning contact with children (these allegations were not connected to Tia’s murder).
As a result of the information received, and through a process of elimination, on 17 May 2016 detectives interviewed two of the people named in the Crime Stoppers report. These people were relatives of the Thorburns’ and lived a couple of suburbs away from the Thorburn family home.
Detectives went and spoke to both people and they denied knowledge of any Facebook contact consistent with the Crime Stoppers information. They also denied that any family meeting had taken place on Thursday night (29 October 2015) – the night prior to Tia being reported missing.
The investigation team members were satisfied that these two people did not actually make the Crime Stoppers call, but it was apparent to the detectives that there was more to this story than police were being told. The focus of the investigation turned sharply towards examining the potential that this Facebook message had in fact existed. Looking at the Crime Stoppers information, investigators were in agreement that it just didn’t seem to be fabricated information. As a group, all of the detectives involved were of the opinion that whoever had made that call believed it to be true. It was felt that whoever made that call provided too much detail for it to be contrived.
FOCUS OF THE INVESTIGATION MOVES TO VICTORIA
In June 2016, four detectives travelled to Victoria to interview members of Julene Thorburn’s extended family. Information was obtained during these interviews that supported the belief that there had been Facebook communications between Trent Thorburn and one of his cousins.
This was the moment where the investigation changed. Detectives were satisfied that the people they interviewed in Victoria did not have direct knowledge of the murder, but the information they provided changed the focus of the investigation – the focus was very much now on the Thorburn family!
What detectives were able to confirm was that there was a birthday gathering for an elderly family member in Victoria shortly after Tia went missing. Relatives of Julene’s attended the gathering but Julene didn’t.
While the family were getting together in Victoria, Julene and Rick spoke with them by phone and told them that Tia’s body had been found. That became a significant talking point within the family and one of the family members told the others about the Facebook message and a family meeting that had taken place. It was one of the extended family who later took it upon themselves to call Crime Stoppers.
The team members knew that the information about the Facebook message and the family meeting was significant. The derivative information that detectives were able to obtain from that was, indeed, the turning point. However, detectives were still being lied to. Everyone was convinced the investigation was on the right path.
As a result, an application was made to commence a coercive hearing program with the Crime and Corruption Commission.
CRIME AND CORRUPTION COMMISSION (CCC)
At the time of this investigation, the charter of the CCC meant that it could take a police referral under certain circumstances. One of those general referrals related to vulnerable victims. This investigation met the criteria because Tia was a young girl in foster care and was clearly vulnerable by virtue of her circumstances.
One of the roles of police at these hearings is to provide lines of questioning, or issues that are going to advance the investigation – lines of enquiry that police would like to have explored.
The four members of the Thorburn family were compelled to attend the CCC hearings because the focus of the hearings were primarily around the allegation of this family meeting. This information had never been volunteered to police by any of the Thorburns. That was the focus of the hearing program. Other members of the extended family were also directed to appear.
All four members of the Thorburn family went into those hearings. All four members lied under oath. They stuck steadfastly to the stories they had consistently been providing to police all along. By this stage, about six or seven months had passed and they each continued to maintain their version surrounding Tia’s disappearance.
After some of the hearings, detectives had cause to re-approach a couple of witnesses – not any of the four Thorburn family members with whom Tia co-dwelled – and it was at that point that detectives had probably one of the most significant breaks in the investigation.
A witness appeared in the CCC on 12 September 2016. After providing evidence that detectives believed constituted the person having committed perjury, the witness was approached by detectives. Within minutes of speaking with detectives the witness admitted lying to the CCC. This person’s focus was then on protecting their own best interests and the interests of a family member who was at risk of making the same error.
GOT THE MESSAGE!
By that stage, the witnesses had decided that they were sufficiently motivated to provide truthful information to detectives. As a result, detectives recovered a copy of the original Facebook message – the message that had been sent from Trent Thorburn to his relative, in which he admitted having sexual intercourse with Tia in the days leading up to her death. He told his relative that he believed that Tia might have been pregnant.
Detectives established that the original message had been deleted from Facebook but prior to doing so the witness had saved the message onto a USB.
That same day, detectives re-interviewed the witnesses and obtained signed witness statements. This was clearly another key point in the investigation; it was the catalyst to the arrests.
While the two witnesses were talking to detectives, Rick Thorburn’s behaviour was becoming increasingly erratic. He was doing laps around police stations looking for the witnesses’ cars. He was trying to call them persistently. His behaviour was extremely concerning.
THE FAMILY MEETING
There had been several references to ‘a family meeting’. Detectives were now satisfied that in the days leading up to Tia’s death, Trent and Julene Thorburn went to a member of their extended family’s home where they discussed the fact that Trent had admitted having sexual intercourse with Tia. This is the family meeting that had been referred to in the Crime Stoppers call.
GETTING TO THE TRUTH
After again reviewing all of the evidence, detectives were feeling pretty comfortable with their understanding of the dynamics of the Thorburn family. It was certainly not what they had consistently portrayed to police, the public and the media.
Decision makers in the investigation centre were satisfied that Richard Thorburn was primarily responsible, and that Tia been murdered while the family meeting was going on – that Rick was at home alone with Tia where he committed the murder.
The role played by the others was still not so clear but there was consensus that they were either concealing information that was relevant to the murder or they in fact had taken part in the murder themselves.
TIA WAS NEVER ‘MISSING’
It was now clear that Tia never made it to school on Friday 30 October 2015. The family meeting was held during the evening of Thursday 29 October. Tia didn’t go to school the next day, the day she was reported missing by Richard Thorburn after he had allegedly dropped her off at school.
The team re-visited the evidence provided by Tia’s friends, who told police that Tia had walked into school on the morning of Friday 30 October 2015 and that they had spoken with her. At the time this completely, and independently, corroborated the version given by Richard Thorburn.
What detectives now know is that the girls were mistaken. There is no suggestion those girls were lying. Detectives honestly believe they were truthful, honest kids and the simple fact is, they had the wrong Friday.
The investigation team had the witness statements and a copy of the Facebook message. It was time to plan for a closure to the investigation.
On 19 September 2016, Detective Sergeant Murray O’Connell and Detective Senior Sergeant Chris Knight made an approach to Julene Thorburn under circumstances where she could be spoken to but not in the presence of her husband.
The purpose of this meeting was to gauge her willingness to provide a witness statement against her husband. Julene was confronted without prior warning and a very frank conversation was had with her. She was now made aware that things were coming to a head. Julene was told that detectives knew that she had been lying to police and the CCC. She was encouraged to get a lawyer because the detectives wanted to have a very direct conversation with her and that they believed it was in her interests to listen to what police had to say.
That afternoon, Julene Thorburn went and saw a lawyer in Brisbane. In the background during this same period, the investigation team had a number of covert strategies that were underway.
While Julene was with her lawyers, Richard found out that she was there, and he was driving around trying to locate her. He was clearly on edge and his behaviour was becoming increasingly of concern to investigators. Detective Inspector Damien Hansen would later say that Richard’s behaviour became “more and more erratic. We just knew he was panicking” (Courier Mail, 2018).
JULENE UNWAVERING (FOR NOW)
Detective Senior Sergeant Knight spoke to Julene’s lawyer and was advised that Julene was seriously considering coming in and speaking to detectives and being open but wanted to sleep on it overnight.
Detectives were very concerned about Richard Thorburn’s behaviour and were apprehensive about what might happen if Julene went home that evening. These concerns were conveyed to her lawyer, but it was acknowledged that at that stage it was Julene’s choice. Police did offer to accommodate Julene overnight and put her up somewhere so that she would not have to go home, but she refused. Her lawyer shared police concerns but at the end of the day, Julene was a free woman and she chose to go home.
A significant amount of resources were in place that night. Detectives were extremely concerned for Julene’s safety.
The next morning (20 September 2016) Detective Senior Sergeant Knight received a call from Julene’s lawyer during which it was submitted that Julene had no interest in cooperating with the police. It was not negotiable.
Everything was coming together quickly. An urgent briefing was called for everybody working on the investigation. That day the decision was made to arrest all four members of the family.
Arrest and interview teams were allocated. The location of the four members of the family were known. Richard and Julene were at the family home. Trent was at work and Josh was at a friend’s place.
The plan was to arrest all of them, with the intention of offering them interviews. This was their chance to tell the truth. After their initial detention period and interviews, decisions would be made about what charges were going to be laid.
Trent was the first to be arrested – at his workplace – and what the arrest teams had no control over was that his workmates knew Richard Thorburn and they immediately rang Richard to let him know that Trent had just been arrested.
Unfortunately, that call was made to them before the arrest team arrived on their doorstep. Richard and Julene had already left the house.
They were tracked down fairly quickly and were all arrested. From the moment Richard Thorburn was arrested, he said nothing. He refused to engage with police for the first time ever. Up until that time, he’d been cooperative. That was the one and only time he refused to speak to police. How things change!
Julene Thorburn was arrested a short distance away from Rick and taken back to the police station. By the time she got to the station, she had reconsidered her decision from the previous day. She engaged a lawyer and went on to provide a full interview and a witness statement against her husband and son (Trent).
Back at the station, Trent made no comment. He refused to be interviewed, refused to provide a witness statement and has maintained that silence for the duration of his subsequent prison sentence.
Joshua Thorburn, once arrested, changed the way he thought. He is quite a different character to the rest of the family and he too gave a full interview and gave witness evidence about his brother having sex with Tia and also about his father committing the murder. Joshua provided a witness statement against his father and brother.
When Joshua was speaking with police on 20 September 2016, he stated that although he was influenced by his family to maintain his lies, in his mind his father stopped being his father once he admitted killing Tia.
CHARGED AND SENTENCED
Richard Neville Thorburn was charged with:
Interfere with a Corpse;
Attempt to Pervert the Course of Justice; and
Perjury x 2 (CCC).
He was the only one who was charged with murder.
The case was set down for a mention and at that hearing his barrister indicated his guilty plea and it was adjourned for a short period, about a month, to hear the plea. He was sentenced to ‘life imprisonment’ on 25 May 2018 at the Queensland Supreme Court in relation to the charge of murder; four years imprisonment for interfere with a corpse; six years for attempt to pervert the course of justice; and eight years on each count of perjury. The sentences are to be served concurrently and a parole eligibility date was set at 12 September 2036.
In Queensland, whether you plead guilty to murder or whether you’re found guilty at trial, it’s exactly the same penalty – a mandatory life sentence. There is no mitigation for a plea as there is in some of the other jurisdictions in Australia. There is no exception.
During sentencing of Thorburn, Justice David Boddice described his actions in murdering Tia as “cold, calculating and callous”.
“You murdered this defenceless child, who relied on you for protection … and you did so to save one of your own children because of the consequences of his actions,” he said. “Your conduct throughout all of the offending is made more shocking for the deliberateness of your actions and your willingness to coerce every member of your family to maintain false accounts in an effort to cover up your despicable behaviour”.
Julene Michelle Thorburn was charged with:
Attempt to Pervert the Course of Justice; and
She entered a guilty plea and was sentenced on 3 November 2017 to 18 months in gaol, with two-thirds of the sentence being suspended.
Joshua Dillon Thorburn was charged with:
Attempt to Pervert the Course of Justice; and
He entered a guilty plea and was sentenced on 21 July 2017 to a total 15 months in custody, 12 of which were suspended.
Trent Jordan Thorburn was charged with:
Attempt to Pervert the Course of Justice; and
Perjury – 2 counts (CCC).
He entered a plea of guilty and was sentenced on 14 September 2017 to four years in gaol. Judge Chowdhury said to Trent Thorburn: “You need to man up and be honest and be truthful and your failure to do so is a shocking reflection on you”.
ACTUAL CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE MURDER – WHAT WE KNOW NOW
While the family meeting was occurring involving Julene, Trent and some of their relatives, Richard Thorburn murdered Tia in the family home.
Later that night, Richard admitted to other members of his family that “Tia is no longer with us”.
Richard Thorburn lied about taking Tia to school on Friday 29 October 2015 and later that night he dumped Tia’s body at Pimpama. He told his sons before they went out that night that they had to make sure they were with other people for the whole night. He was telling them to give themselves an alibi.
When Richard Thorburn reported Tia as a missing person at Browns Plains Police Station about 12 midday on Friday 30 October 2015, the deceased body of Tia was in his shed!
At the conclusion of the court matters, Detective Superintendent Kerry Johnson said that Thorburn had committed “the ultimate act of betrayal” and that blame also lay with the rest of the family, who “all had an opportunity to stop this and prevent this. And they didn’t” (Courier Mail, 2018).
LESSONS LEARNED – REFLECTIONS BY THE AUTHORS
Do the basic things well. Be systematic. Be thorough. Be relentless. We were fortunate that the team of investigators we had demonstrated these traits consistently throughout the investigation.
This investigation was a great example that good police work and witnesses still solve murders. Despite the significant advances over many years, investigators should never expect forensic science or technology to solve their investigation. Good, old-fashioned police work, asking questions and checking and re-checking information are still crucial.
The lapse in time at the start of the investigation, between the time Tia was reported missing and when her body was located, reinforced the critical importance of being aware of perishable evidence. I refer to this evidence as perishable because once it is gone, it cannot be retrieved. In terms of prioritising tasks at the start of an investigation, this was a key consideration.
Be imaginative – if conventional methods aren’t effective, be open to new ideas. We were confronted with several unusual issues that we just could not resolve using tried and trusted investigative methods. Without the expertise provided by the SeeQuestor company, it is highly unlikely that we could have appropriately reviewed the 21,000 hours of CCTV footage that was deemed essential viewing.
Opening up communication with students of the school through alternative social media platforms was another example of doing things differently. We were concerned that students might not feel comfortable speaking directly with police in the first instance. To overcome this, we established an alternative forum for them to engage with us, in a format and using means that most of them were probably already very comfortable with.
THE INVESTIGATION TEAM – COMMENTS BY DETECTIVE SENIOR SERGEANT CHRIS KNIGHT
We had a fairly large core group of investigators and a broad range of experience levels. It was really encouraging because at our regular briefings people became comfortable with each other. There was plenty of robust debate and that is good for an investigation.
I firmly believe in the theory that there’s no rank to a good idea. It was very much the case that the briefings we had were open table. During that investigation, there were certain members of our investigative team who always had the opinion that there was more to the Thorburn family than they were volunteering. There were other people who were satisfied that given the timeframes we were working with, there was just no opportunity for them to have committed the murder. There were strong opinions about both of these possibilities.
At the beginning of the investigation we had a large investigative group; about 50 detectives on a daily basis for 16 hours a day. When the investigation became more refined, the working group was reduced to about 20. That was a combination of detectives from the Homicide Investigation Unit, Logan District and also intelligence staff.
I’ve been doing this job for a long time and I have nothing but respect for the group of people that we had. People had to be directed to take days off. Staff were cancelling holidays to stay on the job. There was such a strong feeling about this job – we had a young girl who was vulnerable by virtue of her circumstances and all the people involved were heavily invested in getting to the truth.
The simple fact is, we were the only ones that could return that answer on Tia’s behalf and I have nothing but good words to say about all of the staff involved. Once a few things fell our way the momentum and the vibe of the investigation centre was palpable. It was unbelievable and, as I said, I’ll never forget it.
It was one of those investigations where we had very high-ranking police officers that would visit the investigation centre, and whatever resources were reasonably needed were absolutely put into it. Not that that’s unique, but people were taking time out of their day to offer their help to do what they could. It was an extraordinary investigation.
There was an extraordinary mentality around this job and a great work ethic. I told the team at the conclusion of the investigation, “this is a job you will remember forever. No matter where your career takes you this is an investigation that will stay with you for life”.
I truly believe that and I see it in those individuals. It bonded people together; they were so invested in it.