Inquest finally reveals how girl was killed

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He was supposed to protect her.

Tiahleigh Alyssa-Rose Palmer – a bright, bubbly 12-year-old who loved horses and dress-ups and always wore a cheeky smile – was supposed to be safe in the care of the Thorburns, her foster family, far removed from the predators of the real world.

Instead, Rick Thorburn – her foster father and a child predator himself – killed her to cover for the sins of his own child.

On the fateful night of October 29, 2015, in the confines of the family’s comfortable Chambers Flat home south of Brisbane, Trent Thorburn tearfully confessed to his mother, Julene, that he’d had sex with Tiahleigh several days before.

Panic set in.

The young girl had complained at dance class that night she had stomach pains. She had boasted with her foster parents about having a ‘secret’ that would get her kicked out of the house. Both foster parents knew Tiahleigh knew what sex was and how it worked; it was dismissed as the jokes of a silly young girl who was learning about sex education in school.

But Rick feared Tiahleigh was pregnant because of his son’s actions. The discovery set into motion a heinous act of evil that would shock the nation for years.

When her body was discovered weeks later along the banks of a Gold Coast river, it was so decomposed detectives could not determine a cause of death.

Now, nearly seven years after her horrific death, within the walls of a packed Brisbane courtroom, a full picture of what actually happened to her still cannot be fully revealed.

Rick was jailed for life in 2018 for Tiahleigh’s murder, admitting he killed the girl after discovering Trent’s incest and acting to protect his son.

For more than five years, it has never been known how she died that fateful night, when she and Rick were left alone in the house for hours.

While the deputy state coroner this week ruled Tiahleigh’s death was “deliberate”, whether she died by asphyxiation or choking is a secret Thorburn will likely take to his grave.

The entire family swore a vow of secrecy about what happened, burying it under a fake story of Tia going to school the next day and going missing.

After reporting her missing, Rick would retrieve Tiahleigh’s body and dump it in the river under the cover of darkness.

It would lead to police bugging their home during their investigations into her death.

THE INQUEST

On the crisp and chilly morning of June 8, 2021, at the Brisbane Coroners Court, a dishevelled Rick took the stand as the first witness in an inquest into Tiahleigh’s death.

Under the locks of his greying hair and short stubble beard, the facade came down.

Pulling out a crumpled piece of paper, he choked on tears and sobbed as he revealed how he and Tiahleigh had gotten into an argument outside the home on the night of October 29, 2015:

“There’s been a lot of speculation about the cause of Tia’s death,” he read.

“I was never given an opportunity in court to give an account of what happened.

“On the night that Tia died she and I got into an argument.

“She was messing about and she wouldn’t go to bed.

“She was being stubborn and it escalated into her running away again.

“She packed her bag and she headed off down the driveway.

“I tried to talk her around to get her to come back to the house and told her that she was being silly.

“I followed her down the driveway to the front gate, which is about 200 metres, and I decided I would bring her back to the house.

“I got my arm around her and tried to walk her back.

“She started struggling and I had to hold her tighter.

“She started screaming and swearing at me and I told her to stop because our neighbour was close to our driveway and it was very late at night.

“It got worse so I put my hand over her mouth and kept going.

“When we got to the veranda I let her go and she fell to the ground.

“I picked her up and put her on the seat she fell to the side again.

“She didn’t respond to me when I spoke to her.

“Her eyes were closed and I didn’t think she was breathing.

“I must have accidentally suffocated her with my hand over her mouth and holding her so tightly around her waist.

“I don’t remember anything that happened after this.

“I don’t know if I tried to resuscitate her.

“I know that I’m responsible for Tia’s death and it is something I struggle to live with … I am truly sorry.”

The monster who had taken Tiahleigh into his home, conspired to cover up how she died, carried out the tiny coffin at her funeral and confessed to her brutal murder, had claimed he had accidentally smothered her during a domestic bout.

It didn’t sit right.

Grilled by Kate McMahon, counsel assisting the coroner, Rick’s demeanour quickly shifted from remorseful to rage-filled as cracks in his story emerged.

He maintained he had a breakdown while in prison that left him with no independent memory of the events that night.

He claimed what he had read from was based on a note he wrote while seeing a prison psychologist four years ago, dug up from papers in his cell.

On the day of the inquest, he had brought a typed document into the court and said he had thrown out the handwritten copy on the day he was coming in.

“When was the last time you saw the original handwritten document?” deputy state coroner Jane Bentley asked.

His answer to this inconsistency? “About five o’clock this morning. I threw it away this morning,” Rick said.

“I’ve finished with it. This is the end of it; I don’t need it anymore.”

Ms McMahon tightened the screws: she said his wife had put Tiahleigh to bed before going to her sister’s house.

“I don’t know. I don’t recall,” Rick said.

“You don’t have any recollection. It’s possible that you wrote a lot of notes with different versions, threw them all away, this is one you seemed to have found somewhere, it doesn’t exist anymore and you have no recollection of whether it’s true or accurate,” Ms Bentley said.

“The only reason it came out is because this inquest is here,” Rick said.

“So it’s not a very reliable document, is it?” Ms Bentley asked.

“It is what it is,” he answered.

Rick couldn’t recall whether he had a conversation with the family that night about Trent having sex with Tiahleigh.

A Facebook message sent by Trent to another person was shown to the court.

The Thorburns’ son said he wanted Tiahleigh out of his life.

“Also if Tia did say something to children services that she is pregnant then it all gets investigated and I could go to jail because a court isn’t going to believe me over her,” the message read.

Trent later told the inquest he believed his father killed Tiahleigh to prevent him going to jail, were they to discover what he did.

Ms McMahon suggested Rick didn’t even know whether his own statement was true or not.

“That’s your opinion, you’re entitled to it,” Rick answered.

He said he didn’t even remember who his own brother-in-law was.

“I’ve come here today to put in what I’ve got, and that’s what I’ve got. You can ask me any questions you like or whatever and make up all the stories you want; they’re your stories, not my stories,” he snapped.

In a recorded prison phone call played at the inquest, Rick repeatedly told Julene he would tell the court “I do not recall”.

“Otherwise they’ll get nothing. I’ll go to the grave with what I’ve got,” he told her.

“If the coroner’s court doesn’t like that, well that’s their f–king problem, not mine.”

Julene chuckled over the call: “They’re going to tread water with you.”

His “memory loss” was not accepted by Ms Bentley when she handed down her findings on Friday.

“His claimed amnesia is inconsistent with opinions of prison psychologists, observations of prison employees (eg, that he was able to recall how to make phone calls using the Arunta system when he claimed total and complete memory loss), and phone calls between him and his wife that are evidence in this inquest,” Ms Bentley wrote.

Ms Bentley said it was “possible” Rick had sexually abused against Tiahleigh, but the evidence was “insufficient” to draw a conclusion.

When asked by Ms McMahon during the inquest if he molested Tiahleigh, Rick said: “I don’t recall. I don’t think I would have either.”

“You don’t remember, but you don’t think that you would have. Is that your answer?” Ms McMahon asked.

Then came the outburst.

“I think you can make up any story you like. I don’t give a s–t. I’ll just f–king walk out of here. How’s that sound? Nothing you can do, nothing you can say, can make me do anything.”

“You can f–king try and corner me, go to court and charge me with whatever f–ing s–t you want and say, ‘Oh you’ll do another 4-5 years’. Go f–k yourselves.

“You’re coming up with all this bulls–t, trying to put seeds in my f–king brain that aren’t there. I don’t give a f–k.”

Julene, the faithful wife, fared no better.

Even with the knowledge of what Rick had done, she said she still considered herself married to him. Each week she made the effort to visit him as he served his sentence and still made those phone calls.

It didn’t seem like much love was lost between the pair: on the witness stand she didn’t seem enthusiastic about being called “close” to the man she called her husband.

“I call it probably an obligation in a lot of ways because he doesn’t have anybody else. You take vows over 30 years for better or for worse,” she said.

“A bit of a chore from your perspective, is it?” Ms McMahon asked.

“In some ways. It’s been very difficult,” Julene answered.

She was no stranger to jail either: in 2017 Julene Thorburn was sentenced to 18 months’ jail after pleading guilty to perjury and attempting to pervert the course of justice. In May 2018 her sentence was suspended.

Even with the knowledge of what heinous crime her husband had committed, she said she was never told what happened to her foster child. She had an inkling something horrible had happened when she walked through the door of the family home and Rick said Tiahleigh was no longer with them.

What she did recall in the days after was a quiet, sombre household, sworn into an unspoken pact of silence. Everyone was treading water.

There was no explanation of the circumstances, just a chilling warning from Rick: “What you aren’t told, you can’t repeat.”

She knew Tiahleigh had some kind of secret.

“It was always, ‘I know more than what you think I know, I’ve done more than what you think I’ve done,’” Julene said.

“She wouldn’t tell me what the secret was. She would often say to me when she was going to bed that she’s got a secret but she can’t tell me what it is because we would get rid of her if we knew.”

She ended her evidence with a tearful statement on the witness stand: “This has been a very long, drawn-out process for us too. There’s not a day goes by that I don’t remember everything about not having Tiahleigh with us but you know I want this to be settled and done as well and I’m happy to help in any way I can.”

A DELIBERATE ACT

When handing down her findings on Friday, Ms Bentley concluded Rick had “no remorse” for deliberately killing the girl who he had been trusted to care for.

“I do not accept that Richard Thorburn accidentally killed Tiahleigh. I find that he did so deliberately,” she wrote.

“Richard Thorburn may have killed Tiahleigh because he was concerned that she would disclose her relationship with Trent.

“Another possibility is that Richard Thorburn was himself having a sexual relationship with Tiahleigh and, when he found out that she had disclosed sexual activity with Trent, was concerned that his own behaviour with her would be revealed.

“In considering this possibility I note that Richard Thorburn had a predilection for young girls … The circumstantial evidence is insufficient to allow me to draw that conclusion.

“Mr Thorburn is completely without remorse for any of his offending … It is clear that he perceives himself as being unfairly dealt with and victimised by the media and public opinion, as does Ms Thorburn.”

A LIFE BEHIND BARS

Rick Thorburn will not be eligible for parole until 2038. If and when he applies, Ms Bentley has just one recommendation:

“I respectfully recommend that if and when Richard Thorburn applies for release on parole, the Parole Board of Queensland take into account these findings, particularly in relation to Mr Thorburn’s lack of remorse for killing Tiahleigh and his lack of co-operation with the inquest”.



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