Jason Steele on how DNA helped solve his sister Donna’s murder

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It’s been almost four years since Donna Steele, a beloved mum from Queensland, was reported missing from her home in the remote region of Cooktown.

Days later, her family’s worst fears were realised when Donna, 42, was found floating face down in an offshoot of the Endeavour River, a crocodile-infested waterway.

Her death kicked off one of the biggest investigations ever conducted by police in the remote Cape York.

Police officers, armed with machine guns, stood watch on the banks of Isabella Creek, where Donna was found, as police divers hunted for clues and evidence.

It was during that search, as police worked to avoid the dozens of crocodiles known to inhabit the area, that officers found a piece of red twine.

Police believed the rope had been used to murder Donna, encouraging Cooktown residents to come forward and give DNA samples.

One of those to come forward was the mother of 27-year-old Matthew White. Her sample was a close match to the one found on the twine, confirming police suspicion.

White was sentenced to life in prison after he pleaded guilty to murder on the second day of his Supreme Court trial.

The jury had been shown White’s arrest interview with police, where he confessed to killing Donna.

The court heard White had been trying to extort money from Donna when he drove from Cairns and hid under her bed, wearing a stocking over his head.

As she unpacked groceries in her kitchen, White pounced, strangling her with the red twine and a silk scarf.

“She made some cornflakes and came into the bedroom,” he told the officers in his confession video.

“I had a piece of string and I was trying to choke her, we were wrestling.

“I tried to strangle her … she pulled the stocking off (my head) and I started freaking out she would recognise me.

“She said, ‘I can’t breathe’ … she eventually stopped moving.”

White then wrapped her body in a doona and drove to Leggett’s Crossing, a bridge 20km outside of Cooktown.

Weighing her body down with rocks, White fled back to Cairns.

The ‘chilling’ moment as police investigated Donna’s murder

Donna’s brother Jason will appear on tonight’s episode DNA and Crime, on SBS Insight, that explores how DNA evidence is changing the way crimes are solved.

Speaking to news.com.au, Jason said he was thankful the DNA evidence gave his family closure.

“With DNA technology, once upon a time it could be you and 100 people, now it’s you and only you,” he said.

Jason describes himself as a “big, strong Aussie male” and, being the oldest son in his family, found himself taking on most of the responsibility after Donna was killed.

But dealing with his sister’s murder took its toll at times.

One of those times was when he had to call his father and brother to tell them police had found Donna’s body.

“I’ll never forget that day … having to tell your father your daughter is dead … you know,” he said.

Another moment that took its toll was the moment Jason arrived at his sister’s house, after police had started their investigation.

Donna’s Cooktown home, which he had helped his sister paint, was covered in black carbon dust as police worked to find any fingerprints.

“I hate painting with a passion, absolutely hate it, but I painted the entire inside of Donna’s house,” he explained.

“I hate it, but I did it for my sister.

“With police and the investigation, every square millimetre of that house was covered in carbon fingerprinting.

“It was tough to see, every little bit. It was horrendous, it was chilling to walk into that house where it all happened.”

While Jason said his sister’s death isn’t “raw” anymore, her death will never be forgotten.

“You’ll never forget it, you never forget anything like that,” he said.

“Unfortunately it happens to too many families on a daily basis … I have a tattoo on my left arm with Donna’s name so I won’t forget it until the day I die.”

In 2019, as White was being sentenced for the murder of Donna, Jason was called on to give a victim impact statement.

His powerful speech was the final way he could help his sister, Jason said.

“I felt a little bit angry but I’m doing possibly the last bit I can for Donna, being her voice for somebody who can’t speak anymore,” he said.

The family knew nothing about White before he killed Donna and Jason said any attempts from him to make amends would do little to help.

“If he said sorry it wouldn’t change anything, there’d still be anger there,” he said.

Jason said the heartbreak of losing his sister will always be in the back of his mind but he will always be thankful that Donna’s killer was caught and convicted.

He regularly attends the Queensland Homicide Victims’ Support Group and sees the impact murder has had on other people.

“There’s a bloke there who carries a little briefcase with photos and it happened to his wife 50 years ago, he’s 70 or 80 and still feels like it’s yesterday,” he said.

“People that do these sort of things don‘t realise the impact it has not just for weeks, or months but for the rest of their lives.

“It’s always in the back of my mind … but I had some closure, they found the person through DNA to convict, we’ve had a little bit of closure to a certain point, some people never get that.”

Every time Jason travels up to Cooktown, he always makes sure to visit Leggett’s Crossing and lay some flowers at the bridge.

Jason knows that hovering around the bridge can be dangerous, with cars often speeding across the river and police asking him to stay away from where she was found, but he said it’s important for him to remember his sister.

“I’m not there to cause trouble, I usually just burn some incense … Donna loved burning incense, then have a beer and get the hell out of there.”

You can hear more from Jason and others on DNA & Crime tonight on SBS Insight at 8.30pm or on SBS On Demand.


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