The nightmare never fades for Daniel Morcombe's twin, Bradley.
The two shared everything, until Daniel disappeared, devastating their tight-knit family.
In 2011, Bradley Morcombe opened his heart to The Australian Women's Weekly and it's an interview just as powerful today as the day it was written.
The day Queensland teenager Daniel Morcombe went missing more than 10 years ago, he begged his twin brother Bradley to go with him, but Brad said no.
It's something that has played on Brad's mind ever since, a nagging regret that has dogged him since his brother's disappearance.
"It's not easy, no," says Brad, aged 24 at the time of interview. "But I didn't know what was going to happen. You can't change what happened. I wish I did go with him. I wasn't to know."
Brad Morcombe, a fencing contractor, places his elbows on the table in front of him and rests his chin on his clasped hands. He catches his breath, his lips quivering.
It's a difficult moment, a painful memory welling up from the past. Yet nearly eight years of grief and uncertainty have taught Brad to keep his emotions on a tight rein.
Brad is recalling the day that his brother went missing, a showery Sunday, December 7, 2003. His memory is sharp, imprinted indelibly on his mind, but none the less painful for its clarity.
The Morcombe boys had planned to pick passionfruit on a neighbour's property that morning, but rain forced a late start. By the time they finished, their parents, Bruce and Denise, were about to leave for a work Christmas party.
"We'd just started school holidays, so we were happy to do our own thing," Brad says. "[Older brother] Dean and Daniel spent the morning wrestling in Mum and Dad's room, and then Daniel decided to go shopping. He tried to get us to go with him to Sunshine Plaza, the local shopping centre in Maroochydore. Dean was going to ride his bike to a friend's house and I remember that Daniel begged me to go with him, but
I wanted to go the next day, on the Monday. I don't really know why. I was just happy to be at home that day."
Daniel had a shower, put on a bright red Billabong T-shirt and a pair of shorts. He wanted a haircut and to buy Christmas presents for his family. He was carrying $150 that he'd saved from picking fruit.
"I was at the computer when he left," says Brad. "I heard him say goodbye over my shoulder, but I didn't turn around. I didn't really look at him as he said goodbye. He just walked out, off on his own."
It was the last time Brad saw his brother, the last time anyone from Daniel's family saw him. He walked the 20 minutes or so to a bus stop at the Kiel Mountain Road overpass to wait for a bus into nearby Maroochydore.
Witnesses reported seeing a boy in a red shirt standing at the stop. Some also allegedly recall seeing a scruffy looking man standing nearby, trying to engage Daniel in conversation, and a blue sedan.
After that, Daniel vanished. No one has seen him since. A massive manhunt scoured the area for the missing boy, in one of the longest and most intensive investigations in Australian criminal history. Until recently, that investigation had proved fruitless. However, on August 13, nearly eight years after Daniel's disappearance, police charged a 41-year-old Perth man, Brett Peter Cowan, with his abduction and murder.
Cowan was convicted of Daniel's murder.
Cowan is a convicted child rapist. In 1987, he tried to strangle a six-year-old boy in Brisbane, a coroner's court heard. In 1994, he was found guilty of the abduction and rape of a six-year-old boy in a Darwin caravan park. He lured the boy into nearby bush and brutally assaulted him, then abandoned him when he casually returned to his van and showered.
The boy later wandered from the scrub with injuries so horrific – his eyes had haemorrhaged from strangulation – that police wondered if he'd been run over by a car. If this seems horrifying, the details of the case are too gruesome to print.
Cowan, now a father of three, was sentenced to a minimum three and a half years' jail.
Brad has thought about the day Daniel went missing thousands of times, replaying it in his head like a scene from a movie. Always there are the doubts, the questions about what he might have done differently that day, what might have made a difference.
"I've thought about it a lot," says Brad. "It could easily have been me walking out the door and not Daniel. I've stood at the same bus stop by myself on a trip into town many times. I wonder what might have happened if I'd gone with him. Perhaps it would have been both of us that disappeared. But I think that whoever came along probably wouldn't have tried it if there were two people. If I'd gone with him, it's more than likely he'd still be here."
That, says Brad, is a difficult thing to live with, a gnawing doubt that he will probably carry with him for the rest of his life.
There hasn't been a day since when Daniel hasn't entered his thoughts. "He is with us all the time, every single day," he says. "He's still part of the family. He'll always be my brother and I'll always miss him, no matter what happens in the future."
Daniel and Brad were the greatest of mates, sharing everything. "Daniel was quiet and shy with people he didn't know, but to his family and friends he was warm and friendly and fun – just nice to be around," says Brad.
"He used to pick flowers for Mum on the way home from school just because he liked to put a smile on her face."
They loved riding their mountain bikes together and both had miniature horses, named Sorrento and Bullet, that they cared for and rode.
Birthdays and Christmas were always a special time for them, too. "There'd be two piles of presents, one for each of us, and we'd take turns to open them. We'd meet at the school bike rack after the bell and ride our bikes home together. We didn't leave each other's side."
The aftermath of Daniel's disappearance was devastating, not just for Brad, but for all the family. "It was incredibly difficult," he says. His mother was crushed and distraught. "Dad was a bit stronger, trying to hold the family together. Dean was at work a lot of the time, trying to carry on, and I was at home by myself with Mum and Dad for the rest of the school holidays."
Brad recalls going back to school six weeks after Daniel's disappearance. "That was a hard day," he says.
"Normally, we'd have gone together on the bus, but Mum and Dad took me in the car. I remember walking in through the gates at the school knowing Daniel wasn't beside me."
However, that was just the beginning. The investigation dragged on and on, but with no sign of what might have happened to Daniel. At first, they held out hope that it was all some momentous mistake, that he'd been whisked away unavoidably – alive, but prevented from coming home by something or someone.
"Our greatest hope, in those early days, was that there would be a quick and happy outcome," says Brad. "We hoped that he would just one day walk through the front door, unexpectedly. We hoped he'd just arrive, out of the blue, and walk in the front door. But as time passed, that became less and less likely and, finally, about a year after, we began to accept that it probably wouldn't happen like that."
Even then, there was always a spark of hope. "There have been times when I found myself looking at people in a crowd, people in a red shirt like the one Daniel was wearing that day, and wondering," he says.
"Sometimes, I've been driving along the road and seen someone in a red shirt and thought, that could be him walking home. That's happened a few times and even recently I had to have a second look. You hear stories about people coming home after years, sometimes after 10 years. But we all knew that if he could be home, he would."
Brad says that Denise kept Daniel's room exactly as it was for years after his disappearance. For a time, she even kept his pyjamas folded on his bed, ready for his return.
"Mum kept the door closed a lot of the time, especially as time went on," he says. "It was hard to look in there. Sometimes, I'd go in there and think, about us and where he might be, about what was happening. I felt a little closer to him."
Denise finally packed his room away in 2006. "I put his clothes and things into boxes and stored them away," she says. "That was one of the hardest things I've ever done. When we moved houses, I brought the boxes with us."
It took eight years and an enormous commitment of both staff and resources, but Queensland detectives, working closely with WA police, were finally able to get Cowan to confess to Daniel's murder by disguising themselves as stand-over men, loan sharks, and brothel madams.
Together, they managed to convince Cowan that they were all members of the same criminal gang.
In 2011, they invited Cowan to join their fake criminal enterprise, and paid him small amounts of money to stand over prostitutes (who were in fact undercover officers) and to pay fake bribes to fake customs officers.
After several months, they invited him to take part in a major operation worth $100,000 but said they were worried about how closely police were watching him, because Cowan – a known pedophile – had long been a suspect in Daniel’s disappearance.
They promised to buy Cowan an alibi and help him clean up whatever remained of the crime scene, so other members of the fake gang wouldn’t feel the "heat" from having him around.
Cowan confessed that he'd snapped Daniel’s neck after picking him up from the bus stop, and offering to drive him to a local shopping centre.
In the taped confession, he said he wanted to molest Daniel, not kill him, but panicked when Daniel tried to flee. He then dragged Daniel’s body into the bush, where he covered it up with branches and leaves.
Police were able to use the information that Cowan provided to locate the remains of Daniel's body – just 17 bone fragments – and his Globe skate shoes, and a pair of Bonds underpants.
His defence argued that he'd made up the confession because he badly wanted to be part of the crime gang.
Cowan's defence barrister Angus Edwards tried to argue that another convicted child sex offender Douglas Jackway, was to blame for Daniel's death, and that Jackway may have told other criminals where he'd placed Daniel's body, and that those criminals may have passed details onto Cowan. The jury didn't buy it.
Cowan didn't testify in his own defence. He changed his name to Shaddo N-unyah Hunter after becoming a suspect in Daniel's murder and was living in WA at the time of the police sting.
Cowan was charged in 2011. It took more than two years for the case to come to court.
Brad Morcombe and his wife Anna have given birth to the family's first grandchild and used the occasion to pay tribute to Daniel in 2016.
To support the Daniel Morcombe Foundation in its campaign for child safety, visit danielmorcombe.com.au.
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