The 'dead' schoolgirl who fooled a nation

Author
news.com.au,
Section
World,
Publish Date
Sunday, 23 December 2018, 1:44p.m.
Natasha Ryan's disappearance sparked a media frenzy matched only be her eventual discovery. (Photo / Supplied)
Natasha Ryan's disappearance sparked a media frenzy matched only be her eventual discovery. (Photo / Supplied)

For almost five years, a missing schoolgirl's traumatised family believed she was the victim of a psychopathic serial killer.

They mourned her death and held a memorial service to remember her, while her apparent murderer faced justice in court.

But the bizarre truth was hidden in a cupboard much, much closer to home, in a case that captivated and enraged Australia.

Fifteen years ago, Leonard John Fraser was on trial for the murder of Natasha Ryan, who had vanished from outside a movie theatre in the Queensland town of Rockhampton in 1998.

It was believed the 14-year-old was one of his five victims, alongside a nine-year-old girl, who was kidnapped, raped and murdered in 1999, and three other missing women.

Then, on April 10, 2003, as the trial was under way in Brisbane's Supreme Court, police raided a property in Rockhampton just blocks from Ryan's family home.

There, in a discovery no one expected, they found her alive, crouched in a small cupboard.

A TOWN ON EDGE

Eight months after Ryan went missing, Rockhampton — known as the beef capital of Australia — was rocked by the disappearance of Keyra Steinhardt as she walked home from school.

Hundreds of volunteers scoured parks, waterways and the bush in a bid to find the nine-year-old, while police began following leads that eventually led to Fraser.

In broad daylight, the youngster had been assaulted and dragged into his car, where he raped her in the back seat before killing her. Her body was dumped in bushland on the outskirts of town.

Leonard John Fraser was a serial killer who murdered four people, including a nine-year-old schoolgirl, and died in prison in 2007.

Leonard John Fraser was a serial killer who murdered four people, including a 9-year-old schoolgirl, and died in prison in 2007. Photo / News Corp Australia

Leonard John Fraser was a serial killer who murdered four people, including a 9-year-old schoolgirl, and died in prison in 2007. Photo / News Corp Australia

Forensic tests revealed her blood in the boot of his car — as well as the blood of another person — and two weeks later, after intense questioning by police, Fraser led investigators to Keyra's resting place.

Several women had gone missing in Rockhampton and investigators suddenly began probing the possibility that Fraser was a serial killer.

Blood splatter was found in an abandoned building and witnesses came forward describing Fraser's increasingly disturbing behaviour.

He was ultimately convicted of Keyra's murder but remained tight-lipped about the fates of the other missing women.

A fellow prisoner befriended Fraser and slowly extracted information about his other crimes that police later used as a bargaining chip.

He was desperate to be removed from the general population, given the dim view inmates have on child rapists and killers.

In a deal with prosecutors, which saw him placed in protective custody, Fraser confessed to the murders of Sylvia Benedetti, Beverly Leggo and the manslaughter of Julie Turner.

And he also confessed to abducting and killing Ryan. Of course, he hadn't killed her at all.

THE GIRL IN THE CUPBOARD

Ryan vanished on August 31, 1998, last seen alive outside a cinema that evening smoking a cigarette and talking to an older man.

Witnesses told police they heard the sound of screeching car tyres and a large-scale search began the following morning when her concerned mother phoned police. The investigation dragged on for years at an estimated cost of $400,000.

Every possible lead was a dead-end and police eventually came to the conclusion that Ryan was dead.

After Fraser confessed, her family held a memorial service in her honour on what would've been her 17th birthday.

Less than two years later, she was found in sensational circumstances.

"Natasha Ryan is alive and well," an anonymous note sent to police read, including a telephone number of a house in the suburb of Frenchville.

Officers raided the property, rented by Scott Black, a milkman who was 21 when he began dating the teen prior to her disappearance.

They found Ryan, then 18, cowering in a cupboard, where she would routinely hide whenever someone came to the house.

When an officer called her mother Jenny, she assumed they were talking about having found a body — not her daughter alive.

The cupboard where Natasha Ryan was found hiding by police. Photo / News Limited

The cupboard where Natasha Ryan was found hiding by police. Photo / News Limited

"Mrs Ryan was in shock, she didn't know if she could believe it and she was concerned it may have been a false alarm," the family's lawyer said at the time.

For four-and-a-half years, she had been in hiding, rarely leaving the house and staying inside in the dark with the curtains closed.

They moved a number of times, always in the cover of night, between properties in Rockhampton and the nearby coastal town of Yeppoon.

Their final residence was mere blocks from Ryan's totally clueless family.

She was described as a troubled youth who had been suspended from school and regularly fought with her mother.

Before she vanished, Ryan ran away on a number of occasions before meeting Black and deciding to leave her life for good.

In later interviews, she said by the time she wanted to reunite with her mother, it was too late — the lie had become too big.

And so she hid.

Ryan revealed she made her own sanitary products out of cut up bath towels, so Black didn't raise suspicion by purchasing them for her.

The pair were paranoid of being discovered and went to great lengths to avoid detection.

"He was protecting me and I caused him to do it — it was my fault he did that," Ryan told the magazine New Idea in 2007.

"It was my decision to run away. He was doing something really lovely and protecting me and I felt like I should have been, or deserved to be, punished."

A MEDIA STORM

A day after she was discovered alive, celebrity agent Max Markson flew from Sydney to central Queensland to represent Ryan.

International and Australian media outlets were bidding for the exclusive rights to her remarkable story, with Channel 9's 60 Minutes programme and two magazines paying a reported $250,000.

Natasha Ryan during her interview on 60 Minutes. Photo / News Limited

Natasha Ryan during her interview on 60 Minutes. Photo / News Limited

Journalists descended on the normally quiet town, desperate to catch a glimpse of Ryan as she adjusted to her new life in the open.

She pocketed cheques from international outlets, including the British tabloid News of the World, for which she happily posed inside the infamous cupboard.

For several years there were exclusive photo shoots announcing her pregnancies, which magazines gladly paid for, and even an apparent $200,000 deal for pictures of Ryan's wedding to Black in 2008.

"We were sitting at home … and suddenly he pulled out the ring," she told the magazine at the time.

"It caught me off guard and the emotions were overwhelming."

The top-rating American programme Dateline devoted an hour-long episode to the bizarre case and Fraser's actual victims.

Ryan's father and the Channel 9 journalist Tara Brown featured heavily in the segment.

There were calls for her to hand over that money to cover the cost of the police investigation and search.

And there were calls for Ryan and Scott to be jailed for their painful ruse.

In 2005, Rockhampton District Court sentenced Scott to three years in jail, suspended after 12 months, for perjury.

Scott Black, the boyfriend of teenage runaway Natasha Ryan who kept her hidden when she disappeared for almost five years. Photo / News Corp Australia

Scott Black, the boyfriend of teenage runaway Natasha Ryan who kept her hidden when she disappeared for almost five years. Photo / News Corp Australia

He pleaded guilty to telling investigating officers that he didn't know where Ryan was. A year later, she was found guilty of causing a false police investigation and was fined $1000.

GOING OFF THE GRID

Fifteen years after she was found, Ryan — who now goes by the name Tash Black — has disappeared from the public eye with her husband and their young family.

She studied nursing at Central Queensland University and is understood to be working in the profession, although it's believed they have left town.

The last time Ryan or Black made a public appearance was in 2011 when he fronted court for refusing to give a breath test.

 

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