The murder of Daniel Morcombe is a particularly tragic and disturbing case that marked the Australian news of the new millennium. A story characterized by a series of accidents, a mystery that lasted almost eight years until the capture of an individual who is the true representation of evil. A true story that inspired the Netflix movie The Stranger, released in October 2022.
The disappearance of Daniel Morcombe
Queensland, Australia, 2003. Daniel Morcombe is a 13-year-old boy who lives in Palwoods, in the Sunshine Coast region, along with his parents and two brothers. Daniel is a quiet, reserved, and good-natured young man; he is on excellent terms with his family and leads a peaceful life.
We are in December, summer in Australia. During this time, Daniel found work with his brothers to pick fruit on the property of a Woombye resident. On the morning of December 7, the two brothers leave the workplace, as usual, and they return home.
At 13:00, Daniel leaves the house and walks towards the Nambour road connection, where the bus stop is. He plans to take the bus to the Sunshine Plaza shopping mall to buy Christmas gifts for the family. The boy is waiting for the vehicle under an overpass.
It is 4:00 pm when the Morcombes return home, realizing that Daniel is absent. The father goes twice to wait for the return of his son at the bus stop, but there is no trace of the young man. At 7:30 pm, they go to the police station to report his disappearance.
Parents continue to search, they ask Daniel’s friends for news, but no one has seen him. The following morning the authorities began their searches, receiving a series of testimonies according to which the 13-year-old was seen at the bus stop with a man, and other witnesses claim to have seen a suspicious vehicle wandering in the area. The fear that something sinister has happened becomes more and more consistent.
The agents begin interrogating a variety of sexual predators. The investigations focus on two names in particular.
Douglas Jackway, 26, with two episodes of sexual violence against minors behind him. His car looks like the one spotted on the day Daniel disappeared. However, he has an alibi for that day, and after a while, the initial idea of his involvement becomes less convincing. He is not the one who kidnapped the young man.
Brett Peter Cowan, 34, a resident of Beerwah, is questioned. The man denies any involvement. However, the suspicion of the investigators remains. Investigating his history of him and his background, it is not difficult to understand the reasons why he attracts the attention of the agents.
Brett Peter Cowan
Born September 18, 1969, in Bunbury, the son of an army chief, he is the third of four siblings. The parent is often absent due to his involvement in the army, and Brett grows up most of the time with his mother.
The child reveals a complex and rebellious character that lasts until adolescence. He attends a Catholic school, but at 16, he gives up his studies and starts working. During this period, he begins to engage in illegal activities such as drug use and theft. Activities that continue until the police capture him. To extinguish his crimes, he will be sent to do social work at the Brisbane public park.
On December 5, 1987, during the service, he takes advantage of a seven-year-old boy by taking him inside a bathroom and sexually raping him. Following this episode, Brett is sentenced to two years in prison; however, he will be released after one year.
Unfortunately, his deviated impulses have not disappeared, and in September 1993, he becomes the protagonist of another terrible story. This time Cowan targets a six-year-old boy, taking him to a forecourt and abusing him. The victim is left inside an abandoned car. Due to the violence of the act, he reported a punctured lung and multiple injuries on his body. Luckily he manages to drag himself to a gas station, where he is spotted and rescued.
Brett Cowan will be sentenced to seven years in prison. Even in this case, however, he takes advantage of a discount on his sentence, and after three and a half years in jail, he returns to freedom in 1998. Once released, Cowan begins a path of redemption that leads him to approach Christianity. Religion plays a vital role in his life, and he begins to join the pastoral community. This way, he meets a 29-year-old girl with whom he begins a relationship. The relationship between the two leads to marriage, and the couple gives birth to two children.
Brett finds a job in a sandblasting company and proves to be a reliable and diligent employee. Something seems to have changed in Cowan’s psychology, but unfortunately, it is only an apparent mutation, as will be discovered later. In 2003, his relationship with his wife broke down, leading to divorce in 2004. At the same time, Brett stops attending church.
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Justice for Daniel Morcombe: the “Mr. Big” operation
Brett Cowan remains one of the main suspects for many years due to his proximity to the area of the disappearance. However, in the absence of evidence, the police cannot proceed against him.
In 2011, the investigators decided to put in place the operation called “Mr. Big,” which consists of bringing together a series of undercover agents who, posing as members of a criminal gang, aim to lure the suspect into their fictitious illegal operations. Once they have his trust, they try to collect details and confessions. The investigators organize everything and manage to trap Cowan in their network, involving him in a series of bogus illegal activities. After four months of “collaboration,” Brett is summoned by the gang boss (actually an undercover agent), who tells him that he has learned that the police are on his trail for the Daniel Morcombe case, expressing his willingness to provide him with an alibi and to make the evidence disappear if he revealed his possible involvement. The trap works, and the man confesses to killing Daniel, declaring himself ready to take the organization’s members to where he hid the body. Upon arriving at the scene, a wooded area inland on the Sunshine Coast, Cowan finds agents waiting for him and is immediately arrested. Research on the site confirms what the suspect said, as Daniel’s remains are found.
At this point, it is possible to reconstruct the events of that tragic December 7, 2003, fully. Daniel goes to the bus stop, but the bus that was supposed to pass has a mechanical failure and does not start. The boy waits for the following vehicle; this time, it arrives, but the driver cannot stop in time. However, he tells the driver of another bus that he was making the same route to stop and pick up the young man. After a few minutes, the other vehicle arrives, but no one is waiting at that stop. In this short time, a man noticed Daniel and pulled up in his car to offer him a ride. The vehicle’s driver is Brett Peter Cowan, and his plans are far eviler. He picks up the young man and takes him to a prefab in the Beerwah area. In this place, he tries to assault the boy sexually; the latter reacts by trying to free himself; at this point, Cowan strangles him to death. He later hides the lifeless body in an isolated area, throwing the victim’s clothes into a river.
The trial of Brett Peter Cowan begins on February 10, 2014. The man pleads innocent, but the evidence against him is overwhelming. On March 14 of the same year, the accused was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for 20 years.
Thus ends, after a long and complex investigation, this sad story. At the end of all this remains a great sense of bitterness for a young life broken by the horror of an out-of-control and unscrupulous individual.
The victim’s parents have always shown great humanity. In 2005, they founded a charity called the Daniel Morcombe Foundation, which aims to promote child safety education, assist crime victims and keep Daniel’s memory alive.