ABOVE: Narelle, centre, in Year 12. The popular Grafton High School student excelled in sport.

40 YEARS MISSING: Was Narelle Cox murdered by Ivan Milat?

12th July 2017 5:00 AM
UPDATED 18th July 8:41 AM
Premium Content Subscriber only

IT WAS South Cup Day July 1977, and Narelle Cox had the world at her feet. The popular 21-year-old was enjoying the kinds of freedoms young adults are afforded growing up in Australia, one of girlfriends and parties, music and travel, work and plenty of play.

Good times abound with a desire for international travel firmly entrenched in young Narelle's mind as she felt the world was really her oyster. She wanted to be nurse and was waiting to hear back from the Darwin hospital she had applied to train.

Three months went by without a word, and finally frustration prevailed as the chance to relieve the boredom and pay her old school chum Faye a visit at Noosa called.

As wretched as timing would have it, her application papers arrived in the post, the day after she left.

Had she been at home in Grafton she would have stayed and begun the next step of a new career. But she wasn't. And she was never seen nor heard from again.

The Cox family never had a funeral for Narelle. Her body never found. There was no date of death, no marker for the family to start the mourning process.

As the years passed each of them did what they had to do, to muster the strength as they resigned to inevitable, that their daughter and sister was dead.

The grief Narelle's family and close friends endured is unimaginable to most. Smeared across four decades, from the pangs of absolute horror to long dysfunctional silences, morsels of hope cruelly taunting as police procedures left them frustrated and reeling, devastated and ultimately exhausted and broken.

It killed their mother, Narelle's sisters believed. She died six years after Narelle vanished. And their father, never spoke her name again.

As the 40th anniversary of Narelle's disappearance arrives this week, the remaining family members and her closest buddies will gather in Grafton to honour and remember their beautiful sister and much loved friend, a farewell of sorts, a chance to unanimously let her go.

Despite the calendar's pressure, organising a reunion of this nature wasn't foremost in the sisters' mind. After all these years it's still difficult to revisit past pains and go through the motions that accompany an event inspired by tragedy.

But an old school friend encouraged sisters Karen and Kathy to turn their sister's 40-year absence into a moment to heal and reunite. A celebration of the effervescent girl they spent their formative years with. Such was the contagious spirit of this young woman, it was still cherished by her friends four decades later.

The sisters agreed and this Friday they will gather for the first time to remember Narelle.

The Cox family never had a telephone at home, an inconvenient bugbear during the initial days of their search.

When Narelle left for Queensland, a note, which was to be the last piece of communication between her and her family, casually informed them of her plans.

"We knew she was talking about it but we didn't know she had left. Mum came home from work and found it. It said 'Gone to Noosa to see Faye. Be back on Monday'," Karen said.

Narelle had lived with Faye Brown in Noosa for a while. They often hitch-hiked together. It was the 1970s and everyone was doing it. But Beryl Cox wasn't a fan.

"Mum told Narelle not to do it. She'd just been given $200 for her 21st birthday because she didn't want a party. That was a lot of money back then and mum told her to spend it on a bus ticket. Nothing more was said after that."

When Narelle failed to return to their Queen St. home on the Monday Mrs Cox went down to the post office the next day to send a telegram to Faye, to find out what was going on. She received a response the next day, the dreaded words 'I have not seen or heard from Narelle' unleashing an agony her mother carried to her grave.

Narelle as a happy toddler. She was born in Grafton's Runnymede Hospital on March 19, 1956.

That afternoon Beryl and Karen went down to the Grafton Police Station to report Narelle missing but instead of sharing their level of concern, the response was confronting in its flippancy.

"They didn't seem to think it was that serious. She was 21 (not a child) but they did tell us they would notify all the police stations between Grafton and Noosa to be on the look out in case something happened.

"We assured them that Narelle would never disappear on purpose, that she was planning to be nurse. That leaving her family without communicating was not the type of girl she was."

They handed the police a photograph and left a description of what they believed she was wearing, a backpack and guitar missing from her bedroom also presumed to be in tow.

The Cox family never had cause to have dealings with the police before so they left the station under the presumption that they had set the right series of events in motion to find Narelle.

Mrs Cox went back and forward to the police station, inquiring and leaving items to help in the search. Facial x-rays highlighting a broken nose sustained during Narelle's hockey playing days, a sobering piece of information for a mother to hand over, and one that would ultimately go missing along with the rest of her file in the decades that followed.

After several weeks of no news Beryl and Karen, the eldest of the siblings, got in their car and drove and drove, a pilgrimage of helplessness that ended in another chasm of hell.

"We called in to every nook and cranny along the way (Grafton to Brisbane). We had photos and were asking people whether they had seen her. When we got to Brisbane we went to a police station, I can't remember which one, but they never knew anything about it. They had never heard of Narelle. They had never been notified," Karen said.

She remembers the devastation on her mother's face. The pair drove straight back to the Grafton police station and "we really went off at them." It had now been six weeks since Narelle disappeared.

After that revelation, they "did take a bit of notice" putting an article in the paper with the information the family had originally supplied. "Grafton police are anxious to locate Miss Narelle Mary Cox, 21, who has been missing from her home in Queen St since July 20" it was announced.

Beryl also took out an advertisement pleading for assistance and offering a reward for information leading to Narelle's return.

What happened next is still conflicting to the sisters, another clunky cog in the malfunctioning machine in the disappearance of Narelle Cox.

A man from Lawrence contacted police after seeing the paper. "He had been out fishing and thought he'd pulled up a girl's body on his anchor," Karen said. "The police divers were called up and they dragged the river. The man told them he got such a shock he dropped the anchor."

The search went on for several days. Mrs Cox spoke to the fisherman but told her he thought he saw blonde hair and the clothes didn't seem to match the description.

"We think he just said that to put her mind at ease." Whether there was ever an actual body the family would never know. The police found nothing and the locals had conflicting things to say about the witness who ranged from "a drunk" to "a reliable fellow".

Updates came and went sporadically and traumatically.

The truck driver who allegedly picked Narelle up from the South Grafton crossroads and gave her a lift to Brunswick Heads was never properly investigated because he wanted anonymity, the family left hanging without ever being given a name.

Several people also reported seeing a young woman with a backpack and guitar in the same South Grafton location.

Another year passed and a knock at the door one afternoon at the family home, an announcement was made that Narelle had been found.

"Oh my god did you?, Karen recalled incredulously at the time. "Where?".

The two police officers told her Narelle had registered for unemployment in Sydney. "My mum is down there now. I'll call her," she said to them.

"So I went to the exchange (still no phone) and mum went straight around to the Epping unemployment office. Despite it being against the rules, under the circumstances details of Narelle's registration were given to Mrs Cox and promptly found the activity they hinged their miraculous news on had taken place the year before (when Narelle was living in Sydney).

"It was a terrible thing to do to her. There was no apology by the police, nothing. The whole approach by them when they turned up at home was really casual. It's as if they they were saying 'see we told you she was alive'.


FAMILY GIRL: Narelle with niece Tiffeny.

Beryl Cox died in 1983, her husband Bill, a ex-serviceman and Grafton City Council parks foreman for 38 years, a decade after that.

"We were just your average working class family trying to get through an extraordinary ordeal."

Years passed and the Cox family siblings tried to move on with their lives but as they were already well aware, life is unpredictable. A case being talked about in the media struck a chord with Karen in 1994.

Ivan Milat was being investigated by Task Force AIR and the circumstances of Narelle's disappearance sounded very similar. So she called them.

"They listened to what I had to say and took down my details but I didn't expect to hear back from them.

"But 10 minutes later they called me back. They did a check on the dates and didn't think it was him as he was signed into work at a particular place and time and they left it at that."

A youthful Ivan Milat.
A youthful Ivan Milat. Facebook Milat letters

Narelle's best friend Sue Cantle believed they shouldn't have ruled him out so quickly because Milat used to get people to sign in for him at different times.

"He had also been in Grafton jail and released from there so he was familiar with the area," she said.

"If the truck driver dropped Narelle in the Brunswick Heads area like he said he did, that put her right in the hotspot of where people were going missing.

Ivan Milat was working on the roadworks at Northern NSW at that time but no-one knew who he was back then. It was dangerous going hitch hiking at that time. A lot of girls went missing."

Karen admitted that it was a different time when it came to the way police handled missing persons and when Narelle's investigation was reopened by the coroner in 2005, to sign-off on a backlog of cold cases, the response from the modern establishment was a far cry from what they had experienced back then.

"They were shocked about how it was handled and frustrated by the lack of follow ups, not helped by the absence of the original file."

The media were also not helpful at the time.

Apart from the police request for information, there was limited coverage about Narelle in The Daily Examiner, even A Current Affair weren't interested Sue said.

"There seemed to be a smorgasbord of predators about during that period but the states didn't communicate with each other back then. It was only in 2005 when they asked for DNA (during the coroner's reinvestigation) from Karen and her younger brother (Bill jnr) that the states really started to interact," Sue said.

And so, after a final statement was provided by Karen in 2005, the coroner signed off any further investigations into the disappearance of Narelle Cox. Dead or alive, the case was closed.

"Lots of people go missing each year but it's very rare that a body is never found. So it can't really end for us," Sue said. "Sometimes you think the longer it goes, the more chance that someone somewhere might say something (in their old age)."

For the six years after Narelle's disappearance Mrs Cox put out a Christmas gift for her missing daughter, a selection of toiletries and a brunch coat, re-wrapped year after year.

It was her way of making Narelle feel present and loved, to still be part of the family. It was also an attempt to help a grieving mother cope with an intermittent dread that tortured her to the bone.

"Mum would often come around and say she had that terrible feeling in her chest again, that Narelle was somewhere and needed her. She wasn't a stupid person, she just got these feelings," Karen said.

For little sister Kathy, who watched her family unravel through 15-year-old eyes, it was a battle to find a way out of this foreign hollow.

A file shot of Narelle Mary Cox, who went missing in 1977.
A file shot of Narelle Mary Cox, who went missing in 1977.

"There wasn't really any avenue for me to take at the time. No counselling or help. I was a lot younger than my sisters and they were busy helping mum. The only thing I did was write myself a little note. Mum ended up finding it. It was just to get my feelings on the page and I hid it my room and didn't show it anyone. That's all I did."

Kathy said even years and years after Narelle was gone she still found herself checking every hitch-hiker she passed. "Even though you know it's not rationale thinking I always look to see."

She said her strongest memory of Narelle was of a sophisticated woman, one she looked up to. "She was very much a lady and very confident in herself which I really admired because I wasn't.

"She had this air about her. I thought she was brave. She finished school, went to teachers college went to Sydney, went to Noosa. She was getting out there and living her life."

Four decades on Kathy Browning still hasn't fully achieved that much expected closure. "I'm still quite angry that someone stole her future. Stole her from whoever she was meant to marry, the children she was supposed to have, grandchildren.

Everything was stolen from her and also stolen from the people that knew her and cared for her."

This Friday those people will travel from Sydney and Brisbane and Tamworth, from down the road and around the corner to come together for Narelle.  To tell stories about her passion for horse riding and sport, play the music she loved, The Doors, The Stones, Boz Scaggs, unlocking the time capsule that was Narelle's short life. She will be remembered and mourned, celebrated and farewelled, a long goodbye 40 years in the making.

This story was originally printed in The Daily Examiner in 2017.

Ivan Milat crimes: Details of crimes believed to have been committed by Ivan Milat.
Ivan Milat crimes: Details of crimes believed to have been committed by Ivan Milat.