RECORD OF INVESTIGATION INTO DEATH
Coroners Act 1995
Coroners Rules 2006
I, Robert Pearce, Coroner, having investigated a suspected death of
Helen Karel MUNNINGS
WITH AN INQUEST held in Burnie between 29 November 2011 and 12 January 2012
(a) Ms Munnings died on or about 23 July 2008, most likely in or near Burnie in Tasmania;
(b) The evidence does not enable a finding of how her death occurred or the cause of her death;
(c) I cannot determine whether another person contributed to the cause of her death.
1. Helen Karel Munnings was last seen in Burnie in Tasmania on Wednesday 23 July 2008. She was then aged 20. The police and her family suspect she is dead. This inquest is part of a coronial investigation conducted under the Coroners Act 1995 (“the Act”). A coroner has jurisdiction to conduct an inquest into a suspected death. The definition of "death" in s3 of the Act includes suspected death. The first question for determination is whether Ms Munnings is dead. If I am satisfied of that then I am required to find, if possible, when and where she died, how her death occurred, the cause of her death and to identify any person who contributed to the cause of death; s28.
2. The primary focus of an inquest is to seek out and record the facts concerning the death or suspected death of a person. It is a fact finding exercise of an inquisitorial nature. The facts which are relevant are those which may enable findings about the matters the Act requires the coroner to, if possible, determine. It is not the function of an inquest to attribute any moral or legal responsibility or liability for a death or to hint at blame; R v Tennent; Ex parte Jager  TASSC 64; Re The State Coroner; Ex parte The Minister for Health  WASCA 165. It is not a means of apportioning guilt. A coroner is to determine facts. The facts, once determined, will speak for themselves and it is for others to, if necessary, draw legal conclusions; Keown v Khan & Anor  Vic S C 83 (unreported), Perre v Chivell  SASC 279.
3. Thus, a finding that a person contributed to the cause of death of another, if it is made, does not and should not involve a finding that the person has some criminal or civil responsibility for the death; Perre v Chivell  SASC 279, at para 54 and following. Nevertheless, although the standard of proof is on the balance of probabilities - Briginshaw v Briginshaw (1938) 60 CLR 336; see Plover v McIndoe (2000) 2 VR 385, Domaszewicz v The State Coroner (2004) 11 VR 237, Hurley v Clements  QCA 167 a  and following - such a finding is of such seriousness that clear and cogent evidence should be required before it is made; Neat Holdings Pty Ltd v Karajan Holdings Pty Ltd  HCA 66; Chief Commissioner of Police v Hallenstein  2 VR 1, 19. The same is to be said about a finding that a person has taken his or her own life.
4. Following an investigation conducted with the assistance of Tasmania Police an inquest was held in Burnie commencing in November 2011. It occupied 9 days of hearing time. Affidavits and statutory declarations from more than 80 witnesses were tendered. About 40 of those witnesses attended the inquest and gave evidence. There are numerous exhibits. Much time during the inquest was spent investigating issues about Helen Munnings past including her relationship with her mother and siblings, her son and the father of her son. Differing descriptions of those relationships were given. The differences are attributable in part to the differing perspectives and interests of the various witnesses. I mention those matters at the commencement of these findings only to emphasise that I do not and should not make any moral judgment about the past conduct of the persons that were involved in Ms Munnings’ life or indeed Ms Munnings herself. It is unnecessary for me to make factual findings except where those facts may shed some light on whether Helen Munnings is dead, and if so when and how she died.
5. For the reasons that I will give I am satisfied that Helen Munnings is dead and that she died in or near Burnie in Tasmania on or about 23 July 2008. However the evidence does not enable me to make findings as to how she died or whether anyone contributed to her death.
6. I reject the contention that Helen Munnings may have staged her own disappearance and is alive and living elsewhere.
7. I cannot discount the possibility either that Helen Munnings took her own life or that her death was caused by the act of another person or persons.
8. Some of the evidence heard at the inquest is not contentious. I will refer to relevant inconsistencies and conflicts in the evidence where necessary but otherwise I make findings in accordance with the following narration of events.
9. Helen Munnings was born on 15 March 1988. In these findings I will refer to her as either Ms Munnings or Helen. Her mother is Karel Lee Munnings. Karel Munnings is sometimes referred to as Karel Lee Black. During the inquest Mrs Black indicated that she preferred to be referred to as Ms Munnings. However to avoid any confusion with references to her daughter I will refer to her in this finding as Mrs Black. Little is known of Helen’s father with whom she had no contact during her life. She had 2 younger sisters and one older brother. Mark Thomas Black was born on 22 April 1985. He is now 27 but was 23 when Helen disappeared. Linda Julie Black was born 2 August 1991. She is now 20 but was 17 when Helen disappeared. Kathryn Ivy Black was born on 24 December 1992. She is now 19 but was 15 when Helen disappeared.
10. Ms Munnings attended school in Burnie and completed Grade 10.
11. She has a son, Donovan Thomas Munnings. Donovan was born on 30 March 2006, not long after Helen’s 18th birthday, and thus was just over 2 years old at the time his mother disappeared. He turned 6 on 30 March 2012.
12. Donovan’s father is Adam David Taylor. Mr Taylor was born on 16 November 1973. At the time of Helen’s disappearance Mr Taylor was 34. He then lived at 61 Sice Ave, Heybridge with his partner at the time Karalina Garwood. His house is next to the sea on a narrow strip of land between the Bass Highway and Bass Strait about 8 km east of Burnie. He worked as a self-employed builder. He owned a Mitsubishi Pajero 4 wheel drive vehicle. Because the Pajero was mechanically unreliable Mr Taylor also had possession of a white Holden Rodeo utility that his mother Judy Taylor lent him.
13. Helen was a small girl. She was lightly built and not tall. She had medium length hair which she usually wore in a pony tail. Because the length of her hair was graded at the front she usually had some hair falling to the side of her face. As is often the case with young girls she sometimes changed the colour of her hair. Photographs were produced showing her hair to be quite blonde. However her sister Linda, who I regard as being the person most likely to recall such things, said that Helen’s hair colour changed not long before her disappearance and at the time was light brown. Helen had a small tattoo of the moon and stars on the inside of her right wrist and a slightly larger tattoo of a butterfly on her lower back.
Helen’s circumstances prior to her disappearance
14. Before her disappearance Helen Munnings lived in unit 3 in a building owned by Mrs Black at 2 Charles St in Burnie. Her mother lived upstairs in the same building in Unit 1.
15. Helen and Donovan had only been living at that address for a few weeks. Before that they lived for about 2 months in a home in Romaine St in South Burnie, and before that for about a year in a rented flat at Sutton St. At the property in Romaine St she lived with her friend Allan Munday who she met when he lived in Hodgman St near her mother’s house.
16. Helen Munnings received a single parenting payment from Centrelink. It was paid directly into her account at the Commonwealth Bank. She did not have a credit card. According to her mother she was relatively careful with her money and budgeted. She had accumulated a debt to Centrelink of about $2500 caused by an overpayment arising from the level of her entitlement during a period that Donovan was not living with her. The debt was being repaid by deduction from her ongoing benefit.
17. Immediately before Helen’s disappearance she shared the care of Donovan with Mr Taylor on a week about basis. That arrangement had been in place for some weeks prior to which Donovan had been in Mr Taylor’s care for a period. Until then Donovan had been principally in Ms Munnings’ care. Donovan’s care had been the subject of ongoing discussion and some disagreement between Ms Munnings and Mr Taylor. Arrangements concerning Donovan’s care had also attracted the involvement of the Child Protection Service, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services. When with Mr Taylor, Donovan lived at Mr Taylor’s home at Heybridge and was sometimes placed at day care at the Wisteria Lane child care centre in Burnie.
18. Helen Munnings owned a car which was kept at her mother’s home, but she did not have a driver licence. She often walked to where she wanted to go or was given lifts by family members or friends. She had a mobile phone which she used to make calls and to send text messages. However in the period before her disappearance she sometimes removed the SIM card from her own phone and used it in phones owned by others. The explanation for this seems most likely to be that her phone had some sort of fault and was unreliable.
19. The dominant factor in Helen Munnings’ life was her son Donovan. All the evidence during the inquest strongly attested to the love, devotion and affection she had for him. That is so even though looking after him was not always easy and there were many factors in her life that created difficulty for her.
Helen Munnings’ relationship with Adam Taylor
20. Adam Taylor first met Helen Munnings during 2004 when he was 30 and she was 16. In September or October of that year they had a sexual encounter at the home of a mutual friend. He disclaimed responsibility for initiating the encounter claiming to have been heavily affected by alcohol. He told the inquest that they then became friends but, after she turned 17, she pressed him to commence a sexual relationship. Helen Munnings turned 17 on 15 March 2005. At that time Adam Taylor was aged 31. According to Mr Taylor he agreed to have sex with Helen because she threatened to go to the police about their initial sexual encounter if he stopped seeing her. He said he wanted “to keep her happy” to prevent her unpredictable behaviour and so preserve the long term relationship with his partner Karalina Garwood. Donovan Munnings was conceived in the months following, most likely in July 2005.
21. Differing versions were given to the inquest of the nature and extent of the relationship between Mr Taylor and Helen Munnings over the following period of about 3 years. Evidence was given by Mr Taylor, his mother Judy Taylor, Karalina Garwood, and Helen’s family, friends and acquaintances. Evidence of the communications exchanged between them, particularly in the period leading up to Helen’s disappearance, sheds some light on what was going on.
22. I have mentioned already that it is not the function of a coroner to make moral judgments about the conduct of persons but some limited observations are necessary to enable a proper understanding of the issues that arose during the inquest. The presence of Donovan meant inevitably that the relationship between Mr Taylor and Helen had to continue on one level. They both had responsibility for the care of their son. However the evidence establishes that their relationship continued, mostly in secret, beyond what was necessary for that purpose. I am satisfied that Helen, from the time she first met Mr Taylor until her disappearance remained strongly attracted to Mr Taylor and saw him as her sole partner. Even so her behaviour towards him was at times demanding, unpredictable, aggressive and antagonistic.
23. Karel Black strongly disapproved of Adam Taylor. Her disapproval arose from her concern about the respective ages of Helen and Mr Taylor when their relationship, particularly the sexual relationship, commenced and Mrs Black’s perception of his treatment of her daughter in the course of their relationship and his motives in continuing that relationship. The antagonism Mrs Black bore towards Mr Taylor commenced in 2005, shortly after she learned of his relationship with Helen. She did everything that she could to prevent the relationship from continuing. She complained and continued to complain to the police about Mr Taylor, alleging that he had committed an offence. Thus, Helen’s relationship with Mr Taylor was the cause of considerable conflict between her and her mother. They argued and fell out from time to time. Each obtained restraint orders against the other.
24. Adam Taylor, despite professing his wish to preserve a long standing relationship with Karalina Garwood and having difficulty in dealing with Helen’s behaviour, persistently maintained his relationship with Helen. He and his mother and Karalina all referred to Helen’s tendency to, in a persistent and demanding way, make phone calls and send text messages about Donovan. Unsurprisingly this caused difficulty for Mr Taylor, particularly in his relationship with Ms Garwood. His mother Judy Taylor referred to an arrangement whereby all contact from Helen about Donovan was to be through her. Miss Garwood believed there was to be no personal contact between Helen and Mr Taylor. Despite the arrangement Adam Taylor maintained direct contact with Helen. He acquired a second phone for that purpose. He said that this was to prevent the frequent and annoying messages to his other mobile phone or to his home but neither Mrs Taylor nor Ms Garwood was aware of what was going on. I am left in little doubt that Mr Taylor continued to maintain some affection for Helen, despite her difficult behaviour. There is possibly some truth in his suggestion that he wanted to offer Helen some support for the sake of creating a better life for his son Donovan. However it seems to me likely also that he wished to maintain the sexual relationship for selfish reasons.
25. According to Mr Taylor his sexual relationship with Helen Munnings ceased after the initial period, particularly after the fact that he was Donovan’s father became known to Ms Garwood. He admitted however that it resumed on one occasion in 2007. He said that this was the last time that he and Helen had sex and he called it “a mistake” which arose again from pressure from Helen Munnings. Nevertheless the evidence discloses a series of messages, some of them of a highly sexualised nature, exchanged between Mr Taylor and Ms Munnings during 2008 and until at least May 2008. Mr Taylor admits that Helen frequently sent such messages. He says they were mostly one way but the evidence shows at least some similar responses from him.
26. Helen’s sisters, and some of her friends, gave evidence of Helen’s strong and ongoing affection for Mr Taylor. Some suspected that the personal relationship between them was continuing surreptitiously. Linda Black said she knew that Helen sometimes went driving with Mr Taylor.
27. I regard it as more likely than not that at the time of her disappearance Helen Munnings was pregnant. I also regard it as likely that Adam Taylor was the father of the child. For the reasons I have already set out I consider it likely that, despite Mr Taylor’s assertions to the contrary, his sexual relationship with Helen continued in 2008. The evidence of Anthony Kelly tends to confirm that this is so. Mr Kelly and his wife knew Helen. He said that a couple of months before Helen disappeared Mr Kelly saw a male he knew as “young Donovan’s father” at the house in Romaine St in circumstances that suggested a continuing sexual relationship with Helen.
28. Helen told her sister Linda that she was pregnant and that Mr Taylor was the father. She also told her friend Belinda Rasmussen. Helen did not tell her mother that she was pregnant but given Mrs Black’s antagonism to Mr Taylor that is not surprising. Helen Munnings also told Mr Taylor that she was pregnant. On 8 July 2008 Mr Taylor went with Helen to a pharmacy in Burnie where she purchased a pregnancy test. She administered the test to herself in a public toilet nearby. She showed the result to him as positive. On the same day Mr Taylor and Helen Munnings went together to inspect a rental property in Abbott Street in Burnie, intending to find her a place to live.
29. A consistent and strong theme emerging from the evidence of Helen’s family and friends and acquaintances, many of whom swore affidavits and some of whom attended to give evidence, is that Helen had no sexual relationship with any other man and was not interested in anyone except Mr Taylor. Except for something Mr Taylor said there is no evidence at all of any relationship between Helen and another male other than friendship.
30. Mr Taylor denies that he was the father of the child. He said that Helen told him that the pregnancy resulted from a drunken one night stand with a male she did not identify. I regard that as unlikely to be true. Even if she did say that to him it is more likely to be an attempt to engender feelings of jealously or anger in Mr Taylor. In any event Mr Taylor’s own evidence persuades me that he understood that Helen was likely to tell others that he was the father of her child, whether it was true or not.
31. Having discovered that she was pregnant Helen faced the decision of what do to. There was ongoing communication between her and Mr Taylor about this. Mr Taylor gave evidence that he did not support continuation of the pregnancy. He said that this was because another child would have placed additional demands on Helen’s already demanding situation. However the evidence, including the course of text messages sent by Helen to Mr Taylor, strongly suggests that, after an initial period of uncertainty and anxious consideration, she had decided to keep the baby.
Events leading up to Helen’s disappearance
32. Helen Munnings was last seen during the afternoon of Wednesday 23 July 2008. On that day Helen was at home at 2 Charles St. It was during a period of Mr Taylor’s care of Donovan.
33. In the early to mid-afternoon on Wednesday 23 July Helen, after spending a short time with her mother and her sister Linda at Mrs Black’s home, left and walked towards the centre of Burnie. She left the keys to her flat on the table in her mother’s flat with a letter that she had brought earlier to show her mother. She was wearing plain black trousers and a blue top with a hood that Helen and Linda had bought together only a few days earlier. She was wearing her hair tied up in a ponytail at the back. She was not carrying a bag. The bag she usually carried was later found by the police in her flat. Amongst the items in the bag were Helen’s purse, mobile phone (without the sim card), medication and receipts. The purse contained her cards including her bank account card and Medicare card.
34. Linda had spent a lot of time with Helen over the week or so before that day. She stayed with her at Helen’s unit overnight on Tuesday 22 July 2008. On Monday 21 July an appointment was made for Helen to see a doctor at the City Medical Practice on the following day, 22 July 2008. Linda was to attend that appointment with Helen but Helen cancelled it. Linda’s recollection is that on 23 July, before she left home, Helen told her that she intended to walk to the City Medical Practice to make another doctor’s appointment. Mrs Black’s recollection is that Helen told her she was going to the doctor’s for a pap smear. Both were left with the impression that Helen would not be gone long although neither knew whether Helen had any other plans.
35. Helen did not have a doctor’s appointment and there is no evidence that she went to the surgery to make one. Instead she met Mr Taylor. He had been working during the day. Donovan was with Ms Garwood. Mr Taylor says that he met Helen Munnings that afternoon in accordance with an arrangement he had made with her by phone or text message during the day. He picked her up in his mother’s white Holden Rodeo Ute near the Centrelink building at about 4.15 or 4.20 pm. They then drove until, according to him, he dropped her off on the southern side of the Bass Highway near the old pulp mill at or just before 6.00 pm. By that time it was dark or getting dark. He then drove west for a short distance before doing a U-turn and driving east towards his home at Heybridge. On the way he stopped at Round Hill to reflect on the things they had discussed during the drive. During that time he sent a text message to Helen’s phone number.
36. That Helen Munnings walked into Burnie and met Mr Taylor is corroborated by CCTV footage located by the police during the investigation. A camera located in the Centrelink building in Marine Terrace in Burnie shows an image of a female figure with an appearance consistent with Helen’s appearance walking past the building at or shortly after 4.00 pm. The same camera shows a white utility looking like Mr Taylor’s vehicle driving south on Marine Terrace and then, at 4.22 pm, returning north past Centrelink. A camera located at McGinty’s bar at a hotel just around the corner then shows what appears to be the same vehicle near the traffic lights at the corner of Wilson St and the Bass Highway.
37. That Mr Taylor sent a text message to Helen’s phone is confirmed by the phone records which disclose a message sent at 6.08 pm on that day. However the message itself was not preserved and is not in evidence. According to Mr Taylor the message encouraged her to stay positive and "keep your chin up". He did not get a response.
38. Later that evening Karel Black became concerned when Helen did not return. She could hear the radio playing in Helen’s flat. She used Helen’s keys to let herself into the flat but there was no sign of Helen. When Helen had not returned the next day Mrs Black’s concern increased. Sometime after lunch on Thursday 24 July 2008 Mrs Black went to the police station and reported her concern. She went back to the police station later that night and made a formal statement.
39. Helen Munnings did not pick up her son Donovan on Friday 25 July 2008 as she was scheduled to do.
40. The police conducted extensive searches attempting to find Helen Munnings. None of the searches found any trace of Ms Munnings or anything connected with her.
41. The search efforts were co-ordinated by First Class Constable Dean Wotherspoon of the Western District Search and Rescue Squad. Constable Wotherspoon is a qualified and experienced search controller. He co-ordinated a marine, land and aerial search conducted over 2 days, 28 and 29 July 2008, in the Emu Bay area extending from the Burnie Wharf at the west to Round Hill Point about 4 kilometres to the east. The rescue helicopter was used. About 8 search and rescue officers conducted the land search.
42. More searches were conducted later as further information was given to the police. On 6 August 2008 the search was expanded from Round Hill Point to Sulphur Creek a further 8 kilometres or so east. A search was also performed at Fern Glade, an area near the Emu River south of the coast. These searches involved 6 to 8 search and rescue officers.
43. On 12 August 2008 Constable Wotherspoon co-ordinated and took part in a water borne search of the Emu and Blythe Rivers. The Emu River was searched from the mouth to the Fern Glade weir, a distance of about 1.7 km. The Blythe River was searched from the mouth upstream about 3 km to impassable rapids at the Magazine Reserve.
44. On 14 and 15 August 2008 First Class Constable Leigh Stanley of Tasmania Police Marine and Rescue Services based in Hobart, supervised the police search and rescue dive team which conducted underwater searches in Emu Bay. The area searched included South Burnie Beach and the mouth of the Emu River.
45. More searches were conducted the following year. On 2 June 2009 Const Wotherspoon co-ordinated searches at Lake Kara. On 3 June 2009 a further area at Heybridge was searched. The search area was a small bay off the beach just east of Sice Avenue near Mr Taylor’s house. On the same days Constable Stanley supervised underwater searches undertaken by the search and rescue dive team at the same locations. Lake Kara was searched on 2 June 2008 and a search of the coastal line in the Heybridge area on the following day.
46. On 17 June 2009 Constable Wotherspoon co-ordinated a search of the roads and tracks around the Round Hill Lookout. Also on 17 June Constable Stanley supervised the dive team underwater search of the weir at the Fernglade Reserve which had been opened to allow the water level to drop. On 14 July 2009 Constable Wotherspoon assisted with the co-ordination and execution of searches of the land adjacent to the Cam River at Scarfe St, Somerset. In September 2009 Sergeant Paul Steane, the officer in charge of the police dive squad, supervised and participated in an underwater search at Lake Llewellyn. Lake Llewellyn is near Sisters Beach, about 40 km west of Burnie. Two areas of the lake were searched - on 2 September an area in front of the lake shacks and on 3 September an area in front of the dam to a depth of 7 metres.
47. All of the underwater searches were conducted by a full dive team consisting of a dive supervisor, two divers and attendants.
48. The dive conditions and Lake Kara and Lake Llewellyn were difficult. Constable Stanley described the waters searched by his team as “black water” indicating that visibility was low and that search techniques using hands and guide ropes were required. Nevertheless Constable Stanley was confident of the result of the search in each case. Sergeant Steane was less confident of the search of Lake Llewellyn. It was also black water but also with snags that made searching difficult.
Mr Taylor’s conduct on the day of Helen’s disappearance
49. Mr Taylor was at work on 23 July 2008. According to Ms Garwood he returned home in the Pajero at about 2.45 pm to swap cars. He left in his mother’s Holden Ute at about 3.30 pm. She thought he had loaded a saw onto the tray of the ute.
50. Mr Taylor returned home just after 6.00 pm. Just before then he phoned Ms Garwood, as he often did, to check if she needed anything. The phone records show that phone call. After he returned home he reported to her that he thought someone may have tried to steal the dinghy that they kept at their house which belonged to Ms Garwood’s brother. He told her that someone had dragged the dinghy from the place in the yard where it was normally kept down to the water’s edge and that he was going out to drag it back up. By then it was dark. In the course of doing so he put the boat in the water, started the motor of the boat and drove it a short distance before turning and bringing it back in. He spent some more time in his shed that evening but according to Ms Garwood this was not unusual.
51. The next morning Mr Taylor loaded the boat onto the trailer and took it to Mr Garwood’s block at Cunningham St in Burnie.
52. Despite all the police searches for evidence about Ms Munnings only one item of any interest was found. During the dive conducted in the water directly outside Mr Taylor’s home at Heybridge in June 2009 one of the police divers found a standard plastic 9 litre bucket filled with concrete. Embedded in the concrete at the top was a small wire loop to which a length of synthetic rope was attached. The area in which it is found is notable only because of its proximity to Mr Taylor’s home. Mr Taylor admits that it was his bucket. I will refer to this aspect of the evidence later.
Helen Munnings disappearance and the possible explanations for it
53. There is no evidence that anyone has seen or heard from Helen Munnings since 6.00 pm on Wednesday 23 July 2008. A considerable reward has been on offer for information that may lead to her discovery without success. There is no direct evidence of what became of her. There are only two possible explanations for Helen’s disappearance. The first is that she is dead and her body has not been located. The second is that she is alive and living elsewhere.
54. I assume it is possible for a person to deliberately disappear without trace and commence a new life elsewhere, either in Tasmania, another part of Australia or overseas. However, it must require considerable planning and resources, particularly when so much of modern society depends on information technology. Such a person must first travel to another place and then have a place to live and means of support, all without discovery. It is likely that, at least, a new identity and an independent source of income would be required. The prospect of this happening in Tasmania would, for obvious reasons, be remote.
55. Helen Munnings was a young person. She lived in Burnie for all her life. Most of her family and friends also lived there. She had relatively limited education. She had a limited income and no savings. There is no evidence to support a planned departure. Her flat was left untidy. She did not take her purse, with the cards it contained, or her phone or any other personal belonging or clothing. She told no-one of an intention to leave.
56. As part of the investigation, officers of Tasmania Police checked for evidence that Helen Munnings may be alive. Initially the search was conducted in the name Munnings. As a result of a suggestion made during the inquest that no check was made under the name Black I directed such an enquiry also be made. No trace has been found. She has not been heard of by the police in any other jurisdiction in Australia. No airline has any record of a person travelling in either name. No-one in either name has travelled on the Spirit of Tasmania. There has been no contact or transaction with the Australian Electoral Commission, the Registrar of Births Deaths and Marriages, Corrective Services, Housing Tasmania, Aurora, Mental Health Services, the Land Titles Office and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
57. Significantly there has been no transaction on any bank account in her name or in the name Helen Karel Black since her disappearance. She held an account at the Commonwealth Bank which had a balance of $1100 and into which her Centrelink benefit was paid. There has been no transaction on the account since 23 July 2008 and the account is being depleted by a $5 monthly inactive account fee. The police made an inquiry of 10 of the most commonly used financial institutions and none had any record of Ms Munnings since her disappearance.
58. The significance of these factors is magnified if account is taken of my finding that Helen Munnings was likely to be pregnant. During and following a pregnancy she would require medical treatment and access to services, a scenario particularly unlikely without a Medicare card. Since 23 July 2008 there has been no claim on Medicare or any pharmaceutical benefit paid in her name.
59. The prospect that she may have deliberately left to start a new life elsewhere is made all the more unlikely by the fact that it would involve abandoning her son Donovan.
60. Counsel for Mr Taylor suggested that it is possible that Helen is living in Darwin. The basis for this suggestion is that Helen has an uncle living in Darwin and that after Helen’s disappearance Mrs Black spent some months in Darwin. During that period Mrs Taylor received a phone call from an unidentified female from a Darwin number referring to Helen. The suggested inference is that Mrs Black went to Darwin to help Helen become established there. However I regard the suggestion as fanciful. First, there is no evidence to suggest it is true. Although the police did not investigate the scenario vigorously at any stage I would infer that this was because they treated the proposition with the same scepticism I do. The same comments about the difficulty in living undiscovered in another place apply with equal force, even taking into account the prospect that she might receive some assistance from a relative. Further, despite some conflict in their relationship, I regard as genuine the distress that Mrs Black has displayed and continues to display about Helen’s disappearance.
61. I find the only reasonable explanation for Helen Munnings’ disappearance and continued absence, consistent with all the evidence, is that she is dead.
The cause of Helen Munnings’ death
62. One scenario that might explain Helen’s disappearance is that she took her own life. Helen was a young person facing a number of factors that would be stressful for her. There was conflict in her relationships with Mr Taylor and with her mother. She was a single mother with limited income and support. She had recently discovered she was pregnant again and was faced with the decision of what to do about that. She was faced with the prospect of telling her mother about the pregnancy and the increased conflict that his may bring, particularly if Mr Taylor was the father. Although it is clear that Helen’s wish was that Mr Taylor would leave Ms Garwood to enter a stable and supportive long term relationship with her, there was little prospect of this happening and he was not supportive of her pregnancy. According to Mr Taylor during the car trip on 23 July 2008 he and Helen discussed matters concerning their relationship that were distressing for Helen. Mr Taylor's evidence is that during the journey Helen was crying and was upset and that, in effect, she poured her heart out to him about the problems in her life. However by the time he dropped her off she appeared to have calmed down.
63. Although there is some evidence that Helen had spoken or sent text messages to friends about suicide, it was only in a very general and conversational way. There is no evidence at all that she had ever made an attempt or a serious threat of suicide. There is no evidence of self-harm. The evidence of Alana Kelly is illuminating. Mrs Kelly met Helen through her daughter who was friends with Linda Black. For a period Helen was frequently at her house. Mrs Kelly described how, during a period when Helen lived at Sutton Street and relations with her mother were at a low ebb, Helen appeared stressed and depressed and with low self-esteem. Mrs Kelly suggested that Helen might seek some outside help. Over time however, Helen’s presentation improved. Mrs Kelly said that Helen was working through her problems and making plans for the future. Again, I regard the prospect of suicide as reduced by her relationship with Donovan. Mrs Kelly described Helen as “worshipping her little boy”.
64. In early 2008 Helen Munnings consulted a general practitioner, Dr Olomola, at the City Medical Practice. Dr Olomola appeared at the inquest and gave considered and helpful evidence. Nothing he said leads me to conclude that Helen was at greater risk of suicide than I have already described. He first saw Helen on 7 February 2008. He considered that she was moderately depressed, but she was not suicidal, she communicated well and made good eye contact. He prescribed an anti-depressant medication commonly used in young persons but at the lowest dosage. Dr Olomola saw her twice more, the last time being on 21 March 2008. Although he suggested a follow up appointment Helen did not return, and did not keep the appointment she made on 21 July 2008.
65. Dr Ian Sale, a highly experienced psychiatrist, gave evidence based on information given by Adam Taylor. He opined that the factors impacting on Helen’s life meant that suicide was a possibility. However, despite Dr Sale’s undoubted expertise, the force of his opinion is reduced by the limited material available to him and it adds little to that which is already apparent to the court.
66. The absence of a body does not necessarily preclude the possibility of suicide, although it is an unusual circumstance. If Mr Taylor’s account that he dropped Helen on the Bass Highway near the pulp mill at about 6.00 pm on 23 July is to be accepted, then Helen had very limited means to cause her own death. She had nothing with her. There is no evidence to suggest she had any plan. Constable Dean Wotherspoon has been a member of the police search and rescue squad since 1997. He gave evidence about two particular aspects of the possibility that Helen Munnings may have committed suicide by drowning. First, he explained the factors which lead me to conclude that it is quite difficult for a person to deliberately drown themselves. The natural buoyancy of the human body makes it likely that it will float unless weighted down or until the lungs fill up with water. It would take a remarkable effort of human resolve to deliberately stay under water to the point of drowning. Had Helen weighted her body then that would have increased the likelihood that she would have been found during the search. On the other hand a possibility is that she simply entered the ocean and swam out so far that she could not return. In that case, that Helen’s body was not located may be explained by either the effect of the currents during the time her body may have been submerged or the effects of exposure of the body to marine creatures.
67. It may be that the combination of factors that prevailed at the time led to a personal crisis for Helen. The evidence does not justify a finding that she took her own life. There is no evidence that she did so other than the circumstances I have referred to. However in the absence of another explanation it remains a possible reason for her disappearance.
Was Helen’s death contributed to by another person?
68. There is no direct evidence that any person contributed to the death of Helen Munnings. The actions of her mother at the time and since then are, in my view, quite inconsistent with her playing any part.
69. Mr Taylor was the last person to see her alive. He was the only person to see her after she left home on that afternoon. He gave evidence to the inquest, and told the police, that he picked her up at about 4.15 pm. He said he dropped her off on the highway at or shortly before 6.00 pm. As a result of a police appeal for information many persons came forward. The police took numerous statements about what was seen and when. All of those persons had a sincere desire to be helpful. Some of them gave evidence at the inquest. However none of them gave any evidence that would lead me to conclude that a person they saw on that day or on any other day after 23 July 2008 was Helen Munnings. What follows is not only that there is no other evidence to indicate what may have become of Helen but also that there is no evidence to corroborate Mr Taylor’s version that Helen Munnings was dropped off by him at that time and location.
70. One of the issues raised during the inquest is whether I should find that Mr Taylor is a person who contributed to the cause of Ms Munnings’ death. The evidence does not justify such a finding. Some aspects of Mr Taylor’s evidence and the evidence about Mr Taylor require comment:
(a) Although the relationship between Mr Taylor and Ms Munnings persisted over some years it was at times tumultuous and turbulent and characterised by ill will. Helen’s disappearance coincided with a period during which Mr Taylor and Ms Garwood were attempting to preserve their relationship in circumstances that had been difficult for some time. Those circumstances were contributed to, to a large extent, by Helen Munnings and her sometimes difficult behaviour. I have found that Helen was likely to be pregnant. At least she had indicated to Mr Taylor that she would tell others that she was pregnant and that he was the father. Even if that assertion was mischievous and untrue it was likely to impact on Mr Taylor in a number of respects, not least of which would be to place additional strain on his relationship with Ms Garwood.
(b) I am left in little doubt that his account to the police and during the inquest of his relationship with Helen Munnings was at least incomplete. Moreover I would find that in the period prior to Helen’s disappearance he concealed the true nature of his relationship and contact with Helen from Ms Garwood and his mother.
(c) Mr Taylor gave different versions to the police of the route he says he took after he picked Helen up and before he dropped her off and there is some question about whether the journey he described would have occupied all the time he was with her.
(d) Mr Taylor said that he dropped Helen where he did because she asked that he do so, saying she wanted to go for a walk on the beach to "clear her head". It seems to me to be an unusual thing to do, to agree to drop a young girl alone at that location some distance from her home at that time when it was becoming dark. It was July and Helen was not dressed particularly warmly.
(e) The account he gave of his actions with the boat when he got home on that evening might be viewed as incongruous.
(f) Suspicious of Mr Taylor, Mrs Black and her mother Julie Payne went to Mr Taylor’s house on Saturday 27 July. Mrs Payne later told the police that Mr Taylor had made a statement to her which she regarded as indication that he knew that Helen was not coming back. Mrs Black claims that much later, in October 2009, she approached Mr Taylor in the supermarket. She asked him “where Helen’s body was” and in response he threatened that “you’ll get the same done to you that Helen did”.
(g) Mrs Black made reference to a van owned by Mr Garwood that was at Mr Taylor’s house and implied by her questions about it that it may have been used for some unlawful purpose.
71. None of these factors justify a finding that Mr Taylor contributed to Helen Munnings’ death. For such a significant finding, clear and cogent evidence is required. There is no such evidence. Without more, evidence of a motive is meaningless. Although lies, if Mr Taylor did lie, may affect his credibility generally, they do not prove that his account of the events of 23 July is untrue, much less that he contributed to her death. No conclusions can be drawn from inconsistencies in his accounts of the car journey with Helen. His account of the time and location he picked her up and the later sending of a text message is corroborated by other evidence. His account of what happened with the boat is not far-fetched. I am unable to draw any conclusions from the finding of the bucket. It was found almost a year after Helen Munnings went missing. There is an innocent explanation for its presence. It was in a location which meant that it was covered by only about half a metre of water at low tide and it was used by Mr Taylor to secure the boat from time to time. Given the high degree of ill feeling and suspicion Mrs Black and Mrs Payne hold towards Mr Taylor I have considerable reservations about their evidence about the statements they suggested were admissions. Even if their evidence is correct, I would not regard either statement as an admission that carries any weight.
72. I should not lose sight of the fact that despite an extensive police investigation there is no scientific or forensic evidence that supports a finding that Mr Taylor contributed to the death of Helen Munnings. The investigation did not include testing of Mr Garwood’s van but there is no other evidence that suggests that the van was somehow involved.
Conclusion and findings
73. I make no formal recommendation or comment concerning Helen Munnings’ death except to indicate that the police investigation into it should remain open. Further evidence may become available. The evidence I have referred to in this decision does not permit any finding other than that Helen Munnings died on or about 23 July 2008 in or near Burnie. No finding can be made about how or why she died or whether any person contributed to the cause of her death.
DATED: 14 June 2012 at Burnie in Tasmania