Tiahleigh Palmer's foster dad spent six days leading the charge to find her - but he was an actor hiding a horrific truth, writes Kate Kyriacou in a special investigation into the schoolgirl's murder.

IT WAS school holidays and the Thorburn family had packed the car for a quick camping trip to the picturesque Atkinson Dam, an hour or so inland from Brisbane.

The extended family was there. Aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents. They lined up tents in the shade of gums, under the gaze of cackling kookaburras.

They took turns behind the ski boat, laughing as they tumbled into the water. Then, as the sun dropped below the horizon, they gathered on folding chairs to eat dinner. It was a good day, a fun day. But for one family member, the further the night progressed, the more uneasy she began to feel.



She'd been allocated a tent with the teenage Thorburn boys - Trent and Josh. Trent, the younger of the two, was a couple of years her junior. She felt uneasy around Trent. There'd been an incident a few years earlier, something that had made her feel uncomfortable around him. She'd never told anyone. She hadn't wanted to cause trouble in the family.

She'd tried to position herself away from him on the queen-sized blow-up mattress the three of them were sharing. But he'd made a point of moving next to her. So she'd insisted on a head-to-toe arrangement.

Rick, Josh, Julene and Trent Thorburn.
Rick, Josh, Julene and Trent Thorburn.

She fell asleep that way, with her feet by his head, and vice-versa. But some time after her breathing had slowed into that telltale steady rhythm, he'd moved. When she woke he was lying behind her, his face close to the back of her head, his arms stretched around to rest on her stomach, before sliding down, a millimetre at a time, slowly, hoping not to wake her.

She moved suddenly, as though she'd stirred. And he paused, catching his breath, before starting again. He assaulted her then, and she moved again, hoping he would stop. Eventually he did. He got up and left the tent.

She waited a few seconds and unzipped the canvas, determined she'd be gone when he returned.

She walked away, in the opposite direction, watching as he walked to the campsite's toilet block. Minutes passed as she waited for him to go back to the tent. When he did, she crept back to the family campsite and settled into one of the folding chairs.

She sat there all night, waiting for morning. It was some time later, the camping trip a distant memory, that someone told her the Thorburn family would take in a foster child. A young girl.

She worried for that girl, whoever she was. Maybe she saw it coming. The tragedy was that others didn't.

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TIAHLEIGH Palmer had run away before. More than once.

And therein lay the problem. Because when Cindy Palmer got the call that her daughter had disappeared again, she assumed she was off with friends.

Tia was 12 years old when she died. A bubbly, happy, chatty kid who loved to dance, loved cheerleading and loved giving hugs.

She'd had a tumultuous upbringing. Her mother, Cindy, had made some mistakes that had put her on the wrong side of the law. And for a while, Tia had been moved into care.

It was in January, 2015, that Tia went to live with the Thorburns. They had dogs and horses and two older sons. Tia could do dance and drama. The Thorburn boys were both talented dancers and had performed in many productions.

It was a strict home and it worked on a rewards system. Tia would get points for good behaviour and she'd lose points for bad. Enough points and she'd be rewarded.

Rick Thorburn was a controlling husband and strict father.
Rick Thorburn was a controlling husband and strict father.

Sometimes, when she'd get into trouble, she'd run away. But only for a few hours. They always found her, or she'd always turn up before long.

Rick was a boaster. An attention seeker. He would tell elaborate stories about himself and things he had supposedly done. Sometimes, in social situations, he would work out how knowledgeable someone was before big-noting himself.

He was a controlling man. He wanted to know where his wife and sons were at all times. He kept very close tabs on them.

Julene came from a close family but had married a domineering man. She knew not to argue with him, not to ask too many questions.

The Thorburn household was usually up early.

Horses needed feeding, the house needed cleaning in preparation for Julene's day care children.

On the morning of Friday, October 30, 2015, Rick and Josh, 19, rose early to go to the gym. They left at 6.15am and returned a little over an hour later.

Trent, then 18, was up at 7.45am and out the door and off to work 10 minutes later.

At 8am, Rick left in his blue Ford Falcon to drive the 9km to Tiahleigh's school, Marsden State High. He pulled up out the front, then continued on to buy some spare parts for one of his cars.

Julene Thorburn. Pictures: Liam Kidston
Julene Thorburn. Pictures: Liam Kidston


Trent Thorburn.
Trent Thorburn.

Tia didn't walk through the school gates that morning. She didn't make it to any of her classes and she missed an appointment with a youth worker. Her foster carers were alerted and Rick went with the youth worker to report her missing.

Cindy, not unused to her daughter disappearing for a few hours, sent out messages to her friends, asking if they had seen her, if they knew where she was.

Julene sent out messages too. She made phone calls asking people if they'd seen the schoolgirl. She and Rick drove the neighbourhood, dropping in on friends of Tiahleigh, people who she'd gone to after running away in the past.

They drove around until 7 or 8pm before heading home to a night of frantic and desperate text messages from Tiahleigh's mother.

Cindy knew something was wrong. Tia had never been gone this long. She was a little girl, afraid of the dark. They'd always found her without too much time passing. She tried to press this on the police, police officers who spent countless hours rounding up repeat runaways.

The image of Tiahleigh Palmer her mother Cindy shared on the Logan Crime Watch Facebook page.
The image of Tiahleigh Palmer her mother Cindy shared on the Logan Crime Watch Facebook page.

That night, Cindy sent a message to the Crime Watch Logan Facebook page asking for help. At the time, the page had 35,000 followers sharing local titbits about police activity, break-ins, stolen cars. The page administrator shared Cindy's information at 11pm, including a photograph of Tiahleigh in her school uniform, asking anyone who had seen the girl to come forward.

"Everyone share! Missing 12-year-old. Tiahleigh is missing from Marsden SHS and she was last seen at Maccas this morning in Marsden and had not attended (any) classes. Police have been notified," it read.

At 11.08pm, Rick joined the people commenting on the post. "If any of her friends are hiding her again, please do the right thing and let us know. She needs to come home where she belongs," he wrote.

Police officers worked with Cindy to contact anyone who might be hiding Tiahleigh as messages came through that she'd been seen with various people at various times.

Facebook posts from accused murderer Rick Thorburn during the hunt for Tiahleigh Palmer
Facebook posts from accused murderer Rick Thorburn during the hunt for Tiahleigh Palmer

"Why do you keep messaging Ebony Jade?" one woman wrote to the terrified mum. "We didn't steal ya kid so f--k off."

It was a problem police would come up against again and again. People in the area were not interested in helping police. And neither were their kids. Not even where a missing child was concerned.

Cindy's message for the girl to contact police - after information had come through that she may have been seen with Tiahleigh - had been met with scorn.

"I don't even know her. I'm not going to call police," the girl had replied.

Later, she posted on the Crime Watch Logan page: "Like I told her mum, I will tell (you) if I have seen her but I'm not talking to the police."

Cindy, who was seven months pregnant at the time, wrote: "It's just wearing me down. I'm having to go through so many messages and follow so many posts, as well as working with police and out looking. It's just not necessary."

People are cruel when it comes to online commentary and this was no different.

Cindy, who was in the process of relinquishing custody of her daughter, was criticised and blamed. Why wasn't Tiahleigh with her mother? Why was she in foster care? Others were more understanding, offering to join the search.


Cindy Palmer knew something was wrong from the early days of Tiahleigh’s disappearance.
Cindy Palmer knew something was wrong from the early days of Tiahleigh’s disappearance.



THE following morning, Cindy was back searching. And back online.

"This is the longest time she has been gone," she wrote at 7.34am.

Five minutes later, Rick joined in: "I'm going to revisit all the addresses again now," he wrote.

And then, later that day: "If someone is hiding her, you are seriously not any good for her and should be ashamed of yourself. Do you understand what this does to the people that love her and care for her? We, the police and her mum have been at this all day. If you are with her, tell her enough is enough. Just come home, phone someone, anyone, please."

It was a sick farce. A pantomime. Because Rick Thorburn knew exactly what had happened to his 12-year-old ward. He knew exactly where she was.

Rick Thorburn pretended to be concerned about Tiahleigh’s whereabouts while keeping a dark secret.
Rick Thorburn pretended to be concerned about Tiahleigh’s whereabouts while keeping a dark secret.

The day wore on and Cindy joined her daughter's foster carers in searching the neighbourhood. Family members, far and wide, posted on the Facebook post, begging Tiahleigh to go home.

"Tiahleigh, if you read this, it's your Dad writing to you in hope that you see this and realise that a lot of people, including myself, are worried about you and your wellbeing," the schoolgirl's father, Andrew Day, wrote. "And to anybody that is assisting you in any way by hiding you or helping you in any way should think long and hard about what they are doing as it is affecting the people that love and care about you. Please contact your mum …"

Another was from Tiahleigh's New Zealand grandmother: "Tiahleigh, if you can see this, this is Nana Robyn in New Zealand and I beg you to please contact your mum …"

Another relative posted his phone number, telling Tia to text him, that he'd come pick her up, wherever she was, no questions asked.

It was bad. Cindy knew it was bad. After those first few hours, and certainly after that first night, she knew something was very wrong.



THE third day of the search began early. But this was no Allison Baden-Clay search, where dozens of police officers scoured the neighbourhood, where a search co-ordination centre was set up, where teams of State Emergency Services volunteers conducted painstaking line searches.

Police were making inquiries. They'd been to the houses of some of Tia's school friends but said they didn't have the resources to check them all.

Cindy, Rick and Julene were driving the neighbourhood, appealing to the people of Logan on social media. Some of the girls Cindy contacted were openly hostile. Some pretended not to know Tia at all. She was desperate and any possible sightings she tried to follow up resulted in her getting the run-around from kids brought up with a too-large share of suspicion.

Facebook posts from Rick Thorburn and Cindy Palmer after Tiahleigh was reported missing.
Facebook posts from Rick Thorburn and Cindy Palmer after Tiahleigh was reported missing.

Cindy and her family attempted to contact various media outlets. Journalists who checked out the story of a missing girl were told it was in hand, that the girl had run away before and that a news release would be put out should police want the media involved. But the day ended the same as the one before: with a little girl still missing and no tangible leads. And the only person among that trio of parent and caregivers without a clue was Tiahleigh's mother. The other two were playing out a terrible deception.



RICK was at it again. 6am: "We are still trying to find Tia. She has to be at someone's house. She has no money. She does not like being out in the dark alone. She (is) not familiar with too many areas so (if) she is with someone, please anyone around the Logan area this morning keep looking. We and her mum are worried sick about her please."

Nobody doubted his word.

Then, an hour later: "Can people please keep a lookout around the school this morning as they are dropping off? I'm sure Tia will be around there somewhere and ask your kids to tell their teacher if they see her."

One of Rick Thorburn’s Facebook comments during the hunt for Tiahleigh Palmer.
One of Rick Thorburn’s Facebook comments during the hunt for Tiahleigh Palmer.

Tiahleigh's brother had been sent to school with money for the payphone and instructions to call his mother immediately if his sister turned up. It was their one hope - that having been gone for the whole weekend, she might still go to school on Monday. But the first bell went and Tiahleigh was not in class.

"Everyone was saying that she would just turn up at school today but I knew she wouldn't," Cindy wrote.

There were sightings of Tiahleigh on a bus, at a McDonald's close to the school. Police followed these leads but the bus sighting had been a mistake. CCTV at the fast food restaurant showed she hadn't been there either.



A LITTLE girl was gone and media outlets had not run a single line about her disappearance. It was now Tuesday. Tiahleigh had been missing since Friday.

"Why is there not an Amber Alert issued?" one person wrote on the Crime Watch Logan post - a post that had now been shared thousands of times.

"Because it started as a runaway," a family member replied. "But it's been too long now."

The next day, November 4, was more of the same.

"Please everyone, keep sharing, we need more help, she's gone way too long," Julene posted.

Some commenters who didn't understand why Tiahleigh's face hadn't been plastered across the news wondered if there was more to the story.

"I feel like everyone is giving us a hard time, like we aren't doing everything possible to find (Tiahleigh), when both families are exhausted from everything we have been trying and all the worrying on top of it," Cindy wrote.

And minutes later, from the ever-present Rick: "Everyone, thank you for all the help but can we please keep it to (a) positive feed as all the negative feedback towards police and media is really adding extra stress to Cindy and ourselves so please keep up the excellent work in looking for her. Any info, no matter how insignificant it may seem, all helps, and is being followed up on by me, police and Cindy."

Some offered to drive Cindy around. Others posted on the Queensland Police Service Facebook page, asking why they weren't running photographs of the missing schoolgirl from Logan.

"I'm honestly doing the best I can. I have two other children, including a 21-month-old child (and) am seven months pregnant and no car during the day," an exhausted Cindy wrote.

"I can only do what I can."


Many wondered why Tiahleigh’s face hadn’t been plastered all over the media and whether there was more to the story.
Many wondered why Tiahleigh’s face hadn’t been plastered all over the media and whether there was more to the story.



POLICE finally appealed to the public through the media for information relating to the disappearance of a missing girl.

They released a photograph of Tiahleigh in her school uniform, saying she was last seen at Marsden State High nearly a week earlier.

Hours later, someone found her.


Josh Thorburn.
Josh Thorburn.
Both Rick Thorburn and Cindy Palmer were active on Facebook during the search.
Both Rick Thorburn and Cindy Palmer were active on Facebook during the search.

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