THE DISAPPEARANCE OF SHARRON PHILLIPS
BOB Phillips, 65, shirtless and wearing shorts and slippers, sits at the head of his pine kitchen table not the patriarch of the house, but more the curator of a tragic museum.
From the outside his modest home at the end of a cul-de-sac in Riverview, East Ipswich, is all odd angles and mismatching additions, and inside it heaves with ham radio equipment, old furniture, shelves of dusty glass and ceramic bric-a-brac, and family photographs of his wife Dawn, 57, and their nine children.
And yet it has the feeling of a place that once teemed with life, and was suddenly abandoned. Four clocks in the living room are all set at different times.
Phillips runs a hand through his thatch of greying hair. “It blew the family apart, mate,” he says. “It completely erupted and the family doesn’t exist anymore. The kids couldn’t get the answers to the questions, (the answers) we couldn’t get. They didn’t know how to react and they lashed out on the closest thing for blame which, I suppose, was me.”
Exactly 20 years ago on Monday (May 8), Phillips’ daughter, Sharron, 20, vanished off the face of the earth. The case evolved into one of the most celebrated and controversial in Queensland criminal history. Police were accused of negligence. The Phillips’ took the investigation into their own hands, and constantly howled to the press that not enough was being done by local and State officials. They appealed to the then Prime Minister of Australia, Bob Hawke, for help. Hundreds of people were interviewed, thousands of man-hours were expended, and everyone had a theory about what happened to the vivacious shop attendant whose car ran out of petrol late one Thursday night on Ipswich Road, Wacol. It was one of those rare cases that snagged the public imagination.
Two decades later Sharron Phillips is one of 136 State “cold cases”. Her file status is deemed “active pending further information”. And just as it was in early May 1986, her disappearance is still surrounded by differing versions of events and unanswered questions.
“If I’ve got to tell the truth I’ll tell the truth,“ says Bob Phillips, a retired truck owner/operator. “Dawn’s a prisoner in her own house. I’m her paid carer. She dirties herself, I have to feed her…oh god, I could go on forever. Everything was fine until Sharron disappeared. I’ve considered murder/suicide (for us), I have. I’ve thought about it a frickin’ lot.”
The youngest Phillips child, Matthew, who was six-years-old when Sharron vanished, still lives at home. But the rest of the family is estranged.
“As I said to one of them, I couldn’t be in the back seat with her (Sharron) every time she went out, I just couldn’t,” Bob says. “A lot of people who knew the family said - if you had interfered with them when they were younger and they were all living together, you picked on one you picked on the whole bloody nine, you know? But today, I’ll look after my bit of dirt and you look after yours. When they were growing up they were very close, extremely close. I don’t know what happened to them, I don’t, honestly.”
He gazes into the living area with the four unsynchronised clocks. Down the short hallway, in a room with the shades drawn, is Dawn. As Bob gets angry about the investigation into his missing daughter, as he jabs a finger at the air, fulminates, rails against the system that has wronged him, Dawn sleeps much of the day away in the darkened room.
“Sometimes,” Bob Phillips says, “I’ve lost recollections that Sharron ever existed.”
On the night of Thursday, May 8, 1986, young Sharron Phillips was in high spirits for several reasons. She was enjoying her independence, having moved out of the crowded Riverview family home and into her own flat at Archerfield five months earlier. She had a good job at the Peaches ‘n Cream fruit market in Kenmore. And she had a potential new beau.
Only days earlier she had met a 26-year-old Acacia Ridge man called Martin Balazs, and they had planned a dinner date at Sharron’s flat on Friday, May 9. She was excited about Balazs, although they barely knew each other. So on that Thursday evening, she and work colleague Samantha Dalzell went shopping together at Sunnybank Plaza on Mains Road. Sharron purchased some new lingerie.
Later, the pair had coffee at Sharron’s flat. Sharron left the lingerie unwrapped in the small ground-floor apartment. She then drove Dalzell home to Redland Plains. On the way, according to retired police investigator Ken Foreman, who worked on the Phillips case, she drove past Balaz’s flat and tooted the horn – an anonymous message to her new man, a tease as prelude to their date the next evening. She dropped off Dalzell, and was travelling city-bound on Ipswich Road at Wacol, up the hill from the old three-pump Shell service station (since demolished), when her canary-yellow Nissan Bluebird ran out of petrol. It was around 11pm.
Sharron’s oldest sister Donna (nee Anderson) remembers: “She’d spend $50 on a new dress but only put $10 worth of petrol in the car. I said – ‘Sharron, would you fill your car?’ I’m sure that night she would have thought of getting petrol at the garage at Goodna, but it had just become self-service where you operated it with coins.”
Sharron’s car had stopped outside the former Wacol migrant centre. Directly across busy Ipswich Road was the main entrance to the Wacol Army Barracks. She needed a telephone.
It was established later she had walked into the army camp, past the boom gates and guard booth, and been told by partying soldiers there were no telephones for her to use. (A few soldiers were later interviewed by police but discounted as suspects.) She then headed down towards the Shell garage and Wacol railway station.
The garage’s former mechanic, Bill Lace, says initial suspicion rested with the “old eccentric” who lived out the back of the Shell station. “He was there to keep an eye on the place and he always hung around out the front at night,” Lace says. “He said he was Swiss. I once saw him butchering up half a cow that’d been hit by a train, he was that eccentric.” Old “Karl” was never a serious suspect.
Telecom records subsequently revealed that Sharron had spoken to an operator from the twin phone boxes outside the snack bar in Wacol Station Road and asked for a manually-placed call to be made as she had no coins. She phoned Martin Balazs at exactly 11.18pm and asked him to pick her up from the Shell garage. She phoned again at 12.03pm, but Balazs was already on his way to the Wacol/Gailes area to find her.
Shortly after midnight Sharron had a conversation with Michael Truscott, 20, who had also used the public phone to telephone his father to pick him up at the station. She told Truscott she had run out of petrol but a friend was on his way to pick her up.
Balazs later told police he was unsure of which service station to go to. There was a large Shell roadhouse at Gailes, a few kilometres up the road from the little Wacol garage. Balazs went to Gailes, and suffered a flat tyre. With the puncture repaired, he drove down Ipswich Road towards the city and noticed Sharron’s car at the side of the road. He saw nobody in or about the vehicle, reasoning there was little he could do, and drove home. Police believe Balaz had missed Sharron and/or her abductors by a matter of minutes.
Bob Phillips says he and his wife were not in town when Sharron vanished. “People blame me, they reckon I should have been home,” he says. “I was picking one of our trucks up at Gilgandra (700kms south of Brisbane, near Dubbo in NSW). I was in Gilgandra, with Dawn. We got back about four, five o’clock on the Friday morning. I crashed and went to bed then the story came up and I started ringing everybody to find out what’s going on.”
One of the first to raise the alarm about Sharron was Bob Wilson, her boss at the Peaches ‘n Cream Fruit Market. “It’s still a sad memory,” he says today. “She was a great employee. I usually opened up around 7am and she’d start after 7.30am. She never turned up that morning and there were no phone calls. It was so unlike her. I got suspicious straight away.
“Debbie (Cox, a former employee) rang Sharron’s parents and I drove her usual route home looking for her. This was towards the afternoon to the best of my recollection. I saw her car on the side of the road and a man tampering with it. I said – “What are you doing with Sharron’s car?” It turned out it was Sharron’s father.”
Bob Phillips says “a friend” telephoned him about his daughter’s abandoned car that morning. “Somebody rang and told me Sharron’s car was up on the highway,” Bob says. “She was well known around here, so were we.” He also recalled meeting Mr Wilson: “We had a bit of a talk and I said I was quite worried because I couldn’t find any trace of her.”
In a separate incident, Sharron’s younger brother, Darren Phillips, also saw the car on Ipswich Road that Friday: “I was going into Brisbane on a job and I passed her car at Wacol because I was working at Wacol. I passed the car and it didn’t click with me and I tried ringing her flat and I couldn’t get onto her and other things take place, other things happen, and then you forget to ring again. Then I got the phone call that they couldn’t find her, that she’d gone missing.”
According to official police records, Dawn Phillips formally reported her daughter missing to Goodna police at 8pm on Friday, May 9. The records also state Bob Phillips and one of his sons went to Sharron’s Archerfield flat that evening to look for signs of her, then went to the abandoned car on Ipswich Road. That night Bob Phillips took the Nissan Bluebird back to the family home at Riverview. He says the police at the time ordered him to get it off the side of Ipswich Road. The police files have no record of this directive. Former officers involved in the case say it was a turning point in the early days of the investigation.
“The whole investigation in terms of scientific evidence, there wasn’t a lot that could assist us there because of the intervention of the family,” says former detective Geoff Orman, now a senior executive with the Queensland Rugby League. Orman was involved in the early stages of the investigation. “It was obstructive. The family’s intervention, particularly in that area (of removing the car) was a big hindrance to the investigation. It was a huge hindrance. What fresh evidence that was there at that point in time was taken away.
“The discrepancy all came about because the family shifted the vehicle. The biggest hindrance was not being able to put the car exactly in the right spot. That may have triggered some people’s memories and had them come forward.”
Retired former Queensland homicide chief Bob Dallow, who now runs a second-hand bookshop in Ashgrove, was also seconded to the Phillips investigation. He agrees with Orman. “I got along well with Bob (Phillips) but the whole problem from an investigators point of view was that Bob needed to have his finger on the pulse of everything. He took the car home and then police didn’t know where the car actually was when it broke down. The whole thing started off badly.”
There would be further consternation for the police. On that Friday, family members came and went from Sharron’s Archerfield flat despite it being a potential crime scene. Indeed, there were people in and out of the flat before Sharron was formally reported missing to police.
The press reported at the time that younger sister Lisa Phillips had found a phone number for Martin Balaz at Sharron’s flat on that Friday, which allowed Bob Phillips to telephone him and question him about Sharron’s last movements.
Donna Anderson revealed to Qweekend: “Sharron used to smoke a little pot. My brother Darren must have had a key. Jim (Donna’s husband) and Darren went over there. It wasn’t any big deal. They didn’t want Mum and Dad to get upset about that.”
However, Darren Phillips has a different recollection of the incident. “I can’t even remember,” he says. “I didn’t smoke anything back then. I don’t smoke now. It was never my scene. I never smoked pot with Sharron or anything like that. I can’t even remember going into the house. I went in with my brother Charlie (the nickname of Robert Phillips). Me and Robert went in for a look and that was it. I can’t honestly remember, I can’t honestly give you a day, sorry.
“I went in for a look with my brother. I don’t know why we were there to be honest, we just went there because I think we were told to meet somebody there or something, and the landlord or something was going to let us in or something. That was it.”
Bob Dallow says he clearly remembers an oddity about the case in its early stages. “They (Sharron and Dalzell) go over to her place (for coffee) and Sharron drops the parcel of clothes (lingerie) at the flat. The parcel’s not touched,” he says. “But when you see the police photos from inside the flat (a few days later), the items are spread out on the bed. I remember we got a call from one of the sisters later saying she took the nighties out of the packet and spread them out.
“Bob was a bit of a prude. I still believe Bobby went to the flat a few times. I think she might have had some drug gear and stuff and he’s taken it all out.”
A newspaper story by veteran Courier-Mail journalist Ken Blanch, published on May 23, 1986, says: “When her father went to the flat next day (the Friday), the lights were still on and the two coffee cups were on the table. Underclothing she had bought at Sunnybank was still in the flat.”
Bob Phillips denies daughter Lisa went to the flat, as reported in the press, and retrieved Martin Balaz’s phone number from Sharron’s address book.
“I got the number, the book was in her car,” says Bob Phillips. “It was in the car with her purse.” He says there was a “sequined purse” in the vehicle and a jacket neatly folded on the rear seat. Her black wallet and shoulder bag were missing. “I had (son) Shannon (Phillips) with me (aka Grub). It might have been Charlie (Robert). We had to break into it. And we had to break the steering lock. Four of us went down.
“They (the police) should have been to the car and fingerprinted the car before it was even moved. Everything was done wrong.”
On the Saturday the police investigation began in earnest. Sharron’s parents were interviewed at the Riverview home. Bob says: “They never actually interviewed me at all, they interviewed Dawn. They had a yarn to us on Saturday morning, but it’s only natural they looked at the parents. I was pretty well known here and in Inala so I had nothing to hide. Not a bloody thing.”
The Phillips’, in the meantime, contacted Balaz for information. Balaz was interviewed by police.
“They were good investigators,” says Bob Dallow. “They would have turned the boyfriend over if he’d done anything.” Balazs was quickly eliminated as a suspect. (Balazs, who still resides in Brisbane, refused to be interviewed for this story. His wife Linda said “the man had nothing to do with her disappearance”. She added: “I think sometimes it’s very good to have these stories to help prompt people’s memories or perhaps get some closure but I can speak very strongly on my husband’s behalf on this that he doesn’t want to be involved or interviewed or have a statement or anything.”)
Brisbane endured heavy rainfall on the following Sunday and Monday. On the Tuesday police returned Sharron’s vehicle to the side of Ipswich Road. The Phillips’ disputed the exact location of the car. Police believe it was a further 150 metres closer to Wacol train station than the Phillips’ claimed.
On the Wednesday police found Sharron’s shoes and wallet just “metres” from where the car supposedly ran out of petrol. “I remember the afternoon they were found,” says Ken Foreman. “We were at the scene talking about the differences in location of where the car was and found them in a drain that runs under the road. It would have been handy to know exactly were the car had broken down. Things weren’t unfolding the way they should.”
Over the proceeding weeks the Phillips’ were critical of the police investigation. Within months they were petitioning the government to change the law in relation to police handling of missing persons cases.
Geoff Orman says there was a lot of pressure on investigating police. “At the start of our investigation we were told not to go near Mr Phillips.” Because he was perceived as a “troublemaker” and was partial to going to the press? “That’s right.”
Months turned into years without a single clue to Sharron’s whereabouts. Then in January 1988, at her inquest, a man called Robert John Brown, 33, of Harvey Bay, told the Brisbane Coroners Court an extraordinary story.
Brown said on Thursday, May 8, he had seen Sharron Phillips after 6pm outside a house at Riverview, shouting to someone she was going to “The Plaza” to do some shopping. Then, at 11.30pm, and by incredible coincidence, he was at a shop at Wacol when he overheard a youth mention the name “Sharron”. Brown then drove off and came across Sharron on the side of Ipswich Road. She was in distress. He then witnessed her bundled into a car by several men and taken away. The evidence of Brown, a known alcoholic, never took the investigation further.
Bob Phillips now says Brown was well known to the Phillips family as he had lived in the next street from them when they resided in Inala. He says Brown had known Sharron “since she was a girl” and that everyone in the area knew of their relationship, as did the police. He called Brown “a pervert”.
Geoff Orman says police never knew of the relationship between Brown and the Phillips’. “That was never made known to us,” he says. “In relation to Brown, he was intensely interviewed, by myself, Ralph Knust, and a number of other police. He was put through hyopnosis by a forensic psychologist. The result of that was whatever he had seen was fairly traumatic. We could never find out exactly what it was he saw, other than what he said about the vehicle.
“As far as Bob Phillips’ comments go about knowing Brown, that’s the first time I’ve heard it. When the coronial inquest was on, the family itself was very quiet when it came to the examination of witnesses.”
As the years passed the theories about what happened to Sharron Phillips proliferated. Psychics offered explanations. The police continued to puzzle over this strange case. Curiously, two police officers were even accused of being involved in Sharron’s murder, but the theory was dismissed as fantasy.
Bob Dallow still thinks Phillips somehow made it back to her flat that night before vanishing. “I believe she made a third phone call from the phone booth that night,” he says. “It was her trick to call the operator and pretend she had no change and get connected. I think she got back to her flat somehow before she disappeared.”
Geoff Orman says there was a lot going on within the Phillips’ family at the time of Sharron’s disappearance – the usual teenage difficulties. “It was common knowledge Bob (Phillips) had had disagreements with Sharron about her promiscuity,” says Orman.
Bob Phillips says: “The concern I had for her wasn’t that. Coming home from Brisbane late of a night and not locking the car. People would grab you at the lights. But promiscuity with other people, no.”
There has been little movement with the case in many years. As recent as two months ago, Bob Phillips says he received a letter from a woman saying Sharron’s body was buried underneath another body in a cemetery near Gatton.
Her brother Robert (Charlie) Phillips says: “Things have a way of coming around. People have got big mouths. One day someone will say the wrong thing to the wrong person. I do believe there will be justice one day.”
Sister Donna says she doesn’t want to die without “someone being charged” with the crime. “Why did she not ring home that night?” she says. “I always thought the reason was my father would have roused on her (for running out of petrol). I still don’t understand why she didn’t ring me or my husband, you know? I was always the one she came to if something was wrong. That always did concern me.”
She adds that Sharron was not to blame for the disintegration of the Phillips family. “Sharron’s got nothing to do with the family falling apart, if that’s what my father’s trying to say. Anything to do with our family goes back way before anything happened with Sharron, but you don’t need to know any of that.”
Darren also wonders about those final moments before Sharron disappeared: “Sharron, as I said, she was a little bit strong-headed and she wanted independence and she probably thought - I’ll just ring my boyfriend, you know? Going on 9.30 or 10 at night, she probably thought the old man’s in bed so I’ll ring the boyfriend.”
He still thinks of that day in May two decades ago: “It hurt me when it happened. I found it very hard to deal with in a little of ways, then the slow deterioration of family on top of it. I found my own strength and moved on. You can’t look backwards. One thing I always used to say to people, and it might be a bit cold, but it might’ve been easier to cope with if she’d been killed in a car accident, you know? “
Bob Phillips is convinced Sharron’s killers are young – in their 40s – and still out there. “These bastards whoever done it out there have got a happy, normal life going for them,” he says. “We’ve got nothing. That’s what gets to Dawn.”
He readily admits his memory is “gone” these days. Twenty years have a tendency to jilt recollections, to scramble time. He says it hurt him to think that some of his estranged children might think he was responsible for Sharron’s disappearance – as patriarch, as protector. “I couldn’t be responsible, mate, I had the wife with me, I wasn’t here.”
Only six years ago he disposed of Sharron’s rusted out Nissan Bluebird. “Dawn didn’t feel very keen with someone driving sharron’s cut so we cut it up and disposed of it. It’s buried. That’s what her brother wanted to do. We’ll cut it up and bury the bastard, so we done that….”
Both Bob Dallow and Geoff Orman say they would gladly come out of retirement just to try and solve the Phillips case – one that has nagged at them for years.
Meanwhile, the two famous blue signs that mark Sharron Phillips’ supposed place of disappearance stand on either side of Ipswich Road. In the early hours of this Tuesday morning Bob says he and Dawn will go down and strap plastic roses to the signs. Then they will get on with another year without their daughter.
It is the signs, though, that say so much about the Phillips case. Misaligned from the beginning. Out of kilter. Odd. Inexplicable. Those signs have been there for 17 years.
And on both, the victim’s christian name is misspelt.