Barry Collins went missing in the middle of the night more than 30 years ago. Now a Coroner has found an innocent $21 mistake was likely why.
Barry Collins went missing in the middle of the night more than 30 years ago. Now a Coroner has found an innocent $21 mistake was likely why.

How a $21 mistake led to man vanishing

A mystery disappearance 32 years ago seemingly sparked over an innocent mistake worth $21 has finally been resolved.

Barry Collins - a respected Warrnambool City Council deputy city engineer - went for a walk in the middle of the night on December 8, 1988.

The 49-year-old was never seen again.

Just 24 hours earlier Mr Collins learned a local newspaper was inquiring about claims he fraudulently had the council pay for a $21 sign at a medical clinic he built with his wife.

A local government inquiry later cleared the father-of-three of any wrongdoing - finding the payment was charged to the council in a paperwork mix-up and he'd been "wholly unaware" of the events.

Mr Collins' disappearance made headlines nationwide, featuring in New Idea and Australasian Post magazines as well as Australia's Most Wanted and A Current Affair on television.

A couple even thought they saw him on Magnetic Island in Far North Queensland but the sighting was disproved.

A missing person poster from 1988 for Barry Collins Picture: Supplied
A missing person poster from 1988 for Barry Collins Picture: Supplied

 

Mr Collins’ son told police he thought his dad walked into the sea.
Mr Collins’ son told police he thought his dad walked into the sea.

Coroner Paresa Spanos this month found Mr Collins on the weight of available evidence probably took his own life.

The potential reputational damage he would likely suffer if the newspaper published a story about his having allegedly defrauded Warrnambool Council of $21 was a key factor.

"While this could be seen by some, even many people, as a relatively trivial matter, Mr Collins was by dint of personality just the sort of person who would be and was deeply troubled by the potential for such a blight on his reputation,'' Mr Spanos noted.

"The investigation of Mr Collins' disappearance has failed to uncover any other possible motive or stressor that might have led him to end his own life."

There was no evidence the newspaper's editor was doing anything other than pursuing a story about alleged corrupt practice in good faith, the Coroner noted.

Mr Collins' family have long believed he is dead, his son telling police he thought his father had walked into the sea.

Mr Collins told wife Jeanette he couldn't sleep, giving her a kiss as he bade her goodbye.

No evidence of Mr Collins was ever found on land.

But it took police 32 years to refer the case to the coroner as a missing person who'd likely died.

The case has played out at Warrnambool on Victoria’s southwest coast for more than 30 years. Picture: Hamish Blair
The case has played out at Warrnambool on Victoria’s southwest coast for more than 30 years. Picture: Hamish Blair

Daughter Susan Gall in an earlier hearing told the Coroners Court of her relief that the matter had finally been brought to a conclusion, saying her father's absence had a profound effect on the whole family - particularly her mother.

Ms Gall expressed regret her father had missed out on so much over the years and disappeared due to a seemingly minor matter.

Mr Spanos recommended Victoria Police consider a system to regularly audit and oversee investigation of long-term missing persons cases to ensure they're swiftly and thoroughly progressed and referred to the Coroners Court as suspected deaths as soon as appropriate.

This was despite improvements within the force which likely meant the delay the Collins family endured was unlikely to be repeated.

"It is self-evident that the families and connections of long-term missing persons deserve as timely and thorough an investigation and resolution as possible,'' Mr Spanos noted.

For help with personal problems phone Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.

wes.hosking@news.com.au

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Originally published as How a $21 mistake led to man vanishing



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