Missing woman left in wrong grave for decades
'Inexcusable' failures by the NSW Police to properly investigate a missing woman left her grieving family unable to mourn as she lay in a destitute grave under a wrong name for decades, the NSW Coroner has heard.
Deputy State Coroner Derek Lee is conducting an investigation into four cases handled by the now-defunct police Missing Persons Unit.
The unrelated disappearances of Gary Jones, Lionel Daveson, Christhof Meier and Ursula Barwick took years to resolve because - in at least one instance - there was basically no investigation, the coroner's court heard.
Magistrate Lee, on Monday, drilled down into the case of Ursula Barwick who vanished without a trace after walking out of her father's Central Coast home to find work in Sydney in September 1987.
Ursula's father reported her missing in the weeks that followed - as did her mother some months later - but NSW Police never took formal statements from the family or undertook any investigation at all, the court heard.
"There was no indication we'd never see her again after that," her stepmother Elizabeth Barwick told the coroner on Monday.
She said police were "flippant", feeling the 17-year-old was a "runaway".
The original missing persons reports are now lost and her parents have both died.
The court heard a woman known as Jessica Pearce, in October 1987, was killed when the car she was riding in slammed headlong into a truck on the way to Melbourne.
Police never found her family and she was given a destitute burial with questions over her true identity.
Three decades later, in 2018, Magistrate Lee concluded Ursula and Jessica were the same person.
That was only possible because the officer now in charge of Ursula's investigation, Sergeant Amy Scott, worked back through numerous errors to uncover the truth.
"I don't believe reasonable steps were taken," Sgt Scott said.
"I didn't have one statement handed over to me."
In 1994, as the NSW Police began digitising their paper files, Ursula was incorrectly labelled as "found".
That meant her file was effectively closed for five years, until 1999, when an officer realised multiple missing people were incorrectly categorised.
In 2002 the Missing Persons Unit asked Centrelink, banks and government bodies to check for "signs of life" on Ursula's various accounts.
It had been almost 15 years since she vanished and her body had been buried in Emu Plains.
"She deserved better than that," Mrs Barwick said, breaking down in tears.
"Everything was there in front of them and I don't feel like they found her. I felt she was discarded. It was absolutely devastating to know that."
The investigation to uncover the identity of Jessica Pearce was also lacking, Sgt Scott told the court.
Sgt Scott tried to check the jewellery from the crash site for blood but all the exhibits had been "disposed of", she said.
Part of the reason Ursula's body was not identified correctly was that a sex worker from Kings Cross identified the remains as Jessica Pearce, a divorced mother from New Zealand.
That evidence, Sgt Scott said, was either fictitious or false.
"Police may have been overworked and looking for end to an investigation and found a local prostitute to do an identification for them," Sgt Scott told the court.
"Or it was a local prostitute who believed it was her friend - and it wasn't her friend."
She said it was "inexcusable" that no statements were taken from people connected to the crash that claimed Ursula's life.
The Missing Persons Unit was disbanded and replaced with the Missing Persons Register last year.
Chief Inspector Glen Browne, speaking to The Daily Telegraph last August, pledged to atone for the past and ensure "nothing slips the cracks again".
The inquest continues this week.
Originally published as Missing woman left in wrong grave for decades