opinion

Maria Lutz went to bed with her children and never woke up. And we looked the wrong way.

When police arrived at 68 Sir Thomas Mitchell Drive on a dreary Monday morning in October, 2016, they couldn’t have known what was waiting for them inside.

The tree-lined street overlooked a park, and the single storey brick home appeared cosy and unassuming, like any other on the corner block.

They were there because the two children, Martin and Elisa, had not arrived at school that day. In addition, their mother, Maria Lutz, never showed to the school canteen, where she was meant to be volunteering. When Nichole Brimble, a friend from the primary school, called her, Maria didn’t pick up.

So, the friend called triple zero. And the police were sent on a welfare check.

Listen to Mamamia’s daily news podcast The Quicky on the story behind the Lutz family tragedy. Post continues after audio.

 

The house was all locked up, and the cars were parked out the front. It wasn’t until the police opened the back gate and peered inside a window, that they realised this was not going to be the routine check they’d anticipated.

Lying on the floor face down, beneath a gently spinning ceiling fan, was Fernando Manrique.

When the police entered, they didn’t know that the cause of death was still lingering in the air, odourless and colourless.

Carbon monoxide.

Initial reports stated the facts.

Fernando Manrique and Maria Lutz had moved to Australia from Colombia. Fernando had studied engineering, Lutz law. Five years after arriving in Australia, where they were granted working visas then citizenship, Lutz fell pregnant with their first child, Elisa. Just over a year later, their second child, Martin was born.

Maria Lutz, Fernando Manrique and family
Maria Lutz, Fernando Manrique and their two children, Elisa and Martin.

Both children had autism.

It didn't take long for a line to be drawn between two high needs children, and a family who were now dead.

At first, some wondered if Lutz herself had been complicit in the murder of Elisa and Martin. Had their needs become a burden, publications at the time asked. Did the parents desperately need an out? Had they been 'driven to the edge'?

A conversation ensued about support for parents caring for children with disabilities. Was there enough respite? Was this family in particular, migrants from Colombia, too isolated? Where was the community support?

"Some believe the demands of raising two intellectually disabled children may have become too much for Ms Lutz — a dedicated volunteer and fundraiser — and her husband Fernando Manrique, whose children’s severe autism meant they were unable to speak," The Daily Telegraph printed.

A family friend told The Manly Daily, "[Lutz] used to tell me how hard it was on her and her husband having two kids who were deaf and dumb."

A representative from Autism Awareness Australia was quoted in The Sydney Morning Herald at the time as saying, "This horrible event, at least, highlights the significant difficulty many families who parent kids at the severe end of the spectrum go through."

The meaning we drew from this story, so quickly and without all the facts, was wrong.

The children, as far as media coverage went, were 'autistic' before they were children. They weren't even afforded unconditional victim status.

"Well, it would have been tough..." so many remarked at the time - as though Elisa and Martin had anything at all to do with what happened to them.

Maria Lutz with her two children. Image via Facebook.
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All this speculation, we now know, was entirely misdirected.

Lutz did have a community. She had what she called her 'Australian family', a number of other mums, many of whom were raising children in similar circumstances. She wasn't resentful. There was nothing in the world she cared about more than her two children, aged 10 and 11.

Her marriage, however, was fracturing. Lutz told friends that her marriage with Manrique was "done". A coronial inquest has now heard that the businessman was pursuing a relationship with a teenager in the Philippines who he had met while away for work.

Manrique was sending the young woman money. The inquest heard that while Manrique had tax instalments due, he was "sending gifts to the girlfriend in the amounts of thousands of dollars".

His credit card was maxed out, and the family trust account had $6 at the time of their murder.

By October that year, Lutz and Manrique were no longer sleeping in the same bed, and Lutz wanted a divorce.

This was never a story about two parents, overwhelmed by the needs of their two children living with disabilities. The very suggestion would have likely horrified Lutz.

What we know about Maria Lutz. Post continues below. 

As reports began surfacing at the time, emphasising the difficulties Elisa and Martin faced, friends of Lutz were quick to correct the record.

Peta Rostirola, a friend of Lutz's from the primary school, wrote to news organisations, asking them to stop focusing on the children's disabilities.

"She fought everyday to make their lives better," she told The Sydney Morning Herald in 2016.

When police arrived at 68 Sir Thomas Mitchell Drive in October 2016, they would find four dead bodies.

They were murdered not because of who they were, but because of who their father was.

And that's the only meaning we can possibly draw from it.

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