true crime

A mother pleads, ‘Don’t free my daughter’s killer.’

Warning: This post contains details of sexual assault and violence, which may be triggering from some users. For 24-hour crisis support, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Lauren Hickson was a pretty quiet kid. Thoughtful and kind, quite tall for her age. But the four-year-old’s love of animals is what colours the snapshots in her mother’s mind: Lauren stroking her sulphur-crested cockatoo; Lauren following pets around the Emu Plains caravan park they called home; Lauren watching birds in the branches, as she played in the dirt below.

The preschooler doted on all creatures, without fear of being bitten or scratched or swooped. She simply trusted them to be as gentle with her as she was with them.

That’s the Lauren her mother Jurina Hickson remembers, and it’s the only Lauren she knows.

The girl with the dark blonde fringe and gaping smile remains frozen in time, a portrait on her parents’ wall, a name Australians read about in their weekend papers or heard on the nightly news nearly 29 years ago. The girl assaulted, tortured and killed in one of the most notorious murder cases in New South Wales history.

Lauren’s killer, Neville Raymond Towner, 51, will face a parole hearing on Tuesday, having served beyond the minimum 20-year sentence ultimately handed to him by a NSW court. It’s the third scheduled date for the hearing, which, agonisingly, has been adjourned twice since June last year.

Jurina will be there, clutching a picture of her little girl, as her family’s lawyer delivers their submission to the State Parole Authority. She can barely stand the thought of seeing Towner’s face on courtroom video link, let alone on the streets of Sydney.

“He shouldn’t get a second chance, because he didn’t give Lauren a second chance,” she told Mamamia.

“It’s bad enough that there’s so many innocent people that are stricken with terminal illness and here’s a predator that gets three meals a day, a bed to sleep on, clothing, and handouts. And what do we get? We just have to live with this. Are we just meant to sit back and take that?”

Lauren Hickson, near her Emu Plains home. Image: Channel 9.
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Towner had known the Hickson family for years before that day. His mother had previously babysat Lauren, and Lauren’s father, Derek, had even helped secure him a temporary job.

So when the then-23-year-old approached the little girl playing near her home at roughly 2pm on May 17, 1989, she spoke to him openly, even hugged him, according to a witness.

Lauren’s body was found two days later, in a creek a few hundred metres from her Western Sydney home. It was a female army officer, one of more than 100 people involved in the search for the missing girl, who made the horrifying discovery. Lauren was face-down in a metre of water, with only a white singlet around her neck.

After forensic analysis, investigators concluded she had been sexually assaulted, held underwater, and struck on the head with a large rock. Her pink windcheater, jeans and gumboots were found nearby.

The memory of that day will never leave Jurina.

"I just screamed. They had to sedate me. They carried me out on a stretcher and they took me to the hospital,” she said. “After, I didn't want to go to sleep at night. I needed to have people around me all the time.”

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When speaking about Towner, Jurina refuses to call him a man, or even a person. To her, he’s “that grub”, “a predator”, or just “him”, her daughter’s killer, the reason that, on October 11 last year - Lauren’s 33rd birthday - she placed flowers on her daughter’s grave rather than into her outstretched hands.

“People think it will get easier for families like ours, but it doesn’t,” she said. “It's an ongoing thing. As a parent, I can't help but wonder what she'd be like now. But all I have is pictures of her from back then. And I have kept some of her toys and hair brushes and hair clips, some ribbons. And I still have some of her clothes. I just can't get rid of them. I know it's been a long time now, but I just can’t."

She and her family have been fighting to keep Towner behind bars since he became eligible for parole in May 2009. His original life sentence would have denied him the chance, but that was redetermined in 2002 to a 20-year minimum. In delivering the decision, Justice Greg James said, "Although this crime was horrible, its seriousness, having regard to the views of the trial judges, was not such as to require [Towner] never be released.”

Yet plenty in the community don't agree. A Change.org petition addressed to NSW Attorney General Mark Speakman and titled, “Urgent - No parole for four-year-old Lauren Hickson’s rapist and murderer” has amassed more than 111,000 signatures in the eight months since it was filed by children’s advocacy group, Walking Warriors.

Lending his support to the petition is Steve Ticehurst, the now-retired Homicide Squad detective who led Lauren’s case: “It is my opinion and my opinion only that if a person takes a life, then they do not deserve to be released. Lauren has been robbed of having a life, a family, children. Why should anyone who takes that away from someone be given their freedom. But I just don’t see the system changing... how many more lives will it take?”

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The public support has touched Jurina, as it did when Lauren was killed. Her daughter's funeral was bursting with family, friends, and sympathetic strangers who lined the walls and spilled outside.

"All the seats were taken,” Jurina recalled. “I was up the front. And there was Lauren's coffin. A white one with silver. And on the bottom there was writing; it said, 'We will meet again'. And there were flowers. So many flowers."

Neville Towner. Image: Channel 7.

Yet in spite of all the kindness and support, nearly three decades later, Jurina lives with crippling trust issues. She’s scared to speak to neighbours or interact with strangers, and is still struck by memories of being told her little girl was dead, of seeing her beaten-in face at the funeral parlour, of learning in clinical detail what Towner had done to her, of seeing him smirking and sniggering in court.

"I'm tired. I’m just so tired. It takes its toll on you,” she said. “There was a time there where I wanted to end my life. But I knew Lauren would never want me to do that.

“See, judges don't see this, barristers don't see this, but this is what can happen. It totally uproots families. It's like a cyclone tears through and disrupts everything and turns your whole world upside-down."

It’s these real-world consequences she wants to impress upon the State Parole Authority deciding whether to release Towner on Tuesday. But more than that, it’s the thought of what he might do with his decades of freedom.

“Please be careful of the decision you make,” she urged them, “because it could cost someone their life.”

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