The girl who fooled the world: Where is Natasha Ryan now?

Some Australians might not realise that, in between iconic sandwich spreads and architectural masterpieces, our great land is also home to one of the most twisted missing person cases of all time.

It was the last day of winter in 1998 when the Rockhampton community was stunned to learn one of their own had vanished in daylight; Natasha Ryan was dropped off at school that morning, yet never had her name marked on the classroom roll, prompting an exhaustive and unsuccessful police and SES search.

The teenager locals fondly referred to as “Grasshopper”, the 14-year-old who gave up her Christmas Day to visit the sick and elderly, was gone.

Months later, the girl’s mother Jenny Ryan told the media: “I don’t believe Natasha would have let me go through all the pain if she was out there.”

Natasha had a tendency to run away from home, her parents told police, but this time felt different. Natasha’s 21-year-old boyfriend told authorities he had no idea where his girlfriend was, either. As time passed the backdrop of Natasha’s disappearance – three other local women in Beverley Leggo, 36, and Sylvia Benedetti, 19, and Julie Turner, 39, had recently gone missing from Rockhampton too – painted a macabre picture.

All signs pointed to Natasha Ryan being murdered by a monster on that chilly school morning.

Natasha Ryan as a young girl. Image Supplied.

Authorities had no leads on where Natasha's body was, but they did have a confession from Leonard "The Rockhampton Rapist" Fraser - a man who had spent 20 of the preceding 22 years in prison for sexually assaulting women.

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In a deal with police to exempt him from mingling with the general prison population, Fraser admitted to the murders of five women, mostly between 1998 and 1999 - including Natasha Ryan.

Fraser told them, yes, I took Natasha's life.

And so, one day in May 2001, 70 of the teen's loved ones released balloons into the clear sky, mourning the girl who never got to grow up and police couldn't find. As people wept, a video of Natasha as the bridesmaid at her father's wedding to her stepmother Debbie played. It was Natasha's 17th birthday, almost three years had passed since that school morning, and her family was still stunned with grief.

As the months dragged by, the community retreated to the humdrum of suburban life, battered and bruised with the knowledge that so many women had fallen victim to a man who kept ponytails as "trophies".

The man who confessed to her murder. Image Supplied.

It was the 11th of April, 2003, when things took a baffling turn.

Fraser was in court at the time, being tried for six murders, when police prosecutor Paul Rutledge stood to announce that Fraser was not guilty of the murder of Natasha Ryan. Natasha, in fact, was alive; detectives had found her the night before, healthy and well, hiding in a cupboard at her boyfriend Scott Black's house. You know, the same boyfriend who insisted to police, on numerous occasions, that he had not seen or heard from Natasha, but had been hiding her away all along.

Natasha's father Robert reportedly almost collapsed when he heard his daughter was alive. Remarkably, police found the teenager had been living quietly with her milkman boyfriend, between a house in Yeppoon and one in Rockhampton, for the last five years.

When visitors were over, Natasha told investigators she would hide in cupboards. At all times the couple kept their curtains drawn. If she would leave the house, it would only be in the dark of night.

All that time she was living four kilometres away from her grief-stricken mother.

For causing a false investigation Natasha was fined $1000, while Scott Black was convicted of perjury after telling investigating police officers that he didn't know the whereabouts of his girlfriend, and handed a three-year jail sentence, of which he served 12 months. He was also forced to pay $16,000 towards the cost of the investigation.

For the exclusive rights to their story, Natasha and Scott signed a $120,000 contract with media company PBL.

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"He was protecting me and I caused him to do it - it was my fault he did that," Natasha told New Idea in 2007.

"It was my decision to run away. He was doing something really lovely and protecting me and I felt like I should have been, or deserved to be, punished."

As for the reasons behind her letting her family believe she was dead for five years, the Queenslander explained: "I'm never going to say publicly why I left.

"I know why I left. I'm not sure my mum and my sister completely know all the reasons.

"I'm not sure it would make any difference saying why I left - I feel whatever I say wouldn't be good enough for the pain I've caused my family."

In 2008, when Natasha was 24 and Scott 31, the couple married in Byfield's Ferns Hideaway in front of 35 guests. They reportedly sold their exclusive wedding photos to Woman's Day with a $200,000 price-tag.

"We were sitting at home ... and suddenly he pulled out the ring," Natasha told the magazine at the time. "It caught me off guard and the emotions were overwhelming."

The gold bands they slid onto each other's fingers were engraved with the words "Happy Days Always". Of the ceremony, mother Jenny Ryan told the publication, "The wedding gives Natasha the opportunity to start afresh."

We haven't heard much from the couple in recent years; since their wedding there have been no paid tabloid articles, no sensationalised television interviews. The only traces of them date back to 2011, when the duo made an appearance in Rockhampton Magistrates Court.

The couple were heard arguing at their home about moving their vehicle into the garage and, upon the police being called, Scott Black refused to give a breath test. Black's defence lawyer argued that he had been drinking heavily and his judgement had been affected, telling the court his client was frustrated because he had only recently lost his job as a delivery driver and had his licence rescinded.

Today, it's reported that the couple have three children together.

With no traceable social media profiles, no newspaper clippings or magazine deals, 20 years on it seems Natasha Ryan and Scott Black have retreated from the limelight, creating new lives without the "girl in the cupboard" label they profited off for so long.

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