Sandra Cawthorne was murdered on the night of 12th April 2004, Easter Monday. Twelve years later her murder remains a mystery to police. Cawthorne’s case has been included in Kylie Fox and Ruth Wykes’ true crime book, ‘Invisible Women‘.
Sandy Cawthorne ran as though her life depended on it. She was frightened, desperate on this desolate night to find a hiding place. Her back burned from the bullet that had torn into her torso, her lungs felt the burn of exertion.
Her feet pounded the asphalt as she willed her eyes to find a break in the chain-link fence. Or a car to hide behind. But there was nothing, not even a tree on this empty, dead-end street.
Her unborn baby, almost ready to greet the world, filled all the middle spaces in the terrified woman’s body, pushing up into her diaphragm, putting more strain on her already ragged breaths. It was dark and deserted but for the running woman and the man who followed, the man who had her in the sights of his gun, and who even in the dark with a moving target, had a lethal aim.
She felt herself grow weak, stumble; more burning, more holes in her. She knew it was almost over. She could feel her body begin to ignore her pleas to survive, could sense that her life was beginning to leave her. In the distance she could hear the steady rumble of traffic moving along the highway, but in this street where someone might save her, the only sounds were the gunshots that split the silence. And the deafening sound of her heartbeat, faster and faster, fighting to live.
She was losing blood, growing weak, struggling to breathe, to focus, to move. Finally Sandy Cawthorne stumbled, then slumped in the middle of the road. It was over. She was dying.
It ended just 150 metres from where it began. Sandy and her unborn child died in the middle of the road. The only witness was the man who had come to kill them.
Local residents heard gunshots, five, six or seven fired close together. However, nobody thought to call the police. At least one person saw a truck, in fact got a good enough look at it to be able to accurately describe it to detectives. But nobody went to see what happened, and nobody picked up the phone to report it.
It was later that night, on Easter Monday, 12 April 2004, that someone driving down Murtha Street, Arndell Park caught the unforgettable sight in their headlights: a lifeless body in the middle of an empty road.
Arndell Park is a predominantly industrial suburb, near Blacktown, that lies 35 kilometres from Sydney’s CBD. The Great Western Highway runs through it; trucks rumble along day and night as they carry cargo in and out of the city. It’s a road with a reputation – throughout the city it is known as an area where a small group of street-based sex workers ply their trade.
It’s no Kings Cross; there’s no glitz, no nightclubs or strip joints. The women who work out there have a reputation for being a little older, harder, more cynical. It’s handy to the truck drivers who want a quick, anonymous liaison in a place where the streets are tucked in behind the highway, crammed with factories and warehouses. It’s perfect for a discreet tryst because at night the area is desolate. Murtha Street is typical of that – a dead-end street that is crammed with oversized sheds all protected by tall chain-link fences. Few people would ever have a reason to venture down there at night.
On Easter Monday 2004, at the end of a long weekend, 29-year-old Sandy Cawthorne decided she needed to go out to work. Sandy was the mother of two small sons. She was also a heavy heroin user, and it was her addiction to the narcotic that compelled her to go out and earn some money that night.
She was trying, she had told her mother. She really wanted to straighten out, to give up the drugs. Sandy understood better than anyone the impact her drug use was having on her family and on her unborn baby. She wanted more for her kids, and for herself. But she wasn’t quite there yet.
It’s almost too easy for society to pass judgement on Sandy Cawthorne and find her unworthy of compassion … easy, but callous. The people who knew Sandy didn’t see the same woman the media portrayed with their scant reports that invited judgement: heroin addict, sex worker, pregnant. She was much more: a loving mother to two young boys, a beautiful daughter, a loyal friend.
At some point when she was barely an adult, Sandy Cawthorne discovered heroin. She didn’t plan to become an addict, never imagined she would spend endless nights standing on a street just to earn money. But heroin is a demanding master whose rewards are yearned for: the initial euphoria, the way it warms a body, slows it down, calms the mind, takes away pain. Not just the physical pain, but the hurt – big and small – of emotional damage, of broken hearts. In return it expects commitment.
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Ignore the cravings, the insistent need for more, and punishment is swift – and brutal. Withdrawal is painful, hard to bear: aches, pain, runny nose, nausea, diarrhoea, weeping eyes, anxiety, depression, restlessness and stomach pain all feel relentless. All the while knowing that one fix will take it all away.
Almost worse is the psychological pain. Everything that was being numbed, drugged or forgotten suddenly comes into focus. Feelings that are strange and uncomfortable can be overwhelming. People can say ‘stop using’ as glibly as they want but the reality of withdrawing from heroin is complex and incredibly difficult to do.
Maintaining a heroin addiction is expensive, and Sandy needed more money than she was able to earn in a conventional job. She knew the risks that came with street work, but where else could an unskilled worker earn between $600 and $1000 in a single day?
Nobody knows the reason Sandy Cawthorne found herself in Murtha Street that night. It is likely that her killer, masquerading as a client, picked her up on the highway and drove around to the more private street a few hundred metres away. Police attended the scene soon after they received the call.
Even though they had to wait for formal identification, attending officers were confident they knew who the victim was. Sandy Cawthorne was known to them.
Investigations produced a few tantalising clues. Residents told police about the shots they had heard and the truck they had seen in the vicinity of Murtha Street, both before and after the shootings and a few days later the police found the vehicle abandoned at a property in Riverstone. Any hope that this might lead to the killer was extinguished when police learned the truck had been reported stolen days before Sandy Cawthorne’s murder.
Police divers also searched a nearby creek in the days after her death, but found nothing. When they interviewed Sandy’s workmates they gleaned information that might suggest a strong motive if it was true. One of her acquaintances told police that word on the street was that Sandy had stolen a client’s wallet that contained $4000; people were saying this was payback. This rumour has never been verified.
Six and a half years after the murder, police released an image of a man they wanted to interview in relation to the murder. The image shows a man in his 40s or early 50s with a tanned complexion and a goatee, yet in spite of it being widely circulated through the media it yielded no meaningful leads for investigators.
In 2014, a decade on from the murder, Sandy’s mother, Patricia Roberts, made a heartfelt plea for information. Sandy’s sons were now 11 and 14 years old and the family were desperate for justice.
To them she was much more than the media-portrayed drug addicted sex worker. She was their mother, her daughter – and the absence of her in their lives was still painful.
Detective Inspector Con Galea had been in charge of the investigation. He told the media, ‘From our exploration of her background, even though the line of work isn’t what everybody would do, she was well-considered by other girls who worked in the area. We’ve never come across anyone who bad-mouthed her, spoken down about her. That’s one of the perplexing things about trying to establish a motive. There is nothing clean-cut about why someone would want to kill her.’
He continued, ‘We have exhausted all of our inquiries on this case, yet we are certain there are people out there in the community who know the truth.’
Was Sandy Cawthorne pursued down a dark, lonely street by a man who was enraged that she had stolen cash from him? Did someone really hunt down a terrified woman and repeatedly shoot her as she tried to flee for her life? Was more than one person involved? It’s an awful image, and it’s a terrible way to end a life.
Sandra Cawthorne’s murder remains unsolved. Her family have been left behind to grieve, always hoping someone will come forward and tell police what they know; always hoping for answers that might help them understand something that seems utterly senseless.
Kylie Fox is a writer, editor, transcriptionist and mother-of-five. Her short crime fiction stories have won awards, including the Dorothy Porter Award, part of Sisters in Crime’s annual Scarlett Stiletto Awards, and are published in anthologies. Kylie is currently undertaking a degree in criminal justice and looks forward to studying further in the field of criminal psychology. Invisible Women is Kylie’s first true crime book.
Ruth Wykes has worked in a range of jobs that have brought her in contact with people in vulnerable social circumstances, including prisons, and maintains an active interest in justice and human rights. Ruth’s previous book, Women Who Kill, was published by The Five Mile Press in 2011.
*Feature image: Sandra Cawthorne pictured with one of her two sons. Image: Facebook/NSW Police Force.