true crime

In 2015, 26 year old Stephanie Scott was days away from getting married. Then, she went missing.

The following is an excerpt from Monique Patterson’s book, United in Grief. It tells the horrific story of the disappearance of 26-year-old NSW school teacher, Stephanie Scott. Stephanie was about to marry the man of her dreams and celebrate with all her family and friends. When her fiancé asked her to head out of town for a party she told him she had a few more things to tick off her to-do list. One was to head into Leeton High School, where she was a teacher, to finalise plans for her replacement while she was on her honeymoon. No one thought twice when Stephanie told them of her plans. No one could predict what would happen that fateful day. No one ever thought that evil could break the heart of a town and a nation. 

Just as she was with her wedding planning, Stephanie was meticulous in the details she left for the teacher who would be relieving her while she was on her honeymoon. She didn’t want the students to miss out on anything or to fall behind in her absence and she wanted the transition for the relief teacher to be as smooth as possible.

Aaron and Stephanie were invited to a party in Canowindra on the Saturday of Easter weekend. Stephanie told her fiancé to go without her because she wanted to finalise her notes for the relief teacher. Aaron, knowing he would have weeks of uninterrupted time to spend with his bride to be when he returned on Sunday, didn’t argue. He knew Stephanie was fastidious when it came to her work, something he respected her for.

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Aaron enjoyed catching up with friends back home in Canowindra and spent the night at his parents’ home. He and Stephanie stayed in touch via text messages and said goodnight on the phone about 10.30pm on Saturday night. On Sunday morning, Aaron received a SMS (text) message from Stephanie letting him know she was heading in to school for a few hours to finish up.

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He got ready, said his goodbyes and ensured his mobile phone was charged so that he could call Stephanie on his way home to Leeton. They had spoken the night before about them heading out to dinner at The Village restaurant when he returned, and he had booked a table just in case.

Oddly, Aaron’s calls to Stephanie on the trip home went unanswered. He told himself she had probably been distracted by work and allowed her phone to go flat. He arrived home and was surprised to find neither Stephanie’s car nor his bride-to-be there. He once again tried to call her, to no avail.

Perhaps she was still at the school, he reasoned, or at a friend’s place. He got back in his car and drove around the town. Part of him felt foolish, wondering what that would achieve, but another part of him told him he had to do something. This wasn’t typical behaviour for his responsible and loving fiancée.

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Image: Facebook.

The search proved fruitless, prompting a confused, concerned and anxious Aaron to reluctantly return home. He cancelled the couple’s dinner reservation and picked up his phone. He began calling Stephanie’s friends, at first thinking he would later feel foolish for doing so when she bounded in the door. As the list of names in his phone began to dry up, however, his heart began to beat faster as fear of the unknown set in.

That night Aaron tossed and turned in bed. He craned his ears every few minutes wondering if the noise he heard was the sound of Stephanie’s car pulling in the drive. He stared at the screen of his mobile phone, willing it to ring. He scrolled through photos of the couple together, staring into his fiancée’s beautiful brown eyes as if begging her to answer his pleas to hear from her. But the phone didn’t ring that night, Stephanie’s car didn’t pull into the drive and sleep never came for Aaron.

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When the sun shone through the window the next morning and Stephanie’s side of the bed remained cold, Aaron knew he had to contact her family. The sound of panic in their voices was obvious. Their Stephanie would never intentionally worry anyone—let alone the love of her life and soon-to-be husband.

Aaron and Stephanie’s parents decided they had no choice but to contact the police. They knew something or someone was preventing Stephanie from calling home. Repeated calls to Stephanie’s mobile phone initially rung out, but later went straight to the message bank. Stephanie’s parents, who like their daughter were positive and always saw the best in others, tried to convince themselves that the beaming bride to be would burst in through the door of the home she shared with Aaron and explain her absence with a story they would all sit around and laugh about for years to come. But their longing glances at the door failed to bring her back. And as the minutes ticked by, the gravity of the situation began to sink in. Hope was replaced with desperation.

If you stand on the outskirts of a small town and whisper a secret to no one in particular, it won’t take long for news to spread through the streets and into homes. Leeton was one such town, and this was the case in the disappearance of Stephanie Scott.

Aaron contacted numerous friends in search of his fiancée and her family lodged a missing person’s report with police. Leeton residents, like others who live in small towns, have a tendency to linger when they get their morning newspaper or a carton of milk, or come across a friend while taking their dog for a walk. There are much less than six degrees of separation in Leeton — especially when it comes to a local school teacher who quickly integrated herself into the fabric of the town’s society.

Word-of-mouth ensured their news spread quickly throughout the town and a post on Facebook from Stephanie’s brother Stuart quickly gained traction further afield.

The post, which urged anyone who had seen Stephanie to contact him, was shared more than 1500 times on the first day alone.

Locals were also asked to keep an eye out for Stephanie’s car—a red Mazda 3 sedan with the registration BZ-19-CD.

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Aaron and Stephanie’s friends and family quickly sprang into action, offering to help with the search in any way. A close friend of the bride-to-be contacted the local newspaper, The Irrigator, asking for their help. She held back tears as she handed over a photo of her friend, telling the reporter that it just wasn’t like Stephanie to go somewhere and not tell anyone where she was going.

The Facebook post was quickly shared thousands of times. Some knew Stephanie, some knew her by reputation and others knew nothing about her, but her kind eyes and beautiful smile, along with the generous words so many shared about her, made her disappearance personal. Stephanie could have been anyone’s friend, anyone’s sister, anyone’s teacher. This immediately struck a chord. This was not your typical drug-addict/wanted person- goes-missing tale. This was the girl next door. Her disappearance was the stuff of nightmares. No one wanted to believe that something sinister could happen in Leeton.

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Image: change.org.

No one wanted to accept that it was no longer safe to leave their doors unlocked, for their children to walk home from a friend’s at night. There had to be an explanation. Leeton residents quickly came together to search for the loved school teacher. This was something police endorsed.

“The public are our eyes and ears and any information which could assist would be greatly appreciated,” Griffith Local Area Command crime manager Paul Smith said in a public statement. When 48 hours passed and there was no word from Stephanie, police decided to knock on doors in the town to seek answers.

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Stephanie’s sister Kim posted on her Facebook page that she was headed to Leeton from Perth in Western Australia to join the search. “Righto Stephanie, I’m about to board my flight. I’m expecting good news when I switch my phone on in Sydney. I love you xxx,” she wrote.

The family, desperate for answers, asked members of the public to search along roads in the area. Robert and Merrilyn, Stephanie’s parents, made a pact to stay strong for their daughter. They needed to keep their wits about them to ensure they left no stone unturned.

One theory they considered was that Stephanie may have rolled her car and found herself in one of the district’s irrigation channels or creeks. It wouldn’t be the first time something like this had happened.

In fact, in September 2007, Tanya Rider was found alive eight days after she crashed her car in Maple Valley, Washington in the U.S. She was dehydrated, but her brain function was normal. The Scott family found themselves hoping that this was the case, but then grimacing at the thought of their beautiful daughter stuck in the wreck of a car. The feeling of helplessness was all consuming.

In times of crisis like this the brain is at one moment your friend and the next your foe. A possible scenario pops in, but then the logical part of your mind dismisses it and the reel of nightmare possibilities returns.

In the times when they were able to seek clarity, the Scott family did everything they could to ensure Stephanie’s face and car were flashed on television screens and plastered on the front pages of newspapers across the country. Their stoic ability to get on with what needed to be done was evident early on—they became towers of strength for each other and their community. It’s hard to comprehend how they soldiered on with such composure, when behind closed doors they were surrounded by wedding decorations and plans now on hold.

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Robert, Kim and Merrilyn Scott. Image: Facebook.
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As the news of Stephanie’s disappearance spread, theories began to emerge. Sadly, as is always the case, there were some who speculated her fiancé might be involved. It’s human nature to have suspicions about those closest to a missing person. As the hours ticked by, Aaron’s fears for Stephanie grew.

He admitted he didn’t know what to think, that so many scenarios were flashing by, but none of them made sense. With dark rings under his eyes and dishevelled hair, Aaron looked directly into the lens of a television camera and begged his bride-to-be to ring him as soon as she found a phone. He didn’t waver when asked difficult questions by reporters.

Has she ever done anything like this before, Aaron? reporters demanded. “No,” he replied.

He never once got mad at journalists, even when they were asking personal details about his bride-to-be. He didn’t skip a beat when asked if she had accessed her bank account, telling reporters she hadn’t. It’s not as if Aaron didn’t care that people thought he may have been involved, more so he had bigger fish to fry. The only thing he cared about was finding Stephanie. He had nothing to hide and if answering these questions helped in any way to bring him closer to being reunited with her, he would do it.

In those first days after Stephanie disappeared Aaron had a lot of time to ponder how perfect their relationship was. The two had attended the same school at Canowindra and shared a love of sport. Their mutual attraction had blossomed into a relationship at Aaron’s 21st birthday party — five years prior to her disappearance.

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Aaron Leeson-Woolley. Image: Channel 7.
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Since that time the two had been inseparable. There was no me or you, there was only us. And neither wanted it any other way. Without her, Aaron felt incomplete. The ache in his heart and the frightening narratives that were on repeat in his head made Aaron long to go back in time. Why didn’t I stay in Leeton? What if I never see her again — how will I go on?

Aaron was comforted by the presence of Stephanie’s family and friends. He was amazed at their strength, but not surprised. He knew they were just as worried as he was, but he wondered if anyone could miss her as much as he did. The pain was debilitating, the sadness filling his every waking minute with a darkness that had an icy grip on his heart and refused to release it.

In spite of this there was a voice in his head that told him to stay strong. That kind, beautiful voice was Stephanie’s. And so he did all he could to soldier on, hoping for a miracle. People were struck by Aaron and his genuineness. He always made a point to thank everyone for their help.

The general consensus from members of the public was that Aaron was as much a victim in this tragedy as Stephanie was. However, most would admit to having a tiny sliver of doubt in their mind at some point on one of two points of contention—either Aaron was involved or Stephanie got cold feet.

Steve Mudd, a journalist at The Area News, said he was almost ashamed to say he didn’t think much of the bride-to-be’s disappearance at first. “It was school holidays, she had a wedding later that week, and being a bit of a cynic I wondered if maybe she was just taking a little time for herself,” he said.

“There was chatter about it in the newsroom — we speculated about what might have happened — but when the family really came out as concerned and the hours dragged on, it became more and more clear that something sinister had occurred. As a journalist, you try to be impartial but in reality a lot of us expect the worst to happen, and when we realised she was actually missing — a pretty young woman from a small country town — the thoughts turned to darker scenarios. I hoped against all hope that it was all some misunderstanding, that she’d appear again a couple of days later and be like ‘oh I just took a trip to Melbourne’ or something.”

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The Scott family, who had expressed fears that Stephanie may have been involved in a car accident, began plans to try to bring in a helicopter to conduct a search. Members of the public going about their every day lives saw divers searching irrigation channels, officers on trail bikes searching the parkland and volunteers conducting line searches along roadsides. As time ticked by, Stephanie’s family had to consider the possibility that someone had taken her against her will.

Stephanie’s mother Merrilyn later shared that those first days were the darkest she had ever experienced. As the hours turned into days with no word from Stephanie, the family’s positivity began to waver. Fatigue began to kick in. Merrilyn tried to remain strong but found it increasingly difficult because she was unable to eat or sleep. She put on a brave face for the media, but every now and then her
fears would escape through her lips. “I think ‘today, if we don’t find her today’… you can’t let yourself think about it but you do,” she said.

The next thing the family and police did was to ask members of the public to check any home surveillance cameras they may have for any sign of Stephanie or her car.

As the investigation intensified, so too did the public interest in the case, and journalists and photographers began arriving in the small town in droves. With strict instructions from their editors to get a scoop or a new lead, they caught residents off guard with their in-your-face, get-the-story-at-any-cost approach.

They stuck out like sore thumbs with their hurried, blunt demeanours and willingness to throw around insensitive questions like grenades in order to elicit a response. Many of the journalists were hardened from years on the job and, unlike Leeton residents, were not personally invested in Stephanie’s life. All they knew was that her disappearance had struck a chord with people across the nation.

The story was the kind of sensationalism these journalists lived for. A young, beautiful bride-to-be with the world at her feet disappears in a small town of little more than 10,000 residents, and they knew that their readers and their viewers were hungry for answers. They wanted to be the ones who provided them.

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Then, just like that, there was a breakthrough. Stephanie’s red Mazda was discovered in a field on a property at Wamoon, 11 kilometres outside of Leeton. Media outlets instantly flashed aerial photos of Stephanie’s car across television screens. It was a pivotal moment and an image that became etched in the minds of so many who had been following the missing person case. The car looked so odd; it was entirely out of place, parked off a trail amongst the grass.

Sadly, like so many of the developments in Stephanie’s disappearance, the discovery led to more questions than answers. It was obvious the car had not been involved in an accident. But where was Stephanie? Did she drive it there or did someone else, and if that was the case, how did they flee the scene? Was there more than one person involved? What really happened?

Stephanie’s family and Aaron were now forced to accept that Stephanie probably didn’t leave the car there of her own accord.

Instead of bringing them closer to Stephanie, it was becoming clear she was far out of reach.

This is an edited extract from Monqiue Patterson's book, United in Grief. RRP $18.56.

You can purchase United in Grief here.

Feature image: Supplied.

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