Teens Toni and Kay disappeared in 1979. Ivan Milat was working nearby at the time.

The following is an extract from Vanished: The true stories from families of Australian missing people, by Nicole Morris, available via Big Sky Publishing.

Kay Docherty and Toni Cavanagh lived, in Warilla, in the Illawarra region of NSW. In 1979, when they were 15, Kay and Toni vanished, never to be seen or heard from again. Kevin and Kay Docherty were twins, born five minutes apart in Wollongong Hospital. 

‘Kay was scared of the dark,’ says Kevin. ‘Mum was really protective of us; we were allowed to play in the street just as long as she knew where we were, as long as she could see us, as long as she knew the other kids. Mostly we played near our house. Mum didn’t like taking her eye off us.’

Both Kevin and Kay attended Lake Illawarra High School, in the same year as Toni Cavanagh. Mavia Cavanagh is Toni’s stepmother, and she raised Toni and her sister Vicki from when they were very young. ‘Toni was a bubbly sort of person,’ says her friend Tracey. ‘She was very softly spoken but she was always cracking up laughing. She was very happy.’

Kevin was later approached by a woman he’s known for years, who was at school with Kay and Toni. She was also re-interviewed by police to recall what she knew about the girls’ disappearance.

The woman told Kevin that the day they went missing, Toni had gone to all her friends at school, telling them there was a disco on that night in Wollongong, and asking if they wanted to go with her. All the girls told Toni no, they couldn’t go with her, their parents wouldn’t allow them. The woman recalled that Kay was not one of the girls Toni asked. The woman walked home from school with Toni that same afternoon, and Toni asked her to go to the disco. Again, Toni was told no. 


Image: Kay Docherty. Supplied. 

It was Friday July 27, 1979. The girls told their families different stories about where they were going that night. The Cavanaghs were told they were going to the movies; however, the Dochertys were told a different story. Kay told her mother that Toni asked Kay to come to her house to help her babysit her younger siblings and said Toni’s mother would be home by 9pm.

It was the first time the Dochertys had heard of Toni Cavanagh, and the very protective Jean Docherty was very reluctant to allow her daughter to go anywhere at night. 


‘Kay was in discussions that afternoon with Mum,’ says Kevin. ‘There was a bit of a debate going on. Mum was saying, “No, no, no.” She said, “You don’t go out at night.” Then Kay started getting upset and crying, and went into her room. Mum started feeling guilty so she said to me, “Kevin, if I let her go, can you go there on your bike and pick her up at 9 o’clock?” I had band practice that night and was on my pushbike. I said, “Yeah, okay, not a problem.” I can’t really remember the details, but if I’d known more about it, I would have said to Mum, “No, don’t let her go.” I remember Mum going into her room and saying to Kay, “Okay, if you want to go, you can go. Kevin’s going to take you there and pick you up at 9 o’clock; make sure you don’t leave the house.” So, Mum just took her word for it.

"Today, one parent would probably ring the other parent, but in those days you didn’t have to worry about that sort of thing. We didn’t have Toni’s mum’s number; in fact, we’d not long had the phone put on.’ Mavia Cavanagh had no idea the girls had lied to her. ‘Apparently, they told Mrs Docherty that I was going out, and I wanted Kay to come and stay with Toni while she babysat my children. Then the story to me was that Kay’s aunt was taking them to the movies. I believed them, and Mrs Docherty must have believed them too.’ 

Kevin dropped her off at Toni’s house at about 5.45 pm and told her he’d be back to pick her up at 9 o’clock. It was the last time he’d ever see his twin sister.

Mavia recalls that day. ‘The afternoon it happened, the day they went missing, Kay came over to our house, and she and Toni were in the bedroom, giggling and carrying on, as teenage girls that age do. Toni got dressed. It’s hard to remember exactly what I thought was going to happen, but I was under the impression they were going from my house to the aunt’s house. If they’d come to me and said, “We want to go to a dance in Wollongong, can you drive us in and pick us up?” then I would have done it. That’s what I did with my younger daughter when she grew up and wanted to go out. Toni was probably thinking, Mum won’t let me go, and Kay’s mum’s not going to let her go. So, they fibbed.’ 


The girls left the Cavanagh house on foot, and that is the last Mavia saw of them.

At 9 o’clock Kevin rode his pushbike back to the Cavanagh home in Martin Street, Warilla. ‘I really thought nothing more about it until Kay’s brother turned up and said, “I’ve come to get Kay,”’ says Mavia. ‘I said, “Kay’s not here, she’s gone to the movies.” He said, “But she’s supposed to be here babysitting!”

'I told him she couldn’t be babysitting, as my two children had gone to the Snowy Mountains that weekend with the neighbour across the street. Toni’s father was in bed asleep and I’d been watching TV, waiting up for Toni to come home. I didn’t have any idea they weren’t going to the movies, or weren’t doing what they said they were, until Kevin turned up.’ 

'When I got to Toni’s house, her mum answered the door and told me they’d gone to the movies,' says Kevin. ‘I was shocked. I said to her, “What do you mean they’ve gone to the movies?

'They weren’t supposed to be going anywhere! She’s not allowed out after dark!” And that was a big thing for me to say to an adult, at 15; you didn’t question adults. Apparently, Toni gave her a change of clothes and they said they were going to the movies.’


‘Mum was devastated, really worried,’ says Kevin. ‘She was shattered, actually. That night is a bit of a blur. Mum and Dad didn’t drive, and I was too young, and we didn’t have the Cavanaghs’ phone number, so Mum went to see some of the girls who were friends with Toni, who lived in our street. She got the phone numbers of some other girls and started calling all their mums, asking if the other girls had gone with Toni and Kay or if they were there, just trying to get some information. She was doing that for most of the night.

‘She left the lights on all night. It got to about 11 or 12 o’clock at night and she just got to the stage where she knew something wasn’t right, so she went to the police station. She walked there, at midnight, on her own. I don’t know why I didn’t go with her or where I was. I kick myself when I think of these things now, why I wasn’t with her every step.’ 

Kevin’s father was at home, but had been out that evening and had come home and gone to bed.

Jean was the one who dealt with Kay’s disappearance. ‘Any family issues were Mum’s strongest point,’ says Kevin. ‘So, she went to the police station and told them Kay hadn’t come home. The police told Mum it was too early to report her missing, and she should go home. Mum told them it was the first time Kay had ever been out at night on her own.’

Image: Toni Cavanaugh. Supplied. 


Friend Tracey actually saw was the girls immediately before they disappeared: 'They were at the bus stop across the road from Warilla Grove shopping centre, on Shellharbour Road. I was on the opposite side, hitchhiking to Kiama. I actually spoke to the girls. It was right on dusk, closer to dark than daylight, being winter. I asked them where they were going. I told them I was going to Kiama. They said, ‘We’re going to Wollongong’ and that the disco was on. I can’t remember exactly, it was so many years ago, but I feel like they said they were going to Pump Hill disco. Everyone used to go there and hook up with their boyfriends.

'I know that me and my friend got a lift before them. I think they were waiting for the bus, because when we hitchhiked, you’d come down Queen Street and you’d turn left, because there was room for the cars to stop there. If you were to hitchhike in front of the bus stop, which I had done before, that would usually be late at night as there were less cars, but because it was early when the girls went, there was lots of traffic – all the steelworks traffic and the retail workers, that was all flying past, you just couldn’t stop a car in front of that bus stop. There was no parking lane. So, that tells me they were waiting for the bus, or waiting for a person they’d arranged to pick them up.


'Much later when I saw photos of Ivan Milat, he had the same car as a man who had once picked us up. I saw that Milat was working on the highway at that time, from Kiama to Sydney. That’s when we started to think, has he picked Toni and Kay up? The police started looking into that. They really looked into where he was working and found he was working in Kiama and on the Wollongong bypass, exactly where we used to hitchhike.

The case is now with the Unsolved Homicide squad. At the time of publication there is a $100,000 reward on offer for information that helps solve their suspected murders and locates Kay and Toni.

Listen to True Crime Conversation, On this episode, We're joined by barrister Hilary Bonney & former detective Charlie Bezzina to take you through this case that captivated Australia. Post continues below. 

If you have information, please call Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000, and you can remain anonymous if you wish.

Image: Supplied

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