true crime

Finally found: It took 30 years to solve the mystery of what happened to Ursula Barwick.

For more than 30 years, the family of Quirindi teenager Ursula Barwick didn’t know whether she was dead or alive.

In September 1987, family members dropped Ursula at Tuggerah railway station on the NSW Central Coast.

The 17-year-old was boarding a train to Sydney to start a new job and said she would call her family and friends once she arrived in the city to let them know her new address. They had planned to meet up with her in Sydney a few days after she arrived.

But the phone call never came.

The disappearance of Urusla Barwick featured on Australian Story. Post continues below.

After two weeks passed without hearing from the teenager, Ursula’s mother Cheree and father Peter Barwick, reported their daughter missing.

But the case wasn’t prioritised by police.

Speaking on Monday night’s episode of Australian Story, which delved into the case, Cheree’s sister and Ursula’s aunt, Dianne Panov, agreed that there was a “lack of interest” from police at the time.

Listen to the latest episode of True Crime Conversations, where we take a deep dive into the baffling case of Ursula Barwick. Post continues below. 

“From the day that she got on that train, there was just no record of Ursula Barwick,” Dianne said.

“We just didn’t know where she was,” she added.

“I actually felt like there was a lack of interest from the police… that she was just another runaway and that she’d come home soon.”

In the decades that followed, the case remained unsolved, leaving Ursula’s friends and family to constantly mull over what might have happened to her.

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They questioned whether she may have been murdered or kidnapped – or whether she could still be alive and well. Sadly, in 2004 Ursula’s mother Cheree died without knowing what happened to her daughter.

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Ursula with her mother Cheree and her baby cousin Andrew Holland in 1985. Image: Supplied.

After seeing Ursula profiled on national television when the Australian Federal Police introduced age progression technology to missing persons cases in 2010, her cousin Melissa Pouliot began writing a crime fiction novel about a missing teenager.

"We just knew so little about Ursula's disappearance that it didn't take long for my brain to flip completely to fiction [while writing Write About Me,]" the author and advocate for missing people told Mamamia.

"At the end, in the author's notes, I decided at the last minute to include some information about Ursula. I thought if people knew that the novel had some kind of grounding in reality, it would get across what it's like for people like me when a family member goes missing. I also hoped that maybe someone would come forward with new information to help solve her case."

After the release of her debut crime novel, the response was "unbelievable", with people coming forward with new information, which Melissa logged in a spreadsheet.

In 2014, she presented this spreadsheet to Kings Cross detectives who took on Ursula's case as part of an operation to follow up on stalled missing persons cases. The detectives, led by Detective Sergeant Kurt Hayward and Sergeant Amy Scott, formed Strike Force Hemingway.

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For the next few years, Ursula's family were faced with several scenarios as detectives followed several leads including the belief she had met with foul play. In 2015, after the National Missing Persons Coordination Centre profiled Ursula during National Missing Persons Week, someone called Crime Stoppers to say Ursula was working at the Coach and Horses Hotel in Randwick in July 1989. This later turned out to be mistaken identity.

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Ursula in 1986. Image: Supplied.

In 2016 detectives finally uncovered the truth. Several weeks after she went missing, Ursula had been killed when a vehicle she was travelling in was involved in a head-on collision with a truck on the Hume Highway near Keajura. Due to Ursula adopting a new name when she moved to Sydney, the fatality was recorded under the name Jessica Pearce.

Ursula's body remained unclaimed in a morgue in Glebe for 15 months before she was buried in a local cemetery in an unmarked grave.

In late December 2018, the NSW Deputy State Coroner Derek Lee confirmed that Jessica Pearce was, in fact, Ursula Barwick.

This finding came four days before Ursula’s family had their 32nd Christmas without her.

"It is most distressing to know that Ursula's family have, undoubtedly, for so many years, been left with an absence that cannot be filled, and a sense of uncertainty that could not be eased," Lee said at the conclusion of the inquest.

"It is even more painful to know that for Cheree, that devastating sense of uncertainty about what happened to her daughter was never able to be lessened."

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Melissa Pouliot and Ursula Barwick in 1986. Image: Supplied.

Melissa, speaking on the eve of Ursula’s story going to air on Australian Story, said she was grateful for the opportunity to share precious memories of Ursula.

“Sharing Ursula’s story gives other families hope and is a meaningful contribution to the very important conversations we need to have about missing people – the impact is far more devastating than many realise," she said.

“There are currently around 2600 long-term missing people in Australia, and more recognition and support is needed for those left to wonder and agonise if they’re ever going to see their missing person again. Ambiguous loss is like no other form of grief and it needs specialised support services that currently don’t exist.

“Changes also need to happen in our coronial and police system at the highest levels of bureaucracy which seem so out of touch with what it’s like to live through this experience.

“Sharing Ursula’s story is a way of keeping these conversations vibrant and alive, while at the same time honouring the precious seventeen years where she filled us with the richness and joy of her adventurous, brave and vivacious enthusiasm for life.”

Australian Story aired at 8pm on Monday night on the ABC. The episode will also be available on ABC iview.

Australia's national register of missing persons is at missingpersons.gov.au. If you have information about a missing person, contact police or Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.

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