Brett Peter Cowan
|Brett Peter Cowan|
18 September 1969 |
Bunbury, Western Australia
Improperly interfering with a corpse
Indecently dealing with a child under the age of 16
|Criminal penalty||Life imprisonment
20 years non-parole period
Brett Peter Cowan (born 18 September 1969) is an Australian murderer and sex offender who was convicted of the murder of Daniel Morcombe, who disappeared from the Sunshine Coast on 7 December 2003. His abduction led to an eight-year investigation involving various suspects, until an undercover police sting in August 2011 revealed Cowan as the perpetrator. He was charged with the murder that same month and Morcombe's remains were discovered days later on 17 August. Cowan was sentenced to 20 years to life imprisonment on 13 March 2014 in a trial that attracted worldwide attention. Cowan had two previous convictions for child sex offences, the earliest dating back to 1987.
Early life and background
Cowan was born in Bunbury, Western Australia, to Marlene, a homemaker and RSL worker, and Peter Cowan, who was a Vietnam veteran. He was the third of four boys. The Cowans led a strict household and gave their children a Catholic upbringing. In the early 1970s, the family relocated to Brisbane, Queensland, eventually settling in the suburb of Everton Park. The Cowans were, by many accounts, a "good family". Cowan's father was often absent due to his Army responsibilities.
Cowan and his brothers attended Mt Maria College, an independent Catholic high school in Mitchelton then known as Marcellin College. Cowan's year nine English teacher claimed Cowan was somewhat of a "bully" who taunted other students, would proudly parade around his erections and was "despised by his peers". Conversely, other students at his school reflected on him as being an "ordinary guy". Cowan himself proved difficult for his mother: he was a "handful" as a child and progressed into a difficult teenager, occasionally stealing from her. Cowan himself was also bullied in school and had struggled to come to terms with his bisexuality.
Cowan dropped out of school in year ten. His problems escalated as he became involved in petty crime throughout his late teen years, particularly stealing and breaking and entering. His first criminal conviction came at the age of 17, when he was convicted with a friend for car theft and breaking and entering. He had confessed to being a drug addict, having regularly used LSD, cocaine and methamphetamines. In addition, he frequently smoked marijuana, which he first tried at the age of 11. He later stated of his drug use: "They do fuck your inhibitions up … you know, your boundaries."
Cowan's theft and drug offences with the law had resulted in him performing community service duties at a public park in Brisbane. On 5 December 1987, during one of these community service sessions, an 18-year-old Cowan took a 7-year-old child from the park into a toilet cubicle and raped him. Cowan's subsequent demeanour to the attack was casual, as he proceeded to watch television inside the childcare centre where he was performing maintenance duties. Cowan was sentenced to two years jail in 1989, but only served half of that sentence. In September 1993, while living at a Darwin caravan park with his then 18-year-old girlfriend Tracey Haneveld, Cowan lured a 6-year-old boy into an abandoned car yard and raped him. The boy was left to die in a rusted car, with a punctured lung due to the force of the act and several cuts. He stumbled into a petrol station, dazed and distraught, and the police were called immediately—they initially assumed the boy had been hit by a car because of his traumatic injuries.
Cowan initially denied his involvement, even going to considerable length to portray his innocence by stating to the police "I hope you catch the bastard". However, the officers quickly discovered that Cowan was the only man in the caravan park not to offer up a DNA sample after semen was found on the boy's discarded underwear. A background check conducted by the officers also revealed his former molestation conviction in 1987. Police contacted him once again with the evidence and he quickly confessed to the rape. Haneveld confronted Cowan in prison and asked if he was involved. He did not respond, and as his guilt became clear to her, she left the prison distraught. This was her last contact with Cowan. Haneveld spoke to 60 Minutes in March 2014, prior to his sentence, about her relationship with him, which she claimed was full of infidelity on his behalf. During the trial, Cowan stated to the sentencing judge that "years of heavy poly drug use" was an explanation for his assault history.
Cowan was sentenced in 1994 in the Northern Territory Supreme Court to serve seven years in jail for various charges: grievous harm, deprivation of liberty and gross indecency—however more severe charges, such as attempted murder, were dropped prior to the trial. He was then only required to serve 3.5 years. Psychological assessments followed and Cowan was deemed as a pathological liar who lived a "parasitic existence", relying mostly on his parents to support his living. The psychologist also discovered a gross lack of awareness on behalf of Cowan, who believed that his victim "would not report the case" because he "probably enjoyed" the experience. Following his release from jail in 1997, Cowan protested his desire for rehabilitation and recognised that his sexual deviancy was a problem. He was ordered to attend a sexual offenders treatment program and moved in with his pastor aunt and uncle, Jenny and Keith Philbrook, on the Sunshine Coast. In 1998, a 30-year-old Cowan moved into the suburb of Beerwah with Tracey Lee Moncrieff, another churchgoer. The two were married the following year. Cowan regularly attended church services and no criminal convictions were reported from this time up until 2003. During that year Cowan also stopped attending church according to Moncrieff.
Disappearance of Daniel Morcombe
On 7 December 2003, 13-year-old schoolboy Daniel Morcombe left his home and planned to catch the 1:35 pm bus to the Sunshine Plaza Shopping Centre for a haircut and to buy Christmas presents for his family, but he failed to return. A bus had broken down on the side of the road and a replacement bus was later sent to pick up the passengers of the broken down bus. However, this replacement bus drove past Daniel and shortly after, in just a three-minute time span, Cowan is believed to have abducted him. Due to his criminal history, he was approached by police just days after the disappearance; however he denied his involvement. A former police officer involved believed Cowan to be involved from just one encounter: he stated that "Look, if he's not good for that, he's good for something. I left with the distinct impression of guilt." A police interview with Cowan was conducted in July 2005 in the Gold Coast. Detective Tracey Barnes, who handled the interview, asked Cowan if he would admit to being involved and he responded with "probably not".
Over the following years, the case shifted from Cowan to convicted sex offender Douglas Jackway. Witnesses reported seeing a blue vehicle near the location of Morcombe's disappearance and Jackway had a vehicle that very closely matched witness descriptions. Cowan was brought before the Daniel Morcombe coronial inquest six years later, where he was referred to as P7. Cowan stated he had driven along the road where Morcombe was last seen, but he was only travelling along there to pick up a mulcher. He also provided this as an alibi for the missing time, and said he had visited his cannabis dealer during the time Daniel was supposedly taken. Further police investigation revealed that Cowan's dealers were not home during the time Morcombe disappeared, meaning that Cowan could not have been with them. However, despite an unreliable alibi, police had no real forensic evidence to charge Cowan with the abduction and murder of the teenager. During this time, Cowan changed his name to Shaddo N-unyah Hunter, possibly to evade police. He later remarked that 'Shaddo' was his dog's name and 'N-unyah' a euphemism which translates to the idiom "none of your business". Moncrieff, Cowan's wife at the time, later admitted in court that she lied about her husband's whereabouts on the day of Morcombe's disappearance because she was "blinded by love". After their divorce, she revealed in court that he was gone for up to five hours that day.
A covert police operation that began in Canada drew the attention of an investigator involved in Morcombe's case. The procedure, known as Mr. Big, involves police officers who pose as members of a corrupt criminal gang to gain the confidence of the alleged suspect, enlisting the suspect's participation in an escalating series of often elaborate fictional crimes, particularly theft, prostitution and the drug trade. Once the suspect's trust has been gained, the police persuade the suspect to confess to the earlier, real crime. An undercover police officer, posing as a crime boss known as "Paul Fitzsimmons" or "Fitzy", befriended Cowan on a flight to Perth in April 2011. Fitzsimmons gained the trust of Cowan and the two became friends. Due to the absence of any physical evidence, a confession of Cowan was needed. Over the following months, Cowan's gang of friends initiated him through an array of fake criminal scenarios, unknown to Cowan. The gang offered Cowan a subpoena for his alibi in Morcombe's case, however he denied any involvement. In August 2011, at an interview at the Perth Hyatt Hotel, an undercover officer gained Cowan's trust, and apprised that he "only wanted to help Cowan", re-instating that Cowan could trust him with anything. He subsequently disclosed his involvement in Morcombe's abduction and the confession was captured on video.
Over the next few days, Cowan led the undercover police officers to the site of Morcombe's remains. At the site, several undercover police officers arrested Cowan. On 13 August 2011, Cowan was taken into custody and charged with Morcombe's murder and other offences, including child stealing, deprivation of liberty, indecent treatment of a child under 16, and interfering with a corpse. In 2006, Cowan had admitted to police that he travelled the road from which Morcombe disappeared on the same day of his disappearance, on his way to purchase marijuana from a drug dealer. Around this time, a white Mitsubishi Pajero was seized from a property on Russell Island. The vehicle was believed to have been involved in Morcombe's abduction after a witness at the coronial inquest in April 2011 reported seeing a vehicle of similar description parked 100 metres (330 ft) north of the site where Morcombe was last seen.
On 7 February 2013, Cowan was ordered to stand trial. He was charged with murder, indecently dealing with a child under the age of 16 and improperly dealing with a corpse. The trial, at the Supreme Court of Queensland in the state's capital Brisbane, began on 10 February 2014 under Justice Roslyn Atkinson. Cowan stated he only confessed because of the lucrative money deal that was offered to him. Moreover, the undercover policeman posing as 'Arnold' agreed that the fake crime gang had "dangled a carrot in the form of big money in front of Cowan".
The prosecution closed its case on 7 March. 116 witnesses gave evidence and over 200 exhibits were tendered in evidence. Cowan pleaded not guilty and declined to give evidence. Bruce and Denise Morcombe, as well as Daniel's brothers, gave lengthy victim impact statements. Cowan reportedly stated he had no remorse.
On 13 March 2014, Cowan was found guilty of all charges. Cowan had two previous convictions for child sex offences. On 14 March 2014, Cowan was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 20 years. He was also sentenced to three-and-a-half years' imprisonment for indecently dealing with Morcombe and two years for interfering with his corpse, those sentences to be served concurrently. Judge Roslyn Atkinson said "I don't think you should be released in 20 years time" which could affect Cowan's prison term.
Cowan has undergone multiple psychiatric examinations since his first offences in the late 1980s and early 90s. The psychologist who had assessed him after his second molestation conviction claimed he was a pathological liar with low level psychopathic features or mild "psychopathy", now widely known as antisocial personality disorder (ASPD). Despite this, a concrete psychiatric diagnosis on him has been elusive and inconclusive. Acquaintances of Cowan, particularly his ex-girlfriends, had described him as seeming "charming", "confident" and even "handsome" initially, which made it easy for him to gain the trust of his victims. The judge of the trial remarked to Cowan that he "did not look like a monster or a pedophile, he looked like an ordinary person". Furthermore, she remarked that he was a "convincing and adaptable liar".
In a psychologist's report compiled in 2007, Cowan stated: "I always worry, if things got bad, I could offend again. I could never do this against my own flesh and blood." He has also expressed his belief that years of habitual drug use motivated or contributed to his attacks.
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