A decade of anguish for all in catching Daniel’s murderer

WHEN Daniel Morcombe vanished from a Woombye underpass on December 7, 2003, many, his two determined parents included, held onto the hope that one day the 13-year-old would walk through the front door.

For Gladstone's top cop, Assistant Commissioner of Police for Central Region Mike Condon, his instincts told him there would be no fairytale ending for the little boy.

"Look, whilst there were no cast-iron indicators, you get a gut feeling about these types of investigations, and I had a view this wasn't going to end well," Mr Condon said.

His eyes, which have cast themselves over numerous grisly murders, remind one of the same piercing stares of Bruce and Denise Morcombe, a couple immovable in their quest to get their boy home.

Quick to deflect praise from himself to that of the entire team, Mr Condon co-ordinated the five-and-a-half month covert operation undertaken which led to the arrest and eventual sentencing of Brett Peter Cowan - a taxing task.

"I would be honest in saying that I lost a lot of sleep over every day getting briefs, as they did (WA police, as well as Detective Superintendent Brian Wilkins), as to whether we were getting close, so yeah, you don't sleep much that's for sure," he said.

A detective inspector in December 2003, Mr Condon was head of the Brisbane-based homicide squad, when the call came through about a suspicious missing persons case unfolding on the Sunshine Coast.

Two days later and the homicide squad had been activated. Make no mistake, this was a hunt for an evil killer as much as it was a missing child.

"It became very clear in the early part that this was very serious and that we desperately had to find Daniel as soon as possible," Mr Condon said.

"You always live in hope for the parents and you hope that's not right, but as it progressed, he disappeared within seconds from underneath that bridge, and he wasn't anywhere that night.

"No person had come forward and said they gave him a lift. All the innocent things that would give a good outcome for the parents just didn't come our way, and as time progresses the situation becomes desperate to a point where it became quite clear that we were investigating a murder."

The police weren't alone in their search to find the person responsible for Daniel's disappearance.

Members of the public passed over 15,000 pieces of information over to Crime Stoppers, and more than of 20,000 job logs were lodged by investigating officers; every tip, every lead, every sliver of information had to be followed.

"We had the frustration of a lack of forensic evidence at the primary scene, which is the underpass," the assistant commissioner said.

Compounding the difficulties for police, incarcerated troublemakers offered false confessions or information, in a bid to hinder the efforts of hundreds of police men and women.

"We had several groups of people with criminal backgrounds or criminal associates that admitted to the murder that needed to be run out," he said.

"One of those particular cells took nearly two years of resources for us to be completely satisfied that they weren't involved in the murder, and of course that impacts on the go-forward of the investigation."

That evidence came when he admitted to police that he killed Daniel and when we came back to Queensland and he took us to where the remains were located, that's when it became evidence of his involvement.

So how do you catch a killer, when so many paths led investigators in circles?

Thirty-three witnesses claimed they saw a blue car at the underpass during the critical time of Daniel's disappearance; more than 30 comfits were obtained by police, all slightly different versions of the man witnesses claimed they'd seen standing behind Daniel on that day.

Surprisingly, Brett Peter Cowan, the man found guilty of Daniel's murder, had been identified by officers as a person of interest within two weeks of his disappearance.

"(Cowan was on the radar) from the 21st of December, 2003," the experienced homicide cop said.

In April 2011, almost eight painstaking years since the little boy who captured a nation's interest had vanished, investigators had the man they believed responsible for his death directly in their crosshairs, Mr Condon revealed.

"The strategy (covert operation to catch Cowan), which is what I've referred to it as, ran from April 1 to mid-August (2011)," he said.

Undercover officers, in co-ordination with WA police, had infiltrated Cowan's life, slowly building a bond, a connection which would ultimately lead them to the scene of Daniel's remains, in the swampy, Sunshine Coast hinterland.

"No, we didn't have a time frame (to crack Cowan in the undercover op), we just worked through it and as we progressively got to know him better things just started to come our way," Mr Condon said.

Acting Commissioner Mike Condon addresses the media outside the court.
Acting Commissioner Mike Condon addresses the media outside the court.

Cowan's disturbing history of offences against children came to light upon the completion of his trial, sparking questions about the length of the police investigation required to nab their man.

"What I would say is, there is a lot of information that's out in the media as a result of the court (trial), and people probably in their armchairs would tick the boxes and say 'how come it took so long?'.

"Most of that (Cowan's history) is interesting. It's not evidence that he killed Daniel Morcombe and that's the critical thing that people need to be reminded of," he said.

"That evidence came when he admitted to police that he killed Daniel and when we came back to Queensland and he took us to where the remains were located, that's when it became evidence of his involvement."

So how did investigators continue to find the strength and sheer determination to continue with the mountainous task of connecting the thousands of dots, which led to catching their man, rather than declare a cold case?

"Look, there were times when we were all frustrated by the lack of result; there were times when I believe they (Morcombes) drove us, not that we needed reminding, but their inspiration flowed on and there were times I think when we drove them and gave them support," Mr Condon recalled.

"There's a lot of speculation about that (cold case status). The first thing I'll say is only the investigators had the full picture, and it was never going to be a cold case.

"The Commissioner at the time, Bob Atkinson, made it quite clear and we don't give up while we've got a child murderer out there, we simply don't give up."

After more than 10 years, it was all over in seven-and-a-half hours; a jury on March 13 returned guilty verdicts on three counts against Cowan. Cold comfort for a family torn apart by evil more than a decade ago.

"The reality and 100% (certainty) came when we arrested Mr Cowan. Both parents knew then that Daniel wasn't coming home," Mr Condon said.

Topics:  crime daniel morcombe mike condon murder queensland police

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