Remains found in bushland confirmed to be missing woman
Thea Liddle was not the kind of person you'd expect to be sleeping rough in NSW north coast bushland.
She enjoyed living off the grid because she cherished the self-sustainable lifestyle, not because she couldn't afford otherwise or was a victim of social disadvantage.
The 42-year-old microbiology graduate documented her travels on social media, from sunrises on the beach to sunsets over picturesque villages.
She moved from the hinterland around Nimbin to the bush that lined the beaches of Byron Bay, making friends in the vibrant nomadic community along the way.
Now police are trying to piece together her unexplained death after forensically identifying human remains found near Tallow Beach on July 15 as Ms Liddle.
The Saturday Telegraph has been granted exclusive access into the police investigation that reflects a new era for how missing person cases are handled in NSW.
Each year 11,000 people are reported missing across the state and while a majority turn up safe and sound, about 70 turn into long-term cases.
Over the past 18 months, missing person investigations in NSW have undergone a massive shake-up following a string of mishandled cases.
Simple searches weren't carried out properly, dots weren't joined and cases were placed on the back burner. In one case, a young woman's body was misidentified for 30 years and buried under the wrong name.
In a significant shift last year, the Missing Persons Unit was disbanded and Chief Inspector Glen Browne was asked to create the Missing Persons Registry (MPR).
A team of 16 detectives and analysts, with decades of experience in serious and organised crime investigation between them, were recruited.
Every single one of the state's 11,000 missing person investigations, with files stretching back to 1930, were reviewed for new leads.
Up to 30 cases have been solved since, simply from opening files for the first time in decades or matching them with the 330 sets of unidentified remains that sit in morgues across NSW.
One investigator will study genealogy so police can use sites like ancestry.com in a bid to track down relatives of unidentified remains using DNA profiles.
"There are all sorts of unusual cases where we have been able to locate people where they have simply decided to start new lives," Insp Browne, who has applied his years of homicide squad experience to the role, said.
"Nannies that came over and worked and disappeared, were feared dead, and we've discovered them remarried and living new lives under different names."
On unfolding missing person investigations, the MPR is involved from the get go.
The team supports local police on the ground with co-ordinating searches, analysing phone data for last movements and setting targets for investigations so they don't fall to the wayside.
Insp Browne said the results are already starting to show.
To date this year, NSW has added only seven new long term missing person cases to its books. For four of those, police know what's happened - death by misadventure or at sea.
Based on average figures under the old regime, there should have been about 35 long-term missing person cases added to the list already this year.
"I think that is our greatest success at the moment," Insp Browne said.
Missing for more than three months, Ms Liddle's case joined the 765 other long-term files in NSW.
On November 4, 2019, Ms Liddle left her ex-partner's property on Tweed Valley Way in Mooball, north of Byron Bay.
The former partner had recently been released from hospital, according to police, and Ms Liddle "being the big hearted person she was", went to check in on him.
The couple had difficulties in their relationship in the past but as far as police are aware, the visit was without issue.
Before Mooball, Ms Liddle had been staying at a campsite near Nimbin with friends.
At 2.36pm on November 4, she texted her friend to let her know she was heading into Byron Bay but planned to return to Nimbin.
At 3.50pm, she was captured on CCTV buying a carton of milk from the Caltex Service Station.
It was the last known sighting of her alive and one police only tracked down after finding the half-empty milk carton near her remains and contacting the retailer this month.
On January 20, Ms Liddle's parents reported her missing and Tweed/Byron Police Area District took on the investigation.
Ms Liddle's nomadic lifestyle was one of the greatest challenges.
She was known to move around and set up camp in remote spots throughout the Northern Rivers.
It was difficult to know where to start looking.
Speaking to detectives, locals fondly remembered Ms Liddle as someone who took great interest in other people's lives but didn't seem to fit the mould of rough sleeper.
Police searched her ex-partner's property in April but there was no sign of her. Coincidentally, the ex was charged with unrelated offences.
The breakthrough came two months later from Ms Liddle's electronic footprint.
She lived off the grid but maintained a strong social media presence and connection to her friends and family.
MPR analyst Alex Cowan crunched Ms Liddle's phone data, taking pressure off detectives on the ground who could focus on interviewing locals and friends to build another integral part of the investigation - victimology.
From the phone tower Ms Liddle's phone activity last "pinged" from, Ms Cowan created a search arc.
Combined with local insight, police started a two-day search for campsites in the scrub and sand dunes skirting the Byron Bay coastline.
On November 15 at 1.20pm, near Tallow Beach and in the shadows of the iconic lighthouse, officers stumbled across a tent.
At the site there was luggage, women's clothing, a library card, mail and the milk carton with the use by date November 7, 2019.
Police also discovered female human remains. Last week, those remains were positively identified as Ms Liddle.
A post-mortem examination did not reveal any sign of injury with police still unclear how she died and when.
In a conference room at the State Crime Command at Parramatta, investigators discussed their next step.
There was a Homicide Squad Detective, the MPR, an analyst and two detectives from Tweed Heads on the phone.
"The assistance from the MPR, I don't think we would be where we are today without it," Tweed/Byron crime manager Detective Inspector Brendon Cullen said.
While all signs pointed to Ms Liddle, police and her family were waiting on confirmation from NSW Pathology that the remains were definitely her.
Like many long term missing people, Ms Liddle's family were haunted by the unanswered questions.
It is an emotional burden Insp Browne became familiar with when he listened to the families of long term missing people recount their "horrific" stories just before he started the MPR.
"I couldn't help but sit there and just feel so sad," he said.
"To hear the impact it has when a family loses someone and never gets them back.
"That is the one thing we've tried to instil in all the people who work in the MPR: what would you expect if it was your brother, sister, child, and they went missing?"
Originally published as How missing persons' team helped find Thea Liddle