The little boy was looking for his sister. He was six and dressed only in a pair of underpants as he wandered alone through the BP Palms Caravan Park on the Stuart Highway on the outskirts of Darwin.
The little boy lived in the caravan park with his family. Brett Peter Cowan lived in a neighbouring van.
Brett Peter Cowan with his family. Photo: Supplied
Around dusk on a Thursday night in September 1993, Brett Cowan, then aged 24, approached the boy and asked him if he wanted to go for a walk to see an old car wreck abandoned in the bush not so far away.
The pair left the trailer park, climbed through a hole in a wire fence and walked along a scrubby bush track. When the little boy asked Cowan how far it was to the wreck, the young man swung him up on to his shoulders for the final 200 metres.
Cowan then lay the boy on the upturned rust bucket, pulled the boy’s underpants down and dropped his own shorts.
Queensland man Brett Peter Cowan. Photo: Supplied
About an hour later, the boy, naked and filthy now, stumbled through the dark back into the BP Palms service area. Northern Territory Supreme Court documents reveal he was dazed and distressed.
In intensive care at Royal Darwin Hospital the extent of his injuries became apparent. A collapsed and punctured left lung, haemorrhaged eyes, a bloodied nose, abrasions across his face, a deep cut in his scrotum area.
A doctor said the boy’s “combination of injuries was consistent with his having sustained a complex series of injuries involving an asphyxial element, blunt force injury, sharp force injury and anal penetration”. The boy’s wounds were heavily contaminated with carbon-containing material, “consistent with contact with a heavily ashed bushfire area”.
After initially denying any involvement, Brett Peter Cowan made a full confession. He told police that he needed help.
But just how much help did he get? It’s a question that many will be asking about the 44-year-old, who on Thursday was found guilty in Brisbane’s Supreme Court of murdering 13-year-old Daniel Morcombe on the Sunshine Coast on December 7, 2003.
In Queensland’s highest-profile criminal case ever, Cowan, the father of three young boys, now awaits Justice Roslyn Atkinson’s sentencing decision.
It might be little consolation to Daniel’s heartbroken and weary parents, Bruce and Denise Morcombe, that Cowan denies molesting their son. “I never got to molest him or anything like that; he panicked and I panicked and grabbed him around the throat and just before I knew it, he was dead,” Cowan confessed to an undercover police officer in Perth in August 2011.
“I was starting to pull his pants down … and he said, ‘oh no’, and he started to struggle..” Cowan told the officer. In a later conversation, he said, “... if I didn’t panic I could’ve been there for an hour doing stuff.”
Whatever jail term Justice Atkinson settles on, it will be Cowan’s third for crimes against boys. He was sentenced to two years’ jail in 1989 after indecently dealing with a seven-year-old boy. Cowan was 18 when he took the boy into a public toilet in Brisbane and molested him.
In June 1994, he was sentenced to seven years’ jail for his crimes against the little boy in Darwin. But by 1998, only four years later, Cowan was out of jail and living in the Sunshine Coast community of Bli Bli with his aunt and uncle who were pastors at the Suncoast Christian Church (formerly the Christian Outreach Centre).
It was to be a new start for the convicted paedophile and small-time drug dealer, a 190cm-tall man with a goatee, two silver earrings, a tattoo of a clown on his shoulder and two upper-arm tattoos - one of a skull holding a smoking gun with skeletal fingers, the other of a skull in a top hat.
At one point Cowan was going to church three times a weekend. He met a girl through church and, in September 1999, after a church wedding ceremony, they celebrated at a reception at the Big Pineapple, a remnant of gaudy 1970s tourism on the Nambour Connection Road.
The couple started their life together in Beerwah, an old sugarcane town spliced by Steve Irwin Way and with a view of the jagged Glasshouse Mountains. Cowan smoked pot and did a bit of this, a bit of that — odd jobs, tow-truck driving, industrial spray-painting — until someone hooked him up with local businessman Trevor Davis. “I thought quite a lot of Brett,” says Mr Davis, who owns a sandblasting business.
By all accounts, Cowan had a disciplined upbringing. “He was an army brat,” says Mr Davis of his former employee, who was born in Bunbury, Western Australia, in September 1969. He and his three brothers spent much of their childhood in Brisbane’s Everton Park. Cowan’s father, Peter, retired from the Army having achieved the rank of major.
Mr Davis says Brett Cowan was intelligent and hard-working, “an open and friendly chap” who got on with customers and “never forgot anything I taught him”.
Mr Davis was so impressed by his employee that he bought a second sandblasting business with the intention that Cowan could run it independently. “I figured that I could front him into it,” says Mr Davis.
Tracey Lee Moncrieff gave birth to the couple’s first child, a little boy, in mid 2003, about six months before Bruce and Denise Morcombe’s little boy vanished from a bus stop under an overpass at Woombye on the Nambour Connection Road.
Police quickly identified Cowan as a person of interest in their investigation. Cowan was interviewed and, just before Christmas, his white Pajero was carted off to Nambour police station where it was scoured it for evidence. Nothing was found.
Cowan denied having anything to do with the case. He would later officially change his name in a vain attempt to avoid further scrutiny. His new name was “Shaddo N-unyah Hunter” — “Shaddo” because it was his dog’s name and his dog followed him around like a shadow. When undercover police asked what “N-unyah” was all about, he replied “Nunyah business”.
In 2004, Moncrieff gave birth to his second son but the marriage was soon over. At some point Cowan’s spiritual observance had come to an end too. “Something was preached over the pulpit that I didn’t agree with and (I) went and spoke with the pastor about it and he wouldn’t change his mind so...” he would later tell police.
“He just didn’t appear at a job site one day and that was the last I saw of him,” says Trevor Davis. “He just did a bunk.”
The Darwin judge who sentenced Cowan after his sex attack on the six-year-old boy described Cowan as a “pathological liar and a person who is prepared to steal even from his own parents”. He had lived a “parasitic existence, relying on social security and his parents”, the judge said, listing offences including stealing, break and enter and unlawful use of motor vehicles.
After he left Moncrieff, Cowan seems to have resumed that behaviour, drifting through a drug-hazed underclass, from what he described as “Nam-boring”, to Moranbah in north Queensland and then, by the time of the Nerang interview in 2005, to Uki in the Tweed Valley.
In 2008 he was living with 18-year-old Leticha Anne Harvey in Durack, Ipswich. By December 2009 she’d given birth to their son and they were living in a caravan park on Bribie Island in Moreton Bay off Brisbane. Cowan would later tell undercover police that he’d lost access to his two oldest children and that his brother and his wife had custody of his youngest son.
By March 2011 when Cowan was called to give evidence at the inquest into Daniel Morcombe’s disappearance, he was living in yet another caravan park — this time in Perth with another woman, also called “Tracey”, a woman he described as “a friend with benefits”, and his pet “birdie”, a “twenty-eight” or Australian ring-neck parrot.
At the inquest in the Brisbane Coroners Court, Cowan was Dubbed “P7”, “Person of Interest 7”. He had been bullied at school, Cowan told the court, and came to struggle with his bisexuality.
He admitted to smoking “cones” of marijuana in his hotel room each morning he was required to give evidence.
He admitted something else as he tried to convince the inquest he wasn’t involved in Daniel’s disappearance. “I wasn’t interested in teenage boys. I was interested in six, seven and eight-year-old boys.”
On April 1, excused from the inquest, Cowan caught a flight back to Perth. On the plane, he sat next to a bloke who introduced himself as Joe Emery. They got chatting and swapped numbers. “Joe Emery” was the false name of an undercover police officer. One of the most extraordinary undercover police investigations in Australia’s history had begun.