42 volumes of evidence nailed an horrific murderer: Q&A with Ava Benny-Morrison

Crime reporter, Ava Benny-Morrison, spoke to Sisters in Crime’s Vice-President, Robyn Walton, about her debut book, The Lost Girls (ABC Books, 2019).

 Ava, thanks for taking time out from your crime reporting to tell us about your investigation. Before we go to questions, I’m going to give a trigger warning. Your book is about heinous real-life murders. We won’t be going into details in this interview, but people who read your book will encounter explicit information about brutality, sexual violence and child pornography.

The LostGirls is about the murders of Karlie Pearce-Stevenson and her young daughter, Khandalyce. Why did you choose to focus on these killings for your first book?

When this case emerged in 2015, I was working as a crime reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald. I reported on it extensively for the daily news cycle, and I was struck by the complexity of the case. There were a lot of moving parts and different suspects. Every day there was some development that made this case more heinous.

Without wanting to come across as too simplistic, I find that usually when we report on a murder it falls into a particular category: gangland, domestic violence or stranger homicide. There were so many different elements to this case, and it felt like I could never make all the relevant information fit within the word count restraints of a newspaper article. There was a lot we didn’t know about Karlie and Khandalyce too. I wanted to be able to tell the entire story in one medium and find out more about who the mother and child really were.

You’ve been published by ABC Books, an imprint of HarperCollins. Is there any possibility there will be a version of the book on screen, in a podcast, etc.? 

That is any author’s hope, isn’t it?! We didn’t go down the podcast route, probably because when I first agreed to write this book, true crime podcasts hadn’t really taken off yet. Since the release of The Lost Girls, I’ve taken part in interviews with a couple of podcasts shows (Australian True Crime and Mamma Mia) but there are no plans to turn the book into its own series. There has been interest from a couple of TV shows but no firm plans.

Your narrative introduces readers to quite a lot of women. Can you outline the stages of your story by way of telling us about the roles of some of these women? 

At the centre of this story is Karlie Pearce-Stevenson and her two-year-old daughter Khandalyce. They were born and bred in Alice Springs in outback Australia with a huge network of friends and family. Karlie had a lot of close relationships with women in her life, including her mother, Colleen Povey, and her mother’s best friend, Tanya Webber, and grandmother Connie Duffy. Even her aunties played an integral role in Karlie’s upbringing so it was important to talk to as many of these people as I could to tell the story.

Karlie’s life changed dramatically when her path crossed with Daniel Holdom in late 2007.

Holdom had recently moved into town with his then-girlfriend, Hazel Passmore, and her three children. Hazel became another key player in this case. From the outset she struck me as someone who had more of an influence on Holdom than we knew about.

In late 2008, Holdom left town with Karlie and Khandalyce. They went down to Adelaide, where Hazel was in hospital following a serious car crash, before moving on to Canberra.

In December that year, Holdom murdered Karlie in the Belanglo State Forest before turning his sights on her daughter. He took off with Khandalyce, killed her in south-west NSW, put her body in a suitcase and dumped it on the side of a South Australian highway. It was there for seven years before it was found. Holdom returned to his relationship with Hazel.

The book follows the police investigation and how these people were all linked together.

Let’s glance at Holdom’s background. In country NSW, Clara Holdom gave birth to Daniel Holdom in 1974. Clara had problems rearing the boy. Have psychologists or psychiatrists given any insights into how this troubled child became a double murderer?

Absolutely. Because Holdom had been and in and out of jail for most of his life, he had taken​ part in a number of interviews with prison psychologists. These reports are used during sentencing to convey to a judge an offender’s mindset.

In this case, these reports – and historical child welfare documents – provided a deep insight into Holdom’s life. He had been abused from a very young age and bounced around foster homes before eventually turning to drugs and alcohol.

There was a sense that no one in his family really wanted him when he was a child. Even his mother said “something dark was born” the day Holdom was born.

He had a string of failed relationships, would often pick up and leave when things got tough, and became a master of deceit, committing petty frauds and ripping off the tax department and welfare agencies.

I don’t think anyone – even Holdom – can explain why he committed his most horrific crimes. However, the reports give an insight into the factors that heavily influenced his life.

Karlie Pearce-Stevenson was born in 1988. Karlie’s mother, Colleen, and maternal grandmother, Connie, were the main figures in Karlie’s upbringing. Could you give us a little more of that background?

Colleen moved to Alice Springs when she was pregnant with Karlie. They were very close throughout Karlie’s life. As a little girl Karlie was always hovering around her mum’s legs and, when she was a teenager, they would speak all the time. Karlie would drop around to her mum’s office without notice and, as she got older, started to see her mum and her mum’s friends as her own close mates.

In Karlie’s late teens, she moved out of home (where she had lived with Colleen and her stepfather, Scott). Karlie moved into her grandmother Connie’s home.

Connie was a bit of a matriarch of the family. She was someone Karlie’s mum and aunties could rely on to look after the kids while they were at work. Connie doted on her grandchildren and her home was a sanctuary for them at times.

Colleen and Connie died a couple of years apart, while Karlie and Khandalyce were still missing. In the last few weeks of her life Colleen would constantly ask family and friends when or if the girls were coming home.

After Karlie’s daughter was born in 2006, the mother of Karlie’s stepfather generously gave a gift which had later significance.

As I mentioned earlier, Karlie had a large network of family; aunties, cousins and grandparents who spent many weekends and holidays together. Scott’s mother had a knack for sewing and, after Khandalyce was born, she gifted the little girl a unique handstitched quilt.

In 2015, when a child’s remains were found in a suitcase on the side of a South Australian highway, police tried to identify a lot of clothing and a quilt/blanket found with the bones. The quilt was the only item that was distinctive. It looked like it had been made with love and not mass produced like most other clothing in the suitcase.

This ended up being key to figuring out the girl in the suitcase was Khandalyce. Scott’s sister found a photograph of Khandalyce in a pram with that quilt behind her. Police were able to match this to the quilt found with the bones.

In 2008, 20-year-old Karlie met Holdom. Since 2004 Holdom’s partner had been Hazel Passmore. You say Hazel was “smitten” with Holdom, and their relationship lasted until 2012 despite many difficulties. Could you elaborate?

Hazel and Holdom had had a hold on one another ever since they met in Tin Can Bay in Queensland in about 2004.

Daniel went to jail for about a year after they first got together. As soon as he got out, he convinced Hazel to uproot her life and follow him to NSW. She obliged.

Hazel thought Daniel was the “bee’s knees” at first; he had a job, treated her right and wasn’t ashamed to take her and her kids out. The couple lived a transient lifestyle up and down the east coast until they ran out of money.

The relationship was volatile, yet they always seemed to gravitate back towards each other. They shared perverted fantasies that no one else would have understood.

In 2008, Holdom caused a car crash that killed two of Hazel’s children and seriously injured Hazel. She was in a coma for two weeks and had one of her legs amputated.

Holdom left Hazel at this point for Karlie. Hazel felt betrayed and incensed. Yet when Holdom returned (unbeknown to her, after killing Karlie and Khandalyce) she took him back.

Hazel had just got out of hospital, was grappling with the reality she’d never walk again and felt very vulnerable. She wanted a return to normalcy and to feel loved. In my opinion, that’s why she turned a blind eye to his confessions over the following years. However, she claimed it was because Holdom was a liar and she didn’t believe him.

Over a few years, after Hazel and Holdom got back together, she learned that Karlie and Holdom hadn’t simply parted ways. Hazel found Karlie’s identity documents in Holdom’s car and a SD card with photographs of Karlie’s body. At one point, Hazel posed as Karlie in Centrelink to claim the dead mother’s welfare benefits.

That is something I struggled to get my head around: the fact that Hazel knew or at least strongly suspected her boyfriend had done something horrific, but she stayed with him.

The women who loved Karlie told you they didn’t like or trust Holdom when they first met him. Yet in November 2008 Karlie was willing to head for Adelaide with him, refusing a family offer to mind two-year-old Khandalyce while she travelled. What factors attracted Karlie to Holdom? 

I think at 20 years old Karlie was someone who wanted to leave Alice Springs and see what else was out there. Then Holdom came into her life. He was cashed up (from drug dealing) and was well practised at using charm to manipulate people, and eventually he got Karlie into using heavy drugs.

When the car crash with Hazel happened in September 2008, Holdom turned to Karlie as a shoulder to cry on. I think it was a combination of those factors  ̶  the yearning to leave Alice Springs, the drug use and the relationship she’d formed with Holdom  ̶  that convinced Karlie to leave with him.

During a stopover at the home of Karlie’s paternal grandmother, Karlie’s aunt took a photo that would prove to have more than merely sentimental importance. 

On their way down to Adelaide in 2008, Karlie, Khandalyce and Holdom stopped in at Karlie’s grandmother’s home in Port Augusta. Karlie’s aunt was also there and took an immediate dislike to Holdom. There was something not right about him.

On that night, after Khandalyce got out of the shower wrapped in a towel, Karlie was drying her when her aunt took a candid photo of the mother and child. It ended up being one of the last photos taken of the pair and was used heavily in media coverage years later.

The murders of Karlie and Khandalyce by Holdom happened separately in late 2008. Will you say a little about what he did and why he did it?

While Holdom pleaded guilty to murdering Karlie and Khandalyce, he never truthfully explained why he did it. He gave different versions to different people over the years. He told Hazel he did it “for her” so they could get back together. He told a prison psychologist he murdered Karlie because she made a remark about his relationship with Hazel. But that explanation didn’t stack up with forensic evidence. He also told the psychologist he killed Khandalyce because it would’ve raised suspicion if he turned up in South Australia without Karlie.

The prosecution suggested there were several possible motives. One was financial gain: Holdom killed Karlie and Khandalyce so he could access Karlie’s bank account.

Another was sexual gratification: Holdom had a sexual interest in children. He wrote about these fantasies in notebooks that were found years later. On this theory, Holdom killed Karlie to gain access to her daughter.

The problem is the only person who really knows why the murders occurred is Holdom and he is unlikely to ever tell the truth.

The people who loved Karlie and Khandalyce were duped into thinking the two were still alive. Government departments were duped too.

Holdom was using Karlie’s mobile phone after she died to create the illusion that she was still alive. This included texting Karlie’s mum, aunties, cousins, ex-boyfriend and stepfather to ask for money.

Often the texts would say that Karlie wanted to come home and needed money for a plane ticket or to fix her car. On other occasions, the texts would say that she was happily living in Queensland. Of course, Karlie’s family missed her dearly but figured she was deliberately keeping them at arm’s length.

Holdom also managed to access Karlie’s bank account over several years and withdrew her Centrelink benefits. He also committed tax fraud using her name and even got Hazel Passmore to pretend to be Karlie.

All this contributed to the belief that Karlie and Khandalyce were still alive.

Kara Wilson, a forensic biologist, came into the story for the first time in 2010, after bones were found in NSW in Belanglo State Forest, some distance from where serial killer Ivan Milat had disposed of his victims. Another set of bones was found in 2015 in a suitcase dumped near a highway in south-east South Australia. Again, identification eluded authorities. Then a woman named Tanya phoned CrimeStoppers. Kara Wilson entered the investigation for a second time. How did that work out?

Kara has been working at FASS (the Forensic and Analytical Science Service Centre) for many years now and it just so happened that she was the go-to forensic biologist for DNA extraction when the bones came to the lab in 2010. She did a lot of DNA comparisons against the bones and other missing person cases but there was never a match.

Finally, in 2015, the call came through from South Australian Police about the bones found in Wynarka. SAPOL wanted Kara to check if that victim could possibly be the daughter of the victim found in Belanglo State Forest in 2010.

I was so glad I had the opportunity to interview Kara because she was able to provide an insight into the science that linked these cases but also, from a personal point of view, share what it was like to finally crack the case.

Holdom’s intermittent visits to his cousin Christine and her husband Dereck in Canberra brought in ACT investigators. Did Christine and Dereck do anything wrong?

Christine and Dereck had Karlie, Holdom and Khandalyce stay at their home in late 2008. They were some of the last people to see the mother and child alive.

They became key witnesses in the case because of this reason. They told police that Karlie and Holdom had an argument about board one night and they took off in her car towards the Belanglo State Forest. The next morning Holdom returned without Karlie, claiming he’d dropped her at a hotel.

This was one of a handful of suspicious circumstances that you’d think would have raised red flags. Holdom also had a scratch on his face and he asked Dereck to trade-in Karlie’s car. A few days later he told Dereck and Christine he was going to drop Khandalyce at her grandmother’s house in South Australia. Obviously, that didn’t happen, and she was never seen again.

Derek and Christine were never charged with an offence, and they provided statements to police to help with the investigation. I spoke to Dereck in 2019 and he said he didn’t have any idea something untoward had happened to Karlie and Khandalyce.

In SA, detective Amanda Bridge of the Major Crime Investigation Branch was one of the investigators. Which aspects were she and her colleagues looking into? 

South Australian detectives had carriage of the suitcase investigation from the day it was found so the bulk of their work focused around that. They carried out raids on the homes of Holdom’s associates in Adelaide’s northern suburbs in 2015. They were also looking into the fraud carried out in Karlie’s name after her murder.

Detective Bridge had the task of interviewing Hazel Passmore. This happened twice. On the second occasion, Passmore provided an induced statement. This meant any information she provided couldn’t be used to build a case against her.

These are difficult decisions for police to make sometimes. They have to weigh up the value of someone’s evidence and how useful it would be in nailing a prosecution. Given Hazel was with the killer for years, police suspected she knew more than she had originally let on.

In November 2015, Hazel detailed in her statement the admissions Holdom had made to her over the years.  She also spoke about finding the photographs of Karlie’s body and provided other startling information.

A Mrs Isaacs in the NSW town of Narrandera provided police with useful information.

This was one of the jaw-dropping moments in the investigation. Homicide detectives were trying to figure out exactly where Khandalyce was killed. They retraced Holdom’s trip from Canberra to Adelaide via Wagga Wagga, using his old phone and bank records. The detectives knew, according to bank records, that Holdom paid for a night at a motel in Narranderra.

The detectives went there, albeit eight years later, in the hope they could find more evidence: a receipt or check in registration. The new owners didn’t have records that dated back that far.

The detectives then tracked down the previous owner. At first, she indicated she didn’t have any records dating back to her time at the motel. But a week or so later, she called one of the detectives and confirmed she’d found what they were looking for.

The detectives went rushing out to meet Mrs Isaacs, who handed over a handwritten registration note from December 2008. On it Holdom had written his name and address and indicated he was checking in with one child.

It was remarkable that police ended up with this evidence so many years on from the crime. It all but confirmed that Khandalyce was killed in or around that motel as it was the last sign of her alive.

In Sydney in 2017, at Holdom’s committal hearing in the Local Court, prosecutor Victoria Engel had a vital role. She was also active in the 2018 trial in the NSW Supreme Court, alongside senior prosecutor Mark Tedeschi QC. 

Victoria Engel followed this case from charge to sentence. She worked closely with the officer-in-charge, Detective Sergeant Darryn Gunn, and his team in compiling the huge brief of evidence (made up of 42 volumes).

Karlie’s stepfather was glowing in his praise for her, as well as another Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) solicitor on the case, Bella Partridge. The amount of evidence they were dealing with  ̶  hundreds of witness statements, pages and pages of phone records, forensic reports, graphic photographs  ̶  was overwhelming. They were brilliant lawyers but, importantly to Karlie and Khandalyce’s family, they were also empathetic and kind. They treated them respectfully and sensitively.

By the time this case had finished Ms Engel had been appointed a crown prosecutor, one of the youngest appointments in NSW history, which was a testament to her ability.

Karlie’s mother could not give a victim impact statement at the sentencing hearing in November 2018 because she had died back in 2012. Karlie’s stepfather Scott was there, with Debbie Gibson supporting him. Why did you draw attention to Gibson’s role? 

I remember first seeing Debbie Gibson at a repatriation ceremony for Khandalyce in Adelaide in 2015. I saw her again at Holdom’s sentencing hearing in 2018, and her name had come up a few times during the course of my research.

She was a homicide victim support officer with South Australia Police and that role takes a special kind of person. You are essentially living a family’s journey of grief with them. As well as helping them understand the judicial process, you’re their rock, someone who is there during the worst time of a person’s life.

I am in awe of people in that role. The work must be incredibly draining at times. After Scott Povey made special mention of Debbie (he doubted he could have coped without her), I wanted to make sure I highlighted the people who made a difference behind the scenes.

Former SA Victims’ Rights Commissioner Michael O’Connell was another example. Over the years he represented the family’s views when they weren’t ready to speak publicly themselves. I remember seeing him overcome by emotion at the ceremony in 2015 and it was a sober reminder of the toll this case had taken on many people.

Thank you, Ava.

The Lost Girls by Ava Benny-Morrison is published by ABC Books and is now available in all good bookstores and online.