Murder charges laid over young woman’s disappearance

Keira Jenkins |

Allison Bernard went missing more than a decade ago.
Allison Bernard went missing more than a decade ago.

A man has been charged with murder over the disappearance of a 23-year-old woman in a remote Cape York community more than a decade ago.

The woman – referred to as Ms Bernard at the request of her family – was last seen at Archer River Quarry on February 10, 2013 about 11pm.

She had been at the Exchange Hotel in Coen earlier that evening and was expected to return home to Kowanyama but never arrived.

Ms Bernard’s family said in a statement the past 11 years had been a “sad, long journey” for them.

They said she will be remembered as a cheeky little girl who grew into a quiet, proud and loving mother who loved to dance and swim.

The family also criticised police investigations.

“When we reported our loved one missing to the police in 2013 they believed the man who is now charged with her murder and who told police that she ran off in the middle of the night for no reason,” the statement said.

“Our women do not go missing and they don’t run off in the middle of the night.”

The family said police had been pressured by their lawyer to go back and follow up their failed investigation. 

Detective Acting Superintendent Mick Searle said a large-scale search, which included helicopters, police dive squads, the SES and defence force failed to find any sign of Ms Bernard in the months that followed.

“There were challenges in the initial investigation, the fact that Ms Bernard is an Indigenous woman has no impact on that,” he said.

Det Searle said police had been investigating the matter around Coen in the past 12 months but no evidence had been found as a result.

“We have conducted a number of excavations and been in Coen regularly over that time,” he said.

“They will continue as points of interest are identified.”

Ms Bernard’s family said they are grieving and want her to be found so she can be returned home and buried alongside her loved ones. 

Thomas Maxwell Byrnes, 62, who had allegedly been seen at the Exchange Hotel with Ms Bernard on the night of her disappearance, was charged with murder on Tuesday.

The Coen man appeared in Cairns Magistrates Court on Wednesday and is expected to appear again on April 19. 

Det Searle said a $500,000 reward announced in April 2023 was still available for anyone who could help police find Ms Bernard.

He said Ms Bernard’s family deserved to have answers about the young woman’s disappearance.

“Any information that anyone has, please bring it forward because we do want to find Ms Bernard to provide closure for her family,” Det Searle said.

“We’re not going to absolve that grief or frustration or anger but it’s very important for them for the trauma that they’ve suffered.”

A coronial inquest into the death of Ms Bernard initially scheduled for February 19-23 has been shelved until the conclusion of police investigations and all court processes, a spokesperson for the Coroners Court of Queensland said.

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