Cold case family face ‘most traumatic kind of loss’

Rex Martinich |

A coroner said Ian Seeley (with mask) and his father possibly were involved in the disappearance.
A coroner said Ian Seeley (with mask) and his father possibly were involved in the disappearance.

A family caught up in one of Queensland’s biggest cold case mysteries will continue to be haunted by the unknown after a coroner was unable to find answers.

Sharron Phillips, 20, vanished on May 8, 1986, while waiting for her boyfriend after running out of petrol in Wacol, in southwest Brisbane.

Her yellow sedan was later found parked beside the road, and her shoes and purse were in a nearby drain.

Sharron Phillips (file image)
Sharron Phillips vanished on May 8, 1986, while waiting for her boyfriend. (HANDOUT/SUPPLIED)

State Coroner Terry Ryan on Monday handed down findings that Ms Phillips had died in suspicious circumstances.

However, he said the cause and details of her death were unknown, with the person or persons responsible unable to be identified.

“The ambiguous loss experienced by the family of a missing person is considered to be the most traumatic kind of loss, and most unmanageable form of stress,” Mr Ryan said.

The eldest of Ms Phillips’ eight siblings, Donna Anderson, had described her to the inquest as “pretty, vivacious, rebellious and cheeky” and said she hoped to one day find her remains and lay her to rest.

“There is this darkness that haunts us all, of the suffering and pain Sharron may have endured in the last hours and moments of life,” Ms Anderson said. 

Mr Ryan reopened the 1988 inquest into the disappearance after police identified taxi driver Raymond Peter Mulvihill as the No.1 suspect.

Mr Mulvihill’s stepson Ian Seeley testified during hearings in 2020 and 2021 that he told a former detective in 2016 his father had abducted and killed Ms Phillips.

Mr Seeley referred to Mr Mulvihill as his father after he had “raised him as his own”.

Ian Seeley (file image)
The coroner said Mr Seeley was an unreliable witness. (Darren England/AAP PHOTOS)

Mr Ryan found Mr Seeley may possibly have also been involved in the disappearance, but there was not enough evidence against him or Mr Mulvihill.

Ms Phillips was last heard from making a call from a telephone box to a friend just after midnight on May 9 near the property where Mr Mulvihill based his taxi.

Mr Ryan said Mr Seeley was an unreliable witness and his evidence was not enough to support his allegations against Mr Mulvihill.

“Given the inconsistencies and lack of credibility that can be afforded to Mr Seeley and the absence of further reliable evidence … I am not able to conclude that Mr Mulvihill played a role in Sharron’s disappearance to the necessary standard,” Mr Ryan said.

Mr Mulvihill died of cancer in 2002.

Queensland Police advised the Coroners Court in 2017 that he would have been arrested for Ms Phillips’ murder based on available evidence, had he still been alive.

Mr Seeley claimed Mr Mulvihill made a death-bed confession to having sexually assaulted and killed women. 

“You have to tell them about the girls … it’s time to give the girls back,” Mr Mulvihill allegedly said.

Mr Ryan said Mr Seeley claimed at the hearings that after Ms Phillips went missing, Mr Mulvihill threatened him with a knife after he realised his father had placed a captive person in his car boot.

Police search a stormwater drain (file image)
Two large concrete culverts identified by Mr Seeley were excavated but no human remains were found. (Dan Peled/AAP PHOTOS)

“It is significant as to the reliability of this fresh allegation that Mr Seeley only suggested that an assault had taken place after he admitted that he knew someone was in the boot but continued to drive,” Mr Ryan said.

The coroner said there was evidence to support Mr Seeley and Mr Mulvihill being in the Wacol area when Ms Phillips disappeared.

However, Mr Ryan found Mr Seeley had a commercial motive to lie – to benefit his podcast about the case – and had made unsupported claims, such as his father having murdered at least 10 other women and hidden the bodies in a drain alongside Ms Phillips.

Two large concrete culverts identified by Mr Seeley were excavated and searched by hand in May 2016 but no human remains were found.

Mr Ryan recommended Ms Phillips’ death remains with the police cold case investigation team for review and monitoring of any new information.

“I acknowledge Sharron’s family, who have lived with continual and unresolved grief for over 38 years,” Mr Ryan said.

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