Police failures blight ‘troubling’ missing teacher case

Samantha Lock |

Sally Leydon (left) says her mother’s behaviour before leaving Australia was out of character.
Sally Leydon (left) says her mother’s behaviour before leaving Australia was out of character.

The disappearance of a teacher has been referred to homicide detectives after a series of police failures left the case lying dormant for decades while her family were told she was alive and well.

Mother-of-two Marion Barter, 51, disappeared in suspicious circumstances in 1997.

She was last seen on June 22, the day she flew out of Brisbane for an indefinite trip to England with Ric Blum, a man with whom she had recently started a relationship after meeting him through a personal ad.

Ms Barter’s daughter, Sally Leydon, filed a report with police in October, concerned she had not heard from her mother while also noting $80,000 had been drained from her bank account in a series of transactions.

But the file was not marked as a missing-person report and lay dormant for a decade.

NSW State Coroner Teresa O’Sullivan on Thursday accepted Ms Barter was dead and described the circumstances surrounding her disappearance as “troubling”.

Dozens of Ms Leydon’s friends and supporters filled the Sydney courtroom for the inquest findings, with many wearing green in tribute to Ms Barter’s favourite colour.

The Belgian-born Mr Blum did not appear.

Ms O’Sullivan dismissed the NSW Police investigation into Ms Barter’s disappearance as inadequate, noting little was done until 2019, when the case became the subject of a hit podcast series.

The coroner detailed a series of police missteps, including the initial failure to document Ms Barter as missing.

She also criticised Detective Senior Constable Gary Sheehan’s decision to reclassify Ms Barter as located in 2011 when she had not been seen and there was no evidence of her being alive. 

The lack of any police investigation – despite Ms Leydon’s repeated attempts to have officers consider the case – meant crucial evidence was lost, Ms O’Sullivan said.

Marion Barter (file image)
Marion Barter disappeared in suspicious circumstances in 1997. (HANDOUT/NSW POLICE)

The coroner also outlined a series of extraordinary coincidences in the case, including the unusual name Ms Barter adopted via deed poll in the month before she disappeared. 

Ms Barter was last seen at a bus station in the hours before she took a flight under her new identity, Florabella Natalia Marion Remakel.

Her outgoing passenger card stated that she was divorced and intended to live in Luxembourg.

Weeks later, on August 2, she was listed as returning to Australia with an incoming passenger card stating she was married and living in the small European nation.

Ms Barter changed her name because “she was in a relationship with Mr Blum and sought to share a name and life with him”, Ms O’Sullivan found.

The schoolteacher met Mr Blum after the married man placed a personal ad under the name “M F Remakel” without the knowledge of his wife and family.

He encouraged Ms Barter to change her name and start a new life with him in Luxemburg, the coroner said.

There was also evidence she withdrew tens of thousands of dollars from her account, on the encouragement of Mr Blum, before she disappeared.

Inquiries revealed someone accessed the missing woman’s bank account following her disappearance.

Ms O’Sullivan said she did not accept any evidence given by Mr Blum, who she believed was withholding key information and had represented himself to “single, vulnerable women for financial gain”.

“His lies and deception throughout this inquest convinces me that he does indeed know more than he’s saying,” she said.

Ms O’Sullivan has referred the case to the NSW Police unsolved homicide team for review.

A teary Ms Leydon hugged supporters after the findings were delivered, telling them: “We’ll get him eventually.”

In a statement, NSW Police said they would consider the coronial findings.

“This matter has been referred to the homicide squad, unsolved homicide team for ongoing monitoring and assessment,” the statement said. 

“Anyone who may have information that can assist Strike Force Jurunga investigators is urged to contact police.”

A $500,000 reward for information on Ms Barter’s disappearance remains on offer.