Murder trial halted as 'victim' is found alive

From Roger Maynard in Sydney

A TEENAGED Australian girl thought to be dead after being missing for
nearly five years has reappeared during the trial of a man the
prosecution said had confessed to murdering her.

Natasha Ryan, 18, was last seen in l998 when she was driven away in a car
by an unidentified man in her home town of Rockhampton in Queensland.

Last night the young woman was back with her stunned but delighted family
after being found in the cupboard of a house she had been sharing with
her boyfriend.

Her discovery forced the adjournment of the trial of Leonard Fraser, 51,
who is accused of murdering her and three other women between 1998 and
1999. The prosecution had said that Mr Fraser had confessed to killing
all four women when detectives secretly taped him in prison.

The case was adjourned until next week to give his lawyers time to
consider moves to have the trial dismissed.

News of the teenager’s survival was announced by Paul Rutledge, for the
prosecution, in Rockhampton Supreme Court. “I’m pleased to inform the
court that Leonard John Fraser is not guilty of the murder of Natasha
Anne Ryan,” he said. “Natasha Ryan is alive.”

Her father, Robert, who has remarried, had been so sure that his daughter
was dead that he held a special memorial service in Bundaberg Crematorium
Chapel three years after she disappeared to give the family “closure”.

“I don’t believe that Natasha would have let me go through all the pain
if she was out there,” he said at the time.

When the call came through to say that she had been found alive, he was
so sceptical that he asked Natasha to reveal his pet name for her. There
was no hesitation. “Grasshopper,” she replied.

Her mother, Jenny, also found it hard to believe the police call at
first. “It took a little bit of time before she was able to fully
appreciate that they had found her daughter alive and well,” Ross Lo
Monaco, the family lawyer, said. “She had to deal with the emotional
issue of attending the police station, perhaps with false hope. It was
something that was very distressing for her.”

What happened to the auburn-haired girl, who was just 14 when she went
missing, is still a mystery, although it is known that she was found with
Scott Black, the same boyfriend she had at the time of her disappearance.
Mr Black had pleaded guilty in November 1999 to wilful obstruction of
police after aiding Natasha when she ran away from home in July 1998, two
months before she was last seen by her family. Neighbours near the house
where the missing girl was found, which is less than a mile from her
mother’s home, said yesterday that they did not know that a woman had
been living next door.

The first hint that Natasha was alive came in an anonymous letter to
Rockhampton detectives on Wednesday. When police visited the house, they
found her hiding in a cupboard. She had left the house only six times
since 1998 and was unaccustomed to daylight.

Mr Lo Monaco said that Natasha seemed to be in good health. He added:
“There’s no suggestion she’s been ill-treated or maltreated.”

He said that Natasha’s reunion with her mother had been
“heart-wrenching”. “Obviously Mrs Ryan was very relieved to see her
daughter looking safe and well,” he said. “One can well imagine the
emotions that must have been going through particularly the mother’s mind
at the time.”

Mr Fraser was charged with Natasha’s murder even though her body had not
been found. The bodies of his other alleged victims have been found.

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