Lismore tragedy: Family and mother of toddler Rowan, murdered by father, open up on ‘incomprehensible grief’

Remy Varga and David Johns
The Nightly
Rowan with his mum Sophie Roome.
Rowan with his mum Sophie Roome. Credit: Supplied by family

The mother and family of a toddler killed by his father in a suspected murder-suicide in Lismore say they are grappling with incomprehensible grief after the two-year-old was killed in what they describe as “an evil and cowardly act of violence”.

Dr Sophie Roome and her family said two-year-old Rowan had been killed by the person he “should have been able to trust the most” after police found the bodies of the toddler and his father James Harrison inside a house in East Lismore, about 740km north of Sydney, on Sunday.

NSW Premier Chris Minns said on Wednesday that he had been completely heartbroken by the “evil act” that had left the community “completely in despair” after it emerged Harrison had likely gassed his son and himself to death.

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His comments came amid reports a senior NSW Health executive had praised Harrison, a 38-year-old business analyst from Perth, as a wonderful colleague, a beloved friend and a proud dad days after the deaths.

A photo released by the family of Rowan and Dr Roome shows the golden-haired toddler beaming at his mother as she smiles back at him, hoisting the two-year-old on her hip.

In a statement, Dr Roome and her family said they were grieving the loss of their “precious little boy” who touched the hearts of everyone lucky enough to be in his world.

“Rowan was a beautiful, joyful and adored little boy,” said the statement.

“He had so many amazing qualities, and his short life was filled with rich and happy experiences.

“He loved music, the beach, swimming, his friends and his family.

“He touched the hearts of everyone lucky enough to be in his world.”

Rowan was with his father on a planned custody visit on Sunday despite an apprehended violence order taken out by Dr Roome against Harrison.

The worried mum called NSW Police after her ex-partner failed to return their son at 4.30pm on Sunday.

Just before 6pm officers knocked on the door of the East Lismore home before leaving when no one answered.

They returned more than four hours later after Rowan’s grandmother made a second call to police, this time breaking down the door to find the bodies of the father and son.

Investigators suspect Harrison, a 38-year-old business analyst from Perth, had rigged a system to poison himself and his son with carbon monoxide.

In a statement, Dr Roome and her family acknowledged the immense suffering of Harrison’s family and thanked people for providing support.

“Rowan’s life was ended by an evil and cowardly act of violence, perpetrated by a person he should have been able to trust the most,” they said in a statement.

“The are no possible excuses for this hurt, and no end to the pain it has caused.

“We are devastated. We will love and miss Rowan forever.”

NSW Premier Chris Minns said his thoughts were with Dr Roome and said the tragedy had left the community in despair.

“It’s completely heartbreaking, I can only imagine what that mum is going through today and it’s an evil act,” he said.

“I’m horrified by it, I’m sure the community is completely in despair as a result and I am just thinking about that doctor, that mother’s family and friends what they’re going through right now.”

The NSW government announced a review of bail laws as well as $230m in additional funding to combat domestic and family violence after the alleged murder of mum Molly Ticehurst last month by her former partner Daniel Billings last month.

At the time of the alleged killing Billings was on bail over charges of raping and stalking Ticehurst, a resident of the central NSW town of Forbes.

When her son did not return from an access visit on Sunday afternoon, Dr Roome raised the alarm with local police.
When her son did not return from an access visit on Sunday afternoon, Dr Roome raised the alarm with local police. Credit: 7NEWS

Mr Minns said his government was willing to listen to law enforcement and domestic and family violence prevention activists but he feared the issue might never be resolved: “My great fear is we can make major interventions when it comes to the law in NSW but there will still be terrible people who commit horrific acts in the state.”

“It’s one of the reasons why we’ve committed millions of dollars to early intervention and prevention programs, so we can change a terrible culture that precipitates this horrific crime.”

The Daily Telegraph reported that NSW Health Clinical Excellence Commission director of information management Andre Jenkins praised Harrison, a CEC employee, about two days after the deaths.

“It is with indescribable sadness that I find myself letting you know that James Harrison and his son Rowan died on Sunday,” Mr Jenkins said in the email that offered support services to staff.

“There are no words to adequately describe the loss of a wonderful colleague and beloved friend.”

The email made no mention of the circumstances surrounding Harrison or his son Rowan’s death but praised Harrison as “generous with his time”.

NSW Health Minister Ryan Park said the email was “completely unacceptable and has caused significant distress to staff”.

“I want to make clear that it does not reflect the views of NSW Health, and that it was not in any way endorsed or authorised by Health,” he said.

“This is an extremely difficult time for local health staff, and I want to reiterate that support is being made available to them.

“Many of you also shared memories of Rowan popping up in meetings with his proud dad.”

Dr Roome and her family have requested privacy and NSW Police will prepare a report for the coroner.

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