Three women killed in Ballarat: Australia’s violence issue in the spotlight after brutal VIC alleged murders

Remy Varga, Georgina Noack
The Nightly
6 Min Read
The deaths of three women in Ballarat – Samantha Murphy, Rebecca Young and Hannah McGuire – has unleashed a wave of grief and anger, highlighting a violence problem that is rife right across the nation.
The deaths of three women in Ballarat – Samantha Murphy, Rebecca Young and Hannah McGuire – has unleashed a wave of grief and anger, highlighting a violence problem that is rife right across the nation. Credit: Supplied

Their story starts like an Australian dream — one about love, aspiration and hard work.

Hannah McGuire, 23, and Lachlan Young, 21, beam next to a sold sign outside a single-storey red brick house in Sebastopol on Ballarat’s south-western fringe.

The couple are young, in love and have just bought a home in the suburbs.

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Over the past week that dream has turned into a nightmare that is both horrifying and familiar. Ms McGuire was the third woman allegedly murdered by a man in Ballarat in the past couple of months.

First mother Samantha Murphy disappeared on February 4. Less than two weeks later, mum-of-five Rebecca Young was strangled by her partner in a suspected murder-suicide.

Photos of recent victims are seen on display where members of the Ballarat community participate in a rally against men's violence.
Photos of recent victims are seen on display where members of the Ballarat community participate in a rally against men's violence. Credit: CC SS/AAPIMAGE

On Tuesday, Mr Young appeared court charged with his ex-girlfriend’s murder after her body was found in a burnt-out car in bushland near Scarsdale, about a 15-minute drive from the house the couple bought last year.

The alleged violent murder has sent shock-waves through Ballarat, the State of Victoria and Australia.

Rightly or wrongly, the city, about 115km north-west of Melbourne, has come to represent the scourge of violence against women that haunts and shames Australia.

Already 18 women have been killed across the nation this year, according to the advocacy group Counting Dead Women Australia.

And more than one in four women in Australia has experienced violence by an intimate partner or family member since the age of 15, according to the Personal Safety Survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Respect Victoria acting chief executive officer Serina McDuff said domestic and family violence was happening in every suburb and town across the country.

“We will all know victims and perpetrators of violence in our lifetime,” she said.

Men who use violence aren’t fairytale monsters; they are our neighbours, our family members, our friends, our colleagues.

Ms McGuire, popular and generous, worked as a teacher’s aide at Delacombe Primary School and at her family’s pub, the National Hotel in the neighbouring town of Clunes.

Mourners have left bouquets of flowers outside the hotel in the former gold-rush town, and a poster stuck on the painted brick pub wall above the flowers bears her face along with the words “She Matters”.

McGuire family pub in Clunes, Victora.
McGuire family pub in Clunes, Victora. Credit: Remy Varga/The Nightly

The same sentiment is on a card left with a bouquet of yellow roses and white daises by Ms McGuire’s family on a charcoaled black log next to where the car containing the 23-year-old’s body was found off Victoria Road near Scarsdale last Friday.

“Hannah, always remember you mattered,” the card reads.

“You were important and loved and you brought to this world things no one else could. We loved you for a million years and we’ll love you for a million more. Our special princess, love Mum, Dad, Fletch and Jude.”

Hannah McGuire.
Hannah McGuire. Credit: Shannon Hampton/GoFundMe

Curled wire, bits of plastic and shattered glass remain scattered across the scorched black earth and burnt eucalyptus leaves at the site over which the faint smell of oil lingers.

What transpired in the months since Ms McGuire and Mr Young bought the home together is unclear, but at 1am on Saturday, just hours after the alleged murder, he reportedly posted an image of himself with his former girlfriend.

Ballarat is awash with dark gossip spreading like oil spilt in water. The Nightly has confirmed Mr Young was on bail at the time of the alleged murder on unrelated charges. He will face court on May 6 on these charges.

Ms McGuire is the third woman allegedly killed by a man in Ballarat in two months.

Mother-of-three Samantha Murphy was the first, disappearing after she left her house on Eureka Street in Ballarat at 7am on February 4 to go for a run.

On Thursday, Victoria Police commenced a third large-scale search with hopes of finding the body of the 51-year-old in forest around Enfield. It followed previous searches in Buninyong and the Canadian State Forest that failed to uncover anything.

Samantha Murphy, 51, vanished on February 4 when she left her home in Ballarat East to go for a run.
Samantha Murphy, 51, vanished on February 4 when she left her home in Ballarat East to go for a run. Credit: Unknown/Supplied
Police use a cadaver dog during the search for the body of missing woman Samantha Murphy in near Enfield State Park in Ballarat, Thursday, April 11, 2024.
Police use a cadaver dog during the search for the body of missing woman Samantha Murphy in near Enfield State Park in Ballarat, Thursday, April 11, 2024. Credit: JOEL CARRETT/AAPIMAGE

As yet, this latest search, using cadaver dogs, has also failed to unearth any trace of her.

Vast bushland surrounds Ballarat, swathes of eucalyptus, reddish-brown dirt and the occasional abandoned mine shaft.

Ms Murphy’s husband, Mick, with whom she ran a car repair business, has said he still searches for his missing wife every day.

Patrick Stephenson, an apparent stranger to Ms Murphy and the son of former AFL player Orren Stephenson, has been charged with her murder.

Why the 22-year-old would have allegedly attacked and killed the popular local businesswoman remains a mystery.

Friends have said Mr Stephenson was on a bender the night before Ms Murphy disappeared, attending a house party before heading to local nightclub The Deck. Video from the party shows white lines on the screen of a mobile phone.

Less than two weeks after Ms Murphy vanished Rebecca Young was strangled by her partner Ian Butler, who had links to outlaw motorcycle gang the Bandidos, at her home in a suspected murder-suicide.

Rebecca Young, 42, was found dead inside a property on the edge of Ballarat on the evening of February 16 alongside her partner Ian Butler, who has ties to the Bandidos bikie gang. It is understood she had been stabbed.
Rebecca Young, 42, was found dead inside a property on the edge of Ballarat on the evening of February 16 alongside her partner Ian Butler, who has ties to the Bandidos bikie gang. It is understood she had been stabbed. Credit: 9NEWS/Supplied

Two of Ms Young’s children were home during the horrific tragedy. She lived less than a kilometre from Ms McGuire in Sebastopol, a suburb marked by violence and poverty.

Ballarat has higher rates of domestic violence than the rest of Victoria, according to data from the Crime Statistics Agency.

Rates of family violence increased by nearly 4 per cent in 2023, with 2200 reports, compared to an increase of 2 per cent across the rest of the State.

National Women’s Safety Alliance executive director Katherine Berney said this violence was causing “immeasurable damage” to communities and families across Australia.

“Thousands of women and children and victims of violence every day choose between being in poverty and living in violence,” she said.

“Our community attitudes are changing, and legislative work is progressing, which is great, but we do have a long way to go in terms of how we match that energy and what actions we take.”

The scene where Hannah McGuire’s body was found near Scarsdale.
The scene where Hannah McGuire’s body was found near Scarsdale. Credit: Remy Varga/The Nightly

It’s been just over a decade since Luke Batty, the son of domestic violence advocate Rosie Batty, was killed by his father Greg Anderson at cricket practice in the town of Tyabb on the Mornington Peninsula.

Ms Batty told The Nightly that there was no quick fix to the scourge of violence against women and change would take generations, describing progress as slow but unstoppable.

“Men need to change,” she said.

“And it’s how we continue to work together proactively to deconstruct the gender stereotyping that contributes to family violence — and it’s a spectrum of violence, it doesn’t always end in murder, but sadly it can and does.

“It will take all of us to deconstruct that.”

Since the tragic death of Luke Batty, Victoria has held a royal commission and spent nearly $4 billion overhauling how State agencies handle family violence.

Yet women in the State keep dying. This week, Victorian Premier Jacinta Allan said Ms McGuire’s death had left Ballarat and the nation in a state of grief.

“This is a tragedy for the broader community, and it speaks to the tragedy that families and communities are experiencing across the country far too often,” she said.

Women’s Minister Katy Gallagher said violence against women and children was at “epidemic levels” across Australia.

“Change is needed and it’s a matter of urgency,” Senator Gallagher said, adding the Federal Government had invested $2.3b in bolstering services to support women and children.

Hundreds are expected to attend a vigil decrying violence against women that will take place in Ballarat on Friday.

Event organiser Sissy Austin said women in Ballarat felt unsafe after the spate of alleged murders.

“Women are living on eggshells, living on edge,” she wrote on the online event page.

“Putting on the runners and going for a run feels like risk-taking behaviour; it is not and we shouldn’t be feeling like this. It is not normal for our beautiful bushlands to become known as a place where men’s violence is perpetrated on our bodies.”

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