MICHAEL USHER: Stacey Thorne’s real killer is still walking free

Michael Usher
The Nightly
Scott Austic was acquitted of Stacey Thorne’s murder in 2020 after having spent almost 13 years behind bars
Scott Austic was acquitted of Stacey Thorne’s murder in 2020 after having spent almost 13 years behind bars Credit: Daniel Wilkins/The West Australian

There are some times when politicians use their extraordinary powers of parliamentary privilege to hold people to account, where they may not have been held responsible by our courts, police or media. It can be a noble privilege, used wisely by responsible politicians.

Or it can be an overreach of power, used by opportunistic politicians. This article is more about that. A cheap act, in my view, to grandstand on a highly emotional, unsolved murder of a pregnant woman. A hideously brutal crime where the killer roams free to this day.

I’ll get to the politician in a minute, but for background this is a story I’ve covered over many years and spent a lot of time investigating. So, I get a bit activated when people try and leech off this terrible crime without understanding the deep pain it continues to cause.

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Teacher’s aide Stacey Thorne was heavily pregnant when she was murdered in her home, in country Western Australia in 2007. She was stabbed 21 times. It was a frenzied attack, with Stacey somehow able to stagger from her home and down the path a short distance before collapsing. The father of the unborn baby was Scott Austic. A local man with two children of his own, who’d known Stacey since school, and was intoxicated at the local pub that night. Two years later Scott was convicted of Stacey’s murder and served 12 years in jail but was ultimately allowed a retrial. A dedicated legal and forensic team had presented new evidence to have that re-trial granted and in 2020, Austic was acquitted and freed.

A jury took two hours to find that three key pieces of evidence used to convict him had been tampered with, or planted, and Scott Austic was not the killer. Of enormous forensic doubt was the murder weapon itself.

A small blade was found in a scrubby patch of land near the murder scene, some time after local SES crews had swept the area and said they found nothing. In the retrial they testified to this. But as detectives were milling around a day or so later, the knife was found by them. It was the murder weapon, they claimed. And this evidence was used to help convict Austic the first time around.

But in the retrial leading UK forensic pathologist Dr Richard Shepherd gave evidence that not only did the knife contain no trace of Austic’s DNA, but that the blade’s length didn’t match the deep wounds suffered by Stacey. Hers were 13 to 15cm in depth, and the knife at best was 10cm. The knife discovered by chance at the scene was not the murder weapon, Dr Shepherd concluded. He also told me in an interview that the way the stab wounds were inflicted were likely not from a man. He argued this was a passionate crime of hate and harm and that the angle of wounds suggested an attack more likely inflicted by a woman in such circumstances, not a man.

Story for Saturday on an appeal bid by Scott Austic. Police photographs of the murder weapon which was found in a paddock by officers.
Police photographs of the murder weapon officers claimed to have found in a paddock. Credit: Unknown/Supplied

So, we get to a new report by private investigator Robyn Cottman, claiming to throw shade on all that evidence, questioning the experts and the jury, suggesting they got it wrong in letting Scott Austic walk free. Ms Cottman is a former WA police officer with apparent ties to the former lead detective investigating Stacey Thorne’s death, John Hindriksen. Now out of the police force, he’s said to have done some work for Ms Cottman.

When I emailed Ms Cottman with that inquiry, she didn’t answer that point but said she was acting on work initiated by the Thorne family who she says approached her to review the police action in the case, and this resulted in her 32-page report. Ms Cottman told me when the Thorne family approached her “the case was closed by WA Police and the family had no answers”. WA Police have confirmed the case was never closed, and rewards for information remain in place. Ms Cottman added in a statement: “I have no interest in defending either side of the case … reviewing the evidence raised concerns about several areas … and I stand by its findings.”

This report was not produced for public scrutiny or submitted for police or judicial consideration, that we can see at least, but instead dropped like a bombshell in the WA Parliament by the shadow police minister Peter Collier. Although its independence is of question, Mr Collier tabled the review. Evoking Stacey’s honour, Mr Collier let rip, saying he was duty bound to comment on her murder and that he couldn’t remain silent. He then pivoted to attack the judiciary. Fighting for Stacey’s honour or using her to grandstand for a political attack on the Government?

Scott Austic was acquitted of murder in 2020 after having spent almost 13 years behind bars in WA.
Scott Austic was acquitted of murder in 2020 after having spent almost 13 years behind bars in WA. Credit: Daniel Wilkins/The West Australian

Where Mr Collier became silent was on key forensic evidence. Such as the fact the knife didn’t have a single cell of Scott Austic’s DNA. Not a mention of that in the speech he felt “duty bound” to give under privilege in Parliament. He knew better it seemed, than the forensic experts, the sworn evidence of police, the judge and the good members of the jury. The same evidence was before the jury. They considered it all and chose to acquit Scott Austic.

It legitimately made news and led to the West Australian newspaper’s headline the next morning of “HE DID IT” with the sub headline of “Bombshell investigation finds murder acquittal was WRONG.”

To that, Austic’s lawyer during the retrial Dr Clint Hampson gave me a statement saying, “the recent articles … were defamatory and in my view disgusting.” But he said he’s not under instructions to take action. “No one wants to sue for defamation in today’s environment.” I should add, The West took its own legal advice on that story, as have we in publishing this article. And not helping himself is Scott Austic. No angel, he recently made headlines again over drug issues.

But Dr Hampson summed up what everyone does agree with in this murder. “Ms Thorne’s killer remains out there. The family is still without closure, and I feel for them. Whilst the WA Police have confirmed the case remains open, it is uncertain as to what they are doing.”

It’s a good question. And a stunt under privilege in Parliament by a grandstanding politician, relying on a review by an ex-police officer-turned-private investigator, will be no shield to protect past detectives or current detectives who should be asking very hard and very uncomfortable questions of people in Stacey’s hometown about what they know about that horrible night she and her unborn child were murdered.

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