A mother’s worst years

Shirley Macey goes to bed every night trying to solve the murder of her daughter, Belinda Williams. Photo by Edwina Williams.
Murder trauma ruins the lives of families and changes attitudes in their communities. Edwina Williams reports.

It’s 2.30am on an icy cold winter’s night in Ballarat. Shirley Macey has driven from her home in suburban Sebastopol and into the city centre. The 63-year-old grandmother parks her brown, ’87 Toyota Corolla and heads into the supermarket alone.

Since her daughter, Belinda was murdered in 1999 – the 20-year anniversary is this June – Shirley Macey says the Ballarat community has treated her differently.

“Coles was open 24 hours a day. That’s when I had to shop because I couldn’t stand people hiding from me,” Macey said.

Macey’s 36-year-old daughter, Belinda Williams, disappeared on the night of June 25. She was murdered by a killer still at large.

There were no signs of a break-in. Police believe she could have known the person who strangled her, while her six-year-old daughter slept in the Elizabeth Street house in Buninyong.

Belinda Williams is most likely one of the 56 percent of Victorian homicide victims who personally know their killer, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Williams had entertained two mothers from her daughter’s primary school at her home surrounded by bushland on the night she disappeared. Williams tucked her daughter into bed after she had been spooked in the dark. She read her to sleep with fairytales.

That was the last time she was seen by anyone in her family and it was the moment that turned their world eternally upside down.

Belinda Williams is one of many Victorian victims of homicide, with 21 women falling victim to suspected homicides last year alone, according to The Coroners’ Court of Victoria.

The CCV also reported that 11 women in 2015 were victims to Victorian homicides. The ABS states women comprise 37 percent of murder victims in Victoria.

An uncomfortable silence can surround the victims’ families left behind. Shirley Macey has experienced this isolation.

Macey is one of many bereaved parents who find themselves alone and deliberately avoided by those uncomfortable that their child died in mysterious circumstances.

Driving along the Midland highway and around Buninyong, Macey sat in the passenger seat recalling the days since the unusual disappearance and shocking death of her daughter.

“The morning of the 26th of June was a beautiful morning. It had been a moonlight night and…foggy,” Macey said, looking out at Scotsburn’s paddocks.

“I was sitting in my bedroom looking at some books thinking ‘everything’s going right…everybody’s doing well’. Things were good.”

Macey went to her sister’s for lunch. While returning, a police car “flew past” her. When she got home, Macey received a call to say her daughter was missing.

Macey said there was “no way” Williams would ever have left her six year-old.

Macey and her other children contacted local police who said they couldn’t do anything until 24 hours had passed and it would become a missing person’s case.

That night, “everybody started looking”.

“A few of us… looked all around the mountain and Belinda’s house because it was moonlight…it was very bright,” she said.

“The next morning…the police did decide to look in the afternoon. They had a helicopter and…went over the mountain.

“From there, lots of people came and we just looked,” Macey said. “We never stopped looking for her.”

Macey led me* down the private road towards Williams’s “very isolated” former home.

“Anybody could have got in from any angle and been quite private; no one would have known. It’s just one house down the little road,” she said.

Macey’s sons searched every day and night for their sister following her disappearance.

“The boys went all in the blackberries. They were all torn and fell down. They thought maybe she’d walked and could have fallen,” she said. “It’s very steep.

“It was just heartbreaking; everybody was heartbroken.”

Eleven days later, Macey went to Melbourne for a television appeal with police. It never went to air.

That afternoon, some bushwalkers on Mount Buninyong found a body in knee-high scrub.

“I’d gone back to Belinda’s house and when I got there, a policeman was…waiting for me,” she said.

“He told me that the people had found her. They were positive she wasn’t there the week before because they walked their dogs on the same walk.”

Macey remembers physically crumpling herself up upon hearing the news.

“I never stood up straight for years afterwards,” she said.

The moment was photographed by The Courier and printed the next day on the front page.

The media coverage ensured everyone in the community knew what had happened to Buninyong’s Belinda. It “changed the feeling of the town” and gave people a reason to be “quite scared”.

Everyone recognised Macey in public because of this trauma. Their attitude towards her changed.

A mother's worst years
Belinda Williams’s body was found by bushwalkers directly under Mount Buninyong’s Telstra Tower. Photo by Edwina Williams.

Liz Porter, author of Cold Case Files, said victims’ families are not always “bombarded with sympathy”.

“Often the reactions are not what you’d expect from people. Sometimes people avoid [the victim’s family] because they don’t know what to say.”

That’s exactly what Macey experienced.

“I’d go into the supermarket and [women] would see me and duck around the other side,” she said. “They avoided you, it was so obvious. They’d see you and gasp.

“Men…would come and say how sorry they are and put their arms around you,” she said.

Macey decided to do her shopping in the middle of the night to avoid being recognised.

Child abuse survivor, Jenny Szymanski, knows just how that feels.

She said people in her life changed their approach to her after becoming aware of the trauma she had experienced.

“Some people when I first started to [talk about it], when I was 39, walked away,” Szymanski said.

“It’s very disturbing because it makes you feel less of a human being… when you did nothing wrong.

“I was living in the Malvern community…and people thought that was what happened to the poor, the uneducated. We know that’s not the truth,” she said.

“A lady was diagnosed with breast cancer in the same week I started my treatment for my abuse. She had a group of 25 women bringing constant food… I didn’t have a phone call.

“We’re all in the same community and she contacted me so embarrassed that she had the support and emotional validation of an illness, yet what happened to me…turned into an illness.

“It’s unresolved…with you until you die,” Szymanski said.

Macey said the “loneliness and despair” of her trauma is crippling.

“It’s not something you can talk about easily, but I have had a few friends that have been absolute stalwarts. I’ve always been able to talk to them,” Macey said.

Szymanski said that not everyone is currently fortunate enough to experience those strong social and emotional “foundations and structures”, but they should be.

“If you’re a trauma victim, why shouldn’t you be provided with the same support system?” she said.

As the car bumped over the Elaine level crossing, Macey said she couldn’t read for 10 years after Belinda Williams was killed. Now 80 years old, she takes “comfort” from reading when she “can’t sleep”.

“Every night I go to bed trying to solve Belinda’s murder. I get up, I read and then go back to bed; it helps,” she said.

Macey “find[s] it helpful” to go to Lake Wendouree a few times a week.

“I get a coffee and sit…and read or look at the activity.

“I might go and sit in the gardens at Buninyong where we used to go,” she said.

As we drove towards Buninyong, the mountain sat in front of us. “Belinda was found directly underneath that beacon,” Macey said. “When I looked at the mountain, for years all I could see was the flashing lights.

“A year does go fast, but every day is the same. People might say to you when the anniversary comes or on her birthday, ‘you must think of Belinda today’, but…every day I’m trying to solve her murder,” she said.

Every year, Macey puts a piece in The Courier.

“They say to me, ‘We can’t believe it’s another year and no-one’s got the $1 million reward.’”

Macey said the last 18 years could’ve been the easiest and nicest of her life, but have been the worst.

“Everybody’s changed and everybody’s…terribly sad. It changes…your outlook on everything,” she said.

“We’re…paying and someone’s scot-free going about their normal business… Our lives have been wrecked.

“Before I die, I would like to have a few years of peace…to have someone held accountable. They’ve lived the last 17-plus years not guilty or they would have perhaps handed themselves in,” Macey said.

She believes someone knows something but maybe they’re scared, waiting for time to go by and children to grow up.

Porter, who works with closed cold cases, said it was unusual the police hadn’t found any helpful forensic evidence but discovering new information is always “possible”.

“Sometimes one person, pressure and consciences get freaked… the case is still open,” she said.

Macey is “hopeful…something will change” and has “always been of that belief”.

“If people try to remember, it was the start of the school holidays. A Friday night…any little thing that was different could build a bigger picture of things,” she said.

If you hold relevant information, please contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.

If you have been affected by this article, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

*The author of this article is the niece of the deceased.