On the back of Norma Brown’s bedroom door hangs a beautiful maroon velvet jacket, adorned with diamanté buttons. As she tenderly gathers it in her hands and strokes the fabric, the retired widow can’t believe it’s been 25 years this month since her beloved daughter Paula last wore it, while on a girls’ night out in Sydney, Australia.
The jacket came home that night, but Paula didn’t. The young hairdresser disappeared from the city’s bustling Oxford Street on May 4, 1996, after becoming separated from her friends.
Paula’s battered body was found eight days later. She was killed with two blows to the head and dumped in bushland south of the central city, in a murder that has remained unsolved.
“The hardest thing for us is not having that closure or sense of justice being served,” says Norma, 75, sitting alongside her son and Paula’s younger brother Daryl, 52.
“It feels like unfinished business,” he agrees. “Somebody out there knows what really happened to her.”
Revisiting those first nightmarish days – after getting the call in Auckland telling them that 30-year-old Paula was missing – the duo have their theories over what occurred that fateful night when her drink was proven to have been spiked.
“Paula ran her own hair salon and one of her staff was leaving to have a baby, so after work on the Friday, they all went out to celebrate at a restaurant,” tells Norma. “They loved dancing, so they went to a nightclub up on the main road. Paula had taken her velvet coat off and hung it on her chair, then went downstairs to the ladies’ toilets. Unbeknown to her friends, there was a door from the toilet that went into another bar, which Paula had gone through.
“I think she had every intention to go back upstairs as she wouldn’t have left her jacket behind. Her friends went down to the toilets, couldn’t see her anywhere and assumed she had gone to catch the last ferry home to Manly, where she lived with her fiancé David. Her friend picked up her jacket and took it home.
“The next morning, David rang her friends, asking, “Did Paula end up staying at your place?” They said, “No, we thought she got the last boat home.” But David had waited at the ferry terminal until after the last boat. Paula wasn’t on it. That’s when he rang the police and called us in New Zealand.”
A distraught Norma and Daryl flew to Sydney two days later to search for her, posting missing person fliers on lampposts around the city. In their appeal for any information, police also put mannequins dressed in Paula’s distinctive clothing – a zebra-print mini-skirt, black lace shirt, black stockings and platform shoes.
“It came to Mother’s Day and I asked David’s family if I could go to church with them,” says Norma, tearfully. “We all went to Mass and I prayed, pleading for help to find Paula. I silently asked, ‘Please bring Paula home today. We’ll accept her in whatever way she comes.’
“Afterwards, we all went back out searching. Then the police knocked on the door at 4pm. Paula had been found. A truck driver had stopped to secure his load and looked down and saw a body in the bushes at Port Botany.”
Norma believes the murderer had been watching Paula in the nightclub, paying attention to her expensive gold jewellery.
“I think it might have begun as a robbery, which went really bad. Paula had beautiful jewellery on, including gold and diamond earrings, a fob watch with a pure gold chain that was my grandfather’s that I’d given to Paula when she decided to live in Australia at 18 years old.
“None of her jewellery was ever found.”
A 2002 coronial inquest heard that Sydney painter Martin Trejbal, who lived 2km from where Paula’s body had been discovered, and had volunteered wild theories to police in the days after Paula’s disappearance, was a person of interest in the case.
However, Sydney’s Deputy State Coroner was told there was not enough evidence to convict anyone of Paula’s murder. And three years later the case went cold – possibly forever – after Trejbal died in his backyard of a drug overdose that police decided was suicide.
“Martin’s suicide proves to me that he couldn’t live with himself any longer,” tells Norma. “If only there was the DNA technology around then that the police have now.”
Adds Daryl, “What was also incredibly hard was how people judged Paula. Because she was a beautiful young woman going out dancing in a short skirt, she was penalised. People said, ‘Well, she shouldn’t have been out drinking wearing that.’ Why shouldn’t she be allowed to do that and expect to get home safely?”
In the immediate aftermath of his sister’s death, Daryl says he felt “incredibly lost” and it had a massive impact on him to become driven to improve services for people with complex brain injuries.
“I was in my twenties when Paula died,” says Daryl, his voice wavering with emotion. “I always looked up to her, and she was so supportive and loving. After she was murdered, I changed my life and gave up my job as a customs agent to start working with people who had intellectual disabilities and traumatic brain injuries (TBI).
“Because I often thought, if she had survived the blows to the head, what would life have looked like for her?”
Five years ago, Daryl founded Frankton Park, a residential rehabilitation service that runs 11 houses in Hamilton and one in Palmerston North, providing around-the-clock support to people living with TBI.
“They’re people whose lives have changed forever after sustaining a head injury through car accidents, assaults or spinal cord injuries. They want to strive for that independence they had before, so we support that as they work towards regaining physical, mental, spiritual and emotional wellbeing.”
For the close-knit family, healing from Paula’s death came through their strong family bond.
“It’s important for other families who are suffering right now to understand that you can rise above grief and still thrive,” enthuses Daryl. “It’s important that people know that.”
Norma and her late husband Maurice were also grateful they lived on Rakino Island, a remote community in the Hauraki Gulf that has no shops, infrequent ferries to Auckland and fewer than 20 permanent residents.
“I feel that Maurice and I were very lucky to have moved there a year before Paula was murdered because you’ve got the space to cry or yell, to do whatever you have to do to get your grief out without other people hearing you,” she says, smiling.
“Maurice had got a contract there with Auckland City Council and initially I was hesitant to move there, but I thought, ‘Oh, well, we’ll give it 12 months.’ Of course, we loved it and if you want company, it’s there.”
Daryl pats his mother’s knee and jokes, “Thank God she lives on an island because she sings so loudly! You get to the top of the drive and all you can hear is her belting out ‘Love, love, love…’
“Because singing is so good for your soul!” retorts the cheerful grandmother-of-six and great-grandmother-of-three.
“And it’s what’s got me through after Paula died. My nana used to tell me, ‘You may never feel like it when times are tough, but sing.’ Somewhere Over the Rainbow is one of my favourites to sing and often I look up, thinking of Paula, and a rainbow appears in the sky, which is incredible.
“We miss her so much and feel absolutely cheated. She was amazing, generous, with a beautiful nature. Everybody loved her.”
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