Hannah’s untold story and the heart-wrenching goodbye
Beneath the news that made a nation catch its collective breath; the headlines that compelled parents to go home that night and hold their children tighter, and beyond the ending that someone else chose for them, in a pea green house in Brisbane's Camp Hill, there is another story to tell of Hannah Clarke and her children.
It is the one her family - parents Lloyd and Sue, brother Nat, and sister-in-law Stacey - tell each other of Hannah, 31, the warrior; of Aaliyah, six, the firecracker, of Laianah four, "Little Middle", the cheeky monkey, and of Trey, three, who was small but mighty.
Together, they were rowdier than a footy team and quieter than a sigh.
They were crazy and silly, bookish and smart, sassy and shy.
They liked playing tricks on people - mostly Lloyd. Aaliyah loved to read chapter books out loud, Laianah never wanted to go to bed at night, Trey sped from room to room as fast as his tiny, twin-piston legs could carry him.
They were a family. They were loving and beloved.
And they were so much more than the domestic violence statistics they became on the morning of February 19, 2020.
That morning, Hannah's estranged husband Rowan Baxter, 42, and father of the three children, ambushed his family on their way to school.
Baxter jumped into their car, doused Hannah and the children - who were tucked into their seatbelts in the back seat - with petrol, and set them alight.
All four would die from their injuries, and Baxter would also die from a self-inflicted knife wound at the crime scene.
That is the ending Rowan Baxter chose for Hannah, Aaliyah, Laianah and Trey's story.
This is the one where the people who loved them rewrite that ending, in the hope of changing someone else's.
In the Brisbane summer of 1981, a young player with South's rugby league club was on his way to Brisbane's New York Hotel to meet the girl of his dreams.
Lloyd Clarke, then 21, was about to be introduced to Sue Adrian, 20, a dental nurse from Mount Gravatt with the "loveliest face", Lloyd now 60, had ever seen.
Five years later, on October 11, 1986, they married, and moved into a small, pea green house in Camp Hill.
This is the house they still live in, the house they brought their first child, Hannah Ashlie, home to.
Born on September 8, 1988, Hannah was, her mother, now 58, smiles, "a beautiful, funny little thing".
"Her ears would stick out so I'd tuck them in behind her headband because I didn't want people teasing her …"
"She spoke really early," Lloyd smiles.
"She was so articulate," Sue adds, and so it goes, Hannah's parents, trying to find their daughter in their words.
Two years after Hannah's birth, a son, Nat, was born, and when he too was brought home to the pea green house, his sister claimed him as her own.
She would change him, cuddle him, and Nat, now 30, laughs, style him.
"I'd walk out wearing something and Hann would say, "Nope, you're not wearing that" and march me back into the room.
His sister was, he says, his anchor in his youngest years, and one of his closest friends in his older ones.
When Hannah was named school captain of Whites Hill State College in her 2005 senior year, she was, he says, that girl; the one most likely to have a big, beautiful life.
And for a long time, Hannah Clarke did.
There were rituals in the pea green house.
At the end of the working week, Sue and Lloyd Clarke's Friday night dinners.
Legendary in certain parts of Camp Hill, Lloyd at the barbecue, Sue handing out the plates, and everyone welcome.
On Sundays, Lloyd behind the wheel, Sue beside him, Hannah and Nat in the back, laughing and arguing their way down to Kirra Beach. Friday night dinners.
Sunday beach days. Marking the Clarke children's early years into their teenage ones, and nudging their way into adulthood.
Their best days, Lloyd reckons. "Golden," he says now. "Just absolutely golden."
And then one Friday night in 2008, a 20-year-old Hannah brought her new boyfriend home for dinner.
At first, there were no red flags. At least, not big enough to signal danger.
Sure, Lloyd says, at 31, his daughter's new boyfriend Rowan Baxter was 11 years older than his daughter, and had a way of walking into the pea green house like he owned the joint.
But Baxter was a former player with the New Zealand Warriors squad and, as an ex- footballer himself, Lloyd knew a bit about the swagger that could come with it.
Baxter, then a personal trainer, had met Hannah when he took a boxing class at the Carindale PCYC gym where she coached trampoline.
Baxter was living with his ex-partner and son (the Clarke family have asked their names not be printed) and only staying, he told his young girlfriend, for his boy's sake.
Later, it would become known that Baxter had threatened this family also, and that his own family background in New Zealand was murky and violent.
But in the early years of the relationship, Hannah was happy with her handsome, older boyfriend who showered her with attention.
There were, Sue says, "blips", like Hannah not being allowed her own Facebook account, instead having to share one with Baxter, who posted endless photos of his beautiful girlfriend in her bikinis but didn't allow her to walk from the beach to her car wearing them. Banned too, was her signature crop top and shorts at the gym. "He's just a bit of a prude, Mum," Hannah would say.
After four years, the couple married in a ceremony so expensive that Lloyd and Sue had to extend their mortgage to pay for it.
Hannah, they say, would have been happy to marry anywhere, but Baxter was adamant; like his social media photos, his wedding had to be picture perfect.
On October 19, 2012, the couple married at a Kingscliff resort, a three-day affair on which the Clarkes spent $30,000 (Baxter's family did not contribute) and where Baxter became incensed at how little money the guests had put in the wishing well.
"I tried to calm him down, explaining that people had to pay for their accommodation as well, but he was furious, singling out people as "f--king scabs", because he thought he deserved more," Lloyd says.
Baxter would always think he deserved more and the Clarke family would spend the next decade trying, just as Lloyd did at the reception, to calm him down about it.
For her part, Hannah was 14 weeks pregnant on the day of her wedding.
When Aaliyah was born on October 4, 2013, Hannah was overjoyed.
She had wanted to be a mother for a long time, her husband had a decent job as a pharmaceutical rep, and she was working full-time at the Athletes Foot sports store in Capalaba.
"He (the Clarkes rarely refer to Baxter by name) let us see Hannah and Aaliyah all the time back then," Lloyd recalls, "because we'd figured out that as long as we let him run the show, things were easier … so we let him run the show."
But by the time the couple's second daughter, Laianah, was born on March 19, 2015, things were not quite as rosy.
Baxter had quit his rep job, not liking the travel it involved, which took him away from his family.
Hannah, however, confided in her mother that she didn't mind it at all; that things were "calmer" at home without him.
Her husband's road trips also gave her a break from the nightly sex Baxter demanded, no matter how tired she was from work, or looking after the kids, or both.
If she didn't comply, or if she wasn't enthusiastic enough, Baxter would sulk, or accuse her of not loving him enough. It was easier, she said, to "just give in".
In February 2015, Baxter opened his own "cross fit" gym in Mansfield, on Brisbane's southside, his parents-in-law again putting up a large amount of money.
"We heavily invested in it because, to be fair, he did know his stuff, but mostly to help Hannah out," Lloyd Clarke says.
But the gym, although it started off well, was soon struggling, in part because of Baxter's attitude; he was frequently rude to members and publicly shamed people for not training hard enough.
Members began leaving despite Hannah's popularity; her classes were always full, Baxter's, increasingly sparse.
One day, Sue (Lloyd and Sue were both members and went regularly) had enough.
"We had a fight over something he had done, and he said, 'Well, no-one asked you to be here',and I lost my cool.
"I said, 'If it wasn't for me, you wouldn't be here'. That was it, Sue says, the moment the curtain came down.
Although Hannah would later ring and beg her mother to apologise ("which I did, even though it killed me") from that moment on, Baxter began separating his wife from her family, alienating them just as he had alienated the gym members who fled from his door.
There would be two more gyms (another at Mansfield where Baxter moved after a dispute with his neighbours, and then a third at Capalaba, which opened in 2019) all of which Lloyd and Sue would cough up money for, in the hope of helping their daughter.
But it didn't help, and by the time Trey was born on December 4, 2016, Hannah was exhausted, teary and growing daily more isolated from those who loved her.
"It really upsets me that Hannah and I grew apart for a while," Nat says. "I hate that I let Rowan get between us."
But get between Nat and Hannah, Baxter did, edging Nat, and later his wife Stacey, 33, and their two children Jayden, 3, and Tyler 2, out of the frame.
When the couple, who had met as fly-in, fly out workers at a mine in Western Australia, bought a house on the Gold Coast, Baxter couldn't contain his jealousy, Nat says.
"He'd say, 'This was our dream (Hannah and her husband rented throughout their marriage), you're never even home in it, you're just showing off.'
"And then, he just kind of pulled her away from us. He'd put things in Hann's head about things we, or Mum and Dad had supposedly said, and it felt hopeless, like she believed everything he told her."
But his sister was not as enthralled by her husband as Nat thought, because behind the scenes, Hannah, the Warrior, was gathering her strength.
She had started confiding in her parents, her sister-in-law, her best friend Nikki Brooks, and other women from the gym.
About how her husband demanded sex every night.
How he went through her bag daily. How she was almost positive he was recording her conversations.
How he called her fat, laughing at her "mummy tummy".
How he wouldn't let her send the kids to her mum's for a break.
How he stopped going to work, saying he was unwell, so he could better keep a closer eye on her.
How she once caught him staring at her from outside their bedroom window; "I've been out there for ages," Baxter said, "trying to scare you".
How he put her family down constantly.
How she was a "shit" mother. How lucky she was to have him. How she simply yearned for peace.
But try as she might, Hannah couldn't give Aaliyah, Laianah and Trey the sort of home she had grown up in.
And so - after a couple of false starts, which saw her leave, then return to her husband - in early December, 2019, Hannah and her children returned to the pea green house in Camp Hill.
"We had it all ready for them," Sue remembers.
"We had to do it bit by bit, you know, we'd put in bunk beds for the kids just in case, and I'd been storing a few things here and there; clothes, school uniforms, passports."
We knew that he (Baxter) would be angry, but we had decided enough was enough, and that we would get legal and police help if need be."
But the Clarkes also wanted to be fair, to give Baxter access to his children at least three days a week, more if he wanted. Hannah regularly took the kids to meet him; Lloyd, Sue, Nat and Stacey remained civil, everyone still trying to calm Baxter down.
On December 5, Hannah, concerned about an increasingly demanding Baxter, went, at her parents' urging, to her local police station.
Told by police to take out a Domestic Violence Order against her husband (when Clarke recounted the nightly sex she was forced to provide for Baxter, a female police officer told her, "Oh darling, that's rape, I can give you a DVO just for that"), she declined.
"She said that she was scared of making things worse," Sue says.
On December 21, after a visit with his children, Baxter didn't return them at the agreed time. "It was awful," Lloyd says, "he just didn't show and he kept Hannah in the dark for a couple of hours before he rang and said: "I think I'm going to take them away for a few days."
"Hannah was absolutely distraught. We were all crying and fighting with each other about what to do, and we could hear Aaliyah crying in the car, and saying 'I don't know where we are, mummy'."
Hannah negotiated with Baxter to meet him at a nearby service station, returning in tears to her parent's home with her children later that night.
Despite this, the Clarke family - still trying to keep the peace - invited Baxter to share Christmas Day with them.
"We didn't want to," Lloyd said, "but for some reason, I still had some compassion for him.
"I went to see him and said, 'Mate, come for Christmas Day, but this behaviour has got to stop', that he needed to be a bigger person, a better person, that we could all work something out."
Baxter arrived at 5am and stayed all day, opening presents, eating lunch and enjoying the Clarkes' hospitality.
Then, on Boxing Day, he took Laianah.
"He asked if Hannah could bring the kids to a skate park in Bulimba. She didn't want to but she did," Sue recalls.
"When they were walking back to Hannah's car, he had Laianah in his arms, and he just stopped in the middle of a road, turned around, ran to his car and threw her in the front seat. Laianah was crying, and Hannah was screaming to give her back, and then he drove off."
But not before slowing down beside a hysterical Hannah, putting his window down a few centimetres to tell her: "You've done this."
Baxter would drive to a friend's house in Pottsville, in northern NSW, and stay for three days. Hannah went to the police, who located Laianah, returned her to her mother, and issued Baxter with both a DVO and a child protection order.
On January 6, 2020, a court overturned the order, allowing Baxter access to his children and, over the next few weeks, Baxter would repeatedly breach the DVO, turning up at Hannah's work, when she was out shopping, standing outside cafes where she was having a coffee, everywhere she turned, she told a friend, "he was there".
But she was determined to make a new life for herself and her children, and was due to return to court in April to apply for further conditions on the DVO.
"Make no mistake, Hannah was a warrior," Stacey says, "and she fought for her babies until the very end."
The Clarke family would like people to know that the last few weeks of Hannah, Aaliyah, Laianah and Trey's life were extremely happy ones, the pea green house once again thrumming with the sound of children's laughter; of bath water splashing and books being read aloud, and Lloyd yelling at the kids to "turn the bloody TV down".
"It was absolute mayhem," Sue smiles, "and we loved every single minute of it."
There were new rituals: Lloyd trying to sneak down the back stairs for a quiet beer after work, Trey, hot on his heels seconds later, shouting, "I come with you, Papa!"; Sue picking the girls up from school, emptying out the lunch boxes on the kitchen counter while they told her all about their day; Trey sitting up on the table while Lloyd chopped the dinner vegetables; Hannah coming home from work to a house that smelt like roast chicken and clean kids.
And every night, tucking them all into bed, Aaliyah on the top bunk, Laianah at the bottom, curled like a question mark around Sue reading aloud beside her. And Trey, coming in for his nightly smooch before running on those twin pistons to sleep in his mamma's bed.
There was also, for Nat and Stacey, one perfect day in mid February.
"We met Hannah and her kids at Sea World with our kids, and it was like how it always should have been," Stacey says.
"All the cousins together, thick as thieves, Hannah and Nat giving each other a hard time like they used to, and me just looking on thinking, 'This is how it's going to be from now on'."
On that day, Nat says his sister could see her future. "Hann was shining, the kids were shining, it's hard to explain, but it was like lights were dancing inside them."
He lay in wait, with the can of petrol in his hand. Hiding at the side of the pea green house before ambushing Hannah and the three children just after 8am on the morning of February 19, 2020.
He doused them in petrol, and told Hannah to drive.
She did, just around the corner from her parents' house to Raven Street, where she spotted a man outside of his house, stopped the car, and started screaming for help.
"He's doused me and the kids in petrol, call the police."
The man would later tell police that Baxter had Hannah in a bear hug, trying to stop her from getting out.
But, as she later recounted in a police video, Hannah thought that if she could just get Baxter to chase her, he might only kill her, and leave the children alone.
So she tried to get out, and managed to open the door; Hannah, the Warrior, fighting for her babies to the very end.
There was a flash, an explosion of light and fire, as Baxter extinguished Aaliyah, Laianah, and Trey's dancing lights.
Hannah would later die in the Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital, but not before giving testimony, walking herself to the ambulance stretcher, looking directly into the camera and telling the police exactly what Baxter had done.
"She didn't know that he had killed himself then," Lloyd says (Baxter, after stopping several people from going to Hannah's aid or approaching the car, had stabbed himself to death) and she was making sure that he would pay for what he had done."
Queensland Police Commissioner Katarina Carroll would later tell the family that Hannah's testimony, given with burns to 97 per cent of her body, was "astonishing".
About 8.50am, Sue was at the dental practice where she worked, having kissed Hannah and the kids goodbye earlier that morning.
When she heard a wail of ambulances go by, she commented to her boss that it was an "awful lot of sirens" for the early hour.
At 10am, one of the young dentists was scrolling through her phone during morning tea, and said, "Sue, three kids have been burnt to death in a car at Camp Hill."
"I looked at my watch and thought, no Hannah would be in her cross-fit class so it can't be them, but I did keep ringing and texting just to make sure."
A few minutes later the young dentist spoke again.
"It's in Raven Street," and Sue started crying, just before the detectives walked in.
Lloyd was at his work, the G James manufacturing group at Eagle Farm, when a neighbour rang him.
Did he know a Detective Scott Thompson? No, Lloyd said, "Well, he's been around here, looking for you and Sue."
A few minutes later, the neighbour rang back with more information and Lloyd, growing worried, began calling his wife.
Sue, on her way in a police car to tell her husband in person what had happened, noticed another missed call from him.
"I've got to pick up," she told the police, "I don't know if he knows or not, but I can't leave him hanging."
When his wife finally did pick up the call, Hannah's father fell to his knees, unable to breathe.
Stacey was at home on the Gold Coast with her children when her phone rang. It was her mother-in-law Sue. Stacey began howling.
Nat was on site when his boss walked over to him, having taken a call from Stacey. His boss put his hand on Nat's shoulder. By 1pm, he was on a flight home, head bowed on the plane.
They gathered, Lloyd and Sue, Nat and Stacey, Hannah's best friend Nikki Brooks and several other close family friends in a darkened room in the Royal Brisbane's intensive care burns unit, to say goodbye to Hannah.
They had waited to turn her life-support off until Nat arrived from the airport.
"Mum told me to hold her hand, but I couldn't because I somehow thought if I touched her burns I might hurt her," Nat remembers.
"Silly isn't it? But I just didn't want her to hurt any more."
Lloyd says he was pacing around the room, angry, swearing, and unable to stop shaking.
And then, he says, he looked at his daughter.
"She was covered in a sheet up to her neck, with a veil covering her head, and I knew she needed peace, not anger.
"So I told her that I loved her, that she was my little girl, and that I was so sorry I hadn't been able to protect her."
Sue stood as close as she could to her daughter. "I kissed the top of her head, and told her that we loved her very much.
"I told her that she had been very, very brave, but it was time to go to her babies, that they needed her with them."
So Hannah, the Warrior, let go, and went to where her three, dancing lights waited.
The Clarkes still live in the pea green house in Camp Hill, with its photos of Hannah and her children, and Aaliyah, Laianah and Trey's toys still scattered about, trucks and balls and Barbie dolls.
Aaliyah and Laianah's bedroom with its bunks and books remains how it was the night before the morning of February 19, 2020, and one day, Lloyd and Sue say, they will pack it all up, and perhaps even move away.
But for now, it gives them comfort to be there, and it's where they chose to tell the story of their family.
They chose to tell it because they want people to know that domestic violence doesn't always look like a bruised face and broken bones. Sometimes it can look like a beautiful girl with the biggest smile, posted on social media.
They chose to tell it because someone might read it and think: "That's me" or someone they love, and seek help.
And they chose to tell it because they refuse to let Hannah and her children's story end in a flash of heat and terror on Raven Street.
For the past six months, the Clarke family and others have been diligently working on establishing a charity supporting the domestic violence sector.
Its work will both honour Hannah, Aaliyah, Laianah and Trey, and help others in need of legal advice, safe harbour, financial support, or someone to talk to.
It is, the Clarkes say, a beginning rather than an ending, and it is also how they came to choose the name for their charity, as every new beginning begins with small steps.
Small Steps for Hannah.
For more information and to donate to Small Steps for Hannah, visit smallsteps4hannah.com.au. All donations are tax deductible.
For help, please call:
1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732), the National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service.
DV Connect, 24 hour domestic violence helpline: 1800 811 811
Lifeline: 13 11 14 for 24-hour crisis support
Originally published as Hannah's untold story and the heart-wrenching goodbye