Husband takes secret of wife’s disappearance to grave
On the dining table, Gary Ridley left what looked like a friendly note for his son Steven, explaining he had changed the gas bottle over and switched off the water.
But the last line hinted at the pain and suffering he was about to inflict on his family: "Look after yourself, everything will be OK in the long run. Love Dad."
Less than 24 hours later, Steven would discover his father was dead, lying in the reclined driver's seat of a 4WD. Worse, their mother Ruth Ridley, 58, had vanished in a remote pocket of southwest NSW.
While it will fall to a coroner to rule what happened, police strongly believe Gary murdered his former teenage sweetheart and then killed himself in a final, bitter act.
Mr Ridley, a former Queensland Police officer, not only robbed his three children of their mother but their ability to farewell her.
He disabled his and Ruth's mobile phones in a crude but effective fashion that prevented police from tracking his movements, which investigators assumed was with Mrs Ridley's body, across kilometres of remote countryside.
Seven weeks later and police are still grappling with a huge geographical area in which Mr Ridley could have dumped his wife's body and no idea where to start searching.
"It would be like searching from Cronulla to Gosford," Riverina Police District crime manager Detective Inspector Adrian Telfer said.
Mrs Ridley's disappearance on October 26 followed more than 40 years of a relationship that was overshadowed by domestic violence.
Incidents of abuse dated back to the 2000s, when the couple were living in Queensland and after Mr Ridley left his job as a plain clothes investigator with the Criminal Investigation Branch in Gympie years earlier.
Even at the time he died in October, there was an outstanding warrant out for his arrest for assaulting a security guard at his wife's work function in 2000.
While former acquaintances said Mr Ridley seemed like a "gentle giant", his interactions with police showed he had a propensity to explode at his wife and sometimes his neighbours.
By contrast Mrs Ridley was a vivacious, caring woman who was proudly religious and could light up a room.
Nicknamed the "morning tea queen" by friends from her church in Tumbarumba, Mrs Ridley was the kind of woman who baked scones for visitors and wrote heartwarming notes to friends.
"It was hard not to love her," best friend Marion Bremner said.
"They both wore masks but he hid it very well."
Mrs Bremner was one of the few people Mrs Ridley opened up to about her abusive relationship and the fear that her husband would one day kill her.
The last time Mrs Bremner spoke to Mrs Ridley, who had moved to Port Macquarie several years ago to be close to her elderly mother, was in August.
Alerted by a local doctor, police had taken out an apprehended violence order to protect Mrs Ridley from her husband.
Enraged, he fought back with his own AVO against Mrs Ridley and took off to Tumbarumba, where their son Steven and his family lived.
"Ruth called me upset and said Gary had threatened to kill her and told her how he would do it," Mrs Bremner said.
"He told her he'd put her somewhere no one would ever find her."
Earlier in the year, Mrs Ridley had told Mrs Bremner that she feared: "Gary is going to kill me one day" and: "I wished he would do it already so I can go to heaven".
It wasn't the first time Mrs Ridley had tried to leave her husband.
In 2005, Tumbarumba police confronted Mr Ridley at his home after officers went over to help collect his wife's belongings.
A church minister also once helped Mrs Ridley with emergency accommodation.
In a haunting diary entry, seized by police investigating her disappearance, Mrs Ridley asked God "for the strength" not to go back to the man she met as a 16-year-old.
After the AVO in August, Mrs Ridley appeared to find that strength.
"She was moving on with her life and she had a cruise booked this month and she was really starting a life for herself," son Nathan Ridley said.
This was despite emails from her estranged husband, who claimed to have found God and reminded her that the Bible urged forgiveness.
"It is a pattern we see in domestic violence, that one person is going to change and things will be different," Detective Senior Constable Michael Parker, the officer in charge, said.
"But it doesn't and unfortunately it gets worse."
Nathan said his mother returned to Tumbarumba on October 18 not to rekindle the relationship but to pack up her things and take them back to Port Macquarie.
"She was trying to start her life fresh but basically she was guilted by Gary into going down there for (her grandson's) birthday."
Nathan, who lives in Victoria, urged his mother to completely cut ties with his father after hearing he had tried to choke her several months ago.
Police also believe Mrs Ridley intended to return to the Mid North Coast as she'd booked a cruise with a girlfriend and purchased a new dress for her friend's upcoming 70th birthday.
But, for reasons unknown, on October 26, Mr and Mrs Ridley jumped in her dark blue Mitsubishi Pajero, with a campervan on the back, and headed to Neils Bend Reserve on the NSW border.
Nathan suspects the only way Mr Ridley convinced his mother to go camping alone was assuring her other members of their family would be there.
"I believe dad made up a lie to get her down there," he said.
At 6.30pm, Mrs Ridley recorded a video of Mr Ridley reeling in a large cod from the river and sent it to her daughter-in-law. At 10pm she tried to log into Netflix.
The next morning, about 7.30, both Mr Ridley and Mrs Ridley's phones were disabled.
At the request of investigators, The Sunday Telegraph has agreed not to reveal how they suspect Mr Ridley did this.
"I believe it's been done to stop us being able to locate the phone and for us to stop tracking his movements in terms of what he has done with Ruth," Det Insp Telfer.
Without finding Mrs Ridley's body, it is impossible to know for certain how she died.
But, based on chilling admissions Ms Ridley made to friends about her husband strangling her to the point of passing out, police think they have a pretty good idea.
Later that day, Mr Ridley returned to the Tumbarumba home and told his son Steven that his mother was at Mrs Bremner's house.
He noticed a mark on his father's face but Mr Ridley brushed it off, claiming a tree branch hit him.
The two parted ways.
After struggling to get a hold of his parents, and finding the note, his mother's handbag and medication in the kitchen, Stephen reported his mother missing at Tumbarumba Police Station on October 30
The first thing Senior Constable Peter Thomson did was knock on Mrs Bremner's door.
"I told him she hadn't been here for months," Mrs Bremner claimed.
"Then I said she won't be alive. That is what I believed in my heart."
The investigation took another turn hours later when Victoria Police called Senior Constable Thomson to tell him they had found Mr Ridley's body, lying in the front seat of his Pajero, parked at Pikes Dam in Victoria on October 29.
All indicators point to suicide.
Hidden under his seat were his and Mrs Ridley's disabled mobile phones.
The hunt for Mrs Ridley's remains has included searching the Murray River to Neils Bend Reserve, Pikes Dam and the family home.
There were no traces of blood or a struggle in the caravan or dirt to give police a rough idea of where to concentrate the search.
Detectives want to hear from anybody who might have spotted the dark blue Pajero with roof racks in the Riverina area on October 27 or October 28.
"We've got two objectives - to report to the coroner and find Ruth for her family," Det Senior Constable Parker said.
Mrs Bremner recently travelled to Neils Bend and drove up and down dirt roads, hoping and dreading she'd find out what happened to her friend.
In her mind, Mr Ridley's calculated attempt to cover his tracks was a final act of control.
"He would have got great pleasure from knowing she was out there in the bush somewhere and no one could find her," she said.
"And that the family and people who loved her could not give her the funeral she deserved."
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