Lifting the lid on a Queensland cold-case murder
A PAINSTAKING police investigation into a 31-year-old murder is stirring up ghosts in Brisbane's northern seaside suburb of Brighton.
A year ago last week, an old wooden home on North Rd finally gave up its macabre secret.
Hidden at the bottom of a septic tank just metres from the back door, were the skeletal remains of 29-year-old Wayne Youngkin.
He had not been seen since vanishing from the property, where he lived with his grandmother and uncle, in 1986. As it turned out, he had never really left home.
Now, tentacles of the past are reaching across three decades, dragging some of Brighton's residents to a different time. As one investigator puts it, the area was a cloud of smoke back then.
Pot smoking was rife, and as a heavy cannabis user, Youngkin was a bit player in the thriving local drug scene.
Thirty years later, many of those caught up in the fresh police investigation have left their past behind, and have respectable families, nice homes and corporate jobs.
One holds the key to the case, with detectives revealing to The Sunday Mail that Youngkin's murder will be solved by focusing on Brighton and its surrounds.
"The answers come out of that area, there's no two ways about it," said Detective Senior Sergeant Chris Knight, from the Homicide Investigation Unit.
In the 1980s, shaggy-haired Youngkin was an entrenched Brighton local with a distinct social set. Some of his mates were tough-as-nails players from the Sandgate-Brighton Gaters Rugby League Club, who enjoyed celebrity status locally.
They played hard and drank hard, the latter usually at Sandgate's Osbourne Hotel.
Today the Osbourne is a family venue and has been renamed the Full Moon Hotel by its new owners. Then, it was the domain of territorial locals. Some law-abiding residents would drive to pubs in neighbouring suburbs just to avoid it.
When they weren't at work, the footy or the pub, Youngkin and his friends gathered at his home. There was a carport and tin shed at the side of the house where they'd shoot pool, play darts - and smoke dope.
Detective Acting Sergeant Kevin O'Hanlon, one of the lead investigators, said they were all heavy marijuana users.
"He seemed to be a fairly carefree, generous bloke who enjoyed socialising with his friends, smoking cannabis and going to the pub," said Sgt O'Hanlon, from the North Brisbane Criminal Investigation Branch.
Snr-Sgt Knight added: "He was probably limited to being a heavy user but there's no doubt he knew people from the local environment who were playing a more significant role in the drug scene than him.
"I'm not saying he was part of some big drug racket - that's not the case. But there's no doubt he had associations with people who were commercially motivated. It's possible he could have been caught up in something inadvertently."
Youngkin was born in Winton. His mother died soon after his birth, and he went to live with his grandmother, Olive Alloway, and uncle, James Alloway, on North Rd.
Olive had lived there, in a house at the end of a long dirt driveway, since the 1950s.
Youngkin went to school in Brighton and then went on to work for Main Roads as a labourer and in traffic control.
There is no record of him ever formally being reported missing. It wasn't uncommon for him to disappear at times, and family members were told he'd gone interstate to work.
However, in 1992, someone made an anonymous call to Sandgate police station and told the officer on duty that Youngkin had been murdered and dumped in a local lagoon.
The information was passed to detectives, who found no sign he was alive. The lagoon was drained and searched in a major operation that year, but Youngkin was not found.
His uncle died in 1987 and his grandmother sold the property that year to Autism Queensland. She went to live in a nursing home and died in 1991 at the age of 90.
Neither of his two relatives had any idea that the answer to Youngkin's disappearance was literally beneath their feet. Every time they stepped into their backyard, they had walked over his underground tomb.
Youngkin's father, a farmer, had been in touch with him in the years leading up to his disappearance, but he too died before the remains were found.
Autism Queensland, meanwhile, built a school on the property but kept the single-level house intact. It was used for staff accommodation and later as an administration building and for storage.
School groundskeepers were investigating a plumbing problem on November 29 last year when they prised up the septic tank's concrete lid. The tank had been decommissioned in the 1970s and Youngkin's remains were clearly visible on top of a thick layer of dry dirt.
While the groundskeepers thought they'd come across animal bones, the school's principal took a photo on her phone and sent it to her GP husband. His quick reply was that the bones looked human, and to call the police.
Buried with Youngkin was a brown seat cover. Detectives have since established that shortly before his death he was in two cars, a green Chrysler Valiant sedan and a brown XY Ford Fairmont sedan. The DNA tests are ongoing.
Significantly, detectives have found that many of the people that Youngkin associated with have never left Brighton and Sandgate.
"We have a pretty good picture of the lifestyle he was living back in the day and also the people he was closest to back in the late '80s," Snr-Sgt Knight said. "It's fair to say that because we're going back so far, a lot of these people are very different people than they were 30 years ago.
"Some of the people we wanted to speak to have passed away. Some are living very different lifestyles today than they would have been back then."
A $250,000 reward is on offer, along with the major incentive of immunity from prosecution for anyone not directly involved in the murder.
"They might have been involved on the periphery. They might be close to the action but not involved in the hands-on part. We'd be happy to engage with them," Snr-Sgt Knight said.