On December 7th this year, Denise and Bruce Morcombe will mark 15 years since their son Daniel disappeared.
His abduction and murder sparked the biggest manhunt in Australian history.
“I hate anniversaries, particularly that day, it’s awful,” says Denise, “but we’re determined to create a legacy to Daniel that will help others.”
For the family, the anniversary will be spent quietly but, soon after, the Morcombes will open Daniel House, a permanent home for the Daniel Morcombe Foundation from where they provide counselling services for child victims of abuse and continue their ground-breaking national child safety work.
There’s an overwhelming familiarity when you meet Bruce and Denise Morcombe, an inclination to reach out and bear hug them like you’ve bumped into an old friend, until you remember why you recognise them.
Bruce, 59, and Denise, 57, are the very human face of a crime that shocked Australians to the core and broke our hearts.
On 7 December, 2003, their 13-year-old son left his family home at Palmwoods on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast to catch the bus to the nearby shopping centre so he could buy his mum a Christmas present.
Daniel asked his twin brother, Bradley, and older brother, Dean, to go with him, but on that day, neither was particularly interested.
So, as he had done many times before, Daniel wandered down the road to catch the bus.
But he never returned.
Daniel wasn’t the sort of kid to run away and Bruce and Denise immediately knew something was wrong.
Soon, his big dimply smile and blue eyes appeared on news services around the country.
No one could forget the grief in Denise’s voice as she bravely fronted the media alongside Bruce, one week after Daniel vanished, and begged, “I just want him to come home – we want Daniel back.”
It was the beginning of a tireless campaign to find their son. Every waking minute was dedicated to finding Daniel, but he’d vanished without a trace.
The Morcombes pursued dozens of the hundreds of tip-offs they received. They knocked on doors, met strangers in car parks, sat with psychics and spent hours searching backroads and bushland.
Fifteen years on, some of those moments are seared into their memory, such as the blisteringly hot day, three years after Daniel’s disappearance, when they were down on their hands and knees in bushland on the Sunshine Coast hinterland, desperately digging at the earth, clinging to the hope that the sweat-stained scrap of paper in Bruce’s pocket would at last help them find his body.
“There were many rumours about where he was,” Denise says, “so we found ourselves trawling through all sorts of strange, haunting and unwelcome places.”
But they never gave up.
Along the way, their efforts to find Daniel grew into the Daniel Morcombe Foundation, which gave them a positive place to channel their energy while keeping the investigation alive.
Since then, they’ve driven more than a million kilometres around Australia visiting schools to teach kids how to be safe.
In Queensland alone, they’ve addressed 260,000 students, visited over a thousand schools and community groups and have been appointed Child Safety Ambassadors for the Queensland Government.
“We were just an average family, we didn’t know of child abuse. Now we know it can happen to anyone,” Denise says.
In August 2011, the Morcombes finally had an answer when father of three Brett Cowan was charged with Daniel’s murder. Eight long years later during a covert police sting, Cowan led detectives to a macadamia farm close to the Glasshouse mountains where he had taken Daniel’s body, eerily close to where Bruce and Denise were searching that day years before. It was another 15 months before they were able to bury Daniel. More than 2000 people attended his funeral service.
“Daniel’s funeral was significant for us. The day after, Bradley and Dean were like different people. It was like a big weight had been lifted off them and us,” Denise says.
“His grave helps. It gives us comfort having a place we can go to honour him.”
This October, the Morcombes will once again hold the Day for Daniel and will conduct Australia’s Biggest Safety Lesson, an online program teaching personal safety to kids in every corner of Australia.
Last year, more than 100,000 students watched the lesson simultaneously. Soon, they’ll also launch a new program of safety lessons for three to eight year olds, and a grandparents’ information pack.
Reflecting on the past 15 years, Bruce says, “in some ways it’s a long time, but in other ways it feels like yesterday. We know we’ve achieved a lot with the work of the foundation and we take comfort in that.
“There is a public image that we’re strong because we put forward a brave face and we’d never give up. But behind closed doors it was hard, and we had days when we were really struggling.”
Happier times are ahead.
The couple recently celebrated their 35th anniversary and are counting down to Dean, 30, and girlfriend Alice’s wedding. Right on cue Winston, the son of Daniel’s twin Bradley, snuggles up to Nanna, ready for a nap.
“We look forward to the future with Winston,” she smiles.
“He takes us to a happy place. Being together with the family gives us joy and brings us peace. We treasure all those moments, even if they’re sometimes tinged with sadness.”
To donate to the Daniel Morcombe Foundation visit danielmorcombe.com.au.