WARNING – DISTRESSING CONTENT
Aaliyah, Laianah and Trey had their whole lives ahead of them.
Each one of them could light up the room.
The eldest Aaliyah, 6, “so articulate and bright”, was reading ahead of her year at school and told stories to her younger siblings. She was “physically fit and strong”, always trying to copy her mother’s CrossFit routines. In her grandmother’s words: “A good kid. A strong child.”
Four-year-old Laianah – “Little Middle” or “Gracie Girl” – was the craziest of the trio. She did things to make the others laugh, playing the role of the little dynamo in the hectic family life.
Trey, 3, was the apple of his mother’s eye and “very much a mummy’s boy”. Sweet but sporty, he knew how to kick and pass a football at only 3. He had the makings of a sports star.
Then there was their mum – Hannah Clarke – “bright, bubbly and full of empathy”. She embodied selflessness but still had a competitive edge in the gym. Her soul touched the lives of everyone she knew and her smile was infectious. In their beaming, bubbly photos they were the perfect portrait of family life.
But on February 19, 2020, their lives ended in an instant.
The four had just left her parents’ Camp Hill home when Hannah’s ex-husband Rowan Baxter, furious at his wife’s newfound love of life and happiness, did the ultimate, unthinkable act.
Armed with a knife and jerry can full of fuel, he ambushed the mum of three and forced his way into the car.
Baxter demanded Hannah drive as she screamed for him to get out of the car.
In a heroic final act to protect her children, she defied her violent ex’s threat, pulling the car up to a driveway in Durimbil St after it travelled some 200m down the road.
“Call the police, call the police, he’s trying to kill me, he’s poured petrol on me,” she cried to Michael Zemek as he was washing his car.
Suddenly, the car exploded.
Windows across the street rattled from the blast. Hannah and Baxter were consumed by the flames as neighbours desperately attempted to hose down the screaming mother. A thick plume of black smoke could be seen across the neighbourhood.
Aaliyah, Laianah and Trey – who were strapped in the car’s back seat – perished in the flames.
Covered head to toe in severe burns, Hannahrecounted as much as she could to emergency services who raced to the scene.
Tragically, she died in hospital hours later.
Baxter, looking deadpan and resigned, retrieved the knife from the burning wreck and took his own life as others attempted to extinguish the fire.
Themurder of Hannah and her children scarred the nation. It led to an outpouring of grief at the loss of the young mum, thrusting Australia’s domestic violence scourge onto the international stage. Tributes were made, memorials were held, and politicians bowed their heads and acknowledged the horror of what had unfolded in their nation’s streets.
The lives of Sue and Lloyd Clarke – Hannah’s devastated parents – were shattered at the loss of their daughter and grandchildren.
Now, two years on, a coronial inquest is shining a light on what led to the tragedy.
The trauma was already well known, so it needed to start by looking backwards: what warning signs, if any, were missed?
What contact did Hannah have with support services before the killing?
What changes should be made to stop another horrific act just like this from occurring?
Over two weeks the court would slowly piece together many things that were hiding in plain sight.
An abusive, unhappy marriage.
A disturbing portrait of Baxter’s manipulative and controlling behaviours towards Hannah and even the kids.
The fleeting moments the four could have been protected, and the powerlessness of authorities to do so.
Red flags in a broken marriage
The moment Sue Clarke laid her eyes on Rowan Baxter, she didn’t like him.
Baxter, carrying the swagger of an ex-footballer and packing a stocky, muscled build, he was 11 years older than their 20-year-old daughter. He was still living with his former partner – which he said was “purely for his child” – when Hannah introduced him to her parents.
At the time no one knew Baxter had contemplated killing his ex-partner and his son in amurder-suicide, having told an old friend he’d driven to the woman’s house armed with a rope, tape and a knife.
Despite their reservations, Baxter won the Clarkes over. Sue described him as being “lovely” for the first few years of the marriage.
But when the children arrived, their relationship soured.
“I don’t know whether he was putting on a good front and it was getting too hard, to keep putting up the facade, or the stress of opening the gym, but in all honesty I don’t know,” Sue told the inquest.
Hannah and Baxter ran their business, Integr8 & CrossFit SMC, in Mansfield. Sue said she invested money into the gym to help get the pair on their feet – something she said may have caused Baxter to feel like he was “owned” by the Clarkes.
Whatever the case, Baxter treated his mother-in-law “terribly”.
Apart from berating other paying customers in the gym as fat and lazy, he told Sue she never needed to be there. During one exercise while supporting Sue, Baxter dropped her, causing her to split her face open. He then laughed at her, much to the open shock of other members of the gym and her own husband.
“He told me to harden up, that it happens all the time when you played football,” Sue said.
When Hannah “misbehaved” in Baxter’s eyes, he would punish Sue by not allowing her to mind the children. If Suespoke out, she would get teary calls from her daughter begging her to apologise to Baxter. After Hannah went back to work, Baxter schemed to try to interfere with Sue’s contact with the children, planning days off from his job so she wouldn’t be able to mind them.
Being around Baxter was like walking on eggshells.
“I could never say what I thought,” Sue said.
As the inquest progressed, a disturbing portrait of the New Zealand-born Baxter and his seemingly idyllic marriage to Hannah emerged.
Baxter would demand sex from Hannah every day, at times choking her during the act. Hannah’s friends said she wasn’t allowed to wear shorts or the colour pink on Baxter’s orders. He alone decided who she could and couldn’t see.
Even during training sessions Baxter would become jealous and angry if his wife performed better than him and attempt to undermine her achievements by accusing her of cheating or not doing routines properly.
Kylie Buss gave evidence that Baxter would call Hannah “fat” behind closed doors, berating her body image while saying she “needed to lose weight” and get back in shape.
Aaliyah, Laianah and Trey fared no better. They were only “possessions” in Baxter’s eyes and he was unusually rough with each of them.
Nicole Brooks, Hannah’s childhood friend, recalled one incident where Baxter knocked Aaliyah into a doorframe while the pair were playfighting. The impact split the young girl’s head open.
She told the inquest another time, he decided the children would take part in a post-workout ice bath with him. A screaming Trey, his eyes bulging with fear, was nearly submerged in the freezing water. They hated every minute of it.
Bizarrely, Baxter would film some of these experiences and post them to his business’ Facebook page.
And even though Aaliyah feared her father immensely, she often stood up to him.
Sue told the court Baxter would storm out during fights with Hannah, where the youngster would slam the door behind him and defiantly shout: “And don’t come back!”
If he sulked and refused to speak to Hannah, Aaliyah would admonish him, saying: “Daddy, Mummy said sorry, can’t you talk to her?”
Sue said, “He disliked her out of his three children because she was strong and would stand up.”
But in a chilling indicator of things to come, Sue said her daughter asked her if she needed a will.
“I said everybody should have a will,” she told the court.
“I said ‘why?’ and [Hannah] said ‘When he kills me, he’ll be in jail, and what happens to the children?’ “
A week later, Baxter would murder Hannah and her kids.
Finding her feet
By late 2019, Hannah and Baxter had separated.
She hadsought help from support services and the police, slowly gaining an understanding that Baxter’s behaviourfit the definition of coercive control.
Distinct from physical kinds of domestic violence, it is the kind of abuse where controlling behaviours are exerted to shift the balance of power in relationships.
Senior Constable Kirsten Kent was one of the police officers who helped Hannah in the aftermath of her relationship.
Nothing jumped out in her interview at Carindale Police Station at first. Then there was the alarming disclosure of Baxter forcing Hannah to have sex every night.
“She said it was another chore she had to do,”Kent told the inquest.
Despite the admission, there was not enough evidence to make an application for a domestic violence order (DVO) at the time. But Hannah wasn’t keen on pursuing it at the time either.
“We still need evidence, and all that I had was what Hannah told me,” Kent said.
“I would have needed Hannah to at least give me an affidavit for me to proceed with an application.”
Days later,Kent saw Hannah working at The Athlete’s Foot store in Carindale. She noted the young mum looked “so fearful”.
A DVO wasn’t made until Baxter made achoice to abscond with Laianah on Boxing Day 2019.
That day, he scooped up the young child in his arms in front of a distraught Hannah and her other two children, striding over to his car and speeding off.
He fled to northern NSW, returning Laianah to her mother days later.
Police body cameras were played to the inquest, capturing Hannah’s distressed conversations with officers who were called by a concerned bystander.
Senior Constable Luke Erba – one of the officers who attended that day – gave evidence he and his partner discussed what to do while at the scene.
But because there were no orders in place, no charges could be laid.
“Being the biological father, he does have a right to the child, and we can’t just, unfortunately, we can’t just go and take the child, even though he’s acting like he did,”Erba said.
Baxter managed to call police with Laianah still in tow.
He complained about his wife and lied about Laianah willingly coming with him and jumping in the car with him that day. He talks, almost ironically, of Hannah trying to “recover” Laianah from his custody.
That same month, Hannah had gone to Brisbane’s Domestic Violence Service for advice. A support worker said she was classed as “high risk” because Baxter choked her during sex.
But the inquest was told that information was not passed on to police.
It was “assumed” they knew of the incident and her risk level, given the presence of the DVO.
In another disturbing revelation, the inquest was told Hannah found a note on Baxter’s phone more than a month before she and her children were killed.
It said the children “will miss you I’m sure”.
“You can’t f*** with someone’s life like this and expect them to just take it,” the note read.
“I’m not going to take it anymore Hannah.
“Do you know how hard it is to go to bed every night without your children? I wish you had have just tried.
“You destroyed my life and I cannot move on. I hope all this was worth it for you and your family.
“I’m finishing your game. I don’t want to play anymore. This was never ever my intention.”
Final acts of an evil killer
Baxter was unravelling.
His viciousness exposed, cut off from his picture-perfect relationship and feeling the pressure of the police and courts closing, he was becoming more and more gripped by paranoia. He was running out of money, havingclosed the family gym after he and Hannah separated.
And yet, he maintained it was never his fault.
In his final moments he plotted the ultimate act of evil, one that would erase Hannah’s presence from the very earth. His movements were captured on CCTV and receipt trails that spoke to the actions of a man desperate to regain control.
Officers served him with a police protection order (PPN) and DV application after confronting him at his home on December 29, 2019.
He still had Laianah on his shoulder, just days before having abducted her from Hannah.
In police bodycam footage, he bemoans being served the paperwork.
In January, a warrant was issued after he assaulted Hannah while dropping the kids off to her home.
Hannah had noticed a number of photographs – depicting her in her underwear – in the back of his car. As she attempted to take the photos, Baxter grabbed her and twisted her arm so fiercely it left a large red mark.
Kent told the inquest she believed Baxter would use the pictures as a defence against his ex-wife’s claim in court.
“He was trying to use the pictures to say: ‘Look, my wife is sending me these pictures, she obviously wants to have sex with me’,” she said.
Officers were also unaware Baxter had a criminal history in New Zealand, attacking a cyclist in a road rage incident.
Former friends and associates of thekiller had already seen that things were spiralling out of control.
Eoin Coffey said Baxter had bragged to him about leaving a “tape recording device” – an old iPad – in the Clarkes’ family home after briefly visiting the children.
The device picked up Hannah talking to her mother about Baxter. During the conversation they degrade him as, among other names, a narcissist.
Church pastor Christopher Ensbey recalled Baxter tearfully confiding to him when his marriage was breaking down.
Days before the killing, clad in a black singlet and shorts, he paced the aisles of Bunnings Warehouse looking at items such as motor fuel.
At the checkout, he emerges with a jerry can, zip-ties and surface cleaner.
A receipt from a Caltex service station dated February 18, 2020 revealed he filled that jerry can with 4.6 litres of fuel.
But two other purchases stood out: three Kinder Surprise chocolates and other lollies from the store.
Dr Jacoba Brasch QC, counsel assisting the coroner, said it might have been part of a plan to drive away, only kill Hannah with the fuel and zip-ties, then give his children the sweets and pretend they were a “happy family”.
One of his last acts on February 18 was to phone a men’s helpline. In the call, he tells the operator he wants to go on a 10-week behavioural change programme.
But he doesn’t disclose his history, or his treatment of Hannah or the kids. Instead, he spends part of his final moments complaining about losing his family and blames his ex-wife for hispredicament.
“It’s not my idea, but apparently I have to do it,” he jokes.
He tells the operator Hannah had “got to the stage where she was dictating” when he could have the children. He lies again about the Boxing Day abduction, saying Laianah wanted to come with him in defiance of her mother. He says his wife put a DVO on him and things got “worse and worse and worse”.
“So much of my life has been turned around in five minutes, it’s just scary,” he says.
“I never thought my wife was capable of doing this.”
The operator passes on the numbers of other support services to call. He does so, and the call goes unanswered because the operators are busy.
The service, which has a 24-hour callback service, phoned Baxter back the next day at 12.01pm.
By this time, he, Hannah, Trey, Aaliyah and Laianah weredead.
The ultimate question – why?
Sue and Lloyd lost everything on thatmorning of February 19, 2020. They have never gone back to work.
The family home that once rang with the laughter and life of their grandchildrennow echoes with silence. The girls’ room – still strewn with toys– has remained untouched for more than two years.
But somehow in the face of the tragedy they found strength. Strength to turn up to court each day. Strength to front thecameras and recorders thrust in their faces from the media. Strength to sit through thedetails of their daughter’s most intimate and personal horrors being laid bare by eyewitnesses and old friends.
In many ways, their resilience in attending the inquest is the ultimate show of strength.
Sweeping changes have been recommended to how police respond to domestic violence situations. Another included trialling a “multidisciplinary police station” that provides support services such as housing and child safety.
A stronger need for men requiring behavioural education and help was also recommended to tackle the lack of services available.
Brasch said more scrutiny also needed to be placed on perpetrators of domestic and family violence.
But even with all the proposals, one thing was clear: nothing could have been done to save Hannah on themorning of February 19, 2020. Once Baxter put his murderous intent into action, nothing could deter him from the path he embarked on. It was but “a matter of time” before Hannah was killed.
Two years later, the Clarkes have only one question – why?
Brasch said there was a simple answer: because Baxter was “evil”.
How to get help
If you’re in danger now:
• Phone the police on 111 or ask neighbours or friends to ring for you.
• Run outside and head for where there are other people. Scream for help so your neighbours can hear you.
• Take the children with you. Don’t stop to get anything else.
• If you are being abused, remember it’s not your fault. Violence is never okay.
Where to go for help or more information:
• Women’s Refuge: Crisis line – 0800 REFUGE or 0800 733 843 (available 24/7)
• Shine: Helpline – 0508 744 633 (available 24/7)
• It’s Not Ok: Family violence information line – 0800 456 450
• Shakti: Specialist services for African, Asian and Middle Eastern women and children. Crisis line – 0800 742 584 (available 24/7)
• Ministry of Justice: For information on family violence
• Te Kupenga Whakaoti Mahi Patunga: National Network of Family Violence Services
• White Ribbon: Aiming to eliminate men’s violence towards women
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