W￼hen Sheila Clifton arrived home on November 3, 1998, her daughter Maddie met her at the door with a smile that lit up the eight-year-old’s freckled face.
Promising to be back for dinner, sports-mad Maddie, wearing her favourite red basketball shirt with her name emblazoned on the back, ran off to play in the street as she and her sister Jessie, 11, did every day.
Neighbours saw Maddie hitting golf balls down the road at around 5pm, but when dinner time passed, Sheila and her husband Steve became worried.
A neighbourhood search revealed nothing.
‘It was like she just vanished off the face of the earth,’ Steve said.
The community rallied, with police and hundreds of volunteers scouring the area for signs of the little brown-eyed girl who dreamed of growing up and becoming a drummer.
Joining the search were the Cliftons’ neighbours who lived across the road – Missy and Steve Phillips, with their 14-year-old son Joshua. Torches in hand, the family spent the night walking the streets calling out Maddie’s name.
The days passed and despite thousands of flyers being handed out and intense media coverage, little Maddie remained lost.
Then, seven days after Maddie disappeared, Missy Phillips noticed a strange smell and a damp mark at the base of Joshua’s waterbed.
Suspecting a leak, she went to inspect it and was horrified to catch a glimpse of a human foot. Missy ran across the road to the Cliftons’ home where police maintained a permanent presence.
Sickened by what she’d seen, Missy pointed officers towards her son’s room.
They soon confirmed that Maddie’s battered body had been stuffed inside the bed base, along with air fresheners.
Police immediately collected Joshua from school and took him for questioning.
It wasn’t long before the well-liked, funny teen, who family, friends and teachers say had never been in any trouble, was confessing to murder.
Joshua said Maddie had come to his house and asked if he’d like to play baseball in the yard, as they often did.
Knowing he wasn’t allowed to have friends over when his parents weren’t home, and expecting his father to be back soon, Joshua said he reluctantly agreed to a quick game.
That’s when he said he accidentally hit a ball that struck Maddie hard in the face. When Maddie started screaming and crying Joshua says he was frightened of what would happen if his father arrived home and found he’d broken the rules.
So Joshua dragged Maddie into the house and bludgeoned her with the baseball bat in an attempt to keep her quiet. When that didn’t work he stabbed her.
The autopsy revealed Maddie was still alive when Joshua stuffed her into the bed base.
He’d then resumed watching online porn.
For the next week, Joshua tried to forget about what he’d done.
‘I was putting myself in a fantasy world that nothing had happened,’ Joshua said. ‘Ignore it, it will go away.’
A psychologist assessed Joshua and could find no signs that this was a thrill-kill. He seemed like a normal kid, albeit terrified of his father’s anger.
‘There is no-one more shocked than me,’ Missy said.
Joshua was tried as an adult and in November 1998, then 15, he was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole.
Maddie’s family remained heartbroken and grief eroded Sheila and Steve’s 25-year marriage.
But through the pain, Sheila and Missy managed to empathise with the torment each have been sentenced to suffer, acknowledging they both had their children torn from their arms that day.
‘She’s a mum like me,’ Sheila says. ‘I feel for her as she does for me. We don’t hate him. We hate what he did. But I feel like it’s not in me to say, “I forgive you”.’
Joshua has appealed his sentence several times over the past 20 years, most recently in 2017 when his life sentence was upheld.
As the now 35-year-old killer contemplates growing old behind bars, he says he grieves every day for robbing the Cliftons of their daughter.
‘I had no clue what life meant, what death meant, nor the depths of suffering that could follow one act,’ Joshua said during his last appeal.
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