Brad Aitken, 38, Melbourne, Vic
Published in issue 14, 2014
A cold shiver ran down my spine as I woke. I was eight, and the bedroom I shared with my sister, Renee, then five, felt dark and eerie after a wild storm a few hours earlier.
Then I realised there was another reason I was so cold. The blanket that had been covering me when I went to sleep was folded down neatly below my knees. That's weird, I remember thinking. How did it get like that?
Listening to the rain pelt down, I tiptoed out of bed. Normally, if either Renee or I woke in the night, we'd cuddle together so we felt safe. But this time, as I reached Renee's bed and leant across to nudge her awake, all I could feel was empty sheets. Where was she?
The bed seemed to go on forever as I felt around in the dark. Creeping out to the bathroom across the hall, I flicked on the light. That's when I realised Renee was gone. At first I didn't want to wake my mum, Morna, so I looked everywhere myself - I even checked the fridge.
But then, in the kitchen, I turned around to find the back door wide open and I started to panic. 'Renee's gone,' I cried, waking Mum and her partner, Neil.
'She's in her bed,' Mum said wearily. 'Go to sleep, darling.' But when I insisted, she got up to check and realised Renee had vanished without a trace. The next few hours passed in a haze of panic and confusion.
While Mum called police, Neil drove around the streets, searching for any sign. As each terrifying hour turned into the next, there was still no sign. Mum was frantic as more than 200 police, SES volunteers and neighbours began the biggest search of its kind in our hometown of Narooma, NSW.
The police thought someone had snatched my sister but the trail soon turned cold. My mind spun with questions. Was she out there scared, hurt or worse? Would I ever see her again?
Even though she was younger than me, Renee was always her own person. One of her favourite activities was to fill a cup with ice and loudly crunch away at the blocks. Fearless and confident, I can still remember her first day of kindergarten.
While most kids were crying, too scared to leave their parents, Renee was excited. She put her arm around a little boy who was upset. 'Don't worry, I'll take care of you,' she'd told him with a smile.
Everyone who met her fell in love with her. How could anybody steal her away? I remembered the way my blanket had been folded back that night. It made me wonder. Had whoever taken my sister believed I was her at first? We were centimetres away. I shuddered at the thought.
Gradually days turned into agonising months, then years. Instead of joy, each birthday and Christmas brought sadness. But somehow, life had to go on.
Eventually we moved out of the apartment where Renee had gone missing. It broke my heart to leave the memories but I made a promise. If ever I have children of my own, I'll call my daughter Renee, I vowed.
The mystery affected us all so very deeply. After Mum and Neil parted ways, she went on to meet her husband Luke, and have another baby, Orisi, now 18. But while his birth brought happiness, Mum was terrified too. She couldn't bear the thought of losing a second child.
And even when I met my wife Grace, the events of that terrible night remained etched in my mind. Would we ever learn the truth? It wasn't until 2003 - 19 long years after my beautiful sister's disappearance - that we finally had a glimmer of hope.
A coronial inquest was due to be heard at Albury Coroner's Court. I felt my hopes climb when police told us they had an important lead. They'd previously interviewed a convicted sex offender called Brian James 'Spider' Fitzpatrick about Renee's disappearance.
He was now their main suspect and they'd called on him to attend the inquest. I clung onto the hope that the mystery would finally be solved. But just weeks before the hearing was due to start, something shocking happened.
Fitzpatrick died in a car crash and our family was left shattered by the news. 'I feel like our last chance at justice has been snatched away,' Mum sobbed. And the coroner's findings convinced us further. He concluded that Renee was likely killed on, or shortly after, she was abducted on the night of February 16 1984.
For the next five years, the pain I felt remained so raw. If only we could have done more to see that justice was done...
But then, Grace had some incredible news which made me realise how lucky I was.
'I'm pregnant,' she told me. Soon after we discovered we were expecting a girl. A flood of emotions overwhelmed me as I let it sink in. I could finally fulfil the promise I made to my sister decades earlier.
When our baby was born, I felt a huge rush of love. With dark hair and perfect little cheeks, she was gorgeous. Little Renee is now almost six years old, the age my sister was when she disappeared. And sometimes the similarities are uncanny.
One morning, I came into the lounge room to find our girl munching on a cup of ice. 'How did she learn that?' I marvelled to Grace. She'd picked up her aunty's most quirky habit without even meeting her. It was incredible.
But while Renee knows her name has a special meaning, it's important she never lives in the shadow of my sister. She is her own person and was given her name to honour Renee - not replace her.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of my sister's disappearance and I will never stop wondering what happened that awful night.
But I am determined to look to the future. Even though the questions still remain, Renee's spirit will live on. No-one can take that away from us.
*At Renee's inquest, detectives said that an interview in 1987 with Brian James Fitzpatrick, known as 'Spider', left them in no doubt that he was involved in her abduction. At the time of the interview Fitzpatrick was in jail for indecent assault.
*When the case into Renee's disappearance was reopened in September 1998, however, he refused to be re-interviewed and just weeks before he was due to appear at her inquest, he died in a car accident. The police said his death was suicide but his partner denied this.
*In an unexpected twist, in December last year, NSW detectives received information about a new suspect in the case. Michael Guider was convicted of killing nine-year-old Bondi schoolgirl Samantha Knight, who disappeared in 1986, two years after Renee vanished. A former cellmate of Guider claims the killer repeatedly drew pictures of a girl he named 'Renee' and that the sketches bore a resemblance to the missing child. The police said they were taking the new information 'seriously'.
If you have information on Renee's disappearance, call Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.