Here, Mary-Leigh, 56 tells the story in her own words.
M￼y youngest son, Cole, had never asked me or his dad for anything.
As a boy he was so quiet and sweet natured. He’d happily sit in the car every weekend as I drove his three older siblings to sports tournaments, and he’d proudly cheer from the sidelines.
Billy, 23, and Kate, 21, both played water polo for Australia and Mitchell, 19, was a professional ironman. But at 14, there was something Cole dreamed of. ‘I want to play water polo like Billy,’ he said. We lived on the Sunshine Coast and the team was based an hour-and-a-half away in Brisbane, which would mean relocating.‘You’ve done so much for the others,’ I told Cole. ‘This is your time.’
So while my husband, Steve, stayed at home with Mitchell and Kate, I got a new job in Brissy and Cole, Billy and I moved into a unit there. From day one, Cole loved it. By 18, when he wasn’t in the pool, he loved heading out with his mates. ‘Do I look good, Mum?’ he’d grin, his hair styled perfectly. ‘You look amazing,’ I’d reply, before always adding, ‘Have fun, be careful.’‘I’ll be fine,’ he’d say. ‘Nothing’s going to happen.’
It wasn’t Cole I worried about though, it was everyone else. Cole was a good boy. In Year 12 he won a sports scholarship and at his graduation I was so proud. He’s going to do amazing things, I thought. He had his whole life ahead of him.
Then on January 2 last year, I went home to see Steve. Cole was going out to celebrate his friend’s birthday. That night, I was woken by the phone at 3.40am. ‘Cole’s been taken to hospital,’ a police officer said. As our family raced there, all we knew was that he’d been hit on the head. He’ll be okay, I told myself. But when we arrived, Cole was attached to a ventilator.
‘He has sustained a traumatic head injury,’ a doctor explained. ‘I’m afraid there’s nothing we can do.’
Cole looked perfect, like he was sleeping. But my beautiful blond-haired boy was never going to wake up. Beside myself, I stroked his face before we made the heartbreaking decision to switch off his life support. As a nurse, I’m passionate about organ donation so we agreed to donate Cole’s organs and he changed the lives of six other people.
Back home, I was numb. My whole world had just been shattered. The police had arrested two men. Daniel Jermaine Lee Maxwell and Armstrong Renata, both 21, were charged with unlawful striking causing death and remanded in jail.
We found out that Cole and his friend Nick Pace had been walking to a taxi rank to get a cab home, when Maxwell and three friends approached. ‘Do you want to see something funny?’ Maxwell said, before punching Cole in the chest. When Cole didn’t fight back, Maxwell punched Nick. It was then that Renata circled around Cole and hit him in the back of the head. He hadn’t even seen it coming.
The blow knocked Cole unconscious and, as Nick desperately tried to wake him, Maxwell walked away laughing. It was all so unbelievably senseless. My poor boy had just been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
More than 1000 people attended Cole’s funeral in Brisbane showing just how loved he was. Afterwards, the grief was a physical pain, crushing my heart. At night I lay awake sobbing, terrified I’d forget Cole’s smile and replaying his last moments.
In August last year, Maxwell appeared at Brisbane Supreme Court and pleaded guilty to the lesser charges of common assault and affray. He’d already attempted to start three fights when he saw Cole and Nick in the Chinatown mall, Brisbane.
At his sentencing in August this year, Justice Ann Lyons said my son had showed ‘not one ounce of aggression’ towards Maxwell. She jailed Maxwell for 18 months. As he’d already spent 19 months behind bars, he was allowed to walk free.
Meanwhile, Renata pleaded guilty to unlawful striking causing death. Before he was sentenced, we had the opportunity to write victim impact statements. We wanted him to hear how his split-second decision had devastated our family.
Through tears, Steve told Renata that Cole was a ‘kid with a dream’ and his death had thrown our family into utter turmoil. Renata was sentenced to seven years in jail. No amount of time would bring my son back, though. I read that grief can often cause families to break down, but losing Cole has brought ours closer together.
‘In a way we are lucky,’ Billy said to Steve and me. ‘This could have happened to someone else and they wouldn’t have the support. We still have each other.’ All I can hope is that by sharing our story, I can encourage people to respect each other, and to settle their differences with words, not fists. For Cole.
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