Mum was murdered as she said ‘I love you’

Dan's mum always put everyone first. So how could anyone callously end her life?

Dan Holtham, 24, Croydon, Vic

Selfless. If I had one word to describe my mum, Cathy, that would be it.

Kind and outgoing, when she wasn’t working as a disability carer, she was looking after me and my three older brothers, Shane, now 41, Jason, now 40 and Jesse, now 26.

Even though as a single parent she struggled to make ends meet, Mum was incredibly generous.

On our birthdays, she’d fill a big box with silly presents she’d collected over the year.

But she also had a wicked sense of humour.

To give us a funny fright she’d hide plastic creepy-crawlies inside our gifts.

‘Got you,’ she’d laugh when she pulled off a prank. But we boys always managed to get her back.

One Christmas, we strapped a metre-long fake spider to the inside of her car boot and waited for her to open it.

When we heard Mum’s screams, we ran out the front laughing. She couldn’t help but be impressed!

As the baby of the family, I had a really close bond with Mum.

She’d split from our dad when I was little and I was 15 when I found out she’d started dating someone new.

His name was Stephen and although he seemed nice enough at first, I thought he was a bit strange.

Still, I wanted Mum to be happy so I didn’t dwell on it.

They went on to marry three years later and I was the last of the kids to move out of home, leaving Mildura to go to university in Melbourne, where Jason and Jesse lived already.

Jason, Jesse, Dan and Cathy (Credit: Supplied)

‘Who am I going to pick on now?’ Mum joked as I packed up my things.

I knew her upbeat attitude hid her heartache.

As I backed out of the driveway, I saw her wipe tears from her eyes. It was hard for her to watch her last son move away.

Still, we remained in constant contact and I was always calling her for advice. I missed her terribly. At least she had Stephen.

But as the years passed, things weren’t always so rosy in Mum and Stephen’s relationship and I caught a glimpse of his controlling side.

One weekend, Mum drove down to Melbourne for my university graduation. Jason and I were living together at the time.

‘You can stay with us,’ I told her.

But later that night, Stephen suddenly turned up and took Mum away to stay in a hotel.

It was as if he was jealous of her spending time with her own sons.

Another time, he bombarded her with calls and texts. ‘Where are you?’ he asked.

‘Who are you with?’ He was so convinced Mum was lying, she had to give me the phone to prove who was there.

Two years ago, Mum came to Melbourne to spend Christmas and New Year’s Eve with me and my brothers.

Having dinner together at the local pub, I couldn’t remember a time I’d laughed so hard. But the next day Mum had a confession.

‘I’m leaving Stephen,’ she said, explaining she’d agreed to move out when she got back.

‘Whatever makes you happy,’ I told her. Perhaps it was for the best.

Dan, Cathy and Jesse (Credit: Supplied)

On New Year’s Eve, Mum and Jason went to one of her favourite restaurants for dinner and a show.

Afterwards, Jesse and I met them and over the next few days we had a great time catching up.

Finally, on January 3, it was time for Mum to head home.

‘I’m leaving,’ she whispered, sneaking into my room in the early morning.

‘I love you.’ ‘Bye, Mum,’ I called after her.

Later that night, Jason, Jesse and I were watching a movie when there was a knock at the door.

When I answered, I was shocked to see two policemen standing there.

‘I’m sorry,’ one told us. ‘But your Mum has passed away.’

What? Just that day she’d kissed me goodbye…

But the moment those words were spoken, I knew who was responsible. Stephen.

My fears were confirmed when police said they’d arrested Stephen at the scene. He’d been charged with Mum’s murder.

Overwhelmed with shock, I tried to make sense of it. I’d seen his jealous side, but I could never have imagined this.

Sadly, we soon learnt Stephen had confessed to stabbing Mum twice in the chest with a kitchen knife.

The next week passed in a blur. Ten days later, at Mum’s funeral, we presented a slide show with our favourite pictures from over the years.

That’s when it hit me. There’d be no more memories. Mum wouldn’t ever see her sons get married or experience the joy of being a grandma. That man had stolen everything.

In October 2013, Stephen Allan McPhee, 56, appeared in Mildura Supreme Court.

He pleaded guilty to murder and we listened in horror as the court heard he’d snapped after he and Mum had a conversation about their marital problems.

Mum told Stephen she didn’t trust him and didn’t love him the way she once had.

When he tried to kiss her, she pulled away.

Going to get a can of beer while Mum lay on the lounge listening to music, Stephen saw red.

He got a knife from the kitchen and when he returned, he stood over Mum and stabbed her.

The ‘Cathy Cared’ Walk (Credit: Supplied)

My heart broke as we heard how Mum had desperately told Stephen ‘I love you’ before he stabbed her a second time. How could he?

We were relieved when the judge sentenced him to 20 years in jail. ‘At least he won’t hurt anyone else now,’ I muttered.

In July last year, Stephen’s sentence was reduced to 18 years on appeal.

But our family has vowed to make sure Mum’s death wasn’t in vain.

Soon afterwards, Mum’s brother and sister-in-law, Don and Sue Scales, organised a community walk called Cathy Cared to raise money for the domestic violence charity, White Ribbon.

Now we’re sharing our story because we want to do what we can to stop someone else being taken so tragically.

We will always remember Mum for the amazing person she was, not the way her life ended.


While sentencing Stephen Allan McPhee, judge Justice Elizabeth Curtain told him:

Once you had stabbed Mrs McPhee the first time, she said to you, ‘I love you, Steve, I love you’, but by then it was too late.

You had already stabbed her once and you were going for the second time, and she was trying to stop you.

Originally published in that’s life! issue 1 – January 8, 2015

Related stories