Stephanie Scott had never been happier.
The 26-year-old had landed her dream job as a teacher at Leeton High School in NSW and was days away from marrying the love of her life, Aaron Leeson-Woolley.
Stephanie had worked tirelessly to add personal touches to their big day.
But above all, she was focused on ensuring everyone had a great time.
She always put other people first.
It was this trait that saw her at Leeton High School on Easter Sunday in 2015.
Stephanie had decided to go into work to complete the final preparations for the substitute teacher who would replace her while she was on her honeymoon.
She didn’t want the students to miss out on anything or to fall behind in her absence, and she wanted the transition for the relief teacher to be as smooth as possible.
On the Saturday, Aaron and Stephanie had been invited to a party, and at Stephanie’s insistence, Aaron went without her.
After catching up with friends, he spent the night at his parents’ home.
He and Stephanie stayed in touch via text messages and they said goodnight on the phone at about 10.30pm on Saturday.
On Sunday morning, Aaron received a text message from Stephanie letting him know she was heading into school for a few hours to finish up.
Oddly, as Aaron headed home, his phone calls to Stephanie went unanswered.
And when he arrived home he was surprised to find neither Stephanie’s car nor his bride-to-be.
That night, he called a number of Stephanie’s friends and drove around Leeton.
But as the hours passed, the phone didn’t ring that night and Stephanie’s car didn’t pull into the drive.
When Stephanie still wasn’t home the next morning, Aaron contacted her family.
They knew Stephanie would never intentionally worry anyone – let alone her soon-to-be husband.
The police were called and Stephanie was reported missing.
Repeated calls to her mobile initially rang out, but later went to the message bank.
The family contacted the local newspaper, The Irrigator, which shared a story on its website, asking for people to be on the lookout for Stephanie.
The tight-knit community of Leeton quickly sprung into action, conducting searches of the area.
Perhaps Stephanie had crashed her car and was waiting to be rescued, her parents, Robert and Merrilyn, thought.
Later, with dark rings under his eyes, Aaron appeared on television.
He begged Stephanie to ring him as soon as she found a phone.
Tragically, that day would never come.
As time ticked by, Stephanie’s family had to consider the possibility that someone had taken her against her will.
Merrilyn tried to remain strong for her daughter, but she could barely eat or sleep.
‘I think, Today, if we don’t find her today… you can’t let yourself think about it but you do,’ she told the media.
Police had established the last known whereabouts of Stephanie was Leeton High School.
Officers were told to find out whether anyone else had been at the school that day.
The deputy principal recalled seeing one of the school’s cleaners – Vincent Stanford – there on Easter Friday, and another resident saw a white older-model ute at the school on Easter Sunday.
Armed with these two pieces of information, police decided to interview Stanford, a 24-year-old who lived with his mother and older brother, and quiz him about his movements.
When a detective at Leetonpolice station was later shown Stanford’s statement, he immediately saw a red flag.
Stanford had told the police constable he had gone to the Golden Apple supermarket.
But the supermarket had been closed that day.
When officers returned to Stanford’s house, he wasn’t home.
But his mum, Anneke, gave them permission to search the house.
They were shocked to discover a set of school keys that matched Stephanie’s in Stanford’s bedroom.
When he got back, he told police he had been out taking photos, and when asked, he handed over his camera.
The officers were horrified to discover that among the photos were two of a body burnt beyond recognition.
Stanford said he downloaded them from a horror movie.
But then officers found handcuffs smeared with blood in his bedroom.
By this time, their suspicions that Stanford had killed the young teacher were all but confirmed.
On the eve of what should have been Stephanie’s wedding, police announced they had located the bride’s burnt body in Cocoparra National Park.
In a show of amazing strength, Stephanie’s family invited the community to join them for a picnic the next day to celebrate their loved one’s life.
Instead of her wedding, they held a memorial, dressed in yellow, her favourite colour.
The heart of the town, and the entire nation, had been broken.
Stanford, who had displayed violent tendencies at a young age, confessed to killing the teacher.
He said he hadn’t planned it, but when he saw her at the school on Easter Sunday he was overcome by a feeling that he ‘had to kill her’.
Stanford then went home to collect a ‘rape kit’, complete with a knife
When he returned to the school, he told police he waited for Stephanie to leave. When she bumped into him in the corridor, she said, ‘I’m going home now. Have a happy Easter.’
Stanford recounted how he grabbed her and dragged her into a storeroom.
‘I think I went a little nuts,’ he said, confessing to beating her 30 to 40 times before stabbing her in the neck with a knife.
The callous killer appeared smug, almost proud of his actions, and told police that after the murder, he went home and had lunch, before returning to the school to clean up the storeroom.
In July 2016, Stanford appeared at NSW Supreme Court and pleaded guilty to murder and aggravated sexual assault.
The court heard that Stanford had thoughts of killing someone from the
age of seven or eight.
He had been stalking a number of women in Leeton, including a 12-year-old girl, who he wrote about in a notebook and wanted to abduct.
In his sentencing, Justice Robert Hulme described Stanford’s behaviour following the murder as ‘highly disturbing’.
‘He calmly went home and had a cheese sandwich and a cup of coffee,’ Justice Hulme said. ‘He returned to school to clean up the crime scene over several hours and callously loaded Ms Scott’s body into the boot of her car.’
He dumped her body at the national park, 70km from Leeton, and set it on fire.
Justice Hulme sentenced Stanford to life in prison.
It was a bittersweet result for Stephanie’s family.
‘How could this happen?’ her mum, Merrilyn, said. ‘We had an amazing girl and she’s gone.’ ●
‘United in Grief’ by Monique Patterson is available now on Amazon