Fake identities: Shock twist in Aussie missing persons case
This may be Australia's most extraordinary missing person's story.
It's a tale that takes place under the shadow of two murder trials and traverses the nation - crossing four states and touching multiple families.
It's a story of fake identities, a disappearing husband and much-loved father-of-four, and the longing of his now adult children, who can't piece together the puzzle.
The twisted tale of Stephen Thompson's vanishing begins just before Christmas, 1965.
It began a December day like any other as the Thompson children - Ron, 14, Colin, 13, Judy, 12, and Maree, five - happily bundled off to school. None of them had any inkling that when they returned to the family home in Edgeworth, Newcastle, NSW, their lives would be forever changed.
"Mum said, 'he's gone' but she didn't know where or what," recalls Colin, 68, who still lives in Newcastle.
"He left his wallet and his watch on the kitchen table and went off to work … and we never saw him again."
Fifty-five years later, the mystery has only deepened - with Mr Thompson's granddaughter Samantha Self picking up the search to discover her grandfather lived under three identities and the shadow of many secrets.
Daughter Judy and son Colin recall a loving father. A devoted Catholic who worked tirelessly, juggling multiple jobs to provide for his family. He owned a cordial truck, worked for TNT couriers and did stints in the cotton and wheat industries. Even on family holidays, Mr Thompson would pick up a job in a nearby factory or local pub.
To those who knew him best, his disappearance was completely out of character.
"He was a very loving man, a gentleman," recalls Judy, 67. "He was quiet. I never knew him not to have a job, or two. He was very well respected, well liked. He was handsome. He had beautiful, beautiful eyes and a very nice smile."
But two curious things occurred in the weeks following Mr Thompson's disappearance.
On Christmas Eve, the family received an "urgent" telegram from Melbourne, addressed to their mother: "All my love for Christmas to you and our children please have faith in me," it read.
The same day, daughter Judy received a handwritten Christmas card which read: "From your loving father. Please forgive me. Look after your mother. Your loving father."
The hopeful language of the telegram seemed to signify Mr Thompson would be returning, yet in the same instance, the card implied the exact opposite.
"Just totally devastating," says Judy, who still becomes emotional recalling her father's disappearance. "From then on my mother's existence was just traumatised … we had a very happy childhood up until then."
At 18, Colin embarked on what would become a two decade search for their father but returned little results.
It wasn't until recently that Colin's daughter Samantha uncovered that Stephen Thompson was in fact not Stephen Thompson at all.
Mr Thompson had assumed the fabricated identity. When he came to marry her grandmother, he had no ID but was able to attain a baptismal certificate through church banns.
The banns system required an individual to attend church for a number of weeks - and after that time, provided no one contested the authenticity of their identity, the church issued proof of identity.
On Mr Thompson's baptism certificate, he left a clue to his real heritage: the distinctive name of his stepmother, Annie Gladys Moore.
By tracing family trees through Ancestry.com, Samantha discovered Mr Thompson's real name was in fact David Jackson, and that there was a family in Perth who had spent just as many decades searching for their long-lost relative, Mr Jackson, brother of Eric 'Mack' Jackson.
In 1934, Eric and David were just boys when their mother, Cora Zuill Polglass nee Carden-Collins, was murdered. A policeman discovered her dead body in her home in Toowong, Queensland.
Beside her was a bottle of stout which had been laced with strychnine - a highly toxic, colourless poison often used for killing birds or rodents.
The boys' father, Stanley Polglass, was twice put on trial - and twice acquitted of Cora's murder.
Details of the scandalous crime were splashed across newspapers, making it one of Queensland's highest profile murders.
In the aftermath, the boys' last names were changed to Jackson to distance them from the crime.
A few years later Stanley committed suicide and the boys were separated and rehomed.
How or why David Jackson changed his name for a third time is unknown.
Judy and Colin both refute the idea their father - a principled family man - could have become involved in criminal activity but wonder if a difficulty with debt could in some way explain his disappearance.
"The biggest thing for me is, what if I open the door and he's there? What will I say?" muses Judy. "Will I be angry? What will I say to him? But there's never been any anger. It's just disbelief, not even disappointment. It's disbelief that he could do that. I think I'd just tell him I love him."
Mr Thompson would be in his early nineties, if still alive today. His family urge anyone with information to come forward.
"He would have been 36 in 1965," says granddaughter Mrs Self of Mackay.
"Still young. He could have had another family. He could have easily changed his ID. He could have moved again to another state … he'd obviously done it all before."
These are the other Australians who are missing persons and still not found.
Lorrin Jane Whitehead was last seen on February 8, 2013, at Bannockburn Woolworths, Victoria. The mother of five is dearly missed by her children, extended family and friends who cannot believe in the digital era a person can disappear without a trace. Lorrin is a type 1 diabetic and had no medication, possessions, money or her car when she went missing.
MARCIA ANN RYAN
On August 19, 1996, Marcia Ann Ryan, 33, left her home in Seaford, Victoria, packed her car, and along with her loyal black-and-white dog, Ziggy, set off to visit her parents in Queensland. At 11.40pm she was seen walking along the highway by a truck driver. He offered her a lift as she looked distressed, which she declined. At 2.48AM a police officer found her abandoned car on the Princes Highway, near Moe. Marcia's wallet - which her brother believes was thrown out of a moving car - was found about 19kms away.
Cairns man Reece Kearney was reported missing on December 15, 2018. On the day he went missing, CCTV located the 26-year-old riding a black Bonneyville Triumph motorcycle at Ravenshoe Roadhouse in the Tablelands Region. He was also seen at Mt Sunrise. Reece's motorbike was located on the Newcastle Range the following February, and a search of bushland near Georgetown uncovered a number of items of clothing.
Kenneth Vaughan, 62, was last seen in the early hours of September 20 as his ute drove away from his home in Bentley Park, Cairns. His daughter Vikashni Moyle, who lives in Melbourne, said it had been "very difficult to find any trace of where he went" and that COVID-19 border closures had impeded her search. Ms Moyle said her father suffered from back pain and migraines and there were serious concerns for his safety. Police are investigating his disappearance.
While there are a large number of long-term missing persons in South Australia, South Australian police said they did not wish to provide any information or photographs of missing people to appeal for information from the public.
These cases have been selected at the editor's discretion.
Christine Redford was last seen at her unit at Kensington Gardens, Adelaide, on June 30, 1998. Her family have no idea what happened to her but describe the then 48-year-old as a free spirit who was "always searching" and heavily involved in self-healing sessions, which were held in a church hall and involved holding hands and sharing problems. Police have no indication as to whether Christine disappeared to start a new life, had her life cut short by another or committed suicide.
Devoted father-of-one Michael Modesti disappeared from his Beverley, Adelaide, home at 8.15am on May 9, 2016. He was in the area of Kilkenny Road, Woodville Park, some time before his car was discovered 1.5km away in Croydon. While Mr Modesti was not believed to be a hardened criminal, police suspect he may have been the victim of homicide as a result of getting involved in the drug trade. When police inspected his home they found his phone and wallet inside the locked house, blinds up, dishes in the sink and the TV on.
Wealthy Sydney businesswoman Melissa Caddick vanished from her home in Dover Heights, Sydney, on November 12. The 49-year-old was wearing activewear and did not take her phone, keys or any other belongings when she left the family home for a jog at approximately 5.30am. Her husband Anthony Koletti was the last person to see her when the couple went to bed late on November 11. Police have trawled through hundreds of hours of CCTV footage but have been unable to locate Melissa leaving the house.
Belgium backpacker Theo Hayez went missing from Byron Bay on May 31, 2019. The 18 year old was last seen leaving Cheeky Monkey's bar wearing a grey cap. The cap was later found in bushland near Tallows Beach, which was also the last GPS location on his phone. A leading theory into his disappearance is that he fell from the cliffs near Cape Byron Lighthouse, however his family believe he may have been abducted.
Gordana Kotevski was just 16 when she was abducted just metres from her aunt's front door in Newcastle on November 24, 1994. She had been late-night shopping with friends when she was pulled screaming into a white Toyota HiLux in Charlestown. Prior to her abduction, Gordana has expressed concerns about a man she named 'The Spook' who was making her uncomfortable, following her and hanging around her work. Police are continuing their appeal for information.
If you have any information on a missing person call Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000
Originally published as Fake identities: Shock twist in Aussie missing persons case