Marion Barter inquest findings: coroner criticises NSW police, says former lover ‘does indeed know more’

<span>A coronial inquest into missing Gold Coast school teacher Marion Barter began in 2021 after the 2019 podcast The Lady Vanishes became a global hit.</span><span>Photograph: David Maurice Smith/Oculi</span>
A coronial inquest into missing Gold Coast school teacher Marion Barter began in 2021 after the 2019 podcast The Lady Vanishes became a global hit.Photograph: David Maurice Smith/Oculi

The New South Wales police investigation into missing woman Marion Barter has been deemed inadequate by the state coroner, who said police failures had resulted in the case remaining unsolved for nearly 27 years.

The Gold Coast woman was last seen on 22 June 1997 by a friend at a bus depot in Southport.

In findings handed down on Thursday, the state coroner Teresa O’Sullivan found Barter was likely deceased but she could not determine the cause or manner of her death. She noted her body had never been found.

Related: Searching for Marion Barter: a daughter’s 25-year quest to find her missing mother

O’Sullivan found the missing woman had been “exploited” by her former lover, Ric Blum, who lied to and deceived the inquest. She said she was “convinced” that Blum “does indeed know more” but did not recommend charges against him.

The magistrate recommended the NSW police commissioner ensure the investigation of Barter’s disappearance is referred to or remains within the state crime command “unsolved homicide team” for ongoing investigation.

Shortly before Barter disappeared, the mother of two sold her house, resigned from her teaching job and changed her name to Florabella Natalia Marion Remakel.

She did not disclose her new identity to her family and disappeared after withdrawing well over $100,000 from her bank accounts in Australia.

The 51-year-old then travelled to the UK on a sabbatical in June and returned to Brisbane in August without telling her family.

The coroner found Blum had “encouraged” Barter to start a new life with him.

Barter changed her name to share a name with Blum, the inquest heard, who was known as Remakel.

“Marion changed her name, spent some time with Mr Blum in England, and returned to Australia, represented herself as married to Mr Blum, and demonstrated an intention to start a new life in Luxembourg with him,” O’Sullivan said.

O’Sullivan found the “primary motivation” for Blum’s “name changes” was to dishonestly misrepresent himself to others.

Blum had a tendency to “misrepresent himself to single vulnerable women for financial gain”, O’Sullivan said.

“Mr Blum travelled to England to spend time with Marion when he clearly did not intend to pursue the relationship because he was married with children.

“I find that Mr Blum has been seeking to exploit vulnerable women. I also find that Mr Blum exploited Marion in 1997, in the manner in which he later exploited other women who gave evidence in these proceedings … despite Mr Blum’s denials in this regard,” the magistrate said.

Barter transferred $80,000 to an unknown account in October 1997 “on the encouragement of Mr Blum and in circumstances where Marion believed she was in a relationship with him”, the coroner said.

O’Sullivan said Blum was an unreliable witness and she could not accept anything he had told the inquest as accurate.

On top of her belief that Blum “does indeed know more”, O’Sullivan said “that there is a sufficient basis for a finding that he was and is deliberately unwilling to devote this further knowledge to the court”.

O’Sullivan said she would not recommend perjury charges against Blum, as requested by Barter’s family, as she said it was a matter best left to police, whose investigation had not concluded.

Failures of NSW police criticised

O’Sullivan ruled the initial NSW police investigation into the disappearance of Barter from 1997 to 2019 was not adequate.

“It is clear from the evidence that following the initial report made by [her daughter] Sally to Byron Bay police station on the 22nd of October 1997 that very little was done to investigate Marion’s whereabouts until approximately 10 years later in 2007,” she said.

“The failure to open an investigation, and the absence of an investigation in the following 10-year period, has led to the unavailability of crucial evidence surrounding Marion’s disappearance, which has resulted in Marion’s disappearance remaining unsolved.”

Barter’s daughter, Sally Leydon, has provided a DNA sample to police which will be searched against all profiles of unidentified deceased persons, the magistrate said.

O’Sullivan expressed her condolences to Barter’s family and acknowledged their grief and the many unanswered questions.

“It is fitting to end with a word shared by Sally … in which she described Marion as a kind, caring soul with a wicked laugh,” she said.

“She was intelligent, she was cultured, and she had so many friends who loved and miss her still. She would always bring you flowers or a cake. She was a very generous human.”