FOR THE LOVE OF LEE ELLEN
By JURIS GRANEY
Help bring her evil killer to justice
ON JULY 21 every year, the Stace family makes a pilgrimage to a homemade shrine in a bush clearing near the craggy Red Cliff shoreline, a short drive from their Brooms Head home.
They celebrate the birthday of their daughter and sister, Lee Ellen Stace, and remember her short life as a child and teenager with all their love.
But they cannot block out the chilling fact that an evil killer, still roaming free and possibly a Clarence Valley local, abducted and brutally murdered their precious 16-year-old teenager.
The sky was grey and it rained 'tears from heaven' last month when Peter and Robyn Stace and eldest daughter Kylie laid flowers beside a wooden cross on what would have been Lee Ellen's 24th birthday.
Mother Robyn remembers how the sea squall cleared, two rainbows appeared and a pod of dolphins started cutting through the ocean.
It was a perfect moment because Lee Ellen loved the beach and dolphins.
nEIGHT agonising years have passed since a driver picked up Lee Ellen, who is believed to have been hitch-hiking home to 'The Broom' from Yamba's Bi-Lo supermarket, where she worked as a checkout operator.
That was in the early afternoon of September 2, 1997, the day the Staces lost a piece of their souls.
Five years earlier the family had escaped the city stresses of Maitland in the Hunter Valley for the quietude of Brooms Head, population just under 200.
The Staces have heard some of the rumours and scuttlebutt about what might have happened to Lee Ellen. They are convinced that someone in the Lower Clarence knows who killed their daughter and may be covering up the crime.
Peter Stace vividly remembers the day when Detective Senior Constable Tony Weir, dressed in civvies, walked into his front yard and told the railway worker they had found his daughter.
She had been missing for 47 days.
Peter then had to break the gut-wrenching news to his wife of 29 years, Robyn, that their second and youngest child was never coming home.
His last memory of Lee was picking her up from work at Bi-Lo, Yamba Shopping Fair, the night before she went missing.
They talked about her new job of just one week.
After a 12-hour shift working the rail lines in Casino, Peter trekked back to the Valley on September 1 to pick up his daughter after she finished her checkout duties at 6pm.
He wanted to make sure his youngest daughter got home safely.
The next morning Peter hit the road in the wee hours back to Casino to work with a now defunct rail crew, happy in the knowledge his daughter was safe.
He rang Lee at 6.30am to make sure his sleep-loving daughter was awake.
Robyn also called in the morning after finishing her early morning cleaning work at Maclean High School.
"I spoke to her on the phone that morning," Robyn told The Daily Examiner on September 5, 1997.
"She seemed quite fine and was looking forward to going to Dreamworld the next weekend."
Little did they know it was the last time they would hear her sweet, angelic voice.
When Lee went missing at 2.15pm from Bi Lo on September 2, it was thought she was trying to hitch-hike back to Brooms Head to save money to spend at Dreamworld.
A police and community operation to find her was launched and lasted for weeks.
A Sydney dog squad, SES crews from more seven different precincts and ultralights were all used to track the slim, freckle-faced, strawberry blonde-haired teenager.
Peter knew instantly something was wrong when she did not return home.
"She was afraid of the dark," he told The Examiner this week.
"It wasn't in her nature to stay away.
"It was totally out of character and I just knew something had happened, something was wrong."
On October 16, a Sydney doctor on holidays at Red Cliff stumbled over the remains of a body.
The Valley went into shock.
There is a killer among us, some thought.
This can't be happening, others decided.
But it did happen.
"You learn to live with it and how to cope but it is not solved and a killer is still out there," Peter said.
"At one stage I thought of selling up and getting out.
"How do you keep sane and keep going? If I am not here, who is going to look after Robyn? What about Kylie?
"It is every parent's dream to watch their kids grow up, get married and start a family of their own.
"Kylie still has to do that and we have to be strong for her."
The Staces appear to be coping.
They say the loss of Lee has brought the family closer than it had ever been.
They rally around each other in dark times when depression takes over and there seems to be no light.
Kylie remembers better times shared with their 'cheeky smiling, heavy metal music-loving, 'dag'.
"When we were kids we busted a hole in Mum and Dad's waterbed," Kylie recounted.
"We were jumping up and down on it and put a hole in it.
"We didn't fix the hole, we just made the bed and left it.
"Of course, we got in trouble."
"She found Dad's stash of Centenary 50 cent pieces and she went and spent them all at the shops," Kylie said.
"Dad didn't know anything about it until after she had died and Terri came back and gave him the empty container.
"We shared a bedroom our entire lives -- she was such a dag.
"She never wore shoes, hated brushing her hair, but loved the beach and loved her friends."
"It was perfect.
"She loved the beach and dolphins."
The longer the case goes unsolved, the Staces realise their time to catch a cold-blooded murderer and bring them to justice also is slipping by.
There is a killer still out there and police just need one piece of evidence to catch them.
The Staces know this, as do the police.
And so does the Clarence Valley.
"Somebody is trying to protect someone," Peter said.
"Please have a conscience and come forward."
"Please come forward," she said.
"We are getting on with our lives, we are going pretty well, but we still need that closure.
"It is such a small area, so someone knows something."
Even a $100,000 reward offered 12 months after Lee was murdered has not flushed out the killer.
Even if the hard-fought reward was increased Peter believes people are still too scared to this day to come forward.
"People have given information to my mates and they will come and tell me and I ask them why these people won't go to the police with the information?," he said.
"They say these people don't want to get involved.
"They are involved.
"If they can tell information second hand and third hand, why can't they tell it first hand to the police.
"They are not going to get into trouble."
While I was interviewing the family this week, Peter, brimming with fatherly pride, pulled out a pictorial anthology of Lee's life created by her 'bestest' friend Terri Mackay.
The pearly white collection of photos, seashells and poems was short but luminescent.
Floating on an airbed in an unnamed lagoon at Nelson's Bay, the flowing locks and cheeky smile of a small child illuminated the off-colour, tepid water.
It is the same glow which lit up the lives of her family and friends.
"She was laidback," Peter said. "She had a bubbly personality and loved the beach life."
Robyn said her daughter was sure of herself.
"She had her own opinions and she stuck to them," she said. "She was a bit like me; she wasn't backwards in coming forwards," Peter added.
"But she wouldn't hurt a fly and she always saw the best in people."
The couple, who celebrate their 29th wedding anniversary on September 4, two days after the eighth anniversary of Lee's murder, remain hopeful that someone will be brought to justice.
"We've always been hopeful something will happen," he said. "The police always tell you, don't get your hopes up, but you always do.
"I am just hoping that one day, justice will prevail."
And as the deputy principal of Maclean High School, Christene McSeveny said at Lee's memorial at Maclean's St James Anglican Church on November 7: "There shouldn't be silence in talk a person continues to live.''
It is an edict by which the Staces live.
But as for the cowardly silence of a few people in our midst who are not willing to come forward with information which could end nearly a decade of family pain and despair -- for whatever reason -- I say shame.
GRAFTON police are keen to speak to anyone who may have information leading to the capture of Lee Ellen Stace's murderer.
Detective leading senior constable Tony King said the matter 'was still an active investigation'.
Although Det King said no new information had come to hand, detectives were still 'pursuing several inquiries'.
"This is case that we really want to solve," Det King said.
"If anyone has any information we would like them to come forward and contact us.
"The $100,000 reward for information leading to conviction is still active."
Det King, who has been working the Stace case for the past four years said anyone with information can contact Grafton police on 66420222 or Crimestoppers on 1800333000.