Lee Ellen Stace, who was killed 12 years ago.
Lee Ellen Stace, who was killed 12 years ago.

Witness breaks down

A FRIEND of murdered Brooms Head teenager Lee Ellen Stace broke down in the witness box as she recalled watching her walk out of Yamba Bi-Lo for what turned out to be the last time.

Tamarra Francis (O'Sullivan) gave evidence yesterday in the Coronial Inquest into the 1997 murder of Lee at Red Cliff, near her home.

Ms Francis told the inquiry she had been a close friend of Lee for several years and was working with her on the check-outs at Bi-Lo on the day of her disappearance.

The pair had agreed that Lee would wait for her friend to finish work and then catch the bus together to Maclean.

However, Ms Francis finished work after 3pm and Lee agreed to wait for her outside the supermarket.

"She said she couldn't wait to get home because her shoes were killing her feet," Ms Francis recalled.

Ms Francis said Lee wanted a cigarette badly and she promised to give her one at the end of her shift.

From her register Ms Francis said she watched Lee walk three-quarters of the way to the supermarket exit and never saw her again.

At this point Ms Francis broke into tears, but agreed to continue giving evidence.

When she finished work after 3pm there was no sign of Lee in the vicinity of the supermarket or at the bus-stop across the road.

The thought that she may have been one of the last people to see Lee alive has haunted Ms Francis for 12 years.

"It was very emotional. It broke my heart. I relived it in my memory the way it was that day," said Ms Francis outside the courthouse.

"I've wondered this (why didn't Lee wait for the bus) for 12 years. Why didn't she just wait? She could still be here."

During the day all the witnesses were questioned about Lee's hitchhiking habits.

It emerged that there was a hitchhiking culture amongst young people on the Lower Clarence at the time with some loose protocols to be followed.

These included accepting a lift with few questions and sharing cigarettes and cannabis, if offered.

Witnesses who had hitchhiked with Lee the most said it was likely she would accept a lift from a total stranger and hitchhike alone if she needed to.

Counsel assisting the coroner Senior Sergeant Duane Carey was happy with the first week of the inquest.

"A few things have turned up that we didn't know before," he said outside the courthouse.

Sgt Carey said that next week's evidence from witnesses who claim to have seen Lee on the day of her disappearance on September 2, 1997, could be critical to answering more questions from the case.

Yesterday, Sgt Carey produced a tortoiseshell hair clip found on the roadside at Palmers Island.

All the witnesses asked to identify this item agreed it was one Lee had taken from a friend, Amy Skinner's house, on the weekend before she died.

Sgt Carey said a witness had noticed some suspicious activity at Palmers Island on the day of her disappearance and the presence of the hair clip indicated Lee had been out of the car in that area at about the same time.

The inquest has been adjourned until Monday, when witnesses who saw Lee on the day she disappeared will give evidence.

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