31 January 2024

Coen man Thomas Maxwell Byrnes, 62, charged with murder of 'proud and loving' Kowanyama mother

| Lyndon Keane

A 62-year-old Coen man has been charged with murder after Kowanyama woman Ms Bernard disappeared in 2013. Photo: Supplied by Ms Bernard’s family.

The family of missing Kowanyama woman Ms Bernard have slammed police for a “failed investigation” as the man charged with her murder faced a Cairns court for the first time on Wednesday morning.

Ms Bernard, a 23-year-old mother of two, disappeared almost 11 years ago after last being seen at the Archer River quarry about 11pm on February 10, 2013.

She had been seen at the Exchange Hotel in Coen earlier that evening and was expected to travel to Kowanyama, but never arrived.

A large-scale search of the area was undertaken at the time of Ms Bernard’s disappearance, and a 2022 Cairns coronial inquest was told that the last person to see her alive was quarry caretaker Thomas Maxwell Byrnes, who denied any involvement.

On 31 January, 2024, police announced a 62-year-old Coen man, who had been assisting with their inquiries in relation to the “suspicious disappearance”, had been charged with one count of murder.

Mr Byrnes, 62, appeared in Cairns Magistrates Court on Wednesday morning via videolink from the watchhouse in Weipa.

During the hearing, no pleas were entered, nor applications for bail made on his behalf, with Magistrate Terence Brown ordering Mr Byrnes’ defence lawyer be presented with a brief of evidence by 27 March, 2024.

Following the hearing, Detective Acting Superintendent Mick Searle told media police acknowledged there had been “challenges and shortcomings through the initial investigation”, and would not outline the specific allegations in relation to the murder charge as it was before the court.

“We recognise that [Ms Bernard’s] disappearance has had a devastating impact on her family and on her community,” Acting Superintendent Searle said.

“We have not located Ms Bernard, and are still urging anyone with information to contact police … and tell us anything you may know.”

Police have faced intense criticism from Ms Bernard’s family and friends about how the investigation has been handled since she disappeared, with the inquest tasked with delivering a finding on a number of key points, including the adequacy of police efforts.

READ ALSO Police out to save face in search for Ms Bernard

The inquest was scheduled to resume in Brisbane before Coroner Nerida Wilson on 19-23 February, 2024, however, a spokesperson for the Coroners Court of Queensland confirmed to the Cape York Weekly that the murder charge meant the process would be removed from the calendar until the court proceedings against Mr Byrnes had concluded.

“The coronial investigation and inquest has ceased until the conclusion of the police investigation and all court processes,” the spokesperson said.

“As required by the Coroners Act, the inquest previously scheduled to recommence 19 February, 2024 will now be delisted and adjourned to a date to be fixed.”

The family of missing Kowanyama woman Ms Bernard says they have been telling investigators that she would not have “run off into the dark for no reason” for more than a decade. Photo: Supplied by Ms Bernard’s family.

In a statement released through lawyer Debbie Kilroy on Wednesday morning, Ms Bernard’s family blasted the police investigation.

“When we reported our loved one missing to the police in 2013, they believed the man who is now charged with her murder, and who told police that she ran off in the middle of the night for no reason,” the statement reads.

“The police never suspected his involvement in her death and in the disposal of her body, which has never been found.

“Our women do not go missing and they don’t run off into the dark for no reason.”

Mr Byrnes told the inquest in 2022 that Ms Bernard was only wearing a towel when she ran into bushland in the vicinity of the quarry on the night she disappeared.

The family urged Mr Byrnes to disclose the location of the body of their “granddaughter, daughter, mother, sister, niece, aunty and cousin” and provided information that told of a woman who loved life, her country, her culture and her children.

“We are grieving and we want her returned home,” the family said in the statement.

“This man must tell us where she is, so we can bring her home to her traditional homeland, so she can be buried alongside her loved ones.

“Many do not know that Ms Bernard is a Kowanyama woman who lived all her life in her community where the Mitchell River flows into the Gulf of Carpentaria.

“Ms Bernard was a cheeky little girl who grew into a quiet, proud and loving mother.

“She loved to dance and to swim in the freshwater on her country.”

Mr Byrnes will appear in court again on 19 April, 2024.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The family of Ms Bernard has requested that she only be referred to as such for cultural reasons.

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