Let Down by Police: The Tragic Case of Tara Brown

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23rd March 2023  •  14 min read

Domestic violence orders are a key facet of the legal protective measures that are available to all victims of familial and intimate partner violence in Queensland, Australia. However, in 2015, a case of domestic violence rocked the entire nation to its very core and showed the enforcement of such orders are severely lacking.


Let Down by Police: The Tragic Case of Tara Brown

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Domestic violence orders are a key facet of the legal protective measures that are available to all victims of familial and intimate partner violence in Queensland, Australia. However, in 2015, a case of domestic violence rocked the entire nation to its very core and showed the enforcement of such orders are severely lacking.

It was around 2007 when Tara Brown met Lionel Patea while attending Keebra Park High School, which is renowned for its rugby league footballer.  Lionel was a promising NRL player and played for the South Coast Maori Rugby League team. The couple were said to be inseparable. As one friend said: “They’re just a package deal. It was always Tara and Lionel. They were best friends.”

Following their graduation in 2009, the couple continued to date before moving into a home at Upper Coomera together. In 2012 the couple had a little girl, Aria, who was the apple of her mother’s eye.

Let Down by Police: The Tragic Case of Tara Brown
Tara and Lionel.

Tara’s Facebook was peppered with photographs of her daughter. “My world, my sun, my moon, my star,” she wrote alongside numerous photographs of Aria.1 Photographs of her laughing, crying, her bottom lip sticking out as a sign of protest.” Tara wrote: “When you were born the angels sighed in delight. They never thought they’d see such a beautiful sight. You took a breath and the world was right again.”2

Tara worked at Southport Central Towers and according to one of her colleagues, she was a golden girl. In fact, during one conversation among the colleagues about what they would do if they had the luxury of not working, Tara responded by saying that she loved coming to work. On her desk, she had photographs of Aria. According to one colleague, Nicki Hodkinson: “Tara was a beautiful person, very caring, very kind and she was very genuine. We had a lot of laughs. She had a great personality. She would do anything for anyone.”3

Life seemed to be good… Over the years, however, Lionel had gotten himself involved in a rough crowd and became part of the Banditos outlaw motorcycle gang. His role was running drugs and collecting and by 19-years-old, Lionel had become heavily involved with the gang. He quickly rose through the ranks because he had a propensity for violence, eventually becoming the sergeant-at-arms.  In 2013, he was involved in the Broadbeach bikie crawl.4

As time progressed, a cycle of domestic abuse unraveled. Lionel became increasingly more violent with Tara and the prolonged abuse led her to continually doubt herself. As her mother, Natalie Hinton said: “Her self-confidence declined; the monster was now in control.” On numerous occasions, Tara had tried to separate from Lionel and each time, he refused to accept it. He made her life a living hell with abuse and threats and Tara had taken out several protection orders but each time, breached the order.5

In August of 2015, Tara finally left Lionel for good. However, towards the end of the month, Lionel forced Tara into their bedroom, pinned her to bed and held a pair of scissors to her throat and threatened her. After the terrifying ordeal, Tara decided the safest option was to hide from Lionel as she attempted to get a domestic violence order against Lionel.

She told her mother that she was going to a refuge. However, when she arrived at the refuge, she found it wasn’t a safe place for Aria; people were using drugs and the bed linen was filthy. Concerned about her daughter, she returned to the Coast.6

Over the course of the next few days, lawyers negotiated a custody agreement between Tara and Lionel while Tara continued to avoid Lionel for the safety or herself and for the safety of her daughter.

Let Down by Police: The Tragic Case of Tara Brown
Lionel Patea.

At around 8:45AM on the 9th of September, 2015, Tara had been driving along Macquarie Avenue in Molendinar when Lionel Patea rammed her car with his Jeep. Tara’s car rolled down an embankment and into a front yard.7

The crash had taken place just as residents on the leafy suburban street were preparing to leave for work or preparing to take their children to school. A bystander named Lisa Kennedy heard what she described as a “huge bang.” She ran to the source of the noise and came across the car crash. She saw that Tara was trapped underneath the car and rushed to her aid. She saw Lionel crouched down beside the wreckage and helped him to smash the window to get into the car. However, a grim reality quickly set in.

Lionel grabbed a piece of steel from a fire hydrant that had been destroyed in the crash and began to smash Tara over the head with the heavy object. It soon became evident that Lionel hadn’t been trying to save Tara but instead, kill her. Lisa tried to pull Lionel off Tara but he was far too strong. He had his knee on Tara’s chest while the rest of her body was trapped and was just smacking her over and over again.

As the horrific scene continued to unfold, a man who identified himself only as Mike was driving past. He pulled over to the side of the road to try and offer assistance.

Firefighters soon arrived and by this point, Lionel had fled from the scene, stealing a white council ute who had arrived on scene. Mike said: “She was not in a good way, her face was caved in and covered in blood. They were pumping air into her and put some tarps up.” The firefighters had to cut the roof of the car off to free Tara from the wreckage.

Once out of the wreckage, the true damage to Tara was very noticeable. She had sustained severe head injuries, not from the crash but instead, from the attack that Lionel had launched on her with a piece of steel; she was completely unrecognizable. Tara was taken by ambulance to the Gold Coast University Hospital’s resuscitation unit where a specialized trauma unit was waiting for her.

Following the crash and subsequent attack, Lionel was hunted by police. However, he later drove to Coomera police station and handed himself in. When he handed himself in, it was noticed that he had self-inflicted knife wounds and was transported to Gold Coast University Hospital where he was said to be in a stable condition.

Lionel was charged with attempted murder. Meanwhile, it was announced that Tara was in critical condition then the following day it was further announced that it seemed unlikely that she was going to survive the attack.8

An investigation uncovered that the intentional crash was the culmination of a car chase between Tara and Lionel. According to a number of witnesses, they had seen Lionel in his Jeep chasing Tara in her Mazda at around 100km per hour. The day before, Lionel’s lawyer received interim custody orders from Tara. These orders gave Lionel visiting rights under the condition that he must be on good behaviour.

Upon receiving the orders, Lionel called Aria’s childcare centre to enquire as to whether she was going to be there the following morning. When the employee confirmed that Aria was booked in for the following morning, Lionel seemingly put his plan into action. On the morning of the attack, Lionel followed Tara after she dropped Aria off at childcare. At an intersection, witnesses had spotted Lionel steer his car in front of Tara’s car. He got out of the car and began striking Tara’s car with his fists and a knife before running her off the road.

As it would turn out, around a week before the attack, Tara had walked into Southport police station and asked for them to help her leave Lionel and requested a domestic violence protection order. She had come with a friend and had shown the officers a number of text messages that Lionel had sent her.9

Instead of giving Tara help or even offering advice as to where she should seek help, the police simply told her to seek help elsewhere. Following the disturbing revelation, it was announced that Southport police station would be under investigation. An official statement read: “The appropriateness of the police response… has been reported to the Queensland Police Service Ethical Standards Command and is currently being investigated by a senior officer.” Later that night, Tara passed away from her injuries at hospital.

Following the crushing update, investigators appealed for any witnesses who may have seen a black jeep and a black mazda in the area between 8AM and 8:30AM.

In memory of Tara, a number of people across the city changed their profile pictures on social media to a photograph of Tara with her daughter and sister. Messages of support flooded in for the family. Lionel’s family pleaded on social media for supporters to pray for both families, stating: “Please pray for both families as everyone is feeling this pain right now.” A makeshift memorial appeared where Tara was run off the road.10

On the 16th of September, Lionel appeared in Southport Magistrates Court via video link to have his charged formally upgraded to murder. During the court hearing, it was revealed that Lionel had stabbed himself five times after attacking Tara. One of the wounds had punctured his lung.11

It was also revealed that while trying to escape Lionel, Tara had called police for help. On the phone call, the operator could hear Tara screaming for help. She repeatedly screamed that Lionel was going to stab her. Moments later, sounds of the car crash could be heard before Tara could be heard moaning: “Help me…” One of the last things Tara said was: “Lionel stop… Please help me.” The operator then heard 16 thumping sounds. A female can he heard shouting in the background: “What the fuck are you doing?” Lionel responds with: “She got my kid” and then a further 13 thumping sounds can be heard.

In the wake of Tara’s murder, many questioned how police failed so desperately to protect Tara. University of Queensland law professor, Heather Douglas, said: “Police really need to take them seriously. It is the case that there really needs to be a cultural shift.” She said that it wasn’t the orders that were the problem but instead, the way that police officers responded to domestic violence.

According to Deputy Commissioner, Brett Pointing, while there had been a leap in police attitude to domestic violence, a lot of work still needed to be done.

The following day, Tara was laid to rest. Around 1000 people packed into the Southport Church of Christ to pay their final respects. All of those in attendance wore white ribbons to show their support to the campaign against domestic violence. Before the funeral, Tara’s coffin had remained at her family’s home as part of Maori tradition.12

Music echoed throughout the church as Tara’s life was detailed by those who loved her the most. During the service, it was heard that Tara had grown up as a tomboy. She loved nothing more than playing outside. Tara’s stepfather, Johnny, was holding Aria in his arms as he stated: “You can’t think of Tara without a smile coming to your face…” While one of her friends, Mary Jeffries, fondly recalled: “Tara had two main things she loved in life – one was Aria and the other was taking selfies..”

Tara’s uncle spoke out about domestic violence, stating: “We pray that domestic violence will end.” Her aunt echoed this sentiment, stating: “There are women out there – you know who you are – please don’t live in silence.” They said that the family’s hearts were absolutely shattered by what had happened and addressing Tara, they said that she was loved and cherished. At the end of the service, Tara’s mother, Natalie, broke down in tears as she held Aria and watched the coffin being loaded into the waiting hearse. Tara was subsequently buried at Southport Lawn Cemetery.

In early October, over 2000 people attended a fundraising event that was held in the memory of Tara. They gathered at Coomera Sports Park and released 500 white balloons and one pink one. Gold Coast deputy mayor, Donna Gates, told the crowd that domestic violence was: “Un-Australian and unacceptable at any level at any time at any place and anywhere.”

The following month, it was announced that Lionel had also been arrested in connection to the murder of 37-year-old Greg Dufty. Greg had vanished on the 6th of July and had never been found but police determined that he had most likely been murdered. At the time of his disappearance, Greg was deeply in debt over drugs and police now speculated that Lionel was somehow involved.

Let Down by Police: The Tragic Case of Tara Brown
Greg Dufty.

Lionel’s defence lawyer, Campbell McCallum, said that Lionel had been questioned in relation to Greg’s disappearance and said that he had denied any involvement. He additionally said that he believed that police had been relying on a statement from a person who had not been charged. He said: “I understand there is no other evidence linking Lionel to the offence.”13

Just days later, a second man was arrested and charged with the murder of Greg. The second man was identified as Aaron Crawford, Lionel’s cousin. Police released further information regarding Greg’s disappearance and subsequent murder. They stated that CCTV footage had showed Greg arriving at the car park of Ashmore Steak and Seafood Restaurant on the 6th of July. They said that he was later driving to Mt. Nathan, around 14km away, in a Mack truck and was not seen since. They alleged that Aaron and Lionel were contracted to fix up an outstanding drug-money debt.

Before the month came to an end, a third man was arrested in connection with Greg’s murder. Liam Bliss appeared in court to be formally charged with Greg’s murder. Police additionally said that up to five more people may have been involved in the murder and said that further arrests were likely. In early December, police announced that more than one weapon had been used in the murder of Greg and said that they were searching three Oxenford sites where they believed the multiple murder weapons were hidden.14

They further announced that Greg had been led to a lonely part of the Gold Coast Hinterland and beaten to death as retribution for stealing drugs from Aaron.  Details of an alleged eyewitness account of the murder emerged. It was alleged that Aaron had yelled: “Bite the hand that feeds you” during the attack and later tried to revive Greg but to no avail. The eyewitness account had come from Liam Bliss, who was the third man to have been arrested. Liam had told investigators that Lionel had paid him $200 to assist in the attack.15

In February, a further man named Clinton Stockman was arrested in relation to Greg’s murder. He was charged with being an accessory after the fact and it was alleged, he had helped dispose of Greg’s body. However, he was bailed shortly thereafter. The investigation into Greg’s murder continued while the prosecution and defence were making preparations for Lionel to stand trial for Tara’s murder.

Before the end of February, it was announced that investigators believed that the four men had burned Greg’s body over the course of several days. They soon discovered a shifting spanner and a knife that had been hidden in bushland at Kopps Road which they believed had been the murder weapons. In May, it was announced that Lionel’s 22-year-old brother, Nelson Patea, had been arrested and charged with Greg’s murder.16

As the one-year anniversary to Tara’s death approached, her mother, Natalie, spoke with the media for the first time and said that Aria remained her shining light and kept her focused. She said: “She’s very much like her mum. She’s very confident.” She described how Aria will grow up to be a “go getter” like her mother was. She additionally announced that she and her partner, Johnny Gardner, had established the Tara Brown Foundation. The purpose of the foundation was to provide help to victims of domestic violence who were seeking accommodation in refuges. It was a 100% not-for-profit charity will all of the proceedings going directly to those who needed it.

By this point in the investigation, Lionel had been in solitary confinement in jail for over seven months after attacking the guards and pouring boiling water over a paedophile. This was just part of the increasing violence in Queensland jails. A number of newspaper wrote articles about the concerns of so-called fight clubs in the jails. Attacks on guards had skyrocketed apparently because of overcrowding and bikies being allowed to mix with the mainstream jail population. In fact, in the first six months of the year, assaults on guards had increased 160% at Wolston, 150% at Southern Queensland and 63% at Woodford.17

In February of 2017, Lionel pleaded guilty to the murder of Tara.

In Queensland, a murder sentence carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison. They must serve 20 years before being eligible for parole. In handing down the sentence, Supreme Court Judge Debra Mullins said that Lionel now has to live with the guilt of leaving his daughter with no mother. She said: “Your daughter has been deprived of the love and nurture of her mother. You have to live every day of your life knowing you deprived Ms Brown of her life, and your daughter of a mother.” The court heard how Lionel claimed he did not remember murdering Tara. His lawyer said that in the days leading up to the attack, Lionel had been under the influence of drugs. He allegedly remembered some parts of chasing Tara but said he did not remember the crucial parts.

During the hearing, it was revealed that the justice system had truly failed to protect Tara. In April of 2012, police had issued protection orders against Lionel. He breached several times including one phone call where he threatened to kill Tara. Despite being on a suspended sentence, Lionel was given one month imprisonment but was released on immediate parole under the condition he would not go within 100 metres of Tara.

Tara’s mother was given the opportunity to give an impact statement. Before she took to the stand, Judge Debra Mullins ordered him to listen carefully. Natalie said: “I am the mother of Tara Brown, deceased. I speak with extreme fondness of my daughter. She was a lover, loving and loved. She was a lover of life. From a very young age, Tara would explore and seek fun, push herself to the limits, give anything a go. The world was her oyster.” She went on to described how she was haunted by her daughter’s laughter, her joyful banter, her dimples and her smile.

Lionel had penned a letter to Tara’s family in which he said: “The question that haunts us all is how such a tragedy like this could have ever happened. Unfortunately, I don’t have the answers and can’t clarify it for myself either. I hope today in court gives everyone personally involved some sort of closure. Those of you who were close to us know how my sun rose and set for her. She was my everything. Still is. Tara was a dream catch. That 1 in a million girl.”

Outside of court, Tara’s family described Lionel as a narcissist who subjected Tara to years of torment, including breaches of previous domestic violence orders. Shortly after the verdict, two police officers were disciplined after an internal investigation into why they turned Tara away when she reached out for help less than a week before she was murdered. A statement was released which read: “As a result of the investigation, two members have been subject of disciplinary action.” However, they elaborated no further.18

The same day, Tara’s mother, Natalie, asked Queensland MPs to back the Opposition’s proposed tough new law to track and jail violent domestic offenders. The Private Member’s Bill calls for GPD trackers to be mandatory for dangerous offenders as well as a DV alert system activated which would warn victims and immediate appeal rights for victims to the bail process.19

Speaking to the legal affairs parliamentary committee, she said: “Women and children can no longer be let down by a system that is there to protect them. The appalling cost of human lives to domestic and family violence is a national tragedy of crisis proportions. I hope members on all sides of the house will see past the politics and do what is right for our nation.” Dubbed Tara’s Law, a disclosure scheme was implemented. The scheme would allow people in intimate relationships to request information on domestic violence convictions on their partners.20

In May of 2018, Lionel confessed to his role in the murder of Greg Dufty and was handed a second life sentence. Lionel’s brother, Nelseon Patea and Aaron Crawford also pleaded guilty to manslaughter.

When a woman gets the courage to leave a domestically violent relationship, statistically, that is when they are in the most danger. Tara Brown sought out help and sought it out numerous times. She was repeatedly let down by the justice system who didn’t take her fears seriously. The murder of Tara Brown led to many questioning: How many women must die before family violence is taken seriously and permanent changes are made to the legal system?

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Footnotes:

  1. The Gold Coast Bulletin, 11 September, 2015 – “A Hard Worker, Caring And Kind, A Devoted Mum”
  2. The Daily Telegraph, 9 September, 2015 – “Run off Road, Bashed by Bikie Ex-Lover”
  3. The Gold Coast Bulletin, 9 September, 2015 – “Friends Talk of Childhood Sweathearts”
  4. The Gold Coast Bulletin, 9 September, 2015 – “Bang, Then Screams of Pain”
  5. The Courier Mail, 10 September, 2015 – “Mum’s Plea to Cops Went Unanswered”
  6. The Gold Coast Bulletin, 10 September, 2015 –“Family and Friends Share Their Love and Support on Facebook”
  7. The Canberra Times, 12 September, 2015 – “Police Concede Violence Orders Failed Victims”
  8. The Courier Mail, 11 September, 2015 – “Her World Shattered”
  9. The Gold Coast Bulletin, 17 September, 2015 – “Tara Rang Cops for Help”
  10. International Business Times, 17 September, 2015 – “Last Goodbye to Gold Coast Domestic Violence Victim Tara Brown”
  11. The Gold Coast Bulletin, 3 November, 2015 – “Dufty Kill Charge”
  12. The Gold Coast Bulletin, 18 September, 2015 – “Tears Flow at Tara’s Funeral”
  13. The Daily Telegraph, 4 November, 2015 – “Ricki Lee’s Cousin on Murder Charge”
  14. The Courier Mail, 26 February, 2016 – “Weapons Link to Missing Coast Man”
  15. The Courier Mail, 28 February, 2017 – “Killer Puzzled at How Tragedy Could Happen”
  16. The Gold Coast Bulletin, 28 February, 2017 – “Frightened Mum’s Final 10 Days of Terror on Run”
  17. The Gold Coast Bulletin, 14 December, 2016 – “Our Prisons Fight Clubs”
  18. The Courier Mail, 2 March, 2017 – “Two Cops Disciplined for Turning Tragic Tara Away”
  19. Daily Mercury, 7 November, 2017 – “DV Scheme Would Have Saved Tara”
  20. The Gold Coast Bulletin, 2 March, 2017 – “Tara’s Mum Urges all State MPs to Pass Tough New Laws”

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noirilight
noirilight
22 hours ago

this genuinely made me burst into tears

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