This was the photo of Keyra Steinhardt widely circulated after her abduction on April 22, 1999.

PREDATOR: How 9-year-old Keyra Steinhardt caught a killer

22nd April 2019 1:00 AM
UPDATED 23rd April 10:58 AM
premium_icon Subscriber only

LIKE many mothers, Treasa Steinhardt still has boxes packed with her daughter's childhood memories.

The boxes, imbued with the scent of mothballs, hold photos of a smiling chubby baby growing into a cheeky little girl with blonde hair and a big toothy grin.

There's a little baby book with milestone firsts and favourites.

Yet these boxes hold a harrowing sadness.

They're missing the photos of awkward teenage years, of high school graduation, of perfectly posed formal photos.

These boxes hold things no mother should see: laminated copies of newspaper articles about abduction and murder, photos of people searching for a body, hundreds of condolence cards from strangers, a death certificate.

Some of these things have been untouched for 20 years, packed away in storage to supress the grief they hold.

But sifting through these boxes one thing is clear. Keyra Steinhardt was loved, and she'll never be forgotten.

Despite having chickenpox, Keyra Steinhardt was still allowed to have her Easter chocolate.
Despite having chickenpox, Keyra Steinhardt was still allowed to have her Easter chocolate. Steinhardt family

A LITTLE GIRL WHO WANTED TO BE FRIENDS WITH EVERYONE

As soon as Treasa's pregnancy test came back positive, she knew it was a girl.

She was 24, living in Emerald in Central Queensland and determined not to use her pregnancy as an excuse to stay in an unhealthy relationship.

Treasa told her ex that, under no circumstances, would he be involved in her baby's birth.

Instead, as Keyra Wynetta Steinhardt entered the world on April 12, 1990, her grandmother was the first to hold her and three generations sat together.

Life as a single mum was never going to be easy, but Treasa and her little girl got used to it.

For about six months mother and daughter lived with Treasa's parents in the coal mining town of Tieri before moving south west back to Emerald. 

They lived in a little cul-de-sac and planted a tree in the front yard.

Treasa remembers fondly that as Keyra grew up, she would introduce herself to each neighbour and all the kids in the street would play together.

Treasa met a new man, Blair Crewther, and together they moved to Rockhampton.

By now, Keyra had become pretty independent and loved attention.

Like most '90s children, Keyra grew up watching Sesame Street and Play School.

She loved singing and dancing and loved going to school.

Treasa said Keyra begged to leave home an hour early so she could play with her friends.

If Treasa had to work late Keyra would go to PCYC's after school care where she delighted in being the bus coordinator, making sure everyone on the roll got on board.

Keyra was seven when her little brother Connor was born and instantly become "a second mum".

"Connor, when he was born he didn't have to ask for anything," Treasa said. "Keyra would naturally just go and do it for him or just understood what he needed without him acknowledging what he wanted. So, she would just go and do it."

Keyra Steinhardt loved playing mum to her little brother Connor. Pictured with other family members.
Keyra Steinhardt loved playing mum to her little brother Connor. Pictured with other family members. Steinhardt family

THE LAST DAY TREASA SAW HER DAUGHTER

In April 1999, the Steinhardt family was living in the north Rockhampton suburb of Berserker and Keyra was going to the local primary school.

Treasa was working in hospitality, with unpredictable hours.

Sometimes her partner Blair would pick Keyra up from school, and she'd ride pillion on his motorbike.

But Blair had crashed that bike and was borrowing one which didn't have a second seat while he waited for it to be fixed.

Keyra, now 9, had been asking to ride her bike to school but with two busy roads to travel down Treasa and Blair were reluctant.

Instead they said she could walk, but only if she followed the route they mapped out and took care when crossing Dean St, a busy four-lane road.

And Keyra, being a child who liked to please her parents did exactly that.

It's been two decades since the events of April 22, 1999, played out yet Treasa still recalls every moment clearly.

"I live it every day," she said. "It's just there. I can picture it right now."

 

When Treasa dropped Keyra to school that day they said 'I love you' and the little girl kissed her mum and baby brother goodbye.

Treasa went shopping to find new shoes for Keyra and left a note on her bed promising $5 pocket money if all her chores were done. The shoes would never be worn.

When Keyra left school that day at 3pm she walked down Berserker St, turning right into Robinson St at North Rockhampton High School.

But this time she was followed by an older man in a t-shirt and shorts, feet bare.

At a house on the opposite side of Dean St, a couple sitting on their veranda noticed the man following Keyra.

We've chosen not to name this couple, because of the anger towards them when it was revealed they didn't call the police as soon as they saw what happened.

Rather than crossing from Robinson St over Dean St at the traffic lights, Keyra walked through a vacant block of land opposite the high school oval. The land was covered in long, overgrown grass and gumtrees. It had already been slated for development as the site of the new North Rockhampton police station.

The Dean St couple said they watched the man follow Keyra.

It was the same man that they had, the previous day, said to each other must be the girl's father.

That's one of the reasons they gave for not wanting to get involved when they saw the man hit Keyra from behind and run from the block.

"Even when he hit her I thought it might have been for something she had said or might have done," the woman later said in court.

When the man ran from the block and returned to place something like a body in a car the woman's concern became overwhelming.

"I then phoned my friend to see what I should do, but she wasn't home," the woman told the court. "I decided to ring the CIB and make an anonymous call because I really didn't want to get involved."

'WE'LL FIND HER, NO MATTER WHAT'

Treasa was at work when Blair called about 5pm to let her know Keyra hadn't arrived home as usual.

Even as Treasa brushed off concern by saying Keyra was "probably at a friend's place", she knew her little girl was always eager to please and wouldn't willingly disobey her parents.

"I went home and went straight into her room, naturally, just in case they didn't see her," Treasa said.

The family went to the police station to report her missing. It's unclear at what point the connection was made between the reported abduction and Keyra failing to come home from school, but by the time the family drove back home down Dean St the vacant block was cordoned off and being combed by forensic specialists.

Police had found Keyra's shoes, threaded with her mother's laces, at the scene along with blood and footprints.

The crime scene on Dean St where Keyra Steinhardt was attacked and abducted.
The crime scene on Dean St where Keyra Steinhardt was attacked and abducted. Morning Bulletin archives

Roads were blocked, radio and news broadcasts were cutting into family dinners and evening commutes, reporters were knocking on the doors of neighbours.

Later that night, Treasa called one of the lead detectives Darren Lees and he assured her they were talking to someone who could help.

Treasa clung to that information, unable to believe this was anything more than an aberration in their family's daily routine.

She told herself Keyra would be home within hours, maybe the next evening.

But those hours slowly dragged into weeks and an unwelcome reality settled over Rockhampton and the hundreds of people who were searching for Keyra.

At home though, the days still held a pinprick of hope that soon Treasa would be hugging her little girl. They would be safe, nightmare over.

"I had dreams when I did sleep that my dad who passed away was helping us search for her because he was a fireman," Treasa said. "He always said 'we'll find her, no matter what'. My hopes were always there that we would find her alive, no matter what. That he just had her locked up somewhere safe."

Predator Part 1: Key to my heart: On April 22, 1999, Keyra Steinhardt is attacked and killed as she walked home from school in Rockhampton. Detectives get a once-in-a-lifetime break in the case and have their prime suspect in custody just hours later. But then things stall. He won’t talk, so for two weeks hundreds of people search for the 9-year-old girl. This crime rocked a small community, but it’s just the first horrifying discovery about the man who became Queensland’s first convicted serial killer. Listen to Predator on your podcast app now.

THE ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME SIGHTING

In part, catching Keyra's killer comes down to a bizarre coincidence, a rare stroke of luck where everything aligns at the right time.

It came down to one man's afternoon childcare run.

Prison guard Ben Robson was driving down Dean St to pick his son up from a kindergarten in Robinson St.

As he looked out the window he noticed a familiar face, a man he'd seen too many times as a prison guard.

They locked eyes, gave each other a nod of recognition.

Ben drove on without much thought for it until later that night when he saw news bulletins reporting that a young schoolgirl had been abducted from that area.

As he drove back out to work that night, Ben went past the crime scene and told officers they should have a word with a man known as "Lenny the Loon".

Lenny was Leonard John Fraser and by 10.30pm police were at his Berserker flat.

Leonard John Fraser
Leonard John Fraser's mugshot, taken the night he was arrested for Keyra's abduction.

Detective Senior Constable Darren Lees hit record on a dictaphone as he walked towards Fraser's flat.

"I'm investigating a matter in Rockhampton today which resulted in the alleged abduction of a nine-year-old schoolgirl," he said to Fraser, who greeted officers on the pretense of checking the car he claimed had recently been broken into.

"Hey, hey, hey, hey. No way. I'm no child molester."

Detectives spent a few minutes reassuring Fraser they weren't accusing him of a crime. His relief was audible on tape. "When you dropped that on me, well f***king hell," he said.

Fraser agreed to head to the station. "I will tell you something," he mused while waiting for a lawyer. "I would like to be out there right now, trying to find her. And trying to find the bastard that took her."

It was the start of hours of questioning, which would stretch over almost two weeks.

A TRAIL OF EVIDENCE

Senior Sergeant Carl Burgoyne, then a Detective Senior Constable, was with Darren when they arrested Fraser that night.

He would become one of the core trio of detectives to interview Fraser over the next two weeks, listening to his self-indulgent rambling as hundreds of people searched for Keyra.

When a child goes missing, there's usually a report lodged with the general duties staff which might be handed on to detectives if there's any suspicious circumstances.

But with the Dean St witnesses, Carl said Keyra's disappearance was always treated as an abduction.

"There was a shoe minus laces, which led us to believe that the laces might have been used as a binding implement," Carl said of the scene that night.

Senior Sergeant Carl Burgoyne.
Senior Sergeant Carl Burgoyne. Allan Reinikka

"It was evident that there was some forensic evidence, in particular a footprint. An adult's rather large footprint, that was in the dirt towards the northern end of the park, which became a vital piece of evidence later."

Carl said Fraser was immediately defensive, but clearly rattled by how quickly police had tracked him down.

But Fraser had learned, through previous prison sentences, that DNA evidence remained viable only a certain number of days and clammed up as soon as detectives started to question him.

As he sat stewing in the interview room, hundreds of people were searching bushland around Rockhampton for any sign of Keyra.

At first, they focused on the area around Callaghan Park. After attacking Keyra, Fraser picked up his girlfriend and drove her to the northern banks of the Fitzroy River, the city's muddy spine. Christine Wraight, 21, sat in the car while Fraser moved something from the boot.

Curiosity overrode his orders not to look. She later told the court there was "blonde hair, a bit of a forehead, a nose, like a doll".

"He walked a bit then he saw me looking," she said. "He dropped what he was carrying and said 'How many times have I told you?' He reached into the car and hit me." Christine didn't look again.

COMMUNITY UNITED IN GRIEF AS HUNDREDS SEARCH

As word spread around Rockhampton, where the bush telegraph still works wonders, flowers started appearing along the fence of the vacant lot on Dean St.

There was a handful at first, but it soon blossomed into a sea of flowers, cards, teddy bears.

Rain is rare in Rockhampton, but when it started to shower the SES erected a tarpaulin to protect the tokens of our community's shared grief.

"It wasn't just the fence line that was covered in flowers, my whole home, flowers just kept rocking up," Treasa said. "Flowers from everyone from different towns and there were phone calls after phone calls."

Divers trawled the river. Hundreds of emergency services personnel, the army and SES volunteers painstakingly inched their way through bushland in blistering heat.

They dug through suspicious mounds of dirt after nearby residents reported a bad smell, searched the city's sewerage points, and looked under four rotting pig carcasses piled up in the scrub. There was still no trace of Keyra.

Eddie Cowie was one of the SES volunteers searching back then. Now, he's the SES regional coordinator for Rockhampton and has been with the organisation for 33 years, since he was a teenager.

It wasn't summer anymore, but in Rockhampton that doesn't really seem to matter when it comes to the weather.

Despite being late April, the temperature was still scorching and Eddie recalls it was "extremely humid".

Down near Callaghan Park the search swept along the riverbank. In some sections the grass was topping eight feet and searchers would put their hats on poles to mark their position above the vegetation.

Eddie Cowie.
Eddie Cowie. Allan Reinikka

"The terrain was horrendous, you were essentially pushing your way through grass and you had no idea what was in front of you," Eddie said. "We had a number of police that were close to the river with firearms, given the crocodile threat. Ultimately, other elements such as snakes were also quite a concern.

"We wanted to make sure that we were not leaving any part of that search area untouched to the point where in some cases it was searched and searched and searched, over and over, just to make sure we had not missed anything that was critical had Keyra been alive."

Eddie said one of the key people involved in maintaining the professionalism of the search as it stretched into weeks was Lyall Dobbs.

"As the days went on and certainly as we moved towards the fifth or sixth day, there was a real level of sadness within the search groups. After Keyra's body was located and recovered and subsequently the funeral, there were people who really connected to this whole sadness."

Keyra Steinhardt with her baby brother Connor. Her mum Treasa says Keyra loved being a big sister and became a 'second mum' to Connor.
Keyra Steinhardt with her baby brother Connor. Her mum Treasa says Keyra loved being a big sister and became a 'second mum' to Connor. Steinhardt family

FINDING A WAY TO SURVIVE

On May 6, 1999, Fraser agreed to take police to Keyra's body in a dry creek bed off Yeppoon Rd.

Keyra's naked body sat propped against a tree at the mercy of morning dew and the stinking heat which hangs around Rockhampton into June. Her school jumper was draped across her body, a poor substitute for a mother's loving embrace.

"I still found it hard to believe that she was gone," Treasa said. "Then when we went to the coffin, because it's just a wooden box, that doesn't tell me that she's gone and we had to pick the coffin up just to make sure it was the right weight.

"I still find it very hard that she's gone because I didn't get to see her.

"So, for me to survive, I turned it around and she is the hero of the story, that she caught him and put him in jail, that she saved the other girls from being hurt and the ones that were killed have been brought back to their family. That's how I've survived. I'm fine if I live that."

Keyra's killer had a history of hurting women, but it was this evil past which also nearly saw him get away with her murder.

PREDATOR PART 2: FILTHY ANIMAL will be released next Monday. 

ABOUT PREDATOR: 

This series is based on interviews with Treasa Steinhardt, Snr Sgt Carl Burgoyne, Eddie Cowie, Frazer Pearce and Allan Quinn. Michelle Gately also reviewed original Morning Bulletin reports (with thanks to the History Centre at Rockhampton Library), interview transcripts (provided by Treasa Steinhardt), and court documents.