Who is Jessica Pearce?

A year ago, four days before Christmas, I was sitting in the NSW Coroner’s Court with Mum and our dear friend Liz Davies who we met through the Families and Friends of Missing Persons. Mum and I had painted our nails pink to match the colour from some recent photos we’d found of Ursula’s nails painted in the same colour.

December 21, 2018 was the day Ursula got her name back, and it was the day I realised I couldn’t avoid the truth any longer – Ursula was really gone. I wouldn’t ever see her smiling face and bright blue eyes, hear her big loud belly laugh or hug her ever again.

There was torrential rain and hail in Sydney the night before the inquest, icy cold tears that had been building for thirty-two years on the eve of my final goodbye. It was a sad time, but also a happy time. I ate ‘frogs eyes’ pudding covered in yellow for breakfast. Frogs eyes was my favourite pudding made by Aunty Cheree and as you know yellow was Ursula’s favourite colour. We shared lots of stories and laughs with Liz and the amazing detective Amy Scott who was determined she was going to solve what many people told her was an unsolvable case. And she did!

I wrote about it on the plane ride home for my upcoming true crime novel “Who is Jessica Pearce?”

My lovely friend Christine Kaine also wrote some words on that day which I carry with me everywhere: “Your love for Ursula shines; it cast the light needed to reveal the truth.”

Chapter 86

‘Inquest: Inquest into the death of a person believed to be Jessica Pearce

Hearing dates: 21 December 2018

Date of findings: 21 December 2018

Place of findings: NSW State Coroner’s Court, Glebe

Findings of: Magistrate Derek Lee, Deputy State Coroner

File number: 98/1987, 2018/339259

Representation: Mr A Casselden SC, Counsel Assisting, instructed by Mr J Loosley (Crown Solicitor’s Office)

Mr R Coffey and Ms E Trovato (Office of the General Counsel) for the NSW Commissioner of Police

Having regard to the entirety of the evidence now available, the conclusion that must be reached, on the balance of probabilities, is that Jessica Pearce, is in fact, Ursula Barwick.’

Mum and I grip each other’s hand tightly as Magistrate Derek Lee reads his findings. Liz Davies grips Mum’s other hand. His voice is strong and kind, and he carries a tone that indicates a genuine and heartfelt understanding of how every word he speaks is like a smack across the cheek.

‘I find that the person previously believed to be Jessica Pearce is, in fact, Ursula Barwick. Ursula died on 27 October 1987 (at 7am) at Keajura NSW 2652. The cause of Ursula’s death was cerebral contusions and lacerations due to head injury, with a ruptured aorta, ruptured liver and multiple injuries all being significant conditions which contributed to death. Ursula sustained these fatal injuries when a vehicle that she was travelling in was involved in a collision with another vehicle.’

He looks at us many times in the ten minutes it takes him to formally sum up thirty-two years of ambiguous loss and I wonder how he feels to see the tears roll unchecked down our cheeks. He is looking right into my eyes when my efforts to quieten my sobs and stop my chest from heaving its grief start to fail. The culmination of missing Ursula for almost thirty years without knowing where she was, then two years of knowing she is found but living in limbo land until someone releases this official finding, is out there for all to see.

‘These findings are being delivered four days before Christmas 2018. It will be the thirty-second Christmas Day since Ursula was reported missing. It will also be the fourteenth Christmas Day since Ursula’s mother, Cheree, passed away. For many, this time of year is one when family members comes together to share in the joy and comfort of simply being in each other’s company. Therefore, it is most distressing to know that Ursula’s family have, undoubtably for so many years, been left with an absence that cannot be filled, and a sense of uncertainty that could not be eased. It is even more painful to know that for Cheree, that devastating sense of uncertainty about what happened to her daughter was never able to be lessened.

‘Whilst it is simplistic to speak of closure when confronted with overwhelming loss and unbearable uncertainty, it is sincerely hoped that the coronial investigation and this inquest has brought some measure of solace to Ursula’s family.’

Detective Sergeant Kurt Hayward and Sergeant Amy Scott (her change in title from Plain Clothes Senior Constable to Detective Senior Constable to Sergeant reflective of the time that has passed) have solved what many said was an unsolvable case. Their dogged determination, particularly Amy’s, to not give up on Ursula no matter which path Ursula took her along, should be an example to all others. I hug them tight but I cannot speak. I hug them tighter so they can feel my love for what they have done.

I am heartbroken, yet having this officially confirmed at long last is still a heavy weight lifted from my shoulders. This is not over yet, and we have another inquest to face, but finally, Ursula has her name back.


For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?

Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.

And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.

And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.

Khalil Gibran

Mamamia: Finally Found

A special shoutout to JESSICA STAVELEY from Mamamia for her thought and care in  researching this story for Ursula. To put such a complex tangled tale into words is not easy and Jess went to great lengths to make sure she had everything correct. It means so much for families like ours who have experienced our fair share of careless reporting focused on sensationalism and not on facts. Thankyou Mamamia for setting such a wonderful example #ursulabarwick #found

Here is their article, published November 25, 2019


Missing Ursula

Melissa Pouliot Ursula Barwick

Missing Ursula

By Melissa Pouliot

For twenty-five years I took a passive role in Ursula’s missingness. Silently, and feeling I had nobody to turn to, I obsessed over her being one of Ivan Milat’s victims, along with a multitude of other scenarios which swung me from hope to helplessness. 

After seeing her profiled on TV when the Australian Federal Police introduced age-progression technology for the first time, I embarked on a very public mission to find her. 

Ursula Barwick

This involved many things including publishing crime fiction novels inspired by her ‘missingness’. When my first novel went to number one on Amazon, people started coming forward with new information and the media interest resulted in a new investigation by Kings Cross Detectives.

My quest was to publish a book a year until we found her; it was the best way I knew how to maintain public interest in her case. These books were presented at international missing persons conferences and more than 100,000 copies downloaded on Amazon. I would leave copies in cafes, doctors surgeries, park benches, on trains and planes and in street libraries in the hope that someone would read through to my author’s note and realise my fictional characters were inspired by a real person who we were desperately searching for. And most importantly, that they would come forward with that vital clue to solve her case.

In 2017, thirty years after she went missing and five years after I published my first novel inspired by her, Ursula was found. Tragically she died in a car accident less than two weeks after she went missing and was buried in an unmarked destitute grave under the fictitious name of Jessica Pearce. 

Since ‘Found’, I have remained relatively silent – a stark contrast to putting myself out on a limb time and time again to speak publicly during those five frantic years. My silence is partly caused by bureaucracy, but I am also trying to pick up the pieces of the complicated grief caused by this ambiguous loss. Behind the scenes is a tangled tale of trauma. Trauma from what we went through, and are still going through, in our search for Ursula.

With the support of Australian Story (which aired a story on Ursula on November 25, 2019) and their dedication to Ursula through the eyes of her family and friends and those who helped find her, it is time for me to start speaking out for the missing again.

Sharing Ursula’s story gives other families hope and is a meaningful contribution to the very important conversations we need to have about missing people – the impact is far more devastating than many realise.

There are currently around 2600 long-term missing people in Australia, and more recognition and support are needed for those left to wonder and agonise if they’re ever going to see their missing person again. Ambiguous loss is like no other form of grief and it needs specialised support services that currently don’t exist.

Changes also need to happen in our coronial and police system at the highest levels of bureaucracy which seem so out of touch with what it’s like to live through this experience.

Sharing Ursula’s story is my way of keeping these conversations vibrant and alive, while at the same time honouring the precious seventeen years that she filled with the richness and joy of her adventurous, brave and vivacious enthusiasm for life.


A bit about me and my new true crime book

Described by one of my children as a book writing machine, I am a rural journalist, media company owner and bestselling crime fiction author of the Missing Series. Through my twenty-five year writing career, I have written stories on just about every topic. My stories about people are widely recognised as my true heart and I have published several non-fiction books.

I am the only Australian author who is the family member of a missing person that tackles the complexities of missing through fiction. I am also an ambassador for Day for Daniel, founder of Picnic for Missing and an advocate for missing people.

I am working on a true crime book about Ursula titled ‘Who is Jessica Pearce?’ Here is an extract:

Who is Jessica Pearce?


I am backstage amongst noise, chatter and chaos, getting ready for the curtains to open for the first time at our annual high school play, Guys and Dolls. The beauty of theatre is that you can be anyone you want to be, so I am both a gangster and a dancing girl.

I am not a natural on stage and although my confidence is building as I approach my fifteenth birthday, I’ll never play a lead role. My singing voice is okay, but slightly off-key. My dancing is passable, I am enthusiastic and can follow the steps, but my style is best described as ‘gangly’ and I can’t perfect the grace needed for the tummy roll.

However, I am still good enough to be the first person the crowd sees. The curtains move, the lights come on, and I walk from stage left to stage right dressed as a gangster in one of Dad’s old suits, ten sizes too big. I’m also wearing a gangster hat, pulled down low, that someone else’s father had lurking in the back of his wardrobe.

My prop is a newspaper, quite apt given that years later my writing career would start as an eager young journalist with permanently ink-stained fingers at a rural newspaper. I have practiced ad nauseam my casual-stroll-with-extreme-animation-while-completely-absorbed-in-the-news-of-the-day. It is quite an achievement to reach stage right without tripping on my oversized pants.

Backstage, the thrill of opening night and the terror of being first on stage I attempt to apply thick layers of stage makeup with one shaking hand while holding a tiny hand mirror in front of my face with the other, also shaking. When I get out of my gangster suit it’s a quick change into a dancing-girl outfit and I don’t have time for makeup between scenes, which makes me the prettiest gangster you will ever see.

‘Hey, Lissy.’

My stomach drops. It’s Ursula. Her ‘shit happens’ T-shirt peeks out underneath her denim jacket so all I can see is ‘it hap’. Her blonde wavy hair tumbles casually around her face and her smiling dimples are on full show.

I’ve been ignoring her for weeks. She’s more like a sister than my cousin, and as only sisters can, I hate her as passionately as I love her. I feel betrayed and confused as the two-year age gap yawns between us. I don’t know how to get my Ursh back, so instead I push her further away. She has tried everything to get me to speak to her lately but I’m being a stubborn, painful, bitchy teenage girl.

‘Here, let me help,’ she offers.

It takes more energy than I possess to hate her, so I concede. I hand over my makeup bag and close my eyes. Until the day I die, I will still feel those soft, gentle strokes as she carefully applies my eyeshadow. It’s bright blue, to match my dancing girl dress with its long strip of Velcro down one side which I will skillfully rip in just the right way, at just the right moment, to reveal black fishnet stockings and sparkly leotard.

The mascara is tricky, but Ursh knows exactly what to do. We’ve done this many times before, on our long, lazy weekends of dress-up days and makeup practice on the lush green backyard lawns that our Mums, close sisters, have nurtured from shared kikuyu cuttings.

I still have my eyes closed and her familiar, warm breath of Wrigley’s P.K gum masking the cigarette she smoked on her way here is ever so light on my face, melting away the ice I’ve built around the piece of my heart that belongs to her.

When it’s time for the eyeliner I look directly into her bright blue searching eyes. Searching for forgiveness, searching for a return to our shared solidarity. The eyes I know so well. The eyes that have been watching over me since I was a tiny baby. I try hard to prevent my head from shaking while she deftly glides the blue pencil underneath my bottom eyelashes in a neat, straight line.

She smiles at me calmly. ‘Hold still, Lissy.’

The magic of the moment doesn’t last, broken by the loud, clapping hands of a stressed-out teacher trying to herd cats. Backstage chatter goes up a notch as everyone races to be where they need to be. It’s time for me to get into position. It’s time for us to say our goodbyes.

Ursula is determined to get her words out before I rush away. She pulls me into a tight, squishy hug that feels like home so that I can feel them too.

‘I love you Lissy.’


It’s late at night and the house is quiet. Sitting at the kitchen bench with my iPad and phone, I madly swap from one to the other, googling in the hope that different searches on different devices on different browsers will yield different results. Google search Ursula. Google search Ursula Barwick. U Barwick. Ursula Quirindi. Ursula Kings Cross. Barwick Kings Cross. Ursula Barwick disappears 1987. Ursula Dianne Barwick. Ursula missing. Missing Ursula. Ursula I miss you.

We know so little, but surely someone, somewhere knows something more. Who is hiding what they know? How can I find them? How can I find her?

I reach into my childhood memory bank, grasping and clawing back through the movie-reel of this backstage scene for specific details. Was she really wearing her ‘shit happens’ T-shirt? Or was it the one with pink writing ‘NOW’ or grey silver sideways writing ‘BOTTOMS UP’? I had the same shirts; we’d buy our matching outfits from Big W when Mum and Aunty Cheree did their ‘big shopping’ in Tamworth.

Other details flit just out of reach, like a butterfly eager to pack everything into the three short days of its life. Did she have her shirt tucked into her high-waisted acid washed denim jeans with a belt, or was it a crop top that hovered over her waist-line, letting in cool air and occasionally giving a glimpse of her stomach? Was she wearing sneakers or white sand shoes with socks? Why do these details matter so much to me? They bog me down and make me feel heavy and bloated, as though I’ve eaten a giant bowl of creamy pasta just before bed.

Mum remembers my distress when I came home from the play that night. Distress that I have buried underneath a twenty-five-year trauma mountain because I didn’t say what I should have: ‘I love you, I love you, I love you too!’

I didn’t know it was my last chance to say these words to her. My last chance to let Ursula know I loved her at that moment, as I had loved her my whole life, and as I would love her for the rest of my days.


Photo memories of Ursula

I have a different kind of thank you to send out today. This one is to the people who have shared photos from their old albums and their memories of Ursula this week after seeing ‘Forever Young’ on Australian Story.

One of the hardest things for me during my very public quest that started in 2013 to find Ursula was finding photos of her. The morning of the first Picnic for Ursula in Bell Park, Quirindi, our Nanna Elle presented me with a package of photos found in an old cottage where Ursula used to live of photos including the one you’ve seen everywhere of her wearing a yellow T-shirt, her favourite colour. Plus the precious photos of her with her school friends that you saw on Australian Story.

But now I have so many more, and I am so so grateful to the people who have contacted me to share them!

Here is a photo of Ursula on an old car from one of her neighbours Lee Hartigan that she loved to drive (like all farm kids she could drive as soon as her feet reached the pedals). It was taken in 1983.

The second is another photo from Lee, at a girl’s sleepover, when Ursula was much younger. This photo was taken in 1979. Sadly Lee’s sister Sharon, back left in this photo, passed away unexpectedly a year after this photo was taken. I was quite young at the time so I don’t remember but I know that Ursula would have been absolutely devastated. My memories with Lee and Ursula are on our motorbikes as we raced our way through the mountains, at pace!

The third photo is from a complete stranger named Renae who watched Australian Story and thought she recognised Ursula from when her family billeted Ursh in 1980 during a school exchange. Ursula was at Manilla Primary School at the time. Renae says “I can still remember her liking to talk a lot and a loud belly laugh!”

I have received more precious photos of Ursula  that I will share with you at some stage, but for now I’d just like to let everyone know how grateful and appreciative I am that they have taken the time to get in touch and share their memories of our bright and bubbly Ursh.

#ursulabarwick #foreveryoung #photooftheday #photoalbums #childhoodmemories #wallabadah #farmkids #australianstory #memories

The Kings Cross Detectives who never gave up

Continuing the #cupoftea theme for Ursula, and the thankyous, someone sent me this photo from her memorial of drinking cups of tea with Kings Cross Detective Sergeant Kurt Hayward. This was a very emotional time and felt quite surreal, and at the time it was still difficult for me to accept that Ursula had been found. Kurt made these cups of tea, or what I like to call cups of kindness, just as so many others have done over the years as a gesture of support when I needed it most.

The day Mum and I first met Kurt in August 2014, me with my spreadsheet of dates, times, names and other pieces of information that I was hoping would reinvigorate her case, is one we will never forget. It was the first time Mum had ever been interviewed by police about Ursula’s disappearance 26 years earlier.

Thankyou Kurt for all that you have done for us, we will be forever grateful.

Thankyou thankyou

Thankyou to everyone for the most incredible messages and support in the search for Ursula. I will respond personally to you all over the next few days, my heart is full 💛 I would like to make an extra special mention of my friend Chantal Scarlett who turned up on the doorstep to hold my hand and pour me a heartwarming drink (love your guts! ⭕️) She is one of many who have been by my side through this incredibly difficult quest for the truth … I have so many people to thank! But for now I would like to thank Ursula for teaching me what unconditional love and being brave truly mean 💛💛💛💛💛

Missing persons advocate: Melissa Pouliot

The day I first met the staff in the Australian Federal Police National Missing Persons Coordination Centre set me on a path I could never have predicted. The support they have provided during the search for Ursula and then with the discovery that she had been found means more to me than I can put into words (and that’s saying something!). Although they do not play an investigative role, they were able to provide information that helped me navigate through the complex missing persons space. It was a privilege to be invited to sit down with them and share my journey and my passion for continued advocacy for missing people – this is what they wrote.


Melissa is a woman who wears many hats; wife, mum of three, cricket mum, dance mum, media company owner, outdoors lover, book lover and keen mountain bike rider. You would think she wouldn’t have much time to relax, but around her busy schedule, Melissa manages to write crime fiction novels and speak around the country advocating on behalf of families of missing persons.

Ursula Barwick

Melissa has strong personal ties to the issue of missing persons. In 1987, when she was just 15 years old, her cousin Ursula went missing. She was on her way to the ‘big city’ to follow work and after her family said goodbye to her at the train station, they never heard from Ursula again.

Melissa’s relationship with Ursula was that of very close cousins. Melissa recalls how growing up on a farm meant that as kids, they would spend their days picking blackberries, riding motorbikes, camping and picnicking. They would ‘pack a lunch at the start of the day and head for the hills and come back at night’. They would share many chats and memories together, but it is the specific conversations that Melissa finds hard to recall. “I wish we had some recordings of her talking and laughing, as I have her voice in my head but it’s so long since I’ve heard it out loud… I miss her.”

During the many years spent searching for answers, Melissa said it was a difficult process. As she was quite young at the time of Ursula’s disappearance, she felt a very strong sense of powerlessness in being able to find her.

It took Melissa’s family 30 years to discover Ursula’s whereabouts, and a fresh investigation which started in 2014 ended last year with confirmation from police that she had sadly died in a car accident shortly after going missing.

Day for Daniel

It is this experience that clearly defines Melissa and her passion for helping others. As an advocate for missing persons, Melissa speaks regularly and is a Day for Daniel Ambassador. By generously sharing her personal insights, she hopes it will help others going through a similar uncertain journey. “I turned to writing as a creative outlet to help me work through my emotions, which I had buried for a really long time until I published my first novel inspired by Ursula in 2013, and spoke publicly about her for the first time. I really need something to help me get through the renewed investigation for her, and that’s where writing became such an essential part of my life.”

Melissa created a successful book series based on fictional characters. With five novels published, and now working on her sixth, they help her step away from her real life trauma. Drawing on her own experiences, her fast-paced novels are helping people all over the world better understand the confusing and emotional rollercoaster of having a missing loved one.

Ambiguous loss

When asked what she would like to pass on to the many families of long-term missing persons dealing with ambiguous loss, Melissa says:

The main message I try to pass on is to never give up hope. I really held onto that strongly through the past five years and that’s what drove me forward to keep speaking up for Ursula.

“The hope was initially to honour her memory and that was my driver. Then it became clear there were things that weren’t looked into, and it became hope for fresh eyes on her case. The hope kept transferring, shattering and swinging around, but I had to try to reinvigorate it continually in the hope we would discover the truth.

“Hope isn’t just one word, it doesn’t mean one thing. Hope is the pillar of small wins along the way.”

Further to everything she has so far accomplished, Melissa is running her successful business, MP Media Solutions, which aims to support her clients work and celebrate their successes.

This year she has volunteered her time to help her home community of Tathra after the devastating fires that tore through the small coastal town in March, and has collected thousands of new books to replace lost home libraries through the “Book Love for Tathra” campaign.

With so many balls in the air and such a selfless and friendly personality, Melissa is a truly inspirational person who has turned what was such a devastating loss into a lifetime of advocacy and community service with a focus and passion like no other.

We can’t wait to see what is next for Melissa Pouliot.

Day For Daniel: Online world leads to problems for children, police say

  • By Albert McKnight, Bega District News
  • October 26, 2018

The ubiquitous nature of the internet has meant some corners of the relatively-new technology are unsafe for children, which is one of the messages being shared on Day For Daniel.

The event is Australia’s largest child safety awareness and education day, this year held on Friday, October 26.

Senior Constable Donna-Marie Clarke of the Batemans Bay Police said social media was a large problem, as use of it could result in withdrawal from the family unit and community, or bullying.

“Parents allow kids to talk to whoever they want to, it’s not being monitored at all really,” she said.

“The online world is where parents are finding a lot of their problems as their kids get older, I can confidently say from age 11 up.

“It peters off around Year 11, but in that period there have been suicides; it can be quite extreme.”

What she wanted to drive home to parents was to look at their children’s behaviour when assessing if they were experiencing problems online.

“Rather than talk, watch them and listen. If what you’re seeing is not normal to what they have been doing, look at what they’re doing online,” she said.

Senior Constable Clarke said issues that stemmed from the online world such as bullying affected youths in metro and regional areas equally, and rates were not decreasing.

“It has not been reported enough to police, for various reasons families don’t want to tell police their problems, they try to deal with the issues themselves,” she said.

“Parents need to ask for help. It’s a community approach we need, not an individual approach.”

Day For Daniel ambassador Melissa Pouliot said another factor to think about was how parents’ social media usage influenced their children.

Senior Constable Donna-Marie Clarke and Day For Daniel ambassador Melissa Pouliot talk about ways to stay safe with Wolumla School’s Clancey Whyman, Renato Barrios-Jacobs, Amelia Walsh, Zak Rayner and Kaleila Mazzei.
Senior Constable Donna-Marie Clarke and Day For Daniel ambassador Melissa Pouliot talk about ways to stay safe with Wolumla School’s Clancey Whyman, Renato Barrios-Jacobs, Amelia Walsh, Zak Rayner and Kaleila Mazzei.

On Friday, Senior Constable Clarke visited Wolumla Public School to talk to pupils at the school about ways to keep themselves safe.

They discussed when in trouble who were safe people to go to, such as neighbours, police and teachers, as well as safe places to go to, such as home, school, police stations and hospitals.

Senior Constable Clarke said if the children were lost and a person they did not know asked them to get in their car, the children should scream “no” as loud as they could so people in the neighborhood could hear them, then they should run away.

“People tend to take more notice if people yell loudly rather than if they yell ‘help’, unfortunately,” she said.

If that ever happened, she said children should try to remember as many details about the person and the car they were driving as possible, such as the car’s colour.

Also, children should memorise their full name and home address so they could tell the police when they called Triple Zero (000), as well as the address of the location where they were calling.

Writing, wellness and my return to my passions

found, crime fiction, melissa pouliot, book launch

During National Missing Persons Week 2018 I caught up with the lovely Samantha Moir from Warrior Women Radio, and we covered a lot of ground.

If you have a spare 12 minutes or so…

It is my first radio interview for a long time, as this year I have been having a break from writing and a break from talking publicly about my journey of the past five years with my missing person Ursula, who is now FOUND.

It was such a lovely chat and the perfect way to get back into my true passions – writing, missing people and keeping kids safe.

We pre-recorded, with a view to taking out the bits that didn’t work so well! But I love that Sam shared this in its entirety with a few stumbles by us both because isn’t that what life is? A few stumbles, but then we pick ourselves up and move along.

We honed in on the search for Ursula and my work with the Daniel Morcombe Foundation to keep kids safe. We also talked about writing and how writing fiction is a fantastic outlet for dealing with life when it gets too big.

books Write About Me Found

Unleash the Beast October 10

And here is my perfect segue into the Unleash the Beast event in Toowoomba on October 10, World Mental Health Day, where I am one of the guest speakers. This Writing and Wellness Symposium is absolutely packed from sunup to well past sundown. Ray Martin, Peter Fitzsimons and Mia Freedman will be there, along with so many other talented writers from all around Australia.

Here’s a little bit more about this great event which is raising money for Lifeline – you can book HERE.

Unleash the Beast is a writing and wellbeing symposium aiming to share, promote and propagate the conversation about mental health in a relaxed, entertaining and engaging manner. Why writers? Writers are able to articulate what it is about mental health that affects us as individuals, and at a family and a community level.

And on that note, it’s back to the writing for me. Book number 7 here we come!


The letter that helped family find lost Ursula Barwick 30 years later

NMPW, Missing Persons, Ursula Barwick, Found

This article first appeared in the Canberra Times, then Sydney Morning Herald, September 30, 2017

By Michael Inman, Canberra Times

Ursula Barwick’s simple decision to change her name for her new city life allowed her to disappear in 1987. But that new moniker also provided a hint about her whereabouts.

“It was like she was leaving little clues for us,” her cousin, Melissa Pouliot, says.

Barwick had moved to Sydney to find work and visit friends. But the city lifestyle wasn’t the only change for the 17-year-old country girl from Quirindi, on the NSW north-west slopes, who adopted the name Jessica Pearce.

She was with her new friends – who knew her only as Jessica – when she died in a car accident on the Hume Highway, near Tarcutta, in October 1987.

As far as they knew, Barwick had boarded a Sydney-bound train on the NSW central coastsoon after her 17th birthday, and disappeared.

The pain of losing her cousin never left Pouliot, who poured her experience into crime novels about a missing teenager.

“Initially thinking it was too late to solve the mystery of her disappearance, my quest started as a way to honour her memory,” she says. “To show her, no matter where she was, that I had not forgotten about her, I had not stopped missing her, I had not stopped searching for her.”

Her first novel, Write About Me, started as a way to honour Barwick’s memory, but it helped spark a fresh investigation that found her after almost three decades.

“It just exploded from there,” Pouliot says. “An amazing groundswell of support followed, and it soon became clear that Ursula wanted to be found.”

The Merimbula-based author contacted the National Missing Persons Coordination Centre and asked it to update the website with correct information. “The colour of her hair, eyes and the date she went missing were wrong.”

Pouliot says she didn’t have high hopes but thought she would feel better if the details were correct. She then collected more information from family and friends and gave it to police in a spreadsheet.

As a result, the case was reopened through Taskforce Hemingway. “It was like a tap was turned on.”

However, it wasn’t a smooth process. The investigation started and stopped, and encountered a number of dead ends, including a tip that Barwick had worked at a Randwick pub.

The shifts in momentum brought on “a real yo-yo” of emotions. Pouliot’s books reflect the highs and lows.

“For a long time, we thought she’d been murdered because we knew she’d come home if she could. We were preparing for the worst when Taskforce Hemingway started. This is what all friends and family of missing [a] person go through.”

The power of words spurred the author to keep searching. “Words have real power. Words can wound, words can heal. And in my case, words can find people,” she says.

Those words were delivered in an old letter Barwick had sent to a school friend, in which she wrote that she liked the name Jessica. The clue helped lead the search party to the Jessica Pearce – whose appearance matched Barwicks – and, through painstaking work, investigators managed to match the two files.

Her friends who had been in the car with when she died had given the fake name to investigators after the fatal accident. Authorities at the time failed to track down her family and Barwick was buried in the Emu Plains Cemetery under the name of Jessica Pearce.

The family held a graveside memorial at the cemetery in July this year.

While Barwick has been found and the police case is now closed, Pouliot says the family’s quest for closure continues.

Pouliot now wrestles with a new emotional battle. She launched her fifth novel, Found, in Canberra in July.

“Instead of the raw volcano of emotion that I expected to go with the news that Ursula is dead, I carry around a dull ache across my shoulders, behind my eyes, in my right leg, and in my lower back. My grief moves and shifts around, reminding me every now and then that she is really gone.

“There are other signs of my grief. I forget things. I fade away in the middle of an important conversation.

“We are still trying to join dots that connect Ursula and the fictional character of Jessica Pearce, who she created for her new friends in Sydney.”

The details and circumstances of Barwick’s death are now with the NSW coroner. Pouliot says she hopes for answers to her many unanswered questions.

“Maybe then I will be ready to say goodbye.”

Australia’s national register of missing persons is at missingpersons.gov.au If you have information about a missing person, contact police or Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.

  • IMAGE: After being missing for 30 years, Ursula Barwick has been found. Author and cousin Melissa Pouliot is with Detective Sgt Justin Marks from Bega LAC at the official launch of National Missing Persons Week 2017 in Bega