Jessica Small was abducted from Bathurst, located west of Sydney, together with Vanessa Conlan in 1997. Although Vanessa managed to escape, her best friend has not been seen since.
An inquiry into the disappearance of a teenage girl from New South Wales almost 17 years ago has concluded that she was likely murdered by one or more individuals, breathing new life into one of the state’s most captivating unsolved cases.
Jessica Small was forcibly taken from Bathurst, situated to the west of Sydney, alongside Vanessa Conlan in 1997. While Vanessa was able to escape, her closest companion has remained missing ever since.
A coroner’s investigation revealed that the police failed to adequately probe the abduction at the time. However, the recent inquest identified two individuals who became subjects of interest nearly two decades later.
Eight months after Jessica disappeared, two forestry workers discovered a pair of undergarments, a bottle of bleach, and a bloodstained blanket in the bushland 75km east of Bathurst.
On the night of October 25, 1997, the two girls, both 15 years old at the time, were departing from an amusement arcade in Bathurst when a man driving a white car approached them and offered them a ride home.
Although the girls, who had been described as a troublesome pair, accepted the offer and got into the car, the man attacked them shortly after on a desolate rural road.
Vanessa managed to escape and sought refuge in a nearby residence, but the initial response from the police discredited her account of events. They failed to conduct proper interviews with witnesses or potential witnesses who could have provided crucial evidence.
In 2007, Detective Sergeant Peter Smith from the NSW Homicide Squad took on the cold case.
‘It is illogical that this young girl would seek help, running and obviously terrified, to a stranger’s house in the middle of the night, only to have her story doubted. It simply does not make sense,’ Mr. Smith expressed during an interview on Channel Nine’s 60 Minutes.
‘Especially considering that it has now been 16 to 17 years, and she has consistently maintained the same narrative, which has been corroborated repeatedly. It is unmistakably clear that she is telling the truth.’
Mr. Smith revealed that one of the key witnesses, initially overlooked by local detectives, had a peculiar conversation with an individual matching the description provided by Vanessa of her assailant.
‘(He said) an adult male had been at the amusement center inquiring about Jessica and even pointed her out, saying, “She seems like she’s ready for a good time, who is she?” And during that conversation, he mentioned that he worked at the Oberon Timber Mill,’ he disclosed on the program.
‘I simply couldn’t believe that no one had questioned him about this before. It is of utmost importance.’
The newly formed investigation team interviewed 400 men in 2011 who had worked at the Oberon Timber Mill at the time of Jessica’s disappearance. Eventually, they narrowed down the list to two individuals who were considered persons of interest in the inquest regarding Jessica’s vanishing.
‘(One of them) had access to a white VK Holden Commodore with holes in the passenger footwell. The car that the girls got into that night, Vanessa sat in the front seat. As they were driving, Vanessa noticed there were holes in the front passenger footwell,’ he recounted.
The coroner, Sharon Freund, determined that there was no direct evidence connecting the two persons of interest to the abduction of the girl, but there was also no evidence ruling them out.
Eight months after Jessica went missing, two forestry workers discovered a pair of girl’s undergarments, a bottle of bleach, and a bloodstained blanket in the bushland 75km east of Bathurst.
The person who found these items was never interviewed by the police, and the potential evidence was not subjected to DNA testing. Regrettably, it was later destroyed by the local authorities.
Ricki Small, Jessica’s mother, was kept in the dark about these discoveries and expressed her ongoing disappointment with the police.
‘I would have personally scoured the forest, digging through the soil in search of her,’ Ms. Small revealed to 60 Minutes.
‘I am hurt and angry. The treatment by the local detectives working on the case was simply unacceptable. It was appalling.’
The coroner has recommended offering a reward of at least $500,000 for any information leading to an arrest in Jessica’s longstanding case.
‘We have yet to find her. Seventeen years have passed, and we have yet to find her,’ Ms. Small lamented.
‘All I can honestly say is that I hope her suffering was brief, if I may phrase it that way.
‘My mind has entertained the thought of her being held captive for days or subjected to torture… I hate to even consider it.
‘It is a very dark place.’
Jessica’s case has been referred back to the Unsolved Homicide Squad.