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Vanished: the disappearance of Helen Munnings

On the day that Helen Munnings disappeared, her boyfriend did something very strange. It was the middle of a Tasmanian winter, but despite the bitter cold Adam Taylor – dressed in shorts – set out in his boat into the dark of the Bass Strait.

What was he doing, and where was Helen?

These are the questions police have been asking ever since the 20-year-old vanished from the face of the earth, and questions perhaps only Adam Taylor can answer –he was the last known person to see her alive.

It’s now nearly 10 years since Helen Munnings disappeared without a trace from Burnie, on Tasmania’s northwest coast. It used to be a thriving community, but these days the remnants of the once mighty pulp and paper mill stand abandoned on the outskirts of town.

It was in the shadow of the old mill that Adam Taylor says he dropped Helen that night after taking her for a drive up into the bush behind the town. He says she wanted to go for a walk along the beach. But it was cold and dark, and she was only lightly dressed. Helen was also pregnant, and claimed the father of the child was Adam Taylor.

Helen’s mother Karel is determined to make sure Helen’s disappearance isn’t forgotten. Her fight for justice for her daughter now consumes every waking hour, trawling through files that she hopes hold the clue that unmasks the killer.

“We believe Helen’s been murdered,” she bluntly told Sunday Night’s Alex Cullen.

Helen grew up in Burnie, alongside brother Mark and sisters Kathryn and Linda. However, Helen’s life changed dramatically when she met Adam Taylor, a local concreter and tiler.

Helen was just 16 when she first had a sexual encounter with Taylor. In Tasmania, the age of consent is 17.

Karel tried to have Taylor charged with underage sex. “Helen hadn’t been out a lot,” she explained. “She wasn’t a worldly person. She was a child. She was still at school and he knew that. I told him that.”

Helen admitted to those close to her there was a darker side to their relationship. She revealed some of the details to her best friend, Belinda Rasmussen.

“He choked her, and she come running down to my place saying that he choked her and smashed her into the wall,” Belinda recalled. “She told me it happened a few times beforehand, [but] this is actually the first time she had actually come down to my place like as soon as it happened.”

Adam Taylor was also leading also double life. He was in a long-term relationship with another woman, Karalina Garwood, also known as Kaz. They lived together with their two young sons in a secluded house on the seafront a few kilometres from Burnie.

But Taylor kept Helen dangling, and when Helen became pregnant not long after her 17th birthday, Adam Taylor initially denied the child was his.

“He was denying even knowing Helen till the DNA test proved that he was the father of the child,” Karel told us. “I mean, telling everyone, face to face, ‘Look, it’s just a little girl, I don’t know her, I have had nothing to do with Helen,’ right up till the results got back.”

Helen Munnings became a doting mother. Then, in early July 2008, Helen discovered she was pregnant again.

A few days later, she and Adam Taylor arranged to meet secretly at the South Burnie Park. According to Adam Taylor, he and Helen went for a drive in the hills behind Burnie, to talk about her pregnancy. Adam says she confessed it was the result of a one-night stand with an unidentified man.

Taylor says he then dropped Helen on the highway back at Burnie, because she wanted to go for a walk, “to clear her head.”

If Adam Taylor did drop Helen off, no one saw it. No one saw her walking on the beach, either. In fact, no one ever saw Helen anywhere, ever again.

On Adam Taylor’s version of events, after dropping Helen off he headed back home along the coast to nearby Heybridge.

By the time Taylor arrived at his house on the seafront some time after 6pm, his live-in partner Kaz was getting the kids ready for bed.

Taylor kept a boat on the beach outside his house, and he told Kaz that someone had moved it down to the water’s edge, trying to steal it, and that he was going out to drag it back up the beach.

Instead, Taylor walked the boat out into deeper water, jumped in, and headed out into the Bass Strait. He later claimed he simply wanted to “test the motor to see if it still worked.”

Later that night, Kaz saw Taylor outside in the dark, moving between the three vehicles parked there – his mother’s flat-tray ute, his own Pajero, and a white Mitsubishi van on loan from Kaz’s father. The next morning, Taylor hooked his dinghy and trailer up to the Pajero and drove to Kaz’s father’s house. He said that he took the boat there because he thought someone was trying to steal it.

But just three days later, Taylor brought the boat back.

Meanwhile, Helen’s family had reported her missing and a full-scale search was underway – in dense bushland, rivers, lakes, and off the coast.

Once again, as Adam Taylor had done with Helen’s first pregnancy, he denied he was the father of her unborn child. He also told police he was not having a sexual relationship with Helen. Yet recovered text messages sent by Helen to Adam strongly suggest the couple were still in a sexual relationship, and close family friends attest to witnessing the two together.

Adam Taylor gave different versions to police of the route he says he and Helen took in his car that day, but his account doesn’t add up. From the time they left Burnie together to the time he arrived home alone was at least an hour and forty minutes – but when Sunday Night retraced the route, discovered the trip left 30 or 40 minutes unaccounted for in Adam’s timeline that night.

Despite Karel’s attempts, Adam Taylor has never been charged with any offence relating to underage sex.

There were also other striking errors by investigators. After Helen disappeared, detectives questioned Taylor and noted that he had scratches on his forearm, but they failed to take photos of his injuries.

In another remarkable omission, police failed to search Adam Taylor’s house for more than a year after Helen went missing.

When Adam Taylor’s live-in partner Kaz was interviewed by police – also 12 months after Helen disappeared – she revealed that Adam had been driving her father’s van during this period, and that Adam Taylor was moving between it and the other cars in his outside his house on the night Helen disappeared. This vehicle was also not forensically searched.

A Coroner investigating what happened to Helen found that she was dead, but there was no evidence to justify a finding that another person contributed to her death.

But it was the evidence Adam Taylor gave at the inquest that really angered Helen’s family. Taylor not only denied Helen was pregnant to him, he claimed that he had only slept with her because she blackmailed him into it by threatening to tell police they’d done so when she was underage. He also said he didn’t find Helen attractive, and had to force himself to have sex with her.

For her grieving family, it was one more pathetic excuse, and they believed Adam Taylor was treating Helen with contempt even in death.

Helen’s mother Karel now spends her days poring over thousands of police and court documents, doing the work that she believes investigators should have done in the first place.

She’s also paid a high price for pursuing justice for her daughter. Helen’s little boy now lives with Taylor’s mother – and Karel has only been allowed to see her own grandson once in the past nine years.

Still, as the tenth anniversary of Helen’s disappearance approaches, her family isn’t giving up hope that someone will come forward with the piece of evidence to close the case, and allow them to lay Helen to rest.

Karel still believes they will see justice for their daughter. “One way or another. I don’t know. Just wait for karma. Hopefully someone might be watching this program and they know something.”

Reporter: Alex Cullen

Producer: Stephen Rice