Where’s Marion? Search for answers in Gold Coast’s strangest missing person’s case
UNANSWERED questions haunt Sally Leydon.
It has been decades of long nights tossing and turning wondering what became of her mother. Decorated Gold Coast teacher Marion Barter and former wife of Australian soccer legend Johnny Warren, boarded a plane for the UK in June 1997 and was never seen by her family again.
Twenty-two years on, Ms Leydon will not let it go.
Now the topic of a major podcast series by Channel 7 called The Lady Vanishes, the chain of events about Ms Barter's disappearance, at age 51, do not add up.
Did she join a cult? Is she dead? Or, did she simply vanish to start a new life?
Marion Barter was one of the best teachers in the country, plying her trade at the Coast's most exclusive school, The Southport School (TSS). In 1996 she was named the best teacher in Queensland and came second nationally. She was at the height of her career.
Her kids were her life, daughter Sally, son Owen and the boys she taught at TSS.
Ms Leydon had a strong bond with her mother: "I moved up to the Gold Coast from Sydney to be closer to mum, I needed a sea change. When I got here and we lived together for about eight months.
"I used to go into the classroom and hang out with the boys and her, go on excursions and things like that if I wasn't working.
"When I moved out, I used to go to her house a fair bit for dinner and to hangout.
"We probably did that once a week and she would come and see me at work once a week and we'd have dinner there."
Ms Leydon said something happened at TSS that upset her mother. The normally calm and measured woman put in her resignation in June 1997 and decided to take an overseas holiday - a lifetime dream of catching the Orient Express.
"There had been rumours flying around the school, after she won the Teacher Award of Excellence in Queensland and came second in Australia," Ms Leydon says.
"There was a lot of tall poppy syndrome (at the school). "She told me one night, she was in tears. She mentioned a couple of people at the school who she wasn't happy with and then she told me someone had accused her of touching a boy.
"She was absolutely mortified ... inconsolable. She was so unhappy and so upset by that claim. She didn't really elaborate too much."
When Ms Barter resigned, she gave four days notice.
"To me that was quite odd. She would have been on a contract and she would have had to have given notice, I would have thought.
"Because I could see she was so unhappy, I kind of went 'you know what, that's totally fine'. She mentioned that she was going to sell her house in Ashmore and when she came back she was going to downsize ... buy a unit at Main Beach."
It took three weeks to sell her home, she lost about $15,000 in the sale, everything went into storage never to be seen again.
By the end of June, Ms Barter was on a plane for the UK.
"I got two postcards and a letter," her daughter says. "There's concerning information in the letter for me, she talks about her boss at TSS … she wrote about these set of kitchen scales, the old type that you would put the weights on to do the measures. She's told me that she brought her own set from home into the classroom and the boys had ruined it or damaged it and she said she couldn't remember if she paid for it or bought it with petty cash.
"I keep saying 'if I was going to go missing for the rest of my life, I certainly would not be bothered about getting a $60 set of kitchen scales back to the school'.
"Why was she so worried? I keep going back to it."
Ms Leydon had been in Thredbo and was driving home on July 30, 1997 when the avalanche swept through the ski hill, killing 18 people.
"When we got home there was a message on the machine and Mum ... was ringing to make sure we were OK and that she would ring back.
"She rang again the next day and we had a good long chat and I was really excited because I had just bought my wedding dress. I was able to tell her that. That was August 1.
"She was on a payphone and it kept dropping out. She kept asking about the scales. She was crossing off a little bit of a list that she had asked for me to do before she left.
"She said to me in the phone call that she wasn't going to keep writing postcards to everyone. She literally wrote postcards to nearly everybody, including the boys in her class.
"She told me she didn't want to spend her time writing postcards and ringing people to make sure they were OK. She said she needed a break.
"At the time of the call she told me she was having scones and tea with some little old ladies she had met and that she was having a lovely time."
That would be the last time Ms Leydon would ever speak to her mother. What transpired over the next month has convinced her something has happened to her mother.
WHERE IS MARION BARTER?
AS the days and weeks rolled by, Marion Barter had not made contact with anyone from her family.
"My brother's birthday came around, it's October 18. I rang Owen two days after his birthday and asked if he had heard from Mum. He said 'no'. That was an instant flag for me because she loved birthdays.
"It had been eight or nine weeks, I was getting worried.
"We had people over for dinner and they suggested to me that I ring the bank. Because I had her details I did that while they were there."
The phone call to the bank shook Ms Leydon to the core.
"I said to them, 'my mum is travelling by herself and we haven't heard from her on her son's birthday and it was very out of character for her to not contact him'. I asked if they could check if she was using her accounts.
"They told me due to privacy they couldn't tell me anything, then she paused and said 'did you just say that your mum is travelling overseas?'. I said 'yes'. She said 'oh my God, there's money come out of her account in Byron Bay'.
"The lady blurted it out on the phone to me that $5000 had been withdrawn out of her account in Byron Bay at the Commonwealth Bank every day for three-and-a-half weeks. And three days in the middle, consecutively at Burleigh Heads, as well."
The next day Ms Leydon and her partner grabbed a photo of her mum and drove to Byron Bay, walking the streets, going into shops, asking everyone if they recognised her mum.
"Our last point of call was the Commonwealth Bank. I walked in there and the guy was quite odd. His behaviour was quite weird.
"I asked him if they had CCTV footage on their ATMs. He said 'no, why do you ask?'. I told him 'my mother is supposed to be overseas and I found out yesterday that money has been coming out of her bank account here in Byron Bay'.
"He looked at the photo and said 'that rings a bell'. He walked off and into what I assumed was the manager's door and closed it behind him. He came back and took a photocopy of the photo and asked me, 'what would you like me to say to her if I see her?'.
"I thought that was odd because all day no-one had given me any body language or inkling that my mum had been there or been seen."
They went straight from the bank to the Byron Bay police station and reported Marion Barter as a missing person.
The mystery deepened when she asked a friend working in customs to do a passport check on her mother.
"He told me that her passport had come back into Australia on August 2, 1997, literally the day after she spoke to me on the phone. I had that confirmed by police.
"The police called me from Byron Bay a week later, I don't remember the exact date. They told me they had found her and that she didn't want anyone to know where she was or what she was doing."
Ms Leydon was 24 at the time, planning a wedding, a young woman trying to get a leg up in the world.
"It put a big exclamation mark in my world. I didn't know what to think. I went back and told my grandfather, her dad, her sisters. I got yelled at by one of them. They told me I need to leave her alone, they said she was probably just having a holiday.
"I went 'maybe I just need to back off', I thought she would come home when she was ready.
"It was devastating."
Years went by and nothing. Ms Leydon couldn't let it go, there was a pit in her stomach, something had happened to her mum.
"I gave the police everything. I gave them the bank details, everything I had, and they lost the lot. They didn't go down to the bank, they didn't ask to see any footage, they didn't speak to the bank manager. I have Freedom of Information documentation that shows only one log on the police file, which is the day I went there and registered her missing.
"They called it an occurrence. They didn't mark her as a missing person, which they did not tell me, and it said they believe this is normal behaviour for her.
"There is nothing there to say that he (the officer) went to the bank or he did an investigation into where the money went.
"The police have confirmed to me, they have 100 per cent never sighted her, nor have they spoken to her. The phone call that I received was never documented.
"I feel like they just decided what box she fit into and they just put her firmly in that box without doing any investigation whatsoever."
THE twists kept coming.
Nearly 15 years after her mother went missing, Ms Leydon received another bombshell. Marion Barter, was now Florabella Remikel.
"I didn't find out the passport name change for a long time, until a new detective took over the case.
"I was shown a document and at the top of it you could see the name changes for Mum. (She had been married three times) so Wilson, then Warren, then Barter, then this new name of Florabella Remikel.
"It said that was on her incoming customs card (in August 1997) and they had a photo of her passport and they had this photo of Florabella Remikel.
"The custom card said she was married, living in Luxembourg, coming to Australia only for three days.
"That was the first time I had heard of that, which I think was in 2011."
Then last year she did some digging on Florabella Remikel.
"Only last year I rang around on births, deaths and marriages to get some information. I went to the state archives and said I needed some clarification on the name. They told me the exact name and that the date of it being changed was May 15, 1997.
"The new passport was issued before she left.
"They also confirmed that passport never left Australia, even though it said she was only coming back to Australia for three days. The passport never left Australia again … and it was never renewed.
"I was blown away. For so long, I just thought someone had taken her identity ... murdered her, changed their name and come back into the country. I then question, why the hell would she change her name to Florabella Remikel? When you want to disappear you'd just be Sue Smith, you wouldn't have this weird name. We have checked it, we have had zero hits on it."
THOSE unanswered questions keep coming up, questions that Ms Leydon claims the NSW police cannot answer.
She's been told by police the fact that her mother sold her home, changed her name and went overseas was enough motive for them to believe she wanted to go missing.
"I've said to them, 'you've told me many times that your reasoning is based on assumption, but you have no proof'.
"I told them she had sold her home because she wanted to downsize, to buy a unit. She was a 51-year-old woman who doesn't need a three-bedroom home with a swimming pool.
"She was having problems at school, she quit her job and didn't want to be there anymore. She was going on a holiday and openly discussed with us about coming back. She had renewed and paid for her teacher registration a year in advance.
"It doesn't make sense to me. This isn't somebody who wants to disappear and never be seen again. Something has happened to her.
"There is a lot of speculation and the fact that police can't find her. She's really not that clever, she's really naive and not street smart.
"She doesn't drink, she doesn't smoke. She's very well to do, she goes to the ballet and the opera. That's her in a nutshell.
"She's really well dressed, really well spoken, a smart lady, she loved her job, loved being a teacher, it was her passion and drive in life.
"Something has happened that's not quite right. Why did she sell her house for a loss, why did she quit her job halfway through the year and why did she go to the bank every day for three weeks and take $5000 out, instead of taking it out in a lump sum?
"She has $20,000 sitting in a bank account in Barclay's bank in the UK. Why leave it there? It has been untouched and is withering away due to fees and charges."
A call to Crime Stoppers in 2002, not followed through by police, is too eerily close to her mother for Ms Leydon's liking.
"I was told there was a Crime Stoppers phone call that had come into the branch about a woman by the name of Marion who went missing in northern NSW in 2002. This phone call was in 2002, said she has been murdered and is buried in bushland near Armidale.
"No-one acted on that whatsoever. I was told this eight years later, when the detective running the case had stumbled across it.
"To my knowledge, to this day, it was the only phone call that anyone has ever made any reference that could be her. At the time there was no other Marions on the missing persons list."
Ms Leydon was told in 2016 that the case was closed, but she believes she has uncovered new leads for police.
"I put documentation together in 2016 and sent it to the detective on the case and he said to me, 'look I'll try and work on it, but I can't promise you anything. The case is closed, so I'll have to kind of do this in my spare time. Don't get your hopes up'.
"I recently found out she had been babysitting one of the boys in her class. He was a single father, the dad is apparently a pilot and mum started having a thing with him. I don't know exactly what that thing was.
"I have a gut feeling that he knows something.
"I've had a PI run the new name, Florabella Remikel. I've run Marion Barter all through Australia, Luxembourg and the UK, and there's been zero hits on anything. She hasn't even had a parking ticket."
The search for her mum has been hampered by her removal from the missing person registry.
"They took her off the list in 2011.
"It's very sad. There's a woman out there who is missing, we don't know whether she is dead or buried under floorboards.
"Every time there is a body, my heart sinks."
A spokeswoman for NSW Police told the Bulletin they were undertaking a full review of the case, although there had been no update at this time.
WHAT SALLY THINKS
SALLY Leydon will never give up on her mum, not until she has the answer she desperately needs.
"My gut feeling tells me she has met with foul play.
"You look at all the evidence and all of the scenarios, even if she went into a cult or something like that, people don't stay in those things for 22 years.
"Even if she wanted to be missing, I don't think it's normal, she had no reason. You look at the statistics for people who go missing and she doesn't fit any of those criteria.
"No domestic violence, drugs and alcohol, mental health, she had none of those. I think she was definitely sad when she left, 100 per cent, but she definitely didn't have mental health issues.
"Someone, somewhere, knows something. She goes to a doctor, she buys milk, or she's someone's neighbour. Someone knows her."
Ms Leydon won't stop in her search for answers, she needs to know what happened to her mother 22 years ago.
"I owe this to her, she's my mum."
Do you know more about this case? Contact Chris McMahon at firstname.lastname@example.org