At the end of a lonely bush track, in the tangled wilds of the Atherton Tablelands in 1991, a battered old four-wheel drive hid a terrible secret. Young mother Julie-Anne Leahy had been murdered: shot twice in the head, bludgeoned with a rock, strangled with her own seatbelt, and slashed across the throat.
Beside her, her closest friend, Vicki Arnold, sat dead, with her hand resting near a bloodied rifle, setting the scene for one of Queensland's most enduring murder mysteries. The Weekend Australian can reveal a final twist in the tale, new evidence, a violent new suspect, and the families' fears that justice will never be done.
In the beginning, bungling local police in far north Queensland swiftly declared shy accountant Arnold, 27, responsible for a brutal murder-suicide, a finding backed by two subsequent inquests but decried by the women's families.
In 2013, after a thorough coronial investigation that cleared Arnold's name, then state coroner Michael Barnes sensationally committed Leahy's husband, Alan Leahy, to stand trial for the women's murders.
Mr Leahy — the last to see the women alive — has always denied any involvement in the deaths. His wife and her best friend had been missing for two weeks before their bodies were found by trail bike riders on August 9, 1991, in bushland near Cherry Tree Creek. Mr Leahy reported the pair missing to police. He told investigators they left the Leahys' Atherton home in the middle of a freezing winter's night to go fishing. It was never explained why they were lightly dressed, they had no torch, and Vicki Arnold did not have her spectacles.
In their haste to declare the crime a murder-suicide, the local police—who had never before investigated a murder — destroyed, failed to gather or lost evidence.
Mr Barnes found Mr Leahy — who had a criminal history, had spent two years in jail and was familiar with guns— had clear and compelling motives. He'd been grooming his wife's schoolgirl half-sister for sex and was cash-strapped.
A Cairns judge overturned the committal order, and the matter went back to the state's Director of Public Prosecutions for a review of all of the evidence.
The Weekend Australian has learned the DPP has quietly decided against charging Mr Leahy after the emergence of new witnesses, who decades later reported seeing the women with violent standover man Christopher Dunlea.
Dunlea had been so feared on the Tablelands — he was known for wearing a gun in an ankle holster and notorious for his involvement in the marijuana trade — that it was not until years after Dunlea was murdered in a drug stoush in 1994 that the witnesses rang Crimestoppers.
The couple had run a business on the Tablelands in 1991, and had seen the women get into the four wheel-drive with Dunlea, but had been too terrified to do anything about it. Getting no response from the police, the witnesses sought, out author and journalist Robert Reid, who is now writing a third book about the mystery, to be published next year.
"What they told me out of the blue was staggering," Reid told The Weekend Australian in Cairns yesterday. The information introduced another suspect, and dealt a killer blow to an already circumstantial case against Alan Leahy.
Mr Read referred the witnesses to the police. When prosecutors reviewed the case, the new witnesses' evidence was crucial. A spokesman for Acting Director of Public Prosecutions Michael Byrne QC confirmed that "following a comprehensive review of all available evidence", charges would not be laid against Mr Leahy. "There was no reasonable prospect of a successful conviction," he said.
Mr Leahy declined to comment when contacted by The Weekend Australian, and his solicitors did not return calls.
The women's families have spent decades fighting for justice — first to clear Vicki Arnold's name, and then to see the true killer punished. Arnold's cousin, Sandra Charlton, said her family was exhausted and disappointed after years of legal wrangling.
"That was our main object, to clear Vicki's name," Ms Charlton said. "But we're disappointed that no one will be prosecuted at this stage. As far as we know, the case will always be open. It does feel like justice won't be done, but we want to move on and put it behind us."
For Julie-Anne Leahy's family, the anger is palpable.
"It's been a very, very long time and very traumatic for all of our families," Margaret Leary, Julie-Anne Leahy's sister, told The Weekend Australian . "Every time we were given a ray of hope, our hopes are dashed. Were prosecutors searching for the truth, or were they looking for a legal technicality? I just hope that this case improves processes and systems so this doesn't ever have to happen to anyone else's families."