Queensland teen Daniel Morcombe was missing for eight years before police were finally able to track down the convicted sex offender who abducted and murdered him in 2003.
On December 7, 2003, Daniel Morcombe of Queensland, Australia headed to the bus stop so he could catch a ride to the local mall to buy Christmas gifts for his family. When his bus was delayed, the 13-year-old boy was seen speaking with two unidentified men — and then he vanished.
Authorities quickly launched the biggest police investigation in Queensland history, but they found no sign of the teen. Daniel’s case went cold for eight years.
Then, in 2011, an undercover operation finally led investigators to Daniel’s abductor and murderer. Brett Peter Cowan, a convicted sex offender, confessed to killing Morcombe on that December day in 2003.
This is the tragic story of Daniel Morcombe, the young boy who lost his life to a monster while Christmas shopping.
The Tragic Disappearance Of Daniel Morcombe
Daniel James Morcombe was born on Dec. 19, 1989, in Queensland, Australia. One of three children of Bruce and Denise Morcombe, Daniel was especially close with his identical twin brother, Bradley. They grew up in a loving home on Australia’s Sunshine Coast.
Because Daniel had a strong interest in animals, his family filled their home with pets, including a pony that Daniel adored. Neighbors knew the boy as a quiet, helpful child who would help pick fruit in the neighborhood whenever it was harvest time.
On Dec. 7, 2003, Daniel and his brothers woke up early to help their neighbors harvest passionfruit. After receiving his pay, Daniel decided to take a bus to the Sunshine Plaza shopping center to buy Christmas gifts for his family, per court documents. His parents were comfortable with him making the trip given that he had taken the bus to the mall at least 15 times prior.
The teen walked less than a mile from his home to the bus stop — but he never boarded a bus.
Later that day, Daniel’s parents came home from a work function to find that he had never returned from the mall. They drove to the shopping center to look for him, but he was nowhere to be found. The Morcombes immediately reported Daniel missing — and the search began.
The Case Goes Cold For Eight Years
On Dec. 8, Queensland police officially opened an investigation into Daniel Morcombe’s disappearance. They began scouring CCTV footage at the shopping mall, monitoring the teen’s bank account, and interviewing known sex offenders in the area.
After receiving numerous tips and collecting eyewitness statements, investigators made several important discoveries about Daniel’s disappearance. Witnesses described seeing a young boy that fit Daniel’s description waiting at the bus stop on Dec. 7. Some said they spotted a blue car parked nearby with one or two men inside who were speaking to Daniel.
Authorities also learned that the bus scheduled to pick Daniel up that day had never arrived. It had broken down along the route, and its replacement skipped the stop because it was running behind schedule, according to the Brisbane Times. A third bus did eventually stop, but by the time it arrived, Daniel was gone.
Despite an extensive search and an in-depth investigation, the inquiry into Daniel Morcombe’s disappearance came up empty. Tragically, it would be eight years before the boy’s family got any answers about what had happened to him.
Brett Peter Cowan Is Arrested For Morcombe’s Murder
From early on in the investigation into Daniel’s disappearance, police suspected a convicted sex offender named Brett Peter Cowan.
In 1987, Cowan had lured a seven-year-old boy into a park bathroom and raped him. He served just one year in prison for the crime. Then, in 1993, Cowan raped a six-year-old boy and was sentenced to three-and-a-half years behind bars.
When he was released, Brett Peter Cowan reportedly became a reformed Christian, got married, and had two children of his own. In fact, it was his wife who initially lied to police about his whereabouts on the day that Daniel Morcombe vanished. She later admitted that he’d disappeared for at least five hours.
However, when police first interviewed Cowan, he told them he’d been driving past the bus stop on his way to buy marijuana from his drug dealer when he noticed Daniel standing there alone. He admitted that he’d stopped to offer the boy a ride but had gone on his way when Daniel turned him down.
With no real evidence against him, investigators were unable to pursue a case against Cowan. But in 2011, they came up with an idea to get more information out of the suspect.
That April, authorities began a sting operation called “Mr. Big.” An undercover officer befriended Cowan on a flight to Perth. He pretended that he was involved in a criminal gang and slowly worked to gain Cowan’s trust. He introduced him to his lawbreaking friends — who were actually other undercover officers — and made him think he was assisting the group in fake criminal scenarios.
By August, Brett Peter Cowan trusted the officers enough that he confided in one of them that he’d kidnapped and killed Daniel Morcombe. The confession was caught on a hidden camera, and Cowan was immediately arrested.
Closure Finally Comes In The Chilling Case Of Daniel Morcombe
Knowing he was caught, Cowan admitted everything. According to The Cinemaholic, the criminal said that Daniel Morcombe had indeed accepted a ride to the shopping mall on Dec. 7, 2003. Instead, Cowan had taken him to a secluded house and attempted to molest him. He’d only intended to rape the boy and drop him back at the bus stop, he claimed. But when Daniel fought back, Cowan “panicked and grabbed him around the throat,” strangling him to death.
Cowan then led police to the Glass House Mountains, where he’d buried the boy. Investigators were able to uncover Daniel’s shoes, clothing, and 17 bone fragments. The eight-year search was over.
In March 2014, Brett Peter Cowan was sentenced to life in prison for Daniel Morcombe’s murder. The boy’s family rejoiced at the conviction and the closure it brought to their unimaginable nightmare.
Daniel’s twin brother, Bradley, told The Australian Women’s Weekly in 2016, “For me, there’s not a single day that I don’t think about Daniel. I know that Daniel is still with me, in my heart and in my thoughts. And he always will be.”
After reading about the murder of 13-year-old Daniel Morcombe, learn about Australian serial killer Ivan Milat and the backpacker murders. Then, go inside the confounding Atlanta Child Murders that remain partially unsolved to this day.