After 14-year-old Natasha Ryan vanished in 1998, authorities believed that she was the victim of a serial killer. But five years later, she turned up alive and well at his murder trial.
Natasha Ryan had run away before. So when the troubled 14-year-old suddenly disappeared from her school in Australia in August 1998, her parents believed she’d turn up again soon.
But months passed, and Ryan was nowhere to be found. Then, as other women and girls began to go missing in the area, fears for Ryan’s safety increased, and police began to suspect she may have been another victim of Australian serial killer Leonard Fraser.
About five years after Ryan disappeared, Fraser went on trial for various counts of murder – including Ryan’s. But on April 11, 2003, a prosecutor in the case announced to a stunned courtroom: “I’m pleased to inform the court that Leonard John Fraser is not guilty of the murder of Natasha Ann Ryan. Natasha Ryan is alive.”
In an incredible turn of events, Ryan hadn’t been abducted and killed. She had willingly disappeared, and for five years, she had been hiding in a house she shared with her boyfriend — less than a mile away from her mother’s home.
Natasha Ryan’s Troubled Teens
Natasha Ann Ryan was born in 1984 and grew up in Rockhampton, Queensland, a small city of 68,000. “Rocky,” as the locals affectionately called it, was a friendly place where the residents knowing each other’s business was a way of life, The New Zealand Herald reports.
When Ryan was a child, her father gave her the affectionate nickname “Grasshopper” because she walked instead of crawled. But by her teens, Ryan lived with her mother in North Rockhampton. Her parents had divorced, and her father had remarried and moved to another Queensland city over three hours away.
A troubled teen, Ryan began experimenting with drugs, attempted suicide, and developed a fondness for running away, all by the age of 14. She was also seeing a 21-year-old man, Scott Black.
On one occasion in July of 1998, Ryan ran away while out walking the family dog. Police found her later that week at an outdoor music venue in Rockhampton, and soon discovered she’d been staying in a hotel with Black. Police initially charged the much older man with abduction, a charge that was eventually dropped, though Black was later fined for obstructing the police’s investigation.
But it wouldn’t be the last time Natasha Ryan ran away from home.
Her Seemingly Fatal Disappearance
On the morning of Aug. 31, 1998, Natasha Ryan’s mother dropped her off at North Rockhampton State High. At some point that day, Ryan vanished. It would be another five years before she was seen again.
Knowing Ryan had a history of running away, the police believed they would find her again soon enough. But as the months passed, hope that Ryan would be found alive dwindled when three women between the ages of 19 and 39, as well as a nine-year-old girl, went missing. Eventually, they were all confirmed to be the victims of a serial killer, Leonard Fraser.
Described as a “sexual predator of the worst kind” and by police psychologists as a “classical psychopath,” Leonard Fraser was a convicted rapist who, upon his 1997 release from prison, had continued to rape more women.
On April 22, 1999, Fraser raped and murdered nine-year-old Keyra Steinhart after stalking her on her walk home from school. This crime landed him, once again, in prison. And though police were convinced all of the local disappearances were connected, Fraser initially denied that he’d murdered Natasha Ryan.
Investigators soon persuaded another inmate to elicit a confession out of Fraser, and eventually, he admitted to murdering all five victims — including Ryan. He claimed he had met her at a movie theatre and, after offering her a ride home, attacked her in his car and hid her body in a pond.
Believing Ryan was one of Fraser’s victims, her family held a memorial service for her in 2001 on her 17th birthday. But although Fraser was able to show police where he’d hidden the remains of the other victims, Ryan’s body was never found.
The Hidden Life Of Natasha Ryan
While her family frantically searched for her, Natasha Ryan was alive and well, hiding out with her boyfriend Scott Black in different local houses — the last one only a few minutes away from her mother’s home in North Rockhampton.
Black worked as a milkman at a dairy factory, and his colleagues had no clue he was harboring Ryan. By all accounts, he appeared to live alone. Only his own laundry ever appeared on the clothing line outside. And whenever Black received visitors, Ryan simply hid in a bedroom cupboard until they were gone.
Most of the time, though, Ryan moved about the house freely with the curtains drawn. She seemed content to live out most of her teenage years in a darkened home, cooking, reading, sewing, and surfing the web. In almost five years, Ryan only went outside a handful of times to move houses or to go to a local beach at night.
But by 2003, it seems the fate of the man accused of her murder may have been weighing on Ryan’s mind. About three weeks before Fraser’s trial, it’s believed Ryan contacted the helpline of a children’s counseling service.
Using the name “Sally,” Ryan told a counselor that she was a runaway, that she was living with her boyfriend, and that a man was about to go on trial for her murder. On April 2, 2003, the counselor anonymously relayed her message to the police. But the officer on duty was unable to trace the call.
Shortly afterward, the Rockhampton police received an anonymous letter with an enclosed phone number claiming Ryan was alive and well.
On the evening of April 10, 2003, police officers forced entry into a house on Mills Avenue in North Rockhampton. There, they found the “dead” girl hiding in the bedroom cupboard, ghostly pale from her years hiding indoors without any exposure to sunlight: Natasha Ryan.
Natasha Ryan Returns From The Grave
According to CBS News, it was the 12th day of Fraser’s trail when a prosecutor received a phone call from the police that Natasha Ryan was alive.
The prosecutor rushed through the courtroom to find Ryan’s father, Robert Ryan, and tell him the news that his daughter had been found. When Robert heard this, he initially assumed it meant that the police had found her body, and he almost collapsed when he heard that Ryan was, in fact, alive.
Robert was instructed to call the police station to confirm it was his daughter, and when he did, he asked the woman who came on the line for the nickname he’d given her as a child to ensure he wasn’t dealing with an imposter.
“Dad, it’s me, Grasshopper, and I love you and I’m sorry,” Ryan told him.
Ryan’s reunion with her mother, Jenny Ryan, was less pleasant. Jenny was furious Ryan had led her to believe that she was dead for all these years, all while living less than a mile away.
“I hated her,” she told CBS. “I could have grabbed her and just shook the hell out of her. But when I seen her… You forget all that.”
Then, Natasha Ryan appeared in court at her own murder trial, and to the public, it seemed as if the now 18-year-old had come back from the dead. She testified that she had not, in fact, been murdered by Fraser.
The court, naturally, deemed that Fraser was not guilty of murdering Natasha Ryan. Still, he was found guilty of committing the other murders he’d been charged with, and was sentenced to life in prison.
Meanwhile, Natasha Ryan was facing trials of her own.
The Aftermath Of Ryan’s Return
While the world rejoiced that Natasha Ryan was alive, many responded to her sudden reappearance with outrage, wondering how she could have put her loved ones through years of suffering by allowing them to believe she’d been murdered.
In 2005, The Guardian reported that Ryan’s boyfriend Black had received a one-year prison sentence for perjury after falsely claiming to police that he didn’t know where Natasha Ryan was.
And in 2006, Ryan herself was found guilty of creating a false police investigation. She was fined $4,000 and ordered to pay $16,000 towards investigation costs.
But Natasha Ryan was profiting off of the publicity. Signed to a publicist, Ryan made up for years of lost income by selling her story to the Australian version of 60 Minutes for 120,000 Australian dollars. Ryan and Black married in 2008, and sold the news of their marriage to Women’s Day for an addition $200,000. They currently have three children.
After Natasha Ryan was discovered, The New Zealand Herald reports, police asked her why she had stayed in hiding all of those years. Why didn’t she leave when people began to believe she’d been murdered?
“The lie had become too big,” she said.
After learning about Natasha Ryan’s disappearance, read about Brian Shaffer, who mysteriously disappeared from an Ohio bar. Then, learn the baffling case of plane highjacker D.B. Cooper, who vanished into thin air after collecting $200,000 in ransom money.