During the last weeks of her life, 20-year-old Renae Marsden was looking at bridal websites and preparing to marry the man she loved. Her bedroom in Glenhaven in Sydney was lined with her favourite peep-toe shoes in every colour, and she would lie on her bed and scroll through pages of dresses and veils, and plan her perfect day. At just 152cm she was diminutive, but she always filled up a room with her loud laugh and bright personality.
“That laugh of hers …” her mother Teresa says, breaking off. “We’d go to awards nights at the school and she’d cheer for her brothers, and the principal would say, ‘Okay Renae, we know you’re here.’ That’s how vocal she was. She was proud of them.”
All Renae ever wanted was a family of her own. The evening she went missing, she had been babysitting her little sister Monique while Teresa took her boys, Jake and Luke, to their swimming lesson. Renae told her mother she was planning to have dinner with friends and would drop Monique at their grandfather’s house on her way out. The date was August 5, 2013. She was never seen again.
Later that night, Renae’s car was discovered abandoned at The Gap, a notorious suicide spot in eastern Sydney. Police determined she had taken her own life. But Teresa and her husband Mark sensed something darker was at play.
“We said from day one, ‘This is not normal’,” Teresa says. “We were ringing up everyone we could think of. We went to the police and said, ‘Something’s not right here.’ They thought I was stupid. ‘You’re just a mum. Go home.’”
Refusing to believe that Renae would have killed herself, Mark and Teresa conducted their own investigation. What they discovered was an elaborate fiction that, they believe, destroyed their daughter. “Lies, deceit, manipulation, control,” Mark says. “Pure evil, in my opinion.”
Renae’s family and friends had watched her fall in love with a young man called Brayden Spiteri. She and Brayden had been introduced, via text message, by Renae’s old school friend, Camila Zeidan, back in November 2011. But no one had ever met him. Not even Renae.
Renae and Brayden had started texting, and quickly found they had a lot in common. Renae was looking forward to meeting him in person, but in January 2012 disaster struck. Renae was on a cruise with her family when she received word that Brayden had been in car accident and his best friend Richie had been killed. If that wasn’t bad enough, Brayden had been charged with manslaughter and was now in Goulburn jail. “I said to her at the time, ‘I feel so sorry for him’,” Teresa says.
Renae’s relationship with Brayden continued throughout his time in prison. Messages recovered from one of Renae’s phones paint a picture of someone passionately in love. “I go through Hell every day without you,” she wrote to him in April 2013. She even got a tattoo of his name. But as they pieced together the last months of their daughter’s life, Teresa and Mark made a shocking discovery: Brayden had never existed, and their nightmare was just beginning.
Mark puts three thick ringbinders onto the large dining room table in the family home and starts leafing through the pages. Among the documents is a colour-coded graph he compiled in a bid to convince the police to see their daughter’s disappearance as more than a suicide. It charts Renae’s phone activity. In one three-month period from March to June in the year Renae died, she and Brayden exchanged more than 11,400 text messages. Mark says they hadn’t realised how intense Renae’s relationship with Brayden was. It was their first clue something was amiss.
Teresa knew Renae had been upset over a fight with her boyfriend on the day she vanished. Brayden had sent Teresa a disturbing message earlier that day, saying: “Sort your daughter out. Threatening to kill herself.”
But Teresa and Renae were close, and they’d talked about it. “We were sitting on the bed and I said, ‘Should I be concerned?’ She said, ‘Don’t be stupid, Mum. I found out what he’s all about.’”
Teresa says she wasn’t unhappy to hear her daughter had broken up with Brayden. There had always been something odd about this boyfriend who nobody had ever met. She reminded Renae of everything she had to look forward to, including a family cruise, and felt reassured Renae would be okay.
“I didn’t think it was serious,” she says. Renae hadn’t seemed unhappy. They’d recently gone to a Pink concert, and at a cousin’s 21st Renae had danced the night away. “She had a ball,” Teresa says.
When Renae didn’t come home, Teresa texted Camila and asked if she had heard from her. Camila said she’d had a text from Renae saying that Camila was her best friend and she’d always love her.
“I thought, ‘That doesn’t sound right’,” Teresa says. Camila and Renae’s friendship had a volatile history, and Teresa believed her daughter had recently severed all ties with Camila.
But Camila came to the Marsdens’ house, and she and Teresa drove around looking for Renae. She took Teresa to a house that she claimed belonged to Brayden’s sister.
After Renae’s car was discovered at The Gap, family and friends rallied around the Marsdens. They tried to get some answers from Camila. It was she who had introduced Renae to Brayden, and they wanted to know how to reach him.
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