At first there were positive signs, but as the months and years passed a family’s hope grew ever dimmer of finding Amelia Hausia.
Still waiting for a call
Each year, more than 38,000 people are reported missing in Australia. Although 95 per cent are found within a week, about 2,000 people remain missing long-term. Amelia Hausia s one of them. Her story is part of an SBS series on missing persons from multicultural backgrounds.
When Amelia Hausia's large Tongan-Aboriginal family gets together, there is food, music, conversation and laughter – and also tears: for a sunny, extrovert young woman missing for nearly 25 years.
"You never stop looking for her," says Amelia's mother, Mary Ann. "You watch the TV news and you're always looking at the people in the background. No matter where you go, you're keeping an eye or ear out for her."
Born in Tonga and raised from age seven in Dubbo, in NSW's Central West, Mia – as her family and friends call her – vanished in Canberra in December 1992 following her high school graduation party.
The 18-year-old, who had split up with her boyfriend that evening, left a note saying she needed "time out to clear my head".
Early the next morning, a cousin saw her out walking near her grandparents' home. Four days later, CCTV cameras captured her at Woden Plaza (now Woden Westfield) shopping centre. Six months later, she phoned her birth mother in Tonga. And then – nothing.
The unending mystery of what happened, and of where she is now, tears at Amelia's loved ones.
Her grandmother, Fua, wept every day after she disappeared. Her elder brother, Paul, still castigates himself for being out of touch when she needed him. Nieces and nephews grieve for her, despite knowing her only through family stories.
"You think up all sorts of scenarios," says Amelia's younger brother, John.
"Your mind's forever playing tricks. You think you see her, and you run across the road and say, 'Excuse me.' And it's not her. We've all done that."
Amelia loved singing. And she loved to dance. Traditional Tongan dance, hip-hop, rock; you name it. She founded a dance group at her school, Delroy High (now Dubbo College Delroy Campus), and choreographed moves for the group's performance at the Rock Eisteddfod inter-school competition.
"She had the rhythm," recollects her mother, smiling. "Every time we had a party at home, she'd want to play her music and dance for everybody."
It's a hot Saturday in early summer, and most of the extended Hausia family has gathered at grandmother Fua's house in Canberra to share memories of Amelia.
During an emotion-filled afternoon, several of the strapping Tongan men will cry without shame as they recall their bright, beautiful girl and mourn her absence.
Amelia's father, John, has driven across from Dubbo with Mary Ann, a ten-hour round trip, and so has her brother, John – known as John Boy – with his children, Tyrah, 15, and Eli, 13.
Another of Amelia's nieces, 19-year-old Jasmine Craciun, is down from Newcastle, while one of Amelia's three elder sisters, Kim O'Donnell, who lives in Adelaide, has flown over.
Many of John's Canberra-based relatives – including Amelia's Uncle Beni, her aunt, Saane Touli, and Saane's son, Taki – are also present.
The daughter of John's Tongan ex-wife, Emily Tafolo, Amelia was born on 21 July, 1974, and raised initially by Fua and Paula, John's parents.
In 1982, John – by then living in Dubbo and married to Mary Ann, a Malyangapa woman from Wilcannia – brought Amelia and Paul (his son by Emily) to Australia.
They were adopted by Mary Ann, who already had Kim and the other O'Donnell girls, Denise and Karen, by a previous husband, as well as John Boy with John.
Like many Australian country towns, Dubbo is hard-edged, with simmering racial tensions.
However, the Hausia siblings had happy childhoods, punctuated by camping trips and sporting activities and days out boating and yabbying on the Macquarie River, which runs through the town.
In summer, when heat baked the landscape, they would swim in the river, leaping off rope swings into the water.
A "big mixed grill" is how Kim describes her family, and the children were steeped in their parents' twin cultures.
In Canberra, they spent time with the "Tongan mob"; in Dubbo, Wilcannia and Broken Hill, they connected with their Indigenous heritage, hunting for emu and kangaroo with Mary Ann and other Aboriginal relatives.
John Boy, two years younger, remembers Amelia as "cheeky and quick-witted, very smart, very switched on".
The family would affectionately tease her about her tangle of thick, fuzzy hair. "And that laugh!" remarks her mother. "It was contagious."
"She was a strong person," says John Boy. "She could look after herself. She could be loud and boisterous, but also very humble and quiet when the occasion demanded. She never said a bad word about anyone. She emanated love and peace and harmony."
Kim, 11 years older, was already at university when Amelia arrived in Australia. When she came back to Dubbo for the holidays, she recounts, her little sister would "sit on the bed and watch me put my make-up on and imitate me in the mirror".
At school, Amelia was good at English and excelled at sports, particularly baseball. She loved swimming, once chipping a tooth while diving into the Dubbo pool. Her best friend, Kylie Lomanaco, calls her "the bubbliest, friendliest person you could ever come across, always laughing and smiling... She was always there for you. She'd befriend anybody, and everyone she came across loved her."
As teenagers, the girls were inseparable. They danced to the soundtrack of the movie 'Grease' in Lomanaco's bedroom. They were fans of Whitney Houston, and of the TV drama series 'Twin Peaks'.
They straightened their hair with ironing tongs – Amelia burnt her scalp – and sneaked out together at night. On one occasion, Amelia was extracted from a Dubbo nightclub by an irate Mary Ann, tipped off by family friends.
But it was John, a strict father, with whom Amelia increasingly clashed.
As Paul, a year older than her, tells it, she was "always up to mischief, always testing the boundaries". As Year 12 approached, she told her parents she wanted to finish school in Canberra, and they agreed.
Lomanaco and other friends were heartbroken to see her go. They signed her baseball glove, and scrawled fond messages across her green and white gingham school dress.
For Amelia's family, the glove and dress have become treasured mementos – reminders of a girl who vanished on the brink of womanhood, and of how much she was loved.
In Canberra, Amelia lived with Nan and Pop – John's parents, who had recently migrated from Tonga – and attended Lake Ginnindera College.
In June 1992, she spent the school holidays in Darwin, where Karen and Denise were living, then overnighted with Kim, who was in Sydney, on her way back to Canberra.
Kim waved her sister off at Strathfield railway station, never dreaming it would be the last time she saw her.
For Amelia, that year was all about her relationship with Ben Male, her first real boyfriend. Male played football with Amelia's cousin, Tony, and had been around the Hausia boys since primary school; Amelia, though, only got to know him properly when she moved to Canberra. According to Tony's elder brother, Taki, Male was "a nice guy, very straight up and down, very sensible".
Amelia was smitten. She talked about getting married, and even picked out children's names.
At the graduation party on 17 December, where she looked stunning in her strappy black dress, Male was at her side. That night, however, they had a row – it's not clear about what, although Male later claimed Amelia was "clingy" – and split up.
At around 3am, Amelia returned alone to her grandparents' home in Downer, hung up her dress and changed into dungaree shorts and T-shirt. She wrote a note to her family, apologising for being "a selfish pig" and explaining she needed "time away by myself".
A new day was breaking as she left the house and ducked into nearby Exhibition Park, site of the annual Summernats car rally.
By chance, her cousin, Nuola Fusimalohi, noticed her crossing the park as she drove along Northbourne Avenue, Canberra's main north-south artery.
Fusimalohi assumed that Amelia, who was carrying just a shoulder bag, was on her way to the 7-11 service station, and did not stop. Close to where she spotted her is a bus stop with services into the city and across Canberra.
Almost a week passed before Amelia's family realised she was missing. Everyone just thought she was at Male's place. It was summer, and school was out. And they knew Male - they liked and trusted him.
Just before Christmas, one of Amelia's uncles, Taa, found the note in her bedroom. He phoned Male, who told him he hadn't seen Amelia since they broke up at the party.
Now the Canberra clan was worried. Taa called the police, and phoned John and Mary Ann, who drove straight over from Dubbo.
On reading the note, Mary Ann felt somewhat reassured.
"I thought, she's probably just gone to a friend's place and she'll be back soon. It certainly wasn't a goodbye note."
However, another week passed without any sign of Amelia. "That's when alarm bells went off for me," says Kim.
"The police had spoken to her friends and no one knew where she was. I thought, 'This is serious. Something's happened.'"
Paul spent the Christmas break with his then partner's family in Newcastle.
"I rang Mum on Christmas Day, and that's when they told me the news. When I got home [to Dubbo], I couldn't stop thinking that if only I'd been here, I could have done something.
"Because Mia would always talk to me. She didn't know where I was, though, didn't know my number. So my thought is always, what if I'd given her the number? As the bigger brother, you think, 'Could I have prevented this from happening?'"
The last confirmed sighting of Amelia was on 22 December, 1992, at Woden Plaza. A televised appeal for information by her family – including Tafolo, her birth mother, who came over from Tonga – failed to turn up any significant leads.
Sightings in locations including NSW and Western Australia were discounted.
Looking back, Kim says: "I guess you sort of hoped that maybe she has run off, and she just needed some time out. And you go, 'Well, that's OK, maybe she'll just walk in the door one day.' So you're always waiting for her to ring me up and say, 'Hey, I'm in Sydney, come and pick me up.'"
Strangely, Kim did receive some calls, two or three of them, late at night, a few months after Amelia vanished.
"The phone would ring, but when I answered, nobody spoke. I'd say, 'Is that you, Amelia, is that you?' And there would be silence. I'd say, 'If that's you, Mia, just jump in a taxi and come over.'"
About six months after Amelia went missing, one of her aunts, Alma Bates, glimpsed her, she thought, among the crowd at Sydney's Strathfield railway station.
She shouted her name; the young woman did not respond, and Bates was too far away to catch her up.
The incident prompted Kim and Karen, both then living in Sydney, to scour the Kings Cross red-light district, visiting nightclubs, pasting up flyers and showing Amelia's photograph to passers-by. John Boy, who was at boarding school in Sydney, went "walkabout" at night, trawling Kings Cross, the CBD and Strathfield for his sister.
In July 1993, out of the blue, Amelia phoned Tafolo, according to police. She told her birth mother she was safe and well, and would be in Tonga for Christmas. She didn't say where she was, or had been. And that was the last anyone in her Tongan or Australian-based family saw or heard of her.
Periodically, family members were convinced they had spotted her. For years, remembers Paul, "every islander girl that passed by your peripheral vision sent a shiver down your spine". In 1998, John caught sight of a woman he was certain was Amelia from an airport bus transporting him and Mary Ann to their hotel in Townsville, north Queensland,
"I jumped out of my seat and shouted, 'Stop the bus, driver, that's my daughter!'" he recalls. "The driver hit the brakes and I ran to the front of the bus. I was about to get off when I saw it wasn't Amelia, but an Aboriginal lady with wild, thick hair, like hers."
Some of Amelia's relatives consulted psychics, who suggested a range of locations where she might be, including Melbourne, a place possibly outside Dubbo, and "somewhere near the Murray River but moving to Queensland".
In 2004, Kim and a friend flew to Melbourne and posted flyers around the city.
In 2010, Amelia was one of six missing persons featured on airport billboards in capital cities, complete with "age-progressed photos" created by Australian Federal Police.
ACT Police participated in an episode of the Channel Nine program 'Missing Persons Unit' which publicised her disappearance.
Territory officers have been reviewing her case for the past two years. "But we've come to the same conclusion [as previous investigations]," says Superintendent Francis Jamieson, head of the ACT's Missing Persons Unit. "We don't know where Amelia is."
Kim thinks police should have devoted more time and energy to looking for Amelia in the period immediately after she vanished.
"I don't believe they put as much effort into investigating young black women that go missing in this country," she contends.
"They just assume they've run away."
The impact of a loved one going missing can strain and fracture even the strongest family. Those left behind grieve in different ways, and at different tempos. They blame themselves, and others. Some seek publicity; others resist it. Some want, after a while, to draw a line; others never stop hoping.
The Hausias have been through all that, and more. They have also fought private demons, including alcohol and depression. For much of the first five years after Amelia disappeared, Paul was in jail – he was constantly "being arrested for fighting", he explains. It was much later, though, in 2010, that he hit rock bottom, while driving home from Coonamble, north of Dubbo.
"I was listening to a song that reminded me so much of Mia, and I just could not stop crying. Every 10 kilometres or so I'd have to stop, I was sobbing that much. And the pain, it just got worse and worse. It felt like I was going to have a heart attack.
"The only way I could stop it was to put my foot down and find myself a tree. I was ready to just end it, my life. I thought, no, bugger it, I can't handle this any more, just close my eyes and let it all happen.
"Then my two girls [Tierra, now 23, and 21-year-old Fua) popped into my head. I stopped and rang my wife, and I said, 'I think it's time to go to a counsellor.'"
Nowadays Paul finds solace in his daughters, who resemble Amelia and "remind me that I do have a sister out there somewhere". John Boy, who has Amelia's name tattooed on his arm, feels the same about Tyra.
Every morning, Paul says a prayer for his lost sister. He confesses to being extra-protective of his own girls.
"It's the fear that something could happen. I've already lost one, and I've promised myself I'm not losing another."
Since Amelia vanished, her grandfather, Paula, and uncle, Taa, have passed away. Frail and bed-bound, 95-year-old Fua still calls out her granddaughter's name. She has vowed not to die until Amelia is found.
For younger relatives, Amelia is the aunt they never met. Jasmine Craciun, the daughter of Amelia's elder sister, Karen, reflects: "It's like she's been around your whole life but she hasn't been around at all."
Honouring her memory, half a dozen friends and relatives have named their daughters after Amelia. They include Kylie Lomanaco, who has a 10-year-old girl, Mia.
Lomanaco misses her friend increasingly as she gets older. "We should have been having our children together, and our children should be growing up together and being friends, like we were," she mourns, adding: "I just hope my Mia turns out to be half the person Amelia was."
Spiritual people, some of Amelia's loved ones say they sometimes sense her presence. In her parents' house, where Amelia grew up, relates Mary Ann, "quite often, in the corner of my eye, I see a shadow just gone past".
Kim observes: "Sometimes I feel her spirit quite strongly, and I have conversations with her in my mind. I say, 'Mia, we love you, we miss you, we want to find you. Can you give us a sign?'"
Every July, for the past 10 years, on the weekend closest to her birthday, John and Paul have organised what they call a "Day of Hope for Amelia" at Dubbo Golf Club. There is golf, and a lunch, and speeches, "and us family members are usually crying our eyes out still after all these years", recounts Mary Ann.
Paul marks Amelia's birthday alone. "I stick a candle in a muffin, light it, then I blow it out and wish her happy birthday."
In December it will be 25 years since Amelia went missing. There is talk of a family get-together to celebrate her life. John Boy has suggested a plaque by the Macquarie River, where she spent such carefree childhood times.
Unlike some family members, Kim candidly admits she "gave up on hope long ago". She has even gone looking for her sister's remains, in a forest near the South Australian-Victorian border, after a clairvoyant suggested that site.
"I'd love to think she's still out there, living her life, but I think she would have contacted us by now. I believe she's no longer with us. I just want to find out what happened, and if there's been foul play, I want to have those responsible brought to justice.
"And I want to find her and bring her home and give her a proper service, and bring our family together as part of the process of healing."
If you have any information regarding a missing person, please contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.