Where is Ronya Livoni?

Ronya Livoni was 16 when she stormed off to her bedroom after a fight with her mother, never to be seen again.

A 'barney' and then nothing
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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. Ronya Livoni is one of them. Her story is part of an SBS series on missing persons from multicultural backgrounds.

The police rarely call these days, but when they do, says Luciano Livoni, "it's like my heart's in my mouth, even after all these years... It really puts you on tenterhooks, wondering if they might have found something."

It's 37 years since his younger sister, Ronya, disappeared, yet within minutes of settling down to talk, Luciano – Larry to his Anglo-Australian friends – has removed his spectacles and is jabbing away tears. 

"It's always there, gnawing away at you," he confides. "There's a hole in your life, and unless you have an answer, there's nothing you can do about it."

A bright, outgoing 16-year-old, Ronya was last seen on March 9, 1980, at her home in suburban Darwin. It was a Sunday evening, there was "a bit of a barney", recounts Luciano, and Ronya stalked off to her bedroom.

Luciano Livoni opens up about losing his beloved sister.

"I got upset with her because she was lying on the sofa instead of helping Mum, who'd just come home from work. And, like any teenager being told what to do, she didn't want to hear it. She said: 'I've had enough of you guys, I'm going to bed!'"

That was about 8.30pm. The next morning, Luciano was surprised to find that Ronya, who had recently left school and started a secretarial job, was not yet up.

Their mother, Elsa, was already anxious. Luciano, who had agreed to give his sister a lift to work, knocked on her bedroom door. There was no response. Entering the room, he saw that the bed was made. Looking around, it seemed to him that none of Ronya's clothes or belongings were missing. But of Ronya herself there was no trace.

"Like she'd vanished into thin air," he says, raising his palms, still incredulous.

Now frantic, Ronya's family scoured the streets and phoned around her friends. Still no sign. Later that day, they reported her missing. Northern Territory Police did not seem overly concerned.

"From what I could see," observes Detective Senior Sergeant Kerry Harris, who reviewed the case in 2007, "it was treated as a runaway."

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Friends' runaway pact
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As it happens, Ronya, who had been having a difficult time at home, had been contemplating running away; in fact, she had hatched a plan with her best friend, Sarah Kendall, to take off together the following night.

They had arranged to meet at their favourite haunt, the oval opposite Ronya's home in the northern suburb of Moil, then head into central Darwin and catch a coach to Mount Isa, the remote Queensland mining town.

On the Monday morning, when Sarah learnt that Ronya was missing, "I thought, 'Well, she's gone without me,'" she recalls.

She adds: "I thought she was probably round someone's place and just hiding out. I thought she'd be back soon, once she'd cooled off. I honestly thought she'd ring home and contact me, because we were that close."

However, Ronya didn't ring Sarah, or her mother, or anyone else. And as the days, and then the weeks, passed with no word from her, her family and friends began to wonder if she would ever come home – and to ask themselves whether she really had run away, or whether something more sinister had happened.

Had she opened the front door to the wrong person in the middle of the night, for instance?

"We searched for her for years," says Luciano. "Everywhere you went, you're looking around, and you go, 'Is that her, is that her?'

"My father thought he saw her once when he was driving in Sydney. He did a big U-turn, nearly caused an accident, then went back and found it was someone totally different."

Elsa took it hardest. She refused to leave Darwin, refused to leave their Housing Commission home, even after Luciano moved away. Turning Ronya's bedroom into a shrine, she prayed for her daughter, drawing some comfort from her Roman Catholic faith.

"I really do think she stayed up there in case Ronya ever came back," reflects Luciano.

MORE FROM SBS' MISSING PERSONS SERIES:
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Two decades on and there are more questions than answers about Stacy de Sielvie’s disappearance.

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From Italy to Sydney
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Udine is a historic town in north-eastern Italy, crouched in the shadow of the Dolomite mountains. It has a population of about 100,000 and a first-division soccer team, Udinese Calcio. Ronya Livoni was born there on 7th December, 1963.

Three and a half years separated her and Luciano; growing up in a village on the outskirts of Udine, "we were always outside, walking the fields and climbing trees," he recollects.

"Ronya was my tagalong. She was very a sweet-natured kid, with a kind heart, always very happy in a quiet sort of way – until she was provoked!"

Their parents' marriage was stormy. Corrado Livoni was a builder and a hard man, perhaps scarred by his wartime childhood – Udine, near the Slovenian border, saw fierce street fighting between the Nazis and Slovene Partisans.

A stage actress before she got married, Elsa Pantarotti was reluctant to leave her homeland, and so was Luciano, who enjoyed "a typical Italian upbringing, with a huge extended family and tables groaning with food at Christmas and Easter". The family kept pigs and chickens, grew their own vegetables and made their own sausages.

Corrado, though, was "an adventurer... he could never sit still," according to Luciano. And so, in the summer of 1970, when Ronya was six, the family stepped off the boat in Sydney.

Udine is fanned by a mountain breeze year-round; in Sydney, Luciano found the heat unbearable. First stop for the family was a migrant hostel in Dundas, near Parramatta, followed by a series of hops around the fast-growing western suburbs: Greenacre, then Bankstown, Liverpool and Casula.

For several months, Luciano played truant from school, Ronya in tow. "I was enrolled at Punchbowl Boys High and it was really rough. And the inter-racial issues, all the wog stuff, were dreadful back then. So I said, 'Come on, Ronya, we're not going to school,' and we would get on trains and travel all over Sydney."

Eventually, they settled down and found friends, in part through a social club where migrants from Friuli (the province of which Udine is the capital) congregated.

Despite their parents' strained relations, family holidays were fun. Luciano relates: "Dad would pack up the car and say, 'Right, we're going to Adelaide,' and we'd drive all night and get there the next day. We'd set up camp on the beach and spend the days fishing and swimming."

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New beginnings in Darwin
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In 1974, Corrado uprooted the family again – this time to Darwin, where Cyclone Tracy had created a bonanza for builders. Three years later, to their children's relief, he and Elsa finally separated, and he returned to Sydney.

In Darwin, Elsa worked as a restaurant cook, while Luciano and Ronya attended St John's College, a private Catholic high school. During Year 9, Ronya, now a teenager, met Sarah Kendall, whose family had just migrated from England.

"She was very likeable and popular, with lots of friends, and we just instantly clicked," says Sarah, now living in Katherine, south of Darwin.

"We just became inseparable, basically. We used to do everything together: share each other's clothes, sleep over at each other's houses. We were blood sisters – you know, we cut our fingers and mixed our blood together."

With other friends, the girls would hang out at the neighbourhood shops and play pinball.  Their gang went trampolining and to the drive-in movies, "where a few of us would be in the boot so we could get in for free", recounts Sarah, with a chuckle.

Under-age, she and Ronya would slink into a disco in Parap, a trendy inner suburb, "and we'd have two or three shandies and get up and dance and think we were so cool".

Often, they would just lie on the oval, talking about boys and smoking illicit cigarettes, and gazing at the stars.

MORE FROM SBS' MISSING PERSONS SERIES:
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When the lodger moved in
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After Corrado left, Luciano – soon to begin an apprenticeship as an optical mechanic – became the man of the household, protective of both Elsa and Ronya. Still a teenager himself, he clashed periodically with both of them.

The main source of friction, though, was Ronya and Elsa. The pair quarrelled about Ronya going out at night, and about a boy she was seeing, whom Elsa disliked.

"It was pretty volatile," says Sarah. "Just about anything would set them off. I saw a different side to Ronya at home with her mum. She could be pretty hot-headed, she had a quick temper and she wouldn't back down to anybody."

Stephen Murphy, a schoolfriend of Luciano's, remembers Ronya as "quite grown up for her age... She seemed very happy when she was with her girlfriends, but she had a bit of a dark side. She sometimes seemed a bit sad, a bit troubled."

Then there was the family's lodger, Tom Bonetti, who was in an on-off relationship with Elsa. Sarah's mother, Sylvia, who was close to Elsa, describes Bonetti as abusive and controlling. No one liked being around him.

Luciano says: "He was incredibly rude, and would fly off the handle for no reason at all. He treated Ronya and me terribly, and even threatened to kill us a few times."

Eventually, Sylvia and her husband persuaded Elsa to obtain a court order obliging Bonetti to move out. When Elsa left the court building, relates Sylvia, "this Tom was waiting outside, and despite the fact we were there, and the police were there, he tried to get at her again."

 

A not so sweet sixteen
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In December 1979, Ronya turned 16, finished year 10 and left St John's. She had dreams of  becoming a hairdresser, but for the time being was content with her office job in Winnellie, near Darwin airport.

On Sunday, 9 March, 1980, the day before she went missing, Ronya – as Sarah tells it, somewhat differently from Luciano – had a blistering row with her mother.

Sarah called over to see her. "Ronya was crying. She said she'd had a gutful of her mum and was leaving that night. I remember I gave her four dollars that I owed her, and I said, 'Just wait until tomorrow night and I'll come with you.'

"To be honest, I didn't want to run away, but I thought she'd calm down and think better of it. She said, 'No, I can't stay here any more, I've got to go.'"

The following day is burnt into Luciano's memory. He recalls gazing in puzzlement at Ronya's empty bedroom, feeling sure that "nothing had been touched, nothing had been taken". And reassuring a distraught Elsa: "It's alright, mum, I'll find her."

He certainly tried. "I drove around, looking in all the spots she'd go to: shopping centres, her friends' places, the beach – I thought she might be down there, just looking at the sea and chilling out."

Sarah, too, searched for Ronya, trawling the streets on a borrowed motorbike.

"By the end of the day," says Luciano, "I was really worried. It was totally out of character for her, and if you can't find her in that space of time, especially knowing all her friends, then something's happened."

Within the family's circle, as well as the wider community, Ronya's disappearance was met with shock and disbelief. "It did impact on everyone around us, as teenagers," remembers Stephen Murphy. "Everyone rallied around Larry, and I guess he coped in his own way. He never talked about it a lot."

Asked how those early days unfolded, Luciano pauses for what seems like an age. "Look, someone had to tell dad, and that was probably the hardest thing. Because he completely lost it. He was devastated.

"And then you just – every day you wait to hear something. Then the weeks turn into months, and you get less and less hope of finding her. And there's the fear that if you hear anything, it's that they've found her – and she's dead, she's been done in."

 

'Somebody must know something'
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Did Ronya run away? Police at the time seem to have thought so. The handwritten file from 1980 suggests she was a "voluntary missing person", and states that inquiries were undertaken in Queensland and South Australia. Quite what those inquiries consisted of  – even whether checks were made in Mount Isa, Ronya's stated destination – is not clear.

One of the many reported sightings of her over the years, none of which have been  substantiated, was in that town, in 1992. The following year, Queensland Police investigated a bizarre claim by a prison inmate to have killed Ronya and dumped her body down a mine shaft in Mount Isa.

They conducted searches in the area, but concluded that the man, who claimed to have killed other people, too, was a fantasist inspired by media reports about Ronya's disappearance.

Although the case was revisited repeatedly over the years, it appears that relatively little energy was expended until Detective Harris's review in 2007 – 27 years after the 16-year-old went missing.

Harris focused on Tom Bonetti, who, extraordinary as it seems, had never been interviewed by police. He tracked him down to a Darwin guesthouse. Bonetti, however, had a cast-iron alibi: he was in hospital in Adelaide the night Ronya vanished.

Ronya would be 54 now, perhaps with children – even grandchildren – of her own. Friends are convinced she did not run away. They told police she would never have left her jewellery or handbag behind.

Sylvia Kendall is still angry about the original investigation. "What still upsets me more than anything is the way they didn't seem to take it seriously," she says.

"It was treated as if she was just some teenager who had an argument with her mum and ran away. She was a child, for goodness sake. And the fact nobody heard from her, not even Sarah, should have rung alarm bells for the police very quickly."

The case remains open, and is currently undergoing a major review. Witnesses are being re-interviewed, while sightings of Ronya in Queensland and New South Wales – prompted by publicity in 2014 and 2015 – are being followed up.

Sylvia says: "I just have this conviction that somebody must know something. I just can't believe that somebody could vanish just like that, with nobody knowing anything. It doesn't make any sense."

Mother died with a broken heart
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At his home in Brisbane, where he has lived since 1988, Luciano Livoni is leafing through old Polaroids. They show Ronya at her First Communion, in a white dress and veil; on her 12th birthday, blowing out her candles; and as a teenager, with newly permed hair.

Pulling out a plastic folder from the bottom drawer of a dresser, he comes across old school photographs, and also the image circulated by police, of a fresh-faced young woman, smiling slightly, a heart-shaped pendant at her throat.

Finally, he finds the picture he's looking for: of a two-year-old Ronya, in a frilly dress, standing by a 1960s TV set, striking an unmistakable "don't mess with me" pose.

"This one's special to me," he explains. "Because already at two she demonstrated how tough she was. She stood up to my father – she was a feisty little thing! She taught the old man a bit of a lesson."

Pausing to make another instant coffee – "Can you believe I'm an Italian without a coffee machine?" – Luciano outlines how, after leaving Darwin, he reconnected with his father in Sydney. (Corrado, who had remarried and had another son, died in 1989.)

The elder of Luciano's two daughters, 11-year-old Sofia, bears a striking resemblance to Ronya. "It's uncanny," he admits. "And she has a similar temperament: very sweet and easygoing until you piss her off!"

Other photos in the file are of his beloved mother, who died in 2013; they show her on her wedding day; treading the boards in Milan; and meeting Mother Theresa in Darwin. Elsa's Catholicism "pulled her out of a dark place", but she never got over losing Ronya, he believes.

"It broke her heart," says Stephen Murphy. "She was never the same afterwards." Sarah Kendall remembers Elsa flying to Adelaide, where a friend of Ronya's lived, in case her daughter was there. It was a fruitless trip.

"She died wondering," relates Luciano, sadly. He fishes out a laminated bookmark which his mother made, gluing together a photograph from Luciano's wedding day and a 'Northern Territory News' cutting from 2005 about the case – a metaphor, perhaps, for the bitter-sweetness of family life after Ronya disappeared.

"The pain is and always will be there," Elsa told the newspaper.

Luciano still finds it hard to accept his sister ran away. "She had no reason to jump off like that, no reason at all.  We were just two difficult teenagers in a family, trying to grow up."

Stephen agrees. "I don't think she would just take off and leave Larry like that. She really looked up to Larry, and he did a great job as an older brother."

"I still miss Ronya every day," says Sarah. "If she'd still been around, we would still be friends. I think that since all that happened, I've never really been able to form a close bond with anyone."

For Luciano, there is comfort in his daughters, and in meditation. Yet there remains a yawning gap in his life.

"You're close to your sibling, you really are, and you miss them terribly. Most of all you feel the responsibility of being an older sibling and taking care of your little sister.

"I still wonder nearly every day what happened to her. And I still think she could be found. You keep that hope alive. You hope that, even if for whatever reason she doesn't want to get in contact, she's out there, doing her own thing, and she's happy."

If you have any information regarding a missing person, please contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.