It was Anzac Day, 1998, when Queensland schoolgirl Rachel Antonio asked her mother Cheryl to drive her to the cinema.
‘I still remember standing in the garden, watching her wave as they drove off,’ says her father Ian, 65, from the family home in Bowen.
‘She said, “Mum, I’ll get a taxi home,” Cheryl, 63, recalls.
But the loving parents never saw their daughter again – and her body has never been found.
Rachel, a bubbly 16-year-old whose favourite band was the Spice Girls, never went to the film, Good Will Hunting, at 7pm.
Instead, according to a coroner, she went to a local beach to meet her secret boyfriend, Robert Paul Hytch.
Findings handed down by the Queensland Coroner David O’Connell at an inquest in July 2016 found that Rachel ‘died following a physical altercation between her and Robert Paul Hytch...she died from the injury or injuries she suffered during that altercation.’
The coroner found that Hytch then ‘secreted her body’ and ‘later disposed’ of it.
The inquest heard how Rachel had pretended to Hytch that she was pregnant, to get back at him after she’d discovered he was seeing someone else.
Back in 1998, Hytch was the 25-year-old, athletic captain of the local surf club, where Rachel was a volunteer lifeguard.
Eight months after Rachel vanished, Hytch was charged with murdering her. At his trial the following year, 1999, he was found not guilty, but guilty of manslaughter, and sentenced to nine years in jail.
But after serving nine months, he was granted a retrial and acquitted.
Now 45, he has consistently denied having had anything to do with Rachel’s death – or that he was in a relationship with her.
But Rachel’s diary, found in her bedroom two days after she vanished, tells a different story.
In it she detailed a series of intimate liaisons between her and the older man in the months before she vanished.
Repeated entries outlined her feelings for Hytch, with whom she said she’d lost her virginity.
‘I think I love him,’ said one entry. Another expressed worry that Hytch was losing interest in her.
‘Until the diary was found, we just thought they were good friends through the surf club,’ says Cheryl. ‘I thought he was a nice young bloke, he helped her with her swimming,’ Ian recalls.
‘Hytch was even one of the first people to help me search for Rachel once we told police she was missing.’
Hytch claimed he’d been at his brother’s 18th birthday party on the evening of April 25, 1998, except for when he drove to the local video store.
When he returned to the party, his shirt was missing. He claimed that this was because he’d dirtied it while fixing his car, which had broken down on the drive. That shirt has never been found.
Sandals that Hytch was wearing the night Rachel vanished were found to have tiny drops of her blood on them, though Hytch attributed this to a time when Rachel was once injured during lifesaver training.
But there was more evidence, which led the coroner to make his damning conclusion – that Hytch killed Rachel.
‘You’d expect him to be behind bars, wouldn’t you, after the coroner determines he’s behind our daughter’s death?’ Ian sighs.
‘He killed Rachel. But he can’t be charged with murder or manslaughter – because he’s already fought those charges and our law says you can’t be charged with the same thing twice. So he’s a free man.’
During the criminal trial, Rachel’s diary entries that detailed her relationship with Hytch were determined not to be admissible as evidence.
‘I approached Robert Hytch at one of his early court appearances one day and asked him outright, “Did you kill Rachel?”’ Ian recalls, with emotion. ‘He just replied, “No.” He couldn’t look me in the eye. He just hid behind his father.’
Refusing to give up on their fight for justice, Ian and Cheryl continued to push for answers.
Which is why, after they wrote to the coroner in 2014, an inquest was finally held into Rachel’s death.
The coroner rejected Hytch’s claim that he wasn’t romantically involved with Rachel and concluded that he was satisfied ‘beyond any doubt whatsoever’ that Rachel and Hytch had been in an ‘intimate, personal relationship’.
Hytch called for a judicial review of the coroner’s findings – an application that was dismissed by the Supreme Court on April 18 this year.
Hytch has 28 days to lodge an appeal to overturn the decision in the Queensland Court of Appeal.
Meanwhile, the Antonio family is still feeling the strain after 20 years of sorrow.
‘My family has been affected terribly,’ says Cheryl, who has two other children, John, 44, and Christine, 42. ‘But we’ve all had to be strong and hold it together for the sake of each other.
‘Rachel would have wanted us all to be strong.’
Ian nods: ‘We are getting older. And before we die we want to know what happened to our daughter. We want her body to be found.
‘Not a day goes past that we don’t miss our girl.’
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