For the past 18 months, devastated mother Rosie Ayliffe has been haunted by a chilling vision of her only child’s frenzied killer – a horrifying image conjured up from the darkest depths of her mind.
But when the 54-year-old finally locked eyes with the man who brutally slayed her daughter, Mia Ayliffe-Chung, in August 2016, she was shocked by how old, broken and defeated he appeared in real life.
After flying 16,000km across the world from her home in Derbyshire, UK, to attend Smail Ayad’s mental health court proceedings in Brisbane earlier this month [April 5], Rosie has opened up about the first time she saw the 30-year-old Frenchman who had stabbed Mia, 20, to death during the trip of a lifetime.
But while the mum-of-one and former teacher insists she will never truly be able to forgive Ayad – who will now spend his days in a secure mental health unit – she has exclusively revealed to New Idea that she plans to meet both him and his mother, believing his mother’s loss is equal to her own.
I wasn’t looking forward to the court hearing because I knew it was going to bring back the pain of what happened,’ Rosie sombrely tells in an exclusive interview.
‘I had seen images of Mia’s killer in the press. To me, he looked like a very arrogant, testosterone-driven, fighting man.
‘He killed my daughter, he killed the man who was trying to help her, and he killed a dog. So, you can imagine the animalistic creature I had created in my mind.
‘But then I saw this figure in court who looked nothing like I imagined. He looked so old, he was shuffling, he was balding.
‘His body language suggested defeat. He just sat there quietly listening.
‘I was looking for the killer, and I thought: “Who is this? What is going on?” I was completely thrown.
‘After the hearing, the prosecuting attorney said to me: “There goes a broken man,” and I just thought that completely sums it up – he just looked broken.
‘I don’t think it is my place to forgive him. I did offer him peace, but I stumble at forgiveness.’
Rosie reveals she has even spoken to Ayad’s mother – and feels the Frenchwoman’s grief at her child’s actions is equivalent to the pain she has felt since Mia’s death.
‘I would be open to meeting him in the future,’ Rosie tells New Idea. ‘I have spoken to his mum and I want her to know I understand it, and her loss is on a par with mine.
‘And I don’t know if she would agree to meet with me, but I would definitely agree to meet her.
‘She had a son, who for all intents and purposes, was a loving, normal, young man, who had everything to live for and was living the dream in Australia – and then he was taken away from her.
‘She is also suffering a loss, but she has to live with the shame of it as well.
‘It’s just so hard, because she hasn’t done anything wrong.’
Mia was dragged from her hostel bed and violently stabbed to death by Ayad while sharing a four-berth mixed sex dormitory in the remote town of Home Hill, 100km south of Townsville, in north-eastern Queensland.
The ‘beautiful and vivacious’ young woman had been travelling the world for nearly a year, before coming to Australia in early 2016. After a stint working at a bar in Surfers Paradise, Mia decided to extend her 417 visa by completing her required 88 days of farm work.
Just a week later, she was dead – repeatedly attacked by Ayad after the killer allegedly developed an obsessive crush on her. It was later heard in court that Ayad had suffered a ‘psychotic episode’, in which he believed 50 local farmers and hostel staff wanted to kill him.
After Mia was ripped from her bed and stabbed, the young woman took her dying breaths in the bathroom of her dormitory, as she desperately attempted to flee her killer.
Ayad then jumped headfirst from a balcony – fracturing his neck and back – before chasing and killing a pet dog, and fatally wounding Brit Tom Jackson, 30, who had rushed to Mia’s aid. Tom died several days later.
But earlier this month it was ruled Ayad will never face jail time, as a court heard he was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and so was of unsound mind during the killings.
Rosie, and Les Jackson – father of backpacker Tom – wept as all criminal charges were dropped and it was decided
Ayad should be sent to a psychiatric facility. Ayad will spend the rest of his life being treated for his mental illness. The court heard he will likely be repatriated to France.
Rosie explains she felt angry at first about the mental health court’s judgement, but has now accepted that Ayad is ‘insane’.
‘It was difficult to believe there wasn’t a degree of expediency in avoiding a criminal trial,’ she says. ‘But I think you have to put faith in the professionals who are making the decision.
‘It can sometimes feel like justice is on a scale, and his punishment must weigh the same as our loss. But there is no way it can work like that when you add mental illness to the equation.
‘I’ve accepted that he was not in control of his mind and was having a psychotic episode when he killed my daughter. There is no doubt that he is insane.’
Rosie is adamant that she won’t become ‘some raving, angry, vengeful person’, because ‘that was never who I am, and that was never who Mia was’.
‘She was such a gentle soul and we were always people who looked for peaceful means of resolution,’ she continues.
Since Mia’s death, Rosie has channelled her pain into campaigning for tighter regulations on the 88 days of compulsory farm work British backpackers must complete to obtain second-year visas.
She says reforming the way young travellers are treated within the 88-day system would be an adequate legacy for Mia and Tom – so their deaths were not in vain – and is calling on the Australian Government to take better measures to regulate the health and safety of backpacker farm work.
‘It makes me stronger to know I am helping other young people and they may be being kept safer because of what I am doing,’ she tells New Idea.
‘I have this sense that Mia is with me, not as a physical presence, but spiritually. I am guided by her and she is my moral compass.’
Rosie's pain revealed
In an emotional statement, Rosie told the court that her daughter was ‘full of light, laughter and fun’, and said she did not want Ayad to ‘rot in hell’ – only wishing him and his family peace.
‘As for me, the loss has been a long ache, and many, many nights I lie awake, thinking about my daughter’s last moments, and how it must have felt for her to lie dying,’ Rosie said.
‘Did she feel pain? Did she know she was going? The images haunt me, waking and sleeping.
‘I found my grief had a physical impact on my body, and I have gone from being an active person who took care of my physical and mental states, to being literally crippled by grief – the effects of PTSD are taking their toll and manifesting in joint pain, exhaustion and tension.
‘I no longer work as a teacher because I know I cannot face those rows of teenagers: Constant reminders of my girl and her untimely death...
‘Mia was a sweet girl who would never hurt another intentionally, and would protect her friends from hurt if she could.
‘She was feisty, and caring, and believed in karma and in loving kindness.
‘I am proud to have been her mother, and I will hold her in my heart until I die.’