When Christine Loader’s precious son Ricky Balcombe was knifed to death in a packed Geelong shopping mall in 1995, her whole world imploded.
‘I was at home waiting for my other children to get home from school, when I got a phone call about 3.30pm,’ Christine tells New Idea. ‘It was one of Ricky’s friends, she said he was hurt and he was in Geelong hospital.’
Christine raced to the hospital thinking 16-year-old Ricky had probably been hit by a car crossing the road.
By the time she got there several minutes after the call, it was already too late.
‘I kept saying: “Just let me touch him. Let me hold him, if he knows I’m here he’ll wake up.” But they needed to get evidence, so I wasn’t allowed,’ the 57-year-old sobs.
Mum-of-four Christine couldn’t understand why her loving son’s life had been cut short so violently – or who would do such a thing.
‘The police told me it wasn’t meant for Ricky, it was meant for someone else. It was a case of mistaken identity,’ she says.
From the very early stages, police had their eye on a 21-year-old local called Karl Hague. He was believed to be a standover man and had a terrifying reputation.
Hague had bashed Ricky two weeks earlier – the day before his 16th birthday.
Christine explains: ‘Ricky and his friend were just walking down the street, laughing and carrying on. And this person [Hague] just heard them being happy I guess and didn’t like it.’
Christine says Ricky’s friends retaliated by attacking Hague’s car. Two weeks later, on May 5, 1995, Ricky was dead.
On that fateful day, the ‘cheeky’ 16-year-old had pestered his mum for hours to take him to the mall. Eventually Christine gave in – a decision she now deeply regrets.
‘The last thing he said to me as I dropped him off was: “I love you mum, thank you.”’
The family home, which had once been filled with laughter, turned deafeningly silent overnight.
‘We had a full life when Ricky was here,’ Christine recalls. ‘Ours was the house which all the kids’ friends came to. It was a busy household. But when he passed, everything just went quiet.
‘We stopped doing special things as a family because it was just too hard and too sad. There was always something missing and it was Rick.
‘Those wounds never healed.’
Christine describes her eldest son as a ‘bubbly, caring and sensitive’ 16-year-old, who was mad about sport.
Recalling one of her favourite memories of Ricky, the doting mum smiles: ‘One year he picked all the flowers out of my front yard and gave them to me for Mother’s Day. He was about seven. I didn’t have one flower left in the front yard, but that didn’t matter.
‘He was an amazing big brother. He would go and cheer on his little brother Tee-Jay on his BMX, and he would
support his little sisters Corina and Sandy in their netball.’
Christine clung to the knowledge that her son’s killer would soon be punished.
However, it was over two decades before witnesses – including Ricky’s friend Paul Bellia, who was with him when he was stabbed – finally overcame their fear of Hague.
‘Paul was right next to Ricky when it happened. He didn’t come forward then because he was scared, and I understand that,’ says Christine.
‘I spoke to Paul after he’d finished giving his evidence. I told him how proud I was of him for doing the right thing for Rick.’
Christine went to court every day wearing a badge that had a picture of Ricky on it, with the slogan: ‘Let justice be done.’
Describing coming face-to-face with Ricky’s killer in court, Christine was overwhelmed with emotion: ‘It felt scary, I felt angry, I just wanted to get him. He showed no remorse at all.’
In April this year, Karl Michael Hague, 44, was found guilty of Ricky’s murder at the Melbourne Supreme Court – 23 years after the crime took place. At the time of press, he’s due to be sentenced on June 15.
‘I want to tell other families who are still waiting for justice to never give up, don’t lose hope,’ Christine advises.
‘One day you will get your answers.’