3 Jun 2018

Unsolved: missing toddler Rahma el-Dennaoui

(Note: this is the fifth in a series published every Sunday until July, focusing on unsolved NSW murders. If you have any information regarding this or any other case, please call Crimestoppers on 1800 333 000).

A toddler vanishes from a bedroom where she was sleeping with her young siblings. Police launch an investigation, parents come under scrutiny, but over a decade later she is still missing and answers remain elusive. Everyone has heard of missing toddler Madeleine McCann, but it's alarming how many people, here in Australia have not heard of the little girl described as "Australia's Maddie"; 19 month old Rahma el-Dennaoui, who vanished from her family home in south west Sydney on 10 November 2005 and has not been seen since. Her Wikipedia page counts the grim toll. Rahma has been missing, as of this writing, for 11 years, 7 months and 14 days. What happened to the little girl who disappeared in the night, wearing pink Barbie pyjamas?
Rahma el-Dennaoui was the second youngest of eight children of Alyaa and Hosayn el-Dennaoui who lived in Lurnea, near Liverpool in south western Sydney. Life must have been busy with 8 kids - there were apparently no more recent pictures of Rahma than the one above, taken a few months before her disappearance; by the time Rahma went missing, she was taller and her hair had grown out, long and blonde. But there was nothing unusual about the family, nothing to raise suspicion; the children were regularly taken to the doctor, the older children were all doing well at school, always well presented and well mannered, there were no reports to community services that any of the children were at risk of harm. Hosayn did some work selling fruit and vegetables, but the family's main source of financial support was Centrelink benefits - a fact that seemed to cause some controversy within the family, as Hosayn's father, living in his home village in Lebanon, believed it was a disgrace to receive government benefits. Hosayn's brothers leased small farms on the outskirts of Sydney, growing fresh produce and running fruit shops.

There was more trouble behind the public face of a happy family. Hosayn had battled a drug addiction in 2001, visiting nightclubs in the city and taking speed, ice and heroin, before detoxing at home under Alyaa's care, which must have been at best an added burden to the toll of looking after several young children. It also seems he had an extra marital affair. There were guns in the house. The kids seemed happy and well cared for, but still, there was something not right in the el-Dennaoui family.

The night Rahma went missing, 9 November 2005, was hot and humid and Rahma was upset, teething and unwell. She stayed up with her parents, who put her to bed at 2am, in a double bed shared with two of her sisters; another two sisters slept in the room on bunk beds. Because of the heat, the window was open, with only a fly screen between between the room and the street directly outside.

Hosayn and Alyaa woke around 8am next morning. They didn't notice Rahma was missing until 8:30am, figuring she was still asleep. When they realised their daughter was gone, they searched for half an hour before calling 000. Police arrived, finding a hole cut in the flyscreen and a cable drum under the window. Working on the assumption that Rahma had been taken by an intruder, they launched a major search of the local area. Parks were searched, creeks and pools were drained, the suburb was door-knocked, police helicopters were deployed. Police investigated the activity of local sex offenders. They had no reason to suspect the family.

Either way, there was no sign of Rahma. How far could a little girl not even two years old have gotten under her own steam, if she had gotten out on her own? The el-Dennaoui children were distraught. They wrote letters to their missing sister; Rahma's three year old sister spoke of seeing "the monster" the night Rahma disappeared. There were no taunting notes from a kidnapper, no demands for ransom, nothing. Rahma had just vanished in the night.

And then she vanished again, in the national psyche. Missing children are big news. When Daniel Morcombe was abducted in Queensland, his blue eyed, freckled face was all over the media, on missing persons posters in shops and offices, for years. Six year old Kiesha Weippeart dominated news cycles for months when she vanished from her mother's house in 2010. The Beaumont children have been missing for more than half a century, and so called new leads in their disappearance still lead news bulletins, on slow news days at least. But how many Australians hold in their hearts little missing girl Rahma el-Dennaoui, who had the misfortune, from a media perspective, to be the child of Lebanese immigrants?

In 2005, anti Muslim sentiment in Australia was at its ugly peak; the nation was still reeling from the Bali bombings and the Sydney gang rape trials, and the Cronulla riots would take place only a month after Rahma vanished. A missing girl from a large Muslim family in south western Sydney simply did not command the sort of national sympathy that would be expected for a lost, white child. It was racism. That's all. Lebanese Australians weren't seen as "real" Australians, and therefore their missing child didn't really matter. Lebanese people were viewed with suspicion. Televised, tearful pleas for information didn't rate so well if they were delivered in Arabic, via an interpreter. I'd like to hope we'd do better now. I don't know.

Away from the glare of public attention, there were four possible scenarios for Rahma's disappearance:

  • She escaped from her bedroom and wandered off on her own, becoming lost and never found;
  • She was kidnapped by a stranger, whether that was a sex offender or some childless person who wanted a baby of their own;
  • She was kidnapped by a relative or someone known to the family, without her parents' knowledge;
  • She was killed by one or both of her parents, who then staged a kidnapping, possibly with help from the extended family to dispose of the body, which was never found. 

We'll examine each in turn. It is possible that Rahma climbed out through the torn fly screen and wandered off. It's less likely that, if she had done so, she wouldn't have been found. As the map shows, Lurnea is a heavily built up suburban area, not near any tracts of bushland.

Lurnea, NSW

A wandering toddler would have been found before too much time had passed. The area was searched thoroughly, with disused swimming pools and dams drained. It's possible, though highly unlikely, that she did wander and was found, by a person who happened to find a lost child and decided to cause her harm. Possible, but extremely unlikely.

As to whether Rahma was kidnapped by a stranger, it is possible that the family were targeted because they have so many children, perhaps that anonymous kidnapper figured in such a large family they wouldn't miss one kid. But whoever carried out the kidnapping would have taken an enormous risk snatching the child from a house full of people. It's possible that they staked out the house, learning the family routines and noticing that the girls slept in a room facing the street with an open window. But by some accounts, Hosayn el-Dennaoui had a reputation as a drug dealer, and it would have been an even greater risk to snatch a child from a house where guns were kept. On the other hand, a known sex offender living in the area, considered a possible suspect, was not properly investigated, his caravan not  examined for DNA evidence for 18 months after Rahma went missing, when any possible remaining fluids or tissue would be unusable for DNA samples. So. Again, it's possible.

Which leaves us with the possibility that the family were involved in her disappearance. The suggestion that her uncles took her out of her room and spirited her away to Lebanon using a false passport hung in the air for years, but there was never a clear motive, no reason why they might have done this - short of Hosayn's father demanding that one, and only one, of his grandchildren be removed from the house of which he so disapproved. If this is in fact what happened, no trace of Rahma has shown up in Lebanon and in any case, it seems an unspeakably cruel thing for a brother to do, to take his brother's child and then boldly lie to the grieving parents for years.

Then to the most disturbing prospect; that Rahma's parents killed her and staged a false kidnapping to throw police off the scent. If so, it worked. Unlike Jon Benet Ramsey's parents - if  that's what they did - the el-Dennaouis kept it simple. If that's what they did.

No one suspected the worst for many years. The police investigation focused on the theory that Rahma was kidnapped by a stranger. Then in 2012, after Rahma had been missing for seven years, a coronial inquest was held. Detective Sergeant Nick Sedgwick, who led the initial investigation into Rahma's disappearance and remained in close contact with the family over the years, was tasked with writing the brief of evidence. Doing so with the benefit of hindsight, he began to see that the parents had not been thoroughly investigated, that the outward facade of a happy, orderly family unit had blinkered police to the possibility that the family were responsible for Rahma's disappearance.

(As an aside here, it's worth pointing out here that contrary to many people's views, abuse does not always mean neglect. Neglect of a child's basic needs - food, medical care, hygiene - is certainly one form of abuse, but abuse does not invariably mean neglect. The children who arrive at school every day beautifully turned out with adequate packed lunches can be victims of emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse as easily as the child who rarely attends school or is unkempt. I'm not referring to the el-Dennaoui family here, but I wanted to make this point because I see suspicions of abuse shrugged off on basis of appearance, that such and such child can't possibly be being abused because they look well taken care of. Sadly, child abuse can occur in any family, even in the "lovely" ones. More information in the resources section below.)

Detective Sergeant Sedgwick, in his review, came to suspect that the abduction was staged to hide a moment's madness; that either of the parents, driven to distraction on this hot night by Rahma's incessant, sleepless crying with her teething and mouth ulcers, flung her against the couch in a rage, killing her. At some stage during the night, Hosayn's brother was called; he came to the house and took the dead baby, hiding her body in a place it was never found. The adults then concocted the story of the abduction, cutting the fly screen in Rahma's room and placing the cable drum under the window, before finally calling police at 9am. The police did not fully investigate the family and the couch was not forensically tested.

These weren't the only inadequacies in the police investigation. When Daniel Morcombe was abducted in Queensland, it lead to one of the largest police investigations ever in that state, with up to 100 detectives working on the case at one stage and a core team of detectives dedicated to following leads for many years. When Rahma was, as police initially believed, abducted from her bed, there was at most ten detectives working the case for the first six months, then maybe half a dozen detectives for the next six months, and then Detective Sergeant Sedgwick, on his own, with Rahma as just one of a larger caseload. It seems astonishing, but it's true. Rahma for whatever reason did not merit anything like the resources of the missing freckle faced Australian boy, and I think we can all come to our own conclusion as to the reason.

Finally spurred into action, in 2011 the police applied listening devices to the el-Dennaoui homes ahead of the inquest. Some of what was captured was puzzling and troubling, to use the words of NSW Deputy State Coroner Sharon Freund. The family spoke in code, using the expression "cutting the grass" when discussing the inquest, and were heard joking about splitting the $250,000 reward money and that efforts to find Rahma would never find all the bodies. Evidence the parents gave at the inquest too was inconsistent with their initial police statements. I don't know. Seven grief filled years is a long time, memories get fuzzy, and in the face of tragedy you have to focus on the lighter side of life, and I'm not above a bit of gallows humour myself. It's not enough to convict someone, our system of justice thankfully has more checks and balances built in than that. Deputy State Coroner Freund found as much. She returned an open finding, unable to rule out that Rahma's parents were responsible or that she had in fact been kidnapped by a pedophile; and referred the matter back to the NSW Homicide Squad. Rahma did not, after all, vanish into thin air.

But she may as well have. It's now more than five years since that inquest, and we still don't know what happened to Rahma. If she is still alive, she would be 14 now, in high school, planning for her future. She was and then wasn't again in such a short space of time, but that whole future has been snatched away, the hearts of those who loved her broken forever.

Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.

So where is Rahma el-Dennaoui?


Little girl lost https://www.theaustralian.com.au/life/weekend-australian-magazine/little-girl-lost/news-story/b5adfee1118c724cc2191cb4ede2efb1?sv=8878ba43cc477f3220fe36b0893ddeae

Signs of child abuse and neglect https://www.communities.qld.gov.au/childsafety/protecting-children/what-child-abuse/signs-child-abuse-neglect

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