Tip-off led to missing woman breakthrough

BELINDA BURCHAM: A social media campaign helped locate the missing New South Wales woman.
BELINDA BURCHAM: A social media campaign helped locate the missing New South Wales woman.

It was Australia's new year missing persons case that had everyone fearing the worst.

But almost seven days after Belinda Burcham vanished, she reappeared less than two kilometres from her front door, and still wearing the clothes in which she went missing. She had stayed in a park and an abandoned house.

New South Wales police launched a city-wide search for Burcham, a 40-year-old mother of two, after she discharged herself from St Vincent's Hospital on December 30.

When CCTV cameras captured her walking out of the hospital's doors at 7.30am, she was shoeless, cashless and without a mobile phone.

In the days that followed, Belinda's sister Justine set up a Facebook page viewed by thousands. Her parents, Elaine and Paul Talbert, braved scorching summer temperatures to walk the streets carrying photos of her.

The Rose Bay acting police commander, Inspector Paul Dunstan, told Fairfax Media on Friday it was the public interest generated by loved ones that brought the breakthrough in the search.

''The family are genuinely great people who led a terrific campaign using social media,'' he said.

''Through Twitter and Facebook, they generated enormous support, awareness and publicity that made Belinda the talk of the town.''

It was a tip-off to the police from someone who saw Burcham that led to her being found.

The Talberts' hearts had been growing heavier with each hour she remained missing. Two years ago, she separated from her partner, and since then she had endured a long court battle.

In Elaine Talbert's words, Burcham had not ''bounced back as quickly as perhaps other people can''.

But eight days ago, police telephoned the family with news of a breakthrough: she had been found. While the family were still not sure of all the answers, they want to share what they do know with the supporters who helped them.

''On the Friday night, police received reports of a woman who had been knocking on the doors of houses bordering Trumper Park in Paddington,'' Paul Talbert said.

''She had been asking for cigarettes, and she matched Belinda's description.''

Dunstan said a team of police was sent out several times that night without success.

''But the following evening police received further information, so a Kings Cross team went back to that area around Trumper Park, and sure enough she was located.''

Paul Talbert said: ''Words could never describe the sense of relief that resulted from the call confirming she was alive. She was covered in cuts and bruises, and she was under the impression she had only been missing for one day.

''She had a pair of thongs on her feet, and a different top to the one she disappeared in, but she was still wearing the same pants. It is now clear that under great strain, she suffered some form of psychological episode.''

A week on, the family appear to have worked out that Burcham divided her time between staying in Trumper Park and an unoccupied house in that area.

''It explains why, perhaps, she remained under the radar in such a built-up area for as long as she did,'' Paul Talbert said.

Dunstan said a lot of people often needed help in such circumstances, but acknowledged: ''They don't always end up this way. Through the work of social media, through the work of the family and the police, this was a great result.''

Sydney Morning Herald