The People vs Kathleen Folbigg: growing up with a murderer

Last month, a new inquiry was launched into Folbigg's convictions—in 2003, she was convicted for killing her infant children

Artwork by Theo Delaney Artwork by Theo Delaney

CW: murder

Telling scary stories into the early hours of the morning was always my favourite part of sleepover parties. I was certain I could deliver the spookiest tale of the lot. “Did you know we live in the same town as Australia’s worst female serial killer?”, I would ask, shining a torch into my face like they do in the movies. “Really?”, my friends would reply, clutching their blankets, innocent eyes brimming with curiosity. “I’m not sure of her name”, I would rejoin with my 10 year old wisdom.  “But she lived in the same street as me and when her baby cried too much, she smothered them with a pillow.”

They gulped.

“It happened four times.”

The story never lasted much longer—a friend would always plead with me to stop.

My imagination has always taken me to interesting places. This classic sleepover tale, however, was not the product of that imagination. I did indeed grow up in the same town as Australia’s worst female serial killer, Kathleen Folbigg.

***

Singleton is a small rural town in the Hunter Valley. It has a population of about 16,000 and most people work as farmers, in the mines, or are involved with the army base just outside town. As a young girl, it provided me with everything I could have possibly needed. Most of my friends were only a bike ride away, and when we weren’t at school we spent our time riding around town. In the springtime I decorated my fingers with the fallen jacaranda flowers that carpeted our streets, and in the burning summer days of January we found relief in someone’s backyard pool. And like most country towns, Singleton fostered a vibrant community. Everyone seemed to know each other, or, at least, something about each other. Frightening stories involving  violence and murders were thought to only happen worlds away, in the big cities. That was why the conviction of Folbigg, a local woman, for the murder of three of her babies and manslaughter of another sent the the town into shock.

Between 1989 and 1999, Folbigg and her husband Craig “lost” their four babies, though a number of seemingly unfortunate incidents. Caleb was their first born, in 1989. He died when he was just 19 days old due to what appeared to be SIDS—Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Their next was Patrick, who at four months old was found with severe brain injuries from a mysterious event. Though he was revived, Folbigg would “find” her same son’s body lifeless only a few months later. In 1993, their first daughter Sarah lived 10 months, before her life was tragically cut short by what again appeared to be SIDS. A few years later, their longest living child, Laura, was born, though she too would live a paltry 19 months. Though Folbigg called the ambulance and performed CPR until they arrived, Laura couldn’t be saved: the Folbiggs had lost their fourth child in a decade.

At 19 months, Laura was too old to have died from SIDS. Doctors began to have suspicions. The police were notified and an investigation was launched.

I spoke to Greg*, a Singleton local, about the town’s initial reaction to the tragic events in the early 2000s.

“There was a lot of chatter around town at that time,” he told me.

“There were lots of ideas and people were quick to form a view as to whether she did or did not do it. I [can] see that if she was being investigated for something that was a natural tragedy, it must have been horrendous for her.”

However, when Craig found his wife’s diary with a number of damning journal entries, he handed it in to police.

***

The following diary entries are just some of the many read out during Crown Prosecutor Mark Tedeschi’s opening address in the Supreme Court in 2003.

June 18, 1996

I’m ready this time. And I know I’ll have help and support this time. When I think I’m going to lose control, like last times, I’ll just hand baby over to someone else. Not feel totally alone. Getting back into my exercise after will help my state of mind and sleeping wherever possible as well. I have learnt my lesson this time.

November 9, 1997

Craig was pretty drunk Friday night. In his drunken stupor he admitted that he’s not really happy. There’s a problem with his security level with me and he has a morbid fear about Laura—he, well I know there’s nothing wrong with her. Nothing out of ordinary anyway. Because it was me not them.

Think I handle her fits of crying better than I did with Sarah—I’ve learnt to, once getting to me, to walk away and breathe in for a while myself. It helps me cope and figure out how to help her.

With Sarah all I wanted was her to shut up. And one day she did.

January 28, 1998

Very depressed with myself, angry and upset. I’ve done it. I lost it with her. I yelled at her so angrily that it scared her. She hasn’t stopped crying. Got so bad I nearly purposely dropped her on the floor and left her. I restrained enough to put her on the floor and walk away. Went to my room and left her to cry.

Was gone probably only five minutes but it seemed like a lifetime. I feel like the worst mother on this earth. Scared that she’ll leave me now. Like Sarah did. I knew I was short tempered and cruel sometimes to her and she left. With a bit of help.

I don’t want that to ever happen again. I actually seem to have a bond with Laura. It can’t happen again. I’m ashamed of myself. I can’t tell Craig about it because he’ll worry about leaving her with me. Only seems to happen if I’m too tired. Her moaning, bored, whingy sound drives me up the wall. I truly can’t wait until she’s old enough to tell me what she wants.

***

In light of his finding, Craig Folbigg became a witness for the prosecution of his wife. Kathleen’s foster sister, Lea Brown, would also join Craig as a witness. Their statements, along with medical evidence and diary entries, were presented to a jury. The evidence was compelling. In a 2004 interview with the ABC, the chief investigator of the case, Detective Bernie Ryan said “from the moment I read the diary, it was a murder investigation.”

On the 21st May, 2003, Folbigg was sentenced to 30 years imprisonment for the murder of Caleb, Sarah and Laura, and the manslaughter of Patrick. Reports claim she collapsed the moment the guilty verdict was revealed.

“I followed the court case with a great deal of interest,” Greg told me.

“The wife of one of my best mates appeared in court and was cross examined. That was a really weird and surreal experience. This woman I knew was walking into the court to evidence and it was being shown on national television. In Singleton, it’s very easy to know someone who is directly or indirectly involved with the Folbigg case. There’s always a personal contact.”

Greg’s voice fell quiet for a few moments. It was clear that the Folbigg case existed beyond the realm of sensationalist media stories. Every member of the town, and many people in the Hunter Valley, lived in the shadows of the case for years after. Before the trial, Kathleen was just another member of the community. She socialised in the same pubs, drank coffee in the same cafes, and worked out in the same gym as everybody else in town.

Greg continued, his voice, solemn, “Our paths crossed numerous times and I wasn’t even aware of it.”

No one could have possibly been aware. Even Craig Folbigg was seemingly unaware of his wife’s deteriorating state.

“In the back of mind, I always thought how horrible it must have been for her husband, the father of the children,” Greg uttered.

“As a father of young kids at the time, I could never put myself in his shoes.”

***

When I was about 8 years old, I was with my family in one of the local pubs on the main street of town. Across from us was a large table of adults, sharing food, drinks, and laughter. At the head of the table was a man in a white collared shirt with salt and pepper hair. He was subdued and quieter than the others. “That’s Folbigg’s husband,” my Mum whispered to my Dad, her eyes gazing at the man in the white shirt. “Who?” I barked, demanding to know everything my parents were talking about. “That’s the husband of the lady who killed her children,” Mum replied, shushing me.

My insides shrivelled up. Overcome with guilt for my unabashed demand, I peered back down to my dinner and tried not to stare, just like how I had been taught. There he was. When I was young, I tried to imagine how he continued with his life. How he managed to eat out with friends, to work, to wake up every morning knowing he lost his four beautiful babies and that someone who was once the love of his life was responsible for it. Even now, as a young adult, I am unable to comprehend what life must be like for Craig Folbigg.

***

My mum, who has worked as both a midwife and a women’s health nurse, has always had a strong interest in the case. This interest was no doubt spurred on  by the fact that we moved into the same street the Folbiggs lived on a year after the case.

“I remember when we moved houses, when you were 6 or 7 and your sister was just a baby, and I found out we had moved into the same street that Folbigg lived in when she murdered one of her babies.”

“When the case was being discussed, I remember driving down our street and wondering which house it had all happened in”, she told me.

Some in the town felt immense guilt and sympathy for Kathleen’s husband, Craig. More yet felt a sense of intense betrayal at her hands, especially after having supported her through the loss of each child. But Mum found her empathy rested with Kathleen.

“I was always curious about her. I felt sorry for her. Being a mother, I just was wondering how this could happen so many times. Did she have no support?”

Last year, Daily Telegraph reporter James Phelps released the book “Green is the New Black: Inside Australia’s hardest women’s jails.” Two of three women detailed in it were from the Hunter Valley; Kathleen Folbigg and Katherine Knight, an Aberdeen woman who killed her boyfriend and roasted him in the oven along with the vegetables to be served with dinner. I told Mum about the book when I was home over summer, laughing at the fact that two of these ‘crazy’ women were from our area.

Her brows dropped, eyes swelling with tears. She reached for a tissue.

“Kathleen’s a human being you know.”

Mum was right. It’s far too tempting to sensationalise the story of Folbigg. The events surrounding the case, including the diary entries, seem compelling mis-en-scene for the perfect murderer.

***

There are others who suggest there are things missing in the Folbigg case. On the 13th of August this year, the ABC’s Australian Story exclusively screened the media’s first phone call with Folbigg, just as her legal team fights for a judicial review of her case.

Professor Stephen Corner, a specialist in forensic medicine at Monash University, has reviewed the medical evidence used to convict Folbigg. He confirmed that both Caleb and Sarah died from SIDS, Patrick’s death was a result of an a epilepsy disorder, and that Laura’s death was attributed to a heart condition known as myocarditis. Professor Corner told Australian Story, “If the convictions are to stand, they must do so without the support of forensic pathology, and in Laura’s case at least, against the forensic pathology view.”

As a result of the compelling Australian Story package, the NSW Attorney General, Matthew Speakman, announced an inquiry into the convictions.

“This recent inquiry, well it stirs emotion of what a tragedy it was,” Greg replied, when I asked him about the reopened case.

“The people I know who were friends with Kathleen Folbigg, its had an enormous impact on them. When it happened, they were suddenly under scrutiny. They were talked about in town. Their kids were talked about. It had a huge impact on their kids at school. It’s had such an impact of their life, to the point where they don’t want to talk about it. They’ve put it to the side because they don’t want to be associated with it.”

***

But where does Folbigg sit in all of this?

After the initial 2003 trial, it was revealed that Folbigg’s father had murdered her mother when she was a young girl. She was placed into foster care but always had a strained relationship with her foster mother.

If Folbigg herself was a victim of and witness to horrendous domestic violence, one must ask what impact this had on her ability to raise children.

“If someone had known about her upbringing, the murder of her mother by her father, I mean did no doctor or nurse classify her as a high risk?” Mum stirs, still perplexed by the case some 15 years later.

“During the pregnancy and the birth, we give the mothers so much attention,” she continues.

“But as soon as the baby is born, we don’t do a great job in offering enough support for the mother and her health, particularly her mental health. The focus is on the baby. I mean surely, there should have been red flags around Folbigg. And it happened four times? Did no one think to intervene?”

Mum’s voice carries with it both the tender compassion of a child bearer and the desperation of a nurse looking for answers. She raises an interesting question: where was the support for Folbigg?

I could never defend her actions, but I do wonder if  greater services for victims of domestic violence and less stigma around symptoms of postnatal depression have mitigated this tragedy?

Of course it’s easy to hypothesise about things that could have happened differently. There are always what ifs and buts. Ultimately, we are still left with a town haunted by a painful reality.

A grieving woman who will bear this for the rest of her life, a father who lost his children and his wife, a community who will always falter in the face of unanswered questions, and four beautiful children who never had the chance to ride their bikes around town, or decorate their fingers with the fallen flowers of our town’s famous jacaranda trees.