The Secret Life of Revelle Balmain
By Caroline Overington
Good Weekend Magazine
The Sydney Morning Herald
She as a beautiful 22-year-old with a loving family and a promising career as a model. But Revelle Balmain lost her way, descending into a seedy world of drugs, lies and prostitution. Then one day she just vanished. If she was murdered, why has no-one found her killer? Caroline Overington investigates.
ON THE MORNING OF NOVEMBER 6, 1994, Jan Balmain, a ballet teacher from Soldiers Point on the NSW Central Coast, stood on the platform at Newcastle railway station waiting for the train from Sydney to arrive. She was there to meet her daughter, Revelle. She had prepared a special lunch because the next day, 22-year-old Revelle was leaving for a six-week trip to Japan to work as a dancer. The Sydney train arrived but Revelle was not on it. Jan waited for the next one still no sign of her daughter.
Now seriously worried, she spent the rest of the day on the phone to Revelle's flatmate, her friends and to all of Sydney's hospitals but all her inquiries were in vain. She never saw her daughter again and, although no body has ever been found and no charges have been laid, it is now almost certain that Revelle Balmain was murdered.
On April 1 this year, more than four years after Revelle disappeared, Jan directly addressed the NSW Senior Deputy State Coroner, John Abernethy, who, for the best part of six months, has been chairing an inquiry into the probable death of her daughter.
"Have you ever seen Revelle since that day, 6 November, 1994?" asked her lawyer, Robert Cavanagh, at Sydney's Coroner's Court.
"No," she said. "Not humanly, not in person. No."
What she meant was that after all these years, she still sees her daughter in her dreams.
"She floats above me," she says now, "and I cry out, 'Where are you, Revelle? What happened to you?' "
The answer appears to be that nobody knows. More likely is that those who do know have not been called to account.
When Revelle Balmain went missing, it was not without a trace. On the contrary, in the days that followed her disappearance, police found a great deal of evidence, most of it pointing to foul play. Revelle's cork-heeled platform shoe was found in a rubbish bin; a set of her keys was found in a street in the Sydney suburb of Kingsford; her diary and the plastic cradle from her pager lay in the gutter.
Detectives searching Revelle's bedroom found her passport and an airline ticket to Japan in a packed bag on the floor.
Incredible as it might seem, more than 5,000 people went missing in NSW in 1994, and 99 per cent of them were found. A further 1 04 people were murdered, and 70 per cent of those crimes were solved. What is it about Revelle's circumstances that make her disappearance so difficult to account for? Why, if it is so likely that she was murdered, has no-one been charged?
The search for answers to these questions has taken Jan Balmain and her husband, Ivor, into a world completely foreign to them: a world of clubs and exotic dancers, prostitutes and their clients, escort agencies and their owners. Ultimately, it took them to the Coroner's Court, where Jan Balmain this year sought special leave to talk about the depth of her loss and her frustration at the way the investigation into her daughter's disappearance was handled.
"From the time Revelle went missing, she was no longer my daughter," she said. "She belonged to the State. We knew, from the very beginning, that something was horribly wrong. She ... would not have gone missing voluntarily. All we wanted to do was help in some way, but our presence during the investigations wasn't wanted."
However much Jan loved her daughter, she did Jan and Ivor Balmain: "Revelle paid the highest possible price for the choices she made, but we don't believe that she doesn't deserve justice."
Jan Balmain loved her daughter but she did not know everything about her. She did not know that Revelle sometimes took money for sex, often from some of Sydney's wealthiest men.
"The police didn't tell me," she says. "They told my husband, and he kept it from me for a couple of days, until the time was right, if it is ever right."
In the years since Revelle went missing, Jan Balmain has had time to accept and reflect upon the choices her daughter made.
"She lost her way for a little while," she says now. "A lot of young people do. Most of them escape it, but Revelle was unlucky. She didn't escape it. She paid the highest possible price for the choices she made, but we don't believe that she doesn't deserve justice."
THE DAY BEFORE SHE DISAPPEARED, REVELLE had lunch with one of her best friends from school, Kate Brentnall, who described her as "happier than she'd ever been. She was really happy about getting out of the escort industry, going to Japan. She had dyed her hair from platinum blonde to a softer, more natural blonde, more like her own colour. I thought it was symbolic. I remember thinking that she had never looked more beautiful."
November 5 was to be Revelle's last day at work. It was also, probably, the last day of her life. On that day, she was working for Select Companions, an escort agency owned by a husband and wife team, Jane and Zoran Stanojevic. It was one of two such agencies that employed her. According to evidence presented to the Coroner, Revelle telephoned Jane Stanojevic on that day to say she was available to see clients.
She was told that she had an appointment at 4 pm with Gavin Samer, of Kingsford, a surfer who earned a living packing boxes for his parents' clothing company. After that, she was expected to see two Yugoslav friends of Zoran Stanojevic, himself Yugoslavian. These clients were important to the agency, both because they were friends of Zoran and because he liked to make an impression with clients from his home country.
Jane Stanojevic, a politely spoken, immaculately presented woman, remembers that she pressed Revelle about the importance of being on time. "I said, 'Don't you go disappearing on me,' " she told the inquest. "I didn't mean anything by it. I just said it because she used to do that disappear all the time."
At 3.50 pm, Revelle telephoned Select Companions to say that she had arrived at Samer's house. At 5.50 pm, she called again to say that her assignment with Samer had finished and that she was leaving but, according to a statement Samer gave to police, and obtained by Good Weekend, Revelle did not leave his house at that time, but entered into a private arrangement with him to stay longer, for cash. Such arrangements, known as "moonlighting", are strictly forbidden by owners of escort agencies, because they do not get a cut of the money.
Revelle is known to have been still alive at 7.15 pm because she had a conversation with Kate Brentnall.
"She couldn't really talk and I took that to mean that she was with a client," Brentnall told the Coroner. "She said, 'Let's meet up later and have a few beers at the Royal Hotel, in Paddington.' She said, 'I'll call you from home in about an hour.' "
That call never came.
According to Samer's statement, Revelle stayed with him for another hour, before he gave her a lift to the Red Tomato Inn, a pub in Kingsford. He parked out the back, he said, then went to the bottle shop, where he bought some Strongbow cider and cigarettes, then went home to watch Hey Hey Its Saturday before falling asleep, waking up when the football came on.
The last time Samer saw Revelle, he told police, was after she had got out of his car and walked towards the back door of the hotel.
Police investigating her disappearance think it unlikely that she was ever at the Red Tomato Inn, mainly because nobody could recall seeing her there. As the licensee told investigating officers at the time: "Look at the people we get in here. If a woman like that walked in, the whole place would stop."
Samer admitted to police that he paid for sex with Revelle. Although living in a de facto relationship, he was alone that weekend. His girlfriend, Michelle Oswald-Sealy, was visiting family in Brisbane and, in her absence, he hocked her clarinet to pay for Revelle. Oswald-Sealy, a horticulturalist who has since left Samer, told the inquest that she had telephoned Samer on November 5, but there had been no answer. After several attempts, she finally reached him at 9.22 pm.
"He sounded alert, pretty positive," she told the Coroner. "He said the phone had been playing up."
Two days later, standing at the baggage carousel at Sydney airport, she had noticed scratches on Samer's neck and finger, but dismissed both cuts as surfing injuries. When she got into Samer's car, she had noticed that the back of their station wagon, normally crammed with surfboards and wet towels, was empty and that the seats were laid down, flat. This did not disturb her, she said, because, as a surfer, Samer occasionally let the car fill with junk and occasionally cleaned it out.
Upon arriving home, she wondered what had motivated her somewhat lazy boyfriend to wash and hang out the sheets. Later, when police were questioning him about the disappearance of Revelle, and after he had admitted to Oswald-Sealy that he had slept with a prostitute, she assumed he had washed the linen to hide the fact.
The police officer in charge of the investigation, Detective Sergeant Grahame Mulherin, told the Coroner that, in the opinion of police, Samer was the main person of interest in the case. Samer's solicitor, requesting that his client's name be suppressed, agreed "that it appears to be common ground that he is the only suspect in this case". In the words of the Coroner, however, "at this stage, there is no case against Mr Samer in respect of anything at all".
Revelle's parents, though, were profoundly disturbed by a statement given to detectives by Jeremy Coghlan, in which he suggested another scenario. Coghlan, 25, of Double Bay, was a friend of one of Revelle's wealthiest clients, commodities trader Mark Coulton, of Palm Beach. Coghlan told police that he had heard that Revelle had been "whacked", escort industry speak for murdered. According to his statement, which was tendered to the inquest and which has been obtained by Good Weekend, Coghlan had been at a party at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Double Bay with Coulton when "he Coulton said something like, 'Aren't people gullible and stupid? You've heard the story about Revelle Balmain ... First there was a story about an Arab prince who took her back to Saudi Arabia ... what a load of crap. She's 10 foot under and no-one will find her body. That's what you get for moonlighting and ripping off the brothel that she worked for, and drugging clients . . . stealing all their money. Basically, the owner of the brothel wanted her dead because she was destroying his business ... I knew her, and she was a nasty little gold digger and coke addict that would do anything for money ... Isn't it amazing what money can buy to make people disappear?' "
On the same night, Coghlan had asked Coulton what relationship he had with Revelle.
"He said that he had pinched her from the brothel and was paying her an allowance of about $500 or $1,000 a week, and he told me that it worked out cheaper than paying the $150 to $200 an hour that they charged. He told me that he had sex with her a dozen times a week . . . until he passed her on to his friend."
Police: "Did Coulton tell you the name of the person who was responsible for the murder of Revelle?"
Coghlan: "No, only that he was the owner of the brothel that he'd organised some girls through."
When he appeared before the inquiry, Coghlan agreed that both men "might have been a bit drunk" on champagne when Coulton explained this version of events to him and, indeed, at the time he gave no credence to the story: "But he knew the girl, so I thought there may have been some substance to it. I can't remember it word for word but I told police basically what he said that she'd been 'whacked', killed."
In evidence to the Coroner, Coulton, who used escorts from both the agencies that employed Revelle, agreed that "there was a lot of gossip and rumours that the owners of escort agencies were threatening girls for meeting clients on the side". He had also heard that somebody from one of the agencies might have "gone to smack her up a bit and maybe got a bit carried away", but he denied telling Coghlan that he knew what had happened to Revelle, describing Coghlan's statement as "absolute rubbish".
Revelle was a prostitute, Coulton said, one of 10 he had seen in the past 12 months. He had paid for her services and had given her a cheque for $1,000 "because she was desperate for money and wanted to go to Japan. I felt sorry for her." He did not, he said, know anything about what happened to her. When Mark Coulton had finished giving evidence, his legal team stood and fought for suppression of his name, on the grounds of the "obvious embarrassment" their client would suffer if the nature of his relationship with Revelle became known. The Coroner rejected the application.
The Balmains' lawyer, Robert Cavanagh, says the couple "have been through a kind of hell, being denied information, being ignored, being made to feel like a pair of nuisances, when all they wanted was something they clearly deserved".
It took the Balmains four years of campaigning to get an inquest opened on their daughter. What they have heard in the Coroner's Court these past months has been frustrating: police were unable to call several important witnesses because they were no longer living where they had been at the time. Other witnesses had, reasonably enough, forgotten the things they saw all that time ago.
According to evidence presented to the Coroner, Revelle was an "unreliable" escort. Jane Stanojevic told police that, in the six weeks that Revelle had worked for the agency, she had received five or six complaints about her because she was "cooler" than most girls.
"She was very particular about who she would and wouldn't see," Stanojevic said. "She wouldn't see anybody old, anybody ugly, anybody ethnic, anybody who lived in a funny area."
Asked if Revelle was not, therefore, a poor choice of escort to send to an appointment with two Yugoslavs who did not speak English, Stanojevic said: "Well, no. She didn't like to see cheap people. But this would have been financially rewarding for her. They would have taken her for dinner."
Asked what she did when Revelle failed to show up for the appointment with her husband's Yugoslavian friends, Jane said, "Nothing. She did that all the time. We just sent somebody else."
WHEN Revelle disappeared on what was to be her last day at work, she did so owing money to the Stanojevics. This was not unusual. Jane Stanojevic testified that, while most clients of escort agencies pay with credit cards, some pay cash and so, at the end of each week, the agency and the escort work out who owes what to whom. Getting money owed is always a problem. According to Jane's testimony, Revelle owed somewhere between $300 and $400 and had agreed to pay it to Zoran when he picked her up for the appointment with the Yugoslavs.
Zoran, however, testified that he had no knowledge of this agreement. Asked whether he knew that Revelle was supposed to settle an account with Select Companions that night, he said, "No. 100 per cent no. I'm not interested in that."
Indeed, he contradicted his wife on almost every point. According to her testimony, Jane was not working on the night that Revelle disappeared because she was heavily pregnant and exhausted. Earlier that day, she went with Zoran to buy a television set. Later that afternoon, they had a pizza, then went home. According to Jane, Zoran watched the soccer before leaving for work about 6.30 pm. However, according to a statement obtained by Good Weekend, Zoran originally told police he was not working the night Revelle disappeared. In a formal interview on November 15, 1994, police asked Zoran, "Were you working on November 5, 1994?" He replied, "No, not on Saturday, no. My wife and I went to find some TV set for our office. At 3 pm, we went to the Stanley Street pizzeria. After that, we went home. I watched soccer and, at 6 or 6.20 pm, I took the TV set to our office, installed the TV, and at seven, or quarter to seven, I returned home."
Jan Balmain does not accept that her daughter disappeared because, she says, "people don't just disappear. Something happens to them. What we wanted from the inquest was some answers. We would have liked somebody to be charged. If we couldn't get that, we wanted to know something about her last days, her last hours."
Four years later, at the inquest, Zoran corrected himself, arguing that, when he said, "no, not on Saturday, no," he meant not during the day.
"What I wanted to say was that I went home after my job, at 2 or 3 am."
Gavin Samer's lawyer laboured the point: "In 1994, you told police, 'I returned home.' What you wanted to say was that you went home hours and hours afterwards?"
"It was a misunderstanding," replied Zoran. "What I want to say is, I went out, and I went to the coffee shop. I didn't go straight away home."
He blamed the discrepancy on problems he had with a Serbian translator but later, a language expert who listened to a tape of the interview would testify that Zoran's original statement had been accurately translated.
According to his testimony, Zoran did not see Revelle that night, instead receiving a call to pick up another escort, "Kelly", about 7.15 pm. He took her to an appointment at Double Bay, waited for her, then took her home again. Later, he took Kelly to meet his Yugoslav friends at the Parkroyal hotel at Darling Harbour, where he waited for two hours, before taking her to another appointment at the Airport Sheraton. Later still, while driving Kelly home, he had a flat tyre, which he had to fix himself.
He did not, he testified, harm, or cause any harm to come to, Revelle Balmain.
Asked if he had anything to do l with her disappearance, he said, "No, never, no." In the four years that lapsed between the disappearance of Revelle and the start of the inquest, police did not interview either the Yugoslavian clients, who have since returned to Belgrade, or "Kelly", the other escort. This was partly because, when Jane Stanojevic gave her first statement to police in 1994, she said that Revelle was supposed to see the Yugoslav clients at the Swiss Grand Hotel in Bondi.
Four years later, she said she was mistaken and had actually meant the Parkroyal at Darling Harbour. It was not until this year, however, that police checked the records of both hotels and found that neither had any record of the two Yugoslavs.
Also, it was not until after the Balmain inquest had begun and after Stanojevic had given his testimony, that police were able to locate "Kelly", the woman who could corroborate his version of events that night.
Called to give evidence (having been found through a telephone number supplied by Jane Stanojevic) "Kelly"', a reluctant witness, told the court that, yes, she had been driven around by Stanojevic that night; that yes, she had serviced his Yugoslav friends; that yes, she had then gone on to see another client at the Airport Sheraton, and that yes, Stanojevic had had a flat tyre on the way home. (Police checked the records of the Airport Sheraton, and advised the Coroner they could not confirm whether either "Kelly" or the client had been there.)
Gavin Samer's lawyer, Gerard Craddock asked how, after all these years, she had finally, miraculously, been located. Why had she not been questioned at the time Revelle disappeared? Had police ever sought to clarify the discrepancy in the statement given by Stanojevic, who told police that he did not work that night, and his wife, who said he did?
In the intervening year, did police try to find out why these stories were not the same?
Detective Mulherin: "I don't know."
Craddock: "But it's hardly a minor debate, a conflict between two people who were proprietors of the escort agency where Revelle worked that night?"
Mulherin: "It's important, yes, I just can't recall whether it was done."
Later, he added, "At that stage 1994, we were satisfied with the statements Zoran Stanojevic had given, and directed our attention to areas more fruitful."
THROUGHOUT THIS TESTIMONY, AND INDEED on every day of the inquest into their daughter's disappearance, Jan and Ivor Balmain sat in the front row of the Coroner's Court, wearing homemade badges with a picture of Revelle and the words: "Seen Revelle? Call CrimeStoppers."
Jan Balmain had these badges made in 1 994 and, in the years since, has given much thought to what she would say, if ever given the opportunity to address a court about the loss of her daughter. When that opportunity came last month, this is, in part, what she said: "Our daughter, Revelle, was born in Manly hospital on July 11, 1972. She was ... a beautiful baby, a beautiful toddler, a very loving daughter. She never forgot birthdays, Mother's Day or Father's Day. When she was a teenager, I applied to a theatre school in England for her, and she went there on exchange for a year and enjoyed it tremendously. She came back, and completed her Year 12. We were so proud of her achievements ... She lost her way in Sydney, but she came to realise there was no future in what she was doing. It's there in the evidence. She wanted to get out. I can't understand why she got into it because she was brought up in a loving, caring home. But, when she was four, she found her baby brother, Matthew, floating in the swimming pool. Looking back now, I don't think she ever recovered from that. It took us months, years to deal with it ... maybe she never did."
Asked if she thought there was any chance that she would seen Revelle again, she replied, "I don't believe she is alive. I believe she has been murdered. Her life has been taken from her, so quickly and so unacceptably."
Later, Jan Balmain expressed frustration at a process which has, in the end, produced more questions than answers. Frustration, too, that she is no closer now to giving Revelle what she believes her daughter deserves: a Christian burial.
"We need an opportunity to say goodbye," she said. "We deserve that, and Revelle deserves that."
There is, however, virtually no chance that Jan Balmain will ever be able to bury her daughter - while police concluded long ago that Revelle had been murdered, they are not looking for her body.
"We asked them about that," Jan says sadly, "and they said, 'Where would you suggest we start?' "