Real criminal trials aren’t like the movies. Defense attorneys don’t announce last-second, client-saving evidence just before the jury reads the verdict. But in 2003, one murder trial gave even the craziest courtroom dramas a run for their money.
Australian prosecutors had everything they needed to pin a serious crime on a suspect. In fact, they were in the middle of presenting their case when someone stood up and made a major announcement that turned the trial into a scene never before witnessed in life—or on television…
By all accounts, Natasha Ryan of Rockhampton, Australia, struggled through her early teenage years. She’d experimented with drugs, cut her wrists, and was suspended from school. In 1995, she ran away from home.
Authorities found her two days later, staying at a hotel. Her boyfriend Scott Black had aided her flight, claiming she threatened to kill herself and he was protecting her. Years later on August 31, 1998, she disappeared again.
On that morning, her mother dropped her off at school, but the troubled teen never showed up to class. Once again, authorities searched for Natasha, checking first, of course, with Scott Black.
He claimed he hadn’t seen her, and he wasn’t alone: no one had. Police launched a $400,000 investigation into her disappearance. Over 100 locals volunteered their time to the search. They found nothing.
As the search continued, investigators felt a creeping dread… because four other women were discovered dead in the area, including 9-year-old Keyra Steinhardt (framed below). Would Natasha soon join their ranks?
Authorities eventually arrested Leonard John Fraser for the serial murders of the other four girls. Fraser spent 20 of the previous 22 years in prison for crimes against women—the thought of ending up general prison population terrified him…
Speculation suggested that to avoid death-by-general-population, Fraser confessed to another murder, too: Natasha’s. Afterwards, her father, Robert Ryan, accepted the confession. His little girl was dead.
On what would’ve been Natasha’s 17th birthday, 70 of her loved ones released balloons into a cool morning sky to celebrate her life. A video played of her in a bridesmaid’s dress at her father’s second wedding. But then?
To answer for his crimes, Fraser faced the Supreme Court of Queensland in Brisbane, where witnesses recalled seeing Natasha with Fraser before her disappearance…until the police prosecutor made an announcement.
On April 11, 2003, police prosecutor Paul Rutledge stood up mid-trial and announced Fraser was not guilty of murdering Natasha. At the announcement, the missing girl’s father fainted. Huh?
As it turned out, a few days prior, authorities received an anonymous note. It read: “Natasha Ryan is alive and well.” The note provided a phone number to call her. So the police used the phone number to track the location.
On April 10, police raided a house in North Rockhampton. The house belonged to none other than Natasha’s long-time-boyfriend Scott Black. There, they found Natasha Ryan just as the note described: alive and well.
Authorities, family members, and even a town wrapped up in her disappearance wanted answers. And Natasha provided them. For the five previous years, she lived with Scott—by choice—in a Yeppoon, Queensland, beach house…
Natasha lived with the curtains pulled shut, avoiding watchful eyes, hiding. At night, she and Scott took a 3-minute drive to the beach, where she enjoyed the sand and water under the cover of darkness.
When Scott hosted guests—and investigators—Natasha hid in a cupboard, which earned her the nickname, “The Girl in the Cupboard.” Eventually, she and Scott moved back to Rockhampton—4 miles from her grieving family.
So, 20 days after Paul Rutledge’s mid-trial announcement, Natasha showed up to her own murder trial. She testified she never met Fraser; witnesses who claimed to see her with him, she said, were wrong.
Still, the jury found him guilty of the other murders, and for those, he went to prison for the rest of his life. Natasha’s appearance at her own murder trial turned into a worldwide media sensation—but she paid for her charade.
Authorities sentenced Scott, left, to three years in jail for perjury; he had, after all, insisted to investigators that he had no idea where Natasha was. Natasha paid a $1,000 fine for causing a false police investigation. But why did she do it?
Natasha never offered a clear answer. “I’m not sure it would make any difference saying why I left,” she said. “I feel whatever I say wouldn’t be good enough for the pain I’ve caused my family.”
In 2008, Natasha—then 24—and Scott married. They sold their wedding photos to Women’s Day for $200,000. By 2011, the couple lived social media-free and raised three children. If nothing else, you can’t doubt their love for each other…
Through it all, Natasha insisted Scott was protecting her at her own request. Whatever the case, they caused quite the global stir with their stunt…
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