‘That phone call that night just changed my life forever’
The phone rang in the dead of night, a literal warning bell.
"Neek, Dad has been stabbed and he's dead," said the voice down the line.
Monique "Neek" Ferrario froze as she heard her 16-year-old nephew's words. Immediately she understood: her big brother Mitchell was gone.
That nightmare moment was only the start of her family's tragedy: an epic path that started with her 36-year-old brother being stabbed through the heart by a stranger in the country town of Junee, followed by her nephew stumbling across his father's crime scene just hours later, then a futile fight for justice … and at last the peace Monique has found in helping family survivors of homicide.
As the secretary of the Queensland Homicide Victims' Support Group, Monique has learned that in holding the hand of those whose loved ones have also been killed, she is slowly healing herself.
But the 39-year-old, who runs a family day care centre in Robina, is the first to admit that she will always carry the scar of her brother's death.
"That phone call that night just changed my life forever. It was so sudden and so blunt and so devastating. But it was nothing compared to what my nephew endured," says Monique.
"He was only 16, walking home with friends, and they actually walked past the crime scene. My nephew became unsettled, he didn't realise what had happened but he just had that gut feeling, so he asked the police what happened.
"Junee is a town of only 4000 people, everyone knows everyone, so one of the police officers just walked over to him and said 'your Dad's been stabbed and killed'.
"And then he just walked away, leaving this teenager on his own. He called me that moment, standing across the road from the crime scene.
"We never got to speak to that police officer, but the detective we did work with from Wagga Wagga was incredible. I have no complaints about the work the police did, we were so lucky to have the detective we did, he gave us so much support and we still catch up with him."
The facts of Mitch Ferrario's death will always be contested as there were no witnesses.
What is known is that the father of one, who was engaged to his long-term partner of 20 years and had just paid a deposit on his first house, was on his way home after visiting family and friends. As he walked past the home of Alan Lawson Brown, the then-72-year-old man came out of his house. Mitch was stabbed in the heart with a 20cm knife.
Mitch staggered to the home of a friend, spoke the name of the man who did it, and died in his mate's arms.
Mr Brown later claimed self-defence, although Mitch did not have a weapon. He was declared not guilty of both manslaughter and murder … a verdict that tore out what was left of the Ferrario family's heart.
"Hearing 'not guilty' was pretty close to Mitch dying again. We were just completely devastated. If you read the news reports of that day it says there was an 'audible gasp'. That was us. As soon as the verdict was read out, we were escorted to a witness room and kept away from the media.
"It was a gut punch, our heart was ripped out.
"I just remember walking down the stairs, my sister and I were holding up our dad. That grip on his hand is something I will never forget. Half of us were in such shock we couldn't speak, the other half were crying.
"The detective came in after speaking to the DPP and he hugged every single one of us and said 'I don't know what more I could have done' and then he just cried with us.
"Every day of that trial we had rows and rows of supporters. (The accused) only ever had one person, maybe two, and they would pop in for just an hour or so. The support did help us through that horrible time.
"To have (him) acquitted, I don't know if I'll ever truly understand it. It happened in an alternative universe and maybe one day I'll wake up and it will never have happened. You never get over it.
"I lost my brother and our shot at justice. I do believe if this trial had happened in Sydney we would have got a different verdict. There was such a small pool for the jury and everyone knew everyone, it's hard not to be afraid.
"In fact, a journalist once contacted us for comment because he had uncovered the fact that in the Riverina 90 per cent of all serious crimes are acquitted. But we didn't want to comment in case it jeopardised our appeal. But we never got one anyway. We know now that Mitchell and justice are beyond our grasp."
But what saved Monique from absolute desolation during that time was joining the QHVSG.
While Mitch lived in Junee, both Monique and her mother were based on the Gold Coast and quickly found solace in the local chapter of the group.
"When we got back to the Gold Coast after the funeral, Mum was adamant that we go to a meeting of the QHVSG, but I wasn't interested … it wasn't going to bring him back.
"But Mum insisted so we went. Our first meeting was seven weeks after Mitch died, and now I know that's actually quite soon.
"The group of about 20 people felt like 1000. But as I listened to their stories, I realised that homicide, that murder, is something that happens to normal people and normal families.
"That's why I'd had such a disconnect.
"There's a misconception that if you live a normal life this doesn't happen to you, that (killings) only happen in bank robberies and drug deals, but that's not what it is. It's random attacks, it's one-punch crimes, it's domestic violence.
"I don't miss Mitch more because he was (killed). If he died from cancer I would miss him just as much. But there are just so many issues that come with it that really hamper your grieving recovery.
"It amplifies and prolongs every stage. Our family still refer to life before Mitch's death and after, everything changed, life changed as we knew it.
"Suddenly you're talking about stabbing with the police and the DPP, you're catapulted into a world where you don't feel safe but that you have to master.
"Even during the trial, I was so careful how I presented myself. I wanted people to see we were a good, normal family who were caught in a tragedy.
"The QHVSG was only formed in 1995, I can not imagine how families coped before that. I can never thank the founders enough for their foresight. The stigma around homicide affects every age group; no demographic is left unscathed.
"When a homicide happens it's a big story but then the news cycle moves on … but the victims still suffer.
"It's hard for the families to navigate, suddenly they're thrown into this world of media and police but then it's over and there's no one.
"That's when we as the QHVSG step in to make those calls when everyone else stops."
Monique says the Gold Coast branch of the group is like family, with most pre-COVID monthly meetings attracting around a dozen family members.
She says the group also works to advocate for legislation that better supports both victims and their families.
"We have such a unique bond. I always say they are the family I am so pleased to have, but that I never wanted.
"But time and again we are told the group is a lifesaver.
"We like for people to be able to share nice and funny stories, to have a laugh, it's not always heavy, sad stuff. But when people need to talk about the hard stuff, that's exactly why we're there.
"I think we're especially essential on the Gold Coast because crime is always an issue but as a new and growing community, it's not always easy to find the crucial support when you need it.
"It's also sad but true that sometimes when you go through an incredibly hard time, it becomes too tough even for your closest friends. You need people who understand and who can move through the pain with you.
"I have been incredibly lucky though - our friends have been amazing at helping us keep Mitch's memory alive and support us at every one of QHVSG's events.
"We're there to provide advocacy, 24-hour phone support and court support for members, and we also contribute to legislative reviews. We actually own the 'one punch can kill' trademark, we have our fingers in a lot of pies."
But at its heart, QHVSG is always about the people that people have lost.
And for Monique, just the question of who her big brother was brings out the emotions.
Despite being killed 11 years ago on April 9, 2009, just thinking about Mitch as a person, rather than a victim, has Monique struggling to speak through her tears.
"I'm sorry, every time someone asks what he was like, I just get overwhelmed thinking of how much I loved him," she says.
"He was just a normal country guy - flannel shirts, jeans and boots. But he was so loyal, kind and a great friend who would always help people out. He would mow lawns and clean airconditioning units for the elderly, he was just a good guy.
"He was nine years older than me, he always called me 'Bub', and I just idolised him.
"Above all, he was a family man. He honestly was the proudest dad and his family meant the absolute world to him.
"His son now lives down the road from me in Robina and his mum, Mitch's fiancee Traci, is still such a close part of our family.
"She took care of my own father when he was dying. Mitch knew how to get people together, he was our glue and we've stuck together for life … even after his death."
Originally published as 'That phone call that night just changed my life forever'