Caroline Stuttle from York was robbed and killed whilst backpacking in Australia in April 2002. She was just 19. Out of their grief, her York family created the Caroline Stuttle Foundation, helping to keep young backpackers safe. In this extract from his new book, Caroline’s brother Richard tells of the agony of learning his beloved sister was gone for ever
It was 4.30 a.m. when my mobile rang. I was in bed, but answered. No one I recognised, their voice hesitant.
“Yes?” I replied, snapping out of my sleepy haze.
“I am from the police and I am afraid I have some bad news.” A thousand thoughts flooded through my mind in that split second, but even if I had another 614,962,476 seconds to guess what he was about to tell me, I would never have got it. At the time, my naive mind knew bad things happened in this world, but never to us or to people we knew. “It’s about your sister, Caroline.” His voice was now solid and very serious.
Caroline was on a gap year in Australia with one of her best friends. What had the kid got herself into now? Probably arrested for something stupid or ran out of money.
The officer continued, “I’m so sorry to have to tell you this, but Caroline has been involved in an incident and she is dead.” I sat bolt upright. Surely, I wasn’t understanding this correctly. “Are you joking? What the hell are you talking about?”
“There has been a serious situation in Australia, and I am so sorry to have to tell you. She has lost her life. I am here with your mother, Marjorie.” I could hear uncontrollable sobbing in the background, which sounded like my mother, but I had never heard anything like it before. In those few moments my whole world shattered, and our lives were changed forever. “We are here at your home. Please don’t worry, we will make sure we do everything we can for your mother. One of my colleagues is with your father in Scarborough.”
“I don’t understand. What’s happened to Caroline in Australia?” I asked.
“I am afraid I don’t have many details at the moment. All I know is that there has been an incident on a bridge, Caroline has gone over the railings and unfortunately lost her life. Her friend Sarah is safe and with the police in Bundaberg.”
“OK, I will be home as soon as I can.”
Hanging up the phone, I just stared at it. I had no idea what to do with myself, no idea what to think. I was stuck in a French ski resort and it was still the middle of the night. Absolutely nothing I could do until morning. I felt completely powerless.
After a few moments my mind caught up, still trying to process the conversation. There was no way this could be true. What the hell had just happened? I slumped down on the edge of the bed, numb and in complete disbelief. I couldn’t feel anything. Looking down at my fingers, they had no sense of touch, nothing felt real. I couldn’t comprehend what I had just heard. I felt lightheaded and burst into tears.
In those life-changing few moments, a piece of my heart had been ripped out and I knew could never be replaced.
A poignant parcel
Outside our home the media had congregated hoping for an interview. The story of an English backpacker, travelling in Australia, who had been thrown from a bridge in Bundaberg spread across the country making the national news here and in Australia.
I can honestly say that I never thought anything like this would ever happen to our family. There are horror stories every day in the news, horrific events all over the world but we are emotionally detached, we have to be, or we’d go insane. I used to share fleeting thoughts of sympathy for the people involved, not really understanding the ripples of devastation that happened around every tragedy. It was all too real now, and I knew exactly what death and murder can cause to loved ones, family and friends.
The post had been delivered that morning and someone had put it aside for us. A carefully wrapped parcel sat on our kitchen worktop, postmark Australia. I knew immediately from the handwriting it was from Caroline. We couldn’t open it, none of us were brave enough. We just couldn’t take any more. She must have sent it last week.
It was all too much, and I had to escape upstairs. Caroline’s bedroom door was open, her room was next to mine. My heart went through the floor, tears welled up in my eyes again and my throat closed. Wave after wave of devastation bombarding me with extreme pain and emotion. I couldn’t go in.
After looking out of the window on the landing for a while I plucked up the courage. Steadying myself, I took a deep breath and walked in. She had, of course, left it tidy before her travels. It was completely unreal, the last time I stood here she was alive. Everything in the room had been touched by her. She had carefully placed all her ornaments and trinkets on the shelves, her books had bookmarks and folded corners where she was reading and researching for university. The room still had her smell and energy, I felt as if she could just walk in at any moment. I didn’t want to touch anything, so afraid I would be destroying what was left of her delicate essence. It was all we had left. Her favourite teddy, a little battered lamb I had bought her many years before, was still sitting on the window ledge. I picked it up and held it to my chest, my legs gave way and I slumped on the floor and wept.
Over time, the devastating heartache and chaos of that first week has faded, but the fact will never change; it will always be the most horrendous week of our lives. I remember moments where we had an overwhelmingly strong feeling of wanting to do something positive in Caroline’s name. We all knew a happy, vibrant, intelligent girl, who could make us laugh and tell a good story. We felt her life force was too powerful just to let go. Through all the pain we could see she was doing what she had always dreamt of, exploring the world and living her life to the fullest.
Mum and I talked. We had no idea what we were going to do or how we were going to do it, but Caroline was going to live on. She would want us to help people.
Death can strangely unite people and they become driven by loss. Well meaning ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances, just like us. We wanted to prevent what happened to Caroline from happening to other young backpackers, and to stop other families going through what we were experiencing. We wanted to make a change and create something positive out of our tragedy. Somewhere within those initial conversations, a spark of an idea came to light. We made the decision to start a charity and the seeds were sown for what would become ‘Caroline’s Rainbow Foundation’.