Theo Hayez: Belgian backpacker is dead but cause of death unknown

Belgian backpacker Theo Hayezdied by accident or at the hands of an unknown person in the NSW tourist mecca of Byron Bay three years ago, a coronial inquest has been told.

NSW Coroner Teresa O’Sullivan handed down her findings on Friday after an extensive investigation into the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of the 18-year-old traveller.

Mr Hayez was last seen at Byron Bay bar Cheeky Monkey’s at 11pm on May 31, 2019.

Phone data showed he searched for the way back to his hostel, but instead travelled in the opposite direction towards Tallow Beach.

A large-scale manhunt was launched after the young backpacker was reported missing six days later, with extensive searches of the land and sea by experts and volunteers.

After examining all of the available evidence, Ms Sullivan came to the conclusion that the 18-year-old had died around the time of his disappearance.

“I have come to the tragic conclusion that Theo is deceased,” she told the inquest on Friday.

Volunteers found a cap belonging to Mr Hayez in the national park near the track.

“The only trace of Theo that has ever been found was the grey Puma hat that he was wearing that night,” Ms Sullivan said.

The coroner ruled out suicide or intentional disappearance after noting the 18-year-old’s excitement for his impending trip home to Belgium as well as his close relationship with family and friends.

The first is that he “met with a terrible accident while he was alone” after phone data shows he walked along a path through the dense scrub in Arakwal National Park to reach Tallow Beach.

The theory posits that Mr Hayez tried to climb the “steep, slippery and unstable shale” from the beach to reach the headland below Byron Bay’s famous lighthouse. According to this timeline, the teen fell on the “very dangerous” climb and his body fell out to sea and was never recovered.

Between midnight and 1am, data from Mr Hayez’s phone showed it phone moved from the beach onto the headland and remained in that area until it disconnected.

However, the inquest was told it would have been out of character for the backpacker to try to make the “reckless” climb alone in the dark.

“Theo was a responsible and cautious young man,” Ms Sullivan said.

The court was told it was unlikely Mr Hayez, a tourist unfamiliar with the area, was able to find the “extremely dark” and “intimidating” track and follow the unclear path without assistance.

“It is difficult to accept he ended up at Cosy Corner (beach) by mistake,” Ms Sullivan said.

“It would have been readily apparent to him that he was going further and further in the wrong direction.”

The second theory suggests Mr Hayez met with “one or more persons” when he reached a cricket pitch near the start of a bush track and one of those people caused his death.

Phone data showed the backpacker spent nearly an hour on his phone at Tallow Beach, watching comedy videos on YouTube and sending short messages to his sister and a friend.

His behaviour was inconsistent with someone in danger or fearing for their life.

“There is certainly no evidence that someone would want to harm Theo and there is overwhelming evidence that he was a gentle and non-confrontational person,” Ms Sullivan said.

She said there was simply not enough evidence to substantiate or exclude either theory.

“I am unable to determine the cause or manner of Theo’s death,” she said.

The coroner told the court it was obvious that Mr Hayez had a “bright future ahead of him”.

“It is a tragic loss of a clever, gentle and thoughtful young man who was universally loved,” she said.

Ms Sullivan has ordered a review of the “significant legislative gaps, roadblocks and inconsistencies” that hamper effective missing persons investigations at a state, federal, and international level.

“Many of these legislative barriers are inexplicable and removing them could save lives and prevent the awful grief of ambiguous loss suffered by Theo’s family and many others,” she said.

The coroner emphasised the importance of technology in locating missing persons investigations and made sweeping recommendations aimed at improving police technological expertise and accessing data from multinational corporations like Google and location apps such as Uber.

Ms Sullivan said she hoped the $500,000 police reward would entice anyone with information about Mr Hayez’s death to come forward.


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