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Missing phone data may hold key to Belgian backpacker Theo Hayez's disappearance, inquest told – ABC News


A coronial inquest into missing Belgian backpacker Theo Hayez has heard there are a number of questions which “hold the key” to the 18-year-old’s disappearance. 

The young traveller was last seen leaving Byron Bay nightclub Cheeky Monkey’s on May 31, 2019. 

Data from his phone showed he searched directions back to his hostel near Belongil  Beach, but walked in the opposite direction towards Tallow Beach, near the Cape Byron Lighthouse. 

In her opening statement  Kirsten Edwards, Counsel Assisting the Coroner, said the key questions were whether he was alone and lost and died by misadventure trying to get back to his hostel, or whether he went to Tallow Beach for a reason.

She asked if Theo intentionally went to Tallow Beach, why would he do that? Was he alone, with someone else, or did he come across someone after being kicked out of the nightclub?

Ms Edwards said the information from Theo’s Google account, which was accessed by his family, had been “transformative” in the investigation and provided crucial evidence about his movements and actions after he left Cheeky Monkey’s.

People line up outside a nightclub.
Theo Hayez was seen leaving the Cheeky Monkey’s bar alone.(Supplied: Cheeky Monkeys)

She said Counsel Assisting had not been successful in accessing data from his phone through multi-national companies such as Snapchat and WhatsApp that could hold crucial information.

Why did Theo walk to Tallow Beach?

Ms Edwards said there was a lot of evidence to suggest he was a competent navigator, and it would have been easy for him to get back to the WakeUp Hostel, where he was staying. 

She said there was nothing on his Google activity to show he searched for Tallow Beach or the lighthouse, which was a popular tourist spot for backpackers.

Phone data revealed he stopped at the cricket nets on Tennyson Street for seven minutes. 

A young man in a white shirt smiling at the camera. Green trees behind.
Belgian backpacker Theo Hayez disappeared on the night of May 31, 2019.(Supplied)

The inquest heard the cricket nets were sometimes a hangout for people who take drugs.

He then took a route along the Milne track through bushland — which is not intuitive or sign-posted and would have been extremely dark.

Ms Edwards said the “complexity of the route” led to one of the theories that someone must have given him directions or been with him.

She said Google had been asked if anyone else had searched the Milne track that night, but it was unwilling to release data from other users.

Belgian authorities were able to use a technique known as geo-fencing to check for other mobile phones in the area and found none.

But the finer details of their search, such as whether the geo-fencing is limited to particular types of phones, cannot be shared without a legal assistance treaty that the Coroners Court cannot activate. 

“It’s an unacceptable situation that we can’t get access to what could be critical information about what was happening that night,” Ms Edwards said.

Why did Theo turn off his phone’s GPS service?

The inquest heard Theo travelled down the secluded Milne track, turning into even more isolated bushland, before making his way along sand dunes to Cosy Corner at the northern end of Tallow Beach.

Ms Edwards he turned off his phone’s GPS, about midnight, possibly to save battery.

Shortly afterwards, he was having a “light exchange” with a friend in French through Facebook Messenger and watching a clip of a French show he liked, indicating he had possession of his phone and felt safe.

“His phone stopped receiving data at this time from the Telstra towers, either because if was out of range or blocked from range or it was switched off or put into flight mode.

Three men smiling with thier arms around each other.
Father Laurent Hayez, Jean-Philippe Pector, and Theo Hayez in 2015.(Supplied: Jean-Philippe Pector)

“At 6.17am the phone started receiving data again. What this means is the phone at least didn’t go into the water.”

Slipped and fell theory

Ms Edwards said the working police theory was that he may have decided to walk up the grassy side of the Cape Byron cliff, towards the lighthouse.

She said that area of the cliff was “very dangerous” despite looking “deceptively easy” during the day and “many bad things have happened to people who have tried to do it”.

Ms Edwards noted it was a theory the family found hard to accept, given he was not a risk-taker and there would have been no visible track.

“It’s obviously dark and it’s dangerous and Theo’s family feel that it is completely inconsistent with the person they know that he would do something like that.”

She said if he had lost his phone and fallen off trying to find it, it would be possible for his body to be washed away without any evidence.

The court heard there had been two previously reported cases of that happening at Cosy Corner.

Earlier today Theo’s father Laurent Hayez said he would like the NSW government to issue a reward for information about his son’s disappearance.

The inquest heard the manner in which Theo was ejected from the nightclub caused his family concern.

“Theo’s ejection on his own, and without any chance to tell his friends, has caused his family an enormous amount of distress,” Ms Edwards told the hearing.

The inquest was adjourned for the State Coroner to visit several key locations in Byron Bay.



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