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But Daniel Macklin has just clocked off from a forklift-driving shift in Bairnsdale, in eastern Victoria. Now, early on this Monday morning in Octoberthe year-old has driven to Shaving Point, a picnic area in nearby Metung, to give Jasper and Kiro a run and quick sausages cooked up on the public barbecue. He cruises past the Metung shops, past the yacht club, and — in a decision that still haunts him — past the Rosherville Road turnoff, his regular shortcut home to Swan Reach, 10 minutes away. He follows Metung Road up a hill, leaving behind the town lights.

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He passes the dog kennels that care for Jasper and Kiro and is now deep into farmland that gently undulates between Metung and the Tambo River. Then, rounding a soft bend 4. He hits the brakes. He finds it and steps out into the inky black. In the 15 minutes before the ambulance arrives, Daniel Macklin sits with the young woman in the middle of the night, in the middle of a road, in what feels like the middle of nowhere. When the ambulance arrives, throwing more light onto the scene, he realises with a lurching panic that this might be the woman he is currently dating.

He spots her handbag, sitting upright in the opposite lane, and searches for a phone, desperate to call an emergency contact. The screen comes alive with an image of the woman and an older man. This is not my lover. On the phone he sees no missed calls or messages. Eventually Macklin is taken to Bairnsdale, where he clears an alcohol and drugs test. Nineteen days earlier, the woman Macklin hit — year-old Ashleigh Petrie — had gone from an unknown court clerk to the focus of a media storm and legal controversy. The relationship was raised in the Victorian parliament and a complaint — later dismissed — was fired off about Higgins to the Judicial Commission, the oversight body for judges in the state.

Then, the day after Ashleigh died, there was silence. His report, which Good Weekend has seen, has not been made public. Higgins returned to the bench and — a few months later — to his long-term partner, Lurline Le Neuf. Hers is the back flat in a row of four small, s-style brick units. On a Saturday in early March, Theresa — straight blonde hair, striped top, jeans — welcomes me into her spotless unit, where the floorboards are shiny and Ashleigh is everywhere.

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She looks almost like a forest nymph; a beauty from another world. This is my second interview with Theresa, both conducted with a lawyer present. Ashleigh Louise Petrie was born inin Melbourne. John followed two years later. She was chubby — then, after a health kick, skinny. In years 11 and 12, at her high school in Hoppers Crossing, Ashleigh hit the books. Post-it notes bloomed around the house as she committed her studies to memory. She was uninterested in partying or boys. Ashleigh was a lover of inside jokes; bubbly, happy, generous. About seven months before she died, Ashleigh dragged her mother and brother around the city streets until 10pm, handing out hot cross buns to the homeless.

But with this generous heart came a trusting soul. I would have loved to have kidnapped her and spoken sense into her. The road where Ashleigh Petrie died. Credit: Melissa Fyfe. In late February I drive to Shepparton, a rural hub two hours north of Melbourne, to meet a man that Ashleigh trusted implicitly: Stuart Gowty, 50, her former boyfriend of five years.

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After lunch, Gowty — soft, friendly face, blue eyes, chambray shirt — stands with me on a Goulburn River walking track. We look across an expanse of lawn to a row of riverfront houses. Next door, with its extensive balcony, belongs to Higgins and Le Neuf. Before everything soured, the two couples were friends here, often socialising with neighbours on the lawn. We climb the timber stairs to his outdoor alcove.

Gowty stands, chain-smoking next to the barbecue. Hugo, his one-eyed black-and-brown cat, watches from an inside window ledge. Through the window I can see the closed roller blinds that block any view of Higgins and Le Neuf on their deck.

Gowty and Ashleigh met at Hoppers Crossing Bunnings in He was an manager there, she a casual salesperson.

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He was 44, she So it just blossomed from there, I guess. There were challenges.

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For a start, he was married. Also: mismatched energy levels. Ashleigh wanted to party until 5am. He was ready for a cup of tea and bed by 10pm. So we averaged out somewhere in the middle. In lateafter his marriage ended, Gowty moved back to Shepparton, his home town, and bought a picture-framing business. Ashleigh followed about four months later, commuting to Melbourne to study. She eventually switched to studying law online at the University of New England.

But the relationship was not smooth sailing. They broke up several times. There was one suicide attempt, which Gowty saw more as attention-seeking than a definite decision to end things.

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Then, in latehe noticed something between Ashleigh and his neighbour Higgins. It was at one of the neighbourhood gatherings, a bogan-themed party. Born inRodney Higgins worked for decades as a wharfie and union official. He ed the Labor Party in and was later a local branch president. Through the s, Higgins studied arts and law part-time and was briefly mayor of Moreland, an inner-north municipality.

Inafter separating from wife Lee with whom he has three daughters now aged in their 40sHiggins moved to Shepparton as a criminal lawyer and 16 months later met Le Neuf. In andHiggins ran for Labor in the federal and state elections respectively. He had little chance of winning over the conservative-leaning Shepparton locals in either election, but Labor needed to be on the ballot and someone had to do it. Back in Shepparton, Gowty grew ever more suspicious. Ashleigh seemed to always know when Higgins and Le Neuf were visiting Shepparton. Despite the hurt, a post-relationship friendship blossomed between Ashleigh and Gowty.

I pray for nothing more than for you to meet a nice guy your own age. The inner-east suburb of Richmond was now where Ashleigh called home. On the Saturday night of March 2,she went out to a local pub. She met a man there, and later that night an incident occurred that was deeply traumatising.

In distress, Ashleigh rang Gowty, who drove to Melbourne the next day. She rang Higgins, too — numerous times — but he was away with Le Neuf. Sensing something was wrong, they rushed to Richmond. But Ashleigh was also extremely distressed about the Richmond incident, says John.

She was a mess. She was bawling her eyes out. Their investigation ended. Credit: Jennifer Soo. Gowty, friends and neighbours gathered around her. Ashleigh and Higgins were now officially a couple, but Ashleigh continued to struggle. On June 3, a distressed Ashleigh rang Gowty.

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She was feeling insecure about her relationship with Higgins. She had taken a knife to her wrists while Higgins slept. Gowty called an ambulance to the Richmond apartment Ashleigh shared with a flatmate, and she was taken to hospital. She discharged herself later that night and took an Uber home. Two more ificant acts of self-harm followed in June and July, the coroner noted.

Theresa and John never saw Ashleigh as struggling with alcohol — and certainly not drinking alone. But they did witness Ashleigh and Higgins drinking heavily at places such as Crown Casino. Around this time, Le Neuf took out a restraining order against her Good Weekend asked why, but received no response. Things had been rocky, but in a few months, Ashleigh would get something she deeply coveted: a marriage proposal.

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