Footage has emerged of detectives grilling an accused killer before he took his own life the day before his murder trial’s verdict was due to be read.
James Scott Church, 53, allegedly killed his ex-girlfriend Leisl Smith, 23, in 2012 after she claimed to a number of people, including his new partner Belinda Lees, she was pregnant with his child.
Church always denied any involvement in her disappearance, but his 68-day trial ended on July 8 before the judge could deliver a verdict.
Now, videos released to A Current Affair have shed light on detectives’ gruelling 10-year investigation as they repeatedly dragged Church back in for questioning after catching him in lies.
Ms Smith was last seen in CCTV footage clambering into Church’s white car near Tuggerah Railway Station on the NSW Central Coast on August 19, 2012.
Footage has emerged of accused killer James Church being interviewed by police over the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend
Church claimed he gave her a lift to Wyong, 10 minutes away, then drove home to spend time with his parents before heading to Ms Lees house.
But police captured his ute around the time in question on CCTV in Sandy Hollow, 187km north of the train station.
‘Your car was recorded at the camera two hours and 22 minutes after you collected Leisl from Tuggerah train station,’ the detective tells Church.
‘They’ve [then later] recorded your vehicle travelling south bound on the Golden Highway. How do you explain this?
Church replies: ‘I can’t can I.’
‘Are you sure you’ve got the right number plate?’
After asserting the car’s details are correct, the detective tells Church phone records show Ms Lees tried to call him several times during the period when he claimed he was with her.
‘If you were with her, why would she be trying to contact your mobile phone and your landline?’ the detective asks.
Church was accused of murdering Leisl Smith (pictured), who vanished from the NSW Central Coast in August 2012
‘The reason being that you took Leisl Smith up into the Hunter Valley and you murdered her!’
Appearing unsettled, Church says: ‘No. I haven’t murdered anyone. I don’t murder people.’
Church continues to tell the detectives their findings must be a ‘mistake’, prompting one of the officers to unload.
‘The day Liesl Smith goes missing, the day we say she has been murdered, it is another mistake?’
Church replies: ‘Well I do find it a bit strange that it was two days in a row.’
‘Yeah, we find it strange too,’ the detective counters.
The detectives put it to Church that he was motivated to murder Ms Smith because of his new relationship.
‘Because of your new relationship with Belinda, Ms Smith felt scorned,’ the detective says.
‘So you felt the only way to get rid of this threat was to murder Leisl.’
‘But what you don’t know, is that Leisl was never pregnant.’
With a scoff, Church again denies being involved and tells the detective the pregnancy revelation ‘doesn’t make any difference to me’.
The second detective then takes the lead demanding Church tell them the location of Ms Smith’s body.
‘We believed you murdered Liesl, we believe that her remains are located in the Hunter, and we want to know where she is,’ he says.
Sandi Harvey said Church was a ‘coward’ for taking his own life before his murder trial reached a verdict
James Scott Church, above, had pleaded not guilty to murdering Ms Smith during a 68-day judge-alone trial in the NSW Supreme Court. Following his death on July 7 Justice Fullerton said she could not, under the law, deliver a verdict
Looking up at the detective from beneath his cap, Church again maintains he is innocent.
‘I haven’t murdered anyone. I don’t know where she is.’
Phone records show Church and Ms Smith contacted each other 1804 times in the three months before she went missing, but he no longer tried to call her after she vanished.
Police believe Church did not reach out to her because he already knew she was dead and that he took her phone and messaged her family in a bid to make them believe she was still alive.
Taped phone calls later caught him berating Ms Lees for not supporting his alibi to police.
In a later police interview, Church changed his story and admitted to detectives he had lied during four earlier interrogations by denying he was in a sexual relationship with Ms Smith.
The case went cold for several years until detectives uncovered footage showing Church’s car travelling the day Ms Smith vanished, proving he could not have dropped her in Wyong.
Leisl Smith (pictured), 23, vanished from Tuggerah Railway Station on the NSW Central Coast on August 19, 2012
The Crown had alleged Church killed Ms Smith (above) and buried her body in the Upper Hunter Valley after she told people she was pregnant to him and because he wanted to save his new relationship with Belinda Lees
He was arrested in 2018 and was due to face court earlier this month, but now there will never be answers after he took his own life.
On what should have been the day of the verdict, Justice Elizabeth Fullerton told the NSW Supreme Court she would now never be allowed to pronounce Church guilty or not guilty because of his death on July 7.
‘I was really hoping that he would let us know, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t tell the truth,’ Ms Smith’s mother Sandi Harvey said.
‘He’s a coward. Just a coward.’
‘If I was innocent, I would fight every single day just to prove that I was innocent.’
The judge acknowledged the abated court proceedings would be frustrating for those who knew Ms Smith.
‘The law simply does not allow me to return a verdict, to publicly announce it, or to publish the very lengthy reasons which were ready to be published this morning,’ Justice Fullerton said.
Ms Harvey said she knew her daughter was dead and not knowing where she was buried remains the ‘hardest thing’.
‘Just to know her body is out there in the cold. She was just treated like nothing,’ Ms Harvey said.
Storm Smith (pictured) father of Leisl Smith, says he believes his daughter is still alive
TIMELINE OF TRAGEDY
August 19, 2012: Leisl Smith, 23, vanishes from Tuggerah Railway Station on the NSW Central Coast. She is seen in CCTV footage clambering into a white ute.
2018: Leisl’s former lover James Scott Church is charged with her murder.
May 24, 2022: Church has his bail continued at the end of a 68-day judge along trial in the NSW Supreme Court.
July 7, 2022: Scott, 53, is found dead in his home at Inverell in the state’s north, 24 hours before Justice Elizabeth Fullerton was to deliver her verdict.
July 8, 2022: Justice Fullerton says she is legally unable to deliver a verdict of guilty or not guilty because of Church’s death.
‘His [Church’s] family will have a funeral. They will bury him, or cremate him, or whatever they choose to do.
‘They will always be able to go there and say happy birthday. I don’t have that.’
Church, a farrier, had pleaded not guilty to Ms Smith’s murder in January this year and had been released on bail.
He stood trial before Justice Fullerton, sitting without a jury, in a hearing that ended on May 24, awaiting July 8’s verdict.
Ms Smith met Church as he lived a few houses away on their street, with the pair bonding over their shared love of horses before they began dating.
Her body has never been found and her bank accounts have not been touched since she went missing.
Ms Smith’s father has furiously protested that Church was not the killer – and he believes his daughter is still alive.
Storm Smith said he had seen his daughter after she initially disappeared and said she would be ‘very, very upset’ that Church was now dead.
‘I don’t think that he committed suicide means he killed my daughter,’ Mr Smith said.
‘She was in love with him and he was in love with her too.
‘He wasn’t my cup of tea, but she was old enough to make her own decisions.’
If you or anyone you know is in need of mental health support contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or via lifeline.org.au.