Police investigating missing Belgian backpacker Theo Hayez found a phone like his on the beach where he vanished – but only tracked down the owner this week.
Theo, 18, disappeared on May 31, 2019 after he was kicked out of the Byron Bay nightclub Cheeky Monkey’s on the NSW north coast.
Google and mobile phone data traced his movements to a beach at the foot of Byron Bay lighthouse before his phone mysteriously switched off and he disappeared.
Detectives launched an intensive hunt when the alarm was finally raised days later with repeated searches of the Cosy Corner beach where Google Maps last saw him.
Now the inquest into his disappearance has revealed police found a purple Oppo phone similar to the teenager’s at the location, but it was an older model.
Counsel assisting Kirsten Edwards had earlier told the inquest new information had been found in the case.
Police investigating missing Belgian backpacker Theo Hayez found a phone like his (similar to this one pictured) on the beach where he vanished – but only tracked down the owner this week
The route Theo took to Tallow Beach and Cosy Corner after he was ejected from Cheeky Monkey’s nightclub on the night he disappeared in May 2019
However no-one appears to have tracked down the owner of the phone…until this week.
Detective Senior Constable Phil Parker said he interviewed the registered owner of the SIM earlier this week who revealed she had lost the phone at a beach party at the spot on August 9, 2019.
Det Snr Con Parker said other sweeps of the area had also found a Nokia phone, golf balls, footballs, discarded bongs and numerous other items, but no trace of Theo’s Oppo R17.
He said he and Inspector Grant Erickson had discounted the phone soon after it was discovered but tasked others to find the real owner and return it.
However a recent check of the logs revealed no-one had been found until this week.
‘It was a darker purple phone, and it seemed to be, not smaller, but a thicker shape, like an old type of a phone as opposed to the R17 which is a bit sleeker type,’ he said.
‘I said to an officer, “Make the inquiries to get that phone back so we can rule it out.”‘
But he admitted: ‘There was no records on our computer system for that person and there were no further lines of inquiry to locate that person.’
He then tracked the owner down himself this week before taking the stand to give evidence at the inquest on Wednesday.
The inquest has so far heard from fellow backpackers, family members, friends and telecommunications experts in trying to piece together what happened to Theo on the night of May 31, 2019.
Earlier this week, the fellow Belgian backpacker who bought goon with Theo Hayez from a Byron Bay bottle shop the night he went missing has spoken of their last moments together.
Antoine Van Laethem met Theo at a barbecue at their hostel Wake Up! and the pair bonded about their shared hometown of Brussels, he told an inquest on Tuesday via video link.
On the day of Theo’s disappearance, Mr Laethem had gone for a long walk along the beach to the famous Cape Byron Lighthouse with another friend.
This is something he ‘might’ have discussed with Theo, who was last seen being ejected from the Cheeky Monkey’s bar at 11pm on May 31, 2019.
The police working theory is that Theo tried to climb cliffs at Cosy Corner beach, fell and was swept out to sea.
Why he walked in the opposite directions to the Google Maps route he had outlined back to his hostel, remains a mystery.
Antoine agreed the two from Brussels ‘clicked’ and later wrote in a police statement that Theo ‘struck me as someone who is open-minded and can speak easily to people’.
He recalled Theo was ready to leave Australia and was ‘pretty excited to go back home to meet his friends,’ and begin his engineering degree in September.
Theo Hayez was nearing the end of a six-month backpacking trip around Australia and was due to return to Belgium to take tests to do engineering when he went missing
The police working theory is that Theo Hayez tried to climb cliffs at Cosy Corner beach, fell and was swept out to sea at Byron Bay in May 2019
Theo Hayez was last seen being ejected from the Cheeky Monkey’s bar in Byron Bay at 11pm on May 31, 2019
Video footage showed the pair later searching a local bottle shop for ‘cheap wine,’ settling on a two-litre box of De Bertoli Rose for $11, which they brought back to the hostel and shared with others.
He thinks they both consumed about three glasses because they didn’t like the taste.
‘He didn’t seem that drunk or tipsy,’ Mr Laethem said.
The backpackers later caught a shuttle bus into town.
Mr Laethem said he remembered the night was particularly cold, and that the group never discussed taking drugs or showed any interest in doing so.
After the group gained entry into Cheeky Monkey’s Theo’s interactions with his new friend diminished and Mr Laethem said he had no idea he had been ejected.
So he sent him a Facebook message the following day with words translated to the effect: ‘Did you get home OK?’
Mr Laethem left Byron Bay on June 1 but later returned when Theo’s cousin Lisa Hayez reached out, and he helped police with their search.
Counsel assisting the inquest Kirsten Edwards asked if he had thought about his own theory as to what happened.
‘I don’t know. I can’t say, anything could have happened,’ Mr Laethem said.
The inquest continues.