The sleepless nights don’t stop for Jean-Philippe Pector, the godfather of missing Belgian backpacker Theo Hayez.
“When I wake up at night, my brain does not stop working on what should I do, or is there more to do?” he says.
As the one-year anniversary of the disappearance of Hayez approaches this weekend, there is still a sense of disbelief among the family about the nightmare they are in.
“In my mind, somewhere, I don’t want to believe that it happened — I don’t know if it’s a way to protect myself,” says Mr Pector, who lives in Victoria’s Otway Ranges and has been co-ordinating efforts in Australia on behalf of Hayez’s parents.
The hunt for answers will not stop, he says.
“Until we think that we have nothing more to do, we will still have the energy to continue.”
‘It’s not finished’
In just a few days’ time, the coronavirus travel ban will be lifted across NSW and tourists will begin to trickle back into the coastal tourist hotspot of Byron Bay.
About 95,000 backpackers visit Byron annually — and a year ago, it was business as usual.
Life was also normal for the family of Hayez, a 19-year-old who was having the time of his life on a great Australian adventure before he was due to return home to Belgium to start uni.
Just days later, however, the Hayez family was plunged into an unimaginable new world of unrelenting anguish, pain and loss.
Hayez was last seen leaving a bar on the night of May 31.
According to GPS tracking of his phone, he headed up to Cosy Corner, a beach on the southern side of Cape Byron a few kilometres out of the town centre — and then he vanished.
On June 6, his mother, Vinciane Delforge, raised the alarm after she hadn’t heard from him in days and the inconceivable horror began to unfold.
Despite a widespread search and investigation by police and dedicated volunteers from the local community, what happened to Hayez is still unknown.
“It is obviously really, really painful for everyone,” Mr Pector says of the anniversary.
“It’s been a really tough and long journey up to now, and it’s not finished.”
New appeal for information
Hayez’s mother and father, Laurent Hayez, have asked for privacy around the anniversary, the pain too confronting to deal with publicly.
In a statement, however, they launched a fresh appeal for information and a website, Looking4theo.com, with the hope that somehow, somewhere new evidence might come to light.
“One year on, we believe there is much more to Theo’s story than has been brought to light,” the parents said.
“We are begging for witnesses to come forward.”
The case was referred to the coroner in September and although communication and the speed of investigation has been “frustrating”, it is hoped the inquiry will pursue fresh lines of inquiry, Mr Pector says.
The official police line is that Hayez wandered off and fell off the cliffs into the water, a theory disputed by the family who say he was not a risk-taker.
“We are still working with the fuel, with the hope that we may still have some kind of new information that will unlock the mystery,” says Mr Pector.
‘Know that you’re not alone’
Loren O’Keeffe is the founder and CEO of the Missing Persons Advocacy Network, an organisation she set up after her brother Dan went missing in 2011 in a bid to improve support for families.
She has been working with the Hayez family and says the one-year marker is simply “brutal”.
“The first year is frantic, full of tasks — a nightmare, but a busy one with many distractions and activities,” she says.
“The more that time passes, the less adrenalin you have, the less momentum you can maintain, the further away from that hope of reunion you feel.
She says families can feel disconnected from the public, as interest from the media and volunteers dissipates.
“After a year, people feel like hope is gone, or faded too much to be compelled to get involved.
“And that loss of support — real or imagined — is devastating.”
She says the anniversary is an important opportunity to remind the public to continue to think of Hayez.
“Even if those actions of compassion don’t lead to him being found, the impact they have on those left behind is immeasurable,” she says.
“To know that you’re not alone, and that others care is very powerful. It can be enough to keep getting out of bed each day.”
In the statement, Hayez’s parents thanked the public for their support and asked people to keep him in their “hearts and minds”.
“The generosity of strangers has blown us away and continues to help us endure this nightmare,” they said.
The story of the Hayez family triggered an enormous groundswell of support, with people touched by the connective forces of a tragedy befalling the sweet, bright-eyed young backpacker and the raw grief displayed so transparently by Laurent Hayez.
Mr Pector has been friends with Laurent Hayez since school.
One of Mr Pector’s two children, his daughter Morgane, 9, had a close relationship with Hayez, who she saw as a big brother, and frequently asks “why him?”
“No one deserves a story like that, but he was such a nice young man with so much potential,” he says.
“You don’t understand how it’s possible that someone like him has gone though some kind of misadventure.”
In the information on the new website, it says Hayez was due to fly home on June 13.
In September, he was to start a degree in engineering specialising in mechanical technologies, pursuing his interest in the environment and the dream of inventing a car with zero impact on the planet.
Elsewhere on the website, an open letter by the family — the parents and Theo’s younger brother, Lucas — says they still have hope.
They also publicly acknowledge for the first time that he may have died.
“If, however, Theo has left this poor Earth, and is currently having fun with whales, turtles and dolphins, Vinciane, Lucas and I, while looking at the beautiful smile of Theo on the pictures of his Australian adventure, are relieved to see that he spent the last 6 months (of his too short life) in a beautiful country, meeting wonderful people!” it says.
“Thank you to the people of Belgium, Australia and elsewhere for the attention and love that you bring to Theo!
“You are not mistaken! He deserves it!”