It’s January in Queensland, Australia, and single mom Sandie Gillette is out shopping with her two sons. Suddenly, a man approaches who appears shockingly familiar. And when he takes off his sunglasses, she is left in no doubt. She’s certain that it’s her long-lost husband – a man she last saw ten years earlier and 1,000 miles away.
The story began back in 2006, when Sandie and her husband, Russell Jenkin, were living in the Melbourne suburb of Werribee. From the outside, the couple appeared to be living a perfectly normal life. They shared a home in the sprawling neighborhood, some 20 miles from the city’s downtown, and had two young sons to care for.
On September 22, 2006, Ethan was four, and his brother, Charlie, was two. But even though the boys were still young, they were about to have their lives turned upside down. That day, Sandie and Russell got into an argument. And while Russell continued to watch some sports, Sandie took Ethan and Charlie into another room.
In the other room, the three settled down to watch a movie, with Sandie trying to put the argument out of her mind. But then, at about 9:15 p.m., she heard the sound of Russell’s Toyota Yaris reversing away from the house. Worryingly, he didn’t come back, either, and the hours ticked by.
Then the next day, there was a strange development. Someone had discovered Russell’s vehicle, abandoned at the Lara Australian rules football ground 18 miles away from his home. Inside, they found all of Russell’s possessions, including his wallet, his identification and a sum of cash.
But what could have caused Russell to disappear without a trace? Had the argument, which Sandie referred to as insignificant, really been enough to make him abandon his family? Or was something more sinister at play? Determined to get to the bottom of it all, Sandie took matters into her own hands.
According to Dennis Williams, a detective sergeant with the Wyndham Crime Investigation Unit, Sandie canvassed the neighborhood of Lara, hoping to uncover some clues to her husband’s disappearance. Apparently, she knocked on doors, spoke to potential witnesses and even designed and distributed flyers.
But as the days turned into months and then years, Sandie came no closer to finding out the truth. It wasn’t just Ethan and Charlie who were suffering, either. According to press reports, Russell’s own family were left in the dark, only able to speculate on what might have happened to their beloved brother and son.
For ten years, Sandie raised her boys alone, with no idea as to what had happened to the man they’d barely had time to know. What’s more, sadly, she never found new love, and Ethan and Charlie had to grow up without a father figure in their lives. Yet despite the family’s difficult situation, Sandie apparently did her best and claims that the boys have matured into decent young men.
Then, on January 27, 2017, their world would be turned upside down for a second time. By then, the family had left Werribee and moved to New South Wales, almost 600 miles away. However, at the time Sandie had taken Ethan, now 15, and Charlie, now 12, on a trip to the Sunshine Coast in Queensland.
That day, the family were enjoying a visit to the Caloundra Stockland mall, a retail complex in the coastal town of Caloundra, Queensland. At the time, they were more than 1,000 miles from Werribee, and seeing Russell again was something that Sandie never anticipated happening. Then they saw a sight that left them dumbstruck.
As Sandie, Ethan and Charlie left to return to their vehicle, they spotted a man walking across the parking lot. “We were coming out of the shopping mall, and he was coming towards us, casual-like,” Sandie told The Sydney Morning Herald in 2017. “We then got into the car.” However, this was no ordinary encounter.
Sandie quickly began to suspect that the man was none other than her long-lost husband. And as she observed him, he started to stare right back. “He ended up watching us just as much as we were watching him,” she told 7 News Online in 2017. Understandably, Sandie was too shocked even to speak.
Then, the man removed his sunglasses – and Sandie was left without any doubt. In that moment, she became sure that she was looking at the husband she hadn’t seen in ten years. “That was Russell,” she confirmed. However, numbed by the experience, she didn’t approach the man – although she was later quick to point out that he didn’t attempt to talk to them, either.
In any case, shocked, Sandie, Ethan and Charlie returned to their car, and yet as they were leaving they encountered the man once more. It seems that they got caught up in traffic and spotted him standing by a utility vehicle. According to Sandie, he was with a woman, too, although the mom didn’t manage to record the license plate on the car.
Even so, when the family returned home, they began to investigate. Curious, Ethan dug out an old photograph of his dad – to see if it really was the same man whom they had seen. “He looked up the missing person’s poster,” Sandie told The Sydney Morning Herald, “and he was 100 percent positive.”
Although the man in the parking lot was grayer and heavier than Russell had been when he seemingly walked out on his family, Sandie was sure that they were one and the same. And even though she could think of no reason why her missing husband might have been in Queensland, she acknowledged that he may simply have been on his way somewhere else.
But what could have caused Russell, now 47, to leave his family and never look back? To Sandie, the answer is a mystery. However, she now regrets not speaking to him when she had the chance. And although his actions have haunted the family for a decade, she is prepared to hold out an olive branch on behalf of their sons.
In fact, Sandie is hopeful that Russell will at least come forward and confirm that he is alive. “It’s always there, that not knowing,” she explained to The Sydney Morning Herald. “The boys would like to know him, and if he is out there, he doesn’t have to contact us – just the police. They know who he is, and they still think of him as their dad, and they want to know what happened.”
For Ethan, now a teenager, the prospect of seeing his dad again is a confusing one. But police have echoed Sandie’s view that Russell should get in touch. “It is absolutely not a crime to go missing,” Detective Sergeant Williams told The Sydney Morning Herald. “However, it is important to make contact with police to let us know you’re okay.”