DECEMBER 17 2016
A routine house call for two police officers on a drizzly Monday morning in October. A mother, Maria Claudia Lutz, has failed to drop off her two children, Martin and Elisa, at their primary school, St Lucy’s in Sydney’s Wahroonga, or turn up for her volunteer shift at the school canteen. A concerned friend and canteen co-worker, Nichole Brimble, had called 000 half an hour earlier, explaining that Maria wasn’t answering her mobile and hadn’t responded to a text message the afternoon before, which was totally out of character.
The officers aren’t at all apprehensive as they pull up in front of 68 Sir Thomas Mitchell Drive, a 1980s brick veneer bungalow on a corner block. Reports like this come in all the time: the neighbour who hasn’t been seen for days, the elderly loved one who hasn’t returned calls, the mother who has forgotten to notify the school that her kids are ill. The majority of “welfare checks” end happily, especially here in Davidson, a drowsy, middle-class suburb in Sydney’s north.
It’s 10.30am and as the two policemen walk up the long pathway towards the house, sitting behind a manicured hedge and shrubs, all is quiet. Perhaps too quiet. Certainly no telltale sounds of a domestic. Just the pattering of light rain on the tiled roof. They knock on the door. No answer. They knock again. Nothing. They yell out. Silence. One of the young officers phones Nichole Brimble, the worried caller, to reassure her that her friend’s house is locked up. No signs of a disturbance. Everything appears to be fine.
But Brimble is not satisfied. Isn’t the family dog, a bull mastiff called Tequila, in the yard, she enquires? And what of Lutz’s car and her husband Fernando Manrique’s car? She describes their colours, makes and models. Are they there? The officer confirms that both vehicles are parked in the street. That’s very strange, a worried Brimble tells the officer, who explains that he’s not authorised to break into the house unless there’s evidence of imminent danger.
Now somewhat alarmed, one of the officers unlatches a black Colorbond gate and peers directly through clear French doors on the side of the house. What he sees hits him like a thunderbolt: a middle-aged man, slumped in the TV room, apparently lifeless beneath a whirring ceiling fan. The officers frantically burst into a bedroom at the rear of the property, where they’re confronted with an even more shocking sight: Lutz, lying lifeless in her bed beside her 11-year-old daughter, Elisa. In the next bedroom, more heartbreak: her dead 10-year-old son, Martin, with Tequila limp on the floor.
But there is something else as well. Something in the air, odourless and colourless, circulating with every deadly turn of the ceiling fan in each room.
The policemen return to their car to secure backup – words barely able to sum up what they’ve just witnessed – and within a short time, the street is cordoned off with crime-scene tape and the house is swarming with the homicide squad, paramedics, and fire and rescue. Officers in white forensic suits wearing protective masks file in and out of the side and front doors. Others climb over the roof, exploring the source of the gas. A HAZMAT vehicle is parked out the front.
The residents of Davidson are used to the occasional drone of helicopters brought in to search for bushwalkers in the neighbouring Garigal National Park. But today, Monday October 17, 2016, the helicopters are from the major TV stations, converging on the site because of a major breaking news story. As neighbours emerge from their homes, trying to comprehend the incomprehensible, the drizzle becomes a steady downpour.
On the next corner, two women hug, while a white-haired man in a red sweater holds a hand to his mouth. Only days before, neighbours had seen the children from number 68 jumping on the trampoline in their front yard. They’d also seen the dad walking the family dog around the football oval opposite.
The word among the small army of journalists now at the scene is that there has been a murder-suicide. A press conference is held in the street at 2.30pm. “It’s a horrific thing that has happened to this suburb,” says police superintendent Dave Darcy. “The mother in particular is held in very high regard in the community. Since coming to Australia they have made a significant contribution to how we live.” He says that the Colombian-born parents are not known to police, and confirms what reporters have already heard – that both Australian-born children had autism.
The mystery of the deaths is compounded by the fact there is no suicide note, and the hard drive of the family computer has been removed and burnt. Why would Fernando Manrique, a successful businessman who had built a comfortable life for his family, and his vivacious wife, Maria Lutz, take their own lives, and those of their children? Was she complicit in their deaths? Were the children’s needs a burden? Was this a pact between the parents?
Already, the tragedy seemed to take on a larger, symbolic significance. The parents of two kids with autism, perhaps overwhelmed by the day-to-day grind of bringing up children with complex special needs, taking the last awful step to deal with it all. But as the rumours circulate, and as the bodies are wheeled out of the house that night at 10pm, one small group of local women believe with certainty that they know who was really behind the deaths. They are Maria Lutz’s close friends, a small group of mothers at St Lucy’s in whom the 43-year-old confided and who knew what was happening inside the Manrique-Lutz household in the weeks leading up to the tragedy.
To think he was at home all that time and planning it while playing with the kids and bringing them balloons and making them dinner …It just makes me sick.
it’s three weeks since their best friend and her family were found dead, and a group of women at St Lucy’s Catholic School, nestled on a quiet residential street not far from the prestigious Knox Grammar, are leading me to a small magnolia tree. Students from Elisa’s and Martin’s years have planted the tree in a garden lining the school driveway in memory of their two schoolmates.
The balloons, flowers and cards that lined the front entrance of the school in the days after the tragedy are now gone, but this tree will be a living memorial to the family in the years to come. Lutz’s friends are keen to set the record straight – Maria was not struggling as the mother of two children with autism. She was a warrior who’d never hurt her children.
“When we first met and I found out she had two children with autism, I just remember going, ‘Gosh, Maria, how do you do this?’ ” recalls Peta Rostirola, sitting at a long timber table in a sunlit room at St Lucy’s with her friends. “And she would say, ‘My children aren’t dying, they are alive and well.’ She fought every day to make their lives better.”
Every morning Lutz would pile Martin and Elisa into her car for the half-hour drive to St Lucy’s. She was an integral part of the running of the school, helping with fundraising, swimming lessons, literacy programs and excursions. “Her kids weren’t the best sleepers and she would come in and everyone in this school must have told her 20 times to go home and have a sleep,” says Rostirola. “And the next thing she’d be saying, ‘Do you need help on that excursion? I’ll come.’ “
Valeria Buccheri recalls how keen she and Lutz were to get their children into St Lucy’s, a highly regarded special-needs school that has only 130 students and class sizes no bigger than 10, in which more than half the students are non-verbal. When they both applied for kindergarten places for their children in 2010, only 20 places were available for 80 applicants. When a letter from the school arrived, Lutz called Buccheri so they could share the news about their children’s futures. “I ran down the stairs and we opened the letters together,” Buccheri remembers with a warm smile. “We both were approved.”
Once her children settled into St Lucy’s, Lutz discovered her “Australian family”, say the women. The other mothers were drawn to her effervescent and warm nature, and having children with similar challenges proved to be an incredibly bonding experience, says Buccheri. Lutz treated all the St Lucy’s students as if they were her own. After the school bell rang at the end of the day, kids would emerge to find Lutz, with her dazzling smile and arms outstretched, waiting to greet them at the gates. She knew of each child by name, what medication they were on, what their conditions were and what they could and couldn’t eat. In the months before her death, says Buccheri, she had finished studying to become a teacher’s aide.
In the days afterward, police told Lutz’s friends they had a very good picture of what happened, and that there was little doubt this was the act of one person. Yet the hurtful speculation continued, eventually driving Rostirola to write to news organisations, calling them out for their focus on Martin’s and Elisa’s disabilities.
“Maria was so loved here and it was like a family for her,” says Rostirola. “She got so much back from all the kids. The more she gave, the more she got back.” Manrique, who worked full-time, rarely visited the school. A photo of him at a school awards function with an arm around Martin was several years old.
After my chat with the mothers, principal Warren Hopley takes me on a tour of the school. He explains how a bursary has been set up in Martin and Elisa’s name to help financially struggling parents send their kids to the school. As we walk through the original building at St Lucy’s, a former convent, Hopley points to Martin’s artwork hanging on the walls outside their classrooms. By this point, half a dozen people have told me about Martin’s gift for painting and Elisa’s high level of reading comprehension.
Deputy principal Susan Jones’s first day at St Lucy’s was also Elisa’s first day. Jones speaks fondly of the 11-year-old and her younger brother, recalling their individual conditions with compassionate detail. “They both had really strong personalities,” recalls Jones.
I meet the mothers for a second time in November over sandwiches in Kerrie Dietz’s dining room. Lutz’s friends have spent many hours going over the events of the past several months in painstaking detail. They’ve been looking for any sign they missed that could have alerted them to the imminent tragedy.
Maria Lutz and Fernando Manrique met as teenagers, both the offspring of educated, middle-class parents in Bogotá, Colombia. In a city besieged by drug gangs – Lutz would describe being sent home from school because bombs had exploded nearby – Manrique saw himself as her “protector”. For this, Manrique, the youngest of 10 children, was brought into the comforting fold of Lutz’s family (she was one of six).
In his late teens, after inheriting a significant sum of money, Manrique went though a wild oats phase of fast cars and hard partying before settling into his compulsory military service. The couple then completed university degrees; Fernando in engineering, Maria in law.
Lutz spent a few years as a criminal lawyer, visiting hardened crooks in Bogotá’s jails before travelling to Australia with Manrique to study English. After arriving in 2000, the couple fell in love with the country. They were granted skilled work visas, then citizenship
Five years after arriving in Sydney, as Lutz worked to have her law degree recognised in Australia, she fell pregnant with Elisa, who was born in May 2005. In the same year the couple purchased their first home on the corner of a cul-de-sac in the family-friendly suburb of Davidson. The single-level home was rundown but, with a family on the way, Manrique set about renovating the property, spending his weekends painting, tiling, erecting fences and gardening.
Martin was born in August 2006. Like Elisa, he also presented behaviour consistent with autism. For some, the first years of life for a child with a disability can be the hardest. Lutz took her children to the Shepherd Centre, an early intervention service for children with hearing and learning difficulties, where she met Valeria Buccheri. “It was really beautiful because we actually could go there as a group of young mums who didn’t have much experience with kids,” recalls Buccheri.
In 2013, Manrique, who held a managerial role at Fuji Zerox Australia, accepted a retrenchment package. Coincidentally, Lutz’s parents were in Australia at the time and encouraged their daughter and son-in-law to use the money to return to Colombia. The family would be well off back home, able to employ staff to help with Martin and Elisa. Manrique contacted friends from his university days, exploring work opportunities he could pursue if the family returned home.
But Lutz wasn’t interested. The altitude in Bogotá could have implications for Elisa’s asthma and, as a lawyer who had been forced to face the reality of the city’s underworld, she was worried about the safety of her kids. She strongly wanted to bring them up in Australia. “She actually fought her parents to say no,” Buccheri says.
“She could have gone back,” Rostirola adds, “and had a nanny and everything, but that is not the life Maria wanted.” Instead, Manrique became a partner in a fledgling data processing logistics firm called Drake Business Logistics. According to Rostirola and Brimble, he made an agreement with Lutz that he’d spend two years building up the business until it got to a point where their children would be supported for life. This would involve a lot of travelling but at that point, he assured her, he would hand over the reins.
“It was all thinking about the kids and the future,” Buccheri says. “And then, after a couple of years, she was starting to say, ‘Well, now is the time you said that you’d withdraw and not go overseas as much.’ She told Fernando they needed him at home.” Instead, his time away from home and his family only increased.
Maria Lutz hardly kept it a secret from her friends that her marriage was in serious trouble. Manrique would go away for up to three weeks at a time, often opting to go overseas when the children were home during school holidays. “She would never have time to organise respite because it would be a last-minute thing – he would just go,” says Rostirola.
In August last year, according to Rostirola, Lutz went to see a solicitor about how she could make a separation as smooth as possible for the children and her husband. She wanted to know how to untangle everything they had set up, including a trust the pair had established in case anything ever happened to them and Martin and Elisa were left alone without family in Australia.
Lutz’s friends say she wanted to make sure the children were going to be looked after and to learn what her rights were in Australia, and that she chose not to tell Manrique about her meeting with the solicitor. “She couldn’t afford the emotional upheaval of presenting that to him because she needed to deal day-to-day with what she had,” says Brimble.
Though Lutz complained about her husband’s absences, she never let on about any demons he may have been facing. One small comment about him being “not in a good place” was the closest she ever came to letting friends know how he was feeling.
In a memory that brings an affectionate chuckle from her friends, Lutz drew on her law skills and drew up a six-month contract for Manrique to adhere to as husband and father. He agreed to its terms, but Maria privately suspected he would fail to honour them.
Following a sports day at St Lucy’s on August 17 this year, the tension between Lutz and Manrique boiled over. Martin – or “Tin” – had just started a new medication that was lowering his blood pressure. At the same time, he was being weaned off other medicines that were affecting his appetite.
Lutz called Manrique at work three or four times, asking him to pick up Elisa so she could take Martin to an appointment with a specialist that afternoon. She made the final call after Martin fainted and was en route to hospital in an ambulance. Manrique refused to pick up Elisa. He was too busy in a meeting, he told her.
Brimble and Dietz followed Lutz to hospital while Rostirola collected Elisa and her own son from school. At the hospital, an exasperated Lutz declared that she was getting a divorce. “Maria was done, that was the last straw,” Rostirola says. “It wasn’t anything about Maria wanting him there for her; she wanted him there for the kids and he just couldn’t even do that.
“She kept saying, ‘I have to untangle everything and it is taking me ages because I have to finish my study, deal with the kids and Fernando is away all the time.’ ” When confronted about his lacklustre response to his son’s medical emergency, Manrique was reportedly uncomprehending. “He was completely shocked at the fact their marriage wasn’t working,” Dietz says.
The phone call came out of the blue. Manrique was in the Philippines, where he was setting up an office. He told Lutz, who in turn told Brimble and Rostirola, that he wanted to come home for the school holidays – a rarity – to help her get organised before he moved out.
He flew home on September 22, a day before the end of the school term. In an unnerving change in behaviour, Manrique turned into a model father in the following few weeks. He cooked dinner, took his children to appointments with specialists, played with them in the yard and was continuously present.
During the second week of the holidays, after putting all the children to sleep – a difficult task – Manrique engaged in a very loud phone call at 2am. “Maria said she lost it,” Brimble reports. “She got so angry with him and told him he had to get out right then and there.” Manrique stayed at a hotel for two days but returned, asking for three weeks back at home until he found somewhere to live. He was planning to move to the Philippines and would return to Australia to see the children regularly.
It was at this point that police believe he began the process of rigging up a system in the ceiling that would seep poisonous gas through the family home. Police sources say he set up an account with a gas company and obtained two large bottles of carbon monoxide, which he kept away from the family home as the school holidays continued.
Martin and Elisa returned to school on October 11, as did Lutz with her volunteering duties, leaving Manrique at home alone. When Rostirola knocked on Lutz’s car window as she picked up the kids from school on the first day back, her friend told her about her husband’s abnormal behaviour, sarcastically labelling him “father of the year.”
On the following Wednesday, during a walk to grab coffee with Brimble, Lutz said she was so tired from trying to get Martin to eat and his medication just right she didn’t have the heart or energy to ask her husband if he’d found somewhere else to live.
During that week, the children returned home to find Manrique holding party balloons for them. On Friday October 14, Lutz, Brimble, Rostirola and Dietz met for coffee as usual in Turramurra. Lutz was her normal upbeat self, endearingly undeterred that her loud and entertaining storytelling was drawing stares from the older, more conservative customers in the upmarket cafe.
She spoke enthusiastically of meeting with a local area co-ordinator from the National Disability Insurance Scheme. After spending months putting together a proposal for funding, she was in line to get a support worker for five hours a day, meaning she could return to work.
The friends parted ways after coffee, expecting to see each other at St Lucy’s the following week. On Saturday at 11.48am, Lutz sent Brimble a text message about cleaning a scuffed Converse sneaker. Brimble lightheartedly messaged back: “You better clean the other one or you will look funnier than normal.”
That was the last she heard from Lutz. Brimble sent another text message on Sunday afternoon, asking her friend if she needed any groceries in preparation for making tacos at the school canteen the following morning. She received no response.
The next morning, Brimble turned up to an empty canteen. This was unusual, as Lutz was always there first. Martin and Elisa weren’t at school, either. After ringing Lutz repeatedly, then trying a few friends and local hospitals, Brimble called the police. She knew that Lutz would at least have messaged her if, for some reason, she couldn’t come in. She would have touched base. That was the kind of friendship they had.
Back at St Lucy’s, principal Warren Hopley received a call from police and asked Nichole Brimble, by now highly anxious, into his office. “To tell Nichole … well, it was probably the hardest thing I have ever had to do,” he recalls. “She just buckled over.”
It then fell to Brimble to tell her remaining friends, Lutz’s second family. “As soon as Nic rang and told me, I knew [Manrique] had done something,” Rostirola says. “I think all of us knew straight away: he’s killed them.”
As Dietz notes, the marriage had been in trouble for some time, but it was only in August that Lutz had asked her husband to leave. “The final act of ‘I don’t actually need you any more’, for a man who was very much in control of his world, his life, his business, must have led to his losing control.”
Observes Rostirola, “Maria had this amazing group of friends and connections here, and she had a good life and he didn’t.” The distress the women feel breaks through when they reflect on the orchestrated nature of the murders. “This was three weeks at least of planning,” Brimble says with a breaking voice. “To think he was home all that time and planning it while playing with the kids and bringing them balloons and making them dinner … It just makes me sick.”
Jairo Campos met Fernando Manrique while they were both working at Fuji Xerox in North Ryde about five years ago. Campos became one of Manrique’s closest friends, one of his only friends, the pair forging a close bond over their similar backgrounds in Colombia.
Many lunch breaks were spent shopping at Macquarie Shopping Centre, buying clothes and toys for Martin and Elisa. Campos remembers Manrique as a private but warm man who cared deeply for his children. “I think we built this kind of friendship and he was able to talk about his kids with me,” he says over coffee during his lunch break in North Sydney.
“Actually, there were a lot of people who worked with him who were not aware of him having kids or him having kids with their conditions. He was not open about that.”
After Manrique’s managerial position at Fuji Xerox was made redundant and he left to work at Drake Business Logistics in 2014, Campos kept in contact, the pair talking regularly on the phone, sharing their business goals and ambitions. Eventually, Manrique opened up about his marriage. “He called me one afternoon, told me he’d been travelling a lot, he’d been busy and things were not working with Maria and they’d decided to separate.”
But on the last occasion Campos saw his friend – over lunch in the CBD for Manrique’s 44th birthday in late September, after Lutz had told him she wanted him to leave – he made no mention of divorce. “He was normal, nothing out of the ordinary,” Campos recalls. “He didn’t say anything different, it was the usual Fernando. He talked a lot about work and the company.” There was never any mention of depression or evidence of internal struggle, and Campos says the only medication Manrique told him he was on was for his cholesterol.
Campos can’t imagine his dear friend, a “very professional and happy person”, as someone capable of killing his family. “He always got what he wanted, he was a really ambitious person. You wouldn’t expect someone like him getting into something like this because he was always looking for more and enjoying things.” Despite his unfathomable actions, Manrique didn’t present as a monster, Lutz’s friends say. He wasn’t violent or aggressive, but rather a quiet, hard-working man whom Martin and Elisa were happy to see when he was home.
Police spent days at the Davidson home crawling through the roof cavity to deconstruct the system set up to cause the deaths. Hosing connected to gas bottles outside the home had been run through the ceiling and linked to fans throughout the house. The system was elaborate and had been carefully planned prior to installation. Exactly when Manrique made the decision to kill himself and his family is anyone’s guess.
A week after arriving in Australia from Bogotá, Manrique’s sister, Patricia, and Lutz’s parents, Alicia and Ernesto, and brother, Alejandro, farewelled their loved ones. Both families wanted a collective funeral, one in which four coffins were set side by side in the Holy Name Catholic Church at Wahroonga.
Songs in Spanish echoed throughout the church on a sunny late October day while St Lucy’s staff placed paintbrushes and toy figurines on top of Martin’s and Elisa’s small, gloss-white caskets, which sat between their parents’ two large timber coffins.
Between the prayers and communion, a collective intake of breath rippled through the pews when Father David Ranson was brave enough to pose the question torturing everyone. “Where was God in the silence that filled Fernando and Maria’s house that Sunday?” he asked as four candles burned before him. “Where was God for Maria Claudia and Fernando and for Eli and Martin?”
Editor’s note: The investigation into the case is ongoing, with an inquest possible in 2017. Lifeline: 13 11 14
To donate to the St Lucy’s scholarship fund in memory of Eli, Martin and Maria Lutz, visit stlucys.nsw.edu.au.
Source : Sydney Morning Herald