Hannah Clarke had every reason to be scared about what her estranged husband Rowan Baxter was capable of doing, her best friend reveals.
Hannah Clarke had every reason to be scared of estranged husband, Rowan Baxter — he told her how he had planned to murder a former partner and young son from a previous relationship.
Baxter’s advanced plans to kill his ex-partner and son years earlier hung over Hannah in her final months, which were marked by repeated contact with the system that failed to protect her.
Baxter’s history of impulsive and violent behaviour also included, on his own account, a road rage assault in which he “nearly beat someone to death’’, Hannah’s closest friend, Nikki Brooks, has revealed.
Before Baxter married Ms Clarke, he was in a relationship with another woman and had a son, Isaiah. Baxter told Hannah that when the earlier relationship ended, he was going to kill the woman and his son.
“Hannah had told me that he had a rope and something in his car,’’ Ms Brooks told The Australian.
“He’d driven to do it. He’d prepared what he needed to kill Isaiah and (Isaiah’s mother) and then didn’t do it. Isaiah would have been maybe seven or eight. It was the first time she was going to leave him as well.’’
Baxter told Hannah he had almost killed someone else in a separate incident when Isaiah was a baby, resulting in a conviction for grievous bodily harm.
“Hannah just knew there was a road rage incident — he lost his mind and nearly beat someone to death,” Ms Brooks said.
“He would make it out to be someone else’s fault, of course — someone did something and he acted the way he did because he had a baby in the car.’’
Isaiah Baxter lives in Brisbane and is now in his early 20s. He has sent personal messages of love and support to Hannah’s family, telling them of his own mental scars from Baxter’s treatment of him.-
“I knew he had it in him. I just thought, hopefully, any person would be able to pull themselves back.”
— Hannah Clarke’s best friend, Nikki Brooks-
This time, Baxter didn’t pull back, throwing petrol on Ms Clarke, 31, and the couple’s three young children, Aaliyah, 6, Laianah, 4, and Trey, 3, and setting them alight as they drove to school in Brisbane last Wednesday. All perished. Baxter, 42, died at the scene from self-inflicted wounds.
Baxter was not physically violent towards Hannah when they were together. But family and friends say the marriage was marked by emotional abuse and control and that Baxter was becoming increasingly erratic, culminating in an assault on Hannah after she left him. Hannah and Baxter had met while both were working at the Carindale PCYC, in Brisbane’s west. Baxter led boxing classes and Hannah ran classes for children.
They married in 2012 and set up Integr8 Fitness, a CrossFit gym at Capalaba, where they jointly ran morning and evening classes with clients who often became friends. Hannah was upbeat and full of energy, disguising the turmoil in her relationship.
On December 5 last year, she arrived at the gym distraught and told friends Baxter was somehow aware that she had phoned her mother. It was alarming because she had spoken to her mum, Sue Clarke, in private via her sister-in-law’s number, discussing her intention to leave Baxter.
Hannah was convinced Baxter was somehow monitoring her calls. She had been considering leaving for the past six months, and had been certain for the past month. Later that day at a cafe, Whisky Business, Hannah sat down with Ms Brooks and another female friend and resolved to leave her husband immediately. The women picked up the couple’s daughters from school and collected the bare essentials from the family home.
“Just a garbage bag of clothes, that’s it, and one toy for each kid to sleep with,” Ms Brooks said.
Weeks earlier, Hannah had spoken on the phone to an unknown counselling or domestic violence service, which advised her, “don’t rush it, don’t do it immediately, have a plan’’.
“She made sure she grabbed the kids’ passports, the kids’ school uniforms. I know she got those ideas from the people she’d been speaking to about two weeks earlier,” Ms Brooks said.
Baxter had been to a counselling session but Hannah confirmed he hadn’t discussed key issues. She concluded that no amount of therapy would make the marriage work. “The day after she’d left, people had made suggestions to her that she should go and apply for a DVO,” Ms Brooks said. “So she went and had a conversation with police and she said, ‘look, I’m not ready to file it yet, I want to verbalise it all’.”
Police said that was fine, they’d keep everything on file and were ready when she was. “I think she was just so stressed about agitating him. She was stepping on eggshells,” Ms Brooks said.
Hannah hoped to co-parent peacefully and to one day be friends with Baxter. Initially, she continued to do her gym classes, deciding to work until the scheduled end-of-school break.
When she wrote on the gym’s Facebook page that she was stepping away in 2020, thanking clients, Baxter deleted it within minutes, sent her an abusive message and put his own post up. It said the gym was closing.
On Christmas Day, Baxter was invited to see his children at the home of Hannah's parents, where she was staying, and lingered for hours. She was relieved he was going on a trip to Pottsville in NSW. She told Ms Brooks: “I think he needs to cool off for a few days, he’s very strange right now, he’s very unhinged.”
Baxter asked to see the children one more time before leaving town. So on Boxing Day, Hannah met him at Bulimba, where the children rode skateboards. They were leaving when Baxter started running to his car, daughter Laianah in his arms. He drove away from a screaming Ms Clarke, and kept Laianah for four days before police found him.
“The only reason we got her back is because a witness described the violent nature, throwing (Laianah) in the car, that she was unrestrained, that she was screaming with her face at the window, and that he sped off,” Ms Brooks said. “Hannah was hysterical, knowing, ‘I can’t do anything about it … we’ve got no agreement in place’.
“Someone, a total stranger, they didn’t even give their name because they were that scared of him, went to the police, freaked out by what they’d seen. They told the police they thought they’d witnessed an abduction.”
As a result, police told Hannah they were applying for a domestic violence order on her behalf. Hannah told friends that when she went to court by herself at Holland Park, Baxter had three lawyers. “She said how intimidating that was. Apparently the magistrate had a go at him and said ‘What are all of these guys here for, that’s not necessary’.”
At Ms Baxter’s next court appearance, on January 29, Ms Brooks and her husband attended for support. They were expecting Baxter to be there to fight the DVO, but he didn’t turn up.
Barred by the court
Baxter was barred from seeing his children after the Boxing Day snatching, but the protection order was varied, and on January 31 there was more trouble. That morning, Baxter dropped his two daughters at school then returned son Trey to Hannah at her parents’ home.
On the back seat, next to Trey, Hannah saw photographs of herself in her underwear. The images were from Baxter’s phone, sent by Hannah years earlier. Baxter had printed them onto A4 paper. “All she did is grab them and scrunch them up and take them out of the car,” Ms Brooks said. “He grabbed her arm, he’s really aggressively twisted it and held it around her back, and he’s holding her down. It was bad enough to sprain her arm.”
Hearing the commotion, Hannah's mother ran out of the house and screamed that Baxter was in breach of the domestic violence order. Baxter yelled abuse and drove off.
Hannah phoned police and told them she would take photos of her arm, bruised from a bracelet digging into the skin. She said she would be at the station as soon as she finished her shift at a shoe shop at Westfield Carindale, where she had part-time work.
Police visited her on her lunch break to make sure she was okay, and she made a statement later that day, Ms Brooks said.
Breaching a DVO is a criminal offence, and Baxter had also committed assault. Police told Hannah they were going to arrest him, but when they went to his house he wasn’t there.
Baxter was found when a sales assistant at Westfield Carindale informed officers she’d overheard him make a strange remark about being unable to enter the store because police were there.
“They realised it was him and arrested him on the spot and walked him out,” Ms Brooks said.
As far as Ms Brooks knows, Baxter was charged with assault and contravening a DVO and was due to appear in court in May. But the courts say they have no record of either charge or appearance from Baxter on these offences. Queensland police have refused to comment. The child safety department was notified of the assault by police, under mandatory reporting requirements.
Hannah's lawyer immediately moved to cut off Baxter’s access to the children again. Baxter had been fighting for increased time with the children, refusing to sign a consent order that gave him less than 50-50 custody.
Baxter’s own lawyer urged him to sign it, Ms Brooks said. They went into mediation, but Baxter would only sign a temporary parenting agreement.
“It was just about beating her, getting more than her. He stalled and he dragged out things.’’
Last day in court
Hannah was required to make another court appearance, believed to have been on the Monday before her murder, to get her name off the lease of her family home. “The landlord wouldn’t do it even though she had the DVO,” Ms Brooks said.
Hannah's grieving family and friends are now trying to prevent future attacks on women and children through their Small Steps 4 Hannah foundation. It will be symbolised by images of Hannah's feet, the only part of her body that wasn’t burnt when she was attacked by Baxter.
“We want everyone to know it literally can happen to anyone,” Ms Brooks said.