Inquest hears of Hannah Clarke’s attempts to save her children from her estranged husband

The inquest heard Rowan Baxter murdered the family and killed himself by setting their car alight

The day before Hannah Clarke and her children were killed, her estranged husband called a counselling service to ask about behaviour change programs for men at risk of committing domestic violence.

He then told the counsellor: “I’m not the one who has a problem.”

The Queensland coroner’s court is holding an inquest into the deaths of Clarke and her children – Aaliyah, 6, Laianah, 4, and Trey, 3.

The inquest was told Rowan Baxter – the estranged partner of Clarke and the father of the three children – murdered the entire family and killed himself by setting their car alight in the Brisbane suburb of Camp Hill on the morning of 19 February 2020.

In her opening remarks on Monday, counsel assisting the deputy state coroner, Jacoba Brasch, told the court that video footage showed Baxter visiting a local hardware store in the days before. He walked down the aisles looking at mower fuels and ultimately bought a jerry can, zip ties and a surface cleaner.

That afternoon, Baxter made two separate phone calls to services that offer men’s behaviour programs.

Brasch said the inquest would next week be played “chilling audio” of Baxter’s call to one of those services, in which he claimed he did not have a problem.

“Sixteen hours later, he did the unthinkable,” Brasch said on the opening day of the inquest.

The deaths of Clarke and her children brought significant public attention to the use of coercive control by domestic abusers. Queensland is considering making coercive control a criminal offence.

The first witness at the inquest was a Camp Hill resident, Michael Zemek, who was washing his car outside his home on the morning of 19 February 2020.

“I heard screaming, a hysterical scream,” Zemek told the inquest.

“Very quickly this car had pulled up its front right wheel basically on the driveway. And Hannah was … essentially screaming out ‘call the police, call the police, he’s trying to kill me, he’s put petrol on me’.

“Baxter had his hand around her in quite a bear hug, both arms around her. He was sitting in the front seats.

“His demeanour was controlled. He didn’t appear to be really crazy and aggressive and trying to do anything like punching or anything like that. It was just a constraining hold. My impression was he had more of a resigned look on his face.”

Zemek approached the window as Baxter set the car alight.

“It just went bang, a flare just went through. It was a bang and a blackness hit my face. I turned my head around briefly. When I came to look up, the whole of the inside front was ablaze.

“My instinct was … I’ve got to get her out. And at that point I don’t know whether Hannah got out herself, that’s a blank for me.

“When Hannah came out she was totally ablaze from head to toe. She was in flames. I just grabbed the hose and tried to get her to roll on the ground so I could try to extinguish the flames.”

Zemek also told the inquest he did not know until afterwards the children were restrained in the back seat of the car.

Another witness, Samantha Covey, recalled Hannah Clarke’s panicked words before she died.

“My kids, someone get my kids,” Clarke was heard to say, Covey told the inquest.

“I can’t believe he’s done this. Where are my babies? Where are my kids? How could he do this?”

Covey recalled listening as Clarke told an off-duty police officer what had occurred.

“She said that she was going to take the kids to school, he got in the car and he had a jerry can.”

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A neighbour, Kerry Fernandez, said she grabbed a fire extinguisher and attempted to put out the fire.

She told the inquest that Baxter appeared to be “almost guarding the car” and moved from side to side in an apparent attempt to stop her from using the fire extinguisher.

Fernandez said Baxter’s expression was “deadpan, nothing”.

“Someone then tapped me on the shoulder and politely said that he was armed. I dropped the fire extinguisher and bolted to the house … the [same] woman came in and said ‘it’s over’,” Fernandez told the inquest.

“I looked over at him, he was still in that hunched over position … he had stabbed himself.”

Brasch said that later in the inquest, friends of Clarke and Baxter would give evidence about his “appearance, his demeanour, his preoccupations” and “Hannah’s worries that he might kill her”.

• In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14 and the national family violence counselling service is on 1800 737 732. In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 and the domestic abuse helpline is 0808 2000 247. In the US, the suicide prevention lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 and the domestic violence hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Other international helplines can be found via


Ben Smee

The GuardianTramp

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