Queensland police knew who was responsible for Daniel Morcombe’s murder but they just needed two things – a confession and a body.
The 13-year-old’s disappearance in 2003 had baffled police for seven years even though the investigation would become their largest ever.
But a coronial inquest in 2010 and 2011 put convicted child molester Brett Peter Cowan firmly in the spotlight.
Cowan, now 44, had been a suspect almost from day one, but had been essentially excluded after police concluded he had only half an hour to have committed the offence.
However, the former truck driver’s alibi fell apart at the inquest when his drug dealer and her partner said they couldn’t recall him visiting them the afternoon of Daniel’s disappearance.
Meanwhile counsel assisting the coroner Peter Johns pointed out that Cowan had abducted and raped boys within half-an-hour twice before.
By the time Cowan had finished testifying, police bosses had given the green light to an undercover police operation so elaborate it could have come straight from the pages of a crime novel.
On his April 2011 flight back to his new home town of Perth the suspect got talking to a friendly and likeable young man in the next seat.
He and “Joe” exchanged phone numbers and met several times over the next few weeks.
Joe was actually an undercover police officer.
“At this stage I was still just building rapport and trying to build a relationship with Mr Cowan,” the officer would later tell Cowan’s trial.
Joe had some friends – “Fitzy” and “Jeff” – who portrayed themselves as members of a powerful criminal gang whose mantra was “loyalty, honesty and respect”.
Cowan was given $150 to help Joe stake out the arrivals gate at Perth Airport for a man the crime gang was interested in.
In the following months he was involved in 23 more crime scenarios including bribing a customs officer and trafficking weapons, illegal crayfish and even blood diamonds from Africa.
The unemployed drifter told his new friends the easy money and mateship were what “dreams are made of”.
“I found the job that I’ve been waiting for all these years,” Cowan said, unaware the conversation was being recorded.
Cowan was told he could earn $100,000 on a big job but there was a catch – the gang had learned he would be subpoenaed for another probe into Daniel Morcombe’s disappearance.
In a plush Perth hotel room, the gang’s “big boss” suggested Cowan would be “dropped like a hot potato” unless he confessed.
The syndicate needed to know details so it could “fix” any evidence Cowan may have left behind.
“Yeah, ok, you know, yeah, I did it,” Cowan said before matter-of-factly describing how he’d lured Daniel into his car, driven him to an isolated spot, pulled his pants down and choked him.
Cowan’s detailed and chilling confession was recorded on a hidden camera and the video was played at his trial almost three years later.
Audio recorded when Cowan showed undercover police the bushland site where he dumped Daniel’s body was also used as evidence against him.
The teen’s remains were found almost exactly where the killer said they would be.
The 44-year-old was on Thursday found guilty of indecently dealing with Daniel Morcombe, murdering him and interfering with his corpse.