The leafy suburb of Avondale Heights in Melbourne, Australia, was home to respected couple Borce and Karen Ristevski.
They’d been married 27 years and lived in their $1.3 million home with their daughter, Sarah, then 20. With five bedrooms, elegant decor and open-plan living, the couple appeared to be living a privileged life.
Karen, 47, loved fashion and the couple co-owned two clothing boutiques called Bella Bleu. They specialised in formal dresses and luxury gowns, which certainly looked high-end – but the business was more than $400,000 in debt.
Borce and Karen also had credit card debts of around $80,000, plus a hefty mortgage. The couple would have to address their financial issues before they became a problem.
Then, on June 30, 2016, Ristevski reported his wife missing.
He told police that the day before, after Sarah had gone to work first thing, he and Karen had argued about their money problems.
Ristevski told officers Karen had told him, ‘I’m going because I can’t think straight,’ before walking out of the front door to ‘clear her head’. He said it wasn’t unusual for his wife to do that after a row.
She had taken her handbag, but this time, she hadn’t returned.
A search began for Karen. CCTV had recorded Karen’s black Mercedes Coupé near a local railway station, but her car was at the house. So, where was she?
Investigations revealed Karen hadn’t used her mobile phone or accessed her bank account, which was worrying. The last signal her phone gave off was from a tower in the Macedon Ranges region.
Ristevski and daughter Sarah made emotional public appeals through the media for information. Karen was known in the area and social media went wild with people trying to spread the word.
As the weeks went by, local areas were thoroughly searched but there was no trace of Karen. It became a high-profile case as the whole wider community searched for the much-loved woman.
Early on, officers were suspicious of husband Ristevski.
For starters, his account of Karen’s disappearance changed slightly when he retold it, with little details that seemed odd things to lie about.
The account of which door Karen left from differed – why get that wrong or lie about it? After Karen went missing it had taken him 24 hours to report it, and he hadn’t contacted her friends and family to see if she was with them, which seemed the first place you would start when trying to find someone.
Closer inspection revealed it had been a man driving Karen’s Mercedes Coupé.
Despite saying he hadn’t driven it that day, Ristevski admitted it had been him in the car but he’d driven it to test out a faulty fuel gauge.
Ristevski said that after hitting a bump in the road, the gauge corrected itself, so he turned round and went home.
Weeks turned into months and the speculation over what had happened to Karen was rife.
Some said that Karen was planning on leaving Ristevski and that their marriage was just a show. But it seemed unlikely that she would cut ties with everyone, stop using her bank cards and mobile, simply to leave her husband.
Others said that they had spotted a suspicious man in the area on the footpath behind Karen’s home around the time she vanished. Had she been abducted?
Eight months after her disappearance, on February 20, 2017, two horticulturalists were working in the Mount Macedon Regional Park, which was about 30 miles from Karen’s home.
Near to where her last mobile signal had been, they noticed a horrible smell coming from two logs in bushland. When they moved closer, they found a badly decomposed body hidden between them. It was Karen.
Her body was so badly decayed that an autopsy couldn’t reveal how she’d been killed, but her death was unlawful.
The search was over, and everyone knew they were now looking for her killer.
In the March, there were high emotions at Karen’s funeral.
Tearful daughter Sarah carried a picture of her mum as she led the mourners, while pallbearer Ristevski carried his wife’s coffin.
The grieving widower cried in the arms of relatives and was red-faced with emotion.
But police refused to give up on the theory that Ristevski had killed his wife as he continued to contradict his story.
They recreated the journey that Karen had allegedly taken on the day she went missing, to try to get more information.
Officers tapped Ristevski’s phone and planted listening devices to gather evidence.
Ristevski must have known the walls were closing in as he changed his mobile number, while insisting to others that people were listening.
Police believed that after Sarah went to work, Ristevski killed his wife then drove her body in the boot of her own car to the bushland, where he dumped his wife’s body and covered her in foliage.
They weren’t certain of a motive but were certain that Ristevski had gone to extraordinary lengths to hide what he’d done.
In December 2017, Ristevski was finally arrested and charged with the murder of his wife.
He pleaded not guilty and insisted that he had nothing to do with Karen’s death.
Daughter Sarah stood by her father and insisted that he was the calm one in the family and that any fights her parents had never turned violent.
She would never stop supporting him.
The case hit a setback in 2019, when a judge ruled that any evidence about Ristevski’s conduct couldn’t be used as evidence that he had alleged ‘murderous intent’.
But prosecutors continued to prepare for a high-profile, five-week trial.
Then on the eve of his trial, in the March, Ristevski, then 55, shocked everyone.
After denying any part in his wife’s disappearance for almost three years, he pleaded guilty to manslaughter.
Ristevski wouldn’t give any details about how or why he’d killed Karen, but it was finally an admittance that he was to blame.
Ristevski had put on quite a performance over the years. He’d lied for months to everyone Karen loved, but now his plea confirmed the police were right.
A month later at the sentencing, Karen’s family gave impact statements.
Karen’s aunt, Marguerite Knight, said, ‘Being advised that Karen was in such a decomposed state haunts my heart.’ Others spoke of the pain of not knowing exactly how Karen died or any details around what happened that morning.
Daughter Sarah gave a statement defending her dad calling him ‘loving, caring, sympathetic, protective and charismatic’ and the judge said he didn’t blame her for standing by him.
He said that her dad had spun her a ‘web of lies’. ‘Anyone with a modicum of compassion must understand that her predicament is an agonising one,’ he said.
The judge condemned Ristevski for playing the ‘part of the innocent grieving widower’.
He had shown no remorse and still hadn’t revealed the circumstances around his wife’s death.
‘The pretence, the rank deceit only ended a few weeks ago when you pleaded guilty to manslaughter,’ he said. ‘No sentence I can impose will undo the suffering you have caused and continue to cause to those who knew and loved Karen.’
Ristevski was sentenced to spend a maximum of nine years in prison and be eligible for parole after six years.
Outside of court, Karen’s brother, Stephen Williams, told reporters, ‘We didn’t get justice today, at all. As a society at some stage, in regards to domestic violence, we will take a stand. It wasn’t today.’
The sentence was called ‘manifestly inadequate’ by prosecutors and they appealed. In December 2019, it was increased to 13 years with a non-parole period of 10 years.
Despite Ristevski being behind bars, there are still so many unanswered questions surrounding Karen’s death and there is no incentive for him to reveal any more details about what he did to her now that his conviction is secured.
Something truly awful happened that morning. Karen took it to her grave and it seems, so will Ristevski.