Vicky Burn with a portrait of her big sister Michelle Lawrence. Ms Lawrence was murdered by her partner Timothy Foley in 2012.

Why my sister's murder will forever haunt me

On June 10, 2012, Timothy Joseph Foley bashed his partner Michelle Lawrence. Moments later he called emergency services and then left the 41-year-old mother-of-one alone, dying in a pool of her own blood. Michelle passed away in hospital 20 days later from severe head injuries. Today, Michelle's little sister VICKY BURN shares Michelle's story in the hopes that other domestic violence victims can find the strength to ask for help.


I'M 41 - the same age my sister was when she died.  My sister's name is Michelle - or Shell as we called her. This is our story. I am telling it as her voice was taken from her.   Over the last few years I have been forced to look at how I view domestic violence, its implications and the women it often involves. 

From the age of 14 - she was 18 - I was aware that some of Shell's boyfriends hit her. But I was never really worried because Shell was a mentally and physically strong woman and to be brutally honest I saw domestic violence as a major issue for women who were timid, physically weak or isolated. Michelle didn't fit any of those categories.

I mean this is a women who took on two teenage muggers and broke up a fights at work, a woman who had a large support network and who loved to buck against the trend, so was she really a victim in the sense others were?  Others couldn't leave Michelle could, right?

Did the same rules apply? 

I only ever thought about the physical side of domestic violence. I never paid much attention to the emotional abuse that often accompanies the physical, about the power that this gives the abuser or how damaging it could really be.  And I'm ashamed to admit that simply because I'd never seen her back down from a fight, I never truly saw her as being in a "real" domestically violent relationship. In reality though this is what Michelle wanted us to see.

There were bruises, the odd black eye. It was a very touchy subject to bring up with Shell and she didn't hide the fact that she didn't want to discuss what was happening.  She was very guarded in that sense and the issues to us at least never seemed that bad. She would never discuss it, she would laugh it off or just never address it at all. In reality we saw what Michelle wanted or needed us to see and there is nothing we could do to change that. I now wonder what life for her behind closed doors in some of those relationships was really like. And if we had, had a better understanding of emotional abuse was, would we have acted differently.

41-year-old mother-of-one Michelle Lawrence was beaten to death by her partner in 2012.
41-year-old mother-of-one Michelle Lawrence was beaten to death by her partner in 2012.

Meet Michelle - my beautiful sister

When I was growing up my sister was a bit of an enigma, she was the second oldest of 5 children and there was a bit of an age gap between us. What I do remember is her being very confident and extremely outspoken - this not surprisingly caused a rift between her and our parents, especially mum. That rift continued until a few years before Shell's death. 

Shell moved back home when her first and only child was just a few months old.  I remember idolizing her back then - she always seemed so fierce, so independent and strong she never cared what people thought of her. We are a pretty close family and as adults saw each other at least once a week.  Shell worked hard, spent a lot of time with her daughter and although her love/hate relationship with mum continued, they made it work.  These are the years I felt closest to her.  It was during these times that I got to see the more vulnerable side of her. It's when I realised that whilst being a strong, kick arse, confident women on the outside, there was also a little girl inside who desperately wanted to be loved, needed and accepted, despite what she wanted people to think. It's not a side of her I saw often and Shell preferred to keep that little inner girl buried.

I know now that it was this little girl in Shell that drew her towards the men she chose. Shell loved being what I can best describe as controversial - she was the proverbial black sheep of the family. She was also the most caring, generous person I have ever met.  Despite not having much herself, she  would give you the last $1 she had if you needed it.  And you could tell her anything and you knew she would never repeat it.

The beginning of the end

I was in Australia when Shell met her final boyfriend Tim. They lived in flats two doors apart in New Zealand. By this time she was a grandmother of one and after the Christchurch earthquakes her and our mum were getting on better than ever, life was looking up for her. When Shell started a relationship with Tim, we'd heard he was a con man. (We found out at his sentencing he had 85 previous convictions including jail time mainly for fraud and dishonesty). Despite our warnings and concerns the relationship continued, they remained on and off for a year. during that time I'm told he was very controlling, he told her all sorts of sob stories about his life and the odd bruise had been seen.

When they broke up, Shell refused to move from her flat as in her words "she was there first". This stubbornness doesn't surprise me. It's a family trait. A week before she died, Tim went nuts and the police served him with a trespass order and warned him to stay away. The police advised Shell to call them if he came near her.  At this stage family, including her daughter, begged her to leave. Once again the reply was "I was here first".

The day I lost my beautiful vivacious big sister

On June 10, 2012, at 8-15am - it was a Sunday -  I received a call that destroyed my very being. It was mum. Shell had been attacked the night before and was in a critical condition. I remember my legs giving way and I felt a pain in my heart so severe it took my breath away. I caught the first available flight out and arrived late the same night.  The next morning mum took me through to the ICU to see Shell.

There was my strong sister hooked up to numerous machines. Her face was swollen and her head heavily bandaged and on the bandage was the ever ominous words "NO BONE". Mum said her head had been shaved, which I remember being upset about because Shell's hair was her crowning glory.  While we maintained a bedside vigil, we filled her room with laughter and silliness and for the most part tried to save the sadness for when we took a break outside her room. That was the way we always acted when we got together and Shell would have not only loved it but expected it. Shell's chances of survival had gone from bleak to none very quickly.

She was showing no neurological signs, a doctor had actually told mum that if they had realized how much damage had been inflicted they never would have operated when she first arrived. We knew this in the first few days, but even after hearing it, processing it and accepting it, there's that tiny part of you that won't let you give up that little glimmer of hope, a little part of you still prays for a miracle. 

Unfortunately it was never going to happen.  Whilst Shell needed a machine to help her breath, she wasn't on life support so there was no magic switch to flick. For legal reasons we couldn't stop the machine breathing for her. Doctors recommended  "do not resuscitate" and a withdrawal of all invasive medicines. Shell was having major issues with her feeding tubes due to aspirating during her attack and had developed other complications. Sadly once we agreed it was literally a case of waiting for her to let go. 

On June 30, we received a call at around 11pm. Our beautiful vivacious Michelle had gone, it was a pain unlike anything I have ever felt, the tiny hope we held, along with Michelle, was no more.

He left my sister bleeding to death

My sister's killer had actually rung 111 (NZ) that night to report Michelle's injuries.  According to police records, he admitted to the operator that he had hit her in the head with a crowbar and he couldn't stop the bleeding.  He had just been asked to stay with her when he disconnected the call.  He left my sister bleeding to death in her doorway after striking her eight times with the crowbar when she arrived home from work. We don't know if she was conscious or not when he left, we don't even know if she knew what was happening -  I pray she didn't.

What we do know is he took her only phone with him when he abandoned her. He was arrested the following morning and remained in custody from that point on. Over the next three years we watched as he manipulated the justice system time and time again. A trial date would be set, flights booked and at the last second an "issue" would arise and the trial would be delayed. It meant for three years we had no closure, we couldn't start healing and he was sitting in his cell acting like some cruel puppet master. On the first day of his trial on the February 11, 2015 he gave a surprising but strategic guilty plea. The sentencing was set for March 4, but apparently Tim had not finished playing with us yet. When I arrived on the third, I was met by the news that sentencing had been delayed for reasons that are suppressed. 

On May 7, 2015 - despite firing his lawyer five minutes before he appeared - Tim's guilty plea was upheld and he was sentenced for the murder of Michelle. Acting as his own counsel he was entitled to address the court for his sentencing submission. We sat there as he said how beautiful Michelle was, how much he loved her, how she didn't deserve what she got. He then insisted that HE was a victim of a miscarriage of justice despite what he told the 111 operator.   His final attempt of control was to try and get our victim statements suppressed. This was rejected by the judge. Reading out our impact statements, was a very big victory for us. 

You see for three years we had to stay quiet as most of the information we knew - including reasons for the delays and cancellations - were suppressed by the courts.  Even now I'm very careful to only say what the courts or the police themselves have released. So to be able to get up and say how we felt and tell Tim what we thought of him was very liberating - we finally had the control. I think it's worth mentioning that there was not one single person that turned up at the courts to support Tim throughout all of this.

Tim was sentenced to life in prison with a minimum of 11 years and eight months before he can apply for parole.  In his ruling, the judge stated "the defendant had not shown any genuine remorse and his assertions of willingness to plead guilty in deference to Michelle's family were hollow".  He stated that Tim's previous offending showed he had a "tendency to externalise blame, a sense of entitlement, grandiose lies, lack of empathy and distorted thinking".  


Christine Lawrence died of a broken heart after her daughter Michelle Lawrence was killed.
Christine Lawrence died of a broken heart after her daughter Michelle Lawrence was killed.

How Michelle's killer destroyed our mother

Michelle's murder destroyed our mother - we watched her age over night.  After Shell's death there was always a tinge of sadness in her eyes. She regretted the years she had wasted due to the conflict in personalities her and Shell had and she mourned for the relationship they had managed to establish in her last years and for the future. To some extent she never truly dealt with her loss ,she instead focused her attention on the trial and delays. I believe the moment after sentencing was the first time I truly saw her smile without pain since this all began. The healing could begin for all of us, but for mum that meant facing her demons and that tired her out - the flashbacks the regrets and most of all the pain weighed her down.

One month to the day of Tim's sentencing, our younger brother arrived home in the early hours of the morning to find mum lying on the floor in her bedroom.  She had already gone by the time he found her. Her death from natural unknown causes was very sudden and very unexpected. I believe mum knew the worst was over and she finally gave up. The timing was probably not coincidental, given that later the very same day Tim lodged his intent for an appeal. This was the last day he had to do it. This was no surprise as we knew he would lodge one and we knew he would leave it until the final hour so to speak.  So , yes I class Mum as Tim's unknown second victim or without his original actions I'm certain mum would still be here.

Finding life after death
I have an unrelenting inner voice I constantly hear asking the questions that haunt me like "but what if I?", "what if we?", "maybe I should of?"  Guilt is a firm friend of that inner voice. That voice coupled with the memory of sitting with Shell, desperately begging her to wake up, still torments me to this very day. Four years on the sadness of losing her so violently still seeps into every aspect of my life. 

I feel like I'm caught in a permanent nightmare that I can't wake up from. I relive every second of those days regularly and as hard as I try it's very hard to remember my beautiful sister as she was instead of the images of her at the hospital. Sleep has not been my friend for a long time.  Every news report of another woman, another child lost to domestic violence makes my heart break for all the senseless lose and pain. I will never understand how one person can purposely take someone else's life  -it will never make sense to me.  My demons will always be there but as time goes by, I'm learning to control them. There are images, smells and thoughts that will always be with me. 

Sometimes I think that might not be such a bad thing and they remind me to never take anything for granted. Tim has his appeal in October, I won't be going. I refuse to sit there and listen to what I know will be a complete character assassination of my sister.   I've decided that this man has stolen enough from me, my husband and my children. It's time to stop giving him the power to run our lives. I refuse to give him the audience he so desperately craves.

Why did Michelle stay? This is just one of the questions i ask myself over and over
I've asked this question so many times it actually makes my head hurt.  Why didn't she leave her flat? Obviously I'll never know for sure, but I know my sister and as I've said she was an incredibly proud, independent women, for her to accept that she had been in an abusive relationship, that she let her inner child free or to leave that flat would have been a sign of weakness - it would mean she'd failed. It meant losing.  What she never had the chance to figure out though is that accepting help would have made her strong, it would have meant she won, because it would have actually given her the control she wrongly thought she already had. Pride can be an empowering thing - it's something we strive to have but too much pride can sometimes lead us to bad decisions.    

Make no mistake, emotional abuse does lead to murder

Tim told Shell what he knew she craved to hear and he played to her insecurities, he wasn't overly physically abusive. However he was a massive narcissist and very controlling. These two traits don't tend to ring as many alarm bells for people like being physical does.  I have no doubt that if Michelle had even the tiniest inkling he was capable of such violence she never would have stayed, she would have said "pride be dammed I'm out of here". The fact that he was able to hit her but yet still make her think she was perfectly safe at the same time is a scary concept.  I want and need people to understand that emotional abuse IS a form of domestic violence. it's very real, very powerful and mostly can be deadly.

Michelle Lawrence (left) with her little sister Vicky.
Michelle Lawrence (left) with her little sister Vicky.

Please, never be afraid to reach out to those who love you

We loved my sister tremendously, regardless of how we viewed her relationships. We made sure she knew we were there for her. There was a long-standing offer of a moving service, a place to stay, a shoulder to lean on and a non judgmental ear to bend, whenever she needed it no questions asked. We will never know why she never accepted our help. But I do know Shell needed to take that step herself - we couldn't force her. 

Although in hindsight, I wonder if we tried hard enough? It's a question we will never know the answer to.  It's safe to say my views on domestic violence have most definitely changed. I understand now why some women enter these relationships sometimes more than once. I get why they stay and why they sometimes struggle to break free.  I understand now how even the strongest, most confident, outgoing person can become a victim of domestic violence. I have learnt that emotional abuse can turn deadly, and to never judge situations based on face value.  

My advice to anyone reading this is, please don't miss your window of opportunity to leave.  If it's safe then follow your instincts and get out. Do it not just for yourself but also for your family. If during your relationship you have cut all ties with your family and you feel you have no one to lean on, try ringing them.  The chances are they have been waiting for that call asking for help and will willingly help you. You deserve the best in life, you deserve the right to live a happy fear free life. In turn your family deserves the right to watch you live your life and grow old.

Most of all, please remember that emotional abuse can turn violent. Please take it seriously. To family members who are watching from the outside or have been pushed away, all I can advise is that you make sure that person knows you will always be there no matter what and when they are ready you will welcome them with open caring arms. They need to know there is a safety net for them, when they need it because leaving will be one of the scariest things they have ever had to do! I wouldn't wish the pain my family has been through on my worst enemy.  Be strong, be safe and most importantly, be happy

A special thank you
I feel the need to acknowledge the police, the crowns council and victim's support.  These amazing people were with us from the start or our journey. We could not have survived this ordeal without their help and support. From the team of detectives doing their initial interviews up at the hospital so we didn't need to leave Shell, to keeping the media away from us, giving us a hug and reassurance they were always there for us.  From the word go they treated Michelle with respect, she wasn't a thing, a case number or a statistic - she was a person.  As a sign of respect they came to Shell's funeral, they also attended mum's final goodbye. Over the three years they constantly stayed in touch, We owe them a huge debt of gratitude for making an exceptionally hard time, just that little bit easier. My respect for them is immeasurable.

Report on violence, but please respect victims and those they leave behind
I don't have a lot of good things to say about some of the media as far as Shell's murder goes. Insensitive, pushy, and headline grabbing are some of the words that spring to mind. The night Shell was attacked, police caught one member of the media scaling the fence that backed onto Michelle's flats. They pretended to be family and made calls to the ICU department wanting an update of Michelle's condition. Unfortunately for them, the police had already set up a code word that we used whenever we rang, this identified us to the staff.  Some upstart member of a publication I won't name noticed the huge amount of garden ornaments on Michelle's porch, she also noted possibly a few broken ones, being the genius she was, she put two and two together and got five. She ran with her poor judgment and several days later the headlines appeared 'Garden Gnome used in attack'.  The same bright spark also reported that Michelle's flat was known for frequent late night parties - this was interesting considering my sister work night shift most nights not to mention it was completely irrelevant. Her sensationalist style and her obvious lack of respect for the truth were astounding. After that we pretty much went into media blackout. When Michelle died we released a statement through police and remained quiet until a family statement was read out after sentencing. To this day when you enter Michelle's full name into Google garden gnome references appear, thankfully no longer on the first page.  

  • Vicky and Michelle's story is part of The RED HEART Campaign's ongoing Why I Stayed project. Why I Stayed is Australia's only publicly accessible archive of domestic violence survivor stories and photographic portraits. RED HEART and Why I Stayed are entirely the work of Sherele Moody who is also an APN Australian Regional Media journalist. 
  • If you are in domestic violence crisis, help is available on 1800RESPECT.