As the search for missing woman Samantha Murphy enters its fourth day, another local woman, Sissy Austin, has revealed she was brutally attacked while out jogging in the same area – and the perpetrator is still on the loose.
The former Greens Senate candidate, also from Ballarat East, was attacked with a homemade weapon, on February 11, 2023, nearly a year ago to the day before Ms Murphy went missing.
At the time of the attack, the now 29-year-old was running on a popular track in the Lal Lal State Forest. The track is less than 20 km away from another trail in the Canadian State Forest where missing woman Ms Murphy regularly ran and where a large-scale search is taking place.
“I’d normally run four kilometres into the bush and then turn around. I run along motorbike tracks and trails and some hills that would turn into a bit of a hike,” Ms Austin told news.com.au.
“I was almost at the four kilometre turnaround point when I was attacked. All I remember is seeing a male for a very quick moment and the rock tied to a stick coming for me. I woke up on the forest floor, I have no idea how long I was on the ground for.
“I remember standing up confused, covered in blood and flies. The whole bush was spinning. I knew those tracks well, but once I stood up everything was blurry. I got very lost trying to find my way back to my car.”
Ms Austin says once she did find her way back to her car, she immediately called the police and was later admitted to hospital with a severe concussion. She has experienced post-concussion syndrome and says that the injuries have impacted her speech, she also suffers from PTSD as a result of the attack.
In the days following the incident, police said that they believed the attacker to be a caucasian male with black jeans, a cap and no shoes or shirt but no arrest has been made.
For Ms Austin, the news of fellow female Ballarat runner Ms Murphy’s disappearance has been devastating.
On Wednesday, a crew searching a walking trail at Woowookarung Regional Park are believed to have found an “item of interest”. Police have taped off the area and declared it a crime scene.
“My heart breaks for Sam’s family friends and community first and foremost. I cannot imagine how they’re feeling. I am out searching for Sam too and I pray she is found,” says Ms Austin.
“I’m in absolute shock, I feel like I am living my attack all over again the last few days. I am angry that women clearly cannot go for a run and return home safely. My heart is with the Ballarat female running community. Running communities are tight knit, particularly in regional towns. Most of us have run where Sam runs, I certainly had in the past.
“Sam going missing on a run is a second major trauma to occur where female runners in this town fear for their safety when going for a run. I acknowledge the deep anxiety being felt by female runners in the Ballarat community right now.”
While Ms Austin says the focus right now isn’t on drawing a link between the cases, but rather to bring Sam home safely, the event does raise the concern about the safety of women runners in regional areas.
“Women’s safety while running is not a women’s issue, it is an issue of male violence,” she says.
She believes it is an issue that the police do not take seriously enough.
“The Ballarat Police said to me after my attack ‘at this point the only way we can find who attacked you is if the male hands himself in or if another person is attacked’ that made me so angry and fearful for women’s safety in our community,” Ms Austin said.
Detective Senior Sergeant Tony Coxall spoke to reporters outside the police station in Ballarat in the days following Austin’s alleged attack, saying: “Police have been combing the area looking for the weapon, searching for any evidence, searching for information … We’re looking for dashcam footage or any vehicles that are out of place.”
But Ms Austin believes their response wasn’t good enough.
“I haven’t heard a single thing from the detectives since March 2023. Once the media died down, so did the police investigation. The police didn’t go and search the area for the man who attacked me until days later. That shows that they don’t take the issue of women’s safety seriously.”
When asked about Sissy Austin’s attack, Victoria Police said there’s no update on the Lal Lal incident and the investigation remains ongoing.
Meanwhile, the search for Ms Murphy has now expanded, with more than 100 officers from various units including the dog squad, mounted branch, and air wing, alongside SES, CFA, and Parks Victoria personnel, concentrating on the Canadian State Forest.
Inspector MacDougall said data received from Ms Murphy’s phone, which she had been carrying at the time, pinged near the golf course.
Murphy did not return from her regular Sunday morning run around 7am, prompting an immediate search from Victoria Police.
“Police and family have concerns for her welfare due to the hot weather on Sunday and her disappearance being out of character,” Acting Inspector Lisa McDougall said on Monday.
“Obviously, yesterday was a hot day … there (is) obviously increased risk there because of the heat.
“It raises the urgency of the search for us and obviously we account for the fact that will have an impact on someone’s health.”
The area is also littered with disused mine shafts.
Ms Murphy is described as caucasian, about 173cm tall with a slim build and shoulder-length blonde hair.
She was last seen wearing black half-length leggings and a maroon/brown coloured singlet.
Anyone who sights Ms Murphy is urged to contact Ballarat East Police Station on (03) 5336 6000.