The Costa family enjoyed an idyllic country lifestyle with their precious children — until a knife-wielding intruder destroyed their sanctuary. Jordan Baker visits a family trying to put the pieces of their life back together.
The Costa family considered their farm their refuge, a place where five-year-old Valentina and two-year-old Mikos could forget the punishing medical appointments they needed to stay alive, and where their father Michael, the former NSW treasurer, could shut out the noise of politics.
The isolated, 54-hectare property was a place where Deborah and Michael could give their children bush adventures and pony rides to make up for the tubes, tablets and pain they lived with every day.
Not once in eight years did Deborah feel unsafe. Yet that changed in April, when a masked stranger broke into her kitchen, brandishing a carving knife.
He tied Deborah up in front of her children and for a terrifying half hour she thought they would witness her rape and murder.
The family often spends part of the week in their city flat while they take the children to specialists to help manage their complex and painful gastro-intestinal problems.
Late on April 13 this year, they returned to their farm after another round of appointments.
The next morning, Michael left for an early meeting and the rest of the family pottered around the house; Valentina lay on the couch sick with flu, while Deborah and Mikos played in the kitchen.
Deborah did not notice the man in a black balaclava hiding in bushes, watching the house. Nor did she hear him creeping through the door. She only realised he was there when she turned around to find a knife in her face.
A hundred thoughts flashed through her head in a nanosecond. Was she dreaming? Did she know him? Was it a joke? "Then there's the moment when you realise it's not and that there's a man in your house dressed in black waving a knife."
She was gripped by panic. He ordered her to lie down on her stomach, but she backed away until he became too insistent to disobey. He tied her feet with wire, then fastened her hands behind her back.
"My daughter saw me and was leaning over, screaming," she says. "She started yelling, 'Mum, what's happening, what's he doing?' I thought, 'I can't move, this man is going to rape me.' "
Deborah was convinced that her children would witness her death.
"The feeling is indescribable," she says. "That's when I started singing to them. I thought in my kids' last moments with me, I want them to feel some comfort. I sang The Rainbow Song — 'red and yellow and pink and green'."
Valentina kept screaming and Deborah tried to reassure her, despite her own terror. "I said, 'It's okay, this man needs some help, isn't it great that we can help him?' "
The intruder ordered her to stay on the floor. He emptied her wallet of its contents — $5 — and started loading 28 bottles of wine into her car, while telling Deborah not to move, he would be back.
Valentina was hysterical and Mikos bewildered, begging his mother to pick him up and get his dummy. When the intruder finished with the wine rack and went outside, Mikos ran screaming after him.
"He started screaming for my husband," says Deborah. "I don't know if he thought this man was my husband. I thought, 'He's going to take my son.' "
Terrified he was going to return and not knowing whether her son was safe, Deborah told Valentina to dial 000 on the cordless phone.
Valentina — confused, upset and only four years old — struggled to understand. She tried to dial 000, but it didn't work, so Deborah used her tongue to hang up the phone.
Valentina dialled again and this time the call went through. She held the phone next to her mother's ear and the emergency operator did her best to comfort her while she notified police.
The wait seemed interminable. When Deborah heard the crunch of footsteps, she thought it was the intruder returning. It was a police officer with her baby son.
"I tried to stay calm, but when the police officer came around, it was indescribable, the feeling I was safe. I just cried."
The ordeal was over. Or the first part of it, at least.
Read more of this story in the December issue of The Australian Women's Weekly.