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Community calls for answers after mysterious disappearance and death of Tèa Wright-Finger

For 46 days, her family and friends clung to hope that Tèa Wright-Finger would be found safe after she mysteriously disappeared in remote northern Australia.

But those hopes turned to despair this week when the body of the 19-year-old was found less than 5 kilometres from the town where she was last seen.

Queensland Police say her death is not being treated as suspicious but for those who loved the "bubbly" teenager, many questions remain about her disappearance and the extensive search that failed to find her.

Tèa was eventually located less than an hour from the place she was last spotted, after a helicopter mustering in the region stumbled on her car.

Her last movements

Tèa went missing on Sunday, October 16 after a friend dropped her on the northern outskirts of Richmond, a small rural town with a population of less than 700, about halfway between Townsville and Mount Isa in northern Queensland.

She was dropped off near a dark blue 2013 Toyota Prado, dressed in a light pink and purple dress and a pair of sandals, which she was wearing when she was captured on CCTV just an hour earlier, buying juice at a roadhouse in Richmond.

The teenager and her friend were returning from a party on a nearby station and the Prado was parked not far along Coalbrook Road, which would have taken Tèa back to Richmond Downs, where she had been working as a station hand.

But Tèa never returned to the station.

She was reported missing two days later on October 18.

Her body was found on December 1 on Lucerne Station, also located off Coalbrook Road and owned by the same pastoral company that owns Richmond Downs.

What we know about the search

Queensland Police issued an appeal for public assistance to locate Tèa on October 20, with family members expressing concerns for her wellbeing.

Initially, the search was conducted locally but the SES was called in on October 23, more than a week after she went missing.

John Forde, the SES area controller for the northern region, said he received a call from Queensland Police late in the day so pulled together about 15 volunteers to travel to Richmond to start looking for the teenager on October 24.

Over the next week, about 100 volunteers joined the "extensive" search.

Mr Forde said he was very surprised to hear the car had been found where it was, given the scale of the operation.

"There was a lot of resource," he told the ABC.

"We even had our remote piloted aircraft. So, we had our drones in the air … searching some places that we could not do on foot.

"There was a lot of searching through ATVs, four-wheel drive vehicles. There were some dirt bikes and I believe people on horseback.

"It was a very intensive search of the whole area.

"It's a very large, sparse area. But for the planes and helicopters, and the guys not to have seen [the car] in the initial search, is quite surprising."

The town of Richmond is a service centre for surrounding pastoral properties, mostly grazing sheep and cattle.

Mr Forde described the terrain as very flat and only sparsely covered with trees. At the time of the search it was dry, dusty and very hot.

The search covered more than 700km on land and in the air with SES personnel searching the tracks and areas of thick vegetation along the banks of the Flinders River, which runs near Lucerne Station.

The only trace of the missing teenager was a ping from her mobile phone, which was switched on briefly around 9.30am on Tuesday, October 18 — the same day she was reported missing.

CCTV of missing teen Tea Wright-Finger(Supplied: Queensland Police Service)

New information

The search was scaled down at the end of October with police suggesting in mid-November that Tèa Wright-Finger may have travelled interstate.

At a press conference in Townsville on November 16, Queensland Police revealed the blue Prado that Tèa was last seen driving had been "fraudulently obtained" from Proserpine, on the coast about 700km east of Richmond, two days before she went missing.

"There is a possibility she may be actively avoiding police particularly because we haven't found her vehicle.

"We're very concerned for her welfare but are still optimistic as there's been no evidence to suggest that anything suspicious has happened.

"It is possible she has gone to another state, she has worked at a Northern Territory station before."

Police released the CCTV footage of Tèa buying a drink at a Richmond roadhouse in an effort to prompt leads from the public.

But on November 30, the blue Prado was located by a helicopter mustering around Lucerne Station. One of Tèa's friends was in the chopper and alerted police.

The following morning, a body, believed to be Tèa, was found about 600m from the car.

Police have not disclosed how long Tèa's body may have been lying there undiscovered.

They also did not respond to the ABC's questions about whether the area where the Prado, and Tèa's body, were found was searched in the initial stages of the investigation.

"As this matter is now before the coroner, it would be inappropriate for Queensland Police Service to comment at this time," they said in a statement.

Community in shock

The news has rocked the small community of Richmond, where Tèa's father had travelled to search for her.

The distraught dad, who declined to speak to the ABC, has raised concerns about the efforts made to find his daughter and other locals have also questioned how the young woman could be found so close to town, 46 days after she went missing.

Richmond local Patrick Miller, who helped in the search, said there was a lot of tension in the community following the discovery of the car and body and he was suspicious that they had not yet heard the full story.

"I'm absolutely shattered. It doesn't make sense," he said.

Richmond Mayor John Wharton also questioned why the local council was not invited to be involved in the search.

"Council wasn't asked to be involved. It was basically run by the police and the SES. And the SES members came from away.

"I don't know of too many … locals that were involved in the search apart from helicopter pilots, local contractors, local mustering contractors.

"[Council] weren't asked at all to be involved in the search which was a bit of a surprise.

"You can't beat local knowledge.

"Everyone did try the best they could, I'm not critical of that."

But he questioned why the Local Disaster Management Group was not triggered straight away.

Missing Richmond woman's car found(Supplied: Queensland Police Service)

Friends remember a bright, bubbly person

According to family members, Tèa grew up in Toowoomba before relocating to Bundaberg.

She worked on several stations including Avago Station in the Northern Territory and Saxby Downs in Queensland before moving to Richmond Downs station.

Friend Shenea Neill said Tèa was "always such a bright and bubbly, outgoing person".

"[She was] very welcoming with everyone she met, always tried her best to brighten everybody's day.

"[It] just seemed odd that she had disappeared for so long without contacting friends or family, when she would always be one to check in with the people close to her."

Former classmate Alana Nethery said Tèa would light up the classroom.

"She was always the person to bring a sense of humour to the class and loved to be goofy which ended up making classes more enjoyable."

However, concerns for Tèa's mental wellbeing arose as members of the community noticed some of her social media videos.

In a TikTok video titled "When it's toxic, it's toxic", which Tèa posted in late 2021, she looks distressed with blood on her face and hand.

Another video titled "Safe place" early this year was captioned "I don't feel so good, I want to go home".

But other videos on the social media site show a happy young woman enjoying life with her friends and working on the station.

Risks in remote regions

National Rural Health Alliance chief executive Susanne Tegen said the risk of self-harm "increased with remoteness" and there were, on average, about 37 suicides in rural and remote Australia each year.

Ms Tegen said each death in rural and remote Australia created a "ripple effect" through communities.

"It impacts not only their family, friends, the whole community. In a city of course it affects individuals, but smaller communities feel it and it needs to be addressed," she said.

While Telehealth had improved accessibility to allied health in rural and remote Australia Ms Tegen said that should be supplementary to in-person services which struggled to remain viable in such regions due to market failure.

"In many of those areas where people live the market fails, so it is difficult to make money by having those services, therefore the federal and state government need to provide those services," she said.

Investigations underway

Police said they had spoken to Tèa's family, including her mother, Tracy Wright, and extended their deep condolences to her loved ones.

Investigators thanked the State Emergency Service, property owners and the community for their assistance during the search.

Police said the death was not being treated as suspicious and a report would be prepared for the coroner.

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