By Steve Lillebuen and Genevieve Gannon
October 07, 2012
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TWO weeks ago, Jill Meagher was a Melbourne media office worker – just one of 67,000 Irish-born immigrants who now call Australia home.
But the 29-year-old’s disappearance and death in an alleged abduction, rape and murder during a short walk home has triggered deep fears, sympathy and made her a national identity.
Australians have been so moved by the loss of the young ABC local radio employee, she is being mourned in scenes reminiscent of state funerals.
“It’s just extraordinary, the impact it’s had on our community,” said Victoria’s police chief Ken Lay, who can’t recall such a public outpouring of grief in nearly 40 years on the job.
Former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett shared this sentiment: “She could have been anyone’s daughter, sister.”
More than 320,000 people have joined Ms Meagher’s Facebook tribute page, in one sign of the depth of public feeling.
She has inspired a new wave of women’s rallies, street artists have decorated laneways with her name, and a stonemason has donated a permanent memorial.
About 30,000 people gathered in Melbourne for a march in her memory last Sunday.
Another is planned in Ireland.
Tributes of flowers, candles, cards and chocolates are continuing to appear outside churches, her Brunswick home and on nearby streets.
Ms Meagher’s husband and family had never expected any of this and tried to maintain a sense of privacy during an invitation-only funeral on Friday.
But experts say the circumstances of Ms Meagher’s disappearance and death have ensured public awareness will take years to fade away.
“Jill and her family became a community icon,” said Kristen Boschma, head of social media at marketing firm Haystac.
“The only other time I’ve seen such a huge social media reaction has been in the face of a natural disaster.”
Early on Saturday, September 22, Ms Meagher was walking home after a birthday celebration with colleagues in the inner suburb of Brunswick when she vanished about 450 metres from the flat she shared with her husband.
Thomas Meagher launched a social media campaign to find his missing wife, pushing her story directly to anyone who would listen.
The picture of Ms Meagher on her Facebook missing persons page showed she had the rest of her life ahead of her, an “every girl” who was easy for people to relate to, Ms Boschma said.
ABC colleagues and the public quickly shared links among their networks of Facebook friends and Twitter followers, which helped power the search.
As the police investigation unfolded over six days, armchair detectives shared their theories online.
“We were constantly briefed, which made us feel like we were on a journey,” said Dr Lauren Rosewarne, a senior lecturer at University of Melbourne who researches gender, media and public policy.
The revelation of a mystery man captured on CCTV footage – who had spoken with Ms Meagher moments before she disappeared – set off a second wave of interest and social media frenzy.
The discovery of her body and the arrest of a suspect charged with rape and murder then saw the national audience rapidly share their sorrow.
At the peak, when the news broke, Ms Boschma said the case was being mentioned on social media once every 11 seconds.
“She put a face to a fear that has long existed in society,” Dr Rosewarne added in explaining why it resonated with so many.
“Women don’t fear domestic violence, but they tend to fear the man in the bushes.”
At the Brunswick Baptist Church, not far from where Ms Meagher was last seen alive, mourners have left so many floral donations that piles of blooms have already been removed twice to make room for more.
“People are genuinely surprised and amazed by the genuine connection they’ve felt to her story,” said church deacon Mark Yettica-Paulson.
“It’s been really touching to see strangers reach out to each other.”
But Ms Meagher’s husband appeared overwhelmed with how very public the death of his wife had become.
“If the media, the press, could respect (our) privacy … at this time, that would be brilliant,” he said this week, before declining to speak further.
Social media analysts like Ms Boschma believe the public will now turn their grief into a call for action, to unite under a common banner.
Premier Ted Baillieu said, “The tragic events of the last two weeks have reminded us of the importance of getting a change of culture.”
Those leaving flowers for Ms Meagher agree.
Carolyn Koludrovic drove for an hour with her three children to lay flowers outside the Brunswick church this week, hoping to contribute in some way.
“Maybe this loss creates a movement that demands respect for women and says violence against women, violence against anyone, is unacceptable,” she said.
“It could have happened to any of us.”