Did Janine Vaughan take a deadly drive?
Hedley Thomas has been a journalist for three decades but it's only recently he discovered a new focus - investigating the haunting disappearances of women across Australia.
The man behind the smash hit podcast Teacher's Pet is back with a new series, The Night Driver.
It traces the disappearance of Janine Vaughan who vanished from her hometown in the NSW Central Tablelands in 2001.
"It's been 19 years since Janine walked out of a nightclub, a popular tavern in the middle of Bathurst where she'd been having a good time dancing," Thomas tells Hibernation.
"A red car pulls up and pulls into the kerb and without hesitation she gets in. And that's the last anyone ever hears from her, the last anyone sees of her."
Police were straight onto the case but had no body, no crime scene, no forensic evidence, few witnesses, no red car and no driver.
"It's like it's all just disappeared into a big black hole and it's been in that hole for 19 years and her family are determined to try to do whatever it takes now to get answers," Thomas says.
"How much longer can they wait? They want to bury her, they want to put her at rest, they want to also find out who was responsible and have that person face justice."
Thomas believes the case can be solved but it could take a "big push" from the podcast to get people coming forward to "tell what they know".
"And that might make a difference," he says.
Thomas's first foray into podcasting examined the unsolved disappearance of Sydney housewife Lyn Dawson in 1982.
The Gold Walkley-winning Teacher's Pet was launched in 2018 and smashed Australian podcast records with more than 28 million downloads.
Lyn's husband Chris Dawson, who came under scrutiny in the Teacher's Pet, was subsequently charged with her murder. He has pleaded not guilty.
So it's no surprise that Thomas, a journalist at The Australian, has capitalised on this success with a new podcast.
But The Night Driver is more than just an anticipated follow-up, it cements Thomas's new-found focus.
"I want to keep doing podcast investigations involving women who have disappeared," he says.
"I believe that there has been a very large number of cases like this and unfortunately, many are unsolved. And maybe we can make a bit of a difference … a good difference with that kind of focus there. If that becomes sort of 'my thing', so be it, I think it's a good thing."
Thomas's print journalism career saw him collect numerous awards but the Teacher's Pet propelled him as a household name - the story captured an international following.
As strange as that was for Thomas, he had help from home in staying grounded.
"My children are 21 and 19 and although their voices are in the Teacher's Pet, as playing some roles, they actually haven't listened to the episodes so they help keep it real," he says laughing.
"Some of the limelight was interesting and you think 'oh this is pretty cool … celebrities getting interested in the story' but my wife and I prefer the sort of relative anonymity of our lifestyle in a semirural community in Brisbane where we just keep to ourselves.
"A good day for us is going for a big long walk in the hills around our place."
Since the Teacher's Pet, Thomas has been inundated with requests from other families to probe their missing loved ones. Turning them down is one of the hardest parts of the job.
Thomas had been aware of Janine's case and after researching it he met with her siblings Kylie Spelde and Adam Vaughan in a Sydney pub. Thomas agreed to take it on.
"Janine, a young woman in a small town, she should have been safe," he says.
"She had a big dream, she wanted to have children, she was ready to settle down and whoever has done this to Janine, has he harmed other women? If he's still out there, is he an ongoing menace to society? So you got some pretty powerful reasons to do a story like this."
The machinations of how a small town like Bathurst deals with a cold case also attracted him.
"There's this sort of chilling recognition by longtime locals that Janine's abductor or murderer must have been someone she knew because they all say she wouldn't have got into a (stranger's) car.
"So that means that person almost certainly has to be a local of Bathurst.
"You have a town that I think is keeping some secrets and the potential to actually produce something that could draw someone out of the shadows and solve it."
The city's namesake event, the Bathurst 1000, is the Holy Grail of motor racing in Australia drawing in tens of thousands of spectators. Mt Panorama, where the race is held, was scoured for any sign of Janine after her disappearance.
"So there's this connection and I just found that really interesting in the context of the driver of this unknown car in this town that celebrates driving and racing, it was probably one of the reasons subconsciously I called it The Night Driver," he says.
Thomas says making a podcast called for "total immersion" in the subject matter.
He is mindful to balance the public's fascination for true crime with what is an ongoing nightmare for families.
"Some listeners might see it as entertainment but that's not fair really, if that's all they see it as," he says.
"This is a story of a family's heartbreaking loss of a woman and this is a story of a woman whose life was cut short at the age of 31 because some creep picked her up in a red car, some creep she trusted and must have ended her life or covered up the fact that something's happened.
"People also have to be reflecting on the fact that it's sometimes the last roll of the dice, the last chance for families to get answers."
The podcast is available for download at thenightdriver.com.au, where anyone with information about Janine's case can email Hedley Thomas
Originally published as Did Janine Vaughan take a deadly drive?