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Lonely hearts ad led another woman to key witness in Marion Barter’s disappearance, inquest hears

Ghislaine Dubois-Danlois was 72 and at a low point in her life when she put a lonely hearts ad in a newspaper in 2006. A widow, she was “exhausted” and “wanted to think about something new”.

“I wasn’t looking into the future,” she told a Lismore court via satellite link from her home in Brussels on Wednesday.

Dubois-Danlois was appearing at the fifth hearing of the coroner’s inquest into the disappearance of Marion Barter, she said, because “it is important for me to bear witness”.

One long handwritten letter responding to her ad had stood out as beautiful and inspirational.

“His letter was very interesting, no spelling mistakes, a nice letter.”

The man was, he said, a bank manager who lived in Australia. His name, Frederick de Hedervary, she told the court she has since learned was one of up to 50 aliases used by Ric Blum, a key witness in the inquest.

Barter had been a popular primary school teacher at the Southport school on the Gold Coast when, in March 1997, she suddenly quit her job, sold her house and announced she was going on a sabbatical to Europe.

She had become uncharacteristically secretive. In May 1997, two months before she left Australia, Marion had changed her name by deed poll to Florabella Natalia Marion Remakel. She left Australia on 22 June 1997. By October her daughter Sally Leydon became concerned that she hadn’t heard from her mother and contacted her bank. She discovered that over a three-week period in August and September $5,000 a day had been withdrawn in Byron Bay and Burleigh Heads, while her family thought she was in Europe. On 15 October 1997 $80,000 had been electronically transferred to an unknown account.

And then she vanished.

A podcast exploring Barter’s disappearance, The Lady Vanishes, launched in March 2019 and has since been downloaded 16m times.

At previous hearings of the coroner’s inquest in February 2022, Blum said he had an affair with Barter between February and June 1997.

In May 1997, two months before she left Australia, Marion had become uncharacteristically secretive and had even changed her name. Photograph: David Maurice Smith/Oculi

The inquest has heard police traced a Queensland driver’s licence in the name of Fernand Remakel back to Blum, the same surname that Barter had changed her name to.

Since the early 1980s Blum has been on an Australian invalid pension and his wife, Diane, who he married in 1976, on a carer’s pension.

At the inquest in February two women had come forward as witnesses. Both told the inquest they had relationships with Blum at a time when they were vulnerable after divorce. Both said they had been pressured to sell their houses and property to move with him to an exciting and romantic new life in the south of France.

One, Ginette Gaffney-Bowen, told the court he had taken $30,000 from her bank account when she had given him her pin number to buy a fax machine for a business he proposed. And that he threatened her when she refused to sell her house.

On Wednesday, another woman, Dubois-Danlois, told the court she met Blum in Brussels where he was living in a small studio. She has previously told a Belgian newspaper how she had brought up her four children alone after she was widowed at the age of 50. “So I invited him to my place and he accepted immediately,” she told the inquest. They shared her bed, “he said to me beforehand that he was normally frigid”.

Within a month Blum suggested that they marry in Bali and that she move with him to Australia. She accepted “because I was fond of him and I wanted to live with him in Australia”. He had wanted to keep it secret from her children, she said, but she insisted they tell them.

He later asked her to sell her house “and to give him the money so he could open bank accounts for my four children, so that when they visited they would have their own money in their own bank account. He took advantage of the love I have for my children to steal my money.”

He chose which of her “valuable and dear to me” possessions would be loaded into trunks, “so when I arrived in Australia I would find them there”.

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She would never see them again.

During their time together, Dubois-Danlois told the court, he said “very little about himself”.

The end came four months after they had met, she said, when she told him she was going to use the proceeds of the sale of her house to buy a house for her son, a farmer in France, whose own house had burned down.

Her son and his partner had organised a farewell dinner and Blum didn’t turn up. He called her, she said, “and I said ‘give me back what you took from me’ and he said, ‘I will give you nothing and if I hear from you again you will have to deal with me’.

“It was quite laughable, he said he was ending it because I was too noisy when I drank. It was three or four days after that I understood he had left for good.”

She told the court he had walked away with €70,000 in cash, her life savings.

“Eventually I understood that he had never loved me and had just wanted my money.”

In 2013 she gave a statement to police “because someone else had fallen victim to him. This poor lady had been abandoned with no money in Bali. She did not speak English.” This person has declined to give evidence at the inquest.

At the inquest in February, Blum had described another woman, Andree Flamme, as being “in a wheelchair” and with “dementia.”

On Wednesday, Flamme appeared as a witness from her home in Portugal and laughed at this suggestion. She told the inquest she was clearly neither. “Never.”

She had met Blum through her son-in-law in May 2010. She had been widowed for a year, her husband had left a coin collection. She said Blum had taken an interest in it. When her son-in-law said Blum was looking for a place to live she invited him to stay in her house. “He was looking at the coins.” One day, “I went out on an errand and when I came back everything was gone.”

After her son and daughter had sent strong emails Blum returned some but not all of the coins, she said.

Appearing at the inquest previously, Blum has denied allegations he conned women out of money, telling the court, “I never took advantage of anyone”. Asked why he had gotten a Queensland driver’s licence in the name of his former lover’s ex-husband, Fernand Remakel, Blum told the court “I can’t give you a proper explanation”.

He returns to the stand on Wednesday.

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