The old wooden courtroom in Sydney was packed and full of anticipation as people waited quietly for Justice Robert Hulme to tell them whether Daniel Holdom would spend the rest of his life in prison.
Holdom, 44, pleaded guilty in July to murdering his girlfriend Karlie Jade Pearce-Stevenson and her two-year-old daughter Khandalyce in December 2008. The pleas, entered a week before his trial was due to start, signalled an end to a case that had gripped Australia.
Pearce-Stevenson’s body was found in 2010, but she went unidentified for years, known only as the "Angel of Belanglo" due to the word "angelic" on a t-shirt found near her remains.
Khandalyce’s body was found five years later and 1,200km away, stuffed in a suitcase and dumped on the side of a rural highway in South Australia. It was only after Khandalyce was found that Pearce-Stevenson was finally identified.
The sentencing on Friday morning had been a long time coming; two weeks shy of a decade since Pearce-Stevenson and Khandalyce were killed.
But before Justice Hulme could begin handing down his sentence for the brutal murders, Holdom’s junior barrister Thomas Woods rose to speak. "A matter has arisen," he said to Hulme.
The matter, it turned out, was a shocking twist: Holdom had instructed his lawyers to withdraw his plea of guilty to Khandalyce’s murder.
"When were these instructions received?" Hulme asked.
"A matter of minutes ago," said Woods, confessing that he had very little further information.
The court adjourned for 30 minutes, after which the last-minute application was denied. Hulme said it had no real prospect of success and that Holdom had had "ample" time to consider his pleas.
He went on to sentence Holdom to two terms of life imprisonment over the murders, describing them as of "extreme gravity and appalling depravity".
Holdom murdered Pearce-Stevenson on Dec. 15, 2008, in the Belanglo State Forest. The forest is two hours southwest of Sydney and notorious as the location where the bodies of seven backpackers murdered by serial killer Ivan Milat were found.
Pearce-Stevenson was 20 when she died from severe blunt force trauma to her trunk, likely caused by Holdom stomping on her or dropping his knees onto her chest and throat.
Holdom violated her in a "callous and sadistic way" after her death, taking photos of gratuitous sexual violence he had inflicted on her as a "vile trophy of his own inhumanity", Hulme said.
"[He had] complete disdain for her existence as a human being. To him, she was just flesh with a life that could be extinguished for his vile pleasure."
Holdom returned to Canberra, where he, Pearce-Stevenson and Khandalyce had been staying. He lied to their hosts, saying he had fought with Pearce-Stevenson and dropped her at a bus stop, and was taking Khandalyce to her grandmother in South Australia.
Four days later, on Dec. 19, he drove with Khandalyce to the town of Narrandera in regional New South Wales where he murdered her, most likely by suffocating her in a motel room.
It is unknown what exactly Holdom did to kill Khandalyce. He has never given a reliable account. From her skeletal remains, a forensic pathologist was able to determine it was likely she was suffocated. Two balls of dishcloth had been stuffed in the toddler's mouth, and tape wrapped around her head.
"The victim was a completely defenceless two-year-old," Hulme said, and Holdom’s sexual motive in her death only made it "more despicable".
Holdom looked at Hulme through much of the sentence, his head resting against his hand, an elbow propped on the bench of the dock. He shook his head whenever Hulme referenced his sexual motive in the murder of Khandalyce, and his sexual interest in children more generally.
Hulme also mentioned Holdom’s "cruel" and "callous" behaviour in using Pearce-Stevenson’s phone to falsely suggest to her family that she and Khandalyce were still alive. He also defrauded Pearce-Stevenson’s bank account to the tune of $72,000 after her death.
After Pearce-Stevenson's mother, Colleen Povey, lodged a missing person's report in 2009, Holdom sent a text message posing as Pearce-Stevenson and the report was later dropped.
Colleen Povey died of cancer in 2012. At Holdom’s sentencing hearing in September, Pearce-Stevenson’s stepfather Scott Povey recounted the immense pain of watching Colleen die at a time when neither of them knew what had happened.
"Her very last distinguishable sentence a couple of hours before taking her last struggling breath being 'Is Karlie and Khandals here yet?' I was holding her hand when she died and I knew then Karlie was not coming," he said.
Three years later, Povey was told by detectives that the "little girl found dumped in a suitcase" on the news was his granddaughter Khandalyce. In his statement, he apologised to Pearce-Stevenson for having felt angry with her for not speaking to her mum.
"I am sorry that I blamed you for your mum's sadness and for being angry when you didn't come to say goodbye to your mum. We didn't know you couldn’t. I know now that I will never see you to say I'm sorry," he said.
Hulme addressed the "torment and despair" of the family in not knowing what had happened to their loved ones. Some family members were watching the sentencing remotely from interstate via video link. At one point, Hulme turned and looked directly into the camera. "I respectfully extend my most sincere sympathy," he said.
Holdom has, legally, shown no remorse for his crimes. At his sentencing hearing, Gregory Woods SC told the court Holdom had instructed to his lawyers to apologise on his behalf "for the grave crimes which he has committed and for which he confessed with his guilty plea".
But Hulme gave this apology no weight on sentence, pointing out that it did not legally count as remorse and "seems to have been reconsidered" anyway, given the eleventh hour application to withdraw the guilty plea over Khandalyce’s murder.
Hulme said Holdom "completely understood what he was doing". The judge said he was not satisfied the 44-year-old was suffering a mental health condition at the time of the murders.
There were just two mitigating factors, Hulme said: the "atrocious abuse" Holdom received from his stepfather as a young child, and the fact he had pleaded guilty.
But his crimes were so heinous, and his culpability so extreme, Hulme said, that these factors did not detract from the maximum penalty.
After Hulme sentenced Holdom to life over the two murders, the courtroom briefly broke out in applause.
Holdom, who stood and looked directly at Hulme as his sentence was handed down, did not visibly react to news of his fate.
In a statement provided to media, Pearce-Stevenson and Khandalyce’s next-of-kin said the sentence was an "important milestone on the heartbreaking and daunting journey" they had been on.
The family said no sentence could ever bring closure, but offered profuse thanks to the NSW Department of Justice and police for their efforts in the investigation.
"His brutality will haunt us forever. Nothing done to him will bring Karlie and Khandalyce back or repay the toll on us," the statement said.
"The best we can say to the mums and dads, grandparents, brothers and sisters and kinfolk, ‘Hold your loved ones close and hold them tight and never stop hugging them’. We can no longer hold and hug Karlie and Khandalyce, but we will never stop loving them."