Alleged murder of Samantha Murphy has an entire community grieving

With a population of about 113,000 people, Ballarat is the third-largest city in Victoria, behind Melbourne and Geelong. 

Despite its relatively large size, locals often run into someone they know while getting their early morning caffeine, walking their dog, going to the gym, and attending social events. 

Lydiard Street in the Ballarat CBD.(ABC Ballarat: Christopher Testa)

Strangers don’t seem strangers for long in the city, where the notion of six degrees of separation — the idea that all people are six or fewer social connections away from each other — seems reduced to one or two.

But the city’s social fabric and allegiance to its locals is being tested as it deals with the series of tragic events involving two families with strong community connections.

The disappearance of Samantha Murphy, the ensuing five-week search, and the subsequent naming of a 22-year-old Ballarat local, Patrick Orren Stephenson, as her alleged killer have sent shock waves through the grieving city.

A smiling blonde woman

Ballarat woman Samantha Murphy.(Supplied: Ballarat Courier/Adam Trafford)

Mr Stephenson, 22, grew up in Ballarat and attended St Patrick’s College from years 7 to 9 from 2014 to 2016.

He spent the next couple of years finishing years 10 to 12 at Damascus College, where one of Mrs Murphy’s children is a student.

“Our prayers and thoughts are with the Murphy family and all in the community impacted by these tragic circumstances,” both schools said in a statement on Friday. 

A man in a football uniform standing next to another man

Accused man Patrick Orren Stephenson (left) and father Orren Stephenson.(Facebook)

The Stephenson family is known in the community especially the accused’s father, Orren Stephenson, who played football in the AFL and for the North Ballarat Roosters.

The Murphys were heavily involved in the arts community through the Ballarat Centre for Music and the Arts.

Collective trauma 

With so many community touchpoints, people with no direct connection to the Murphys or Stephensons are also feeling grief and pain.

A man and a crying young woman addressing the media.

Husband Mick Murphy and daughter Jess Murphy appealed for information when Samantha Murphy was missing.(ABC News)

City of Ballarat councillor Samantha McIntosh says Ms Murphy’s alleged murder has had a “ripple effect” throughout the whole community. 

“Every person I am speaking with locally is devastated with this news for both families. Everyone is being touched by this dreadful situation,” she says. 

Psychologists call what the Ballarat community is going through “collective trauma”.

Rob Gordon is a clinical psychologist and consultant to the Red Cross and the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing for disasters and traumatic events.

He describes collective trauma as “some fundamental aspect of our experience that our community is damaged”.

A man looking serious and wearing a tweed suit and a red tie.

Clinical psychologist Rob Gordon OAM specialises in community trauma.(ABC News)

“If that doesn’t recover, then we now live as though this kind of event might happen any day to anyone anywhere,” Dr Gordon says. 

“Therefore, nobody goes for runs, we all put huge locks on our door and the sense of not being safe generalises away from this type of event to anything and people become very anxious.”

Dr Gordon says the random nature of the alleged attack has contributed to the collective trauma in this case.

A walking trail through trees

Samantha Murphy was known to run regularly in Woowookarung Regional Park in Ballarat.(ABC Ballarat: Rochelle Kirkham)

“Anyone who goes running thinks: ‘Could that have been me?'” he says.

“The second thing is if she is an ordinary community member, an active, community-minded person, a woman with a family, we can all identify with her.”

Compounding events

Ballarat doesn’t seem to be a stranger to tragedies.

This week, a truck driver accused of smashing into the back of a bus on the Western Freeway that was filled with Loreto College students in 2022 faced court. 

Last month, Ballarat High School teacher Damien Woods was jailed for sexually assaulting a student. 

The recent weather events and fire danger north-west of Ballarat forced many families to evacuate their homes. 

Child and Family Services chief executive Wendy Sturgess says it has been a difficult time for young people in the Ballarat community.

“We have noticed that, in the community, people are mentioning, people are saying on a daily basis what is happening, there is a level of anxiety and level of concern,” she says.

“I think that is the thing about grief; it hits people in different ways.

“The community is feeling it on a lot of levels.”

Working through grief 

Dr Gordon says one of the ways to deal with collective trauma is to connect with each other.

a table of photos of Samantha and flowers.

The Ballarat community gathered to pay tribute to Samantha Murphy at a vigil.(ABC News)

“We rebuild that by actual experiences of people caring and helping,” he says.

“That is where I think the flowers and the vigils are very, very valuable for showing that a core of the community cares.”

Ballarat Centre for Music and the Arts has opened on occasions over the past five weeks to allow children and families to come together, offering that space again this week.

Dr Gordon says shared spaces for people to talk are helpful.

“A bit down the track, having community meetings where information can be shared and they can understand more about it and how to look after themselves and each other,” he says.

“We can come out of this and say something has changed in the Ballarat community. We can have something good coming out of it.”

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