The Stranger: The True Story Behind The Hit Netflix Thriller

Based on the 2018 book "The Sting: The Undercover Operation That Caught Daniel Morcombe's Killer" by Kate Kyriacou, the Netflix film "The Stranger" is a fictionalized retelling of the 2003 abduction and murder of a 13-year-old Australian boy, Daniel Morcombe. Also covered is the years-long sting operation by police to catch his killer, Brett Peter Cowan (via Netflix). Names were changed in the Netflix adaptation, and the movie is not supported by the Morcombe family, according to 7NEWS Australia.

The investigation into the death of the teenage boy and the extensive undercover operation to find who killed him were the largest of their kind to ever happen in Queensland, the Australian state where Morcombe's kidnapping and murder took place, per the Brisbane Times. Today, the Morcombe family operates the non-profit child-safety advocacy organization, The Daniel Morcombe Foundation. Convicted in 2014, Cowan is now serving a life sentence for his crime, according to ABC News Australia.

Morcombe was abducted from a bus stop

As the Brisbane Times goes on to note, Morcombe was reported missing in 2003 shortly before his 14th birthday and after he failed to return from a bus trip he planned to take earlier in the day. According to The Courier-Mail, Morcombe was on his way to a local shopping mall for a haircut and to shop for Christmas presents. Morcombe planned to get to the mall on a bus, and he was waiting at an unofficial bus stop when a man reportedly approached him.

As The Courier-Mail also notes, locals living nearby such as Morcombe knew to wait in that area, and that bus drivers often stopped there, despite the fact it was an unofficial pick-up point. The first bus that arrived passed by Morcombe; the driver was behind schedule and didn't stop. The driver did indicate to Morcombe that another bus was on the way, though, and he radioed that driver that a young boy and a man were waiting. That man, as Australian police later found out, was Brett Peter Cowan.

By the time the second bus arrived, Morcombe had disappeared

Based on further reporting from The Courier-Mail, by the time the second bus arrived, neither Morcombe nor the man reportedly waiting with the teenage boy were spotted. By around 5 p.m. that same evening, Morcombe's parents, Bruce and Denise Morcombe, grew concerned: Daniel had failed to return, which was unlike him. Nor would he likely run away. If he were late or somehow delayed he would surely call and inform his parents.

By 7 p.m. Bruce and Denise reported to local police that their son was missing. From there, a large and expansive police search operation was launched called Operation Vista. Many frustrating dead ends were pursued, but what was consistently mentioned in eyewitness accounts who saw Morcombe waiting at the de-facto bus stop was a "boxy" blue sedan parked nearby, as The Courier-Mail also writes. That clue along with the fact that Cowan was a known sex offender living in the area made him a leading suspect.

Cowan was arrested in 2011

Over the next few years, suspect sketches were released and in 2008 a reward for information about Morcombe's death reached $1 million Australian dollars, as the Brisbane Times explains. It wasn't until 2011 though that Cowan was arrested. To catch Cowan, undercover officers posed as members of a local crime gang, and lured him into their midst with the promise of an upcoming "big job." Cowan could take part but only if he confessed what he'd done to the big boss, per The Guardian.

To prove his loyalty, Cowan told a man he knew as Arnold but who was an undercover officer what had happened years earlier: Cowan approached Morcombe at the bus stop and offered him a ride, which the young boy fatally took him up on. Jailed twice for molestation, Cowan reportedly abused 30 children in his lifetime, according to 7NEWS Australia

He planned to do the same to Morcombe and then drive him to the shopping center, but as he told an undercover officer, "[Morcombe] panicked and I panicked and I grabbed him by the throat," and before Cowan knew it he was dead, Cowan said (via The Guardian). Undercover footage of Cowan's confession is pictured above.

If you or someone you know may be the victim of child abuse, please contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child (1-800-422-4453) or contact their live chat services.

Morcombe's remains were recovered

After the successful sting operation to lure Cowan into confessing, the convicted sex offender was arrested in 2011 and accused of murder and indecent treatment of child, among other charges (via the Brisbane Times). At the time that Brett Peter Cowan was arrested he reportedly said (per 7NEWS Australia) "Yep, cool, I'm under arrest for Daniel's murder, Daniel Morcombe's murder." With the information provided by Cowan, Morcombe's remains were recovered, including items of Morcombe's clothing and bone fragments, which were later released to Morcombe's parents after a coronial inquest in which an exact cause of death was determined (via Go to Court).

A service for Morcombe took place in 2012. The next year, Cowan's trial began, and in 2014, the father of three was unanimously found guilty on all charges and sentenced to life in prison, based on 2014 reporting from The Guardian. The Daniel Morcombe Foundation was established in 2005 and at the time that Cowan was sentenced, the Morcombe family released a statement through the foundation which read (via The Guardian) "On behalf of our entire family we thank everyone who has contributed to finding the answers and especially for never forgetting Daniel ... Compelling evidence has proven beyond reasonable doubt Cowan's guilt."

The Morcombe family calls The Stranger disrespectful

Via 2022 reporting from 7NEWS Australia, the Morcombe's parents (pictured) said they did not support "The Stranger," and they also likened those who profit from Morcombe's story to "parasites." The Morcombe family, according to declined to be involved in the film's production and demanded that Morcombe's real name not be used in the script. In 2022, "The Stranger" director Thomas M. Wright told The Guardian he almost passed on the project after reading Kate Kyriacou's book.

"It's not something that I had an abiding interest in, and when I first read Kate's book ... I thought there was no way I was going to do this," Wright said. "I was so afraid of it ... But the more I sat with it, and the more I read it, it began to reveal itself as a film not about violence at all. Clearly, the reason for the film is an unnameable act of violence ... But that is not the subject of the film," he added.