Two teenagers who went missing from Warilla 34 years ago were most probably murdered within days of their disappearance, a coroner has formally ruled.
Kay Docherty, 15, and Toni Cavanagh, 16, were last seen alive at a bus stop outside the Warilla Grove Shopping Centre about 7.30pm on Friday, July 27, 1979.
The pair, who both attended Lake Illawarra High School, reportedly planned to hitchhike to Wollongong to attend a disco.
Kay’s twin brother Kevin had been due to meet his sister at Toni’s house at 9.30pm to walk her home, as she was afraid of the dark.
However, neither returned to the Cavanaghs’ Martin Street house in Warilla.
They have not been seen since.
Deputy State Coroner Geraldine Beattie on Tuesday sat through almost three hours of evidence from police offices involved in the cold case.
The court heard the initial investigation into the girls’ disappearance was ‘‘scant at best’’, with police at the time dismissing the pair as ‘‘runaways’’.
However, since the case was reopened in 2004, police had chased down hundreds of leads and conducted an extensive, Australia-wide search for any trace of the girls.
A 2007 inquest into their disappearance returned an open finding, with Coroner Chris McRobert ruling there was no evidence to suggest Toni and Kay were not still alive.
However, Ms Beattie on Tuesday heard that a subsequent review of the evidence and ongoing, wide-ranging investigations had failed to find any trace of them.
Police did admit on Tuesday that they had not ruled out the possibility that the girls could have been victims of Belanglo serial killer Ivan Milat or convicted Wollongong murderer Graham Potter, but said there was no available evidence linking either man to the case.
Officers said they believed neither Milat, who is incarcerated at Goulburn jail, nor Potter, who is on the run from Victorian police over a separate murder charge, would admit to killing the girls even if they had committed the crime.
Ms Beattie said based on the information presented to the court, she was satisfied that there was no reliable evidence to conclude Kay and Toni were still alive.
‘‘I find that both girls are deceased, by criminal means, at an unknown location in the days after their  disappearance,’’ she said.
‘‘What I can’t determine is how their deaths came about.’’
Members of both families told the Mercury the findings had brought them a sense of relief and closure, but could not dull the pain of losing a loved one.
Kevin Docherty said he had felt for years that his sister was dead.
‘‘I know if she was alive she would have contacted us,’’ he said.
‘‘It’s not knowing that’s the hardest part.’’
He said losing Kay had taken its toll on his family, saying his mother had ‘‘suffered a life sentence of agony’’.
Mavia Cavanagh said while it was hard to hear that her step-daughter was dead, the findings also gave her the chance to finally grieve.
‘‘I never believed they were just runaways,’’ she said.
‘‘I always feared the worst.’’
Both families expressed their heartfelt thanks to investigating police officers Darren Kelly and Cathy Flood.
‘‘We got the best of the best with you guys,’’ Mr Docherty said.
The case will now be transferred to the police department’s unsolved homicide squad.