11. Cold Welcome
The first sixty kilometres of stony road to Flora Valley was passable by car, but once over the Edward Albert Range the wet season road of black soil was often a mass of water-filled depressions of sticky mud.
Giles Loder frequently did the hourly flight into town on various errands, so it would be little problem to carry a couple of passengers. Would Giles fly them out, Sandra asked Vicki? It was a favour. She and Les wanted to talk to them about their missing son. Vicki said she’d ask Giles. The answer was, “No.”
The police also discouraged the journey. Too dangerous. Loder had weapons and a reputation for using them. Was this another ploy? The constables and aides were told by Guy to discourage unwelcome guests from disturbing the Loders, including Les and Sandra. But seeing the parents’ determination the police decided to escort the couple to the homestead, to keep an eye on things. But they weren’t giving Les and Sandra a lift.
Les Verdon flew them in his ramshackle plane without charge. He had regrets. He should have pushed the police harder, broken through their phobia of the arid country when they had discouraged, even prohibited volunteers from helping search for those kids.
Les was a chubby, good natured white Queenslander who came to the Kimberley in the early sixties and never let anyone forget he'd mustered the Gulf country. He'd been a bore mechanic for Vesteys at Sturt Creek station, and had worked for Bill and Lorna Wilson at Chilla Well, Mongrel Downs, Lake Gregory and Billiluna stations.
Verdon gave Constables Murray Cowper and Police Aide Tony Hunter a head start, then met them at the Flora Valley airstrip. Loder was waiting. It was the 23 January 1987, seven weeks after the disappearances. Shane Kendall avoided the Annetts. He and Andrew Beezley, and another jackeroo, left the next day and hitchhiked down to Fremantle for the America’s cup yacht race. On the way back Kendall got a job at a tourist resort, and didn’t return.
The other jackeroos were mostly gone, and a heavy cloud hung over Flora Valley homestead.
Graham Heleur had departed two days before Christmas, leaving the station without a cook. Danny Verschurren shot through six days later, after Shane Kendall beat him up. He was sick of the place: the hot water didn't work, and with Graham gone they were living out of cans. A packet of biscuits was three years out-of-date. And the grief? They all felt it.
Christmas lunch at the manager's house had been a sombre affair, like an overdue tropical build up that didn’t come to fruition. Andrew Beezley was impressed by the big salad, ham and everything. He was a practical man. His Christmas gift from the Loders was the repaired Toyota that Simon had damaged. No more tractor pulling. This halved the hours on the bore run so he could fix fences and pull cattle, horse and donkey carcasses from the dried up water holes.
Chris Rumpf hadn’t felt Loder’s glow of approval. He’d given his resignation three times, but actually leaving was dependent on getting paid. Loder wanted him over the holiday period, then on 4 January 1987 told him they were going for a flight, but didn’t say where. Rumpf’s other bag stored at Flora Valley had already been packed. They flew to Halls Creek where Loder left him on the airstrip, and where Rumpf found the coin collection given to him by his grandmother was missing, but someone had added numerous articles of women’s underwear.
Margaret Cavanagh replaced Graham Heleur in early 1987. She was a widowed mother of seven children, and had worked at Flora Valley in 1984 and 1985, before Sherwin bought the station. She’d enjoyed the job, but her enthusiasm was tempered when a Sister of Mercy nun told her on the flight that the missing boys had been based there, and that black trackers thought they’d been murdered.
Margaret nevertheless expected a pleasant arrival, but knew within twelve-hours she wouldn’t be staying long. She met Loder one evening while taking the meal tray to Vicki, who had returned from New South Wales with her new baby. He got out of his vehicle, and moved by her in slow motion as if she were invisible, then went into the house. She rang the gate bell, but no one appeared. She rang the front door bell. His head craned around the doorway then disappeared, and he began yelling at Vicki. He returned to the doorway, and took the tray, holding it at arm’s length for a few seconds, while he and Margaret stared at each other. After that her red heeler bitch wouldn’t accompany her past the front gate. Margaret began sleeping with a .410 gauge shotgun next to her bed.
Vicki and Giles had a lot on their minds, but Margaret noticed their demeanors change markedly, after a visit from detectives, as if a burden had been lifted from their shoulders. And thereafter the police increased their efforts to discourage unwelcome visitors to the homestead.
The following account relies on journals and statements written in pencil by Les and Sandra Annetts in early 1987. Giles and Vicki Loder have not responded to requests to speak about this period of their lives.
Sandra remembers there wasn’t a word of condolence, or a hint of sympathy, when they reached the homestead. Not even a cup of tea.
Giles avoided eye contact and said, "I can't understand why the boys have done this, stolen my vehicle." Vicki interrupted, "It is out of James’ character; it's not James. Anyone else with Simon, yes, but not James." Giles responded with a lingering glare on Vicki, who remained silent for the rest of the visit. With his finger Giles drew a question mark in the air and said, "There is a question mark over Simon."
Les asked if James was owed any money and upon Giles instruction Vicki fetched three cheques totaling $922.68, a large amount for a 16-year-old in 1987. Loder hadn't paid him for two months, putting further into contention the theory the boys had stolen the Datsun. Sandra noticed Giles had a bandaged lower leg. She felt a sudden shocked nausea.
Returning to Halls Creek, Murray Cowper flew in the plane, while Sandra went with Tony Hunter in the police vehicle. It was a miserable trip.
12. Tales of violence
Back in town, Sandra told police about Loder's bandaged leg. She wanted his blood tested and compared with that on James’ hat. They weren’t interested.
Few visited the Tremlett house by day, but after sunset Aboriginals and others arrived, with stories of Loder beating the smaller and younger jackeroos. Tracker Bradshaw visited, but with a police escort. Like many tribal men English was his second or third language. He was a quiet man who chose his words carefully, but in this instance even a few words were too much for the police. An accompanying officer announced that Bradshaw "has nothing more to say" and they left. But the tracker had much more to say.
Giles Loder was a tall and sinewy, hard man, respected by other hard men. Government stock inspector Peter Carmichael, thought differently. He described Loder’s attitude as similar to that shown towards the cattle: break their spirits and they were easier to control. Jackeroo Brett Lee, said Loder encouraged him to work harder by saying "get moving" or he'd hit him.
Sonny Mark Peckover was a cheerful 17-year-old when he started at Flora Valley. He started work before 7am and finished as late as 9pm, six days a week for $80. After giving notice he was assigned to pulling up fence pickets. John Davis belted each one with the Land Cruiser bull bar, then Sonny levered it from the ground. This caused his back to seize up, so he decided to leave a day earlier than planned, but Vicki wouldn't pay his wages, even for days worked. He decided to leave anyway, and was packing up his stuff with John Robinson when Loder returned. He said Loder "started screaming at us, calling us gutless little cunts." Sixteen-year-old Russell Linke heard this, and came out of his hut. Linke had a delicate personality with crybaby eyes. Sonny said Loder was wearing steel-capped boots and towered over Russell. Loder asked him if he was also leaving, and when Russell replied, “Yes”. Sonny recounted that Loder:
“Leapt out of the Land Cruiser and started punching Russel, he attempted to throw Russel over a weldmesh fence. Russel half fell over the fence and then fell backwards then Giles started kicking Russel. Russel had a big cut on his arm and he lost a chunk of skin from his foot.
Russell recounted that Loder:
“…threw two punches at me. The punches didn’t connect and I fell into a weld-meshed fence and was cut. I was on the ground and Loder kept kicking me. John said, ‘Don’t you think that’s enough?’ and Loder swung around and said: ‘Do you want some of it, too?’ He kicked me a few more times and then left.”
Peckover says Loder told them to "get off his station" and walk the nine kilometres to the front gate, then changed his mind and gave them a lift in the back of the ute, adding that they were too low to ride in the front. Peckover remembers Loder left them on Duncan Road without water, and paid them with unsigned pay cheques. Russell says they got a lift with a Main Roads truck up to Nicholson homestead, where the ‘bore runner’, Andrew Lister, secretly drove them to Kununurra, where their cheques bounced.
Peckover said Loder “…obviously loved the power of being boss…I tried to get Russel to press assault charges against Giles when we got to Kununarra but he wouldn't he thought that Giles might come looking for him."
Teenager Brendan Berlin thought Loder a hopeless manager who couldn't communicate with the jackeroos. He gave notice one evening in August when Loder had been drinking. Berlin could smell it on him. Loder became infuriated and punched him "in the side of the jaw," then pushed him into a thorny bush that ripped his shirt and gouged his back. Brett Lee saw Berlin later and noted that his "shirt was torn and he looked a bit bloody." Berlin went to John and Debbie's quarters. "I can stick up for myself, but the young fellows can't," he told them. After Berlin returned to his room Loder sought out John, saying: "This bloke has a big mouth; he needs to do some hard work for the next few days. However, Berlin left the next day. He walked thirty kilometres, until passing Aboriginals stopped and gave him a lift to Halls Creek.
Shane Kendall smiled through it all. He later recollected to Chris Masters from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that Loder gave Paul Griffith what is now called the “coward’s punch” then kicked him on the ground. He rationalised, through a sly smile, that Loder’s blows hurt Paul’s pride more than anything:
“What he did was wrong in respect of maybe hitting him from behind, whatever. It’s pretty tough out there, I mean, you know. You get in when you can. That’s my opinion.”
Kendall was heading for a promotion, and it came when John and Debbie Davis decided they'd had enough. They'd put up with pay discrepancies, and Vicki Loder questioning Debbie about the alleged disappearance of a cut of meat, but they couldn’t countenance the excessive beatings. John had already expressed his dismay over another incident where, even in the atmosphere of accepted station violence, he told Debbie "…that he'd seen a man beaten like he'd never seen anyone beaten before."
There was no trouble getting another job, and they were soon at Ruby Plains: John as a ringer and Debbie cooking.
Veteran stockman James Frank Ghilotti also quit, along with Douglas Johnson and thirty-five year old Bob Stewart. Ghilotti said safety issues were the main reason for his leaving.
Half the workforce also quit on 17 October 1986, when Paul Baikie, Ron Moir, Bob Rowe, Nigel Hepworth and Ron (Spook) Bickford left as a group. They knew what had happened to Berlin and Griffith, and wanted to avoid a similar fate. They tried to convince James and Simon to leave with them, but James wasn’t moving. It was his first real job; he was earning real money for doing a man's work.
Paul Baikie was later ridden by unwarranted guilt. He could have tried harder to get them to leave, he reasoned. "But what could he have done," his wife said twenty-four years later, "lock them in the boot"? Paul stated to New Zealand police in 1988:
“I had a guts full of working on the station as we were treated like shit…We couldn't get Simon or James to leave with us. They decided to stay as it was the lifestyle he [James] wanted. It was the first station he had worked on and didn't know that others were better in the way they looked after the workers. It was the first station both of them had worked on…Just before we left Giles told Simon that he was going to either Nicholson or Stuart [Sturt] Creek stations to work as loan [lone] station manager. James was told the same. Simon was rapt with the idea. He was keen to go. James wasn't quite so sure…James was happy where he was. But they were told they had to go and work on the other stations so James said he had better go.”
Peter Carmichael saw the five jackeroos return to Halls Creek, and half-joked to others that they should send out a Freedom Bus to Sherwin properties to release the slaves.
Clare Tremlett saw numerous bedraggled teenage jackeroos returning from properties: "My heart used to go out to them when I saw them on the street. They were so dirty, half-starved and miserable. I'd usually cook them a meal and let them have a clean-up…”
After a muster at Caranya, Ron Bickford, 36, moved to Halls Creek and warned new arrivals against going to Flora Valley, such was his passion.
The Annetts felt ice in their guts upon hearing these stories. They phoned Pat Clark, hoping to enlist her help to pressure the police to continue the search.
“We told her how we were totally shocked and couldn't believe what we heard that Loder bashed the boys and all the rest of it and she was just not interested.
She didn't believe a word we said and said she didn't want to have anything more to do with it.”
13. Meanwhile, back at Binya
As Les and Sandra desolately waited for their connecting coach at the Adelaide bus station on 1 February 1987, the cycle of life and death continued four kilometres west, where Heather Snelling lay with her daughter, a healthy Naomi Thelma, born two days previously, without complications, at Ashford Hospital.
As Reg and Heather celebrated the magic of a new life, the exhausted Annetts grasped the intangibility of their own grief, as they boarded their bus. Their world had imploded, and the generational imperatives that had prompted them to retreat into their family, again reasserted control. They’d never dreamed the outside world would present such opposition to them discovering what had happened to their son.
Eight days later on 9 February, Pat Clark wrote and thanked Giles Loder for all he'd done for her son. She gave him Simon's Valiant Charger, still parked at Flora Valley homestead.
“The car on the station I am leaving to you…as a small token of my appreciation for what you did for Simon…It must have been awful for you that week with your wife away having your child, fighting bushfires and having to come back finding both boys missing.”
Vicki dispassionately filed Pat’s letter, which along with Simon’s letters, later became her husband’s ‘stay out of jail’ cards. She returned two letters that Robert Amos had written to Simon, marking them, “Return to sender,” without a word of apology or sympathy.
Pat Clark ran hot and cold between gratitude towards Giles Loder, while harbouring a foreboding mistrust. The day after giving Giles the Charger she wrote Sandra, saying:
“The police said they would go out to the station and chat Loder up and tell him write a cheque out for Simon's wages as I'm his next of kin. I wrote to Loder to tell him this and made it sound as though I knew exactly how much he was supposed to get.”
Back at Binya the indomitable Dorothy Thompson immersed herself in the crisis, and spent the next few months arranging fundraisers for search expenses, phone bills and, later, the funeral. She filing incoming mail, and formed the initial archives that in later years proved invaluable. Without her efforts much of this history would have been lost.
Les and Sandra spent their days and nights on the phone with journalists, Halls Creek people, total strangers, lawyers and politicians, but rarely the police.
When they collapsed from exhaustion, Dorothy sat by the phone and recorded names and numbers of callers offering commiseration, and journalists, both scouring the depths of the Annetts’ grief, and looking for clues as to why things went so badly wrong.
Sandra stopped eating and mentally fell apart, while Les dropped from 13 stone to 7 stone. They’d hear knocks on their front door then find food and wine on the doorstep. The three surviving children were always hungry, but Sandra had given up eating and Les had long forsaken wine after getting the ultimatum from his wife early in their marriage: alcohol or family.
Money and condolence cards flooded their mail box. John and Debbie Davis urged them to take strength that others were feeling their sorrow as well. Barry Coffey wrote that he’d salvaged vehicles and aircraft in the bush, and could help with the search as soon as he was sprung from Wooroloo Prison Farm. "Reasonable rates," he assured. The Angels held a fundraising concert to send the Annetts back to the Kimberley to continue their search. Peter and Florence Sherwin loomed large in their silence. Giles and Vicki Loder said nothing.
Sixty members of the Katherine branch of the Northern Territory Cattlemen's Association met in March 1987. Keith Lansdowne from Kumbidgee station moved a motion for the association to ask Peter Sherwin to give his version of the boys' disappearance, "to help end rumour and innuendo". Ninety percent of those present abstained from voting.
Sandra bought a Realistic tape recorder from Tandy and the cassette tapes piled up in a fruit box next to the phone. They rented a house and were debt free, but the phone bill became their surrogate mortgage.
Sandra called the Halls Creek police every day for new developments, while they called her twice in the three months. They didn’t appreciate her search suggestions and Constable Ron Ensel told her he "can't and won't" tell her anything about progress of the investigation, then hung up. Sandra admitted she abused Sergeant Hatton: “… I said this was not our dog missing, it was our son. He kept telling us he didn't know if the boys had taken their money.”
And the other children: Jason, Michelle and Joanne endured those cold months of fear and anxiety. It left them with psychological scars but, like their parents they had the steel to meet the future.
The police breathed a collective sigh of relief when the media storm died down. Sandra was a natural interviewee, who delivered concise one-liners favoured by journalists. She instinctively understood time and space constraints and stuck to her subject without getting off the track. She looked good, too, like a normal mother of that era, who cooked food and did the ironing. One journalist said it was as if she been doing it all her life. But Sandra felt sick in the stomach at every media encounter.
But as the leaden clouds of the Wet rolled over the land, and without new leads to breathe life into the story, the media turned its eye elsewhere, that is, until Sandra struck again.
14. The public relations search
Sandra Annetts told a single syndicated journalist that she was selling her wedding rings and furniture to fund another search. She’d already spent their life savings on their January trip, adding: "Searching ourselves seems the only way our son will be found." Her words swept the nation like flames racing through spinifex on a windy day, and the story was back on the media front burner.
When Sandra’s media firestorm reached Chief Superintendent Ron Kjellgren, he announced, as if by magic, that a new search would be mounted. Perth Detective Inspector Arnold Ian Davies would "cover all aspects of the search".
Davies told one journalist that Kjellgren wanted the police to be seen to be doing something. However rather than calming things down, this new investigation drew more gremlins from the woodwork, but what else could the police do? Sandra had backed them into a corner.
MTN8 Regional television announced that police now believed the boys hadn't absconded, as originally thought. It was an 'ah hah' moment, that explained the half-hearted search − the police thought the boys had simply shot through, and weren't worthy of a real search. It wasn’t a good look for the authorities whatever way you looked at it.
Davies realised Loder’s delay in calling for help had made it nearly impossible to find the boys alive. He found it disturbing that Flora Valley staff hadn’t been utilised, but were left performing their usual duties.
Davies ordered tests on the dried blood found on James’ hat. They proved Guy wrong. It wasn’t animal blood. It was Group B human blood.
James’ blood type was A-RH negative. Simon's blood test results couldn't be found, but his father, Robert Amos, had type O Rhesus (D)+. The blood on the hat wasn’t from Simon or James. What about Loder's blood? Was his bandaged leg the result of a fight with the boys? The police still declined to test Loder’s blood. He was not a murder suspect. He was a good fellow who helped with the search. Constable Main said he was an upstanding man. Detective Crook said he seemed sincerely depressed over the whole matter. But journalists, Aboriginals and the public down south thought differently: Giles Munro Loder was the prime suspect.
Journalists flooded newspapers and the airwaves with criticism against the police, who complained of “media harassment."
First Class Sergeant John Hatton became officer-in-charge at Halls Creek in late January 1987. His dark moustache and wide-brimmed hat, pulled low over his head, gave the appearance of a jovial Mexican bandito. He charged forward to defend the police failure to find the Datsun saying that: "You could hide General Custer and his troops in a gully and you wouldn't know they were there.” This was true in the rugged gorge country near Nicholson station, but south of Balgo the flatter terrain and gridline seismic tracks made it easier to find a vehicle. A day in a well fueled plane might have found it. Police failure to give credence to common knowledge that the boys were seen near Balgo later drew scathing ridicule.
Veteran helicopter pilot Sean Murphy said on the Mike Willessee television program in 1987 that:
“I've never heard anything like that in my lifetime. To start a search five days after they disappeared is bordering on criminal, really. Normally, you'd start a search within the same day they disappeared, certainly on the second day and nine times out of ten you'd find them.”
Jungarri T. Bradshaw, added, ever so subtly: "I think we'll find them later on if we do a proper big search, you know."
After fleeing Flora Valley Russell Linke found work on a Queensland cattle station. A helicopter there went down and:
“...within one hour thirteen choppers and four planes were out searching...
In that country you have to move quickly because people can die quickly in the heat. Usually, when someone goes missing the whole area gets involved in the search and I find it strange that this didn’t happen when those two boys went missing...”
Others had little sympathy for the Annetts: They’d broken the Kimberley code of silence, where antagonists settle disputes between themselves without recourse to the police or, even worse, the media. They were southerners, not Kimberley people, and who did Les think he was dressing like a ringer and wearing that Stetson hat?
15. The hundred years war
The Aboriginals backed the Annetts. They’d grown up with pre-gudia tales of open country free of fences and locked gates, and waterholes bursting with uncontaminated water. In their eyes Loder and Sherwin were descendants of the first white settlers, and the police the vigilante patrols that had dished out their deadly collective punishment.
Peter Sherwin stopped supplying cheap ‘killers’ to the locals. These were damaged bullocks and shags not suitable for live export or breeding, and used for local consumption. Supplying ‘killers’ was a legacy from pre-citizenship days, when Aboriginals sequestered in camps worked for rations, after their nomadic lifestyles became lethal, when they could be shot on sight. Equal wages, mass dismissals and welfare changed the dynamic. ‘Killers’ were still supplied to discourage locals from butchering healthy beasts on the sly, because welfare money didn't cover the cost of shop food, or the increased tempo of their nomadic lives, that now included Land Cruisers.
When sixty Aboriginals claimed ownership of Pigeon Hole outcamp on Victoria River Downs (VRD) station, Sherwin made their lives less comfortable by locking seven gates, blocking access to the bitumised highway at Victoria River roadhouse. This forced them and their Northern Land Council white lawyers to take the long route via the Buntine Highway.
At Ringer Soak the kids found it exciting using their slingshots against Loder's plane swooping low like a dive bomber, but the elders were sickened with fear, having grown up with stories, or even seen the results of retribution killings like the Sturt Creek massacre.
But tragedy was shared all round in this unpredictable land. Generations of white pastoralists worked themselves to early deaths after watching their children die from inadequate medical care, and their hard work destroyed by drought and disease, then the government handing their stations back to ‘black fellas’ who let them go to rack and ruin, and who said the land had always been theirs, anyway, and the pastoralists were merely temporary leaseholders.
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