16. Rough and tumble in Halls Creek
Sergeant John Hatton was used to laying down the law without question. His job was to take control of any situation, and not engage in debates. This worked with drunks or at car crashes, but it didn’t go down well with the media. Hatton came across as bombastic when he claimed the boys tired of being jackeroos and headed home for Christmas. Anyone with a rudimentary understanding of human nature knew the boys wouldn’t leave their money and clothing, and Simon his cherished Charger, and even his cigarettes, while knocking off the station truck for a one-way trip home. But that was the logic used by the police.
The life of a Halls Creek OIC wasn’t easy. The police station phone was connected to his house, so when no other officers were on duty, he took the calls on weekends or during the night. Hatton’s predecessor, Allan Hogarth, escaped with his wife once a month to a motel in Kununurra or Broome, but still had to be in contact with the officer he’d left in charge.
Halls Creek was frequently on the verge of a riot, and police on Friday and Saturday nights could make a hundred arrests, due to a “no tolerance” rule for drunken behaviour.
Police Aide Tony Hunter said three or four officers would often find themselves facing a hundred drunks so:
“...if you were standing up fighting in front of the pub...I’d walk up and hit you fair in the fucking head and drag you out and my mate would back me up and we’d lock you both up to get you out of the situation and the others would disperse.”
But things could backfire, and one night Hatton came close to being fried to a crisp when prisoners took over part of the station:
“There was a big riot at the pub and it just turned to shit and escalated and when they got back to the police station and started overpowering people there they threw these tyres on top of him and threatened to light them.”
But Halls Creek also had its perks, like cheap government housing, isolated area allowances, free beer on Fridays, and sexually charged packs of women that hunted men at night and spray-painted fences with the words: “fuck me”.
It was also painful for officers during the Annetts saga, as they suffered punitive and sometimes inaccurate media reports from southern journalists, who didn't understand the nature of the wet season, or the vastness of the country. And how difficult it was to explain why on many days not a single patrol went out to search.
17. True lies
Police barked up the wrong tree when they checked the diesel tanks at Nicholson and Sturt Creek homesteads, to determine whether enough fuel had disappeared to power the Datsun to Alice Springs. It was a silly proposition that failed, as the journey would have required little more than a single day’s usage refueling the bore pumps. And despite telling the media they believed the kids had attempted the Tanami Road shortcut, few enquiries were made in that direction.
This lack of police interest bemused Rabbit Flat Roadhouse owner Bruce Farrands. He was at Billiluna in 1964, then later married Jacqueline, a French girl from Paris whom he met when they both worked for Bill and Lorna Wilson at Mongrel Downs. The Wilsons lent them money to start the roadhouse that began with a canvas tent, then graduated to a series of modest buildings. These were years of dangerous skirmishes with the Warlpiri, until a mutual respect developed, and Bruce, Jacqueline and their two sons were given skin names.
Their isolation, and having to rely on themselves for protection, had honed their vigilance to perfection. During dangerous periods, Bruce served customers through a slit in the door, such as when German tourist Joseph Swab graduated from hunting buffalo and bush pigs to tourists, near Jubilee Downs. John Kernot remembered having to submit to an interview through the slit, before Bruce would serve him fuel. Even then, Bruce came out wearing a handgun and carrying a rifle. Later, when James Hepi and Bradley Murdoch supplied the Broome market with bulk cannabis from South Australia, they timed their trips to pass Rabbit Flat during the night.
Further north, Djaru man Mr Lightning, was travelling in a convoy of two vehicles from Ringer Soak to Halls Creek. They stopped at Munga Tank near the corner of Duncan and Sturt Creek Roads. Two girls went into the dry bed of Foster’s Creek, then ran back saying they'd found messages scratched on an abandoned vehicle, from James and Simon calling for help.
Police heard the story, and Mr Lightning was taken to the station for questioning. He wouldn’t say much to a gudia police detective who couldn’t speak his language, so they brought in translator Bonnie Rosita Edwards.
Bonnie is a straight talking Djaru woman, born in the creek bed back of Nicholson homestead. Her white father sent her to the city, so she could learn ‘proper’ English, which helped her to qualify in nursing. Later, in 1987, she and her husband Malcolm owned the Halls Creek Supa-Valu supermarket.
Bonnie found that, despite being educated and speaking two languages fluently, and owning a supermarket, she was still in the eyes of some white police an intellectually deficient black woman.
The detective left her in a room while he went out to recapture Mr Lightning, who had quietly wandered off. He left on a table a sheath of witness statements, one from Martin Trancollino.
Martin, then 59, had been driving to Gordon Downs to fix leaking taps, but instead of using the route past Flora Valley R & D yards, he cut through the bush off Sturt Creek Road. He found a white ute on the track, and needing some new tyres he crept up behind it, and found the tray covered in bushes, a common procedure to discourage flies laying eggs in a butchered ‘killer’. A blanket also covered the flesh.
But Martin’s acute sense of smell told him this wasn’t the stench of a rotting beast, and knowing of the boys’ disappearance he fled the scene. He returned two days later, after fixing the taps. The vehicle had disappeared, but not the rumour that one of the boys had been killed and his body hidden in the bush.
Another rumour was that two police officers, during the initial search, drove to Rabbit Flat, where they loaded up with beer for which they never paid. Bruce Farrands knocked that one on the head.
“Police got bogged, made no effort to shovel out, called a mayday, intimated they were 20kms out, actually 60kms. Got a lot of alcohol. Never paid for the tow truck work but they did pay for the alcohol, promised to pay for call-out. Very disappointed [they] never paid for call-out, never knew their names. Two white fellas in normal uniforms.”
Meanwhile, Pat Clark couldn’t bear the pain of not knowing if Simon was alive or dead, and gave up hope.
18. Les Annetts’ second Kimberley search
Les Annetts felt none of Pat’s fatalism, and bristled with anger when he returned to the Kimberley with journalist Chris Warren and camera operator Greg Dunstone, for Eyewitness News in Adelaide. They flew to Alice Springs, then drove up the Tanami Road to Halls Creek. Eyewitness News paid for the trip and got exclusive film footage, while Les retained the right to tell other journalists what they had discovered.
They reached Halls Creek on 5 April 1987. Jim Guy, Kevin Roberts and Allan Hogarth were long gone, but the old attitude remained. Chris Warren sensed their lack of urgency, and felt the police considered the boys merely ‘teenage runaways’.
But investigations were continuing, and during that week Murray Cowper and John Drummond drove to Birrindudu station, then following Sturt Creek downstream to Wolfe Creek, checking tributaries and tracks leading away from the watercourse. Their vehicle was “all crap”, and the radio ineffective. John remembers waking up one morning and: “It was freezing cold; bloody dingoes: they were huge, they were just sitting around like small shepherds, long fur, just sitting under a tree watching us.”
Cowper was conscious of the danger of bushfires, and remembered one occasion southwest of the Gardner Ranges. He smelt smoke. He climbed onto the bonnet and searched the horizon with binoculars, then using his intuitive bush skills determined the fire was underneath his vehicle. Spinifex had caught up in the hot muffler. He said if they hadn’t extinguished the fire quickly, they’d have lost everything including the radio and water, and a rescue team would have taken a day or two to find them: “Plenty of time to have perished.”
Police also investigated 'believable leads'. John Drummond found some of them mind numbing, particularly those from clairvoyants. One said the bodies were buried in a filled-in well, while another said in a cave. Another report was they were sighted at Timber Creek, drunk. Thomas Clarke said he picked them up hitchhiking near Albany. There were rumours Loder had cut up the Datsun, and dumped the sections from his aeroplane over the desert. Another said he dropped the parts into the ocean. But Drummond was particularly bothered by one reported sighting.
Noel Tones was a heavily built man who dressed in dirt coloured singlets and stubbie shorts, and hauled cattle for Buntines. He said in early April 1987 he’d picked up James and Simon between the 10th and 12th of December 1986. They were dressed as ringers and walking along a road on the Wave Hill side of Katherine in the Northern Territory. One was quiet, the other talkative; one was broke, the other had money. The Adelaide boy was quiet and nervous, while James was worried about being away from the station. “I just sensed there was something wrong,” Tones said. They were going to Katherine to buy parts for a ute that had broken down along the Sturt Creek/Nicholson boundary fence. One boy gave a clear description of the Datsun's problem with stalling, something not generally known to the public, though common knowledge amongst Flora Valley jackeroos. Tones said he dropped them off in Katherine, then later took them south to Daly Waters, as they were now going home. Tones also told friends he had won $100,000 in the scratch lottery.
Stock inspector Patrick Majella Barry saw the boys at the Hi-Way Inn roadhouse. One had big ears like he had as a kid, and the thought crossed his mind that jackeroos were getting younger, particularly the one with the baby face.
Patrick had worked off and on with Tones for ten years at a trucking yard, but had previously no knowledge of his lottery win. He thought Tones a decent fellow and a reliable truck driver, though they weren’t mates.
The police told Les to speak to Noel Tones, not from their phone, but from the phone box across the street. Les returned within twenty minutes fuming, “Tones was a liar.”
But the officers, Inspector Davies, and the Amos family gave credence to the sightings, and attention was shifted even further from Balgo.
Tones later admitted the lottery win was untrue, but could give no explanation for spreading that story. One story he didn’t share was that he'd worked for Peter Sherwin.
Both John Drummond and Lenin Christie believed there was more to this false sighting than met the eye, and that Tones should have been further investigated. Les Annetts developed a pathological suspicion of Tones, saying he was lying about giving them a lift. But how did he know so much about them?
Chris Warren and Les were determined to visit Flora Valley and Nicholson stations. Police told them Loder had firearms, and could be dangerous and, by the way, they weren’t going to provide an escort. Inspector Arnold Davies added to the warning, telling journalists that Les’ private search could be dangerous, and that it would be very easy to perish in the desert. They didn’t want Les snooping around.
Photographer Mary Mills and journalist Jerry Pratley of the West Australian newspaper received the same advice about Loder, but perhaps because they were Western Australians they received police escorts on two separate visits to Flora Valley homestead the following week on the 11th and 12th of April.
Also on 12 April 1987, the Reverend Murray Lamont from the Church of England parish at Kununurra travelled down to Caranya Station to christen Naomi Thelma, the ten-week-old daughter of Reginald and Heather Snelling. Ray and Helen Holborow also attended the ceremony, having stayed on to help with station duties.
Constable McLeod accompanied Mills and Pratley on their first visit, and John Drummond on the second. The police reported that on both days Loder had work commitments that prevented him from speaking to them, though Mills says at one stage Loder pointed a gun at them. John Drummond was a de facto bodyguard for the reporters, as previusly there had been “an issue with a firearm”. He was also shielding Loder “because the media were giving him the raging shits”. The police were also shielding him from Les Annetts.
The police had lost sympathy for the Annetts, deeming them ungrateful and troublesome. When Superintendent Craddock and Sergeant Hatton spoke rudely to Les in front of the media, he asked to speak privately with them in another room. He recounts Craddock was "going on about the bullshit we were telling the media and we said we more or less are only copying what you'se have done to us." Les told Craddock he'd go out and tell the reporters everything, and that Craddock "never opened his friggin' mouth from then on; he just glared at me.” Les also told him: “We will not let this go. Our son is not going to die for nothing. We're gong to find out the truth one day…I've got another at least 25 years to go."
Les later said that when he told Hatton and Craddock that he'd tell journalists about the 605 dope seeds found in Simon's quarters, their manner changed from lion to lamb. Why a cup of dope seeds would attain such importance only became apparent when John Kernot in Broome began his one-man war against drug dealers a few years later.
Les, Chris Warren and Greg Dunstone drove the 120 kilometres to Flora Valley. Chris was nervous about a confrontation with Loder, and went there on the belief that Loder wouldn’t be at the homestead during the day.
Greg hid in the vehicle when they parked in front of the Loders’ house, and filmed through the windscreen as Vicki walked down the outside steps, shielding her eyes from the sun with her left hand, while Giles watched from a window. "Is Giles around anywhere?" Les asked, adding that he sought information about the Toyota James rolled over, and "...some of the things I've been hearing about the car the boys were in."
"I don't think Giles knows anything about it, really," Vicki lied, covering her mouth with her right hand, then seeing the camera behind the windscreen told Les to get off the property.
"Certainly," Les replied.
The victim had crossed the line and become the predator, but it also showed the unremitting personalities of the Loders. They wouldn’t offer a sliver of help, not a hint of sympathy to the man whose son had died in their employ.
The unwelcome visitors drove back down the access road, then turned left onto Duncan Road, and continued seventy kilometres to Nicholson homestead. The homestead gates were locked and the property appeared abandoned, but after some clever lock picking, they drove up the main street.
Les described the dirty rooms as "unfit for a dog". The kitchen was a mass of unwashed dishes, old food, and a busted fridge. A printed page laid on a counter bore the words: "How can a man be seen alive, after he is most certainly dead?"
Les returned home, while Eyewitness News thundered over the nation's TV screens asking why the boys hadn't been found. The answer was that those who knew weren't talking; at least not to the police.
19. Clan country
Andrew Patrick Brett and Gregory Owens ground their way through the water soft sand of seismic line RH 8612 on the Sunday morning of 26 April 1987. They were in the Great Sandy Desert near White Hills, 135 kilometres south of Balgo by plane or 200 kilometres by tracks. It was a unique, but sparsely inhabited area, frequented by the last tribal nomads and used for ceremonial and hunting expeditions.
RH 8612 was aligned east/west and followed the valleys between dunes that were continuously sculpted by westerly winds sweeping in from the Indian Ocean. Andy and Greg were the advance party for the Norpac exploration crews that had fled the heat the previous August. "Me and a couple of other blokes with one caravan in the middle of nowhere," was how Andy described Norpac’s Baga Camp whose numbers peaked at thirty souls during the cooler season while the combined camps reached a population of 150.
Baga Camp was near the abandoned Lake Hevern No 1 oil well. The sometimes inhabited Aboriginal outcamp at Walgali, with its mysteriously large airstrip, lay on a sliver of flat land free of sand dunes smack dab in the middle of a seismic maze.
The two surveyors turned onto RH 8605, an older track sprinkled with small bushes and other regrowth. They were setting out lines for Clan Contractors to bulldoze the seismic tracks that allowed access to exploration vehicles. The Clan boys were mostly local men from Derby and nearby communities, who after a blistering day on the dozers dined in an outdoor kitchen, then slept in swags on the ground. Norpac and Schlumberger employees slept in cramped air-conditioned dongas and caravans.
The mineral explorers drilled holes into the ground into which they dropped sensors attached by cables to a Schlumberger vehicle crammed with esoteric electronics. The Clan men turned off their dozers, while Schlumberger workers pounded the ground with what resembled upside-down tables attached to the side of their trucks. While this occurred, technicians analysed the echoing vibrations, to determine the concentration of specific minerals deep below. Explosives were also dropped into the holes, for similar affects. The Great Sandy Desert was a treasure chest waiting to be exploited, and wasn’t then under Aboriginal ownership.
The Clan team had the roughest jobs, but it was dozer driver Colin Fuller who negotiated with the traditional owners. He was an accomplished bushman who understood traditional values, and had worked on cattle stations near Noonkanbah, but what made him especially valuable was that he could name his Aboriginal ancestors and their places of birth. This gave him the credentials to negotiate with the traditional owners from Yagga Yagga, as to where they could dig. Colin also gave survival briefings to new employees.
A typical Clan seismic maze consists of dozens of forty kilometre long tracks that crisscross each other at nearly identical intersections, then come to miserable dead ends, except for one track in and another out, and the latter might enter another maze. A single maze consists of two thousand kilometres of tracks, enough to run dry the fuel tanks of the best equipped travellers.
Some tracks resemble four lane highways, as if leading to a mysterious military installation, or to civilisation; but they inevitably end in desolate sandy quagmires. The roughest tracks rise over dunes up to thirty metres high, with just enough ploughed off the top to allow a high clearance four-wheel drive with a running start to reach the top, then cruise down the steep side.
Enthralled travellers race down east/west tracks between the dunes to prevent getting bogged, then are confronted by a crossing dune that forces them onto a north/south track, and their blood floods with adrenaline as the vehicle crashes down the steep sides. They stop to rest, perhaps have a beer from the fridge then backtracking, discover the steep sides of the dunes are impossible to climb. They attempt to find another east/west track, but their maps are hopelessly incomplete and the coded intersection markers meaningless, and there aren't any "this way out, back to civilisation" signs.
Their heat gauge goes into the red, and inevitably the slippery soft surface grabs the wheels, and the occupants feel the silence as the muffler pumps fumes into the sand. The driver shuts down the motor, and within seconds the radiating heat penetrates metal and glass. And then in the most humiliating act, the navigator plunges the EPIRB buttons, and waits for an expensive rescue.
20. Finding the Datsun ute
“...bogged on a seismic line, numbered RH 8605 on co-ordinates 21 degrees, 31 minutes South and 127 degrees, 34 minutes, 42 seconds East.”
Western Australia Police Report, 1987
The sun was well above the horizon on Sunday, 26 April 1987 when Andy Brett and Greg Owens turned onto the north/south seismic line RH 8605. They spotted the fabled Datsun, number plate HC 529, at 7:15am from the top of a dune 4.5 kilometres south on RH 8612. They knew this was ‘The Ute’ because, like many others, not including the police, they'd heard the boys had been lost in the vicinity. An 'SOS' had been formed on the roof with spanners, and a length of coiled wire, had withstood wind and sand for the previous twenty weeks.
It was on the soft incline of a fifteen-metre saddleback dune formed from two dunes, when the gap between the two became partially filled with dead vegetation and blown over sand. Driving over a saddleback dune could feel like driving through water.
Johnny Brown and another Clan driver had taken two days with two D7 bulldozers to cut the track the previous year. Each dozer had a three-metre blade, and they moved almost side-by-side, the second dozer slightly behind, while a grader behind them pushed leftover debris to each side, creating metre-high ridges called windrows.
Andy Brett saw the Datsun:
“…halfway up a dune facing north. Vehicle was bogged at the rear wheels. Occupants had obviously tried to dig the Ute out. One side tray gate had been put under one of rear wheels…We lifted bonnet. There was an alligator clip onto the positive pole. There was a battery at the front on the ground. The occupants were obviously trying to jumpstart the ute…On the passenger seat was a key labelled 'Back Door Kitchen'. There are no signs of violence in the vehicle, no bloodstains or anything.”
Near the car a star picket and two charred branches formed an arrow pointing north. 75metres further along they found a long handled shovel, and at 4.5kms the remnants of a red chequered ringer’s shirt. Andy and Brett raced back to camp, where Clan’s dozer refueller Peter Carter radioed their office in Derby.
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