21. Action men
Peter Carter couldn’t get through to Clan Contractors’ headquarters in Derby because it was a Sunday, but Clan truck driver Reg Thornhill heard his call forty kilometres north of Halls Creek. He stopped at the police station, and found Police Aide Shane Edward Baites alone with his feet on the desk and allegedly reading a Phantom comic. "We found that white Datsun ute you have been looking for. It's down at Yagga Yagga," Thornhill told him. The good natured Shane nearly fell off his seat, then rang Sergeant John Hatton next door.
Hatton ran out to Thornhill's truck, and Carter gave their location. He advised police not to drive out in a petrol vehicle unless they had enough fuel to return, as Clan ran mostly on diesel. Clan would feed them, but they would have to bring their own beer and cigarettes.
Hatton ordered Constable Colin Main and Police Aide Anthony Scott Hunter to "go south" to Baga Camp. Hunter took a bit off rousing; he was still in bed recovering from the previous night’s drinking session.
They grabbed their swags and, according to Main, a box of food, and left for Baga Camp at 2:45pm as the news broke across the nation.
"No maps, no nothing", Colin described their journey into the desert. Their Codan radio was bolted onto the dashboard, and protected from the sun by a piece of cardboard taped onto the windscreen, and with a limited aerial, communication was difficult in the desert.
Main and Hunter arrived at Balgo at 6pm in darkness and got directions from Tony Wilson and Judith Karlson, and she provided a huge tray of salad and cold meat. They continued southward at 7:30pm, but near Yagga Yagga they took a wrong track, and arrived at the wrong mining camp. But they were lucky, because it was seafood night, so they settled down to a meal of crayfish and prawns. The miners also gave them proper exploration maps, and showed them how to read the tags attached to the star pickets in the seismic mazes.
They got bogged near Clan and Norpac’s fuel dump at 2:30am, where they slept until awoken by the camp’s generator at dawn. Peter Carter guided them back to the main camp at 6am, where John Hatton and Police Aide Baites had already arrived by plane. Hatton was still in bed. Their plane had been diverted to another airstrip due to flooding, and they’d spent part of the night being driven back to Baga Camp.
Clan dozer driver Johnny Brown wasn't impressed:
“The coppers came with nothing but their swags. They had a packet of cigarettes; they’d run out of beer; they’d bummed all our own cigarettes and our beer. We had to get a plane out of Derby to get re-supplied. And they ate us out of house and home; as well...they didn’t even have water.”
Peter Carter concurred:
“The police were absolute dickheads: idiots, basically. The Sergeant from Halls Creek, he’d only been there two or three months. It was his first Kimberley posting. He was not there when the kids went missing and he had no idea about the bush...we said when you come out, come in diesel vehicles cause we can give you as much diesel as you want. If you want to camp we can feed you, but bring cigarettes and beer. So they came out in a petrol vehicle and run out of bloody petrol and bludged beer and cigarettes off people and never re-paid them.”
Once Hatton had climbed out of bed the Clan men and police drove seventeen kilometres and reached the ute at 7:15am, on Monday 27 April 1987.
22. Locating the remains
The vegetation was green and lush from recent summer rains. This often surprised newcomers, who expected a vista of golden sand dunes. What also surprised everyone was that the Datsun wheels and undercarriage were exposed. It didn’t appear to be bogged.
Five blue plastic twenty-litre diesel jerry cans sat on the tray: three full and one half full. There were two 4-litre oil containers, an axe, jumper leads, a kangaroo jack, tools, empty 12-guage shotgun shells and a plastic drinking cup from the top of a water bottle.
An overturned battery on the ground was partially covered in sand, but two charred branches and a star picket forming an arrow pointing north had remained incongruously undisturbed. But why wasn’t the ute more bogged? Constable Main rationalised that, “Because of the shifting sands out there it probably didn't appear as bogged as it possibly could have been.” But he didn’t provide an explanation why shifting sands hadn't done the same to the spare battery. He noted "The radiator in the vehicle still contained drinkable water when examined.
And why hadn’t the boys torched the Datsun? People investigate smoke. When dry bush is unavailable, the next logical step is to burn the spare tyre, then if there is no response the whole vehicle. The closest humans were the full blood Aboriginals at Yagga Yagga 70kms to the east, whose acute sense of smell would have drawn them to the burning upholstery, tyres and diesel. James had been an outstanding member of the Scouts, and had read the Jack Absalom books, but instead of torching the vehicle, he and Simon began their death march.
Johnny Brown put the tools forming the “SOS” into a bag, then towed the vehicle back to the fuel dump with Clan’s Steiger 4WD tractor.
"Why don't you keep your nose out of it?" Sergeant Hatton yelled at Peter Carter when a map on the floor was put into the glove box. He ordered Peter to tender a statement as to how the vehicle had been found. It never became clear whether the map was a ‘mud map’ of the Nicholson bore run, drawn up by the previous ‘bore runner’ for James, or a map showing directions to the exploration camps.
Andy Brett and Greg Owen were deputised, and along with the police and Clan men, and using civilian diesel vehicles, they drove off in opposite directions. Johnny Brown stood on the back of one vehicle and Peter Carter went in another.
Carter’s vehicle reached James and Simon's abandoned camp about nineteen kilometres north of the Datsun. They found at least two empty water containers, a yellow dolphin torch with a dead battery, two empty food tins, two spoons, an empty Aerogard spray can, a box of Greenlite matches, a billy can, a can opener, a length of rope and a pair of pliers, lying on the ground.
Johnny Brown got there on the second vehicle, and found the first group boiling a billy thirty metres from a strewn out line of white bones: Simon's bones.
Brown had grown up on a farm down south and, apart from the lack of decorum, was surprised a body could be reduced to bleached bones in less than five months. He couldn't see much of Simon’s clothing either, though it was common for a dehydrated and overheated person to cast off his or her clothing in a misguided attempt to cool down.
Death from dehydration is terrible way to die. Humans consist mainly of water, and losing four litres through sweat and urination is enough to cause blurred vision, grogginess and dry retching. Eight litres can result in muscle spasms and delirium, while a twelve-litre deficiency causes the tongue to swell. This blocks the air passage leaving the victim gasping in desperation. The brain begins to die from the oxygen-depleted blood, and makes the heart compensate by beating faster and faster until like an over-revved motor it seizes up and stops pumping. This can happen within 36 hours in hot weather, and in extreme heat much sooner.
Carter photographed Simon’s bones scarred from teeth marks left by dogs. , These were the ancestors of German Shepherd and Alsatian pets, that had strayed from stations and traveler convoys, then interbred with dingoes. Their subsequent descendants had devolved or evolved, depending how you look at it, from docile animal companions into ferocious desert hunters. They had inherited the increased jaw strength of dogs and the cunning nature of wild dingoes with little empathy with humans.
Wind and rain had erased all human footprints, but Simon’s remains were surrounded by dog and camel tracks. After ripping Simon to pieces the dogs ate his flesh, while both species sucked marrow from his bones. Even his synthetic thongs bore tooth marks. When they had initially reached the death scene Colin Main saw a dingo slink across the track just metres from Simon’s remains.
Twenty-five dollars in cash was scattered on the ground. Simon's white shorts were still identifiable. Four live .22 calibre cartridges were found in a pocket, while a fifth expended shell lay in the breech of the stockless rifle that lay nearby. There was a neat hole in Simon’s forehead, with a larger, triangular exit wound a third of the way across the top of his skull. Eyeless sockets stared up at the blue sky as if in reproach.
The two vehicles continued in convoy. Johnny Brown was on the back of the second one. The police reports indicate that Baites and Hunter found James one kilometre north of the campsite, and 30 metres west of seismic line RH 8605. Brown saw the water bottle in the sand and “yelled out and they stopped. Copper jumped out, grabbed it, looked at it, shook it and threw it in the back.”
A scratched message on the lid read: "James, My Follt. I always love you Mum and Dad, Jason, Michelle, Joanne." On the handle were the words: "I found peece." Along the side of the bottle was another, but indecipherable message.
Brown jumped off the back and:
“…half fell over on the sand dune. I walked about 6 feet off the edge of the track; it might have been 10 feet towards my left and we were facing north and here was a pair of Levi jeans laying in the Spinifex.”
While the second vehicle was backing up he:
“...walked over to the jeans and then I noticed that there was a shoe there as well and it was like a Dunlop tennis shoe. You know the old type of shoe?... and that was attached to the jeans and I sort of gave it a kick and it was solid. Then I noticed that there was a part of a leg and you could see bones sticking out of the hips and in the jeans was all his legs and one shoe was still actually on the foot. The other foot was gone and so was the shoe. I didn’t know if we ever found that. I walked along a bit further and didn’t find anything so then I sort of walked down the sand dune... and here looked like a shirt laying on the ground in a piece of rag, walked up to it and there was a long-sleeved ringer’s shirt, like a flannelette shirt, checked shirt and it was torn up the back all the way up to the collar, in halves. The only thing holding it together was the collar and the sleeves and everything on it, and that was laying on the ground and a little bit further on was like a singlet type of T-shirt and I can’t remember the colour of it, but it did have something written on it: I don’t remember what it was, and I sort of half picked that up and in that was his backbone and all his ribs, all still together, brown and sinewy and no actual intestines or organs of any kind, but they’re all sort of dried up and a little bit further on, about 20 feet or so was his head laying there by itself. It still had the jaw attached, still had most of the hair on the head and the colour of the bones, all of them, were brown colour, sort of tan colour, quite a dark tan, I suppose you could say.”
Colin Main remembers seeing it ten metres up the side of a sand dune:
“…remains of legs still inside a pair of jeans with a boot on left leg…There was some flesh in there but there wasn't a lot of meat left...skeleton still inside T-shirt…ripped in half at the waist.”
Andy Brett was in the silent bubble of his mind, the experience being his alone:
“... was walking along and all of a sudden there was something in front of me and I couldn’t quite figure out what it was and it turned out it was a leg, a foot, and I think, boot attached, and that was all it was, the leg. It was quite horrific, you know.”
The experience disturbed him and remains with him to this day:"It was a very eerie, eerie sort of feeling that went around the place…it was a strange sort of feeling."
James’ three-bladed Old Timer knife lay in one of his pockets.
Johnny Brown was bothered about these remains. Dingoes on the Canning Stock Route routinely dug up and ate buried tourist faeces yet James’ remains were so much less decomposed and scavenged than were Simon’s.
Brown reasoned that if the sinews, flesh and hair represented the process of being dead for four or five months, wouldn’t it have taken considerably longer for Simon’s bones to be bleached white? And wasn’t a flannelette shirt on the torso of James and a T-shirt nearby preposterous considering those hot days and nights? And why were the boys’ remains found with so few personal effects, as if they’d been removed?
And why, Brown thought, would the boys having trudged twenty kilometres through slippery dune sand lugging a three-metre length of 20mm thick rope and an awkward torch with a dead battery? These items would logically have been cast off long before they reached the point of collapse. Particularly by the lily white skinned Simon wearing thongs and without a hat and carrying the rifle.
Johnny Brown’s observations led him to speculate James and Simon hadn't died at the same time in the same location. Like Russell Tremlett and others, he speculated that one was killed before going into the desert, in this case Simon.
Peter Carter also grew up on a farm in the southwest of Western Australia. He didn't share Brown’s speculation about Simon dying much earlier than James, but nevertheless thought the difference between the remains was strange. He says the decomposition of a skinned animal left in a paddock still took 18-24 months to be reduced to bleached bones.
“If an animal dies it takes more than 5 months for every skerrick of flesh, whatever, to disappear so the bones [become] absolutely clean...You won’t lose all the flesh on an animal [after five months]. [James] still had flesh; he still had clothing on.”
Peter says there was evidence of fire in the area that might have accounted for the condition of Simon’s remains, but couldn’t recollect if the bones were charred. The forensic examiner didn’t report any burnt bones.
Brown’s views so contradicted the official verdict, that like Jungarri T. Bradshaw he was written out of the story.
The recovery party pegged the ground where each bone was found of the two boys. Simon’s bones were spread over a fifty-metre radius, so Colin Main cordoned off a 75 metre square with ropes. John Hatton ordered a 24-hour guard over the entire site.
Johnny Brown felt a wave of anger go through his body when he saw a uniformed officer carrying one of Simon’s thigh bones, and using it as a fly swatter.
Sergeant Hatton told Tony Hunter they would guard one body that night. He knew Aboriginals disliked being around dead bodies. Peter Carter heard Tony say: “No fucking way, boss. I’m not camping with a dead man.”
Hatton replied: “No, I’m not asking you to stay on your own. I’ll stay. There will be two of us together. We’ll camp together; we’ll camp out here with them and pick them up in the morning.” ,
It rained and thundered that night as a monsoon storm raced across the Great Sandy Desert. Tony Hunter was sitting in the vehicle to stay dry and in a flash of lightning the bellowing face of a bull camel appeared at the window. Later, while they were sitting around the campfire it bellowed at them from the darkness. Tony was frightened: “We were all there. Awe, we shit. Yes we did. It bloody bellowed like I don’t know what.”
23. The recovery
Colin Main carefully kept count, while he collected the bones of each boy and put them in separate black plastic bags. "Proper medical body bags" he later emphasised, "Not in rubbish bags" He said they were folded over, and appeared to be rubbish bags, because the bodies weren't intact. But Johnny Brown saw the bones put:
“... in black garbage bags...the cook went back to the camp and got the fucking garbage bags. He drove back to the camp... and got the garbage bags and come back while we were boiling the billy and had lunch.”
Detective Thomas William Salfinger arrived by air at 9:55am the next day, Tuesday 28 April. Deputy Andy Brett collected him from an outlying airstrip, and remembers a cool headed, unassuming, decent man. The tracks were still wet, and water poured through the doors as they drove through shallow lakes.
Later Tom Salfinger, John Hatton, Andy Brett and others came to the collective belief there were no suspicious circumstances in the deaths. Fingerprint tests on the gun and vehicle were unnecessary. Nor did they consider examining the red checkered shirt found closer to the vehicle. Andy believed he could almost read the boys’ minds after they had become bogged, then executed each logical but disastrous decision as their condition deteriorated.
Peter Carter called Maxine, the Clan Contractor receptionist, on the Codan radio in his vehicle. She phoned Channel Nine who offered $200 for his 36-shot roll of film. Peter said add another zero. They agreed. Unfortunately for Peter, John Hatton was listening from another vehicle, and angrily grabbed the camera and film. Colin Fuller thought it repugnant that Carter tried to sell pictures of Simon’s remains. Where the negatives and prints ‘ended up’ became another mystery.
The media were clamouring for death scene pictures, and arrived in helicopters, big brutes with long range fuel tanks that hovered like birds of prey feasting on the corpses below. The police were galled the media had such machines, while during the search they had fluttered about in a donated two-person chopper that required refueling every three hours.
The police covered the mortal remains with tarpaulins and blankets, but not before a chopper photographer got a shot of the ‘Red Headed Bomber’, his head now a fleshless skull.
Murray Cowper was disgusted when the photographs appeared in the ‘Northern Territory Times’ newspaper and ‘Time’ magazine:
“When the boys were found, the media circus that turned out, particularly the television media from across Australia were ruthless and demonstrated how ravenous they can be. The photo was a disgrace and demonstrated the low base some of the media outlets are prepared to stoop.”
Tony Hunter loaded the black bags onto the back of a truck and Andy Brett drove them to the airstrip:
“We loaded the bones up…and then we drove back to the main camp…spent the night there then I was driving them back out to the airstrip [next morning], and we ended up getting bogged because of all the rain. We spent about four hours bogged in a creek with the body bags on the back.”
The media helicopters withdrew to disgorge their product for the evening news. They couldn’t linger as fuel wasn’t available at Baga Camp where they were somewhat unwelcome anyway. The chopper pilot carrying Mary Mills had gotten lost on the trip out, and there were some sweaty moments getting back on course. The margin between running out of fuel and making it back to a fuel depot was very close.
But the desperation ebbed and within two or three days the police and media retreated. And that fateful patch of desert was left to the grinding and thumping seismic crews, who themselves would soon be gone. And the desert would be reclaimed by those yowling descendants of household pets padding over the ground stained with the residues of two teenage boys.
24. Forensic identification and ‘end of story’
Dr Edward James Elkington examined the contents of the black bags on the morning of Wednesday 29 April 1987 at the Halls Creek hospital. He determined the boys were deceased, then signed the death certificates stating James was found 504 kilometres from Halls Creek and Simon 503kms. A SlingAir charter plane carried the remains to Derby then Ansett Airlines flew them to Perth on Thursday night 30 April 1987.
Forensic pathologist Dr D. A. Pocock determined in Perth the following day at 10:20am that Body 1 had died from a "bullet wound to the brain", and that it was "self inflicted". Amongst the remains of Body 1 were a white necklace and four earrings. Its left humerus, the single long bone from the shoulder to the elbow, and its left ulna, one of the two bones in the forearm, were missing. Dr Pocock expected a slight error in determining the length of the bones of Body 1 "due to animal activity on the end cartilages after death". No samples were taken. Fifteen minutes later he determined, somewhat mystically, that Body 2 had died from dehydration.
That afternoon Dr Frank Jordan Digwood examined Body 2. James had broken his arm prior to going to the Kimberley, and he wanted to compare the right humerous of Body 2 to see if it had previously been broken. But the right humerous and left ulna of Body 2 had not been recovered from the desert.
On Friday 8 May 1987, Dr Digwood superimposed a photograph of James’ face over a photograph of the skull of Body 2 and compared the dental characteristics, particularly James’ prominent eye teeth. Body 2 was James Annetts.
Dr Digwood had confirmed the previous Friday that the remains of Body 1 were those of Simon, when he compared Simon's Adelaide dental charts with the teeth in the bleached skull.
That same day, First Class Constable Nigel Paul Savage from Holden Hill police station in Adelaide told Pat Clark they'd identified Simon's remains. The bones were cremated in Perth on Tuesday 5 May and the ashes sent to Adelaide, and now reside in the Eastern Niche Wall No. 2 at Enfield Memorial Cemetery, marked: "In Loving Memory of Simon James Amos. Died December, 1986. Aged 17 years." Simon's belongings were sent to Pat via Australia Post and Comet transport. James’ remains were returned to the Riverina.
Those involved noted the clocklike precision by which the mortal remnants were collected, identified and returned to the parents, in contrast with the initial search.
The Western Australia Police couldn't wrap up the case quickly enough. Like circus clowns slipping down a greasy pole they clung to the idea the boys had stolen the Datsun to go home, and weren’t deserving of a genuine search. But such a stance was embarrassing when their own ranks questioned why searchers hadn’t gone south. Even the surveyors who found the Datsun had heard it was in that area. And if anyone thought the sorry saga had come to an end, they were sadly mistaken. It had just begun.
25. Memorial service
Les had just returned home when news came through, and within hours he was back in the air with Chris Warren. At Halls Creek the police didn’t want Les to view his son’s remains at the hospital. Les didn't want to see them. The shock of seeing his overjoyed son in the prime of life, transformed to stinking pieces of rotting flesh and bones in a black bag, would have been too emotional, too messy for the authorities. They suggested he identify James from photographs. Yes, they were him. Sergeant Hatton told Les about the message on the water bottle, but urged him not to tell the media.
Chris Warren and Les returned to the motel. A media pack gathered outside. Les didn’t want to face them, but Chris said he should. Les walked outside. Mary Mills captured 1/50th second in the life of a man drained of hope, who finally knew he’d lost his first son. Behind his death-like mask of a face Les answered questions from journalists eager to market his grief to millions of hungry television viewers and newspaper readers.
One asked him about the water bottle message. Sergeant Hatton had briefed them on its discovery. In his overwhelming grief, a tiny section of Les’ mind watched dispassionately, and asked itself why Hatton had told the media, then asked him to keep quiet about it.
The police had displayed it after obligingly darkened the scratches with a pen so the message could better be captured by cameras. Especially the words: "My follt."
Hatton added his own spin: the boys had only themselves to blame; they were runaways, thieves. He didn't want anyone reversing this theme.
Les returned home, numb with grief. Dorothy Thompson organized the funeral. What was left of James was buried at the Griffith Lawn Cemetery. Michelle screamed during the ceremony, and tried to jump into his grave.
Back in the Kimberley James O'Kenny exemplified the pastoralists’ hard man realism. He owned and edited The Kimberley Echo and wrote:
“All the ranting and raving will not bring them back," and that "Amos and Annetts…were brought up in a softer society which advocates walking away from things that are too hard, and that the boss is not necessarily right and ones peer group consists of ill-informed morons.”
“…a TV interview with some university wanker who suggested that foul play was involved in their deaths because they would be very unlikely to want to commit suicide.”
O’Kenny said that he and two native trackers had years before searched for and found two missing mining company men. One tried grabbing O'Kenny's holstered gun, then failing that had pointed his finger to his head indicating he wanted to be shot. Once rehydrated, he remembered nothing of the incident.
In Halls Creek the People’s Church, the United Aboriginal Mission and the Country Gospel Church raised money to bring the Annetts back for a memorial service.
George Hrenuvic gave his time to build the stone work for a brass plaque, for which Warren Dallachy, from the Poinciana Roadhouse, had collected money. Some refused, saying the boys were car thieves.
When Andrew Beezley came to town, young jackeroos at the pub who had worked at Flora Valley, told him of Loder tying them up with barbed wire and throwing them through louvred windows. Beezley told them he was there at the time, and none of that had happened. There were arguments and scuffles. He said he’d never seen Loder “raise his hand in anger to anyone” and was as compassionate to workers as one could be on a cattle station.
Les and Sandra returned to Halls Creek with Jason, Michelle and Joanne for an adventure with a dark undertone ― not simply their brother's death, but the saga that would follow them every day for the next ten years.
The memorial ceremony at the Civic Centre on the 30th of May 1987 included traditional Aboriginal wailing, and was conducted by Pastor Tony Riches of the People’s Church, with two hundred in attendance. Robert W. Amos, Simon’s grandparents, Bob and Aileen and his aunt Camille were there, but not Pat Clark.
John Davis unveiled the plaque on the front lawn near the highway. The Annetts were overwhelmed by the generosity of Halls Creek.
Conspicuous by their absence were Giles and Vicki Loder and Peter and Florence Sherwin. Neither couple sent a card of condolence or made a phone call.
Bonnie Edwards later said the deaths were a stain on the land that could be cleansed by finding the truth.
On the day of the ceremony Sergeant Hatton went on the offensive in the Kimberley Echo newspaper. He said Sandra’s claim that police told her not to ring them as "they have better things to do than talk to her all day" was wrong. He said the Annetts were kept informed regularly and Superintendent Craddock was in constant contact. He said the water bottle message was James admitting that “the whole sorry episode is his fault”. Hatton hadn’t a whisper of criticism for Giles Loder or Peter Sherwin.
But other officers empathised with the Amos and Annetts families. John Drummond was fishing with Mark Perry when the bodies were discovered:
“We took our wives on the Fitzroy River. We were fishing; we had no children in those days. We all had a great time, caught a few barra, had a couple of beers, enjoyed ourselves because we [hadn’t] been in the bush for a fair while, got back in town, and they’d found them. It was like being hit in the back of the head with a hammer.”
John and Debbie Davis took the Annetts on a tour of Ruby Plains station, then to the water hole at Old Halls Creek. Jason went hunting with Peter Carmichael and shot a dingo, and later they went to Wolfe Creek Crater. The Tremletts and others paid for a flight over the Bungle Bungles, and Jason flew the plane for a few minutes. Stan and Clare and their son-in-law took them prospecting, while Russell Tremlett arrived with a big barramundi, and Bonnie Edwards gave them a piece of gold.
Four days after the memorial service, a Requiem Mass for the repose of the soul of Simon Amos was held at the Rostrevor Chapel in Adelaide. In his Reflection fellow student Heath Sampson said, “…we can be sure Simon would have fought out his existence to the bitter end in the harsh and unrelenting conditions, against all odds.” Heath knew Simon’s strength.
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