31. “A cuff behind the ear”
Giles Loder made an example of Paul Griffith in October 1986. The jackeroos saw it. Loder hadn’t a choice: Paul talked back to him. Twenty-four year old Jonathan James Bruce Davis saw it. Davis was a famous rodeo performer and a real jackeroo with a wide range of skills. He swore in a police statement that:
“Giles was making fun of Paul Griffith about a hunting knife that Paul used to wear. I was nearby at the time and Paul Griffith told Giles Loder to “Get Fucked”. Paul then walked away. Giles ran up behind Paul and punched him on the back of the head. Paul fell to the ground. While Paul was on the ground Giles kicked Paul three or four times in the stomach and chest. I also saw Giles punch Paul three or four times about the head while Paul was on the ground.”
John and his wife took Paul into town the next day. The police didn't become involved. Moderate beatings were a means of maintaining discipline on cattle stations. The police rarely took action providing the attacks were perpetrated downward: a jackeroo beating up a station manager or an owner was not acceptable.
Loder testified in the Kununurra court room that he'd "cuffed him behind the ear", and that:"If my integrity and my leadership was in any way checked or overruled and if I was incited into a position, I would protect myself or arrest the situation.”
He was good with words.
Davis also recalled the night jackeroo Brendan Berlin rushed into his quarters, saying he'd told Loder he was clearing out the next day with stock inspector Peter Carmichael. Berlin said Loder pushed him backwards into a thorny hedge then punched him in the face. Davis saw Berlin's ripped shirt and scratched back. "I put my finger on his chest. He went back into the hedge," explained Loder.
Chris Rumpf saw the lead up to the spanner incident in the Flora Valley workshop three weeks before James died. Loder said he was "getting up" the boy over a hairline fracture in the oil sump of the Datsun ute.
The transfer box that switched it from two to four-wheel drive had been damaged by another driver, so mechanic David Reid disconnected it, leaving the Datsun in permanent two-wheel drive. Loder said the problem had flared up again, when a component began slapping against the oil sump, and James had continued driving it back to Flora Valley, causing the thin crack in the sump. However Chris Rumpf heard them arguing over a battery clamp, the battery being the mechanical failure that doomed the boys later out in the desert. Loder recollected at the Inquest: “I was exceedingly angry. I was angry because he had done the damage…he had done such a stupid thing…the verbal backlash…went on for a period of time.”
Loder told James he would take the repair costs out of his pay. James said he wasn't going to stay long anyway, whereupon Loder said if he left he wouldn't be paid what was already owed. Loder said: "Jim was very upset… had broken down and cried." The sixteen-year-old was not a hard man.
Loder told Rumpf to go to his room, or to the kitchen, while Shane Kendall watched the scene unfold. Danny Verschurren listened from outside the shed: "James was giving a week's notice and Giles said to him, 'If you give a week's notice, if you leave I'll take out damage from your wages for the vehicle.' "
Therese Stansfield-Campbell saw a small red mark on James’ forehead, and he looked as if he'd been crying. "Giles threw a spanner. I don't know whether it was on purpose or not and it hit James on the forehead," she said. Chris Rumpf described it as a larger red mark on his forehead. Graham Heleur said James came into the kitchen with blood pouring from his nose.
Shane Kendall saw it differently. It was an accident. It was done, Kendall stated at the Perth Hearing, "…not in a malicious way. One day he was fixing the car and threw a spanner and it hit Jim in the face…Throwing it to him, and he had his face bent down, and happened to have it in the path of a flying spanner." Andrew Beezley also witnessed the event and thought it an accident. What no one said was whether Loder apologised to James, or simply continued with the repairs.
But the incident left little impression on Loder. Did he hit James with a spanner? "To the best of my knowledge, no," he replied, and when confronted with a contrary witness statement, said: "I feel that is incorrect."
But Loder had a reputation for throwing things. Chris Rumpf recalled a story from Tony Gordon that:
“Tony was sitting on the bull-bar and Giles Loder was up this windmill trying to fix the windmill and apparently this hammer came down from the windmill. He [Tony] said that Giles threw this hammer at him and it missed him by a couple of inches.”
32. Torn between two loyalties
Beautiful in grief, the usually awkward Deborah Maree Davis walked into the Kununurra courtroom with her husband, Jonathon James Bruce Davis, their heads bowed in shame.
John wearing his silver hand-sized belt buckle, peered up from a hung head with cat-like sneakiness, as if caught in some guilty act. This wasn’t the seasoned rodeo performer people knew and loved.
The pastoralists were sick of being accused of racism, and hearing biased stories of one-sided battles against the indigenous people. John was born and bred in the bush, and was expected to defend his kin, and his Melbourne wife was expected to follow.
Trapped between compassionate sentiment and their unspoken duty to defend John’s people, they chose the latter. The mantle of shame that others should have worn was transferred onto their shoulders, like having to wear the smelly, ill-fitting clothing of strangers.
John had initially made no secret to journalists of his disgust at the violence and work conditions at Flora Valley station. He told police that: “I left because I was not happy about the way the station was being run and the way the station hands were being treated.”
But he changed his tune before the capacity-filled court room, where he blamed the jackeroos, saying 50% of them weren't worth their feed, and not up to the long hours. You could have heard the silent cheers from the pastoral hinterland. It was their truth.
His previous view that "…it is unusual to leave young inexperienced youths on stations," took a new convoluted course that boys shouldn't be left alone on stations, but that experience determined if someone was a boy and, "James wasn't a boy; James was a responsible fellow…" therefore it was acceptable putting James alone on Nicholson station. Similarly, the childlike Simon became "Quite capable of doing the bore runs." Setting up yard panels for two months had made them non-boys, he implied, being astute enough not to call them men at ages 16 and 17. Then in a display of graciousness that drew others to him, John Davis agreed that James had cried when he burnt his finger.
Davis previously stated to police that he’d witnessed Loder punch Paul Griffith from behind, then kick him on the ground, but in his new version for the inquest he hadn't seen or heard anything: "I don't really know what was said because…I was probably 30 or 40 yards away, underneath of truck." It was “Griffo” who told him what happened.
Amateur footage broadcast in the “Dead Heart” television documentary showed cattle in a Sherwin mustering yard lying in the mud twitching and dying while one staggered about with a foot missing. Davis had previously expressed his disgust that two hundred beasts had collapsed and died during a Sherwin muster. He told journalist Chris Masters that in contrast to a Sherwin muster there hadn’t been any deaths in the yard at Ruby Plains, but at the Inquest Davis rationalised that two hundreds deaths was commiserate with the huge numbers of animals mustered.
Brendan Berlin's abrupt departure also took on a new interpretation. Instead of leaving the next day, as previously stated, Davis said Berlin had parted on friendly terms a few days later. There wasn't any rush.
Davis didn't mention 16-year-old Maurice Roy Lewis. The Commonwealth Employment Service in Perth referred Lewis to Flora Valley station in September, 1986. Vicki Loder told him inexperience was not a problem, and he’d be paid $80 a week plus board. Lewis cancelled his dole payments in Perth, then caught the Ansett Pioneer bus to Halls Creek. James Annetts picked him up at 4:30am and they arrived at Flora Valley at 7:30am.
Lewis spent that day on the bore run with the person he later identified from a photograph as probably being James Annetts.
He met head stockman John Davis on his second day, describing him as "medium to solid build, black curly hair and white sunburned skin". They set up holding yards from metal panels, then Davis told him to use the jack to level the cattle scales and:
“As I had never done this before I questioned the head stockman as to what to do. A heated argument followed and he then knocked me to the ground and proceeded to punch me about the chest, face and back. He said that I was fucking useless. I requested to be taken back to Flora Valley Station so I could leave. He refused and said that I wasn't going anywhere.”
Things didn’t get better. When traveling on the back of the truck, James 'Jimbo' Ghilotti urged Lewis to hang off the side by his fingers to see how long before he was knocked off by a tree. Later, Jimbo "…tried to throw me off the back of a moving truck."
Lewis stated later that evening:
“… I was washing myself in a creek near the camp when Jimbo approached me carrying a boning knife. He told me that he would throw it at me if I didn't swim for it. I swam over to the other side and remained there for about ten minutes. I was very scared of the lot of them at this stage. The head stockman arrived and told Jimbo to do something and Jimbo left…During the evening he [Jimbo] threatened me again…He said that no one knew I was here and that no one would care if anything happened to me. He said that they would all stick together on one story…The next day we returned to Flora Valley station. I went to see Mrs Loder for my pay. She asked me if I thought I deserved the money and I said that I worked hard over the last few days, working twelve hours a day. She paid me $29.00 and told me to pack my gear.”
Maurice remembered on the way back into town: "... the red haired guy was having a bit of a joke with everyone. He appeared to get on well with all the others. He was happy and in good spirits."
Debbie Davis was an exceptional woman, with the peculiar habit of going blank in the eyes while nodding dopily in agreement to her own statements. Journalists initially thought her mentally deficient. Her rambling answers lulled them into somnambulism, whereupon she would stop on a knife-edge, and the interviewer would be snagged by her re-focused eyes, like an insect in a trap.
Her spectacular about-face at the inquest left her husband in the dust for its sheer gall. She tossed logic out of the equation, and appeared unfazed while she contradicted her earlier condemnations of life at Flora Valley. Les and Sandra Annetts were enthralled and dismayed by her frightening performance.
During four media interviews Debbie had condemned conditions at Flora Valley. She said that James and Simon "…could go four or five days without one of them calling in and nobody seemed to care." In a television interview she said Paul Griffith "… was belted up by the manager…Oh, there were no marks on him, but he was given a fair hiding." Of another incident, she said: "My husband came home one day and said he'd seen one young lad get a beating, the likes of which he'd never seen in 10 years of working on stations."
But under oath she swept away her print media statements as “misquotations” or that she’d never even made them. Kevin Murray quoted her from “Dead Heart”:
“Take, take, take from all the workers all the time. Men work 24 hours per day. No thanks for a job which proved to be demoralising. Even a bit of appreciation helps. A kick in the pants is all you get.”
"It was said less strongly than that," Debbie explained to the court. Just once she'd known the men to work 24-hours without getting adequate overtime payments.
Sandra Annetts was aghast. John and Debbie had been so kind to them and their children then "…all of a sudden started denied saying things they [had previously] said to us." Sandra said Debbie later told her they had to live in Halls Creek.
They’d moved to town after eight months at Ruby Plains. Debbie worked in Bonnie and Malcolm Edwards’ supermarket, and as a travel consultant at the Trading Post. John ran the power station and repaired saddles at home.
But life back in town wasn’t good. Their marriage was collapsing. John returned to Ruby Plains, but he couldn't face working with young jackeroos, preferring instead to drive the grader where he'd be alone most of the day. After they divorced he remarried a woman also named Debbie. They had two kids and lived next door to Bonnie Edwards. When that marriage fell apart, John became increasingly tormented, then shot himself in Darwin. Debbie told people she was going to become a medical doctor.
They had defended the legacy of the white pioneers, then hunkered down and accepted the blows that should have gone to others.
33. The future search and rescue chief
Sergeant John Hatton ironically corroborated Les Annetts’ accusations the searching had become little more than looking out of windows, while doing other business. Hatton defended police efforts saying:
“We had contact with all the aeroplanes in the area. It was my instructions they were to look out for this white Datsun…There was an aeroplane that flies from Halls Creek to Balgo south every day to the little Aboriginal settlement of Kirrakurra …There are aeroplanes flying to the Bungles; there are mineral planes in the air so there was quite a lot of surveillance done…”
State Emergency Service volunteers from Halls Creek with 4WD vehicles, some equipped with radios, had been available in Halls Creek. They lived and worked in the bush, and stayed alive through their knowledge of the geography and survival techniques. Sergeant Jim Guy rejected them, testifying that, "unskilled civilians would really create a danger for them."
Kevin Murray questioned Guy’s expertise. It was a year after the remains had been collected. "How do you get to Yagga Yagga from Balgo?"
"I've no idea," Guy responded, without a trace of embarrassment.
"Is Yagga Yagga south of Balgo?" Murray asked.
"I'm not aware of where Yagga Yagga is," said Guy.
Guy had initially denied the police maps were unreliable, yet when asked about the seismic tracks, said: "…I'm still not aware they exist."
"You mean you haven't been there and walked over them?" Murray asked.
"That's exactly right." Guy replied, then admitted the maps used by police had been inaccurate.
John Hatton had conducted the next ten weeks of the search, after he replaced Guy near the end of January 1987. But he knew so little of the initial search that he believed most SES volunteers had been on holiday during this period from the 5th to the 7th of December.
He mounted a spirited defense of the local station, as Murray hammered him with a withering list of questions, asking if police in future should liaise with local groups that know the area in question, maintain a diary of events, get every available plane in the air, have quick access to money to hire planes, rescue equipment and personnel, equip themselves with the latest seismic line maps from the mining companies, improve radio communication, and in the end examine where failure occurred. Everything Murray implied they hadn't done. John Hatton, indirectly, but graciously, agreed.
"I suppose I should have added to the list that in future we won't stop the search on day two, will we?" Murray added sarcastically. Coroner McCann relieved Sergeant Hatton of the need to reply.
34. That curious death ute
The Datsun ute with number plates HC 529 was manufactured in 1983, but after three years of pounding over rough tracks it had become an unreliable heap of junk. Its registration expired in July 1986, soon after Sherwin purchased the stations. This put the liability of driving an unregistered truck on ‘bore runner’ James Annetts, who didn't even have a driver's license.
Automotive engineer Police Sergeant Neville Douglas Stokes examined the Datsun at Halls Creek three weeks after it was returned from the desert. He reported it was operating from its rear wheels only, and that the fuel gauge, horn and dashboard warning lights were inoperative. The speedometer and odometer had stopped at 46192. The ignition switch was also broken, so the driver needed to reach under the bonnet and cut the fuel supply to turn the motor off.
The electric diesel injection control arm had been disconnected, making the engine difficult to start, and its low oil pressure warning circuit chronically shut down the motor. Finding an auto electrician in the east Kimberley was prohibitively expensive, so it had been disconnected.
The fuel filter was clogged, and this starved the engine of diesel, making the motor stall when driven above 80kmh, or in the case of the boys, when revving the motor in low gear to climb that last sand dune.
The motor could be restarted by manually filling the fuel line using a plunger pump attached to the motor. The air was bled through an opened valve, which was closed when the escaping air was replaced by fuel.
The battery was never fully charged, due to constant cranking of the stalled engine. Not that any amount of driving could fully charge it, because earlier it had overheated, and the plastic battery casing had melted into the boiling electrolyte that then exploded against the inside of the bonnet. This left two big holes in the top of the battery that exposed the lead plates. Hence a spare battery lying on its side in front of the ute, in the desert.
Peter Momber attempted to shift blame from Sherwin Pastoral Company, when Loder said that Greg Wheeler the new Flora Valley mechanic had driven the Datsun from Halls Creek back to the station without any problems.
Wheeler was never called as a witness, but Loder's claim challenged both the jackeroos’ and Stokes’ estimation of the Datsun’s roadworthiness.
Loder said he knew nothing of the motor frequently stalling, and that he thought David Reid had "… put on a new fuel filter." Jim Ghilotti contradicted Loder, saying it was common knowledge the vehicle was unreliable, as it had broken down before, and that “the vehicle would stall if it went over 50kph due to a fuel blockage.” Johnny Brown, out in the desert, had noticed the injector bleed nipple was butchered due to the problem having occurred many times over a long period. Loder obfuscated, but the evidence was so overwhelming that he admitted fuel needed to be manually primed to the motor each time it was started.
Momber tried to blame James and Simon, by suggesting the battery had been damaged at the death scene, but Sergeant Stokes knocked that one on the head, saying it had occurred prior to the boys going into the desert.
The melted battery had possibly been detected by Loder when he had “got up” James in the workshop. Loder claimed it had been about a "hairline fracture" in the oil sump, but Chris Rumpf testified it was about a battery clamp. One might see the logic of Loder emphasizing a hairline fracture, as prior knowledge of a faulty battery indicated culpability on his part. But there wasn’t any mention at the inquest of repairs made to remedy this hair line fracture. In fact, the notable significance of the "hairline fracture" in Sergeant Stokes’ report was its absence.
35. All is forgiven
"I was unhappy too with the relatively insufficient attention given to the suspicious circumstances surrounding the departure of each of the boys. There is just no explanation for the circumstances and apparently no real curiosity on the part of the Coroner."
Daniel Brezniak, Solicitor representing Les and Sandra Annetts
When the last witness was heard, Kevin Murray QC rose to deliver his summation against Giles Loder, Shane Kendall and Peter Sherwin. Coroner McCann stopped him. “You might not understand Mr Murray that in Western Australian Coronial practice we don’t take submissions,” he said.
“Well, I think that might be something we need to change,” Murray replied.
Murray wasn’t bluffing. He and Daniel Brezniak appealed McCann's refusal to allow them to present the summation of their arguments to him, in the Western Australia Supreme Court. They lost, so they took it to the High Court of Australia, and won. The case is known as Annetts v McCann, and it set a precedent that prevented courts across Australia from excluding interested parties from stating their case. Daniel Brezniak described it as "a case about the Coroner shutting us [out] from making submissions at the end of the Inquest. It changed the law of natural justice."
Kevin Murray missed the victory celebration. He was stricken with a cancerous melanoma, and died in 1991 at the age of 60. Daniel Brezniak took over the case.
When the Inquest into the deaths of the two boys resumed, without Kevin Murray, Brezniak took on the case and apportioned blame to the Sherwin Pastoral Company and Giles Loder for the deaths. (The Annetts wanted a murder charge.) Peter Momber objected. McCann agreed with him and stopped Brezniak dead in his tracks, because even though the Annetts v McCann precedent allowed counsel to put its view on the general nature of the Inquest, it still couldn’t branch off into accusations of murder.
This meant McCann’s Decision of 23 October 1991 didn’t consider directly whether Giles Loder or Shane Kendall contributed directly to James’ and Simon’s deaths. And McCann was true to his word that he hadn’t expected to discover how the jackeroos died.
Instead, his Decision was a sermon of forgiveness. Giles Loder was taken at his word, while the numerous allegations of violence were given little credence.
“The Manager verbally abused James and James was upset. There was some evidence that there may have been physical abuse but I do not accept that evidence. There was other evidence which suggested that the Manager treated employees generally in a harsh and aggressive way. While it may be the approach of the Manager to his employees could be described as direct I find that there is no evidence that he was cruel or inhumane in his dealings with them. The milieu of a cattle station is vastly different to that of say, a Solicitor's office.”
That the police tacitly allowed such violence was irrelevant to McCann, leaving one to speculate what he might have thought the appropriate police response should have been if Loder had fled to town after being kicked on the ground by a jackeroo.
McCann said: "The mother of James was told that he would be under constant supervision,” and "They were supervised by the Manager or his overseer or one of the more experienced workers."
Claims the jackeroos were overworked were described as: "After breakfast, work commenced at about 7am and finished at about 5pm with a lunch break of half an hour. The working week was Monday to Saturday but on occasion the working would extend to seven days.”
Sonny Peckover said they worked from 7am to up to 9pm, while James said they worked from 7am to 7pm, and sometimes later. When he left at 1:30am to collect Maurice Lewis from the bus in Halls Creek, and arrived back at 7:30am, he still did the bore run that day.
Shane Kendall’s half-hearted attempt to operate the radio, and his failure to visit the homesteads when the boys missed two calls was forgiven as
“… the Manager appears not to have given the employee precise instructions about maintaining radio schedules and did not give precise instructions on the action to be taken if a radio schedule was missed. In fact, no routine record was kept of radio schedules and no record was kept as to whether or not radio contact was made on each occasion.
Using the words "not to have given the employee precise instructions" also forgave Loder, as they implied he'd at least given some instructions, while Kendall was forgiven for not being able to follow imprecise instructions. It could hardly have worked out better for the two men, short of receiving medals of honour.
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