36. Accidents happen
Coroner McCann determined James and Simon left Sturt Creek station on Monday evening, 1 December. To meet this timeframe required James leaving Nicholson not long after speaking to Giles Loder at midday. McCann believed the boys probably drove easterly to Caranya station, then turned south towards Balgo, on what he described as "the road which travels from Halls Creek towards Balgo and the Northern Territory", meaning the Tanami Road.
This raised the problem of the border gate between Caranya and Sturt Creek stations. Jungarri T. Bradshaw and the police found it locked, and showing damage of being rammed by a vehicle. When the gate had been locked was never investigated. Had the Snellings locked it before leaving for Adelaide, days after McCann believed James and Simon had passed through?
McCann said they would have seen the lights of Balgo by night, or the power lines and radio aerials by day, from the bi-pass road a kilometre before the community. He suspected they also passed Yagga Yagga, and wrongly believed that the community was empty, and thus the boys had been unobserved.
As to the bullet holes in Simon’s head, Coroner McCann said:
“…after his supply of food and water was exhausted, he became distressed so much so that he turned the rifle upon himself.”
McCann's view was possibly based on Detective Tom Salfinger's report, that if James had been present when the bullet entered Simon's head then he'd probably have taken the rifle to hunt for food and for protection. James was absolved of mercy killing.
And in a gesture of respect, McCann wrote:
“It should be remembered that the harsh country and the extreme temperatures would place great strain on any person in such a situation. Having regard to his age and his probable state of distress I am not satisfied that Simon Amos fired the rifle knowing the consequences of what he was about.”
McCann's conclusion was perhaps influenced by teenager Paul Stuart Baikie, who had fled Flora Valley with four other jackeroos in 1986. Paul is married today with children and running a fencing business in New Zealand, but is still tormented by those events, and won't speak about them.
The twenty-year-old Baikie stated in a sworn statement to New Zealand police in 1988, probably in answer to a leading question, that: "I didn't know anything about any alleged pact." But he did say in a second statement that:
“Simon Amos and James Annetts and myself had talked about it [if] we ever got stuck out in the middle of nowhere and we weren't rescued by anyone and we were on the last legs, we would draw straws. Whoever got the short straw would have to shoot the other two, then shoot himself. We talked about this while we were working and we all shook hands on it. It was a genuine agreement made by the three of us. We never thought it would happen. We decided that if we had water we would save that and drink the radiator water from the vehicle first. We would get that out of the road first then have our clean water. James Annetts was the weaker one of the two. He wouldn't have been able to shoot anyone. In that agreement he would have. I didn't know they had a gun …We all said that we would carry out this agreement but never thought that it would happen. I don't think they would have done it.”
The contradiction, in accepting the 'death pact', is that the Datsun’s radiator held "clean, drinkable water."
And James, McCann continued:
“…attempted to continue on from the camp site to search for help leaving Simon with whatever remained of food, and the rifle, but that he too succumbed to the harsh environment…it is reasonable to assume that the medical cause of death was dehydration and exhaustion in association with hyperthermia. The deaths of both boys arose from circumstances which, for their part, were unintended and which were not in their contemplation when they set out on their journey. Accordingly, I find that the death of each boy was accidental…There is not evidence that the boys were compelled to leave the stations by threats or force nor is there any evidence to suggest that the act of any other person directly caused the deaths.”
McCann deemed the time of death from Thursday, the 4th of December to Saturday, the 6th of December. This assumed they'd left the homesteads late Monday afternoon, because how otherwise could they have zoomed so far south so quickly in a faulty vehicle then promptly died.
But McCann’s estimated time of death didn’t take into account the boys’ stop for water south of Balgo, which would have sustained them for an extra day or two. Nor was it clear from the police reports how much water they could carry. Photographs of evidence gathered from the desert suggest perhaps 35 litres. Johnny Brown thought the containers dragged to the last camp could hold 55 litres.
The Coroner’s early death estimate lessened the urgency of Loder to prove he'd been at Birrindudu fighting the fires, because the boys would have been well and truly gone when he surfaced on Wednesday evening. But it’s reasonable to speculate they could have fled Sturt Creek station, after being caught there on Wednesday 3 December. They could even have gone as early as the Wednesday before, if one questioned the accuracy of their last sightings by those three-day amnesiacs, Kendall and Loder.
That Danny Verschuuren, Therese Stansfield-Campbell and Chris Rumpf remembered the fires happening in a different week from that of the disappearance, wasn’t a factor in McCann's calculations.
The belief the boys died quickly was a more comfortable thought than the possibility the search had been called off on Sunday, 6 December while they were still alive.
But the expensive inquest needed a scapegoat, and so the hapless Sergeant Jim Guy with his alleged neck injury copped McCann's blame. The man who later became the chief of the police rescue branch, the Western Australia Police Emergency Operations Unit, was told he should have coordinated the search from Halls Creek, and called in experts, rather than actively participating. He should have ensured officers kept better records, so they could have verified Loder’s claim he told them on Thursday that James was missing.
Conspicuous by his absence in McCann’s report was Superintendent Leonard James Craddock, the boss of the Kimberley police region. It was never clear who shut down the search from Sturt Creek homestead, who rejected qualified local volunteers, or who decided not to search south of Balgo.
Coroner McCann concluded that, "The two boys set off on an innocent adventure and paid for it with their lives."
Daniel Brezniak was predictably unhappy with the outcome. He thought McCann showed "no real curiosity” about the "suspicious circumstances surrounding the departure of each of the boys". Brezniak believed McCann should have taken more interest in the lack of certainty of the whereabouts of Giles Loder, and his false account of his “fire fighting". But all was not lost, and Murray and Brezniak had laid the groundwork for a negligence claim against Giles Loder and Peter Sherwin. The Annetts weren’t chasing money in particular: they wanted Loder back in court on a murder charge.
37. At home with the Annetts
“We totally believe they were murdered. We don't believe for one minute that they just went out there and perished in the desert, no. They were taken out there. Both of the boys, their remains, every bone was still there but there was one bone missing from each boy and it was the identical bone and it was from one boy's left arm and one boy's right arm and so that indicates to us were they tied together. Why would an animal take the exact bone except from a different arm from each boy?”
Sandra Annetts, 2009
From under the dubious shade of a leafless tree outside Jerilderie, where Ned Kelly robbed the bank on his own hot day in 1879, I gaze at the blue sky, contemplating the short life of a 16-year-old, whose death created waves that still resonate today. A white light bursts across the sky then fizzles soundlessly into the horizon.
Further east a wrinkled man greets me at the end of a crescent shaped driveway at Darlington Point, on the southern bank of the Murrumbidgee River near Griffith.
Les Annetts takes me into the two-floor wooden bungalow backing against a levee bank, and purchased with compensation money from Heytesbury Beef, who inherited Sherwin Pastoral Company’s liabilities.
Les wears the fierce smile of small statured men who toughen up as children, then spend the rest of their lives proving they won’t be pushed around. The doorbell has been ringing all morning without anyone being there, he says.
Sandra is on the main floor upstairs, as if the house’s architect doubted whether the levee paralleling the back fence would hold. A locket hangs from her neck containing a tiny photo of James that she vows will be buried with her. Unlike others who cover their grief with a happy mask, Sandra is clear about one thing: the circumstances around her son’s death have not been resolved.
She cares for three of her grandchildren while her youngest daughter, Joanne, holds down two jobs. Joanne is home today and stands in the doorway like a stage actor, dominating the room with her presence. She was seven when her brother disappeared.
Les directs me into their cramped archive room then clears a flat surface for my copier, while I crawl under a desk amongst tangled cables looking for a power point. He takes a chair and blocks the open door, while I'm wedged in by folders and boxes of testimony transcripts, investigative paperwork, a small mountain of media clippings, letters from strangers, and boxes of videos and audio recordings from the saturation media coverage. Back against the wall are boxes of James’ possessions returned from the Kimberley.
Les is a natural archivist, who tirelessly filed every scrap of paper into correct categories. His mind is similarly structured, and to each question I fire at him he retrieves a memory or a document from the shelves. He disclaims having a prodigious memory, saying he can remember the gist of conversations from twenty years ago, but it is Sandra who remembers them word for word. He’s like a lawyer keeping up to speed on the case, as if expecting it to re-open next week, and he’ll need every fact and figure at his finger tips.
He takes back each document from my copier, and replaces it into its plastic sleeve before passing another, while simultaneously recounting the litany of evidence, witness statements, police inaction, and the impediments the system threw up connected with the information on that page.
One curious photocopied document entitled: "Boys lost in Great Sandy Desert" reads: "A white Datsun ute was spotted near Balgo Station on Friday heading towards Alice Springs about 50km south of Sturt Creek station." The copy doesn’t show the newspaper name or date, but someone has written in blue ink at the top '6-12-1986', a Saturday and second day of the initial search.
Balgo station, now known as ‘Ngulupi’, lies 125 kilometres east of Balgo in Western Australia and runs alongside the Northern Territory border near Rabbit Flat Roadhouse. It was founded from opportunity country ― land never before grazed or farmed ― by Father McGuire, from the Catholic Pallottine Order. McGuire intended it to operate as a cattle station, and had the homestead house built from local quarried stone.
When the Pallottines withdrew from the Kimberley it was transferred to Aboriginal ownership. It failed to thrive when the indigenous manager rustled the cattle and paid his stockmen with alcohol. Little attention was given to the stock, and in 2000 the troughs went dry and a hundred quality station horses and perhaps a thousand cattle perished from dehydration.
Before the transfer, back in 1986, gudia Jamie Savage ran the station efficiently. He saw nothing of the Datsun ute.
But the mysterious news report, if the date was correct, strengthens John Boland's recollection of discussing the sighting of the boys south of Balgo, with Sergeant Jim Guy, the next day, Sunday, at the Sturt Creek homestead search base, when the boys were supposedly already dead.
Guy had dismissed the report as unworthy of investigation, and apart from John Drummond and Jungarri T. Bradshaw making their lightning visits to Balgo and Billiluna, and Loder's flight down the Canning Stock route, the early search went east and north and interstate: everywhere except where the boys went.
The Balgo sighting was an anomaly, like not seeing an elephant in the room, but to Les it’s plain as day: "The police knew the boys were seen at Balgo yet they let Loder lead them up north and to Caranya. Loder told the police where to look; Loder didn't want the police down south.”
A miniature horse slightly higher than a Great Dane watches, while I set up my camera and tripod on the back porch. Les hands me a series of finely crafted 8" by 10" black and white photographs, taken by Mary Mills of Chris Rumpf, John and Debbie Davis, Giles and Vicki Loder, Andrew Beezley and himself, blank eyed after viewing the photographs of his son’s ghastly remains.
Perhaps uneasy at another stranger in his house claiming to be writing a book, Les shouts to Sandra upstairs in an unpleasant tone, that I'm mostly interested in the photographs.
One manila envelope contains colour photos of James’ red water bottle, on which he purportedly scratched his death message.
"James, My Follt. I always love you Mum and Dad, Jason, Michelle, Joanne."
On the handle was scratched: "I found peece," proof according to some police the boys weren’t victims of foul play.
One might think this major piece of evidence would be guarded like a treasure, but it soon disappeared. When the Registrar of the Western Australia Coroner’s Court, G. C. Spivey, returned James’ possessions, the water bottle was missing. Another official said anything not returned had been destroyed. It isn’t clear at what point the bottle actually disappeared, nor is there any record of the Coroner or the police expressing concern. When Les queried its disappearance a court official posted him a blue bottle that hadn’t any message.
Dawn Wright from the Western Australia Coroner’s Court recently located for me four dusty boxes of documents, which included the list of evidence admitted by Coroner McCann at the first Hearing in Perth. It included the blue and cream coloured water bottle listed as “BJ”, but not the crucial red bottle. This means it had disappeared within eight months of being found in the desert.
One former police officer told me access to the evidence room at Halls Creek police station was only through the main office – no back doors. Did someone souvenir the bottle for sentimental reasons, or for its commercial value to collectors? Or was it in someone’s interest that the bottle disappeared?
A court official with a faultless career record supplied the red bottle photographs to the Annetts in mid-1988. The film-based prints were taken against a blue background, and each photograph was identified by a file number, except one. This image contains the characteristic blemishes of the red water bottle lid, but without its scratched message. I tested a digital copy under magnification and various brightness and contrast stresses in Photoshop, but still no scratched letters were visible.
James’ Old Timer knife found with his remains was microscopically examined for plastic particles possibly left after scratching the lid, but none were found.
Nor could the Document Examination Branch of the Western Australia Police compare James’ handwriting with the scratched words, because the latter was a series of straight lines rather than curved symbols.
On my third day while we're having coffee and biscuits, Les says he’d considered I might be a spy for Giles Loder, but after listening to my questions to see if I knew more than I should he now believes I am a genuine researcher.
A plane landed back of their house at Binya one night, a risky landing on uneven ground. The occupants showed no inclination to leave the craft, so Les spent that night sitting next to a campfire cradling his shotgun. He’d considered that if Giles Loder sensed a threat, he might want to ‘get in first’. The plane took off the next day.
Les declined an offer from a Calabrian source in Griffith to deal with Loder their way. Les had considered killing him, but had faith the court system would discover the truth. "The biggest mistake of my life," he mourns. Perhaps his need for truth surpasses that of revenge, and a dead Loder would take that truth to his grave.
Les lugs a wobbly box of unlabeled video cassettes upstairs, and after much fiddling with his analog player the image of a wrinkle-free Les with clear blue eyes and a 1950's bodgie haircut looks out from the screen. A television interviewer asks if he blames himself for James’ death. "Yes," Les replies. The camera holds the scene as silent tears flow down his face. But he won't blink.
Further on twenty-two year old Debbie Davis in white shorts, nods her head and tells how terrible it was to send Simon and James onto stations alone, and with inadequate food:
“There was no way of keeping fresh meat cold…that was definitely a health risk…I don't believe they had enough to eat. James shot wild ducks to supplement his food supply.”
And she says the sewerage rose up through their shower drain. John Davis mumbles into the microphone, head down, like Bradshaw, the black tracker.
We get through a third of the box then call it a day. I stumble back to my cabin across the Murrumbidgee and that night my brain lurches through a migraine. The next morning while I moan in pain Les admits he took something to sleep and Sandra, too, was facing the demons that won't go away.
38. Poems and letters from people they didn’t even know
Tragedies bring forth a range of responses from both friends and total strangers. Some people pounce like predators finishing off the kill, while others support the person brought low with both physical help and that hard to define intangible kind. Others are difficult to explain.
Anne Dejachy arrived from France in March 1987, on a work visa at the age of twenty-two, after her brother committed suicide the previous year. After watching television reports of the recovery of James’ and Simon's remains she wrote:
“I didn’t sleep that night and couldn't help thinking about those two kids, and what they and gone through. I layed on my bed staring at the ceiling until dawn… I felt shy and uneasy whenever people were talking about it, and I was terrified to be asked why I wanted to know…I was still unable to forget your son's face, and his eyes, the way he looks at the camera…Over three years have gone by since I came back here [Paris], but I still can't forget neither James nor Simon…I have often tried to guess the kind of things that made him laugh, the kind of things that made him angry or sad or upset. But, somehow, I'm almost sure that the answers wouldn't surprise me…we are friends now…I will never forget him.”
In another letter, Anne wrote:
“When I came to Australia…I only knew I had to flee…I simply didn't want to live anymore, although I couldn't bear the thought of committing suicide…I have always considered [it] as repulsive and stupid…when I heard about James, then when I saw his lovely face in the WA newspaper, I thought, how unfair, I who wants to die and him, who probably wanted to live.”
Anne said she didn't expect to be around much longer and that was the last the Annetts heard from her.
George Stephen Lee, Ngalya, wrote a song called Kartiya Kutjarra. One translated verse ran:
Two white persons went this way.
We only saw the lights. (of the car)
Without water they got lost.
So they went and died in the desert.
"I hope this song brings you both comfort knowing that the people in the desert area have not forgotten what happen to your son," George wrote to the Annetts. But the Annetts would have felt the opposite of comfort if they’d known the lights were from another vehicle.
Therese Stansfield-Campbell wrote from GoGo station.
“I wrote some nice poems for the boys. I found hard to wrote it down. Theres one poem I wrote for you. I think james would like to tell you. I told games this poem and he like it so much. I miss them a lot, laughting, a sweet smile and see they sparkly eyes. Those boys where lovely to be with.”
My love for you
I will always love you
Where ever you are
If you are far or near me
I will always love you.
A man visited the Annetts one night accompanying by a woman who later denied she'd brought him. They spent four hours hammering out a statement about his time working for Peter Sherwin. Jim Stone stated:
“I, Jim Stone, hereby do declare what is written here is the truth and I give consent for this to be used in any way that comes forth.
“I have worked on Flora, Fitsroy [Fitzroy], Benmara and Dunmara Stations which are owned by Peter Sherwin and I'd have to say that these are the most appalling and inhuman conditions that I have ever seen. I wouldn't call it jackerooing. I'd call it white-slavery.
“You are taken out to the station by plane or station vehicle with no knowledgeable way out. You are set to work. You get paid when and if they want to pay you. If you disagree they say, 'Well, start walking', and when you are about 300 mile from nowhere and you don't know where to go how can you survive? The food on the station is absolutely appalling. On many occasions I've had to pick maggots out of my food to eat it. At one stage we had to shoot a dingo to eat.
“If the boss doesn't reckon your working hard enough they belt you up pretty badly. The horses they put the young jackaroos on are not even fit to be rodeo horses. I've seen a lot of 14-16 year old kids hurt (some badly) by being placed on half broken horses to give the boss a laugh.
“Peter Sherwin runs one of the biggest cattle stealing operations in Australia. I know as I use to steal for him. Once 'cause he wouldn't pay me I threatened to talk. A gun was put to my head by Frank Codey (an employee of Mr Sherwin). I was told if I talked I would go missing so I shut up until now.
“I was doing a droving trip with two thousand head of bullocks. The rest of the ringers were virtually pony club boys with no knowledge of cattle, bush or horses and on a day the [cattle] wandered off and I was sent back to track them as I was the only one in the team that could track.
“My horse hadn't had water for 3 days and as a result he died. I was stranded with no water or food for three days. The only reason the search party was sent was because an Aboriginal mate of mine knew I was missing and alerted the police. Sherwin himself made no effort to find me until the police were called in and the only reason he came out to help was to cover himself. He's still got my swag, saddle and bridle and pay checks which he won't give me. He said that they got lost.
“All in all I personal reckon that station owners like this could commit murder and get away with it without any worries.
“The only reason I came forward and spoke was so that no more parents will have to go through what James’ and Simon's parents have gone through.”
Clive Stone ran Rosewood station on Duncan Road near Lake Argyle, and now owns the general store at Timber Creek. He told me his brother worked for Peter Sherwin for ten years, but knows no one named Jim Stone. I phoned his brother who was holidaying in Queensland. He suggested I ring back the following week, but when I did a woman curtly announced they wanted nothing to do with the subject. When I called a second relative referred to me by Clive she simply hung up the phone.
Les passes over another four stapled pages of roughly typed notes found amongst boxes of legal papers returned by his lawyers. The pages are entitled "Questions for Turner" from someone replying to "Robin". On the fourth page is a section labeled: "Evidence from [Constable] Colin Main".
“I was out there. It was horrible. There wasn’t even a girl in sight. We camped out. I mean I was sleeping alone, but I had the strong feeling someone was close by me during the night. In the morning I awoke to find a number of tracks. From looking at them I had a strong feeling we’d been threatened…but from my vast experience I knew they weren’t my wife’s footsteps!
“Some months later we were confronted by the media, but I knew they could be befriended and would believe my story. In evidence to the Coroner’s inquiry, I was able to not only reduce the mother of one of the boys to tears, but make the main nasty guy, Mr Kevin Murray, one of my closest friends.
“Finally, on June the 2nd, I ended a day of evidence drinking alcohol from the mini-bar of a woman who was gullible enough to become my friend and confidante.”
John Stanley Smith burst into the Annetts home one summer afternoon, LED lights flashing from his sunglasses, accompanied by his young Asian wife. He valiantly presented his unpublished manuscript, "Why did they have to die?" It included unique details of the search and reprints of court documents that must have cost him a small fortune. And money was John’s problem. It was also a problem of his editor from Freestyle Publications, Lorraine Day, whose voice hardened when I asked her about Smith. She owns and writes commissioned histories of cattle and sheep stations, whose market values are enhanced when they come with a written history. Lorraine offers editorial services for writers like Smith, and for whom there is the small matter of an outstanding bill.
Sandra Annetts sank rapidly after the inquest, when she realised it was over and they hadn’t discovered the truth. She was admitted to the Griffith Hospital suffering heart palpitations, hot and cold flushes, shaking, chest pains, panic attacks, feelings of unreality and an indifference to whether she lived or died. Les gave up work to care for her.
To keep the issue of James’ death in the courts Les began a claim for damages against Heytesbury Beef, for psychiatric shock.
The psychiatrist representing Heytesbury said Les and Sandra’s deep depressions were not expected to improve. They were unable and unwilling to let the matter rest. Heytesbury hadn’t been at fault, but had assumed Sherwin Pastoral Company’s liabilities when they purchased Flora Valley and Nicholson stations.
Author Smith phoned the Annetts in 1997, years after his visit, when he heard on the news that Heytesbury Beef had settled with the Annetts. Smith sought funding to self-publish his book, but Les and Sandra were still heavily in debt and declined his request.
Film makers and journalists flocked to the Annetts, intent on producing television dramas, feature films and books, but apart from Smith's commendable effort little was completed except for Chris Masters’ masterpiece, “Dead Heart”, for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Other researchers were derailed when they faced the onslaught of misdirection and hostility to enquiries. Les says they've gone one year without an enquiry, in 2009.
Sandra avoids us downstairs. Recollecting the past retraumatises her like flicking a healing wound. Down the hallway a room is crammed with child size teddy bears still wrapped in cellophane. They lean against the walls, cover the bed and floor space. "There's more upstairs," Les says. Seven dogs, the horse and Joanne's three boisterous children almost fill the emptiness inside her.
And murder they believe it to be: Giles Loder and Shane Kendall chased their son and Simon into the desert where they died, not between the 4th and 6th of December, but the 10th day of that month. That’s why Giles Loder directed the police to areas north of the Tanami rather than south. Because the boys weren’t yet dead and he didn’t want them discovered alive. This is what Les tells me this in the little room.
The lochs upstream have been opened and water is filling the dry river bed as Les and I end another day wedged amongst the archives. Sandra delivers another tray of biscuits and coffee then returns upstairs and sits under a portrait of James. Joanne’s youngest son, Ki, runs through the door and onto Les’ lap. He's just starting to speak. "Who's this?" Les asks, holding up a photo showing that famous half-smile. "Uncle James," the boy says, hardly able to form the words. Les looks up at me. It's hard to tell if he's happy or sad, but his look says, it's not over; not by a long shot.
39. The homosexual angle
John Turner is an urbane man from an English newspaper family. He ran the police club bar when it was located back of the police headquarters in Perth, the "alcoholic side of the police force," he calls it and remembers many times driving drunken detectives home.
He later became a stringer for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and wrote for James O’Kenny’s Kimberley Echo.
Turner describes O’Kenny as an ex-Irish Republican Army sergeant at sixteen who transferred these skills to the Australian explosives industry. He was known as Gelignite Jim, due to his habit of blowing up buildings of people he disliked. Lenin Christie says there’s an outstanding $40,000 reward for the explosion that destroyed a building behind the motel, where the dignitaries were staying for the opening of the Lake Argyle Dam.
Turner tells me from his retirement village near Albany that O'Kenny’s name was originally:
“…Kenny, but he changed it to O'Kenny because he thought it was more Irish. He went to Kununurra under a bit of a cloud from Sydney. He was a bit of an explosives man… him and his mate blew up a block of toilets in Sydney one night, where all the poofters used to meet. They had to leave town rapidly before he got arrested.”
Their conflict arose when O’Kenny sold Turner a printing press on credit, providing he wouldn’t compete with the ‘Echo’. He hired Turner as a journalist to pay off the debt, but their opposing attitudes to the Amos and Annetts case stymied that partnership.
O’Kenny saw the deaths simply as the boys having made a mistake in the bush and paid with their lives. Turner felt Loder and Sherwin had a duty of care to protect the boys.
Turner had lunch with the Loders on 5 February 1988, and later outside the Sergeant’s quarters he asked them what they thought the verdict would be. He remembers them replying:
Vicki: "Well, Giles, what did Lindy Chamberlain get, 15 years? Well, you could do with a good holiday anyway."
Turner said Giles smiled and chuckled before he replied, "Well, I'd be out in five anyway." Turner asked surely they hadn't thought along those lines? Giles responded: "Well, I guess you have to be prepared for anything."
Turner, in an incomprehensible leap of logic, thought this an admission of guilt, possibly of murder. He was so dismayed by McCann's ‘accidental death’ determination that he wrote to police Commissioner Brian Bull with his suspicions. Bull referred him to Detective Sergeant M. Cousins.
Turner wrote to Cousins, saying it was well known that James drove the 340km round trip from Nicholson to Sturt Creek to yarn with Simon. He speculated that Loder went to Sturt Creek to put the "hard word" on Simon, but found James there and shot him during a scuffle. Loder forced Simon and the wounded or dead James into the Datsun ute, with a trail bike loaded on the back, then drove into the desert where he killed Simon, and dumped James further up the track, and rode back on the motorbike. This was certainly the gossip doing the rounds of the east Kimberley.
After all, Turner reasoned, Loder couldn’t establish a firm alibi for the 48 hours following his meeting with James at Nicholson homestead on Monday 1 December. Turner said his suspicions were supported by uncorroborated rumours that an old tracker at Balgo told police that motorcycle tracks discovered near the Datsun proved a third person had been there.
Turner also suggested Loder was bi-sexual. His source was John File, a gay man from the white community of Crossing Falls on Lake Argyle, who Turner says, was adamant Loder was bi-sexual.
Keith Wright is a Councilor on the Shire of Wyndham East Kimberley, and sympathises with Loder, believing he was unfairly judged. He was also a neighbour and friend of the now deceased File, whom he says was an upstanding man whom he and his wife chose as best man at their wedding. Whether John File was gay, Keith says he, "might have been a bit that way," but finds my questions repugnant and ends the conversation.
O’Kenny’s gravelly voice grinds out his enmity for Turner as if the event happened yesterday. He was out of Kununurra on other business, when Turner took the opportunity to publish his anti-Loder articles, which threatened to alienate the Echo’s largely pastoralist readers.
O'Kenny shouts that Turner:
“… was a known bullshit artist and liar. He made it up. He was looking for attention. He had all those problems, old John. He was a total fuckwit. Why it took so long for us to wake up to it I'm fucked if I know, anyway, we were desperate in those days for people.
“He wrote the article, I was away at the time or I would have thrown it out. It was a load of bullshit… it was a real Mills & Boon thing.
“We were desperate for someone and he had a bit of experience with journalism, and he owed us money, and I gave him a chance to cut it out, and so I didn't even bother with that in the end; I just got rid of him.”
John Turner clears his throat as his mind rakes the past. He was a brave man to challenge the republican sergeant, whose drunken pastime was shooting tops off beer bottles held at the end of another person’s arm. He says O'Kenny treated him badly, so:
“I thought I'll put him out of business. I'll start up a newspaper. It was a free newspaper whereas his you had to pay for and I was doing cheaper advertising and I almost put him out of business.”
There were other murmurings about Loder’s sexuality, when Mark Skulley from the ‘Western Mail’ newspaper in Perth obtained documents via the Freedom of Information Act. In one handwritten file note by Ian Johnston from the Commonwealth Employment Service (CES) he mentions an allegation from a 16-year-old from Flora Valley station that:
“X claims that a number of young station hands were sexually harassed on the property…X alleges that on one occasion… [redacted]...others had been involved in this assault."
Skulley wrote that a former Flora Valley station employee claimed, in a statutory declaration, to have seen another employee bashed by Giles Loder. Police declined to investigate because the actual victim had not lodged a formal complaint. Nor were the sexual allegations investigated.
But Andrew Beezley thought Loder had, “...copped a bit of the raw end of the stick... and got labelled a few things that weren’t true...It boggles my mind how the media have twisted it.”
Nevertheless, the Broome CES office wrote to Giles Loder on 23 February 1987, saying that five of the last ten job applicants they'd sent since the previous August had returned with complaints. They would no longer be referring clients to any station managed by Giles Loder.
40. Chris Rumpf
"I am the Chris Rumpf you are looking for," an intense voice tells me from Queensland, on the public phone at the Hidden Valley Caravan Park in Kununurra. The squawking of tropical birds in the trees above me blend with crow caws coming up the phone line from southern Queensland, where Chris lives. Children splash in the park pool as a blast of hot air hits me like a boxer’s punch
Chris worked on other properties after Flora Valley then returned home to become a security guard in Warwick, south of Toowoomba.
His grinding dislike of Loder has matured into a sad resignation, as he recalls: “He was arrogant; he was easy to fire up. If you asked a question and he felt you should already have the answer he’d get angry with you. He was a very angry person.”
And when Loder hit James:
“… right between the eyes with a spanner. He had this big red mark on his forehead and…we had a few laughs, we knew how serious it was so we just got together and just changed the conversation so that we could get a bit of don’t look at the negative, this is the positive, sort of thing. 'Cause in a group like that you’re pretty much like family and if someone’s feeling down you try to cheer them up because, especially by yourself, it does get a bit of, not so much off-putting but you do get depressed.”
Chris says he’ll post his Flora Valley photographs. “Don’t send them back. I want to forget that part of my life.” The depressing sensation lands in my solar plexus with the realisation that perhaps at the end of the day regret is all we have left. "You’re the only person that has rung me about James and Simon," he says.
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