6. The Case of the Missing Alibi
After landing at Flora Valley on Wednesday 3 December, Loder drove the sixty kilometres back to Nicholson, and worked on the bore motor well into evening. he checked James' room. It seemed normal; his possessions were there, but instinct told Loder he'd been absent for a day, and that his vehicle must have broken down in the bush. Anyway, his first priority was getting water to the Brahmans, not looking for some jackeroo.
When the motor wouldn’t start, he began the 180 kilometre drive to pick up a spare motor at Sturt Creek homestead. Sturt was marginal cattle country close to the western Tanami Desert, where the pastoralists had abandoned their leases in despair. Even Sturt Creek, with its fine homestead house, was reduced to an occasional mustering camp, and living quarters for its eccentric seventeen-year-old ‘bore runner’, Simon Amos.
Loder’s home bed with its crisp clean sheets at Flora Valley held no attraction for him, despite being located one-third of the way between Nicholson and Sturt Creek homesteads. Instead of stopping there for the night, he continued another 35 kilometres to Munga Tank, then south along Sturt Creek Road. A dead donkey lay amongst the windrow, felled by a single .22 calibre shot to the head by Simon, who had pumped two more bullets into its body for good measure. Loder was suddenly overcome by exhaustion at 11pm, and slept on the side of the road until 4am, when he began his third day ― without witnesses to corroborate his whereabouts. He reached Sturt Creek just before light, and finding the motor difficult to load, decided to awaken Simon.
Simon wasn’t a particularly good employee, at least not with vehicles. Loder described him as a maniac. He drove like he played football. He lost a tailboard and busted the springs on a vehicle, when he raced out to watch a bush fire approaching from Ruby Plains.
Loder replaced it with another Land Cruiser, that Simon promptly bogged in mud, then spun its wheels until he blew the differential. Loder sacked him on the spot, then rehired him the same day, but relegated Simon to an open cab Massey Ferguson tractor with a top speed under thirty kilometres an hour. Simon laughed off the demotion, and continued his charmed life, but Therese Stansfield-Campbell saw through his disguised moods. He was “…a lot harder to find. I mean, if he was unhappy he sort of covered it up,” she said. Perhaps it was his way of adapting to emotional turmoil.
Loder found Simon's bed cold and empty. The kitchen stank from putrid meat in the warm fridge. His cigarettes were left on the table. The tractor was parked in the shed, and his personal effects were there, so he couldn’t have gone far. Loder thought that he was out on foot, a dangerous situation in hot weather, and that he'd suffered a mishap while hunting.
For some strange reason he felt it necessary to open Simon’s letters, ready to be posted home. He felt a flush of annoyance upon reading:
Dear Mummy Dearest, …I had a bit of trouble with Tojo [the Toyota] is done two diffs and gear box great heh. So I'll on the tractor doing the bore which is slow, but Interesting (good). I'm an old tractor puller from way back cool hey.
Love the man from Sturt Creek.
When Pat Clark read the letter her son’s body was being picked by carrion. What mystified some was how one of the unposted letters was mailed, and postdated that day, Thursday 4 December, at Kununurra, over five hundred kilometres to the north.
7. The Reluctant Search
Loder loaded the bore motor by himself, then drove back to Flora Valley, arriving about 10am. He called the Halls Creek police through the Royal Flying Doctor radio telephone and asked: "Could you make inquiries around town to see if anyone has seen him [Simon]?" He didn't mention James or the Datsun.
First Class Constable Ronald W. Ensel drove around town, but couldn’t locate Simon. By that time the boys had not been seen or heard from for 72 hours in over 40C degrees weather, when half that time without water was usually fatal.
Loder flew back to Sturt Creek station and from the air checked the Figure Eight water hole; 20 and 26 mile water holes and the ‘turkey nest’ dam supplied by No. 1 bore. The cattle were well watered, but he saw no trace of Simon. He landed on the homestead airstrip and after a rudimentary search of the buildings, and for reasons that never became clear, thoroughly searched Simon's belongings.
Back at Flora Valley about noon, he phoned the police again saying Simon was definitely missing. Police text of his call read: "I have just flown over the area of Sturt Creek Station on about a 5km radius and have not yet located AMOS. I have also had a ground party looking; I am now concerned re his welfare." No mention of James or the Datsun.
The ground party was a figment of Loder’s imagination, and the rest of the day became a blank in his memory. Did he return to Nicholson with the bore motor? Did he begin a search? The haze of amnesia had so permeated his mind that he couldn’t even remember if he spoke to anyone upon landing back at Flora Valley. Anyone who could corroborate his movements.
Superintendent Mervyn Charles Gardner was Officer-in-Charge (OIC) of the Kimberley police region and based at Broome, but was due to retire in three weeks. His name didn’t appear in the court transcripts or media reports so he was possibly using up his holiday or sick leave. This left Chief Inspector Leonard James “Crash” Craddock running the show. Craddock was a taciturn man thirty months from his own retirement, who had earned his nickname by leaping into drunken crowds and pulling out offenders. Craddock issued a Missing Persons Report describing Simon as "rowdy and jovial" and gave his height at 174 centimetres, with a medium to slim build, wearing four earrings in his left ear, and known as the 'Red Headed Bomber'.
Within the hour First Class Constable Colin “The Counselor” Main picked up Constable Kevin Leslie “Porky” Roberts at his Halls Creek home. They arrived at Sturt Creek at 6:10pm and found the homestead in darkness. They searched the buildings, sheds, abandoned vehicles, tanks, water troughs and Simon's belongings and found $102.82, Simon's remaining letters, and 605 cannabis seeds in the kitchen. They camped overnight. Simon didn't return. He would never return.
They arose at 4am and did a second search. Roberts disapproved of Simon’s housekeeping, "The quarters where Amos had been sleeping were disgustingly dirty…the foodstuff in the refrigerator and cupboards was all infested with maggots…"
Loder landed at 7am, and surprised Constable Main by telling him that James was also missing. Main radioed Sergeant James Richard Guy, officer-in-charge at Halls Creek, at 11:45am, telling him they had a second person missing. Ninety-six hours had passed since the boys had been in contact.
Jim Guy was a fair-skinned man of medium height who had grown up near Boyup Brook in the sou’west. He'd joined the Western Australia police in 1970 and served as a detective in Perth during the tumultuous Don Hancock/Mickelberg era, then returned to uniform in the Kimberley as a senior constable at Argyle Diamond Mine. After being promoted to Sergeant he relieved officers-in-charge at Derby, Wyndham and Fitzroy Crossing, and had arrived in Halls Creek the previous month, to relieve Sergeant Allan George Hogarth who was on holidays.
Jim Guy was acclimatised, but not bushwise: Nor did he know the area or have rescue experience. His dedicated professional manner was marred by petulance, where he refused to cooperate with anyone who criticised him.
Guy contacted Broome, and a second Missing Persons Report was issued and dated Friday 5 December, but curiously stated that James had been reported missing on Thursday. They also knocked 23cms off his height, making him a 155cm short-ass and gave him blue eyes and Simon's date of birth.
Loder told Main and Roberts he believed the boys went hunting, and may have met with trouble. Roberts flew west with Loder following the main track to Caranya store, and checked a bore that the latter had missed the previous day, then landed at Caranya homestead, which was owned by Reginald and Heather Snelling.
The Snellings had left for Adelaide the previous day. Heather was pregnant, and wanted a hospital birth. She’d had complications with her first child Tim, who arrived eight weeks premature, and tried to come out sideways. At the Balgo turn-off they noticed the signs were pointing in the wrong directions.
Ray and Helen Holborow took over the store and station in their absence. The Holborows had owned three Kimberley stations, the last being Sophie Downs, north of Old Halls Creek. They told the coppers they hadn’t seen the boys.
Aboriginals camping next to their broken down vehicle on the gravel track south of Balgo met two white boys in a Datsun, who stopped and gave them water.
Giles Loder took charge of the search, by flying Constable Main northward rather than south towards Balgo. They followed tracks leading to bores and waterholes, then landed at Flora Valley homestead for lunch, and to refuel the plane. From there Main phoned Sergeant Guy in Halls Creek, then he and Loder flew northwest to Nicholson homestead.
They found $384 and an uncashed pay cheque in James’ room, along with letters from friends and relatives. Constable Main later had trouble recollecting the actual details, but Les Annetts recorded in his 1987 journal that he was told that twenty-dollar notes were sticking out of a wallet in a boot, sitting in the middle of the room.
Back at Halls Creek Sergeant Guy phoned Kununurra, Fitzroy Crossing and Wave Hill police stations, plus Bruce Farrands, whom he referred to as "a chap who runs a road house down at Rabbit Flat". Bruce and his French wife Jacqueline were the eyes and ears on the central Tanami Track, but after getting a rough description of the boys they didn't hear from the police again. Bruce wasn’t impressed. Others wondered why the police were casting their net over a vast area for two boys supposedly lost on a short hunting trip.
By mid-afternoon Loder's plane had spent four hours in the air, then Guy ordered Main and Roberts back to Halls Creek. After a gut thumping two-hour drive over dirt and stone roads they arrived back at 6:20pm, and told Guy that Loder had lied about organising a ground search. Flora Valley jackeroos corroborated this, saying they weren't told that James and Simon were missing, but had known something was wrong, because the boys hadn't radioed in for a number of days. When caught out, Loder changed his story, claiming he ordered station staff to continue regular duties, but to keep an eye out for the boys. Chris Rumpf and others flatly denied this; they said Loder hadn’t told them anything. "No, nothing in the work behaviour changed… I wasn’t asked to join in the search or anything like that,” Rumpf later said.
An officer from the New South Wales police station at Griffith phoned the Annetts at 2:45am their time on Saturday 6 December, saying the Western Australia police had told them their son was lost after going hunting, and that grave fears were held for his safety. Les was overcome by emotion, and passed the phone to Sandra. The officer told her the WA police said not to bother calling them back for search updates, because the Royal Flying Doctor radio telephone would be inoperative until Monday morning. This wasn’t true.
Giles Loder then set in concrete a misconception that has endured to the present day: the boys stole his vehicle and were driving home for Christmas. He told police the Datsun ute had enough fuel to get to Alice Springs, neglecting to add that this was vehicle’s usual quota of fuel and carrying it was not unusual. The police caricatured James and Simon as “thieves” not deserving of a search, not a real search, anyway. But what thieves would forget to take their money, uncashed pay cheques and personal possessions? And so began a web of deception that masked the whole debacle.
Guy had little knowledge of the local terrain outside Halls Creek. Town Sergeants found themselves buried in paperwork, and feeding and guarding prisoners, while the constables and aides did the patrols, and made the arrests. Sturt Creek station’s territory alone covered over three thousand square kilometres, and was visited just twice a year by patrols that stuck to the main track. That’s why Guy relied on Loder to direct the search, despite more experienced cattlemen with superior local knowledge being available. Even those that did help ― men like Graham Macarthur, John Boland, Lenin Christie, and Peter Vout ― were treated as secondary searchers.
Constable Colin Main missed the second day of the mini search, Saturday 6 December 1986. It was his weekend off, then he went on scheduled holidays the following Monday. Guy himself replaced Main, and with Kevin Roberts they set out from Halls Creek at 4am. The boys hadn't been seen for five days.
The police hierarchy wouldn't authorise the hire of a mustering chopper to search the tree-lined creek beds, but Guy persuaded them to rent a plane from Kingfisher Airlines, a subsidiary of the Wirrimanu Aboriginal Corporation at Balgo.
Kingfisher pilot John Attard picked up Jungarri T. Bradshaw and Police Aide John Drummond at Halls Creek during the dark hours then landed at Sturt Creek homestead after dawn. They’d checked the more popular water holes and gorges on the way, without success. Bradshaw was a heavy set traditional Aboriginal and despite his failing kidneys and the rough flight arrived good as gold, while Drummond staggered from the plane throwing his sick bag in a bin. No more flying, he thought, but Guy ordered him back up. “It’s like a horse, John, once you fall off you get back on again,” Constable Roberts wanted to go up, but Guy was concerned that “Porky” was such a “big boy” for such a small plane.
They flew to Caranya, and questioned the Holborows a second time. Ray and Helen hadn’t seen anything new since the previous evening, so the officers flew over what Drummond called the “Nicholson Road”, then returned along the Tanami Track to Billiluna Community, about fifty kilometres from Caranya. They buzzed the administration office to signal they needed a vehicle then landed on the airstrip, from where the community administrator drove them back.
Jungarri T. Bradshaw’s English carried such a strong tribal accent that television editors subtitled his speech. But Bradshaw was an educated man and grasped multiple indigenous languages, and questioned the elders in their preferred dialects. While wary of Drummond’s uniform, they felt less constrained with Bradshaw. No one had seen the boys, reported Bradshaw, but later told his own clan quite the opposite.
Drummond's investigative mind considered the boys might have gone south looking for lithe desert girls. It was a taboo subject, one that invited the wrath of the police hierarchy. No one wanted to know how mixed race children were fathered in desert communities, where the only white men were the police and the priest. He also considered the jar of dope seeds, what with a major waterway passing alongside the homestead.
John Attard refueled the plane at the Balgo airstrip, while Drummond and Bradshaw made a lightning visit to the town. Balgo hadn’t a police station, and officers rarely visited except for court sessions or to confiscate .303 rifles smuggled in from the Northern Territory, after someone took a few shots at them.
Some men still dressed in loin cloths, and carried metal tipped spears through the town. Officers drove up the Tanami Road each month, where they met the magistrate who flew in for the court session, held on a veranda. The accused that had been identified by elders during the previous thirty days, stood up to face the white judicial system.
Bradshaw and Drummond asked the elders whether anyone had seen the boys, but no one was talking, especially not about the lights that flashed across the town from a vehicle taking the southern track. Nor about two boys who stopped at the Balgo store in an “orange ute”, perhaps James’ cream coloured Datsun covered in red dust. For reasons that became apparent only later, some were surprised a search was in progress for boys who hadn’t appeared lost.
But why weren’t the locals more forthcoming? The older generation had grown up with a deep fear of white folk, including station managers, who basically had the power to do whatever they liked, and memories of deadly white vigilante patrols guided by black trackers from rival tribes.
Many had warrants, and any interaction with police meant an undignified four stinking hours on a dusty road back to Halls Creek, during which the police stopped at the causeway and boiled the billy, while the black fellas sweltered in the cage. Ashley Verdon remembered as a child being asked, “Hey, gudia boy, give us a drink of water,” then poking a water bottle through the grill for the thirsty Balgo fellas. He was white, but they were his people. They looked after him like he was their own and referred to him as their gudia boy.
But the police saw the prisoners at their worst, while some relished their power over them. Ashley’s father, Les Verdon, had graded ridges across the road north of Billiluna to promote water runoff, so after tea some drivers hit them with speed, to rattle the bones of the “bastards” in the metal box.
Drummond wanted to speak to Mark Moora, the full blood leader of Yagga Yagga, a new Aboriginal community hardly known to exist in the outside world. Mark was anti-police, anti-authority and anti-white and walked barefoot in the desert. Drummond understood Mark's hostility. The elders had immersed him in chain gang stories, of men marched across country, then down to Fremantle to work on luggers, leaving their women and children vulnerable to abuse. But finding an elusive Mark could itself require a separate search, and they hadn’t time.
There was also a matter of trust. Desert people helped the gudia troopers locate and kill their enemies from other tribes, just as the whites utilised them for the same reason. The term “gudia” was translated as “white bellied lizard”. It wasn’t always derogatory, and often used as a term of endearment, but usually expressed their unwavering sense of superiority over the whites.
John Drummond was dark skinned, but from a coastal tribe on the western side of the Great Sandy Desert, from a different language group, and wore a police uniform. And maybe one of the Balgo mob killed the gudia boys. It wouldn’t be the first time.
"My enquiries reported negative," Drummond reported on his Balgo visit. But what the elders told Bradshaw, when he decided to talk, put him in conflict with the police narrative.
Later that day Loder’s 'loyal' jackeroo, 19-year-old Andrew Tanion Beezley, and another stockman arrived to ‘clean up’. Why they were described in reports this way is a mystery. They came to maintain the water supply for the beasts. Sherwin wanted cattle produced for market. He didn’t care about dirty living quarters.
Andrew was the son of Gulf country drover, William James Beezley, who had driven cattle down from Normanton, near the Gulf of Carpentaria, to New South Wales in the 1950’s. Andrew grew up near Toowoomba and began work on a dairy farm when he was 15. He thought the police were concentrating their search within the stations because they thought Giles Loder had murdered the boys, and buried them nearby.
Andrew Beezley proved uncomfortably resourceful, and discovered James’ Baikal double barrel shotgun, that Main and Roberts had missed. Where he found it was never clear. One report stated it was behind Simon's clothing cupboard, while Roberts said it was inside the cupboard, behind his clothes. The final verdict was in a cupboard of a spare room in the homestead. , However it was described it didn’t explain Main and Roberts’ failure to find it.
Flora Valley station mechanic David Alexander Reid owned the weapon. Its cracked stock was held together with string. He lent it on the basis that James would eventually purchase it. James might have been an unrebellious sixteen-year-old whose mind encompassed the sanctity of life, but he understood the need to kill. When Reid later reclaimed his weapon he told police he'd lent it to James "for protection". From what or whom was never made clear.
Back at Sturt Creek, Loder and Guy flew expanding circles around the station vicinity and found skid marks in the homestead and in a cattle yard. Down on the ground Roberts examined the skids and in their collective wisdom the three men determined they were made by the boys' vehicle.
Meanwhile, Loder had persuaded Peter Sherwin to hire a chopper, quite a feat considering Sherwin's reputation for disliking expenditure that didn’t have an identifiable return. Peter Leutenegger owned Fitzroy Helicopters and landed his Hughes 300 at Flora Valley homestead to collect Guy, who had delegated himself as observer. It was a highly maneuverable two-person, four-cylinder petrol engine aircraft with a limited range, a type of motor with a reputation for overheating and dropping out of the sky.
After leaving Guy with Peter Leutenegger, Loder continued alone to Ringer Soak, where he was markedly unpopular with the Djaru residents.
Leutenegger noticed the disorganized nature of the search: no formal briefing saying what areas to search or what elevation to maintain or who to report to. Not even a search map. Nor was Leutenegger the perfect search candidate: he was a West Kimberley man who knew that area like the back of his hand, but the East Kimberley was foreign territory.
They soared into the sky as Sergeant Guy pointed here and there from altitudes between 1000 to 1500 feet. They swept over the Nicholson bores and homestead then up Duncan Road to Ord River station then back through the gorges, while sweating like pigs despite the doors having been removed from the bubble.
Trouble presented itself when they emerged from gorge country over flat grassland. Their low altitude flying with extended periods of hovering had stressed the machine’s engine.
According to Jim Guy what happened next was a defective piston conrod snapped and pierced the sump at 250 feet, and the chopper auto gyrated downward, hitting the ground like a pancake. Jim’s head was bent forward at impact causing a critical flexion compression of his upper spine. The pilot was okay.
They walked 8kms in the 46C degrees heat to a road from where they were picked up by Ord River station staff and taken to Nicholson homestead. Jim Guy was thirsty. "If we'd have been out there more than another two hours, I consider we would have been dehydrated," he later recounted.
Chris Rumpf was doing James’ bore run, and met them at the homestead. When he’d arrived he found the radio room locked, and had to climb through the window. Reception was so bad that one night he spent until midnight trying to get through. He was living on jelly crystals, cornflakes and SAO crackers. He’d asked to return to Flora Valley for rations, but Loder told him to wait until the following Wednesday.
Chris didn’t recognise Guy’s whiplash injury. Neither did Guy realise its seriousness. His appearance at Nicholson was Rumpf’s first knowledge of the search, and that the boys were formally missing.
Loder picked up Guy and they returned to Flora Valley. As if influenced by some malevolent subconscious meme, Guy radioed John Attard telling him the Kingfisher plane was no longer required. It had spent six hours in the air.
Later that day Flora Valley cook Graham Helluer drove to Nicholson, and was overcome with sadness while collecting James’ meager possessions. The police had taken the money and cheques, and now wanted both boys’ personal effects. Everyone felt the premonition of doom, while the authorities maintained their imagined scenario that the boys had stolen the Datsun trayback and driven home.
John Boland from Ruby Plains station drove the next morning to Sturt Creek homestead. It was Sunday 7 December. The bow-legged manager worked seven days a week to put his kids through private school in Adelaide, but good neighbours downed tools when someone was lost.
John knew the dangers of leaving inexperienced boys alone. “One boy is half a man and two boys are no man,” he liked to say, adding that boys get into trouble even under supervision. Leave them alone and you’re asking for trouble. What troubled him was the police attitude. They weren’t overly keen for his help.
Boland brought along the eighteen-year-old, “Small Merv” Wortley, and another stock hand. Merv was a typical cattle station prodigy having left school at 13 and by 17 was head of the stock camp, and at 18 was assistant manager to Boland.
Twenty-six-year-old Constable Murray John "Tracker" Cowper began his own supplementary search. Cowper was a big man who joined the police in 1978, and was used to being obeyed. He’d been in the Kimberley for two years, and had adapted quickly to locals ethics, already accused of knocking off a couple of ‘killers’ from Ruby Plains. ‘Killers’ were cattle butchered for local consumption rather than sent for live export. Cowper’s presence made John Boland nervous, as he believed the police might try to nail him for some infringement, as insurance against him making an issue over the ‘killers’. That was how the police operated.
Cowper asked Graham Macarthur to fly in and help with the aerial search. 'The General' had managed Gordon Downs station under Vesteys, but left when Sherwin bought the property. He didn’t like the way Sherwin treated the beasts, nor Loder pressuring him to sneak cattle across the border without inspection certificates. Graham brought with him the experienced cattleman Peter Vout, and former Vesteys manager of Sturt Creek station Lenin Christie. Vout had worked for Christie at Mistake Creek. Lenin spoke pidgin and was known affectionately as ‘The Desert Rat’, though others like Jan Verdon referred to him simply as ‘The Rat’. He drank a carton of beer a day, and anything else he could get his hands on. The Rat’s kids grew up on Sturt Creek station. One became a chef after beginning her apprenticeship as a child “cooking yams, iguanas and grubs down at the camp with the blacks.” Christie thought Giles Loder, “...a hard working man; he didn’t put up with shit,” and had worked with Vicki before she married, and was the bookkeeper at Sturt Creek. “Vicki and me were good mates; I used to always be trying to pull her pants off,” Lenin remembered fondly in his declining years, neglecting to mention his lack of success.
When Vesteys put Sturt Creek on the market, Lenin showed a prospective customer around the property. His name was Peter Sherwin. Lenin's tour concentrated on the station’s worst aspects, and when Sherwin backed away it was bought by the cantankerous but kindly Dave Major, who later sold it to Sherwin anyway.
Macarthur, Vout and Christie had extensive knowledge of the local terrain, and gave their time without pay. ‘The General’ provided his plane at his own expense, while the Kingfisher aircraft from Balgo cost the government $1023 for 6.2 hours.
They flew south of Sturt Creek station to Wilson's Lake, then east to Slattery Creek and the Gardner Range, then over to the Dennison Range south of Bindi Bindi pool, paying attention to waterholes and springs, while radioing any unusual signs to John Boland and "Small Merv" on the ground.
Macarthur flew at an angle to give the observers better visual access of the dizzying ground flashing by. Cowper was airsick and, back on the ground, sat on a drum with his head slumped forward, as the temperature reached 46 degrees in the shade.
Cowper believed the boys had gotten lost while hunting, but Jungarri T. Bradshaw disagreed. The two men followed tyre tracks from Sturt Creek homestead to the locked and damaged border gate with Caranya station. Bradshaw identified three sets of tyre tracks, the freshest, he said, were three days old. They returned to Sturt Creek homestead, where Bradshaw examined one of the clapped-out Datsun utes Dave Major had left behind. The searchers somehow determined the vehicle had similar tyres to the vehicle driven by the boys, and made the grand leap in logic that the damage to the gate was made by the missing Datsun, a theory turned into fact when Sergeant Guy reported to Superintendent Craddock in Broome. How the Datsun got through the locked gate after hitting it was not explained, because they later followed the tyre tracks to the Tanami Road.
But the police reports go vague on Bradshaw. Did he continue searching for similar tyre tracks on the Caranya side of the gate? A more detailed report on his involvement might have clarified whether the boys had passed that way or had taken another route, notably the north/south track that ran from Sturt Creek homestead to the Tanami Road, near the Balgo access road. However, if the gate was still locked then it appeared the boys had not used that route, unless it had been locked after they passed through. But the implication the boys had damaged the gate inserted another negative link into the false narrative ― they’d stolen the vehicle to drive home.
Cowper was unimpressed with Bradshaw, and said "... Bradshaw could not track an elephant in a snow field." But John Drummond defended him, saying: “Bradshaw was a very good tracker…It’s not only your ability to detect, but your ability to detect the countryside, roads that haven’t been used…back roads no one really knew about….”
Bradshaw's country was the Gardner Range. He knew the layout of obscure tracks; if they were passable, and whether they came to dead ends, or entered busier thoroughfares. Drummond said Bradshaw was a good bloke, and the best tracker they had in Halls Creek, but agreed he was nothing like the old tracker who identified a twelve-year-old’s footprints, when the boy was wearing the already broken-in shoes of an adult from their community. Or, Jeannie Daniels, the Walpiri tracker from Chilla Well, who performed a dance and, while holding her hands at knee level, sensed vibrations of what had passed over the ground, a psychic process rather than accentuated animal skills.
The police and the Aboriginals were worlds apart, neither motivated to cooperate with the other, but if the former had made some effort, they could have set on the trail fifty tribal women and men who wouldn’t need to be monitored, and who wouldn’t get lost.
They were lucky to have gotten Bradshaw, but what he didn’t initially tell John Drummond was that the elders at Balgo told him the boys had been strangled with fencing wire, and their bodies would be found in the desert. If a “proper big” search was done, he added, without sarcasm.
Lenin Christie also thought that searching Nicholson and Sturt Creek was useless. Further south was the answer. “I vowed and declared that’s where we would find them down there, but I didn’t think quite that far down,” he later recollected. One civilian searcher aroused police hostility, saying the boys were known to visit communities looking for girls.
John Boland remembered talking to Guy and
“… he had a report they were seen going past Balgo and I said, what were they doing down there, and he said, 'that's what I thought', so no one bothered.”
Peter Sellby from Helimuster arrived with a new helicopter, but Guy wasn’t taking any chances. “Get back on the horse”, Drummond mocked him, but Guy had a headache, and flew with ‘The General’, in his plane. At least that would glide to earth if the motor seized up. So Constable ‘Porky’ Roberts finally got to fly in the helicopter. ‘Porky’ was a self-opinionated man with a black moustache, and strong as a bull. He practiced weight lifting, and such was his strength that the rumour mill promoted him to an Olympic contender whose career had been cut short from a damaged knee.
Guy and Macarthur landed at Caranya. Ray Holborrow told them some Aboriginals were camping at Red Rock waterhole on Sturt Creek, where they were attempting to establish a land rights claim similar to that at Ringer Soak. Possession of the water hole had been in contention since the 1890’s, when the pastoralists took it for their beasts.
But Red Rock was empty. The inhabitants had either gone to see the Pope in Alice Springs, or had withdrawn to avoid the police.
The Kimberley Hotel provided food and beer, and there was plenty to go around, as the search party consisted of just nine men. Usually, when someone was lost neighbouring stations and townsfolk rallied around. But Sherwin’s harsh business tactics had put him offside with other pastoralists. They’d help if he asked, but Sherwin wasn’t going to do that.
The search area included a fifty kilometre wide swath of terrain from Ord River station south to the Tanami Road: 100,000 square kilometres of rough terrain searched by never more than nine men, two planes and a part-time helicopter. No requests for help were made to the Curtin and Tindal air force bases, from where planes could have done quick flyovers of the seismic tracks. State Emergency Service trained people, both white and black, with radio-equipped vehicles and local knowledge, were willing to help but police rejected their offers, later saying they thought they’d be on holidays. It was as if a grey fog had descended on the searchers, and Superintendent Craddock in Broome, that prevented a full scale search, especially south towards the ominous dunes of the Great Sandy Desert.
Guy called it quits at lunch on the third day. They’d searched everywhere the boys could be, he reasoned. What more could be expected? Merv Wortley was surprised. He thought it a “little quick” to end the search. If the boys were lost hunting they’d now be in desperate circumstances. But since Beezley discovered the Baikal shotgun it seemed doubtful they’d gone hunting. This left the default explanation: that they’d stolen the Datsun and brought their predicament on themselves; so why should others risk their lives to find them? But anyone with half a mind, and knowing the boys had left their money and possessions at the stations, wouldn’t have given that explanation two seconds of thought. A mysterious impediment was blocking a proper search.
Hungry journalists gobbled any story fed to them, and Giles Loder’s strategic whispers that the boys had "stolen my vehicle" built up its own momentum, until it permeated the narrative. Superintendent Leonard Craddock and other officers did little to dispel this misconception, despite knowing it was silly. Simon had even left his car at Flora Valley. But the search was finished.
“Small Merv” and John Boland drove back to Ruby Plains. Andrew Beezley continued Simon's bore run. Jim Guy and Kevin Roberts stopped at Caranya Station, the fourth visit by police in 48 hours, and then went to Wolfe Creek Crater before returning to Halls Creek.
Unbelievably, Guy designated Monday 8 December as paperwork day. All officers were withdrawn from the physical search. Guy was exhausted and injured; Cowper was recovering from air sickness; Bradshaw was in the bad books, not only for his lack of tracking success, but for his mutterings of murder. Others had their routine police work to contend with: drunks, court, the odd tourist and an inundation of phone calls from local and foreign media. Some officers were concerned that irregularities in the Occurrence Books might come under scrutiny.
Guy spent the next few days checking bus and plane manifests, and phoned a friend of James in Griffith, asking if he’d seen him, and where he thought James would go if he had run away. He acted as if the boys were simply ‘teenage runaways’, an American term popularly used in the 1980’s. A picture of the missing vehicle was sent around Australia.
“Poor bastard,” John Drummond thought, when he walked by Guy’s office, its walls plastered with timetables and manifests. When the constables and aides finished their shifts and went home, Guy still had to front the media.
A journalist who phoned Halls Creek on Monday suggested to an officer that perhaps the boys had simply taken off. The journalist later reported Sergeant Jim Guy as saying the police suspected the boys had stolen the station vehicle and driven home for Christmas.
Murray Cowper and John Drummond continued with secondary searches, and drove up the Tanami Track on Tuesday 9 December. Cowper was amazed when Drummond became sun burnt. He'd never seen an Aboriginal suffer sunburn. John’s father had Slavic blood, while his mother, Katie Drummond, was a beautiful woman of Malay, Japanese and Timor ancestry who taught at the Onslow Primary School.
Cowper and Drummond followed a track along Wolfe Creek, over to the crater, then to Caranya, and spoke to Ray and Helen Holborow. They hadn’t heard anything new. After checking nearby seismic tracks, they camped the night at Sturt Creek station.
They followed fence lines the next morning, north to Nicholson, then checked bores and water holes like Negri, Calico Creek, Nicholson River and Marella Gorge, then returned to Halls Creek. On that day, Wednesday 10 December 1986, Les Annetts felt an intuition that James had just died.
There were no physical searches for the following two days, during which officers concentrated on paper work and phone calls.
Kevin Roberts and John Drummond drove to Sturt Creek station on Saturday, spending the day checking tracks, including those not listed on maps. No luck.
Sunday 14 December was also listed as a day off for all officers, but records of the ongoing search become vague, as phone log books weren't maintained, and an Occurrence Book disappeared.
8. Crowded skies
Dorothy and Lloyd Thompson and their children Sharon and Lloyd Jr lived on Bandys Road, Binya, not a kilometre from the Annetts. James was Sharon Thompson’s first love, and wore a necklace bearing his name. She and her brother walked three kilometres along a dusty road to the school bus stop with James, Jason and Michelle.
When the police went cold on keeping the Annetts informed, Lloyd Sr spent his nights on a ham radio talking to a man in Halls Creek, who kept them abreast of developments.
Late one evening, Les Knight came over the air from Narrandera in western New South Wales, offering his twin-engine plane with night search capability, to fly to Western Australia to help look for the kids. All the Annetts had to do was provide the fuel. Dorothy began a fundraiser, and quickly raised enough money for the initial fuel costs.
The Western Australia police disliked speaking with the Annetts, instead leaving messages for them with the New South Wales police at Griffith. This cumbersome process proved invaluable when Dorothy phoned the Griffith police on 14 December offering the plane and pilot. The text of her phone call was signed by Sergeant Third Class K. L. Jackson at Griffith.
“Could you please make inquiries with Halls Creek Police Station, Western Australia. It is in regards to the missing 16 yr old boy, James Arthur ANNETTS. The boy's parents and myself and another relative wish to fly to the search area, being Flora Valley station. I believe the station manager is Mr Lauder [Loder]. We have a twin engine aircraft available to us to fly there, but we would require permission to land on the Station property. The Pilot and the plane would be available to help with the search if needed. The parents are very worried and feel helpless being so far away.”
Sergeant Jackson also signed the text of the reply from Western Australia.
Request as per above detailed to Sgt Guy. Reply by him:
“I would advise them to contact Superintendent Craddock, of Broome police station on 091 921157 after 8am Monday 15/12/86 West Australian time. He is the Officer handling all inquiries. Locally I can say that the Station Manager Mr Lauder [Loder] is not allowing any private planes to land at flora Valley. The area is so remote and large that any person not familiar with the country would also become lost. They are searching 6,000,000 acres. This does not prevent the family landing at the public air port at Halls Creek. There is a motel and a hotel available for accommodation in this town the hotel number 091-6806101. They can then liase locally with the police involved in the search. The father of the other missing boy, Mr Amos, is in town, returning to Adelaide tomorrow.”
Guy later denied he'd received the offer, even after being shown the page from the Griffith police log book, containing Sergeant Jackson's text notes. Halls Creek police records couldn’t be compared, because their log books had either not been maintained, or had disappeared. Guy later testified under oath that if he'd known of the offer, he'd have accepted it, and agreed that it would have been irresponsible not to have accepted it.
Sandra Annetts phoned Superintendent Craddock in Broome. He told her the skies were already too crowded for another plane, a response that would have made station and community children laugh in disbelief. Most mustering had ceased for the year, tourists had fled south from the heat, and there were few scheduled passenger or exploration flights passing over the largely unpopulated land. Certainly, no police or search aircraft were in the air, except the one carrying Detective Sergeant Christopher John Crook on 15 December 1986.
He flew by helicopter from Kununurra to Ord River Station, managed by Donald Mathieson and his wife, and then got a lift to Nicholson homestead where he interviewed Giles Loder about "his alleged mistreatment of station hands".
Loder admitted there had been occasions where he’d found it necessary to give an employee “a clip around the ear”, but strongly denied taken matters any further. Loder described as “nonsense” the allegation that a jackeroo had badly injured his hands when Loder made him mend a fence without protective gloves. Detective Crook reported that Loder seemed "depressed by the whole situation and perhaps feels some responsibility for the loss of Amos and Annetts because of their youth." Crook was so impressed by Loder that he felt no inclination to ask for specific details of who had been given “a clip around the ear”.
Nor did he interview the other jackeroos, because uniformed police told him they’d left Flora Valley, and could not be located. Yet Australian Broadcasting Corporation journalists Chris Masters and Virginia Moncrief, with far fewer resources than the police, managed to contact many of these jackeroos months later.
By 16 December looking for the lads had become a secondary issue for Halls Creek police, and further searching was in conjunction with other police business. That prompted Les Annetts to describe the search aspect of John Drummond and Murray Cowper’s visit to Balgo as "looking out the windows while driving to Balgo on other business". This wasn’t far from the truth.
9. The Air Wing extravaganza
Chief Superintendent Ron Kjellgren was in his early fifties, and headed the Western Australia regional police. He was based in Perth. His wife was supremely proud of his achievement, but he wasn’t happy in the job. He’d begun asking himself, “Why bother,” continuing, and his thoughts were drifting to an early retirement and more golf.
He believed there hadn't been "sufficient local endeavour" to find the boys. More aircraft should have hit the skies, so he sent the Western Australia Police Air Wing to Halls Creek.
Amid appropriate fanfare the one single-engine plane arrived at Halls Creek with its support crew on Thursday 18 December. Constable Sheehan and First Class Constable Linton Michael Robb were the pilots. First Class Constable G. Williams from the Argyle police station, and others, were the observers. Scanning the ground below requiring exceptional mental alertness, as a split second of inattention could result in the observer missing a person or vehicle half-hidden under a tree, or campfire smoke or the reflection of a mirror.
With daytime temperatures reaching 45 degrees, the plane crew covered a grid pattern over station country north of the Tanami Track, giving special attention to creeks and hilly terrain. They flew 34 hours over five days, covering the huge but hopelessly inadequate area of 18,334 square kilometres, none of which was south of Balgo.
To find the Datsun ute would have required forty continuous days flying over 146,678 square kilometres of land.
They called it quits on Monday 22 December, packed their bags and headed south for Christmas. The bill was $2700 for the airplane, plus regular and overtime pay.
The Air Wing effort was doomed to failure because they weren't privy to, or failed to treat seriously, rumours the boys had gone south from Balgo. Nor did they have the latest maps showing the seismic tracks that Norpac and Clan Contractors had been bulldozing through the dunes for Royal Dutch Shell and other mineral explorers. Another problem was that most of the Great Sandy Desert fell under the jurisdiction of the Port Hedland police region, but the tracks from Port Hedland to Balgo were so ill-defined that this area of the desert had effectively become a no-go zone.
During the Air Wing sideshow, Murray Cowper and Police Aide Hunter visited Gordon Downs and Ringer Soak, the latter renamed Kundat Djaru, and spoke to Aboriginals Albert Young and others. They knew nothing. The officers checked around Button Creek, the "Figure of eight" yards, and a track that led from near Banana Spring eastward to the Gordon Downs-Tanami Road track. Their hunch that the boys had taken this track was dispelled when they found it not recently used, and overgrown with bushes that would have stymied access for the two-wheel drive Datsun.
Constable Roberts and Police Aide Shane Edward Baites also went to Ringer Soak, where they questioned two elders, but most of the inhabitants were still in Alice Springs. Roberts and Baites also checked tracks leading into the Tanami Desert, searched the Marella Gorge on foot, and talked to Don Mathieson, his wife and staff at Ord River Station. All a waste of time.
The owner of Kimberley Bush Taxis, John Kernot, was in Balgo on Boxing Day 1986, the day Superintendent Mervyn Gardner officially retired. Kernot was en route to Yuendemu to pick up Anita Gibson, and was parked in front of Pauline Sunfly’s house. Two boys came out of another house, and told Kernot the white boys had been shot, a hundred kilometres south of Balgo. When John returned to Broome on 7 January 1987, he phoned the Broome police station and spoke to George Dann, who told him:"That's just mission talk, John. Don't take any notice of it."
10. The circus comes to town
"We had been sitting home in Binya thinking they were searching every day for James, but when we got to Halls creek we found out that the police had been telling us lies.” Sandra Annetts, 1987
“Sandra Annetts and her husband came to the police station [and] created an absolute mayhem...” Jim Guy
Old Halls Creek didn’t want to die. The town had character, the picturesque hills, stone country, the sweetest air, the Elvire River and seventy years worth of speared, exhausted pioneers buried in the ground. It was settled by white folk in 1885 after Charlie Hall found a 28 ounce nugget, but the gold rush fizzled out and most of the prospectors went south to Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie.
By the 1950’s town planners realised the land was too hilly for an airport. And the main dirt road, the Savannah Way, the Great Northern Highway, was 15 kilometres to the north. So in 1955 the post office and shops progressively shifted to reserved blocks on what became the reluctant town of Halls Creek. The original site was renamed Old Halls Creek, and has a current population ranging between two and six inhabitants.
Town camps were allocated to local tribes like the Ringer Soak Djaru, who got Nicholson town camp near the cemetery, while Mardiwah Loop was divided into huge lots for the Skeen, Gallagher, Stretch and other clans.
By 1986 Halls Creek had a thousand permanent residents, and hundreds more who lived in the long grass and lined the bitumised highway during the day, watching that new breed of steely-eyed creatures towing gleaming caravans behind gleaming vehicles. The ‘long grass’ locals were told not to speak to these gudias after dark.
Jim Guy's tumultuous two-month relieving stint was nearly finished when Les and Sandra Annetts hit town.
There had been trouble amongst the ‘connies’. Colin Main had resumed his counseling activities, when Murray Cowper spotted him in a vehicle with another constable's wife back of the airport. Cowper "nearly broke his bloody legs” racing back to the station to tell her husband. Main claimed he was giving marriage guidance to the woman, who’d been having marital difficulties. No one bought the story, especially her husband.
Simon’s father, Robert W. Amos had come and gone. The police wrote him off as a “psycho” and gave him the ‘bums rush’. He shuffled out of town sadder, but no wiser as to his son's disappearance.
Simon’s uncle chartered a plane, and flew over the search area. According to Jim Guy he said: “I’ve got to take my hat off that this is the most depressing place that you could ever get lost in and I suspect these boys are not meant to be found if they’re out here.” Guy said they thought a lot of the Amos family, because they were realistic about the situation. But he still referred to Simon's parents as a "couple of psychos".
The slimmed down Annetts hit town in mid-January, after leaving James’ siblings with Les’ nephew Robert Malone and his wife Rose. Barry and Margaret Radcliffe gave them $800 towards expenses for the bus trip up the centre through Alice Springs and Katherine, where they were delayed by floods covering the road.
Clare Therese and Stanley Robert Tremlett opened their house to the indigent Annetts. Stan had been in Halls Creek since 1966, and worked for the Department of Transport as a groundsman at the airport. Their son, Mervyn Ross Ehrin, had died at age 22 from a seizure on 14 June 1981, so Stan and Clare empathised with Les and Sandra. The Tremletts had a history of hosting bedraggled teenagers retreating from inappropriate referrals to cattle stations by the Commonwealth Employment Service, or through Vicki’s newspaper ads. They gave the jackeroos meals, beds and occasional cash, and did the same for travelers broken down.
Kym Trim was also in town. He claimed to be Simon’s half-brother, and to have worked at Ruby Plains station. He knew enough about windmills to pose as a ‘bore runner’ on a television report. Les was spooked, and believed Trim was an imposter and a psychopath. Les spent one night in the kitchen chain-smoking Clare's cigarettes, while standing guard lest Kym grab a knife and go on the rampage.
Kym watched Sandra going through James’ belongings the next day, and saw a piece of rope. “That’s Simon’s rope,” he said, bursting into tears.
“That’s how good he was,” Sandra later recollected.
But John Boland had never set eyes on him. Kym had done four days at Flora Valley station, and was paid on 18 January, six weeks after Simon disappeared. He'd also been using the names Kevin Robert Amos, Kevin Baxter and Kevin O'Casey.
Sandra phoned Pat Clark, who denied all knowledge of Kym Trim. Simon’s sensitive mother didn't want the stigma of another weirdo in the family. When a woman from the eastern states later saw Kym on television, she phoned Les saying the imposter was her son. He’d been in an institution in Alice Springs, and had previously tried to stab her, and burn his baby sister in her cot.
The Halls Creek police station was in turmoil that January, not just from the dispute between the Constables, but from multiple transfers of staff. Guy’s stint was ending, and he faced the exhaustive process of handing the station back to Sergeant Allan Hogarth, who was returning from holidays. Hogarth had been the officer-in-charge since March 1984, but was being promoted to a position higher than what existed in Halls Creek. Within a few days of resuming command Hogarth repeated the process, transferring command to Sergeant John Hatton, who was new in the Kimberley. Other officers were coming and going, including Kevin Roberts who was being transferred to Kununurra.
In this atmosphere Les and Sandra climbed the steps of the transportable police building on stumps. The transferrals appeared to them a conspiracy to disperse those who were informed about the case.
Sandra had initially believed the “gone hunting” story, but felt a stabbing doubt when that story changed, to the boys stealing the Datsun trayback. She knew James well enough to know that he wouldn't have left the station without contacting them first, let alone knock off the truck.
She told one journalist:
“The police assumed the boys had either gone out shooting and got lost, or broken down. But by the end of December, they started telling us they'd shot through.
“When we went to the police station, the only information they gave us was how much the search had cost - $35,000.
“We learnt that instead of a continual air search, they sent up two planes and a helicopter for a total of one and a half days. There was no further search until December 17, when planes were in the air for a total of about 36 hours. They only flew as far south as Balgo, even though Les had told them to check the Canning stock route and Rabbit Flat.”
The police were outraged. Who were these eastern states civilians, telling them what to do? They’d borrowed money for the bus across, and thought they had the right to direct and criticise the Western Australia police. But grief had stripped the Annetts of vanity, and like two bulldogs they gripped their protagonists and wouldn't let go.
The boys’ belongings were stored at the police station. Traditional Kija woman and local politician, Josie Farrer, offered to arrange a smoking by shamans. They would hold James’ garments over a fire and the sounds that arose would be interpreted to determine how they died. Sandra hesitated as she didn’t want to lose James’ clothing. It might be all she had left of him. Bonnie Edwards also offered a smoking.
When they examined the boys' belongings they found two rolls of undeveloped film. Why hadn’t the police had them developed and printed? James' hat with the initials "J.A.A." written inside was mixed up with Simon's stuff. It was splashed with blood gone dry. Les was a glazier and knew how a cut artery sprayed blood. “And that is how the blood was sprayed on James’ hat."
"The blood doesn't mean anything," one officer scoffed. Jackeroos were frequently splashed from writhing beasts during dehorning. Sandra wanted the blood tested. The police wouldn’t agree. Guy wanted the hat out of his sight. Sandra could take it home. He slapped a bundle of paperwork on the counter. They could keep that too, including the original search map with the handwritten notations, showing where police had looked. There were no copies. The police were washing their hands of the case.