66. Harry Mason, Heather Snelling and Colin Main
I mention to a journalist about Pat Clark’s letter to Loder giving him Simon’s car, even before her son’s body had been found. The journalist’s muscles tighten around the edge of her face then converge in a mass of wrinkles at her mouth, as if she is trying to spit out a bitter pill. Like a physiological gymnast her face softens and through a gentle voice she wonders how a mother’s intuition could be so strong as to know that her son had died? Perhaps Pat had intuited Simon’s death and couldn’t face the anguish of false hope.
My next stop appears to be an eight hectare hobby block surrounded by a three-metre high electrified fence topped with surveillance cameras. A locked chain that would thwart the most vicious bolt cutter encloses fifty prowling alpine dingoes next to the Mundlinup Forest in the Perth Hills.
Geophysicist Harry Mason wrote “Bright Skies” in which he suggested Tesla scalar weapons were tested in the Great Sandy Desert that created a series of artificial earthquakes and that:
“...there is the case of the two young cattle station hands who died under very mysterious circumstances a few years ago in the Great Sandy Desert - south of Halls Creek - on the very seismic grid lines put in there in 1968 by Aquitaine Oil - and within the center of the Great Sandy Desert earthquake ‘test range’...”
Harry’s game keeper tells me through a fixed smile that his boss isn’t home. And Harry Mason isn’t the man to return phone calls.
Leaving Perth's winter rains I drive north through the monastery town of New Norcia, then set up camp after dark on a spit of sand over a swamp somewhere in the northern wheat belt. The rain pounds the thin nylon tent fabric while I lie inside dry and secure under a feather quilt. The phone rings sometime after midnight.
Mark Moora has awoken from a dream. Giles Loder came and shot his kids. “Some time these things true,” he says, and asks if I’ll provide protection for him and his family. This has been an ongoing fear since Coroner McCann and Sergeant Kermode took him to Yagga Yagga in 1988. But how can I reassure him? I tell him the “killing times” of early settlement are finished and that Loder is long out of the Kimberley.
“We were away when the catastrophe happened,” Heather Snelling tells me the following wheat belt Sunday morning, in a Morawa phone box. James visited Ron "Spook" Bickford, who worked at Caranya after walking off Flora Valley. Heather sold James the Old Timer three-blade knife in mid-September. Near the end of November he made the long drive from Nicholson to cash a cheque. On both occasions he was alone and seemed lonely. He asked about jobs in the area and said that when he returned from Christmas holidays he wouldn’t be working on a Sherwin station. She says the boys were “always asking about the road through to Rabbit Flat; if they could drive it.”
Simon also visited the store in a grey Toyota. He was much closer to Caranya than James. He'd buy "cartons of cool drink, lolly bars, chocolate bars and things like that…and a cowboy hat". He also asked Heather to keep a cassette player he wanted to buy, but didn't have the money until next pay day.
At Geraldton five boys throw stones at an old man outside the tourist information centre. They flee upon seeing my camera. A woman inside directs me to the police station for my appointment with First Class Constable Colin Main, and where the stone throwing kids fearlessly jeer people entering the building.
Colin is the only officer I’ve found from 1986 still serving. He wears a set of tiny golden handcuffs that partly obscure his name badge. Time has not wearied him. He wanted to see me in person to gauge whether he'll let me use his photos from the desert. Where he obtained them is another matter.
His search report was superior to those of his colleagues who went on to bigger and better things so I ask why he is still a Constable and not an assistant Commissioner.
He gulps in a lapse of confidence and says he doesn’t want the stress of being a Sergeant. He doesn’t mention leaving the force to work for Hamersley Iron then returning years later.
Colin says that publishing the aerial photo of Simon's bleached skull and bones was a low act and he won’t license pictures of the remains, but he will search his storage material in Perth for other photos. They never arrive and he stops responding to my phone calls.
Where these prints originated is a mystery because both Peter Carter and Johnny Brown say that the police didn’t bring a camera and that the former’s camera was confiscated.
67. Shadows behind shadows
Bonnie and Malcolm Edwards know how to make money, so their Halls Creek house on Welman Drive is a surprise. Someone has punched through the outside paneling; windows are broken and door frames eaten by termites. Instead of banging up two or three steps they’ve pushed an ill-fitting iron platform resembling a mini siege device against their front door. A two-metre cyclone fence encloses the property with a gate that is chained at night. Friends say they’re victims of extended family humbugging, and have retreated to a single room.
Bonnie has been described as an Amazon, but when she and Malcolm answer my knock I look downward at a couple of short asses, then realise the siege device is a step higher than the floor level of the house.
They’re going to their daughter’s house, so I follow feeling vindicated upon arrival when Bonnie reflects my paranoia, and locks her late model magenta Nissan Patrol.
She isn’t the dour well-dressed middle class woman I’d expected, but wears a split skirt dress and a twinkle in her eye, and owns a commercial shed, and is in high demand as a speaker and translator. Born in a creek bed from an Aboriginal mother she was sent to Brisbane by her white father to learn English.
Bonnie and Malcolm were friends with Les Verdon, the campfire story teller who delighted listeners with ghoulish tales of violence, including instructions on how to disguise a murder. He recommended slashing the victim’s stomach or vital arteries, then letting the dingoes finish the body so the forensic pathologists couldn’t determine the cause of death, then return and smash out the teeth. James Annetts could have been a case study except for the teeth.
Ashley Verdon remembers as a six-year-old the cook at Billiluna went on holidays and was replaced over the Christmas period with an old white man from Alice Springs. Ashley was in a room when the temporary cook dropped his pants and asked the boy to touch his penis. Next minute Ashley remembers his father looking for him. Les was angry, but no words were spoken. The other man told Ashley not to say a word what happened. He didn’t, but next day they went hunting with large bore guns, and for the life of him Ashley can’t remember the cook returning with them, or ever seeing him again on the station. Frontier justice.
Malcolm was best friends with Paul Griffith, the son of a preacher. Paul found human society difficult. He developed a heightened wariness of authority after seeing Giles Loder walk free after the boys’ deaths. He had no doubts that Loder killed them. But how could he know? Malcolm asked. “I just know that,” Paul replied.
Not long after his time at Flora Valley, Paul moved to Wungu, the Aboriginal camp on the old Flora Valley homestead site, 70 kilometres by track west-north-west of Halls Creek. It’s the terrain where a cross-country traveler might fall upon the grave of an unknown prospector, buried in stony ground by a kindly stranger and remembered by the words written on the tombstone: “Speared by blacks, 1931”.
Paul worked for Bonnie and Malcolm in their Supa-Valu grocery store, then lived with Sandra Sturt, Les Verdon’s former girlfriend, and eventually went on a disability pension. For twenty years he avoided authority, gangsters and the police. When a mining company left supplies near Marella Gorge in 2009 without posting a guard, Paul saw the locals steal the lot. He didn’t participate, but next time he went to town he didn’t return. No one in Halls Creek or Wungu has since heard from him, Malcolm tells me, disappointment pulling the back of his throat.
Bonnie says that one night in 1987 she was driving down Duncan road with her daughter. Another driver overtook them then further along blocked the Sturt Creek Road.
On another occasion while passing Marella Gorge Bonnie says she heard someone call for help. She said nothing until another passenger in the vehicle asked if she’d heard it.
Bonnie slips into Djaru while speaking to me as if translating to an unseen presence then looks up and says Aboriginals are troubled by the unsolved deaths as they leave a streak of wrongness over the land. She says unresolved business will go to the next dimension where it will be resolved.
Her voice becomes strident with frustration as I stare at the wall while impolitely contradicting her recollections, as if she’s on the witness stand being cross examined. “People use me up,” she says, bitterly, when we part.
Bonnie hadn’t heard of the burning man at Marella Gorge. Police officer Shane Williams was first on the scene. He’s a Wongatha man from Kalgoorlie who married the daughter of Josie Farrer. He’s been in Halls Creek for over a decade. With one arm across the front door of his government house in the “better part of town”, behind the police station, he tells me the pilot who discovered the smouldering body died a few days later when his aircraft flipped over. Shane says he’ll tell more if those “higher up” give permission.
This suggestion sets in train a series of unproductive phone calls, which proves once again the last place to seek information from the police is through their ‘media liaison unit’.
In a derisive voice Rex Haw of the unit says he was a journalist covering the Amos/Annetts case, and there wasn’t any mystery about their deaths. He refers me to a series of officers, who refer me back to Rex, who says he can’t phone Shane because he doesn’t know his phone number. At our next encounter he says Shane has quit the police. Then Rex is too busy helping a major TV station cover a bushfire. He says he can’t waste time with someone writing a book, when people are dying. He promises to call me back. He doesn’t. No media reports of the fires during that week mention any deaths.
Shane’s house is empty and a few pieces of furniture have been dumped out front, but his wife works at the Child Protection office, where I join the queue. They remove children from dysfunctional families, trying to lodge them with relatives instead of sending them to orphanages. Yet some locals don’t differentiate between this and the ‘stolen generation’ removals.
When I reach the front of the queue, and there isn’t anyone behind me, the mixed race bureaucrat behind the security glass looks me in the eyes, turns around and switches off the lights as he walks out the back door. I circle around the office to another counter window where he’s talking to another man. The latter tells me Shane works at the school.
The school receptionist can’t locate him, but when I return a few hours later she reaches him by phone. “Gudia”, she answers to his question. Shane agrees to see me at 9am the following Monday. He isn’t there. While I wait as the receptions tries to contact him, the Asian principal spots me from his office then stomps across the hallway and eyeballs me close up. He demands the reason for my presence.
After two more no-shows we finally meet during Shane’s lunch hour. He holds out a green coffee cup at arm’s length to stop me from shaking hands, then peers at me through half-closed eyes. He says the police told him not to speak to me. He says he’s got two years to decide whether to re-enter the police without losing rank so until then he must “protect his backside”.
68. Jock Mosquito
Jock is the man to see; he knows about James and Simon. That’s what people say. He lives at Warmun, 150 kilometres north of Halls Creek on the Great Northern Highway. The community that hit the news in 2010 after its flooded creek washed away the art gallery, some houses and a few Land Cruisers. The community was underwater and people were desperate, the media reported. The black folk pissed themselves laughing as if floods were new phenomena.
Three women push-starting a Land Cruiser on the highway direct me to Jock’s retirement village, past signs shouting dire consequences to anyone entering Warmun without a permit. White workers wearing orange vests drip sweat as they lay concrete slabs for the new houses. The undercover basketball court is strewn with rubbish. The man driving a concrete mixer unflinchingly maintains speed as youths stand in his path then jump aside a split-second before being crushed.
The retirement village consists of four streets of transportable buildings separated from a similar array by a cyclone fence covered with layers of opaque shade cloth. The white construction workers live on one side while the other side forms temporary accommodation for older Aboriginals. Each donga contains one bedroom with a toilet and shower room.
Two dozen black men sit around seven or eight picnic benches surrounded by a dozen wheelie bins under a covered courtyard. Four tribal women sit cross-legged in the sun on an expanse of dazzling green artificial turf laid incongruously onto the bare earth. The entranced men watch a West Coast Eagles football game onto a flat screen mounted onto the side of the cafeteria donga.
None appear close to retirement age except Jock Mosquito, who politely suggests I return after the game.
Two hours later the empty courtyard and artificial turf are littered with food packaging, serviettes and paper cups. Jock sits majestically at the front of his donga.
Slow motion European backpackers emerge from behind another donga dragging a high pressure spray unit. One sprays the tables while the others collect rubbish. Within sixty seconds of their job completed two dozen teenagers and children as if stage actors following prompts leave the retirement units and converge on the cafeteria, which consists of three or four dongas joined together. White servants dressed in chef uniforms stand behind heated displays and serve fried chicken and roast beef to the kids.
Jock accepts photographs of Mark Moora and Bai Bai Sunfly, then uses my phone to call his friends throughout Australia. But he has little to say about James and Simon, and those few words are incomprehensible due to his recent stroke. One sentence comes out crystal clear: he wants a hundred dollars to speak to me. We close at fifteen. He says return tomorrow, when his daughter will translate.
A bull circling the rubbish tip that night prevents me reaching deep sleep. Jock’s daughter is missing the next morning. She’s gone fishing. We drive up and down the streets looking for an alternative translator without success, until Jock decides he wants a feed at the Turkey Creek roadhouse.
He insists I park in front of the fuel pumps, then pisses on the passenger side front wheel. White construction workers having lunch on the verandah, stare at their plates in contempt and embarrassment. He insists I order him a corned beef sandwich, but the waitress says they had a twenty-minute shouting match the previous day. They don’t have corned beef. Chicken, ham, beef: no problem. “How about beef?” she asks. Jock nods his assent, but nervously grips his $15. He wants me to pay then relents and passes over a ten dollar note, almost enough.
After taking him back to the retirement village his reproachful gaze bores a hole in my head, as I hurriedly escape back onto the highway. Like most elderly Aboriginal men they see gudias serving one purpose only, as servants.
9. Tapping on doors
Back in Halls Creek the hungry wails of roaming girls resonate down the darkened streets. Intense groups of huddled adults check their cards around blankets heavy with coins and fluttering notes under the glowing orange street lights.
Beverley Malay sips medium strength beer next morning once she’s packed her children off to school. She’s a lithe Kija black woman with a ready smile, proud to have born thirteen children. Her flash house on out on Mardiwah Loop is fortified with heavy mesh that could withstand a major assault, yet the side entrance appears not to have a door.
Her ancestral land includes Bedford Downs station. She remembers their massacre story. Most stations have one, but it was the white manager shooting their dogs in 1975 that affected her. She didn’t understand why her tribe left for Halls Creek, but thought it was connected to the dogs.
Her Mum was a traditional woman whose body and limbs were covered in scars from initiation cuts, a sign of her discipline and self-control. She fretted being away from the law grounds and the ancestral spirits, and died within a year.
Skin cutting and scarification is a sign of accomplishment and in some initiations connects candidates with their tribal ancestors. Beverley smiles proudly. One of her sons has been through the ceremony. The hospital provided sterile blades.
Further down the Loop at Woodhouse block I approach a house fronted with expensive ice chests. A white haired woman knitting next to a campfire in the back yard watches me with honest hostility. Children shout and run through the house. A healthy looking forty-year-old man yells at them to shut-up. They look at this ferocious black fella with amused curiosity then continue their noisy sport.
Embroidered on the man’s shirt are the words “Chris 30-pack Pty Ltd”. Chris 30-pack contracts the town’s rubbish collection. “I’m thinking of changing it to 60-pack,” he says and generously introduces me by phone to people in Billiluna who otherwise wouldn’t speak to me.
I call Merv Wortley about visiting Sturt Creek station. I can drive down Duncan Road to the homestead then cut across through Caranya on the way to Billiluna, followng the track allegedly used by James and Simon on their last journey.
Merv has made excuses for two years to prevent my visit. His most recent, six-months previously, was that the creek causeway was too wet to cross, in the dry season. Mark Moora laughed at that one.
Now, in October, the country is bone dry. I leave a message on his answering machine asking to visit the “alleged massacre site”. Merv doesn’t reply. The cook hangs up on my next call. Mrs Wortley responds to my third call with an impressive sequence of crow calls disguised as speech. Merv finally phones saying they’re tired of people making money from them and he doesn’t want me there. “Is that from Head Office?” I ask. “Yes,” he says.
Jemaine Finley has replaced Louise Dreyton at Heytesbury. She asks Paul Holmes a Court if I could visit Nicholson and Flora Valley a second time. No problems. Call the stations first. Perhaps Merv’s unease was that while Heytesbury discharged Sherwin’s liabilities by paying the Annetts compensation, the Kidman Estate didn’t do the same because Pat Clark never sought damages.
I drive out early and camp again at the R & D yards near the Kundat Djaru turn-off. The stench of dead beasts from a recent muster wafts over the yards. Ben stops by the next morning after refuelling the Gordon Downs homestead monopump. He’s leaving for another station at Christmas, saying the job isn’t growing with his knowledge. He’s also unhappy that a friend quit after a difference with Laurie Curtain. And do I want to buy his Suzuki 4WD? It cost him $30,000 last Christmas. “I want one of these,” I say, tapping the station Land Cruiser. So does Ben. And did he ever accept Lee Scott-Virtue’s invitation to have his lunches at Nicholson homestead. “No,” he says.
Lee is whipper snipping the grass when I arrive at Nicholson. She was told to expect me and I feel humiliated. Not only is she my superior in knowledge, education and commitment, she could probably knock me on my ass if push came to shove. Cece has also returned. She’s a Swiss backpacker who visited four years previously. Another smart woman. Giving up time from her busy schedule, Lee makes tea and sandwiches and we sit in James’ dining room.
She refreshingly cuts through my monologue about needing to skirt around the negligence of the Balgo people not impressing strongly enough on the police that they saw the boys. That’s the typical downplaying of anything negative about Aboriginals, she says. “How it happened should be the way it is told.”
Like not naming people who have died is “bullshit”, she says, and gives examples of funeral notices stuck on notice boards by Aboriginals that show both the names and photographs of the deceased.
And Jock Mosquito wanting money for talking to me is because “do-gooders” have told him to do that. She says Jock arrived one day and said he owned Nicholson and was moving in. She told him to piss off or she’d “set the dogs onto him”, not that her dogs could scare off more than a couple of rabbits.
Lee adopted an indigenous child when he was 18-months old and one of her children married an Aboriginal.
She says she’s seen wrong sacred area claims by stolen generation people corrected by older women in their eighties and nineties who weren’t kidnapped and have retained true knowledge of their secret locations and rites.
I ask her about the idea spread by paedophiles that older men having sex with sexualised children is acceptable from a tribal viewpoint. The thud of the cool room compressor cuts into the silence. My breathing stops. Lee takes seconds to formulate her answer. She says such paedophilia is a symptom of social breakdown and not accepted behaviour. Children are promised in marriage, but actual sex doesn’t happen until after the girl has her first period.
70. Marten Ynema
A faded sign at Old Halls Creek Lodge advises campers to find a spot and pay later, another recommends a helicopter service whose owner from that era is now languishing in a Sydney prison. The grass planted on stony ground has died, and trees and bushes overrun some building entrances. The pioneer cemetery is overgrown, but not forgotten.
Marten Ynema is a shortish, stocky, fair skinned alpha man who wears high visibility blue and yellow coveralls 24/7. He won’t touch drugs, but drinks small quantities of what he calls “antiseptic”. “My weakness is ladies,” he tells me, “and some of them you wouldn’t call ladies.” He’s never been with a white woman, but had fifteen Aboriginal girlfriends. Lulu was next. For eleven years you could find her with a cigarette in one hand and a can of beer in the other while flipping hamburgers at her fast food caravan at the Broome wharf. She died at an advanced, but indeterminate age.
Marten then married Ayu from Bali, and they’ve been together for twenty-two years. Their two boys were born with black buttocks, a sign of Ayu’s Mongolian ancestry. She runs their restaurant in Wyndham, where they have a 75 foot aluminium survey boat. Marten is a self-educated autodidact, who ran an engineering workshop at the Broome slipway until 2001.
One of his claims to fame is going swimming naked with Gina Rhinehart when they were children.
The Lodge reached its heyday in 1996, when Marten hired a Hungarian “Count” and his German wife as managers. They frequently attracted two hundred diners a night. One evening the Count’s wife locked herself in a room, yelling that she would never serve another customer. The Count pounded and pounded on the door, but she wouldn’t budge, so he arranged to borrow a cook from Warren Dallachy at the Poinciana Roadhouse. Half way there he hit one of Warren’s horses on the road in his Volkswagen beetle, and damaged his neck. That was the end of his career at Old Halls Creek.
Marten says his subsequent managers were ‘weirdos’, and the business finally collapsed two years ago, when the “black fellas” stopped passing through on their way to Halls Creek for alcohol, in preference to Kununurra and Alice Springs. Marten says he put $2million into Old Halls Creek Lodge, and is trying to sell it for $700,000.
Marten spent three years as a self-described “black fella”, which left him with empathy for Aboriginals. He remembers “Monty” telling him of “turkey” shooting expeditions by companies of troopers, made up of white men and out of area tribal men. The “turkeys” were Aboriginals and the troopers would “grab the kids by the legs and smack them against trees as they rode past them.”
“Can this be true?” I ask incredulously.
“All different camps we went to related the same things. Not as if we had them all sitting around one table; we went to the different places,” he replies.
Marten remembers Monty telling him his real name was Montgomery Johannes, and that his father had been the “fierce white warrior” killed in the Sturt Creek station massacre. Monty said he was a descendant of the survivors of a Dutch shipwreck on the Kimberley coast prior to white settlement.
Another thing Marten remembers: Tomato Gordon and a man from Mulan told him they saw another vehicle follow James and Simon’s Datsun into the desert.
Marten had then been checking gold leases with geologist Greg Barnes and pilot Dave Swanston in a Bell Jet Ranger helicopter in the Cummins Range, south-west of Halls Creek. The big helicopter ran on a kerosene-based fuel and could fly 700 kilometres before needing refueling. Nor was it prone to overheating or dropping from the sky like the smaller mustering choppers.
Marten and Greg made a living surveying sand country from the air, and spotting outcrops or intrusions, then going in by vehicle to collect samples. If the subsequent assay showed promise, they’d peg the area. Marten said they were “making squillions,” and liked working in the hot weather, because there were “no prospectors or anyone to annoy them.”
Through this experience they knew the terrain, and had developed a sensitive eye for ground details. They told the police how easy it was to mistakenly head into desert country because the exploration companies had graded their seismic tracks to a superior quality than the Tanami Track. Greg said anyone travelling at night could easily cross the Track without realising it, and become lost in the seismic exploration area.
Marten said the police contemptuously rejected his advice that the boys were down south:
“They didn’t want to know about it; they reckoned it was north cause they’d been told by Giles. Heading north there’d have been from where they were possibly 8 or 9 cattle stations and Aboriginal outcamps, at least, and it was all good water country so they would have lived, but they were dead when they left Sturt Creek them boys.”
Mick Quilty at Ruby Plains also thought the search incomplete, and offered James O’Kenny and Lenin Christie the finance to mount a private search. But Lenin had just purchased the abattoir and meat shop in Halls Creek, and couldn’t get away.
On my second visit to Old Halls Creek Marten and his off-sider, “Uncle Gregory” Excell are washing dirt at the mine site. Greg is thin and tall and wears a kindly expression on his sun ruined face. He’s also known as “Little Moose”, son of “Big Moose”, a Broome market gardener, and a strict Jehovah’s Witness. Greg divides his faith between God and day-old home brew.
With a front-end loader he fills a hopper with dirt, that is conveyed on a belt to a rotating drum, that spits the stones onto a heap next to the machine, while the silt is swept away in a torrent of muddy water, to a holding pond. A swirling dish like a gold pan collects the finer gravel that sparkles with flecks of gold.
Marten stands on the machine and looks wilder by the minute, when only tiny amounts of gold appear in the sluice dish. He’s hoping a high gold content will return him to the old days, when he was awash in money.
Greg maintains the faith, saying there is plenty of gold around Old Halls Creek. He points to plumes of smoke on the horizon. “Black fellas burning the country?” I ask.
“No,” he replies
“ No.” Greg holds his hands out as if holding a metal detector. Grey nomads are burning the spinifex. Marten allows them on his leases, providing they tell him what they find. But Little Moose is contemptuous, saying that in thirty years he’s found just one piece of gold using a detector. He’s a panner, like the original prospectors from 1885.
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