71. The status quo 1
Back in Halls Creek I chase up the angle of police having sex with female prisoners. A smiling woman says she had two children to two officers. No problems. Other women won’t talk. Having a child from a wrong way round skin group, or from a white man, even when the sex was done under coercion, could damage the tribal social fabric, and result in a beating, even death.
If DNA testing was done on former police officers who had served in Halls Creek over the past forty years, then some men could find themselves with huge child support bills. The Yura Yingi health service and the Western Australia Police could facilitate the testing.
I introduce this subject to Josie Farrer and Bonnie Edwards, in the front yard of Bonnie’s daughter. Josie’s eyes dim. She’s practiced local politics most of her life, and took her children to stations, so they could learn not to fear white men. Near retirement age, she’s finally become the Labor candidate for the state seat of Kimberley. She’ll win at the next election.
Local critics call Josie a half-caste stolen generation woman who can’t identify her ancestors beyond her grandparents. But claiming ancestry is as much about land and mineral royalties as to spiritual connection. Disclaiming others’ ancestry is often an attempt to weaken their claims. It’s all politics, and discovering inconvenient ancestors could damage lives in a variety of ways.
Josie wants to know who I’ll blame for the deaths of James and Simon. I ramble on about Shane Kendall and Giles Loder having had difficulty explaining where they were for three days, from when the boys were last seen at the stations to when the search began.
“He didn’t answer the question,” she tells Bonnie, looking away from me, like George Lee at Balgo. She adds that I’m not paying her for her time. Maybe that’s why she isn’t giving anything away.
Bonnie isn’t talking either. She says she is worried about people dropping dead, such as Les Verdon hanging and shooting himself in Derby in 2009, as I began my investigation, and Paul Griffith disappearing within a month. She’s talking black magic.
Both men were long term boyfriends of Sandra Sturt. That’s who I came to see. She lives at Wungu, another failed outcamp, now a group of empty houses, and a free phone box with a satellite dish on the roof. She’s having mobility problems these days and is routinely rescued during floods.
Bonnie has gotten a man to collect Sandra from an outcamp near town. She won’t say precisely which outcamp. Sandra is having a shower next door, says Bonnie.
Les Verdon made no secret he thought James and Simon were murdered, and claimed the police refused his advice to search down south. He was also suspicious of a certain officer friendly with local boys, some of whom he took on a holiday to Bali, out of the jurisdiction of Australian law.
When Les and Sandra Sturt broke up she had an off-on relationship with Paul Griffith for two decades. She’s now spends much of her time with Allan Loman, the kindly grader driver on Ruby Plains station.
There are intense verbal exchanges between various people on the porch next door and those in Bonnie’s daughter’s front yard. A group appear on the porch, including a woman with impressive grey hair, who looks down at me without recognition then goes back inside. Josie and Bonnie grill me for an hour, questioning my motives. Josie wants to know if I’m related to either of the Amos or Annetts families. Inside a defensive trance, as a seizure grasps my brain, I realise they’re telling me very little. Halls Creek is keeping its secrets.
Like a coup de grace at the end of an interrogation, Josie says I’m wearing the same clothing as last year. Bonnie makes gagging sounds while describing my car, then switches to Djaru. Her daughter’s eyes are red-rimmed. And Sandra Sturt won’t be talking. They’ve made sure of that.
72. The status quo 2
Lenin Christie calls from Queensland, and through a smoker’s growl sorts me out for waking him up the previous night, after forgetting Western Australia summer time is three hours behind the east.
He says back at Sturt Creek station in the 1980’s they received one or two patrols a year, and the police were only called for extreme events, leaving the stations a law unto themselves. “I had some real good blokes; I was hard on them; I didn’t muck about if they had problems. If anyone gave me shit I wasn’t frightened to give them a smack under the butt or the ear. Well, you’re on your own, aren’t you?”
Peter Leutenegger says violence is unacceptable today and was even uncommon in the early 1980’s, but there were some managers that ruled with an iron fist and,
“...if people did the wrong thing they might have got a bit of a clip in the ear or a boot in the backside and told to wake up to themselves. There’s a lot of those people I know now that have grown up to be good people and appreciate the people doing that to them.”
Helen Holborow is a no-nonsense woman with a hearty laugh. She says managers didn’t relish fights in which they could be injured, but it wasn’t practical to ask the police to drive hundreds of kilometres over rough roads to settle a station dispute.
For practical reasons the ‘connies’ and ‘aides’ ignored behaviour that could otherwise have attracted a prison sentence. Rule by fists and boots was the de facto law. It worked well, and only when things got out of hand did the police become involved.
Since his stroke, James O’Kenny speaks with an attractive slur. He’s lost mobility in one of his arms, and has retired from the explosives industry, but at 84 his mind remains sharp as a tack.
“Both my boys have been on stations jackerooing, and I expected them to get treated the same in that situation as other kids. It’s rough and hard, but it’s very good for their discipline and everything else. It makes them into men.
“City born kids like that never had a sniff of the bush. Coming to an outpost like that is a bit [hard] and that’s no one’s fault... They just broke the rules of the bush and got lost and died.”
O’Kenny’s rancor dissipates, as he explains he worked as a stock and station agent, and pre-hired staff on behalf of station managers. He made sure the young jackeroos knew what they were getting into, and recommended they visit stations first, before taking the job. “That’s why I was a bit upset about what happened out there with those two boys,” he says.
He says the searchers were “friggin around on the properties” when “It was obvious they had gone.” They should have been checking the roads, not the stations themselves, but says that wouldn’t have helped anyway, because the boys broke the rules of the bush, so the searchers couldn’t know what to do.
As if signalling the symbolic end of an era in the Kimberley, James O’Kenny hangs up the phone, and within a few months is dead.
73. The private massacre
In September 1922, an Aboriginal man known in the gudia world as ‘Banjo’ speared two white fellas, Joseph Condren and Tim O’Sullivan, on Billiluna station. This shouldn’t have been surprising. The gudias had been shooting the myalls on sight for three decades, and even the tame Aboriginals could be shot if a prized bull was speared.
Jack Barry, who managed Sturt Creek station for Lord Vestey, organised a posse of police and civilians, headed by Constable Flinders, who was patrolling north of Ruby Plains. Banjo and his friends fled to Christmas Creek, then to Boolka Creek, where they were surrounded by Flinders’ posse at Baulka station on 22 October 1922, and shot.
More ominously, Constable J.J. Cooney’s patrol was moving south from Turkey Creek. It included one 'special constable’, M. O’Sullivan, brother of the murdered Tim. Cooney’s patrol confined itself to a small area near Godfrey Tank, and between Wells 48 and 49 on the Canning Stock route. Cooney’s sketchy patrol log indicates they were searching for Balgee, who reportedly had possession of Tim Sullivan's revolvers and ammunition. They rounded up small groups of men, women and children then released them, according to Cooney’s log.
But Clancy Doomagie and Riwarra claimed to have escaped the massacre, and this historical record relies on their evidence. (Doomagie was still alive when James and Simon disappeared.) Their accounts were repeated by Riwarri's three sons, including Speiler Sturt and Boxer Milner, the latter interviewed on film by Kim Mahood just before he died. Daisy Kungah from Billiluna recounted Riwarri's story:
“They lined them up between two trees, tied together with wire around their necks and with their hands and feet tied with wire. Two policemen stood together on each side and shot them one by one from the ones at the end to the ones in the middle till they were all dead. Then they dragged some of the bodies to the goat yard, dumped them there in a heap and set fire to them using kerosene. They dragged the rest to the well, threw them in and set fire to them too.”
Cooney's patrol took three days to reach Billiluna from Ruby Plains, but close to a week to return, begging the question: what did they do during those missing days. Like Giles Loder’s missing days this blank in Cooney' official record was never explained. Was it during this unaccounted for period that the natives were killed down at Sturt Creek homestead?
74. Ghost prisoners
“You’re going down a rotten road, there. Not only Derby. If you want to go down that road you better be prepared for the ride.”
A former police officer at Halls Creek, 2011
“You be careful then, them coppers, there’s something not right.”
City owners visiting their stations were surprised how rarely their hard working employees frequented the homestead. Some were never located, yet still managed to collect their wages.
Ghost drinkers were also plentiful, where alcohol restrictions applied. Men and women, ten years buried in the ground, were signing for cartons of beer and spirits.
Ghost prisoners were fed three Spartan meals a day, consisting of a piece of mettwurst, bread thrown out from the bakery, and a cup of tea, but they never complained.
They were locked up for being drunk, but were otherwise obedient prisoners who never resisted arrest, never stabbed or otherwise attacked the arresting officers.
Female ghost prisoners were searched by the matrons, usually the wives of the officers-in-charge. Matrons were paid for providing meals, and bodily searches. It seemed they had doppelgangers, for they were known to search prisoners at the station while simultaneoursly watching television at home, or even in bed fast asleep.
These ghost prisoners existed in the Occurrence Books. One book disappeared from the Halls Creek police station, when James and Simon disappeared.
The semblance of a normal police station was maintained by a constant flow of real prisoners. They could be troublesome characters, who spoke little English and hadn’t access to lawyers, meaning there was little fear that a 14-day imprisonment for habitual drunkenness would be challenged in court.
The race riots of 1996 were a weekend of excitement and reward, when police made over 400 arrests over a few days. Real prisoners were packed into the cells standing up, and couldn’t sleep. It was so crowded the ghost prisoners were thrown out. The staff fridge overflowed with beer.
Beer was the key. When the Constables and Aides bought in plenty of real and ghost prisoners, the Sergeant rewarded them with a well-stocked fridge of cold beer. During droughts of prisoners, the fridge went empty.
Occurrence Books were maintained at Western Australia police stations by officers finishing their shifts, who recorded incidents including arrests and numbers of prisoners in the cells. Officers maintained extra income for the Sergeant, by falsifying the numbers of prisoners. He rewarded them with a fridge of cold beer.
I phoned a former officer, now working in Fitzroy Crossing. He served at Halls Creek in 1987. Was there any truth in this absurd story, I asked? Surely, there wasn’t. He wouldn’t confirm or deny it and ended our conversation.
Another officer, whom I’ll refer to as ‘Harry’, caused great consternation with his colleagues at Halls Creek, by recording the true number of prisoners in the Occurrence Book. This contradicted the Sergeant’s meal claims, and called for immediate action. Officers covered Harry’s notations with Liquid Paper, then inserted the inflated numbers. The officer-in-charge told Harry never again to write in the Occurrence Book. Not even when he was ostracised and relegated to working alone in the station on weekends was he to touch the Book.
The local detective, Bill Dunlop, took Harry for a drive, after a white school teacher was raped in the Halls Creek Shire. He encouraged Harry to join the team, to play the game, to fiddle the books. Harry refused. Dunlop asked Harry where he was during the rape. Harry understood. The detective was warning him they could frame him any time, on any charge. They could “open and close doors” was the term used. Harry supplied an alibi, despite not being a real suspect. “Our life became hell,” his wife told me, choking back sobs, nearly thirty years later. “I thought I’d gotten over all that.”
Harry was transferred to Wiluna, where he and his wife were relegated to a house occupied by horses. There was an empty house reserved for a school teacher, but she preferred the caravan park, so Harry and his family could have it. But police management insisted on keeping it empty, until Harry called Premier Brian Burke. Six hours later they got the place.
But all did not go well. Harry was transferred to Newman, where police had been receiving complaints about a woman dealing drugs. Officers visited her house while her husband was pulling a 12-hour shift at the mine. They told her they could “turn the house upside down” or she could produce the dope. She brought out two one-ounce bags of cannabis. Harry was sent back to the station on a minor errand. When he returned he found a constable, whom he names, at the town’s lookout dumping the contents of one bag onto the ground. Harry says the constable told him the woman’s husband had applied to become a Justice of the Peace, so no charges would be laid. The irony was that when the local Magistrate wasn’t available, Newman JP’s acted as de facto magistrates on drug cases.
Life didn’t proceed smoothly for Harry and his wife. His colleagues put them in separate interrogation rooms one day, and told Harry’s wife there were plenty of mine shafts available, and that she and her children might find themselves down one of them.
But the police did investigate drug use. They had a particular person of interest. It was Harry. They searched his house, then told him they were transferring him to Perth, where he would occupy an office next door to the detective investigating him. Harry said he wanted to be transferred to Broome, where he grew up, and where there was a vacancy. The answer was, “no”. Harry resigned then complained to Commissioner of Police Brian Bull, who replied in writing that there were no ghost prisoners in police lock-ups.
Retired stonemason Norm Archer told me, in 2012, that a certain Sergeant at the Derby police station filled the cells on Friday night, knowing the prisoners wouldn’t face court until Monday morning. His wife served Wheat Bix and weak soup, while being paid for supplying premium meals, and for searching women who made up one-third of the prisoners. He said the Sergeant was later transferred to Fitzroy Crossing, then Halls Creek.
But another former Halls Creek officer doubts the ghost prisoner scheme could have operated. He agreed that in 1986 they got free beer on Fridays from the Sergeant, and that the meal money could amount to over $3000 a month for the Sergeant and his wife. The “mealies” were one of the attractions for senior officers posted in the Kimberley, he said, but that prisoners were so plentiful, why would the Sergeant jeopardise his career for a few extra dollars? “You wouldn’t have to; there would be no need to; you’d be stupid to do it,” he told me. And prisoners were fingerprinted, photographed, searched, and signed a document for their personal effects, so it would be difficult to fake arrest numbers.
What is evident is that Halls Creek police and Superintendent Leonard Craddock at Broome had much to hide. Twenty-five years after the events I have been warned that one officer was “muscling up”, and might come after me if details of the ghost prisoner racket were published.
Another factor that crippled crime investigations in Western Australia was detectives determining, over a few drinks at the Great Western Hotel in Perth, who they believed was guilty then building a case against that person using false confessions, beatings and planting of fake evidence. Likewise, if they decided a person was not to be investigated, then all the damning evidence in the world wouldn’t change their minds.
Under the auspice of Leonard Craddock, interrogation methods in Broome included bodily humiliations and beatings. Peter Carter from Clan Contractors visited the Broome police station in the early 1980’s on a minor matter and, while standing at the front counter he: “...could hear this bloody thumping, bashing sound and a bit of yelling and a door opened, closed very quickly and two coppers walked out and there was a guy lying on the floor in there, a white guy.”
Carter participated in the re-enactment for the ABC-TV television program, “Dead Heart.” He and Chris Masters played James and Simon. They were sitting around the campfire one night and talking about Masters’ previous investigation, “The Moonlight State,” that resulted in the Fitzgerald Inquiry, and the jailing of the Queensland Police Commissioner Sir Terrence Lewis. Carter says Masters and his team had difficulty deciding whether to investigate the Queensland or the Western Australia police, as both seemed equally corrupt. They chose Queensland because they could more easily fly home to their families on the weekends. ,
At Halls Creek in 1986 the ‘connies’ extracted confessions by putting a suspect in a narrow metal cabinet, then locking the door and banging the sides with an iron bar. “It was surprisingly effective,” one officer me.
75. Sex prisoners
But it’s the sex angle with young Aboriginal women in police cells that wipes the smile off the faces of officers from that period.
Djigadu Bal Bal was brought out of the Great Sandy Desert in 1964, on the back of a flat bed truck. Aboriginal electrician Sammy Jacks had convinced her parents to make the dusty trip. He took them to La Grange Mission, two-hundred kilometres south of Broome. When they reached La Grange the adults were told to live in the nearby bush, while their children were put in sex segregated dormitories. They were brought up by nuns, who encouraged them to shun their bush skills and stop “being primitive”. When the girls “played up” the nuns whipped them with thorny lemon branches. Today, there are still older women sitting in Broome parks who can show you the “nun scars” on their backs. Yet many remember the “white habits” with fondness, and refer to them as their mothers, for the nuns taught them to negotiate the difficulties of adapting to a ‘white’ society.
But their adjustment from alert and mostly self-sufficient nomads, to small town welfare recipients, was often disastrous. Djigadu’s Mum fell into the grip of alcohol, and was hit and killed by a bus near One Mile Community in Broome. Years later, Djigadu was hit by a car at the same spot, and has never fully recovered.
Before being maimed Djigadu lived with John Kernot, and was torn between her tribal background and her Christian education. She became a fully fledged alcoholic after Billy Daglish, from Punmu near Canning Stock Route, killed her son with a tyre lever. Djigadu found herself spending increased periods in the Broome lock-up for drunkenness and unpaid fines. She told Kernot tales of sex between police officers and Aboriginal women in the cells, leading him to doubt even the paternity of their son.
Kernot wrote repeatedly to Assistant Police Commissioner Les Ayton, who headed the Western Australia Internal Affairs branch, formed to maintain ethical standards amongst serving officers. Kernot never received a reply.
After one particular night in the lockup, eight-month pregnant Djigadu described what she had seen to Kernot, who recorded her tale on his secretary’s Dictaphone:
“...I mustn’t allowed to see dat, but I just had a look, there they were …policeman was telling me…get in…having the sex behind…what dis thing here. Beth just went like dat…started bending down…doggy style behind de thing dere…she was drunk…yeah, but dey still had de sex…five…it was five, dat other grumpy man what is name? Where he from…Mexico or something…and Greg…stupid man…white fellow like you…yeah, Greg…and he like dis [Djigadu indicates put finger near vagina]...in Bethyl…sucking tits yeah, [other police watching] dey were waiting for dere turn…dey were telling me to stop in dat toilet…Greg dat policeman…he like his sex…dey told me to sit down in dat toilet… I wasn’t really bustin for toilet…dey tell me to sit down…”
When Djiadu was released she said police told her
“I mustn’t say something about Beth…she badly wanted more…sex…and dey telling me keep your mouth shut…don’t tell anyone else…keep your mouth to yourself…”
Kernot said this was common at the Broome police station, and that officers beginning their shifts would drive around searching for Bethel O’Neil. He said John Bridge, the brother of then Member of Parliament for the Kimberley, Ernie Bridge, told him outside the Roebuck Hotel, he’d pleaded with the police to leave Beth O’Neil alone.
When I phone John Bridge, twenty years after the event, he denies having this conversation with Kernot. His withering anger raises the hairs on the back of my neck; his voice reduces to a whisper. He hangs up before I can ask him if he’d ever heard of allegations of sexual impropriety in the cells.
Don McKenzie was head of the Aboriginal Visitors Scheme in Broome during the 1980’s. He still is. I ask him by phone if it was common for police to have sex with Aboriginal women in the cells. He says he needs permission from his boss Laurel Sellers in Perth, to speak to me. Ms Sellers tells me she’ll tell Don that he can speak openly to me. But Don subsequently leaves his answering machine switched on permanently, and doesn’t return my calls. I phone Ms Sellers again. Her attitude has changed. She says Don is famous and has an oval named after him. She laughingly says of Don’s answering machine: “He probably doesn’t even check it.”
Nikki Wevers at ‘Flowers-on-Saville’ is a former Broome Councillor, who worked in the 1980’s at the women’s refuge, a project funded to protect Aboriginal women. I asked her in 2011 about the sex-in-the-cells claims from that period. She replied she’d: “Never heard those sorts of claims and if I heard them maybe I can’t remember.”
The police behaviour went unabated, and Djigadu arrived home crying one afternoon, saying police had grabbed her on the street and took her to the station, where they made her strip and mop the floor while they stood around laughing. “She cried for two days,” Kernot told me.
Similar allegations were made of police at Halls Creek in the 1980’s. A woman said her husband was an officer there, and suffered great anguish knowing what was going on. He’d been on the verge of physically attacking his fellow officers. To date he won’t speak to me.
John Kernot says sex between young black women and police on duty was common. They used Gantheume Point in Broome; Banjos Bore at Halls Creek and the swamp at Derby. He named women from Derby who he said were taken to the swamp either drunk or falsely accused of being drunk. If they complied with demands for sex, they were driven back to town and released without charge. Those who performed unsatisfactorily were not charged, but left to walk back from the swamp. Those refusing sex were usually charged.
Mark Moora said the practice at Balgo in the 1980’s was for police to strip Aboriginal women, take photographs of them with a “15-second camera” then take them out in the bush.
A Fitzroy Crossing community leader told me that it was “semi-voluntary,” and that police would give the women money, smokes or alcohol, but added that the epidemic of alcoholism created this situation. He said police in the Kimberley saw sex as a “perk” that came with their job. This included both the white coppers and the police aides.
In one incident at Fitzroy Crossing, five men went bush after dark for a “killer”. The rustlers were butchering the beast when a police vehicle arrived. They expected to be arrested, until they saw the cocky cage full of Aboriginal women. The rustlers remained silent and motionless while they watched the scene unfold. They still howl with laughter today when recounting the incident amongst themselves.
Many ‘illicit’ sexual relationships between officers and women produced beautiful children, of whom both parents are proud. In other cases the women were abandoned and returned to a black fella camp with their half-caste baby, where they were disciplined by the tribal men, to put it mildly.
There are also stories of police running the drug trade in the Kimberley in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Most informants are discredited by their involvement in the trade.
By accident I found a person with impeccable credentials who hasn’t any criminal history and is respected, even by his business rivals, as being an honest person. This person told me how the staff at one Broome hotel got the surprise of their life when they hired a new barman in 1990. He was Detective Sergeant Rick Scupham, who was on long service leave and had decided to take a second job. Hotel staff and management were initially happy with the idea of a police officer serving drinks from behind the bar. Scupham’s presence would eliminate the drug dealing. They were amazed when he verbally presented them with a list of illegal drugs they could sell from under the counter. “We were shocked,” the person said.
Did the need of the Broome and Halls Creek police to maintain so many secrets compromise the search for James and Simon? Would an open search have exposed some of these ‘sly deals’, some of which have never been exposed? Did this fuel local rumours the boys had discovered something, and were eliminated to protect a secret?
Go to chapter 76
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