Death in the Sand
The Unsolved Disappearance of James Annetts and Simon Amos
Copyright Norm Barber 2014, 2015
The moral right of Norm Barber to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted. All rights reserved. The author welcomes requests for reproduction rights and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
James Annetts holding dingo pup: Les and Sandra Annetts.
Water bottle: Coroner's Court of Western Australia.
All others: Norm Barber
1. Out on the Nicholson
2. Inside the fog
3. Instant jackeroos
4. Life at Flora Valley
5. Twice daily radio reporting
6. The case of the missing alibi
7. The reluctant search
8. Crowded skies
9. The Air Wing extravaganza
10. The circus comes to town
11. Cold welcome
12. Tales of violence
13. Meanwhile, back at Binya
14. The public relations search
15. The hundred years war
16. Rough and tumble in Halls Creek
17. True lies
18. Les Annetts’ second Kimberley search
19. Clan country
20. Finding the Datsun ute
21. Action men
22. Locating the remains
23. The recovery
24. Forensic identification and ‘end of story’
25. Memorial service
26. Meanwhile, back at the ranch
27. The reluctant Coroner
28. A bad case of amnesia
29. That other case of acute memory loss
30. The man who didn't need an alibi
31. “A cuff behind the ear”
32. Torn between two loyalties
33. The future search and rescue chief
34. That curious death ute
35. All is forgiven
36. Accidents happen
37. At home with the Annetts
38. Poems and letters from people they didn’t even know
39. The bisexual angle
40. Chris Rumpf
41. On the Tanami
42. The Pallottines
43. The Byzantine republic of Balgo
44. Yagga Yagga
45. The Balgo/Yagga Yagga struggle
46. A weekend in paradise
48. Retreat from Balgo
49. Halls Creek
50. The bottle tree bore hanging
51. The Tanami Track disappearance
53. Back at Halls Creek
54. In the footsteps of James Annetts
55. Birrindudu oasis
56. Ghosts from the past
57. Voices from the ether
58. Feather man
59. Peter Sherwin: hard man on a hard land
60. The fall and rise of Peter Sherwin
61. The Wyndham liaison
62. Giles Munro Loder at home
63. Shane and Julie Kendall’s Anger
64. Strange Broome
65. The enigmatic courier
66. Harry Mason, Heather Snelling and Colin Main
67. Shadows behind shadows
68. Jock Mosquito
69. Tapping on doors
70. Marten Ynema
71. The status quo 1
72. The status quo 2
73. The private massacre
74. Ghost prisoners
75. Sex prisoners
76. What the Yagga Yagga mob saw
77. Whatever happened to…?
78. Photographic Gallery
"We totally believe they were murdered.”
Sandra Annetts, 2009
Clan Contractors’ bulldozer driver Johnny Brown was confused when he found the police team boiling the billy next to the scattered trail of Simon Amos’ bleached bones. A precise hole in Simon’s forehead marked the entry of a small calibre bullet, while the mushrooming ball of lead had left a messier triangular exit wound from the top of the skull. The boy’s eyeless sockets stared up to the sky from the sun-bleached skull as if in reproach at the indignity.
They were in a unique area of the Great Sandy Desert where the last of the invisible nomads carried metal tipped spears, and left their barefoot tracks around the bulldozers and swags of sleeping drivers. No one saw them, but in the mornings the dozer operators found the barefoot tracks of those who had crept around their beds during the night.
What bothered Johnny Brown in the glint of day was how a body could be reduced to bleached bones in less than five months? Back on the farm down south, that level of decomposition took 18 months. Perhaps the ravenous hunger of the creatures of the desert accounted for it, but what really bothered him was the next corpse.
Back on the moving search vehicles, Johnny took a standing view on the tray of the second. About a kilometre up the sand dune track, he jumped and rolled over the ground.
He carefully paced himself, until he found the old-style Dunlop shoe sticking out from a trouser leg. He kicked it, checking its substance, and like a cluttered RAM drive, his brain took a few seconds to realise what his eyes saw. The shoe was on an actual leg connected to a hip bone piercing the fabric.
Further across the dune he picked up then dropped a shirt, still filled with a backbone and intact ribs, brown and sinewy. The guts were gone: dried or hollowed out. The head lay twenty feet away, jaw still attached, some flesh and the hair, strangely red.
How could the remains of two boys be in such disparate condition when they died at similar times in similar terrain?
Why had those ancestors of Alsatian dogs, that had strayed from tourist convoys, ripped Simon to pieces while leaving James relatively intact? What had stopped the rapid decomposition of the remains of James? Insects didn’t prefer one human corpse to another. Johnny knew that much.
1. Out on the Nicholson
Station manager Giles Loder had caught the doomed sixteen-year-old, James Annetts, skinning a duck, when he arrived unexpectedly at Nicholson homestead on Monday, 1 December 1986, about lunchtime. The weekly rations wouldn’t keep a fat-assed office worker satisfied, let alone a station ‘bore runner’, so James shot wild ducks with his Baikal shotgun, in the creek bed behind the ghost town. His Dad had taught him to hunt and skin ducks, not pluck them.
Nicholson Station had twenty years earlier employed 120 jackeroos, stockmen and cooks, who supported a mob of dependants in the creek bed. There were hundreds of horses and working dogs, electric street lights, a cool room compressor, hot water, and dozens of accommodation rooms, offices, workshops, kitchens, and machines. But by 1986 the profitability of the cattle industry had collapsed. The garden sprinklers were turned off, and the once bustling station was reduced to two streets of empty decaying buildings. And one inexperienced city boy, who hadn’t been paid for two months.
Loder was born in 1951 at Murwillimbah on the east coast, before it became a surfing Mecca. He left school at 15 and by 18 was thriving in the bullying atmosphere of Northern Territory stations. Within 17 years he'd outpaced and replaced half a dozen of Lord Vesteys’ managers who couldn't adapt to the fists and steel-capped boots regime of the new owner, Peter Sherwin. He was a Sherwin man at heart and produced beasts for the live trade on budget, whatever it took.
Sherwin made Loder manager of Nicholson, Sturt Creek, Gordon Downs and Flora Valley Stations. It was a big promotion, but Sherwin was no Father Christmas and expected maximum cattle for minimum cost. Loder wasn’t under any illusions.
The cook, the governess, a dozen jackeroos and Loder’s pregnant wife Vicki were quartered at Flora Valley, while the other homesteads were abandoned, except for James Annetts at Nicholson and Simon Amos down south at Sturt Creek station. The boys primed the windmills and fueled the diesel pumps that kept the troughs and tanks offering barely drinkable bore water. Thousand square mile properties no longer supported even a single family, such was the deteriorating profitability of the industry.
Raising semi-arid zone cattle is a brutish business, and violence towards men and animals was a de facto requirement on any manager's ‘curriculum vitae’. The beasts had their own minds, and had to be prodded and intimidated to get them moving. So did the jackeroos. Twelve to fourteen-hour shifts in the blazing sun, and dusty trips on the back of open trucks for twenty days straight during the summer muster, reduced them to walking zombies.
The odd thing noted later was that Loder later couldn’t remember a word of his conversation with James. Like water poured onto hot sand that hour with the boy disappeared from his mind. All that remained was a feeling the meeting had been friendly despite the boy hunting ducks instead of watering the beasts.
He had whacked James in the head with a spanner two weeks previously, in the Flora Valley homestead workshop. The kid didn’t cry. They were the repairing a hairline fracture on the Datsun’s oil sump. Loder was ‘getting up him’, and threatened to take the repair costs out of his wages. James said he was leaving, anyway. Loder countered, saying he could kiss goodbye his two months wages still owing. That’s what made the boy cry.
James drove a clapped-out Toyota Hi-Lux 4WD for his 250 kilometre daily bore run. He leant sideways in the cab while bouncing over the ungraded tracks. A previous driver had rolled it, leaving a V-shaped indentation in the roof that protruded into the cabin. The windscreen was also gone.
Six weeks before disappearing, James had also rolled it while entering Duncan Road from a dirt track. A bee flew into the cabin and stung him, and he lost control.
Wallace Owen Mitchell and his wife were returning from Birdsville on the gravelled Buchanan and Buntine highways, across the northern Tanami desert. Wallace was the mechanic at Fossil Downs station near Fitzroy Crossing. They found the Hi-Lux standing across the road. There was blood on the seat and door trims. They followed footprints in the fine dust that veered off into the bush. They found James underneath a tree, bleeding from the head. He wasn’t responsive until they got him to drink some water, and put him into their vehicle. They left him at Flora Valley homestead, after James assured them there would be someone there to treat his injury.
James whispered not a word to his parents. Not to anyone. He knew the story of dyslexic jackeroo Paul Griffith. Paul was quietly spoken. His best mate, Shire President Malcolm Edwards, described him as harmless and not easily riled. But Loder was easily riled, particularly by the knife Paul wore on his belt. He called him Rambo. "Get fucked," Griffith responded one morning, and walked away. Loder rushed him from behind, punched him in the head, then thumped his steel-capped boots into Griffith as he lay on the ground.
Loder never touched the hard men. Tough stockmen who kept fighting after tasting their own blood.
Hence, Vicki Loder was running continuous newspaper ads across Australia for inexperienced 16-18 year olds. Ron Bickford heard her say inexperienced jackeroos were less trouble. They didn’t know their rights; they worked for lower wages. "Necessary, but dispensable," and when they became exhausted or injured, could easily be replaced. Andrew Beezley remembered that they “...couldn’t take the heat and a lot of them were passing out. I remember one bloke passing out, and having to drag him under a four wheel drive to get him out of the sun.”
And James wasn’t a hard man. His claim to fame was being Patrol Leader in the Scouts. This was his first real job, and the first time away from home.
After Loder’s ‘amiable’, but forgettable, last meeting with James he rose into a fog of timelessness and flew his bush plane over the dunes and across the Northern Territory border, to the oasis station of Birrindudu. For the next forty-eight hours he fought bushfires and supervised the erection of portable yards for the hot season muster. The problem is that those jackeroos working with him cannot recollect his presence during this week that Simon and James disappeared.
2. Inside the fog
Loder’s first inkling of trouble upon returning on Wednesday 3, December 1986 was seeing from above the Brahmans milling about dry troughs, sticking their heads under the flow covers in their search for moisture at the Nicholson homestead bore.
He estimated they’d been thirsting for 24 hours, and could survive two days more, but with the approaching muster, every beast needed its strength to avoid collapsing while being chased by helicopters.
Loder got back into the air, and during the fifty kilometre flight to Flora Valley he checked Drew’s bore, Koolarong, Gera, No. 10, No 23 and Turtle Creek. The troughs were full. Limestone Bore pump was actually pumping, but no James and no vehicle. Thirty-six hours in hot weather without water meant death, for a human, but Loder’s nagging concern for James was overlaid with that of getting water for the beasts.
His amnesia prevented a clear recollection of what happened next, but after landing at Flora Valley, he might have talked to Shane Kendall, or maybe not.
Kendall was equally vague. At 24 he’d miraculously replaced veteran head stockman John Davis, despite having been in the industry less than six months. James and Davis had gotten along well, but in a letter home James wrote of Kendall: "This new head stockman doesn't show us what to do he just tells us to do it and if we make a mistake we end up in all sorts of trouble with the boss."
With a blend of charm and bully boy tactics, Kendall found himself bewilderingly supervising a dozen jackeroos, who maintained five thousand square miles of pastoral land.
The same cloud of amnesia descended on Kendall when he tried to recollect the evening when Loder touched down on the dirt airstrip. He remembered the sun had disappeared. He knew the ‘bore runners’had missed their twice-daily radio calls, but couldn’t recollect if Loder mentioned that James was missing.
3. Instant jackeroos
James Annetts couldn't believe his luck earlier that year when his aunt, Pat Johnson, mentioned an ad in ‘The Land’ newspaper seeking jackeroos 16-18, no experience required, for the Kimberley. He was struggling at school and had difficulty spelling words. His Dad supervised dozens of glaziers and apprentices, but was functionally illiterate. Les Annetts compensated by developing an acute memory that surpassed those who could read and write.
Les’ mother gave birth to nine boys and six girls, whose social circle was each other rather than outsiders. Les met his future wife Sandra at an ice skating rink near Central Railway Station in Sydney.
James was the eldest in a close-knit family of two boys and two girls, and rarely brought other kids home. When he visited friends or stayed out late he’d phone to say where he was.
The Annetts moved to 16 Bandys Road, Binya, near Griffith, in the Murrumbidge irrigation district in New South Wales, in early 1986, nine years after the local anti-drug campaigner Donald McKay was murdered by the drug cartel that supplied politician Al Grassby with his bright clothing. Les drove tractors on wheat farms.
James was a tall, quiet boy with a half-smile exaggerated by prominent eye teeth. He did gardening work for elderly people, occasionally without payment, and delivered newspapers to earn money for a bicycle, then delivered milk to buy a fishing dinghy. He read about bush survival techniques, and wanted to join the army or work on a big property. Mostly, he wanted to be financially independent.
But Les and Sandra were concerned with his safety. Would he be constantly supervised? Would meals be supplied? Would he get award wages? Vicki Loder assured Sandra during a number of phone calls these would be supplied, and that neither experience nor a driver's license was necessary. After a heart wrenching month, Les and Sandra let their boy go.
They had a party the night before James left on the Greyhound bus. A faded photograph shows faces glowing with smiles. Les was proud his son was becoming a man. James was proud he was a man. He arrived at Flora Valley station on 21 August 1986, aged sixteen years and five months.
It was strange that people got James mixed up with Simon. They weren’t alike. Even in death, Johnny Brown remembers finding James’ skull covered in a shock of red hair. Simon was the boy with red hair, long gone when they found him. James’ brown hair had bleached red from lying in the sun for four months.
Simon Amos was a gregarious strawberry redhead, seventeen-years-old, with freckled white skin and a conniving child-like personality that verged on the manic, then slumped into a guarded aloofness, and one could only guess what he was feeling. He had "...a weird sense of humour. He likes carrying on and pulling jokes on you and that he was a sort of out-character person," Flora Valley’s sixteen-year-old governess, Therese Stansfield-Campbell, remembered, when it was all over. Halls Creek man Stan Tremlett described James as quiet and reserved, more of a thinker, while Simon had a"harum-scarum" personality.
Shane Kendall shared a room with James at Flora Valley, and agreed that Simon was harder to get to know. "I struck a friendship with Jim almost straight away. He was very straight forward, and would tell you about anything that was worrying him."
Paul Baikie replaced James at Nicholson. He described both boys as, "Mature for their age. There were no strange things about them. They were normal good guys," which was a powerful complement, considering the troubled characters that ended up on cattle stations.
James knew he was there to earn money, and went to bed early, but Simon talked into the night with the other jackeroos. Shane thought Simon got the easier jobs because he was, incredibly, one of the longer serving employees, having lasted three months.
Simon’s parents had divorced, and he’d lived with his mother, Patricia Clark, at 6 Baker Street, in the leafy Adelaide suburb of Paradise. Pat had remarried the easy going Barry Clark. Simon’s father, Robert W. Amos, lived in nearby Tranmere, where Simon also stayed.
Simon went to Saint Francis of Assisi Primary School, and then to the Christian Brothers’ Rostrevor College (‘Rossi’), in the Adelaide foothills. Its fenced sports fields contrasted strangely with the deceptive green slopes fronting the children’s prison next door, but once through the gates of ‘Rossi’, visitors experienced the breathtaking vista of a green oval, huge shade trees and beautiful architecture.
Simon didn’t seem happy initially, at ‘Rossi’. His class photographs show him, usually in the back rows, looking grim. Best friend Heath Sampson said he hadn’t a massive personality, but had a good sense of humour. He was in awe of Simon’s courage in football, especially at a mini-league exhibition at Norwood Oval. It was prior to a Red Legs SANFL game. Simon grabbed the ball and ran from the back line, dodged opponents, took ten bounces and disregarding the umpire blowing his whistle furiously, kicked a goal to the cheers of the crowd. Simon’s schoolmates thought the red-headed bomber might reach the AFL, and by Year 8 his grim demeanor was replaced with the cheeky smile that characterised his later years.
His teacher that year was Wayne Edwards, who said that Simon disliked academic subjects, but became "interested and well-behaved" in agriculture classes, where they raised calves. Edwards showed Simon's class a film about mustering cattle by helicopter. "When I found out that he headed north to work on a station this did not surprise me as he was ideally suited to being a jackaroo. It was a long time ago and [I] can picture his face and even where he sat in the classroom…"
Stephen Orr began teaching agricultural science at ‘Rossi’ in 2007, seven years after he wrote "Attempts to Draw Jesus", a fictional version of the lives of James and Simon. He said the consensus at ‘Rossi’ was that Simon had been "a bit of a lad, a rogue, cheeky, misbehaving etc."
Simon’s father suffered depression. Robert Amos was described as a "beautiful man" who had been in a psychiatric institution and was readmitted soon after Simon went missing. Little is known of Patricia Clark, who has consistently shunned the media.
When Simon arrived at Flora Valley in July 1986, he wore a row of rings in one ear, a thick studded band on one wrist and a studded belt around his waist. Debbie Davis was the cook and with the grader driver, had a game of estimating how long each new recruit would last. They gave Simon a week. This pale school kid wouldn't hack twelve-hour shifts in 40C degree temperatures, lugging portable fencing and building cattle ramps.
Loder thought the same. Soft hands and a soft body ― this kid wouldn't be worth his feed, like the other losers sent out by the Broome Commonwealth Employment Service. But Simon threw himself into the job, and his chirpy sense of humour carried others through grim dusty days. Even Loder liked him.
Perhaps it was their divergent personalities that forged James and Simon’s friendship that continued when Loder isolated them on stations 180 kilometres apart.
4. Life at Flora Valley
The buildings on Flora Valley homestead were new, because the previous homestead on the Elvire River had been evacuated, due to being in the catchment area for Lake Argyle. But maintenance had essentially stopped when Sherwin gained ownership. Jackeroo Chris Rumpf described the rooms as smelly, with dirty mattresses, busted overhead fans and toilets that were flushed by sticking a hand through a hole in the wall. Debbie Davis said sewerage bubbled up the shower drains, and jolts of electricity raced through her body when she flicked a light switch.
Wednesday was the big day of the week when James and Simon rushed their bore runs and returned to Flora Valley as early as possible to pick up supplies, service their vehicles, collect their mail and share yarns. Debbie hadn’t found her true calling in food preparation, but she gave Wednesdays an extra effort. And she was good company.
When Graham Heleur replaced her the jackeroos called him 'the old man' - he was 32 and also a good cook.
Graham was stunned when he discovered the four stations were run by an inexperienced head stockman, a sixteen-year-old governess, the manager and his wife, Simon and James on the bores and seven stockmen, most of whom were inexperienced teenagers. He'd worked with cattle and men before, but never kids; he said it was a circus. He slept with a knife under his pillow after hearing that Loder put a previous cook in hospital.
Graham said the ‘bore runners’ ate "like starving horses" and made sure there was plenty of ice-cream on Wednesdays. They hadn’t TV or billiards or anything for recreation and the boys needed something more than work and sleep so the ‘old man’ entertained them with stories and bush yarns.
They danced with Therese’s blond hair waving in their faces while Graham played the drums on empty food tins. Simon told Therese the solitude of Sturt Creek got him talking to himself, and that it would be easy to go mad.
Peter Sherwin had dispensed with placing full crews and a manager at each station, instead maintaining a larger mobile crew at Victoria River Downs that included his own planes and pilots and experienced horseback musterers. The Flora Valley team was essentially labourers who set up temporary fencing panels brought in by truck. The cattle were run up ramps into six-deck road trains, after which the yards were disassembled and hauled to a new location.
It was tiring dog-work and the exhausted jackeroos lugged the hot iron panels on their bent backs like pack animals and, with limited scope for skill development, were not expected to last long in the industry. Nor did the violence, lack of safety and problems of getting paid attract many to long service with Sherwin.
After eight weeks working with the other jackeroos, Loder took James sixty kilometres east to Nicholson homestead. James was Nicholson’s new ‘bore runner’ and would live there alone for six and a half days a week.
James wasn’t happy about the transfer, despite the light work. He drove 250 kilometres a day over unformed tracks, and refueled pump motors and ensured the water kept flowing into the troughs. The hardest part was getting his guts shaken up over corrugated tracks that had never seen a grader.
When Jim Ghilotti had returned to Perth after being belted by Loder, he told his dad everyone was shocked, and predicted James and Simon would come to a bad end. They didn't have two-way radios in the vehicles, and if injured wouldn’t be missed for at least twenty-four hours. And they were city kids.
When James’ vehicle wouldn't start at a bore he walked back to Nicholson homestead for another battery, then radioed Vicki to ask that someone drive him back to the bore. "No," was her answer, so he lugged the battery along Duncan Road until a passerby gave him a lift.
When Sherwin bought a station he cut the water for inessential applications like lawns and gardens. James found the trees dying and the shrubs at Nicholson homestead dried to a crisp. The dilapidated buildings resembled a ghost town whose population had suddenly disappeared en masse into the bush and left everything behind.
Loder told him to use the generator sparingly. Fair enough, it was a huge beast suitable for a busy homestead.
So James pottered around in the dusky silence, opening food tins without labels, some rotten and left over from previous musters, then after a sweaty night arose at sunrise for another lonely day. A sneakier ‘bore runner’ would have shifted his bed into the cool room, and let the generator tick over while he slept, but James wasn't like that. For some this could have been a dream job, but all his life he'd arrived home in the afternoon to find familiar faces, food and a nurturing atmosphere.
Debbie thought it outrageous that, “James was stuck out there on his own, a 16-year-old boy who had never been on a cattle station in his life. It was madness. Every day he had to check the bores, driving long distances, on his own in a car with no [two-way] radio… James knew nothing about cars. He didn't even have a license. The car was a wreck and it could have broken down at any time and he wouldn't have known how to fix it.”
Giles Loder noticed that James’ personal dress and grooming had deteriorated. Chris Rumpf understood the problem: "City slickers thrown by themselves into a cattle station."
About this time, Djaru stockman Bobby Sealer and a sick Malaga elder ran out of petrol near the Ringer Soak turn-off. They often traveled that way, expecting to run out of fuel, then waiting for tourists with jerry cans. James was returning from the Wednesday slap-up meal. James offered to take them to Nicholson for a feed and bring them back with some fuel, but Bobby said, “No, mate. It’s a long way in, you know. I said I’ll be alright; plenty of tourists around here. He said he’s got no one out on the station to talk to, you know, reckon he just don’t like Giles. He was saying to go on holidays and seems that he said to me that ‘I’m not going to come back when I go on me holidays back home’.
“I wish I would have been out there working then. I would have looked after him. He got no elder, no older people with him, no middle-aged fellow. He was just only young, a kid. He made me feel old. Pretty sad, you know.”
5. Twice daily radio reporting
You couldn’t beat the 100 watt transistorised 7727 model Codan HF eight channel two-way radio. The police, the School of the Air and the Royal Flying Doctor service used them.
James and Simon called in twice a day to Vicki Loder at Flora Valley to prove they were still breathing. If they missed two calls a search patrol was meant to be sent out. These were standard pastoral protocols.
While modern Codans automatically seek the correct frequency from a field of 400, the older model required each boy to choose one of eight frequencies generated by a crystal oscillator, then wait for a reply. If no one answered the next frequency was tested.
But setting up the aerial could be a problem. Surface signals are blocked by hills and dunes, so a way around this is to point the aerial skyward, so the signal bounces off the ionosphere, similarly to the Jindalee over-the-horizon radar technology. This allows the Codan to reach up to 3000 kilometres, providing the operator chooses the right setting, because lower frequencies are absorbed by the ionosphere, while higher frequencies shoot off into space.
Simon was much further out from Flora Valley, so had more trouble than James. He often reached Heather Snelling at Caranya homestead, who relayed his messages to Flora Valley. And the clapped out car batteries that powered his radio couldn’t hold their charge.
But all this meant nothing when Vicki Loder went to New South Wales in November 1986, to have her second child.
The governess Therese Stansfield-Campbell was more than adequate to operate the radio. She’d been educated with the School of the Air. The radio was her social medium on which she listened to local chatter. But fate cast a cruel hand when Giles Loder told the girl to keep the radio off, and stay out of the radio room. Why he did so was never clear.
Shane Kendall took over. He was clueless. He didn’t know the station protocols, and wouldn’t even wait at the radio during call-in times. He’d call Simon on one channel, then not hearing a response, leave and return twenty minutes later. He’d been to Sturt Creek to adjust the aerial, but that made little difference. When both boys failed to call in during those crucial 48 hours from Monday evening to Wednesday evening he did nothing.
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