Bowraville murders suspect to face retrial

May 26, 2016
Protesters demand justice for the Bowraville murder victims, in Sydney in 2013.

The land between the Clarence and Nambucca Rivers on New South Wales' mid-north coast is Gumbaynggirr country. The Blood Rock massacre took place there in the 1880s, when police surrounded local Aboriginal people and shot them in the waters around Red Rock. A plaque reads: “Gumbaynggirr descendants, especially women, still avoid this headland. The significance of this place, and the rebirthing of our culture, will never been forgotten”.

In September 1990, Colleen Walker-Craig, a 16-year-old Aboriginal girl, was murdered. She disappeared in the town of Bowraville, in Gumbaynggirr country. Within five months of her disappearance, two other children were also taken. Evelyn Greenup was a 4-year-old Aboriginal girl and Clinton Speedy-Duroux was a 16-year-old Aboriginal boy.

In September it will be 26 years since Colleen's mother, Muriel Walker-Craig, last saw her daughter alive. Colleen was last seen walking down the side of the house where she was staying on September 13.

The inquest into Colleen's death was told that the main suspect, Jay Hart — a white man — was seen walking down the other side of the house at about the same time, towards where his mother's car was parked.

When Colleen's mother realised her daughter was missing, she searched the town looking for her, with no results. Then she went to the police, where they refused to make an official report. “Maybe she went 'walkabout',” was their response. She showed them a picture of Colleen and the police joked about her light skin colour: “Are you sure she's yours?”

They did not take her seriously at all, so there were no searches and no investigations. The only searches were organised by her family with no results. There was no official search for Colleen until, six months after she was reported missing, a fisher hooked her clothes. Even so, police just searched the river where her clothes were found; there was no investigation and they did not look anywhere else.

Second victim

Four-year-old Evelyn went missing on October 4, less than three weeks after her cousin Colleen disappeared. She went missing from a house three doors up from where Colleen was last seen. Her mother, Rebecca Stadhams, was drugged and woke in the morning with her clothing interfered with and Evelyn missing. After searching for her, she went to the police station. The reception she received was similar to Walker-Craig's and the results were the same.
When Stadhams told the police that two Aboriginal people had disappeared in three weeks, the response was a classic answer to an Aboriginal person asking for any missing, injured or dead people: “Well, what do you want me to do about it?” In this case, a witness described hearing a child crying inside the room late at night, followed by a sudden thud. Hart was seen walking out of Evelyn's room and leaving the house.

On February 1, Clinton Speedy-Duroux became the third person to go missing. He was last seen alive in Hart's caravan, where he spent the night with his girlfriend. When she woke up, her clothing had also been removed. She never saw Clinton again.

At this point the police were not doing much. On the basis of racial profiling, instead of looking for the victims and the possible culprits, they targeted the families, particularly those of Colleen and Evelyn, with the suspicion that Evelyn had been sold or that Colleen had gone “walkabout”. Police files reveal they put another Aboriginal community in far-west NSW, that was related to Evelyn and Colleen, under surveillance, and detectives asked at least one witness “about the rumours concerning the selling of Evelyn by the family”.

By this time, Clinton's skeletal remains had been found dumped beside a dirt road outside Bowraville. Evelyn's remains were recovered nearby in April 1991. Colleen's body was never found.

The families did not accept the lack of police response and in 1991 they rallied outside parliament, demanding answers. That action was the start of a relentless campaign for justice.

Twenty-five years later, on May 5, hundreds of people, with the three families at the front, marched to NSW parliament once more.

Role of the police

Documents presented in court have shown that police investigating the murders initially put the families under covert surveillance and pursued suspicions that some relatives might have “sold” four-year-old Evelyn. The families of Evelyn, Colleen and Clinton were unaware of this covert operation and were horrified to learn they had been under suspicion.

This shameful police action and the failure to quickly identify the missing children as potential murder victims may mean that vital evidence was lost. The investigations were lazy, late and totally unprofessional.

It can be said with absolute conviction that the police were mounting a case they thought would be resolved by the Department of Community when, in reality, they were dealing with a sexual predator and serial killer.

The police never appreciated that the main suspect was always around when a child disappeared. They finally talked to Hart when Clinton's body was found, but nothing happened. Forensics went to his caravan 10 days after Clinton disappeared. This was plenty of time to hide any proof of wrongdoing.

What makes the racist bigotry more appalling is that they never talked to the families. They were convinced that Aboriginal people are capable of doing these things.

Evelyn's aunt, Michelle Jarrett, said: “It makes me quite angry and disgusted. It's just wrong for the police to assume something like that. If I thought my family had done something to my niece, I would have told police. I would not have covered it up.”

Colleen's mother said: “I really think this is terrible. I'm lost for words, really, to think that [the police] would go to that much length when all of their expertise should have been from somewhere else.”

The police files reveal that detectives eventually began to focus their attention on Hart. He was tried and found not guilty of killing Clinton. Police later charged Hart over Evelyn's death, but he was again found not guilty.

The police began a new investigation in 1996, with the name Strike Force Ancud. Initially they did not accept that there were racist overtones to the original investigation.

But Detective Chief Inspector Gary Jubelin, who has spent 20 years reinvestigating the case, told the 2014 NSW parliamentary inquiry into the killings: “I have been investigating crimes for 20 years and I am still shocked by the lack of interest that has been shown in this matter. I do not say that lightly. We have a serial killer and three children were murdered.

“It has been heartbreaking to see the families' suffering. The only time they seem to get things happening is when they attract the media's attention or when they publicly protest. The families know the reason. The families told me the reason when I first met them in 1997. They said: 'It's because we're Aboriginal.'

“At the time I did not believe them. Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is, having worked with the families now for the past 18 years, I think they identified the problem. It is very unfortunate that [racist] issues have impacted in this investigation. It is very nice for society to say that all victims are treated equally. Unfortunately in this situation, I don't think that is entirely correct.

“The force is now finalising a submission calling for Mr Hart to face a retrial over the murders, arguing that evidence of his alleged links to all three has not been heard together in court.”

Why has the police force taken this path now? They know they made a big mistake with the first investigations; they know this is proof of the racism that pervades the force and they know they will lose all credibility if they do not do something now.

The families of the victims have campaigned for the evidence in all three cases to be heard in a retrial, but the state's double jeopardy laws have proved to be a stumbling block.

Police have now joined them in pushing the government for a retrial and are using every weapon in their arsenal. If you want to know who leaked information to The Australian you don't have to look too far.

Other parts of the justice system in NSW are not exempt from criticism. The original trial judge was unable to see the connection between the two cases. The police also failed to draw the connection in the brief given to the Director of Public Prosecutions and presented in the original trial.

Then-NSW coroner John Abernethy, on the other hand, wrote personally to the DPP in 2004 asking him to “look carefully at all three cases” involved in the Bowraville murders, though they had never been linked in court, because “there are great similarities in the death[s]”.

Earlier this year, police sent a lengthy brief of evidence for the three cases to be heard together in a submission to NSW Attorney-General Gabrielle Upton. The submission detailed links between the killings, including that all three were staying on the same road when they disappeared; all three were at parties on the night before their deaths; the bodies of Evelyn and Clinton, as well as Colleen's clothing, were found in the same remote location; there had been no attempt to conceal the bodies; and Clinton and Evelyn both suffered a penetrating injury to the skull.

The submission provides evidence of Hart's links to the three deaths, including that he knew all three children; he was the only person at the scene immediately before each child disappeared; his mother's red car was seen where each of the children was last seen alive; following each disappearance, he was allegedly untruthful in describing what took place; and after Hart was charged with murder, there were no further killings of this type in Bowraville.

“I believe we've identified the person responsible for the three murders,” Jubelin said. “To say the three murders aren't linked … I find it offensive. I can't even imagine how offensive it is to the families when they're told these matters might not necessarily be linked.”

Jubelin compared the case to that of Ivan Milat, who was tried for several killings together. Had that not happened, “[he] could still be walking the streets”.

In response, Attorney-General Upton asked the Court of Criminal Appeal to consider whether the murder suspect should be retried over the killings. Hart will now be charged with two of the murders, but it will be up to the Appeals Court to decide if there is adequate fresh evidence to warrant a retrial.

"After careful consideration,” Upton said, “I have decided that there should be no further delay in bringing this matter to court. The best and most transparent way to deal with this tragic case is to make an application for retrial to the NSW Court of Criminal Appeal.

"The court must be satisfied that the evidence is fresh, compelling and that a retrial is in the interests of justice. While there can be no certainty whatsoever about the outcome, this is the course of action that promises a sense of closure for all involved."

Jubelin told the ABC that the families were emotional and very excited about the matter being taken to court.

"They understand that this is just a step in their efforts to get justice, but it is a good feeling for the families. They have been seeking justice for a long, long time and they feel overwhelmed on this decision."

There can be no doubt that this step is due to the commitment and fighting spirit of the three families and their supporters. Their doggedness has forced the hand of the police and the attorney-general. They kept fighting for 25 years and never accepted defeat. They are an example for every fighter in this country.

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