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Bowraville inquiry reveals harsh truths about racism

Dolly Jerome is comforted by her nephew Elijah Duroux at hearings into the Bowraville serial murders at the Nambucca Shire Council Chambers at Macksville.
Dolly Jerome is comforted by her nephew Elijah Duroux at hearings into the Bowraville serial murders at the Nambucca Shire Council Chambers at Macksville. Frank Redward

IT'S 1990 and Bowraville, on the NSW Mid North Coast, has the unenviable reputation of being one of the few civilised towns outside of America's deep-south still oppressed by the aftermath of segregation.

Protests led by Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins, who visited the town during his Freedom Bus tour in the late 60s, signalled long-awaited change but decades of habit and mistrust have ensured the speed of progress is painfully slow.

It was not so long ago that the main street and its businesses were out of bounds to the Aboriginal community who remain largely confined to a nearby mission on the banks of the Nambucca River.

Seating in the rundown local cinema is still divided into black and white rows.

Most of the adults and teenagers have gone through school separated by a colour sensitive fence, which was only crossed during sporting carnivals and football matches.

The actual murders were not a black and white issue…(they were) just an evil person with a cold heart and no morals but the way we were treated and the way it was investigated was a black and white issue

- Michelle Stadhams, aunt of murdered 4-year-old Evelyn Greenup

They have been raised "not to trust the coppers" and stick to the mission, where alcohol and other social issues leave many of the women and children at risk.

Their vulnerability presents a business opportunity for local men with access to what is still widely regarded as a white only pub and while they might not tell the others at the bar, some secretly enjoy their visits to the mission, where willing drinking partners and empty beds, are often waiting.

It's a toxic environment, which in the space of just a few kilometres, divides the community into two entirely separate worlds and one which will soon entice a predator to take a gamble on the town's weaknesses and win.

Detective Inspector Garry Jubelin.
Detective Inspector Garry Jubelin. Frank Redward

FROM the moment 16-year-old Colleen Walker was reported missing, her captor had the upper hand.

As one of the state's top homicide detectives would later acknowledge, the failure of police to take the disappearance seriously from the start - countless records suggest her family was told she had probably just "gone walkabout" - not only led to crucial evidence being lost, but also gave the killer confidence he would not be caught.

In the next six months - two more children would go missing, four-year-old Evelyn Greenup and 16-year-old Clinton Speedy- Duroux.

A Coffs Harbour police officer with no experience in dealing with homicides, is placed in charge of the investigation into all three disappearances.

By 1991, Colleen's clothes have been found weighted down in the Nambucca River and the remains of Clinton and Evelyn discovered on the outskirts of the mission.

A local white man, known for supplying the mission with drugs and alcohol, is arrested and charged with the murders of Clinton and Evelyn.

I didn't trust police and I didn't have any faith in the police in Bowraville at the time…I didn't think they would believe an Aboriginal woman saying a white man had come into her home

- Witness, Denise Jarrett

Each case is tried separately in 1994 at Coffs Harbour but confusion and varying evidence lead to an acquittal for Clinton's murder and the discontinuation of the trial over Evelyn's murder.

Hope returns to Bowraville two years later with the arrival of two of the state's most experienced officers - Detective Inspector Gary Jubelin, who would go on to be profiled in a series of Underbelly and Detective Inspector Rod Lynch, a senior investigator in the Ivan Milat murders.

In his submission to the inquiry, Det Insp Jubelin reflects on how two "uptight detectives" - officers from the city - struggled at first with the locals and what the community informed them was "Koori time" but that once they understood the significance of the racial divide, relationships were strengthened, a healthy respect grew and, slowly, startling evidence was brought to light.

It's revealed information critical to the investigation into Clinton's murder was, for whatever reason, ignored by police in 1991.

The "Norco Corner evidence", as it became known, was the sighting of man of similar description to the suspect "standing over the unconscious body of an Aboriginal teenager laying on the road way around the time of Clinton's disappearance".

Denise Jarrett's evidence that in the weeks between Colleen and Evelyn's disappearance the suspect had stood at the foot of her bed while she slept, is also provided to police in 1997.

Asked why she didn't come forward years before, Ms Jarrett says "I didn't trust police and I didn't have any faith in the police in Bowraville at the time…I didn't think they would believe an Aboriginal woman saying a white man had come into her home".

Detective Inspector Garry Jubelin gives his statements and answers questions during the hearing into the Bowraville serial murders at the Nambucca Shire Council Chambers at Macksville.
Detective Inspector Garry Jubelin gives his statements and answers questions during the hearing into the Bowraville serial murders at the Nambucca Shire Council Chambers at Macksville. Frank Redward

A coronial inquest in 2004 leads to the suspect being tried for Evelyn's murder but once again, conflicting statements and confusion over where the four-year-old was last seen, ends in an acquittal.

The fight to have the person of interest retried over all three murders hits a stale mate in early 2013, when NSW Attorney General Smith declares he does not believe the Criminal Court of Appeal will be satisfied "fresh and compelling evidence" needed to overturn double jeopardy legislation, exists.

Two massive protests outside parliament ensue and the parliamentary inquiry is announced in late November.

Had Colleen, Clinton and Evelyn been "three white children from a wealthy suburb in Sydney", their murders would likely have been solved

While the inquiry looks at the impact the murders had on the community and not the crimes themselves, the committee finds itself in the unique position of having a senior police officer step away from protocol, reject outright the government's stance on the case and say with confidence, that if all the evidence is presented to a jury, he believes the accused culprit will be convicted.

He speaks an "uncomfortable truth" - that had Colleen, Clinton and Evelyn been "three white children from a wealthy suburb in Sydney", their murders would likely have been solved. The committee is also assured, by both Det Insp Jubelin and the community, that the families will not rest until they have their day in court.

Evelyn's aunt, Michelle Stadhams, writes "the actual murders were not a black and white issue…(they were) just an evil person with a cold heart and no morals but the way we were treated and the way it was investigated was a black and white issue".

She also highlights the final issue the committee is faced with - that 20 years on there is no drug and support service in Bowraville, no stranger danger program, no parenting support for the vast number of young pregnant women, no men's group and a lack of cultural awareness in the local police force.

Her submission is one of many which urges the State Government to finally turn its attention to a town which remains so entrenched in the past, an environment so similar to the one that allowed a serial killer to get away with murder.

The inquiry resumes in Sydney today.

Topics:  bowraville editors picks



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