Police racism and legal flaws stymied the investigation into the murders of three Indigenous children in Bowraville. Finally, 25 years later, a conviction is possible. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Seeking justice in the Bowraville slain children case

Moree elder Lionel Munro addresses protesters after the Walk for Justice for Colleen, Evelyn and Clinton to NSW’s Parliament House.
Moree elder Lionel Munro addresses protesters after the Walk for Justice for Colleen, Evelyn and Clinton to NSW’s Parliament House.

In 1965, inspired by the American civil rights movement, a group of students from the University of Sydney decided to enact their own “freedom ride” – a bus tour of regional NSW that was part fact-finding, part protest against the dire living conditions of Aboriginal Australians. The group, the Student Action for Aborigines, was led by Charles Perkins, at the time one of only two Indigenous students at the university. The rolling protest attracted media attention and one student – Ann Curthoys – kept a diary for the two-week tour, noting the conditions of each town they visited.

Of Bowraville, a small town halfway between Sydney and Brisbane, Curthoys recorded the following: “We learnt of a number of segregated pubs and cafes, and of instances of segregation in the school about six years earlier. The two populations were almost completely separate. At first we weren’t sure where to start – the town was just so bad. We thought the press could blow up a big story about it, but they refused.”

The segregation went further than that – Indigenous women were not permitted to give birth in the hospital, which obscenely increased the infant mortality rate for Aboriginal children. “The general picture we got from talking to the people on the reserve was one of extreme lack of job opportunity,” Curthoys wrote. “The discrimination in the town was absolutely shocking – by far the worst we’d encountered.”

Bowraville is within the Gumbaynggirr Nation, which spreads from the Clarence River south to the Nambucca River on NSW’s mid-north coast. It is in Gumbaynggirr that the Blood Rock massacre occurred in the 1880s, when police corralled local Aborigines and shot them in the waters around Red Rock. At the base of one of the great, oxidised rocks that comprise the headland is a small plaque. It reads in part: “Gumbaynggirr descendants, especially women, still avoid this headland. The significance of this place, and the rebirthing of our culture, will never be forgotten.”

1 . Initial police inaction

When the murders began in 1990, there had been only modest progress in Bowraville since Curthoys’ observations a quarter-century before. There was a “white pub” and a “black pub”. Racism permeated everything. It was the central fact of the town’s existence. “The racism in the community was palpable in those days,” one resident told a parliamentary inquiry in 2014. “It is still there today but a lot of people do not see it still. But then you could not miss it, it was that strong.”

Colleen Walker-Craig was a 16-year-old girl who had travelled to Bowraville from coastal Sawtell to visit family. On September 13, 1990, she vanished. Nearly three weeks later, Evelyn Greenup, a four-year-old with a shock of dense curls, also disappeared. The serial killer struck again at the end of January 1991 when another 16-year-old – Clinton “Bubby” Speedy-Duroux – went missing in the same area. Three children gone in the space of five months – yet all three families of the missing said they were greeted by indifference by local police.

When Walker-Craig’s mother, Muriel, went to Bowraville to report her daughter missing she was met with scepticism. Police suggested the girl had just gone “walkabout”. Speaking to a parliamentary inquiry years later, Muriel said: “When I went to the police station on the Monday I had a photo, and because Colleen was fairer than me the police was questioning me. They asked me was she my daughter. They said, ‘She don’t look Aboriginal to us.’ There were two policemen in the station at that time and that is what they said to me. I said, ‘I wouldn’t be silly enough to come in here and report her missing, I am not that stupid.’ But this is how I was treated by the police at that time.”

Muriel’s children gave evidence that it took months for police to even take a statement from their mother. The other families met similar scepticism and prejudice. Evelyn Greenup’s mother testified that she “felt really angry with the officer as he told my sister that he could not do anything about my daughter as he was the only one at the station and he was at the end of his shift and on his way home. He did not even take our statement. So we started looking ourselves for her. That police officer wouldn’t believe us that she was missing.” Speedy-Duroux’s father was told by police that they couldn’t search for at least 24 hours and so, without a car, he searched for his son on foot.

The original investigation was weakened by apathy and bigotry, which not only delayed an arrest but also weakened the evidence. Privately, police believed the Aboriginal community to have been complicit in the disappearances – some believing that the children could have been sold by their parents. Subsequent investigations would be haunted by the gross inadequacy of the original.

In 1996, NSW police established a second investigation under the auspice of Strike Force ANCUD. It was, in part, an acknowledgement of the egregious failures of the previous one. Detective Inspector Gary Jubelin was the lead investigator of ANCUD. Initially, he believed accusations of racism to be overstated; but later, deep into the reinvestigation, he realised the claims were entirely true. Jubelin told the inquiry: “Having worked on this matter since 1996 I feel that I am well placed to say that the families have been let down by the justice system. Given the situation that the families found themselves in, it would be reasonable for them to assume that the authorities would provide a suitable response to a serial killer preying on the community – as any community would. Unfortunately that was not provided. Issues have impacted on this investigation. It is very nice for society to say that all victims are treated equally. Unfortunately in this situation, I do not think that is entirely correct.”

Crippled by false assumptions and incompetence, the local police were out of their depth. A serial killer was preying upon local children, and for some time they didn’t even realise it.

2 . Hart arrested

Days after Speedy-Duroux’s disappearance, Jay Hart, a local white man, was interviewed by police. He was the “primary person of interest” but no charges were laid at the time. Within days of the interview, the body of Speedy-Duroux was found by bushwalkers. Within the next two months, the body of Greenup was found, and the clothes of Walker-Craig, though to this day her remains have never been discovered.

By October, Hart would be charged with two of the three murders, but not before a bumbling investigation. Forensic officers, for instance, had taken 10 days to examine Hart’s caravan, and permitted him to remove some dumbbells before they did. Speedy-Duroux’s cause of death was blunt trauma to the head.

From the time of Hart’s arrest began an agonisingly protracted quest for justice. It continues today. In 2014, the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning described the case as “exceptional in that, at all turns, a series of decisions, intentional and unintentional, well-meaning and considered in some cases, ill-considered and indifferent in others, have had negative consequences for the prospects of [a successful prosecution]. Indeed, if one had intentionally set out (we do not for a moment suggest this was the case) to deny effective justice as contemplated by our political and legal system to a discrete community, they could not have done a better job.”

While the dedication of the reinvestigation couldn’t entirely make up for the sins of the first, there were other more prosaic elements that conspired against justice. In 1993, the NSW Director of Public Prosecutions wanted a single trial that contained two indictments – the murders of Greenup and Speedy-Duroux. But in pre-trial hearings Justice Jeremy Badgery-Parker separated the indictments, meaning there would have to be two trials. It also meant that “similar fact” evidence – evidence suggesting similarities between the disappearances – would not be admissible in court. It was a blow to the prosecution, who realised the sum of the evidence was greater than its parts. As it was, the trial for Speedy-Duroux’s death continued with no mention of Greenup or Walker-Craig. In early 1994, Hart was acquitted. The victim’s grandmother fainted upon hearing the verdict. Then the media converged.

“During [the] trial, there was no media liaison,” Speedy-Duroux’s sister-in-law remembers. “We went down for the verdict and it is something that will stay with me for the rest of my life. The media was everywhere. June Speedy, Clinton’s mother, came out of that trial in shock to have a TV camera shoved in her face and being asked the question, ‘Do you think you will ever get over it?’ June is a very quiet, shy woman and was already in shock and found it very hard to answer. They then turned to Troy, his youngest brother, who was 16 at the time, and he was left to give a statement to the media. He was so traumatised that he does not remember giving this interview. We were ushered into a room with high windows and looked up to see the journalists had climbed up to get to the windows with their cameras and get footage of the grieving family. There was no sensitivity or respect shown to the family.”

Not long after this, the DPP dropped their Greenup case.

3 . Double jeopardy laws

In 2006, 12 years after the acquittal, Hart was again charged with the murder of Evelyn Greenup. ANCUD had not stopped work on the case, and it would go to trial, but the prosecution was still hamstrung by the exclusion of “similar fact” evidence. The parliamentary inquiry found that: “As in Clinton’s trial, Evelyn’s trial was limited to the single charge for her death – that is, evidence relating to Clinton and Colleen’s death was not tendered before the court. There were therefore limited opportunities to lead any tendency and coincidence evidence, which included substantial amounts of evidence gathered by police during Strike Force ANCUD’s reinvestigation into the three deaths.”

In 1995, just one year after Hart’s acquittal, amendments were suggested to the Crimes Act that would loosen the restrictions on admitting such evidence. But it was not until 2007 that the amendments passed – too late for the 2006 trial of Hart, which once again ended in acquittal. Riot police filled the courtroom and were deployed to Bowraville as the verdict was read. When the children started vanishing, the police were nowhere to be seen – now, in 2006, they were everywhere. “We do not riot and carry on,” a victim’s family member said. “They stereotyped us. Just because they might do it in Redfern don’t mean we do it. That was highly disrespectful.”

Worsening the situation was the fact that, under NSW’s double jeopardy laws, Hart could not be re-prosecuted for those two murders. This was intolerable to the victims’ families, who began petitioning the NSW government to amend the law. Their success was swift. In late 2006, the NSW parliament passed amendments to double jeopardy laws, allowing for the retrial of serious charges where “fresh and compelling” evidence had been discovered. Prosecutors were now emboldened by changes to associated evidence, and double jeopardy.

So equipped, four applications for a retrial have been submitted in the past decade. Three have been rejected. A lawyer representing one of the families appreciated that the DPP would have struggled with the amendments to double jeopardy laws. “I think this is one of the key things that the Director of Public Prosecutions, to be fair about it, is struggling with,” he told the parliamentary inquiry. “It is balancing between the interests of ensuring that an accused is not unfairly put through the wringer on multiple occasions against the interests of the families and victims of crime to ensure that justice is done. The Director of Public Prosecutions is struggling particularly with that. This notion of double jeopardy, for your benefit, is pointed directly at ensuring that an accused is not unfairly exposed to the criminal justice processes once they have been acquitted. That is a core tenet that is of value to lawyers and I think the community.”

4 . Fourth retrial possible

Earlier this month, the families of the murdered led their own freedom ride, travelling by bus from Bowraville to Sydney. Hundreds joined them in a march on state parliament. “This could be our last chance, the last chance for justice,” Clinton’s father, Thomas Duroux, said. “We have hope. We hope the courts will look at this again, that’s all.” Clinton’s aunt, Dolly Jerome, said: “If they knew what paths we had to walk to get justice. We’ve done everything, we’ve jumped the ropes, we’ve crawled, we’ve done everything within our power.”

This week, the NSW premier, Mike Baird, gave the families hope that the fourth application for retrial might go ahead. NSW police have submitted a fresh brief of evidence, and Baird said he would offer it to an independent assessor. “This is a good thing and we’re optimistic,” Jasmine Speedy, Clinton’s cousin, said this week. “But we’re at the same time keeping our guard up in case we’re let down once again. It’s been 26 years. My family – with the other families – have been fighting that long. The latest protests felt like deja vu. But today is positive news and we’re holding on to that.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 14, 2016 as "Seeking justice for slain children".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s associate editor.

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