Turning up the heat on cold cases
We’re addicted to true crime stories, but are we prepared to demand justice when it comes to Aboriginal murder victims?
January 1999. A bushwalker is strolling along a fire trail deep inside the Whian Whian State Forest, 20 minutes outside of the regional city of Lismore in northern New South Wales.
It’s traditional country of the Widjabal, a clan of the Bundjalung nation, known for its lush and dense rainforest, electric with life.
The humidity trapped below the canopy fills up the empty spaces between the trees like wet cement poured into an ants’ nest.
The bushwalker wanders off the fire trail, pushes through a curtain of thin vines and looks down. His blood turns ice cold. Below him, through a shallow mound of leaf litter, there are human bones.
It is the heavily decomposed body of Lois Roberts, 38. She is missing her head, and her hands are bound together with grey electrical cord.
Statistics on the number of unsolved Aboriginal homicides are notoriously hard to obtain, but what we do know is that according to Australian Bureau of Statistics figures, while Indigenous people people make up just three percent of the population, they constitute 13 percent of homicide victims.
Lois, a beautiful and vivacious Widjabal mother of two, had been missing for six months.
At 21, Lois was involved in a serious car crash. While on life support doctors told her family that she would never survive, but true to Lois’ fighting spirit she pulled through. The accident left her with permanent brain damage and her friends say she developed a naivety, an inability to see danger.
Lois found refuge amongst the tight-knit, free-thinking community of Nimbin, Australia’s “hippy capital”, and she would hitchhike between her home in Lismore and Nimbin several times a week. It was a 20-minute ride she had done countless times without incident.
In July 1998, Lois was standing on the side of the road in Nimbin, a spot known as hitchhiker’s corner; a police officer stationed at the police station across the road remembers seeing her standing there that afternoon.
A witness saw Lois get into a white car, and after that she was never seen alive again. Police believe that she was held captive and kept alive for around 10 days, during which time she was tortured and sexually abused before being killed.
It was a horrific way to die, and a murder that you’d expect would send shockwaves through the community around Lismore, but according to Lois’ twin sister Rhoda Roberts, only “her friends and family came together to honour her memory and demand justice.”
Within two days of Lois going missing her family tried to file a missing persons report, but they claim that the police dismissed their concerns because Lois was an Aboriginal woman.
At the time, Rhoda was organising the Indigenous segment for the opening ceremony at the Sydney Olympic Games and she had to use her public profile to force the police into appealing to the public for information.
“I told [the police] I was going to do my own media about Lois’ disappearance because they had done nothing. That freaked them out and they finally did something, did an appeal,” Rhoda says. “They really didn’t care about a missing Aboriginal woman. They thought she had gone off with a man or gone walkabout”.
Seven years after Lois was found in Whian Whian, German backpacker Simone Strobel, 25, went missing in Lismore.
Over 200 people turned out for a candlelight vigil to honour Strobel and the wider Lismore community organised search parties to try to find her body.
After Strobel’s body was found, the community raised money to fly her body and her boyfriend, Tobias Suckfuell, back to Germany. The police would later name Suckfuell as the prime suspect in her murder.
All of this took place as the Roberts family watched on. They were heartbroken for the young backpacker, but also deeply distressed that Lois — a traditional owner whose indomitable father, Pastor Jack Roberts, was instrumental in having Bundjalung sacred sites handed back to traditional custodians — was, in Rhoda’s words, “not worthy of the public’s grief”.
Despite several solid leads in the initial investigation, Lois’ murder is now a cold case — relegated to a box in Sydney’s Unsolved Homicide Team archive.
It’s deeply difficult and confronting to compare murder victims. They are all tragedies. But as an Aboriginal man and journalist I cannot turn a blind eye to the inequity I see when it comes to public empathy and police resources for Indigenous and non-Indigenous victims of crime.
We have constructed a narrative in Australia, one that is rooted in old stereotypes, that Aboriginal people are perpetrators of violence not victims of it.
Part of the problem is our failure as a nation to acknowledge the atrocities of the past committed towards Aboriginal people — beginning with the Frontier Wars between the first settlers and Indigenous tribes trying to defend their land, their families, their culture.
We don’t regale each other with stories about the bravery of Aboriginal warriors like Pemulwuy; instead, we read history books that call them savages who ruthlessly killed settlers.
Never mind that Aboriginal men, women and children were slaughtered in what amounted to an attempt at genocide.
That historical context is key to understanding why today, in 2017, we don’t have the same level of empathy for a murdered black child as we do for a white one.
There is now an opportunity to educate and help bring justice to Aboriginal murder victims and their families by capitalising on the surging popularity of the true crime genre.
The phenomenon that was the 2014 Serial podcast by Sarah Koenig flipped the crime genre on its head and gave listeners an appetite for something more sophisticated and more human.
Long gone were the dramatic music, deep throated narration and questionable re-enactments that were popular in the 1980s and ‘90s.
Instead, Koenig successfully positioned herself as a conduit for listeners. People went on the same journey as Koenig, who showed her working process throughout the story’s development. She revealed her triumphs and failures as a journalist on the story, something rarely seen in crime reporting.
This appetite for new and innovative crime stories has allowed me to explore issues of racial inequality in a way that is much more palatable for mainstream audiences.
I’ve spent the past four years investigating the 1988 unsolved murder of Aboriginal teenager Mark Haines, and my investigation culminated in a co-production between BuzzFeed and NITV earlier this year.
My reporting got the case reopened after 28 years and saw the initial police investigation into the death reviewed by the NSW State Crime Command after raising a number of issues over the handling of the case.
The audience really engaged with the reporting as a true crime story and that popularity helped keep authorities accountable. If I had presented it as an Indigenous affairs article, I very much doubt we would have had the same level of impact and success.
In 1995, Koori teenager Stephen Smith from the small community of Werris Creek, south of Tamworth, was struck and killed on the same train line where Mark Haines died years earlier. He was the most popular boy at school and loved by the entire community, but he was only afforded the most basic of investigations. The local police even burnt his clothes without his family’s permission. When the family questioned this, they were told, “next time something like this happens we’ll just throw them on your verandah”. At the inquest, which returned open findings, the family claims they were told by a police officer that “they should just move on with their lives”.
In 2003, 43-year-old Theresa Binge, a beloved grandmother, went missing from the town of Goondiwindi on the NSW-Queensland border. Almost two weeks later, she was found dumped in a concrete convert underneath a lonely stretch of road outside Boggabilla. Despite strong leads and witnesses in the beginning of the investigation, the case turned cold. Theresa’s family have continually called on the public to come forward with information, even marching in protest at the lack of support they say they were getting from authorities. They’re terrified that they’ll never get closure.
Mark, Theresa, Lois and Stephen. Names that are slowly being forgotten outside of their families.
They all died in different ways, came from different tribes and were different ages — but all of their families have the same story — heartbreak and frustration with the justice system.
I never knew these people but I feel like I know them.
I’ve sat with their families and friends and I’ve visited their schools, their workplaces, their favourite cafes. I’ve been to the places where their bodies were found: a desolate stretch of train tracks, a rainforest fire trail and a concrete culvert underneath a country road.
They are murdered Aboriginal men and women who have been let down by our criminal justice system.
Their families deserve justice.
The question is: does Australia have the willpower to rewrite historical wrongs? And will they watch, listen and read these stories and demand justice or will they turn a blind eye?
Allan Clarke is a Walkley-nominated investigative journalist, producer and presenter of Cold Justice and also presents The Point on NITV.
Simon Letch is an illustrator for Fairfax Media and has drawn for many publications over the past 30 years. Follow him on Instagram @simon_letch.
The second season of Cold Justice will air in February 2018 on NITV. This story appeared in Issue 90 of The Walkley Magazine. Subscribe to the Walkley newsletter to receive digital Walkley Mag stories first.