true crime

'Those murders can still be solved.' Gary Jubelin on the case that still haunts him.

Justice Comes in Different Ways

1 May 2014: 29 years in

Another motel room. Another comfortless bed, wardrobe, table and single chair, a bar fridge and a big television. 

In the bathroom, I’m lying in the motel bath, staring up at another motel ceiling. I’ve spent all night getting in and out of this bath, or pacing up and down between the wardrobe and the bathroom door, trying to stay awake so I can memorise what I need to say later today, after the dawn, when I’ll be the first witness called to give evidence at a new State parliamentary inquiry into the three Bowraville murders. 

The public hearing will be at the council chambers in Macksville, near where my motel is and just down the river from Bowraville itself. 

This is my chance to make people listen. In my head, I run through the things I must remember to say when I give my opening statement: mistakes were made in this investigation; not all victims are treated as equals; I believe we already have the evidence to convict the serial killer responsible. I can’t stand up in front of the inquiry and read this out with my head bowed, looking down at a piece of paper. I want the Members of Parliament to look at me directly, which means speaking without notes. 

I need to hit this point, then that point: could these murders have been solved? Yes. Should they have been solved? Yes. I still think they can be.

I listen to the night-time silence, broken only by the electric hum of the bar fridge. For years now, it feels like the murdered children’s families have been ignored, not just by the police force, who are content to let this triple murder case be run by myself, Jerry Bowden and Bianca Comina in what little time we can steal from other investigations, but also by the State Government, who have now turned down three requests to have the case sent to the appeal court, and by the media, who print articles listing notorious unsolved murders across New South Wales, with no mention of the Bowraville children. Sinking back I let the bath water close over my face. 

Another eight years have passed now since 2006, when I rediscovered the Norco Corner evidence about an unconscious teenager lying on the road outside Bowraville and the white man standing over him. 

I think back to how, on the strength of that evidence, in 2007, we applied to the State Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to send the case to the appeal court. 

It was refused four months later. In February 2010, using the lawyers who agreed to work for the Bowraville families without payment, we sent an application to the State’s 237 Attorney General, asking for the same thing. 

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Eight months later, in the October, he refused to. Remembering how I felt back then, tension runs down my neck and into my shoulder muscles, unhelped by the hot water. Eight months later, in June 2011, we tried again, after a different Attorney General was appointed. 

This time, it took him more than a year and a half to respond, during which time, the children’s families had marched in protest outside the State Parliament, but no one seemed to notice. In February 2013, that Attorney General refused to send the case to the appeal court. 

I hold my breath underwater, ignoring the discomfort. In a letter to the families explaining his decision, the Attorney General said that ‘although there is a reasonable argument that the “Norco Corner” evidence is compelling, it is not “fresh”’. I didn’t understand it. 

In 2007, the DPP said the evidence was ‘fresh’ but not ‘compelling’, and, in 2013, the Attorney General said the evidence was ‘compelling’ but not ‘fresh’. 

In March 2013, the families marched outside State Parliament again, and then a third time, in November that year. 

I stood with them, mindful, as a cop, not to be seen in the front ranks of the protest, but making my presence felt. 

This time, the politicians noticed. A Greens MP, David Shoebridge, invited the children’s families into the State Parliament and they sat in the Legislative Council Chamber as David spoke about the murders. 

He also worked hard to get the parliamentary Standing Committee on Law and Justice to hold an inquiry into what happened, which was established on 26 November 2013, a week after the families’ third protest. 

As I saw it, anything that helped get them some attention could be useful and I drafted a submission for the inquiry while in the last few weeks of my time with Tracy in Perth, working through the night to get it finished. 

On the last page, I wrote, ‘I have been asked so often by the families whether this matter would be handled the same way if it was three white children from a wealthy suburb in Sydney who were murdered. I cannot with a clear conscience say it would be.’

The police commissioner, Andrew Scipione, also wrote a letter of support, expressing his sympathies for the families. 

Having his endorsement of what we were saying was a victory, but I still doubted my bosses’ commitment. 

A colleague showed me an old report of mine about the murders on which a senior officer had written: ‘The views of Detective Inspector Jubelin are not necessarily the views of the New South Wales Police.’ 

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Releasing my breath and rising back out of the water, I open my eyes and run a hand back from my temple over my close-cropped scalp. I don’t have the same thick hair I used to when I joined the cops; I’m balding now, and shave my scalp down to the skin. Staring up at the ceiling, I go through my lines again ahead of the inquiry hearing.  

Am I the only cop who’s losing sleep over these murders? I’ve started saying to the Bowraville families, ‘I work for you guys, not the police.’ 

Years ago, before the 2004 inquest into Colleen’s and Evelyn’s deaths, I sat down with Aunty Elaine, the woman who, when I first came to Bowraville, had asked me, ‘Why should I trust you? You’re a cop.’ 

Sitting side by side at Nambucca, on the coast near Bowraville itself, she looked out at the horizon and told me I was here for a reason.

‘What do you mean by that?’ I asked her, but Aunty Elaine always seemed to speak in riddles. ‘Justice comes in different ways,’ she told me. ‘It might surprise you. It might not come the way you think it’s going to.’ 

It would be a long journey but I had to travel it with them, Aunty Elaine said, looking serious. ‘I can’t leave,’ I joked, trying to lighten the mood. ‘I’d be too afraid of getting in trouble with you, Aunty.’ 

She smiled. Over the years she’d guided me and the rest of the strike force, putting us in touch with different witnesses and convincing them to trust us. ‘Don’t you ever give up on us, whitefella,’ she told me, looking back at the ocean. 

Car headlights slash across the darkness outside my motel window, bringing me back into the present. I was right not to leave the cops when Tracy suggested that I do so. That would have been betraying Aunty Elaine. 

Besides, everyone who leaves the cops regrets it. Jason Evers, who worked with me in Bowraville, has left. A couple of years after the disappointment of the not guilty verdict over Evelyn’s murder, during which we’d begun to fix up our relationship, I’d called up the Ballina Police Station to speak to him and had been told he was off sick. 

Something about the way the person on the end of the phone said it told me he wasn’t coming back. I’d called Jason at home and he sounded embarrassed. 

He said the thing that got him in the end was being called to the scene of a shark attack where a 16-year-old boy had bled out on the sand. Jason said it was the only kind of death he hadn’t already seen in the police and, all together, they’d taken too much from him. 

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I couldn’t help but think that the pressure and the emotion of Bowraville case had also contributed to his decision to leave the cops. Jason had lost his swagger. 

I told him it was the right call for him to leave when he did, and he had nothing to feel bad about. He should be proud of what he’d done in the police. He said he still regretted not being able to help solve the children’s murders. 

Without Jason, I have Jerry Bowden working with me now. He’s a smart, confident, no-nonsense Homicide detective with an easy smile, just like Jason’s. In the sleepless moments which the case has brought me, like tonight, it is good to have Jerry, because when you’re going up against everyone, it affects your confidence. 

We’re telling two attorneys general and the DPP they’ve got it wrong, and sometimes I wonder, What if they’re not wrong? 

Then I will ask Jerry, ‘Are we doing the right thing?’, and he’ll tell me, ‘It’s three children murdered. F*cking oath.’

I’m also lucky to have Bianca Comina, the analyst working with us on the strike force. Bianca’s so good she’s worth 10 people. 

She knows every line on every page in every folder full of evidence we’ve gathered, and she knows why this line or that line matters, because of what is said on that line in another document. 

Unlike other analysts I’ve worked with, who can see their job as an abstract thing, looking for patterns of calls among phone records or mapping out a suspect’s movements, Bianca cares. She’s met the Bowraville families. She sees them as people. 

I couldn’t do my work without her. The bathwater is getting cold. I haul myself out and dry off, then wrap the towel around me and go back to pacing the bedroom, brought up short by the walls and furniture. I find it difficult to concentrate on what I should be doing. 

Instead, my mind plays over what I hear other cops are saying about this investigation, which is now in its 24th year since the first of the children went missing, and 18th since I became involved. 

‘He should just give it up.’ ‘Too bad, too sad.’ ‘He’s only doing it because he loves the blackfellas. He wants to be their saviour.’ ‘You know he even married one?’ The Underbelly series has only amplified those whispers. 

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Even Axeman, our hardarse informer on the Bowraville investigation, got jealous of the TV show. After its broadcast in August 2012, he and I met up at a café and he said, ‘Mate, we did some jobs together, didn’t we? They could make a TV series about us, you reckon?’ 

There is still only darkness outside the motel window. I sit at the table and go back through the points I need to hit when speaking to the politicians: the lack of cooperation from prosecution lawyers; how the State Government’s own submission to the inquiry contains factual mistakes. 

I pad up and down the carpet, repeating to myself what I will say tomorrow. The hours pass. 

***

The sun rises, turning the sky grey outside the motel curtains and softening the shadows cast by the lamp at my table. I get up, shower and put on my white shirt and black jacket, then make my way to the sprawling, white council building for the inquiry hearing. Inside, Colleen’s, Evelyn’s and Clinton’s families are waiting, looking nervous. 

We talk almost in whispers, hushed by the still air of the council chambers. They tell me I am speaking for them today, that this is the first time anyone has spoken up on their behalf, and not to let them down. I don’t need the extra pressure. 

The committee chair welcomes the watching children’s families and acknowledges that this hearing is taking place on the country of the Gumbaynggirr people. He calls me to the stand and asks whether I want to make an opening statement, before they ask me questions. 

I hit every point I stayed awake last night trying to remember. 

The Homicide Squad commander, Mick Willing, listens from the front row of the public gallery. He has made the journey up from Sydney to support me, his presence reassuring the politicians that I am not just a rogue cop; that today I represent the views of the entire New South Wales Police Force. 

I am grateful for that, it carries weight. It has taken a lot of arguments to get here but, slowly, it seems like the police hierarchy are more prepared to stand up and say that what’s happened in this case is wrong. 

The inquiry chair, David Clarke asks if the police are going to keep pursuing the children’s killer. 

‘I can assure the families we will not forget about these crimes,’ I say, turning to where the families are sitting. ‘We will continue to do everything humanly possible to bring justice to the families. I am saying to the families: we have got the evidence, we just need to fight for it.’ 

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After I’ve finished speaking, the families listening in the council chamber stand up and clap. My father is on his feet too; he has also driven up from Sydney to be here at the hearing. 

I don’t want to look at him in case I start to well up. When the hearing is over, Dad tells me he is proud of me. 

Him saying that, feels like he is passing the baton over, from father to son. It is as if, for the first time, he understands what I do at work and why I think it matters. 

*** 

Four months later, in early September, we bury Aunty Elaine in the Bowraville cemetery. 

I am devastated at the loss. We used to talk every fortnight, when either I would call to ask for her help or give her an update on the case, or she would call to check how I was going. 

We got so close that she’d say something and I’d laugh and she would say, ‘I just wanted to hear your laughter.’

The funeral service is held in the Catholic school just outside the Mission, where her family are all wearing red bandannas. When I arrive, they give me one to wear, which leaves me humbled. 

The funeral procession carries her coffin through the Mission to the graveyard, where the stone monuments to Bowraville’s white population stand in neat rows on top of the hillside, and the graves of its black inhabitants are kept separate and beneath them, marked with wooden crosses or, sometimes, only piles of stones. 

I’m standing back, trying to keep a respectful distance while Aunty Elaine’s family lower her coffin into the ground when one of her sons walks up to me. He asks if I can help bury the coffin, saying that his mum would like that. I nod and take a shovel, helping to throw the soil down into the grave and knowing I could not have been given a higher honour. 

Back in Sydney, I put the funeral notice with Aunty Elaine’s photo on my fridge. It will remain one of the few photographs inside my apartment, and whenever I look at it, I’ll remember her telling me that justice comes in different ways, and that it might surprise me. 

They are words I’ll cling to in the years that follow.

This is an extract from I Catch Killers, by Gary Jubelin. You can purchase his book, I Catch Killers, here.

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