explainer

You know the name Cleo Smith. Why haven't you heard of Charlie Mullaley?

Warning: This story contains images and names of Indigenous people who have died, details of child abuse and murder, and mentions of suicide.

Charlie was subjected to a horror 15 hours. 

There were injuries from his head to his feet, and he died from his ordeal at the hands of his step-dad. A man who was supposed to protect him.

He was 10-months-old. 

Hours earlier his mother, Tamica Mullaley, had been bashed on a street in Broome, WA by Mervyn Bell, after she confronted him over a cheating allegation.

Despite being bloodied, distressed, injured and stripped naked during the attack, she was arrested for assault as police arrived.

WATCH: Tamica Mullaley's parents spoke to SBS last year about that night. Post continues.


Video via SBS.

Like many Indigenous Australians, Tamica didn't trust the police. When officers arrived she was sheltering in a neighbour's carport holding a borrowed bedsheet to her bleeding, bare body as she called out for her dad.

Instead of being treated as a victim in that moment, she was pressed as a witness for her account of the events of that night. Agitated she spat, swore and attempted to flee. As a result, she was loaded into the back of a paddy wagon. 

After much begging from her father, she was taken to hospital. And as Ted Mullaley told the SBS documentary See What You Made Me Do, doctors said she would've died from her injuries without that urgent medical intervention. 

While Tamica fought for her life, her son Charlie became Bell's next victim in a series of events so awful it's hard to comprehend the pure evilness of them. 

Baby Charlie had been left in the care of Bell's cousin as Tamica was taken away, despite pleas from the Mullaley family for him to remain with an officer. And when Ted returned from the hospital to pick Charlie up, he was gone. Bell had taken him. 

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But do you know Tamica's name? How about her son, Charlie?

Unlike the names Hannah Clarke, Jill Meagher, Daniel Morcombe and most recently Cleo Smith - another WA child that went missing in the night - the story of what happened to the Mullaleys in 2013 hasn't been seared into the psyche of Australians in quite the same fashion. 

As told to Mamamia. 

Even though it's one of the worst crimes in recent history. 

Even though at the heart of this story is the sexual assault and murder of a little boy.

Even though it's not just a tale of child abuse and domestic violence, but one of alleged police discrimination.

Because unfortunately, this is often the reality when it comes to crimes against Indigenous Australians. 

The pain of watching the Cleo Smith case.

Watching the extensive police resources and publicity missing WA girl Cleo Smith garnered late last year was particularly painful for the Mullaley family to watch. 

Of course they don't deny the little girl the help and attention she received, they just wish they were offered it too. 

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"We're happy that we've got police to do that, but we're also unhappy that they don't seem to do it for every child that's missing and particularly Aboriginal children. That's the reason they didn't look for Charlie - we think it's because they straightaway profiled my brother and my niece," Tamica's auntie Kathleen Pinkerton told Mamamia.

"There should be consequences when the police don't fulfil their duties. Do they understand they made a huge mistake? My brother is terrified and worried it will happen to another family. We want them [the police] to change their practices."

Tamica Mullaley has never recovered from the murder of her son. Image: SBS See What You Made Me Do. 

As Kathleen shared, Tamica is still tortured by the murder of her son. So much so she, as Tamica's auntie, has taken on the responsibility of talking to most media in the years since Charlie's death. It's simply too much for Tamica and her dad Ted; they're too traumatised. 

"Every day she has to realise the baby's not here, and it's been really hard for her," said Kathleen.

The layers of discrimination only make that pain worse. 

"I know this case inside out. And I could not believe the hypocrisy in the difference between the way Cleo was treated in the first 24 hours and what happened with Charlie," Dr Melissa Razuki from the National Justice Project told Mamamia.

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"There were over 100 police looking for Cleo, there was a million dollar reward, and then within sort of another 12 hours Scott Morrison was saying that the AFP were going to use all sorts of secret satellites to find this child. When Charlie went missing, the police wouldn't even look...and even when Ted said 'you can track him, he's got a phone,' they said 'it's going to cost us $800 to do a track'."

Even when Ted insisted he'd pay the $800 fee himself, he was refused. "If they had tracked the phone and located the car, they would have found Charlie and his abductor, and he might be alive today," Dr Razuki stressed.

Time and time again the Mullaleys were faced with what they say was blatant discrimination at the hands of police. Like the police request that Tamica go home and produce a birth certificate to prove that the man who took Charlie wasn't his birth dad - as if who took him mattered. Like the six thousand Google hits Charlie had in media mentions compared to the 70 million for Cleo. 

Because this isn't just about police discrimination - it was media discrimination, too. 

Image source: Our Watch 

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"If you're a white baby and you're abducted, everyone knows your name. People know Cleo's name, they know the Beaumont children. But I challenge people to name the Bowraville children who were murdered, and no one outside of the Indigenous community in WA have even generally heard of baby Charlie, " Mr Newhouse told Mamamia.

"I think we have to acknowledge that we live in a country that has a colonial justice system, one that has been prejudiced against Indigenous peoples since 1788. And not much has changed. We still see a culture of systemic racism running throughout police forces around the country. But the West Australian police force is renowned for their harassment and over policing of Indigenous communities. What you're seeing is the system operating in a business as usual mode."

As Dr Hannah McGlade, a Nyungar woman, Associate Professor at the Curtin School of Law and expert member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, told Mamamia, the "wall of silence" the media and the justice system has built around Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander victims condones the violence inflicted against them.

A nine year fight for justice.

What Tamica, her son and her dad endured at the hands of police and Australia's justice system on March 20, 2013 and in the years that followed, is yet to be acknowledged, apologised for or remedied in any way in the eyes of the family. 

Nine years on, the National Justice Project and the Mullaleys aren't giving up that fight. 

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On the night in question, Charlie's grandfather spent hours trying to convince police - both local, and via triple-zero - to help him track down his grandson after realising Bell had taken him. He knew the little boy was in danger. He warned authorities. And yet they fobbed him off. 

"The words he [the police officer] said to me were, 'well how many cars do you think we've got?' We only have two...one is tied up here, guarding your daughter [in hospital]. The other one is back at the station doing paperwork," Ted Mullaley told SBS last year.

The case was later investigated by the Corruption and Crime Commission (CCC) after a complaint was made by the Mullaley family alleging that Charlie's death could have been avoided if police had acted in a "timely" and "professional manner".

In its report, the CCC said while there was "a delayed and ineffective response" by individual officers on the night of Charlie's disappearance, it was "impossible to know" whether a more rapid response could have saved the baby. It ultimately found that there was not sufficient evidence to establish serious misconduct on the part of officers involved.

Dr McGlade has been critical of the finding, co-authoring a chapter in Mapping Deathscapes that points out that while the CCC acknowledged there were police failures, they also described Tamica as "uncooperative and aggressive," and went so far as to say this contributed to said failures.  

"Effectively laying blame on Tamica, a mother so violently assaulted she could have died; a mother wrapped in nothing but a sheet and being approached by two non-Aboriginal police officers, one a male," she wrote.

"This finding [by the CCC] inherently contradicts the known facts which they acknowledged: That police were attempting to interview her although she presented in a condition that "suggested she was the victim of a serious assault." No consideration is given to the reasons as to why police departed from proper standards or the racism that was clearly shown by their conduct."

Dr McGlade notes that the CCC, since this report, have been criticised by a WA parliamentary committee who have told them to improve their relationship with Aboriginal people and The Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia (ALSWA).

Unhappy with the CCC findings themselves, the Mullaleys took their fight to the WA Supreme Court, arguing for an inquest to determine if the baby's death "was caused or contributed to by any action of a member of the police force". 

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But in mid-2020, a judge decided against that plea. He too wasn't convinced there was enough evidence that police had failed to protect the little boy, and was not "satisfied it is necessary or desirable in the interests of justice to order that [an] inquest be held."

As National Justice Project CEO George Newhouse told Mamamia, "the family have been destroyed and exhausted by this process. They've been let down by the West Australian government and their investigative bodies for the last nine years, and they still haven't received closure or justice. We are committed to working with the family, relentlessly, until they receive the closure they deserve."

The family's change.org petition asks for three things; a coronial or parliamentary inquiry into the way WA police failed Tamica, Ted and Charlie; an investigation into how the CCC failed to focus on why WA police did not take steps to ensure Charlie was left in a safe place; and a meeting with the WA Attorney General.

Image: Facebook. 

Their lawyer adds that they're trying to get convictions against Tamica and Ted from the night of Charlie's murder, expunged, describing the assault and obstruction charges as "adding insult to injury."

Finally, in 2022, they've got movement. 

"To this day the West Australian government have never met with the family to confront them over their concerns and complaints about the way they and baby Charlie were treated. However, recently there has been some progress. The Attorney General, the ministers for police and women, and the Children's Commissioner for Victims of Crime have agreed to meet with the family next month," said Mr Newhouse.

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As a WA government spokesperson told Mamamia ahead of the March 10 meeting, "What happened to baby Charlie was a terrible tragedy and our deepest condolences go to Ms Mullaley and her family."

Mr Newhouse adds: "In addition, we are still in court - the family have ongoing discrimination complaints. In January we made a complaint on behalf of the family to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women, who is coming to Australia in the near future."

Further, the family are feeling hopeful about an upcoming senate inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women and children due by mid-year.

It's progress - albeit slow. 

And as Dr McGlade told Mamamia, "We will never stop calling for justice. This case was and remains extremely shocking, unjust and abusive on so many levels."

Finally, after years of fighting the system, the Mullaleys have the glimmer of hope they've been holding out for.

If you'd like to support the Mullaley family, you can find their petition here.

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home. 

You can also call safe steps 24/7 Family Violence Response Line on 1800 015 188 or visit www.safesteps.org.au for further information.

Mamamia recognises that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are the unheard victims of domestic violence and wants to break the silence. In 2022, we’re making a commitment to tell more of their stories, amplify their voices, raise awareness of the issue, and be united in our conversations about how we end violence against women for good. 

You can keep up to date with Gemma Bath's articles here, or follow her on Instagram, @gembath.

Feature image: Facebook/Change.org/Mamamia.