By Judy Adair
“I knew this guy was the devil.”
Colleen Gwynne, the current Northern Territory Children’s Commissioner, will never forget coming face to face with Bradley John Murdoch for the first time, while investigating the murder of Peter Falconio.
“I wanted to cry but I wasn’t going to let him beat me.”
Fifteen years ago during the initial stages of the Falconio case, Ms Gwynne first instinct was to distance herself.
“There was nothing about what the NT police were doing at the time that was actually very flattering or made us look like a group of people who knew what we were doing,” she says.
“So what I did was try to distance myself in a very small town as much as I could from anything to do with what is now known as the Falconio case.”
This all changed when she got a call one night from the police commissioner, who said, “the case is yours”.
From Ms Gwynne’s perspective that marked the beginning of the end of her police career.
She explains that while she realised what an opportunity the investigation presented, she was patently clear about the magnitude and complexity of the case and admits she was not feeling very confident.
To deal with those anxieties, Ms Gwynne worked day and night and read everything about the case she possibly could. Then she started her planning.
Initially, she observed the team she was working with and identified three individuals who would be the key players in solving the crime.
“There was the old-style cop who’d probably lived in Alice Springs his whole life. He was smart he was methodical but he believed something bad had occurred,” she said.
“The second person was a young detective who worked in Alice Springs and she wanted a challenge.
“The third person, who ended up being best on ground, was an intel officer who was OCD like you wouldn’t believe.”
To begin the investigation, Ms Gwynne and her team returned to the scene.
She got her team to drop her off at the site where Joanne Lees hid — a salt bush in the middle of nowhere outside Alice Springs.
She sat there behind that salt bush as her team drove away and left her alone. She says she has never been more terrified or vulnerable in her life.
“I wanted to cry.”
“It was the most scary feeling. I could hear my own heartbeat — and I can actually ring someone to pick me up, she couldn’t do that.
“That’s when it felt really real for me. I understood what this woman had been through and it was scary.”
‘We’ll find who did this.’
The next step of the investigation was to meet the surviving victim so Colleen travelled to the UK to meet Ms Lees.
At this stage, Ms Lees had no trust in the NT Police who she thought had no clue how to solve this crime.
After an intense, 12-hour interview with Ms Lees — who Ms Gwynne describes as an amazing witness with an unbelievable recollection of events that she told with tears, laughter and fear — Ms Lees took the first steps to restoring some faith in the investigating team.
The next trip for Ms Gwynne was to the north of England to meet the Falconio family.