March 2006


The tall man

By Chloe Hooper
The tall man

Palm Island. Wikimedia Commons

Inside Palm Island’s heart of darkness

All I really knew about Palm Island were the headlines I’d been reading: “Tropic of Despair”, “Island of Sorrow”. On 19 November 2004, a drunk Aboriginal man had been arrested for swearing at police. Less than an hour later he died with injuries like those of a road trauma victim. The Queensland State Coroner reported there was no sign of police brutality, backing up the police claim that the man had tripped on a step. The community did not agree, and a week later burnt down the police station. The state government immediately invoked emergency powers, flying in special police squads trained in counter-terrorist tactics who arrested countless locals, including teenagers and grandmothers. I went there two months later.

Travelling to Palm Island is like a sequence from a dream: the pale green sea seems so luminous and so fecund, and the plane flies so close to it, you see seals, and what might be dugongs and giant turtles. As the plane turns to land the island unfolds. The mountains meet the palm-lined shore, which meets the coral reef. But step from the plane into the hot, still day and you notice something is not right. The besser-block air shelter is decorated with a collection of fourth-graders’ projects on safe and unsafe behaviour: I feel safe when I’m not being hunted, one project reads.

According to the Guinness Book of Records, Palm Island, population three thousand, about sixty-five kilometres north-east of Townsville in Far North Queensland, is the most dangerous place on earth outside a combat zone. I try to appear nonchalant.

Two men in their early thirties are stumbling around, leaning on each other.

“They’re brothers,” a local tells me. “They’re blind.”

“Obviously.” I assume she means blind drunk. One of the brothers then shakes out a white cane and my heart nearly stops.

“How did they go blind?” I ask.

“Nobody knows.”

The men are connected with string: the man with the cane holds the string, leading his brother through their dark maze by the wrist.

I am travelling with two criminal lawyers who will represent Palm Island’s council in a coronial inquest into the November death. The island’s chairwoman, wearing a hat crocheted with the Aboriginal flag, collects us from the airstrip and drives us into town along an old road fringing the water. We pass a large boulder with TALL MAN spray-painted in purple across it.

In the township there is a jetty, a beer canteen, a hospital, a long-broken clock tower and one store. Outside the store a child sits in a rubbish bin while another child cools him with a fire hose.

Two white women – teachers, or nurses, or police – are walking briskly in shorts and T-shirts. They look as awkward and out of place as I feel.

“Who are they?” I ask the chairwoman.

“Strangers,” she says.

One of the women smiles at me, curious perhaps, and, briefly, I’m not sure whether to reciprocate. I feel luminously white.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” says a lawyer, trying to make conversation.

It is very beautiful. In 1916, the island was to the Chief Protector of Aborigines “the ideal place for a delightful holiday”. The surrounding shark-infested waters also made it “suitable for use as a penitentiary” to confine “the individuals we desire to punish”. From 1918, Aborigines were sent to the Palm Island Mission in leg irons and deemed variously: “a troublesome character”, “a larrikin”, “a wanderer”, “a communist”. Usually they had made the mistake of asking about their wages, or were caught speaking their languages or practising traditional ceremonies. In its isolation the mission became increasingly authoritarian – a kind of tropical gulag, with all the arbitrary abuse of power that term implies.

Blacks were not allowed on Mango Avenue, where whites lived. Blacks were required to salute any white person they passed. White staff got choice cuts of meat; blacks got bones. Blacks had their milk watered down. At the cinema whites sat on chairs carried by black servants; blacks sat on blankets. White day-trippers were carried to the shore on black backs. Whites paid blacks to perform corroborees or shimmy up trees for coconuts. Permits were needed to fish; permits were needed to swim. There were garden competitions and European dancing, and those who did not participate were questioned by police. A brass band learnt to play jazz and marching tunes, but failure to attend band practice could result in a jail sentence. Each superintendent “got the law in his own mouth”. Even in the 1960s a man could be arrested for waving to his wife, or for laughing. A teenager whose cricket ball broke off a short length of branch would spend the night locked up. If anyone complained, they were sent to nearby Eclipse Island with only bread and water. On Eclipse prisoners tried to catch fish with their bare hands.

From the jetty, you can see Eclipse and the other surrounding paradisiacal islands, formed, the traditional owners believe, when the Big Snake broke up and left behind fragments of its body. One of the fragments is the nearby Fantome Island. Until 1973 it operated as a leper colony, with a ‘lock hospital’ for those with VD. At the colony there was often no doctor, and patients took care of cooking, woodcutting, grounds-keeping and sanitary work, while Roman Catholic and Anglican missionaries fought over who would perform the funeral rites. Dying lepers were sometimes re-baptised several times as their overseers vied for souls.

In the 1970s, when it became legal for Aborigines to drink alcohol, a canteen selling beer opened on Palm Island. For people long used to intense subjugation, it was an opportunity to literally be ‘out of control’. It also unleashed a violence that had always been under the surface. In 1912, Queensland’s parliament was advised that “the grouping of many tribes in one area would mean continual warfare amongst themselves and practically survival of the fittest.” Nonetheless, over forty tribes were sent to Palm Island, often grouping together people with completely incompatible territorial, language and kinship ties. The island’s superintendent noted to a visitor in 1929 that “if there was to be any letting off of steam, they would go for each other.”

The chairwoman drops the lawyers and me at the community ‘motel’: a series of spotless rooms with no apparent supervisor. My room has barred windows, a steel framed bed, a ceiling fan, and a nail on the wall with a coat hanger.

Outside it is humid. Cicadas tune in and out of the heat. As it grows darker, I sit with the other ‘strangers’ on the veranda, drinking contraband red wine. Virgin forest surrounds us. Unknown creatures audibly begin their nocturnal rounds. We should, in theory, be safe: the motel is next to the locked police compound. Through the high wire fence, I can see a group of police in a mess room playing pool with some of the nurses. Two officers arrive and park their van, then heave an old mattress over the windscreen to protect it from stray rocks.

I’m still wondering what I’m doing here. My lawyer companions, however, are on a mission and have no such doubts: they drink a toast to the revolution.

Friday, 19 November 2004 must have looked like another grindingly banal day. Shortly after 10 am, Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, 33, the island’s officer in charge, and Lloyd Bengaroo, the Aboriginal Police Liaison Officer, were escorting Gladys Nugent, a big, gentle-looking woman, to collect insulin from her de facto’s fridge. She needed the escort because her de facto, Roy Bramwell, had just beaten her.

Hurley waited on Dee Street – where, among the frangipani trees, every second house has broken windows, graffiti, small children playing in the trash. This was Hurley’s natural environment. He had spent most of his career working in a succession of Far North Queensland’s Aboriginal communities: Thursday Island, Aurukun, Kowanyama, Bamaga, Cooktown, Laura, Pormpuraaw, Doomadgee and Burketown. All hot, despairing, impoverished places with chronic alcoholism and violence.

Lloyd Bengaroo, in his late fifties, was overweight and overburdened. A Police Liaison Officer is supposed to work with police, representing the interests of the community, but Bengaroo did not convince in the role. Instead he was seen as a police ‘watchdog’ or ‘errand boy’, and was not much liked or respected.

While the two men waited, Gladys’s nephew, Patrick – drunk and high from sniffing petrol – started calling them “fucking queenie cunts”. Hurley arrested him. Bengaroo held the doors to the police van open.

Cameron Doomadgee walked past. “Bengaroo,” he said to the police aide, “you black like me. Why can’t you help – help the blacks?” To which Bengaroo replied, “Keep walking or you be arrested too.” Doomadgee, 36, a happy-go-lucky character who loved to hunt and fish, had been drinking cask wine and ‘goom’ – methylated spirits mixed with water. For all he’d drunk he was “walking pretty good, staggering but not falling over.” He retreated, but when he was twenty metres away, turned and appeared to say something. Bengaroo didn’t hear anything. Others, closer than Bengaroo, reckoned he was singing. But Chris Hurley heard something disrespectful, and decided at 10.20 am to arrest him for creating a public nuisance.

At the police station, as Doomadgee was taken from the van, he was “going off, drunk, singing out and everything”. Struggling, he hit the Senior Sergeant on the jaw. Two witnesses say they then saw Hurley punch Doomadgee back. In the station’s doorway, the men tripped on a step and landed side by side. Hurley then stood and pulled his prisoner into the hallway. He didn’t, at the time, notice there was another Aboriginal man sitting, waiting to be questioned.

Roy Bramwell, 29, had been brought into the police station to answer questions relating to the earlier assault of his de facto, Gladys, and her two sisters. The day before he and the sisters had started drinking at 11.30 am, and Roy had drunk forty cans of beer before he went to bed around midnight. He got up early in the morning and had six more. Standing on the sisters’ veranda, Roy – “plenty drunk” – became angry because Gladys wouldn’t go home with him to take her medication. They started to fight:

During this argument I punched her sister, this is Anna Nugent, and hit her in the face. I punched her with one punch and this knocked her out. This was in the front yard. I punched Anna because she was being smart with her mouth.

I then punched the other sister, this is Andrea Nugent, and punched her once to the face and this knocked her out. I punched Andrea for the same reason. I dropped her on her knees and then the smart mouth did not get back up.

I then got into Gladys. I punched her once to the face and knocked her out. This was in the front yard as well. Gladys dropped to the ground and was on her knees. I started kicking into her and kicked her about three times. I kicked her in the face. I did this cause I was angry with her cause she didn’t want to come home with me.

After beating the three women, he returned home alone. He took a shower to cool off, then headed to the post office to pick up his social security cheque. While waiting, the sister’s uncle found him and another ‘tongue bang’, or argument, began. Another policeman came and brought Roy to the station.

Roy was sitting in the station’s yellow chair when Chris Hurley dragged Cameron Doomadgee into the hallway. Roy heard Doomadgee say, “I am innocent, don’t lock … Why should you lock me up?”

Chris dragged him in and he laid him down here and started kicking him. All I could see [was] the elbow gone down, up and down, like that … “Do you want more, Mister, Mr Doomadgee? Do you want more of these, eh, do you want more? You had enough?”

Roy’s view was partially obscured by a filing cabinet, but he could see Doomadgee’s legs sticking out. He could see the fist coming down, then up, then down: “I see knuckle closed.” Each time the fist descended he heard Doomadgee groan.

Cameron, he started kicking around and [called] “leave me go,” like that, “now”. “Leave me go – I’ll get up and walk.”

But Roy says Hurley did not stop:

Well, he tall, he tall, he tall, you know … just see the elbow going up and him down like that, you know, must have punched him pretty hard, didn’t he? Well, he was a sober man, and he was a drunken man.

Doomadgee was then dragged into the cells. Moments later, Chris Hurley came back and Roy saw him rubbing his chin. Hurley had a button undone. “Did he give you a good one?” Roy asked. “A helluva good one,” Hurley apparently replied. Then Hurley asked Roy if he had seen anything. Roy said no, and Hurley told him to leave. Roy went to get his social security cheque, along the way telling some friends, “Chris Hurley getting into Cameron.” They told him, “Go tell someone, tell the Justice Group.” But none of them did anything. They went on drinking.

The cell’s surveillance tape shows Doomadgee writhing on a concrete floor, trying to find a comfortable position in which to die. He can be heard calling, “Help Me!” Another man, paralytic with drink, feebly pats his head. Before he dies Doomadgee rolls closer to the man, perhaps for warmth or comfort. The camera is installed in a high corner, and, from this angle, when Hurley and another police officer walk in they look enormous. The officer kicks at Doomadgee a few times – later referred to as “an arousal technique” – then leans over him, realising he is dead. At 11.22 am Senior Sergeant Hurley called an ambulance. Three minutes later the ambulance arrived and paramedics determined that Cameron Doomadgee had been dead for at least twenty minutes. The tape records Hurley sliding down the cell wall with his head in his hands. Doomadgee, it would turn out, had a black eye, four broken ribs and a liver almost cleaved in two. His injuries were so severe that even with instant medical attention he was unlikely to have survived.

I visit Cameron’s sister, Elizabeth Doomadgee, a handsome woman in her early forties. After her brother’s death Elizabeth was given one of the island’s newer houses, and she has dragged a lot of large rocks onto her block in order to landscape the garden. Frangipani branches stick out of the sun-blasted earth, as do other off-cuts she has planted: lychee, pepper, guava.

Two naked toddlers are playing under a tap. Elizabeth stands at the door. She has an almost stately quality. But during this first meeting she seems fierce, as if controlling, just, a steady rage. Awkwardly, I tell her I am a writer hoping to follow the inquest into her brother’s death. She is circumspect, but later in court I hear her complain to the island’s chairwoman that people are taking notes. She asks for everyone other than me to be banned from writing: “We got our writer here.”

Elizabeth does not have a telephone and one evening before the inquest begins the two lawyers and I drop by unannounced. Elizabeth invites us for dinner. We sit down at a table on the veranda that she covers with a purple batik cloth, and upon it she lays the household’s best food: a large economy packet of biscuits and two bowls full of fruit. Small children use this opportunity to sidle up and eat freely. Ten-year-old Sylvia, Elizabeth’s youngest child, tells me a secret: there is a plug on Palm Island, and if there were ever a war the elders could remove it so that the island would disappear.

“What would happen to all the people?” I ask her.

“They’d swim,” she says, as if I must be crazy.

The Doomadgees were sent to Palm Island in the mid-1950s after their father, Arthur – a Gangalidda man – punched a missionary at Old Doomadgee, in the Gulf Country of north-western Queensland. Doris, his wife – of the Wanyi people – had ten children, of whom, Cameron’s sister Jane tells me, “only three are dead”. Five of the surviving sisters live on the island, and on the day Cameron was arrested, Carol, the eldest, went to the watch-house “to take feed for him”. Although her brother had been dead for two hours, Hurley turned her away, telling her to come back at 3 pm. Later in the afternoon, a policeman from Townsville visited the family. “The detective had a red book with him,” Carol recalled, “and he read it out to us, telling us we lost Cameron.” Two weeks later their mother died. Mothers, Elizabeth tells me, will always try to protect their sons: her mother was following Cameron to the afterlife to look after him.

Two large bowls of stir-fried wild goat and rice are brought to the table. The goat, I later realise, had been hunted by Cameron. Elizabeth thanks God for the food on the table and prays for those who do not have as much as her family does. Inside the house I can see a room with no furniture. People sit on the floor watching Shrek on television. Elizabeth prays for Silvia’s sore foot to heal, and for any children in hospital: “May God with his great hands heal them.” She thanks God for our being in her home: “Only you know what’s in their hearts.” She prays for the lawyers’ mouths, so that at the inquest they are bold; and for my ears, so I don’t miss any important details.

Three plates are laid on the table, and only the lawyers and I are served. It is humbling to enjoy a dead man’s bounty. Only after we refuse second helpings do the rest of the family also eat. Later I step into the kitchen and there are at least ten others enjoying small portions. Amongst them is Cameron’s 15-year-old son Eric, a quiet, polite boy wearing an American basketball shirt. He lives down the road with his Aunt Valmai at Elizabeth’s old house. Twenty-two other people also live here. Some of them have drinking problems, and if Valmai has trouble she calls in Jane and Elizabeth.

“We go and straighten them out properly,” Jane tells me.

“How?” I ask, laughing: they are both fairly slight women.

“Either with our fist or hit ’em with a stick.”

Elizabeth talks about her concerns regarding the inquest. She wants Cameron to be referred to as Moordinyi, a term used in Gulf languages instead of the deceased’s name to prevent the living calling back the dead. She is also worried that one of the sisters, Victoria, an epileptic, might throw a fit and frighten the Coroner away. Jane, meanwhile, is worried her brain tumour will stop her learning her police statement by heart. They also want the lawyers to get a hearing aid for Valmai, who is 36 and, for reasons they don’t understand, partly deaf. Elizabeth is diabetic but won’t take medication because she believes God is protecting her.

We ask Elizabeth how she will feel seeing the police give evidence.

“I’ll forgive them what they done, because Jesus said love thy enemy.”

“If you say that then it doesn’t matter what happens,” one of the lawyers suggests.

“It doesn’t matter,” Elizabeth answers, “because it’s in God’s hands.”

“I’m not that patient,” he replies.

Elizabeth tells us that Aboriginal people have no choice but to be patient. “If I didn’t have God in my life,” she says, then pauses. She has something else in her life: blackfella protocol. She could put a curse on Lloyd Bengaroo. She could take an item of clothing off his washing line and send it to her relatives in the Northern Territory. They would make sure he’d grow sick and die. But she tries to love him and to be patient. In prayer meetings, she has been praying for justice: “We want justice for Cameron, to make his spirit free. We want the truth. We want to hear the truth.”

When I was a child my worst dreams involved one of my younger brothers being in danger. The terror came from believing I’d fail him. The fear swirled with an immediate desire for revenge. I suppose no one knows their own capacity for vengeance until the worst takes place. Elizabeth is both Christian and ‘blackfella’; Old Testament and New. She can afford to love her enemy because she believes fiercely in divine retribution (“I work for God, so he gotta work for me”). Later, she tells me she has been doing a course in firefighting. One day, standing close to the fire, she thought, “This is what hell must be like. This is what whoever killed Cameron will feel. Where they’ll go. Just imagine how dry it will be. You’ll want to drink and drink and drink.”

That night the lawyers and I walk to the jetty. It’s 11 pm, the Milky Way is close above, and people sit along the jetty’s edge holding their fingers, with baited string attached, above the water. (“What are you fishing for?” one of the lawyers asks a young man. “A fish, mate, any fish I can find.”) Predominantly they are women and children. One child lies in the centre of the jetty asleep on a pillowcase; others are dozing in their strollers. Perhaps it is safer to bring them out of the house and away from the drinkers. It’s low tide. You wouldn’t think there would be much to catch, but children use a torch to spotlight the dark water.

A thin, white-haired woman is sitting with three of her daughters, one of whom is a hopeless alcoholic, a drone. The mother looks to be in her eighties, but is probably closer to sixty. This was an island of stolen children. Like most older people I meet, the woman, a ‘half-caste’, was taken by police from her parents – from the “retarding influence of the old myalls” – and sent to live in Palm Island’s dormitory. In that dormitory, girls were “belted out of bed at 5 am” and made to attend church three times on Sunday. To leave the island, to marry, to draw wages from a bank account, they had to seek permission from the Protector, often a local policeman. Permission, as the following letter to a new bride attests, was not often granted:

Dear Lucy,

Your letter gave me quite a shock, fancy you wanting to draw four pounds to buy a brooch, ring, bangle, work basket, tea set, etc, etc. I am quite sure Mrs. Henry would expend the money carefully for you, but I must tell you that no Aborigine can draw 4/5 of their wages unless they are sick and in hospital and require the money to buy comforts … However, as it is Christmas I will let you have 1/5/- out of your banking account to buy lollies with.

The old woman on the jetty says things were better in those days. Palm Island was spotless. Everyone had a job, even if they weren’t paid. All the gardens were beautiful. There were Christmas trees for the children. Dances. A football team. Drinking was banned, so there was far less violence.

On the jetty are three boys who look 13, but claim to be 16. A cigarette butt is tucked behind one boy’s ear. He tries hard to light it. When finally he succeeds, the three share the tiny stub between them. “Miss, what song you like?” he asks. They like Eminem, Usher, Destiny’s Child. Michael Jackson is Sharpnose.

One boy stands to perform a dance routine. Another shows us some punches he’s learnt in boxing. The third boy makes a series of birdcalls with his hands. They are full of spirit, full of life.

We start to walk back to the motel and the boys follow. Someone gives a two-dollar coin for each time a rock hits the old, long-burnt clock face, and not one shot misses.

“What do you do for sport?” one of the lawyers asks.

“Throw rocks at coppers.”

We ask the boys about TALL MAN. In all sincerity, they point to a nearby light post to show the Tall Man’s height. “His feet as big as a giant’s,” one says. “You can see his red eyes when the lights turned out on the football field.” Later, I ask other children about the Tall Man and they report he’s covered in hair, with shrivelled skin: “He smells of stinkin’ things.” “He smells as bad as a bin.” “A bin tipped over.” The Tall Man lives in the hills but comes down and watches people while they are sleeping. For no reason he will slap you across the face.

Chris Hurley is a tall man: He tall, he tall, he tall, you know. In one witness statement, an old woman recalled: the tall man get out and arrest him. I saw the tall man grab him by the arm.

Headlights warn a police van is approaching and the boys bolt; they are gone before we say goodbye.

On the morning the inquest is to begin, it rains lightly. “Blessing rain,” Valmai tells me. Small planes full of lawyers and police and journalists fly onto the island. After one arrival, an Aboriginal man stands waiting for the passengers to disembark before he boards. “The white people fly in and we get out,” he says. There is a sense of the circus coming to town. A policeman in full regalia walks into the air shelter. “And here is the head clown,” the man says.

“What do you think will happen?” I ask him.

“The same as usual: nothing.”

Local witnesses will give their evidence on the island. The police – for security reasons, it is argued – will give theirs in Townsville. Court convenes in the gymnasium of the newly opened Police Club Youth Centre, the only community venue on the island. About a hundred locals attend but most sit at the back or stand close to the door where it must be impossible to hear. Only the five Doomadgee sisters sit in a line at the front, wearing their best clothes and holding kitchen wipes in case they need to dry their eyes. Seemingly from nowhere, their brother’s dog arrives and sits beside them. (Later, Elizabeth tells me the dog bit a witness who gave bad evidence.)

It is distressing to watch the Aboriginal witnesses being examined and cross-examined. They are asked to read through and swear by their statements, which is impossible for the many who are illiterate. They are questioned in detail about the timing of events, but very few Palm Islanders wear watches. They are asked leading questions in complicated legalese and some of them, confused or intimidated, try to guess the correct answer.

There are 17 lawyers lined up along the bar table, and all but Andrew Boe, the Burmese-born lawyer working pro bono for the Palm Island Council, are white. The Doomadgee sisters rely largely on their lawyers’ facial expressions to gauge what is happening. “Black man [find it] pretty hard to understand white man’s language,” one witness tells me. Likewise, often the lawyers can barely comprehend the Palm Islanders. One thin, barefoot woman breaks down mid-testimony and sits with her head in her hands, distraught because no one understands her.

Patrick Nugent, the young man who had shared the cell with Moordinyi as he died, retracts his statement – in which he claimed he’d seen Hurley punch and kick Moordinyi – and then retracts his retraction. He admits he’d been drinking heavily and sniffing petrol that morning, and it’s clear even now he has at best a rudimentary understanding of what is going on. He is labelled a liar by the police lawyers. That evening he goes home and tries to set himself alight.

More dogs arrive to lie in the shade. Children collect the empty water bottles the lawyers leave lying around. As the day wears on, I can feel myself nodding off. Earlier, I had accompanied Elizabeth and a lawyer on a drive to encourage witnesses to stay sober. We’d stopped by a house shuddering with loud dance music. Teenagers, all of them wasted, started to crowd around the car. They were young, some no more than 13, and the closest things to zombies I’ve ever seen. One girl put her hand to the car window, staring in, and clearly saw no one. Beer cans lay all around; small children were underfoot. It was nine o’clock in the morning.

As the police lawyers rip through the Aboriginal witnesses, a stray horse puts its head through the door; people can be heard fighting outside; wind rushes in, riffling the Coroner’s papers. What is happening here has nothing to do with justice. Most of the lawyers don’t want to be on the island and some are even scared. They treat this like an administrative exercise they want over. “No wonder so many of our people are in jail,” someone says.

Down by the jetty I’d asked Roy Bramwell if he liked fishing. He pointed to a simple aluminium dinghy he hoped to buy one day to fish beyond the reef. Roy was born and grew up on Palm Island, only leaving to serve time in a Townsville jail.

In the Youth Centre he is now the star witness. He has been reading his police statement every day, trying to memorise it. “It’s like a daily prayer for him,” Elizabeth says. But Roy’s examination begins badly. Although this is supposed to be an inquiry into the truth, not the worth of Roy’s character, there’s no forgetting that he was at the police station because he’d just bashed three women. If this ever went to trial, would anyone believe him?

Roy says he saw Hurley punching Moordinyi and the police lawyers work hard to discredit his testimony. Roy gets aggressive because he feels the lawyers “put it all together and twist it”. His frustration is palpable. Unbidden, he stands up to show what he saw. Roy rests his knee on the ground, as he alleges Hurley did, and punches. For a moment everything is silent: it is clear that a big tall man’s knee to the chest of someone pressed against a concrete floor would cause extreme injuries. Quickly, the court is adjourned.

The next day is bogged down in legal argument about releasing Hurley’s police records. It emerges there are twenty to thirty official complaints against him. Later, the Coroner stands aside when it is revealed he has presided over eight of these complaints, and each time adjudicated in Hurley’s favour.

Throughout the day, mothers watching the inquest approach me to tell their own stories about the Senior Sergeant’s dealings with their sons. It is suggested he liked to fight. Two of the young men he is said to have attacked were schizophrenics. One boy, “on doctor” (on medication), was rude to Hurley, who, he alleges, then broke his ankle. The other boy was also rude to Hurley while having an episode. He alleges the Senior Sergeant punched him to the ground: “Come up here talking shit, you little black bastard.” Another man claims he was sitting talking to his grandson on the family trampoline when Hurley came and arrested him for public drunkenness. In the cells, he alleges, Hurley throttled him until he urinated on the cell floor. Barbara Pilot, Moordinyi’s cousin, shows me her foot, which she says the Senior Sergeant ran over. It often aches, making it difficult to walk. She went to the police station to lodge a complaint and was told to piss off. She had tyre marks on her leg and the bone stuck through the skin.

One Sunday Elizabeth took me to one of the four churches on the island. It was a plain wooden building with white pews, arrangements of plastic flowers, and broken windows. Twenty or so people swayed and sang hymns, accompanied by two white-haired men playing steel guitars. Children squirmed like church children anywhere. Babies were passed around the congregation and held as if they’d bestow some blessing. A man arrived with his German shepherd. He sat and the dog made small circles beside him until it found a shady spot under his pew. All I had to offer Him was brokenness and strife, we sang, but he made something beautiful out of my life! After the hymn, everyone clapped for what God had made out of their lives. Then we sang: Stand up, Stand up for Jesus! A little girl in white played chasey up and down the aisle, and around the pews.

Framed on the wall was a small needlework warning:

Flee from the wrath to come.

How shall we escape

If we neglect so great salvation.

In the middle of the hymn the black preacher arrived, and immediately sang loudest in a high-pitched, strident voice. A big, stern woman with a long grey plait and reading glasses on the end of her nose, her dress hung from her bust like a tent. “Tribulation times are coming!” she cried. “And they’re going to be very hard, brothers and sisters!”

She’d been browsing the web, and now saw the end of the world was nigh. “The returning Lord will come at an unexpected time, but a time with specific observable signs. There are signs all around us: there are murders, there are rapes, there are all kinds of things going on.” Disease, pestilence, famine, floods and earthquakes: I assumed she was talking about Palm Island. But she continued, “We are fortunate in this community because nothing has happened to us yet.”

“Are you serious?” I thought. “Are you insane?

The preacher gestured behind her, perhaps to the hills covered in boulders, and told us that come the apocalypse rocks will rain down. “When he speaks, just at his voice even the rocks cry out and praise him as they smash. Little pebbles crack like his word tell us.” She asked us to ask ourselves: “Am I really clear of all my sins, am I really ready for when he comes, am I prepared?” Millions of people, including a lot of Christians who are not fully committed, are going to have a bad time in the apocalypse. “When he closes the door,” she boomed, “it will be shut to us like the door to the ark after he took Noah and his family in! And the rest of the world was lost! What have we got to say to that?”

I wanted to say, “How much worse could things get?” In the previous month, a man had critically stabbed his brother over a beer. One woman had bitten another woman’s lip off. A man had poured petrol on his partner and set her alight. There is 92% unemployment; 16 young people have killed themselves in eight months; half the men on the island will die before the age of 45. This place is like a black hole in the universe into which people have fallen. Rocks may as well have already rained down. There may as well have been an apocalypse …

We stood to sing: Yes, Jesus loves me / Yes, Jesus loves me / Yes, Jesus loves me / The Bible tells me so

During the hymn, someone deposited in my arms a plump toddler with dark skin and uncannily bright blue eyes. She was the preacher’s granddaughter and she lay in my lap, sucking on her bottle, her free fingers wrapped in mine. Around us, everyone sat, exhausted-looking, praying. I had the sense there were twenty people in this church trying to hold back the tide.

Earlier, on the jetty, I’d met a policeman fishing. I asked him how he liked the island. He said he couldn’t believe there were three thousand people and not even a barber’s shop. It was strange also to be locked each night inside the police barracks. But he and the other officers did a lot of bushwalking during the day. While we were speaking, little children approached him: “Can I have a jig, sir?” He showed them how to use his ‘jig’, a line with small hooks and coloured glass beads to attract the fish.

A mother was sitting on the other side of the jetty with her back to the water, staring at him. The policeman seemed oblivious, looking out to sea. But when the children turned to her, excited, she mouthed, “He a copper.” She smiled as she did this. It was the perfect opportunity to teach a kind of don’t-trust-white-strangers lesson. And who could blame her?

Up until the 1970s the bulliman (police) came to take children from their parents, who hid them under foliage in the early days, then, when the foliage had gone, wherever they could. After the November 2004 riot, there was nowhere to hide. The police came in their dozens, wearing balaclavas and riot gear, with garbage bins full of batons, and stun-guns and semi-automatic rifles. They went from house to house, sometimes in the middle of the night, arresting adults and teenagers while the children lay face down on the ground, guns pointed at them.

The policeman sits, jiggling the line. The sun is setting – it’s shockingly beautiful – but around him it is growing dark. He says that although the locals seem friendly it frightens him that at any moment they could turn. He recommends I don’t walk around at night alone. “They are a very violent people,” he says quietly.

Why would a police officer choose to work solely in these communities? Why choose to be despised? I spoke to a highly regarded police inspector who had served on the island for six years. Early in his tenure he’d been viciously beaten, but decided not to be transferred and won great respect. “I saw violence mainstream people can’t understand.” And living on an island is “like living in a fishbowl,” he said. “There’s no escape. Every bugger knows your business and if they don’t they make it up.” Still, he claims those were the best years of his life. He had a sense of being able to make a difference. Days on Palm could seem more vivid, more intense; somehow life was closer to the surface. I recognised what he was saying.

But there might be a darker appeal. Becoming a cop is a way for a man without a lot of education to gain a lot of power. “I was like the king of the island,” the inspector recalled. I suggested this was the temptation some officers succumb to: the community is their fiefdom. “No,” he said, perhaps not understanding my meaning, “it was just that it was my place.”

Can you step into this dysfunction and desperation and not be corrupted in some way? Not made, in some way, mad? In a community of extreme violence, must you become violent? If you are despised, as the police are, might you not need to be despicable sometimes? Could anyone not be overcome by “the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate?” Or have I read Heart of Darkness too many times? The church-going Palm Islanders pray to the Jesus who promised an afterlife, rather than the one who heals in the here and now, because no one could heal this place.

Father Tony, the island’s Catholic priest, tells me that among families ravaged by alcoholism and violence a completely different concept of forgiveness exists. He was with Elizabeth recently when she spoke at a Townsville church service. She told the story of her brother’s death and a policeman stood up and started to cry. He said he had seen terrible things done to black people, and how sorry he was. “He cried broken-hearted.” Elizabeth went over and hugged him: “Brother, I forgive you.”

I thought I would be finished with this story within a few weeks. Instead, months of legal wrangling go by and part of me resents being dragged further into this grim parallel universe. On one visit to the island, Father Tony asks if I’ve always been interested in the fate of the downtrodden. “No,” I say, and walk away quickly. I am becoming even less interested in those who are interested in the fate of the downtrodden. One of them keeps talking of our spiritual journey. He thinks I’m in denial: “I can see it happening to you, even if you can’t.” I start being sent missives by a white activist: “Sometimes activists have to face death and look it straight in the eye before change happens. Go ask Malcolm X or Ghandi. So if suffering is the cost of my activism then let it be so.”

In late July, before the inquest resumes, Elizabeth takes me on a trip to find taro root. We venture up one of Palm Island’s mountains until the borrowed four-wheel-drive can be coaxed no further. “Think of Jesus,” Elizabeth urges, but the driver is an atheist. We start walking through the mission’s abandoned plantation. Enormous pine trees stretch above us, and Elizabeth says, “This remind me of Blair Witch.” Along the dirt road, to the right, is a view of the surrounding islands. To the left, I can see the valleys where wild horses graze. Elizabeth points to the wind making the long grass wave eerily. “How much further?” I keep asking. “To the bridge,” she keeps answering. We pass huge grey boulders; wildflowers; a tree with foliage gathered on each branch like a bouquet. No bridge materialises.

Finally Elizabeth leads me down a steep embankment covered in long grass. I sing softly, hoping to ward off snakes. At the bottom stands a wild mahogany horse straight from a young girl’s fantasy. As we pick our way through the rocks and deep grass it stares at us, quizzical. Nearby, the taros grow in a shallow creek bed. They have tall green stalks with wide leaves, which mud rolls off like mercury. Elizabeth puts on her boots and, taking the shovel, starts to loosen the plants’ roots.

When the Doomadgees were children their mother used to tell them Dreamtime stories and they’d say, “Oh! You’re getting it from library books.” At night they would listen as she sat alone, talking ‘in language’ to her father. Sometimes she would say, “Listen, there’s your Pa.” She believed her father came as a crow if anything was wrong. None of her children really understood this blackfella magic until their mother finally took them back to Doomadgee. Here, they learnt their paternal grandmother was Lizzy Daylight. Daylight, the anthropologist David Trigger remembers, was ‘the grand old lady’ of the Gangalidda people:

Lizzy Daylight was known to be in touch with the spiritual forces connected with Rainbow (Snake) Dreaming, and hence to such phenomena as storms, cyclones, lightning and so on. She [could sing] songs said to have the power to either stir up or placate Rainbow and hence also the physical phenomena connected with that Dreaming. And when she died, people spoke of how they saw rainbows both to the north (her mother’s coastal Gangalidda country) and the west (her father’s up river Waanyi country).

Elizabeth has loosened the taro roots and she now asks me to pull them out. The job is ridiculously primal. You squat and clutch the stalk and pull as hard as possible and, as you do, slide further into the muddy bed. I squat and pull, and an enormous tuberous thing covered in muddied roots slowly emerges. As it does, mud splatters all over me. The mud gives off an intense vegetable smell not unlike manure. It is overwhelming. Elizabeth’s mother had taught her to do this, and perhaps her mother before her. In the Aboriginal diaspora, people live cut off from the religion and culture of their traditional lands; cut off from the spirits of these lands. Palm Island missionaries tried to stamp out “tribal sorcery and superstition … savage life … medicine men and rainmakers of barbarous nations”. For Elizabeth and for her brother, who was much acclaimed for his ability to hunt, traditional food gathering is knowledge missionaries could not destroy.

Elizabeth slices off the stalks with the shovel’s blade. The muddy taros are incredibly heavy; their tangled roots look like hair: it’s as if I’m filling our bag with human heads. I am now covered in mud. Elizabeth is spotless. I realise how far I will have to carry the bag and stand staring at it, gloomily.

“What’s that?” Elizabeth asks suddenly. “It’s the warning-bird calling!”

I strain to hear the call.

“It’s telling us it’s now time to leave.” She moves quickly and I pick up the heavy sack and follow. It’s impossible to tell the degree to which she is teasing me. “Thank you very much,” I hear her say to any resident spirits. “We’re leaving now.”

It’s August before the police involved in Moordinyi’s death are required to give evidence at the inquest. People have travelled to Townsville from Palm Island and other communities, they say, to look Hurley in the eye. To enter the courtroom we must all show ID, be electronically wanded and patted down, and have our bags inspected. This heightened expectation seems the antithesis of the police attitude. They sit outside the courtroom in riot gear, flicking through magazines. “This is an example,” one senior sergeant tells me, “of people trying to look for the worst in a situation.”

The lawyers representing the family are keen to hear the evidence of Police Liaison Officer Lloyd Bengaroo, who accompanied Senior Sergeant Hurley throughout the arrest. Bengaroo, it is believed, knows more than he is prepared to say.

The day after Moordinyi died, Bengaroo was videotaped by police re-enacting the events of the previous morning. When they reached the moment Moordinyi was taken inside the police station, Bengaroo would go no further. He claimed he waited at the door: “I stood here,” he says on the tape, “because I was thinking, um, if I see something I might get into trouble myself, or something … the family might harass me or something, you know?” The “or something” he refers to is most likely police intimidation.

In the 1980s Royal Commission into police corruption in Queensland, Tony Fitzgerald QC claimed that “an unwritten police code” dominated police culture. “The police code,” he wrote, “requires that police do not enforce the law against other police, nor co-operate in any attempt to do so, and perhaps even obstruct any such attempt.” Bengaroo also had to observe the code. He was a man caught between two tribes: the blackfella community and the police force.

The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody recommended each death be treated as a homicide, and that police should not investigate other police, to avoid “collaboration and dare it be said collusion”. But fifteen minutes after the paramedics had pronounced Moordinyi dead, Senior Sergeant Hurley called his good friend Detective Sergeant Darren Robinson. The two men had served together on the island for the last two years, and Robinson had previously investigated and cleared Hurley of at least one other complaint. After the men spoke, Robinson called Detective Senior Sergeant Kitching of the Townsville Crime and Investigation Bureau. Kitching was also a friend of Hurley’s, having served with him in another Aboriginal community, Burketown, near the Gulf of Carpentaria. Robinson then placed a call to Detective Inspector Warren Webber, Northern Regional Crime Coordinator, who also held Hurley in high regard.

It must have been reassuring for Hurley that he – the main suspect – would be investigated by old colleagues and friends. He picked the detectives up from the airport and drove them around to the relevant areas. That night Robinson cooked dinner at Hurley’s house for Hurley and those investigating the death. Meanwhile, no part of the police station was made into a crime scene or sealed off. No areas were tested to see if there were matches with the blood from Doomadgee’s eye. No photographs were taken of Hurley’s hands or his boots. The transcript of Hurley’s police interview is striking for its camaraderie: Webber refers to Hurley as ‘mate’ or ‘buddy’; Hurley calls him ‘boss’.

Four days later the autopsy took place. The pathologist refused to sign off on the police’s nominated cause of death – “a fall”. Later that day, the Crime and Misconduct Commission, which investigates police, took the investigation away from Hurley’s associates. Unfortunately, an insider tells me, by then they had already “stuffed things up”. Certainly Bengaroo had been persuaded to keep his mouth shut.

Crime and Misconduct Commission: Did Senior Sergeant Hurley assault Mr Doomadgee whilst he was on the floor?

Bengaroo: I can’t recall that one.

Sombre, heavy-set Bengaroo now walks to the witness box, wearing his police uniform. His long socks are pulled tight to his knees and keys jangle in the pockets of his shorts. His hair is shaved close; his face pockmarked; his brow furrowed. When he sits there is a roll of fat behind his neck. In a surprisingly soft voice, he swears on the Bible. Later, he admits he does not believe in God. A fierce cough plagues him as he gives evidence. I’ve been told his 18-year-old son was murdered one night on Palm Island over a cigarette.

It is tense in the room. The Palm Islanders are treating this like theatre. They boo and moan or whisper encouragement: yes, yes.

Everyone knows Bengaroo is skirting around the truth. His testimony is full of glaring inconsistencies, obvious evasions. Sometimes he claims he waited outside the station; at others he admits going inside. It’s hard to know whether he is trying to mislead or genuinely doesn’t understand. When asked directly whether he saw or heard anything improper, Bengaroo does not bite. But in the following exchange with the family’s lawyer, Senior Counsel Peter Callaghan, he says something that at least sounds like the truth.

Callaghan: You told [Moordinyi] to walk on down the road for his own safety. What did you mean by that?

Bengaroo: I told him to walk down the road or he’s getting locked up. For his own safety. I just told him to walk down the road or he’d get locked up.

Callaghan: And the reason you did that was for his own safety?

Bengaroo: Yes.

Callaghan: And a safe place is somewhere away from you and Senior Sergeant Hurley?

Bengaroo: Yes.

Callaghan: It wasn’t safe being near the two of you, for him?

Bengaroo: It wasn’t, no.

Moordinyi was arrested because his swearing was deemed a public nuisance, but Bengaroo admits he did not actually hear this swearing. And nor does he know what legally constitutes a public nuisance. He has never been trained in the matter.

Andrew Boe: There’s a lot of swearing that happens on Palm Island, isn’t there?

Bengaroo: Yeah, plenty.

Boe: Everywhere you go, people swear?

Bengaroo: Yes.

Boe: Have you ever arrested a person for swearing at a person other than a police officer?

Bengaroo: No, I didn’t.

Boe: Police swear on the island, don’t they?

Bengaroo: Pardon?

Boe: You’ve heard police swear on the island.

Bengaroo: Yeah. Everybody swears.

Boe: Ever heard of a police officer being arrested for swearing?

Bengaroo: No.

Bengaroo admits there were no noticeable swellings or abrasions on Moordinyi when he was arrested, and claims he cannot explain how the deceased received a black eye or his other injuries. After Moordinyi was discovered dead, it occurred to Bengaroo, he claims, that the family should be notified, but Hurley told him to “keep quiet”.

Later, an older woman told me Bengaroo reminded her of a member of the Native Police who, until the late 1890s, were the subordinate allies of white police and responsible for bloodcurdling killing sprees. Other women tell me they feel sorry for Bengaroo: he’s spent his years being the white police’s ‘errand boy’, holding the police van’s doors open as another blackfella was arrested. He must have felt like a stooge and hated anyone who called him on it. Cameron Doomadgee shamed Bengaroo that morning. But it was not as though he hadn’t been shamed before.

Callaghan: Have you heard that sort of thing before over 21 years?

Bengaroo: Plenty of times.

Callaghan: Probably something like that, most times you arrested someone?

Bengaroo: Most times – yeah, most times.

Callaghan: [And] whilst you might have been upset, it wasn’t the sort of thing that would really distress you?

Bengaroo: No, it wasn’t.

At the end of the day, Lloyd Bengaroo stands in a hallway surrounded by six police officers. They are all smiling. The scene is collegiate, congratulatory: he has done the right thing. Bengaroo and his escorts step into the elevator. “Safest lift in Townsville,” one young policeman says.

“Not if you swear,” I reply.

When Senior Sergeant Hurley arrives, amid much excitement, it’s like glimpsing Colonel Kurtz. He comes through a back door to avoid photographers. Hurley is indeed a tall man; he could be straight from casting as the sheriff. (“He’d be popular in prison,” says one journalist.)

But unlike Kurtz he is no “special being”, nor is he a boogie-man. The Aboriginal activist Murrandoo Yanner claims, “He was the only copper who ever got into my house without a gun or a search warrant in his hand. I trusted him. He used to give his own time to take Murri kids from Burketown on camps to places like Lawn Hill Gorge. Once he took my oldest boy. I wouldn’t usually let any copper touch my dog, but I trusted this bloke with my son.” Yanner has also said of the Senior Sergeant, “He only had one fault – he couldn’t keep his hands to himself. He liked to give blokes a touch-up if they got out of line.”

Hurley’s uniform is carefully pressed. Each crease is visible. He is clean-shaven, tanned, calm, polite. It goes to make him a good witness. He calls Counsel Assisting the Deputy Coroner, Terry Martin, “sir” and looks him straight in the eye. He keeps very still.

Martin: Do you have friends who are Aborigines?

Hurley: Yes, sir.

Martin: Do you have anything against Aboriginal people?

Hurley: No, no. I wouldn’t have, I, I wouldn’t go to those communities if I had some something against Aboriginal people, I, I couldn’t serve in those communities.

Martin does not ask him why he goes to “those communities”. Does he stay with the ‘natives’ because he cannot resist the power, the absolute power, he has among them? Martin instead takes Hurley back to the morning of 19 November 2004. Within the first few minutes the Senior Sergeant claims privilege against self-incrimination. None of the testimony he gives will be admissible should he ever be charged in relation to the death.

At length, Hurley describes Lloyd Bengaroo’s feelings after Moordinyi challenged him about “helping the blacks”. “His pride was hurt,” he says. “Lloyd takes his job very seriously [and] I could see Lloyd was upset about what had happened.” For the time being Hurley would have the court believe that he arrested Moordinyi to save Lloyd’s honour. But in a place where alcohol consumption dominates life, Martin asks Hurley why he could not have said, “Look, mate, you’ve had too many, you’re yelling out in the street, come and we’ll give you a lift home.” Moordinyi was not known for being violent or a troublemaker, and could have been taken to a safe place to sober up, rather than to the police cells.

Belligerence shows just beneath the Senior Sergeant’s surface. You can see him thinking, “What would you know about being a copper in this hellhole?” Hurley changes his story. He says there was a chance Moordinyi might have re-offended, and seeing moments earlier he’d arrested another man for swearing at the police, he wanted to be even-handed.

Martin then leads Hurley to the moment Moordinyi punched him. The Senior Sergeant claims he was not angered by this but “annoyed”. And in this state he struggled with Moordinyi, until both men tripped through the station’s doorway.

Martin: You didn’t land on top of him?

Hurley: Well, I now know that medical evidence would suggest that. That I landed on top of him. If I didn’t know the medical evidence, I’d tell you that I fell to the left of him. The medical evidence would suggest that that wasn’t the case … I mean, life doesn’t unfortunately go frame by frame, and if it did, I would’ve been able to give a hundred-per-cent-accurate version. But the version I gave was my best recollection and the most truthful. It was the truth that I thought.

Martin reminds Hurley that in three previous interviews he said he fell to the left of Moordinyi. This is what he said on the afternoon of Moordinyi’s death, the day after, and (with the Crime and Misconduct Commission) a few weeks later. There would now seem to be only two possible explanations for Moordinyi’s black eye and massive internal injuries, Martin claims: that Hurley had indeed fallen on top of him, or that Hurley had struck a series of forceful blows. Since he has repeatedly denied the former – until knowing of the medical evidence – could the latter be possible?

Martin: Just think back: was there a flash of anger whereby you got up first and drove your knee into him, and said something like, “Have you had enough, Mr Doomadgee?”

Hurley: No, that’s not correct.

Martin: [A] clip to the jaw and then, you know, with all due respect to the Court, you fell arse-over-tit through the doorway, but it didn’t make you angry enough to get up and …?

Hurley, naturally, denies it. But why did Moordinyi have a black eye? Why did he have such terrible injuries? And – a question Martin also does not ask – why was Roy Bramwell allowed to leave the police station? A man was dying in a cell because he may have sworn at police, and this other man, who had just beaten three women unconscious, was allowed to walk free. No one can question Hurley about this. In fact, the Senior Sergeant won’t be cross-examined for at least another six months, because his lawyers have appealed the Deputy Coroner’s decision allowing his prior complaints history to be used in evidence.

As each police officer testifies in praise of Hurley, it occurs to me that the Senior Sergeant has an extremely good chance of never standing trial. And I suppose this is the terrible joke of reconciliation in Australia: that the lives of these two men – Hurley and Moordinyi – are supposed to be weighed equally.

Before Palm Island, my only contact with police was being pulled over for not wearing a seatbelt. In Townsville over dinner, an Aboriginal woman told me of being arrested and having dogs set on her, then being made to defecate in front of four officers.

The Doomadgee sisters sit in the courtroom waiting for something to happen. “This just drag, eh,” Valmai says, but she believes her brother is watching over her: “It’s like he there telling me to keep pushing, don’t give up.”

I notice the other Palm Island women in the courtroom. Some of them look much older, twenty years older, than they are. All of them are mothers with lost sons. Mothers with sons in custody; sons who have died in custody; sons who have been beaten by the police. They sit in the airless room emitting a low drumbeat of heartache. I can feel their desperation for any tiny victory. “You long for it. Long for it,” one woman tells me. She is another one who grew up in the Palm Island dormitory after she was taken from her parents. Like the others, she has a resigned grace about her. This grace is all that stands between them and chaos. It’s too much: I want to leave. All I want to do is get on a plane and leave. And when I do, I feel myself shaking. I get home and I’m still shaking days later. It’s overwhelming: the relief of being able to walk away from this, of this not being my life.

Chloe Hooper

Chloe Hooper is the author of The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire and The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island, and the novels The Engagement and A Child’s Book of True Crime.

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