September 2005

The Nation Reviewed

Murder at Pioneer Cemetery

By Anna Clark

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

On April 22, Terrence Laurence Dann won a joke-telling contest at the Spinifex Hotel in Derby, Western Australia. He collected the $100 prize for his joke then went home and assaulted his de facto partner. While she lay injured, he drove her two children to Pioneer Cemetery. He hanged the children from a small tree, went to the police station and turned himself in. No one knows why he did it. On July 25, Dann pleaded guilty to murdering his two stepchildren and causing grievous bodily harm to his partner. He has been in police custody since the bodies were discovered and will be sentenced in October.

The press jumped on the story: another horrific case of Aboriginal domestic violence, another tragic infanticide in a community already riven by alcohol and physical abuse. “Bodies in the bush” was the story as soon as the children were found, which soon turned to “I killed kids, says dad” and “Stepfather admits hanging kids”. Headlines aren’t designed to capture complexity. Then came reports of intended payback on the killer’s family. Dann was taken to a “secret location” for “his own safety”. “The family are angry,” said an uncle of the victims. “Policeman won’t stop them.” The police, though, warned they would punish any attempted retribution. “The law is the law,” they insisted publicly. The town was shaken and officially on alert. But no one really knew how to make sense of it all.

Derby is a small town in the Kimberley region, about 250 kilometres north-east of Broome. It used to be a strong regional centre but Broome, rich with tourist dollars, pearl boutiques and white sandy beaches, has increasingly taken over. In Derby drivers still give a nod and a wave as they pass you in the street, and family-based indigenous corporations run cultural programs, training and development. The Aboriginal community is an economic and cultural hub of the town, which is dependent on Aboriginal organisations for the employment they provide and the government grants they bring.

Aboriginal people were critical to Derby’s early development too – although at a grave cost. As soon as it was settled in the late 19th century, the government used Aboriginal chain gangs to build much of the town. Hundreds of photos of scarified men chained to police officers stare blankly out of the pages of local histories. Those frontier days are long ago, but still Aboriginal people make up the bulk of the prison population here. The old cage in the centre of town that used to serve as Derby’s jail was finally replaced in the 1970s. It is a concrete slab, with rings cemented in for the prisoners to be chained up, surrounded by iron bars. There used to a cold water tap but no toilet, and prisoners were exposed to the weather. Now the jail is a heritage tourist attraction. It doesn’t get many Aboriginal visitors.

Pioneer Cemetery lies on the edge of town, a dusty overgrown block – an old bush paddock, really – with a crumbling gate, a few graves and many more unmarked plots. Nestled between the highway and the enormous tidal mudflats on the edge of King Sound, it’s an eerie place. Shrieking corellas eat the grass seeds on the side of the road, their pretty pale plumes red with dust. They love being loud and dirty, tearing the tips off trees and making a mess. The giant boabs have lost their leaves, their nuts scattered on the ground. Last summer’s wet season was poor, so many of the waterholes have dried up early. Some locals leave the tap dripping at the cemetery to let the wallabies have a drink. Piles of Renmano chardonnay casks – on special at Woolies – litter the roadside.

One old gravestone commemorates the death of the policeman William Richardson. The grave was erected by members of the Kimberley police force in 1904, ten years after Richardson’s death. It remembers and salutes their comrade who was “killed by blacks” – as if being killed by blacks was like any other frontier peril, like being taken by a crocodile or stampeded by cattle.

Actually, Richardson wasn’t killed by “blacks”. He was murdered by the Aboriginal warrior Jandamarra. (Inscribing his name on the memorial may have bestowed on him some sort of strength and legitimacy.) Jandamarra had been Richardson’s police tracker. But after arresting a group of his own Bunuba countrymen, they sang out to him, pleading with him to set them free. He did: he shot Richardson dead, released the prisoners and escaped with them into the bush.

Many stories and legends now talk of Jandamarra as a “warrior” and a “magic man”. He is no longer a nameless, faceless black but a renowned Aboriginal resistance leader, who fought the Kimberley pastoralists and evaded escape for years with his countrymen and women. Now he’s even a hero. There’s a Pigeon Heritage Trail – so-called in honour of Jandamarra’s European name – around Derby. The town is famous for its link with him. The terrorist has become a freedom fighter. How times change.

Or do they? Only a couple of metres in front of Richardson’s grave stands the young gum tree, thin and straggly, where Dann hanged his stepchildren. Sweet photos of the kids and dried-out wreaths lie at its base. It is now a monument too.

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