The gen­er­a­tional tragedy re­lived by boys’ Swan River drown­ings

The Sunday Times - - News - TONY BAR­RASS

THIS is the story of two young men from one fam­ily born years apart in the same Mid-West town of Mullewa.

While they would never meet — Vic­tor Simp­son died in 1985, his grand­nephew, Tris­jack, on Mon­day — their in­ter­twin­ing lives are a re­minder of the gen­er­a­tional tragedies that con­tinue to crip­ple Abo­rig­i­nal fam­i­lies.

The drown­ing deaths of Tris­jack and his best mate Chris Drage, both 17, who were chased by po­lice into the Swan River at May­lands, has shocked West Aus­tralians. On the black­fella side, the deaths have di­rectly af­fected more than a dozen fam­i­lies, in­clud­ing some of the big­gest mobs from the Mid West, South West and Great South­ern.

We are talk­ing the Din­gos (as in ac­claimed ac­tor Ernie), Ryans (as in cel­e­brated foot­baller Liam), the Papertalks and a range of other fam­i­lies who hail from Mullewa, Ger­ald­ton and Meekatharra.

Then there are the Drages, the Spratts, the Hay­wards, the Eades, the Win­mars, the Humphries and the Ninyettes — all big mobs right across the south­ern part of WA.

On the white­fella side, heads have dropped, par­tic­u­larly those in the ju­ve­nile jus­tice space who knew the two teenagers.

Not to men­tion the cop­pers. The same Perth sub­ur­ban po­lice sta­tion that worked around the clock on the hor­rific Bed­ford mur­ders early this week helped re­trieve their bod­ies as bit­terly cold win­ter squalls lashed the city on Mon­day evening and Tues­day morn­ing.

De­spite the no­ble in­ten­tions of pass­ing politi­cians, po­lice com­mis­sion­ers, a mul­ti­tude of wel­fare pro­grams to tar­get re­peat of­fend­ers and good­will from all sides, indige­nous death rates tick over like a plas­tic peg on a bi­cy­cle wheel. The Simp­sons are a case in point. Go back to a Satur­day night in Au­gust 1985, when Vic­tor Simp­son, 25, bet­ter known around Mullewa as Bing, was mak­ing a nui­sance of him­self in the front bar of the Rail­way Ho­tel.

Af­ter be­ing told to leave by the pub­li­can, the then 102kg, 182cm ex-po­lice­man Brian Wil­liamson, the 157cm Bing stead­fastly re­fused to budge. Ac­cord­ing to Wil­liamson, Bing then threw a glanc­ing blow to the big­ger man’s ribs. Wil­liamson re­sponded with “three or four” punches to Simp­son’s head and chest be­fore push­ing him out the door.

Bing came back mo­ments later flay­ing punches, and af­ter a brief scuf­fle, Wil­liamson re­strained Simp­son on the bar-room floor un­der his knee and con­sid­er­able weight. When po­lice ar­rived min­utes later, Bing was dead.

News of his death flashed around the town. Al­most 200 Abo­rig­i­nals gath­ered within an hour and at­tacked the pub with rocks and dog spikes — sup­plied to them by chil­dren who were fer­ry­ing them from a nearby rail­way yard.

With win­dows smashed and doors ripped off their hinges, the ho­tel was trashed. Wil­liamson and the three po­lice on duty in Mullewa that night could only bunker down and wait for the storm to pass. They made an ur­gent call for re­in­force­ments from Ger­ald­ton, 100km away.

The ri­ot­ing mob be­gan chant­ing one name: John Pat.

Pat was a 16-year-old Roe­bourne boy who had died in po­lice cus­tody in sus­pi­cious cir­cum­stances in 1983. Just months be­fore Mullewa ex­ploded, the of­fi­cers in­volved in Pat’s mys­te­ri­ous death were ac­quit­ted of his man­slaugh­ter.

Luck­ily, po­lice man­aged to se­crete Wil­liamson out of town that night. They charged him at Ger­ald­ton CIB with the un­law­ful killing of Simp­son the next day.

Po­lice and lo­cals told Wil­liamson there was a fair chance he would be killed if he ever re­turned to Mullewa. He never did.

The newly in­stalled chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Abo­rig­i­nal Le­gal Ser­vice, Craig Somerville ar­rived in Mullewa a day af­ter in an at­tempt “to calm things down”.

He vividly re­mem­bers walk­ing out into the back­yard of the Simp­son house and see­ing the shocked old aun­ties and other women sit­ting in a cir­cle be­gin­ning their “sorry busi­ness”.

“The fam­ily was dev­as­tated. Bing was much-loved and the grief was pal­pa­ble. It was very dis­tress­ing,” he said.

Then in May 1986, an all-white jury in Perth ac­quit­ted Wil­liamson of all charges. Hav­ing been granted bail from day one, the pub­li­can never spent a night be­hind bars — just like the John Pat po­lice of­fi­cers. The tac­ti­cal re­sponse group and ex­tra po­lice were on standby in Mullewa that night. Sur­pris­ingly, not much hap­pened. The town, pre­vi­ously at flash­point, was ex­hausted.

While Wil­liamson went back to

his new busi­ness — a sub­ur­ban Perth del­i­catessen — a re­lieved man, Bing’s mum Irene did have some­thing to say about him.

“I thought he might have got some­thing (a sen­tence),” she said be­fore quickly adding: “I will never be his en­emy. I haven’t got any hate to­wards him.”

Bing’s fa­ther, Ike, worked for the Mullewa Al­co­hol Cen­tre and ral­lied against drink­ing.

One of five brothers and four sis­ters, Bing’s favourite was Trevor.

Fast-for­ward three decades. In 2013, Trevor’s grand­son Tris­jack — he re­ferred to him­self as Jack­jack — left Mullewa and was ac­cepted into Clon­tarf Abo­rig­i­nal Col­lege.

Like many of their peers, Tris­jack and Chris were not so good at school or tak­ing in­struc­tion, but they were very good foot­ballers. How­ever, they only lasted a cou­ple of years at the Bent­ley cam­pus be­fore drift­ing off into the shad­ows of the big city.

Then on Mon­day af­ter­noon, an ur­gent post pressed the panic but­ton among a big group of the boys’ Face­book friends.

“Jack Jack ring now . . . ur mum is here . . . . very wor­ried about u . . . . call Nans fone now im­por­tant,” an aunty posted on Face­book on Mon­day af­ter­noon. “Has any one seen or no where my nephew Jack Jack . . . . it’s very im­por­tant you’s con­tact me now . . . . his mum/fam­ily are very wor­ried,” another posted an hour later.

But Tris­jack and Chris were not check­ing their so­cial me­dia. Both were deep in the belly of a cold, dark Der­barl Yer­ri­gan, the Swan River sa­cred to Noon­gar.

It was 3.30pm and af­ter al­legedly jump­ing fences in May­lands, the boys were chased through a nearby swamp af­ter a res­i­dent flagged down a pass­ing po­lice car. With three oth­ers, they ended up at one of the nar­row­est points of the twist­ing river, near the May­lands Ten­nis Club.

Run or swim, they must have thought. Nearby was, of all things, the May­lands Po­lice Com­plex and a few of its finest were in hot pur­suit. On the other side of the river, about 150m away, were the smart new high-rise apart­ments of River­vale — and an es­cape.

Four of them dived in and headed for the other side. The po­lice, now on foot, grabbed one of the younger boys close to shore but saw the other three strug­gling in the wa­ter.

One of­fi­cer man­aged to haul another boy out by the scruff of the neck to the safety of the River­vale river­bank, but Tris­jack and Chris qui­etly sank be­low the choppy sur­face.

Tris­jack’s body was found a few hours later, while Chris was re­cov­ered the next morn­ing. Later that af­ter­noon an un­cle con­tacted po­lice to let them know the last of the five teenagers was safe with him.

The ini­tial re­ac­tion to the tragedy — mea­sured as it is th­ese days through the ubiq­ui­tous so­cial me­dia — was swift and bru­tal. One re­deem­ing fea­ture is that peo­ple can take out their anger in words, not bricks.

Manatj is a Noon­gar word for black cock­a­too. It also means po­lice­man and dates back to the “Mon Arch” Crown worn on the caps of the Swan River colony con­stab­u­lary.

“We all know what man­atjr like,” one an­gry web­site post growled the day af­ter. “They prob­a­bly killed th­ese boys the mag­gots. Drowned ‘em or done some­thing. About time our ppl rise up or u gonna let them do this to our kids and walk free u mob?”

Indige­nous lead­ers with na­tional pro­files such as Sean Gordon weighed in. “Our peo­ple have al­ways been chased, pro­filed, tar­geted, ha­rassed and killed by po­lice in ev­ery State and Ter­ri­tory,” he said.

But, just as Irene Simp­son did decades be­fore in Mullewa, dig­ni­fied fam­ily mem­bers soothed what could have been very volatile seas.

Rel­a­tives pub­licly urged calm and asked peo­ple not to blame po­lice. The boys had their is­sues but were “good kids” who were “scared” and had made a “bad choice”.

“I ask peo­ple not to be judg­men­tal,” said a numb Christo­pher Drage, the fa­ther of Tris­jack’s mate, adding that he hoped “peo­ple do not con­cen­trate on the neg­a­tive things that hap­pened”.

Mr Somerville now sits on the WA Pris­on­ers Re­view Board, af­ter a long ca­reer in the ju­ve­nile and adult jus­tice sys­tem, and is a re­spected indige­nous men­tor to fam­i­lies such as the Simp­sons and Drages.

While not con­don­ing poor be­hav­iour, he said many came from calami­tous back­grounds of dys­func­tion, al­co­holism and abuse.

He re­called what one young Mullewa man told him on that trip north 33 years ago. It was about ac­cep­tance. It has never left him.

“This young man said to me, ‘Look, I’m a good foot­baller and be­cause of that I’m a win­ter­time hero in this town.

“But he then said, ‘But the prob­lem is I don’t play cricket and I know I’m not wel­come when the footy’s not on, so all of a sud­den, I be­come a sum­mer­time devil’.”

Tris­jack and Chris were deep in the belly of a cold, dark Der­barl Yer­ri­gan, the myth­i­cal Swan River ser­pent sa­cred to Noon­gar.

Flash­point: Res­i­dents and, in­set, po­lice check the dam­age at Mullewa's riot-hit Rail­way Ho­tel in 1985. Far right: How it dom­i­nated the news.

Chris Drage

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