HISTORY OF PAIN
The generational tragedy relived by boys’ Swan River drownings
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.