LEFT IN LIMBO

Their son and his part­ner died mys­te­ri­ously in Por­tu­gal, yet the fi­nal po­lice re­port has left them with more ques­tions than an­swers

The Sunday Times - - NEWS - KATE CAMP­BELL

We ei­ther ac­cept it and do noth­ing or get le­gal ad­vice … we’re re­signed to the fact we may never get an­swers.

SIX months af­ter their son and his girl­friend fell to their deaths from a 30m cliff in a pic­turesque Por­tuguese vil­lage, Perth cou­ple Kathy and Bill Kearns are tor­mented not only by the shock­ing tragedy, but by unan­swered ques­tions and a lack of trans­parency from au­thor­i­ties.

Fly-in, fly-out elec­tri­cian Michael Kearns, 33, and his 37-year-old Bri­tish girl­friend Louise Ben­son were near­ing the end of their dream Euro­pean hol­i­day when some time be­tween 1am and 6am on June 12 this year they fell from the cliff at Praia dos Pescadores in Eri­ceira, near Por­tu­gal’s cap­i­tal of Lis­bon.

This week the Kearns, from Scar­bor­ough, re­ceived the fi­nal re­port on the mys­tery from Poli­cia Ju­di­cia­ria, the Por­tuguese in­ves­tiga­tive po­lice, through the Depart­ment of For­eign Af­fairs and Trade. Af­ter hav­ing to get it trans­lated into English them­selves, they were shocked and upset to find so many gaps and omis­sions in the doc­u­ment, which ruled the deaths ac­ci­den­tal.

A clump of hair was found in Ms Ben­son’s hand and the Kearns were des­per­ate to know if it be­longed to their son or a third party. But in the re­port, it states the hair was col­lected for DNA sam­pling but no de­ter­mi­na­tion could be made.

Mrs Kearns said her first in­stinct when she heard about the hair was that the pair might have been pushed, and thought rul­ing her son in or out as the owner of that hair would be sim­ple. But when she queried DFAT she was told they couldn’t ask the Por­tuguese po­lice as it couldn’t get in­volved in a “pri­vate le­gal mat­ter”. In­stead, DFAT of­fered her a list of lawyers in Lis­bon she could en­gage to deal with the Por­tuguese au­thor­i­ties on the fam­ily’s be­half.

The Kearns say the re­port they have been pro­vided with is “shoddy” and “in­com­plete”.

“The po­lice were ab­so­lutely adamant there was no third party in­volved,” Mrs Kearns said, fight­ing back tears.

“I said if the hair in the hand is Michael’s then I’m happy that is the case, that there was no third party in­volved. I do think it was an ac­ci­dent. In my heart of hearts, I do think it was.

“I think they slipped — one slipped and grabbed the other to stop from fall­ing.

“But all we want is an­swers . . . and we’re guess­ing, which breaks your heart. We’re not say­ing (the Por­tuguese po­lice) haven’t done their job, but they haven’t re­ported it, they haven’t given us the com­plete re­port.

“We ei­ther ac­cept it and do noth­ing or get le­gal ad­vice . . . we are in limbo, but we’re re­signed to the fact that we may never get the an­swers.”

Mr Kearns agreed, say­ing: “We’ll be won­der­ing all our lives.”

There was spec­u­la­tion the tragedy was the re­sult of a selfie gone wrong, af­ter Ms Ben­son’s mo­bile phone was found part way down the cliff. This led mar­itime po­lice to as­sume the pair may have been tak­ing a photo at the time. The only bar­rier at the cliff top is a hip-high re­tain­ing wall.

The Kearns’ fam­ily don’t ac­cept the selfie spec­u­la­tion, ques­tion­ing why the cou­ple, who were walk­ing back to their ho­tel af­ter their last known sight­ing about 4am, would take a selfie in the mid­dle of the night.

Ms Ben­son’s iPhone is with her fam­ily, who are try­ing to get it un­locked to see if it holds an­swers.

“It’s in­sult­ing be­cause it makes them sound like they’re stupid or they put them­selves at risk,” Mrs Kearns said.

“Louise’s mum thinks it’s an ac­ci­dent, too. She said, ‘I can see Louise drop­ping her phone and then try­ing to reach over’.”

The re­port pro­vided to the Kearns in­di­cates that the po­lice only spoke to one wit­ness — the beach cleaner who found the pair’s bod­ies at the foot of the cliff. This is de­spite the me­dia find­ing and speak­ing to a num­ber of peo­ple who saw and spent time with Mr Kearns and Ms Ben­son — who had been drink­ing but had no drugs in their sys­tem — in the hours be­fore their deaths, in­clud­ing a woman who was walk­ing her dog near the cliff-top just af­ter 5am and heard some­one shout or scream as if in fright.

There is also no men­tion in the re­port of po­lice check­ing any CCTV cam­era vi­sion, de­spite there be­ing a cam­era at the mar­itime po­lice sta­tion build­ing di­rectly op­po­site where the cou­ple fell.

Mrs Kearns said the fact her son’s wal­let was found on him was not de­fin­i­tive proof that some­thing sin­is­ter, such as a rob­bery gone wrong, did not hap­pen, although lo­cal po­lice say there is noth­ing to sug­gest that.

Mr Kearns said at first he thought the me­dia liken­ing this po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion to the botched case in Por­tu­gal into the dis­ap­pear­ance of Bri­tish tod­dler Madeleine McCann was over the top. “But now six months on, I’m think­ing it’s bloody right up the same al­ley — an­other stuff-up,” he said.

Af­ter get­ting a knock on the door from po­lice at 1.30am that shat­tered their world, Mrs Kearns flew to Por­tu­gal and spent 10 days there with two of her other sons to bring Michael home and try to find an­swers. “It was to­tally shock­ing, you don’t ex­pect it, you don’t be­lieve it. My first thing is, right I’ve got to go over there,” she said.

Mrs Kearns said she did ev­ery­thing the Por­tuguese po­lice told her to, in­clud­ing avoid­ing speak­ing to me­dia in the days af­ter the hor­rific tragedy.

“The im­pres­sion we got from po­lice was if we made waves, they would hold up the process and . . . we would be there longer, which we didn’t want,” she said.

The mother of four sons said she was “only just” cop­ing with the or­deal of los­ing her se­cond el­dest — a surf­ing-mad lar­rikin who lived a few streets away from his par­ents.

But she did find some so­lace know­ing that in their last months her son and Ms Ben­son — his girl­friend of nearly two years who worked in in­sur­ance and vol­un­teered for the Sea Shep­herd or­gan­i­sa­tion — had ex­pe­ri­enced amaz­ing ad­ven­tures to­gether.

Mr Kearns said miss­ing their son, who worked on Chevron’s Wheat­stone project in Onslow, was a con­stant ache that never went away.

“It’s re­ally rough. Just the thought of it makes Kathy cry,” he said. “I have dreams about him, you know, and you just think why isn’t he here? Why aren’t they here? Not just him.

“You’ve raised a kid his whole life, and you think that wouldn’t hap­pen to our boy. He’s go­ing to live longer than us. You shouldn’t bury your own kids.”

One pos­i­tive they are cling­ing to in the face of such pain is the im­mi­nent ar­rivals next year of their first two grand­chil­dren.

A DFAT spokes­woman said con­sular as­sis­tance was pro­vided to Mr Kearns’ fam­ily, but “pri­vacy obli­ga­tions” pre­vented fur­ther com­ment.

Main pic­ture: Justin Ben­son-Cooper

Unan­swered ques­tions: Kathy and Bill Kearns, hold­ing a draw­ing of their son, Michael, who died in a cliff fall with his girl­friend, Louise Ben­son. Be­low: Michael and Louise, and the cliff where they fell.

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