The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Graeme Blun­dell Bar­ren­joey Road,

One win­ter’s night in 1978, teenager Trudie Adams asked her mum to wait up for her as she headed to a dance at Newport Surf Life Sav­ing Club on Syd­ney’s north­ern beaches. Adams left home at 7pm to at­tend a preparty with friends and walked up Bar­ren­joey Road.

A mo­torist stopped to give her a lift to her friend Deb­bie’s house, and from there Adams and Deb­bie walked to the Newport Ho­tel, ar­riv­ing at 8.30pm, and stayed un­til clos­ing time, which was 10pm. Adams was ex­cited about her up­com­ing trip to Bali in six weeks. The girls then trav­elled in a friend’s car to the Newport Surf Life Sav­ing Club. Shortly after mid­night, Adams ran out­side, up­set, ap­par­ently after an ar­gu­ment with her boyfriend Steve Nor­ris, telling no one where she was go­ing.

Through a win­dow in the club, Nor­ris saw her leave, head­ing for Bar­ren­joey Road. He as­sumed she would try to get a lift as he had no car. (It was com­mon in those days to hitch rides on the north­ern beaches, as lit­tle or no pub­lic trans­port was avail­able.)

He fol­lowed her, con­cerned about the way she loved hitch­ing rides — even from strangers at night — but as he was cross­ing the carpark Adams had reached the road and was get­ting into a fawny-beige 1974-76 Holden panel van with no side win­dows that had stopped to give her a lift. It then sped up Bar­ren­joey Road to­wards Palm Beach.

Adams never made it home. Her dis­ap­pear­ance trans­fixed Aus­tralia. The tabloids had a field day. Her body has never been found.

What hap­pened to Adams that night? Why has no­body ever been brought to jus­tice? Across three ab­sorb­ing episodes, Bar­ren­joey Road, which started last week and is stream­ing on ABC iView, leads to a dark place in an Aus­tralia that doesn’t seem to have changed all that much: drug deals, mul­ti­ple mur­ders and sex­ual as­saults against women.

Bar­ren­joey Road is led by Ruby Jones, an award-win­ning in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist who has worked across Aus­tralia, re­port­ing on so­cial af­fairs, youth, and crime and jus­tice. The se­ries is writ­ten and di­rected by the veteran Marc Radom­sky, re­cently re­spon­si­ble for Strug­gle Street, the high­est rat­ing lo­cally com­mis­sioned doc­u­men­tary in the his­tory of SBS.

Jones is an im­pos­ing pres­ence, but there’s a hard eval­u­a­tive edge to her per­sona, and an acute aware­ness of the eth­i­cally tricky na­ture of true-crime TV and the way real lives — of­ten peo­ple still suf­fer­ing great loss — can so ca­su­ally be treated as spec­ta­cle. Is ev­ery gory de­tail pre­sented in a kind of tabloid cav­al­cade in the many se­ries in this genre be­cause pro­duc­ers be­lieve we care about vic­tims, or be­cause we sim­ply crave ex­cite­ment?

It is a prob­lem­atic sub­ject and has been since Tru­man Capote wrote In Cold Blood. After all, what is the re­la­tion­ship be­tween jour­nal­ist and sub­ject? As Janet Mal­colm fa­mously put it, “Ev­ery jour­nal­ist who is not too stupid or too full of him­self to no­tice what is go­ing on knows that what he does is morally in­de­fen­si­ble.”

But while Jones, like any jour­nal­ist, is after a good story and do­ing what­ever is re­quired to get it, she pro­ceeds with a per­sua­sive blend of al­tru­ism, pas­sion and re­spon­si­bil­ity. Al­though she struc­tures her nar­ra­tive around her in­ter­ac­tions with friends, fam­ily and po­lice who in­ves­ti­gated Adams’s dis­ap­pear­ance, they don’t eat sig­nif­i­cantly into the story. Nor does she ap­pear to ma­nip­u­late the ev­i­dence in any way, mould­ing it to sup­port the case she de­vel­ops, an ac­cu­sa­tion made about sev­eral re­cent true-crime suc­cesses such as Mak­ing a Mur­derer and The Jinx.

Hear­ing that Adams’s brother re­fuses to be part of the pro­gram, Jones de­cides against in­ter­view­ing any of the fam­ily, to save them the pain of re­liv­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence. But the dis­turbingly high rate of vi­o­lence against women in Aus­tralia — fam­ily and do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, sex­ual harass­ment and as­sault, vi­o­lence in res­i­den­tial set­tings, and on­line vi­o­lence and harass­ment — is of great con­cern to her as a jour­nal­ist.

And her anger at times seems to drive her in this in­ves­ti­ga­tion — as much as she’s chas­ing a more in­ter­est­ing al­ter­na­tive to an al­ready in­trigu­ing story — es­pe­cially when Adams’s dis­ap­pear­ance takes on even more sin­is­ter di­men­sions. For her the in­ves­ti­ga­tion goes to “big­ger things” she says. “Vi­o­lence against women has of­ten gone un­pun­ished but things have changed and … there’s a reck­on­ing.”

Jones was born a decade after ’s dis­ap­pear­ance, so she teams up with veteran crime re­porter Neil Mercer, who has an in­sider’s han­dle on the 1970s and Syd­ney’s un­der­world cul­ture. As they ex­am­ine the alarm­ing case, they use all kinds of dra­matic con­ven­tions to vi­talise their jour­nal­is­tic sto­ry­telling. The lupine Mercer is an au­thor­i­ta­tive sec­ond ba­nana, a Walk­ley award­win­ning jour­nal­ist, cel­e­brated for his work on Gangs of Oz and The Life and Times of Roger Roger­son, and for break­ing ma­jor news sto­ries such as the il­le­gal bug­ging of dozens of NSW po­lice in 2012, which led to an in­quiry by the state om­buds­man.

Their ob­jec­tive is to make sense of per­suas-


ive but con­flict­ing ev­i­dence and in­ves­ti­gate sus­pects who, for rea­sons that re­main mys­te­ri­ous, weren’t fully probed in the past. It will turn out to be a har­row­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

“The last 10 months have been a con­fronting jour­ney for all of us,” the film­mak­ers say in their state­ment. “Slowly, un­evenly, we have come to know some­thing of Trudie Adams and un­der­stand the sense of loss still felt by her fam­ily, friends and com­mu­nity. Adams’s live­li­ness, hopes and sense of hu­mour un­der­line the tragedy of her sus­pected mur­der as well as the fail­ure to find and pun­ish those re­spon­si­ble.”

Jones starts by re­trac­ing the events on the night of the dis­ap­pear­ance, fill­ing in de­tails as she drives along Bar­ren­joey Road and its sur­rounds. “Did she run away?” she asks. “Was she ab­ducted in a ran­dom at­tack or tar­geted by some­one who knew her?” She dis­cusses the con­fu­sion among wit­nesses as to whether Adams in fact got into a green Kombi van or a Holden sta­tion wagon — con­fu­sion that has dogged the case from the start. (It would not be the last time the green Kombi van would mys­te­ri­ously ap­pear in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.)

Former de­tec­tive Gavin McKean sets the con­text for Jones early on. “I think you’ll find there’s or­gan­ised crime, there’s po­lice cor­rup­tion, there’s in­for­mants, there’s drug deal­ing and im­por­ta­tion and there’s the cul­ture you’re deal­ing with in the 70s,” he tells her im­pas­sively. He talks, too, of a “crim­i­nal mon­ster” with po­lice con­nec­tions who roamed free for years, pick­ing up hitch­hik­ers, rap­ing them, and com­mit­ting vi­cious acts with weapons.

Sud­denly Adams’s dis­ap­pear­ance takes on the di­men­sions of a James Ellroy novel, a vi­o­lent al­ter­na­tive his­tory of the once laid-back hol­i­day par­adise of Syd­ney’s north­ern beaches, crammed with labyrinthine con­spir­a­cies and blood-soaked set pieces. Vis­it­ing the State Li­brary to pe­ruse the press records, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors dis­cover ev­i­dence of other ab­duc­tions and rapes; other young women came for­ward with fright­ful sto­ries of as­saults on or around Bar­ren­joey Road.

They were ab­ducted at gun­point and forced into a car by men of­ten wear­ing dis­guises: cheap plas­tic wigs, dark glasses and fake beards. Com­pelling cir­cum­stan­tial ev­i­dence and dis­cus­sions with po­lice who in­ves­ti­gated lead Jones and Mercer to a place where the rapes prob­a­bly took place, deep in the wilder­ness of Ku-ring-gai Chase Na­tional Park, power lines hum­ming in the dis­tance.

In this week’s episode they ex­am­ine the­o­ries about how a boom­ing beaches drug trade could have been a fac­tor in the tak­ing of Adams, the young woman some­times linked to the re­cruit­ment of drug run­ners.

Her mother be­lieved she was killed be­cause she re­fused to be a courier hus­tling drugs to Bali, a the­ory dis­counted by po­lice. They head to Rose­lands in Syd­ney’s south­west to solve the mys­tery of the green Kombi and close in on a ca­reer crim­i­nal who was re­spon­si­ble for an­other bru­tal at­tack in the bush near Bar­ren­joey Road. It re­mains to be seen whether this in­ves­ti­ga­tion will have the same im­pact as the ABC’s re­cent look at the dis­ap­pear­ance of two-day-old Te­gan Lane and the con­vic­tion in 2010 of her mother, Keli Lane, for her mur­der, but it’s cer­tainly ab­sorb­ing true-crime TV. Tues­day, 8.30pm, ABC; also stream­ing on iView.

In­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ists Ruby Jones and Neil Mercer on Syd­ney’s Bar­ren­joey Road; Trudie Adams, left

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