This feature story was first published in the National Indigenous Times newspaper on April 18, 2008. Written by New Matilda editor Chris Graham, it explored attempts by Queensland Police to cover-up the death in custody of a young Aboriginal man in 2004, and the shocking violence they used in the process. The story is being re-published by New Matilda in the lead-up to the Voice referendum on October 14 to help readers form a better historical understanding of the brutality and injustice routinely suffered by First Nations people, and how that might influence demands for a more effective way to be heard by government.

April 18, 2008: Lex Wotton, the Aboriginal man accused of leading a riot on Palm Island in 2004 following the death in custody of Mulrunji Doomadgee was due to appear in Brisbane Magistrate’s Court next week. His trial has been postponed again, this time until October 6. For legal reasons, the National Indigenous Times is not permitted to report in any significant detail the circumstances immediately surrounding the torching of the Palm Island police station, barracks and court house, nor are we allowed to report or comment on the treatment of Lex Wotton by Queensland police subsequent to his arrest. All those matters, our lawyers advise us, are for the courts. So if we’re not allowed to focus on Wotton’s behaviour, then we’ll focus instead on the actions of the Queensland Police. In this special NIT feature, CHRIS GRAHAM re-visits the coronial findings into the death of Mulrunji, in particular the many discrepancies between the evidence provided by police, and the evidence put forward by other witnesses, including medical experts.

The first thing that you need to understand about the death in custody of Mulrunji Doomadgee is that the happy-go-lucky 36-year-old should never have been arrested in the first place. On November 19, 2004 Mulrunji was walking home from a relative’s house. The time was shortly after 10am. Mulrunji was pretty drunk. An autopsy revealed that his blood alcohol level was almost 0.3, six times the legal driving limit.

Still, Mulrunji was on foot – he wasn’t breaking any laws. It’s not yet illegal to walk down a street with a ‘skinful’, even in Queensland.

As Mulrunji turned into Dee Street, he came across a not unusual scene for a ‘morning after’ on Palm Island – police were in the process of arresting a young Aboriginal man, Patrick Bramwell. The arresting officer was Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, a veteran of more than 17-years in the Queensland Police Service. According to Hurley, Bramwell – who was being loud and abusive towards an elderly Aboriginal woman – had committed the offence of ‘public nuisance’.

With Hurley was Aboriginal Police Liaison Officer Lloyd Bengaroo, a Palm Island local whose job it was to act as a link between locals and the cops. As he walked past, Mulrunji remarked to Bengaroo (who he knew) that he shouldn’t be locking up his own kind. Bengaroo warned Mulrunji to move on or he too would find himself under arrest.

Mulrunji complied, but as he walked away, began singing ‘Who let the dogs out’, a recent hit song. Hurley decided that Mulrunji should go for public nuisance as well.

Of course, the only members of the ‘public’ Mulrunji had annoyed was a cop and a liaison officer. Regardless, after loading Bramwell in the van, Hurley and Bengaroo set off after Mulrunji, who had continued walking home. He was duly arrested and bundled into the back of the wagon with Bramwell.

The accusations that were ultimately levelled against Bramwell and Mulrunji constitute the first in a series of charges that law enforcement officials call ‘a trifecta’. It goes like this: A person is arrested for a trivial offence, such as public nuisance or offensive language. The person objects, and becomes more aggressive. He’s then told he’s facing the additional charge of resisting arrest. Even more infuriated, the ‘offender’ struggles harder, and a ‘fight’ ensues, and then he’s slapped with a charge of ‘assault police’.

Before you know it, an incident that began as a verbal exchange between a cop and a citizen has led to charges which could land the bloke in jail.

The ‘trifecta’ – also called ‘having a punt’ by some cops – has been around in policing for decades, but happens less frequently today, thanks in part to the fact most magistrates are wise to the practice and keep a lookout for it with a view to dismissing the charges.

It’s a moot point whether or not Hurley was ‘having a punt’ that morning, because Mulrunji never lived long enough to appear in court. Even so, Queensland Coroner Christine Clement’s view of the basis for the arrest was withering. She noted in her findings that Mulrunji was not a “trouble-maker”, had never been arrested on Palm Island and was not known to Hurley or other police.

“It was completely unjustified to decide to arrest, particularly if that decision was solely influenced by a desire to check the computer for any outstanding warrants. That is not a basis for arrest,” Clements found.

“The arrest of Mulrunji was not an appropriate exercise of police discretion…. Mulrunji had heeded the warning and walked on without further involving himself in proceedings.”

At this point, Mulrunji’s fate wasn’t quite sealed. He could have gone quietly, slept it off at the watchhouse and been released later that day, possibly without charge, but probably with a lecture from Hurley. But after the police vehicle completed the short drive to the Palm Island Police station, Mulrunji made a decision that would ultimately cost him his life.

When Hurley opened the rear cage to remove the prisoners, Mulrunji lashed out. He struck Hurley on the chin with the back of his closed fist.

Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley – a mountain of a man at 200cm tall, weighing 115 kilograms – was not used to his authority being challenged. Within minutes, Mulrunji would sustain horrendous injuries that would end his life within the hour.

A struggle ensued, with Hurley trying to push Mulrunji through the back door of the police station, and Mulrunji resisting. Both men lost their balance as they negotiated a single step. They crashed through the doorway of the watchhouse, landing on the floor inside. Hurley maintained in at least three subsequent interviews with investigators that he finished on his knees beside Mulrunji, who landed on his back. There was no way, Hurley maintained, that he had landed on top of Mulrunji.

Unbeknown to Hurley, the unfolding events were being watched by Roy Bramwell, a relative of Patrick Bramwell who was sitting in the police station waiting to be interviewed over another matter.

Roy Bramwell told investigators that after falling to the floor, Hurley stood up over Mulrunji and began assaulting him, striking him three times and then kicking him. Bramwell said his view was slightly obscured by a filing cabinet, but that he saw “… Chris’ elbow going up and down” over Mulrunji’s body and that he heard Hurley saying, “You want more Mr Doomadgee, you want more? Have you had enough Mr Doomadgee?”

A police officer who was outside the watchhouse at the time confirmed to the coronial inquiry that Hurley was yelling at Mulrunji in an abusive tone immediately after they crashed through the doorway.

For his part, Hurley maintains that even though Mulrunji struck him in the jaw, he never assaulted Mulrunji in any way. The autopsy on Mulrunji’s body tells a very different story.


Horrific injuries

Medical examiners revealed that Mulrunji died of a ruptured liver. He had been struck so hard, in fact, that his liver had been forced backwards onto his spine, causing it to be almost “cleaved in two” by the bones. He also suffered four fractured right ribs and a ruptured spleen.

Externally, it looked as though Mulrunji had suffered only minor injuries.

“The only external sign of injury was a small oval abrasion in the centre of the right eyebrow measuring 0.4 centimetres by 0.2 centimetres which was bleeding slightly,” the coroner reported. “The right upper eyelid was swollen but there was no haemorrhage of the right eye.”

But a second autopsy “… also found some deep bruising immediately adjacent to the right side of the mandible and a small (3 centimetre) scalp contusion on the right frontotemporal region of the scalp.”

In laymen’s terms, Mulrunji had a cut above his right eye, and he had sustained a significant bruise on the right side of his jaw, in addition to bruising on the right side of his scalp. Coroner Clements notes: “Dr Lynch agreed that the force applied to Mulrunji’s body must have been from the front… of the body or perhaps the right-hand side of the body.

“He agreed that this logically would mean Mulrunji was on his back or on his left-hand side. It would be difficult in such a scenario to then explain the injury to the right eye as being incurred in the course of such a fall.”

It’s equally difficult to explain how Mulrunji received a deep bruise to his right jaw and the right side of his scalp if he fell onto his back or left side.

So how did Mulrunji end up with three separate injuries to the right side of his head? We may never know, but it certainly gives new significance to the claims by Roy Bramwell that he saw Hurley’s elbow go up and down over Mulrunji three times.

Valmae Aplin (centre) and Jane Doomadgee (right), sisters of Mulrunji Doomadgee, are comforted by friend Sharyn Brown outside the Townsville Supreme Court during the manslaughter trial of Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley. The officer was acquitted, but the family have since launched civil proceedings. (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

Coroner Clements doesn’t necessarily accept that the blows were to Mulrunji’s head, although she doesn’t discount it either.

“I reject Senior Sergeant Hurley’s account that he then simply got up from the heavy fall through the doorway and went to assist the man who had just punched him and caused him to fall over.

“I find that Senior Sergeant Hurley hit Mulrunji whilst he was on the floor a number of times in a direct response to himself having been hit in the jaw and then falling to the floor.

“I do not necessarily conclude that this force was to Mulrunji’s head as stated by Mr Bramwell. He could not have been in a position to see Mulrunji’s head from where he was seated. Mulrunji’s feet and part of his legs was all he could see.

“It is open on Bramwell’s evidence that the force was applied to Mulrunji’s body rather then his head. This is also consistent with the medical evidence of the injuries that caused Mulrunji’s death.

“It is also most likely that it was at this time that Mulrunji suffered the injury to his right eye.”


Indifferent to dying

Having dragged a now submissive Mulrunji to his cell without even a proper search – a cigarette lighter was later found in Mulrunji’s pocket during the autopsy – Hurley then set about ignoring the cries of agony from the man he had just mortally wounded.

“Mulrunji cried out for help from the cell after being fatally injured, and no help came,” Coroner Clements found. “The images from the cell video tape of Mulrunji, writhing in pain as he lay dying on the cell floor, were shocking and terribly distressing to family and anyone who sat through that portion of the evidence.

“The sounds from the cell surveillance tape are unlikely to be forgotten by anyone who was in court and heard that tape played. There is clear evidence that this must have been able to be heard from the police station dayroom where the monitor was running.

“Indeed the timing of Senior Sergeant Hurley’s visit to the cell suggests that the sounds were heard. But the response was completely inadequate and offered no proper review of Mulrunji’s condition or call for medical attention.”

The ‘response’ Coroner Clements describes was Hurley walking into the cell shortly before 11am and ‘nudging’ Mulrunji with his foot, then leaving. He later told investigators: “I did the first check – I actually did a physical check – where I opened up the cell and walked in. And the reason I did that was because there were two prisoners there. With one normally you can crouch down beside the cell and hear them breathing, whatever. With two I actually walked in. They were laying down there – both asleep and both were snoring.”

In fact, Mulrunji was not snoring, nor was he sleeping. He was dying. Video footage shows Patrick Bramwell trying to comfort Mulrunji during the last minutes of his life.

Mulrunji Doomadgee, beaten to death by Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley at the Palm Island police station in 2004.

At 11.23am, Sergeant Michael Leafe checked on the prisoners. He noticed that Mulrunji was not breathing and felt unusually cold.

Hurley told investigators that when he first realised Mulrunji wasn’t breathing, he checked for a pulse and thought he felt something. In hindsight, he said he later dismissed this as feeling the rush of his own adrenaline in reaction to the situation.

The coroner noted that she found this remark “perplexing”, because despite telling investigators that he felt a pulse, Hurley concedes that he never at any stage attempted resuscitation.

Mulrunji Doomadgee – a healthy 36-year-old Aboriginal man with a partner and young son, was dead on the floor of a police cell. He had died less than an hour after being arrested for no good reason.

Video footage of the cell after Mulrunji’s death shows Hurley leaning with his back against the wall. He slides down the wall until he slumps on the floor, his head in his hands.

At 115 kilos, Hurley is a very big man. Big enough, obviously, to inflict mortal wounds on Mulrunji Doomadgee. But Hurley wasn’t big enough to tell the Doomadgee family that Mulrunji was dead. So instead he lied.

Later that day, family members visited the station and asked Hurley if they could visit Mulrunji. Hurley told them he was sleeping.

Finally, at 4pm – five hours after the death – the police came clean, although the job of informing the family fell to another officer.


Cue the cover-up

The evidence that Hurley caused the death of Mulrunji is overwhelming. Even Hurley himself now accepts it, although he maintains it was an accident. As for the police investigation into his actions, there were no accidents, just corrupt intentions.

The derailing of the investigation began literally within minutes of confirmation that Mulrunji was dead. Despite the death occurring in a police station, evidence presented to the inquest revealed that the ‘crime scene’ where the injuries were inflicted – the rear entrance to the watchhouse area – was never secured.

Within an hour of Mulrunji’s death, Queensland police hierarchy were aware of the death. Townsville Regional Crime Co-ordinator Inspector Warren Webber immediately appointed two local officers – Detective Senior Sergeant Ray Kitching from the Townsville Criminal Investigation Branch, and Detective Sergeant Darren Robinson, from the Criminal Investigation Branch on Palm Island – to take charge of the investigation.

Kitching had previously worked closely with Hurley. He later told investigators that while he didn’t consider Hurley to be a friend, he was “well disposed” to Hurley. Robinson’s story was even worse. He was actually a close friend and neighbour of Hurley’s – the pair had worked together on Palm for two years.

In addition to this, it wouldn’t be the first time Robinson would investigate his mate over allegations of violence and misconduct.

During the inquest, Coroner Clements took evidence regarding past incidents involving Hurley on Palm Island. One of them related to Hurley’s attendance at a violent domestic dispute some months before the death of Mulrunji.

Queensland Police Union vice-president Denis Fitzpatrick takes a vote from around 1000 police during a meeting in Brisbane in February 2007. The police voted to make a protest march on State Parliament in response to a decision to charge Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley over the death in custody of Mulrunji Doomadgee on Palm Island in 2004. (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

A woman – Barbara Pilot – approached the police vehicle that Hurley was driving. He sped off, and ran over her foot in the process. Pilot was seriously injured, so much so that after initial treatment at the Palm Island hospital, she had to be transferred to Townsville.

Coroner Clements notes: “Whether or not the incident occurred as was alleged, and whether it occurred due to accident, negligence or was deliberate, remains undetermined. It most certainly required independent and full investigation. This did not happen.”

The investigating officer was Detective Sergeant Robinson.

According to the coroner, Robinson conducted a “belated”, “cursory” and “completely unsatisfactory” investigation, before dismissing the complaint as fictitious. That’s despite, in the coroner’s words, the clear existence of evidence which showed that Ms Pilot’s foot was “prima facie consistent with being run over by a car tyre”.

The coroner also noted: “The other matter of relevance to this inquest is the manner and extent to which Senior Sergeant Hurley told this inquest he satisfied himself that Barbara Pilot was uninjured.

“He opened the car door and looked her up and down as she lay on the ground, decided she was unhurt, and drove off.” Hurley did, however, eventually return to the ‘scene of the crime’ later that night. He began approaching potential witnesses in an attempt to determine what they had seen.


Mates investigate mate

A few hours after Mulrunji’s death, Detective Kitching arrived on Palm to begin investigations. Travelling with him was Inspector Webber, who also happened to be linked to the Ethical Standards Command (ESC), a unit of senior police whose “core business” is to ensure the police service “conducts its affairs in an ethical manner”.

Hurley – the man they were sent to investigate – was waiting at the airstrip to pick them up. He ferried the investigating officers, plus a police photographer, around the island, including to the scene of Mulrunji’s arrest.

Later than night, Hurley had them all over to his house for dinner and beers.

Hurley had already been interviewed by Detectives Robinson and Kitching. The next morning he was interviewed by Webber and Inspector Mark Williams, a second officer linked to the ESC who had travelled up from Brisbane.

The investigation had obviously already been seriously corrupted, but what transpires on November 20 – just 24 hours after the death in custody – beggars belief.

Inspector Webber and Inspector Williams also interviewed Roy Bramwell and video-taped a re-enactment. Bramwell revealed that he had seen Hurley’s elbow going up and down over the body of Mulrunji.

According to The Australian newspaper, Hurley was sitting “just metres away” in his office, within earshot of proceedings.

Hurley later explains that Bramwell misunderstood what had really occurred. Hurley was merely trying to lift Mulrunji up off the floor by his shirt, but it kept ripping, “thus causing him to perform a repetitive action which he says was misinterpreted… as punching”.

The coroner noted that in Hurley’s original interview on the day of the death with Robinson and Kitching, he made no mention of trying to lift a drunk Mulrunji from the floor as his shirt kept ripping. That version of events was given to investigators later, after Bramwell had recorded the evidence with investigators (to which Hurley was within earshot).

The coroner also noted that after discrepancies in time emerged in the course of the investigation, Hurley had an ‘off the record’ discussion with Webber, Williams, Robinson and Kitching.

“But this was not documented as part of the investigation by those officers,” Coroner Clements noted.

“It only came to light incidentally through Senior Sergeant Hurley’s answers to the [Crime and Misconduct Commission].”

It also later emerged that Hurley had compared notes with Sergeant Leafe and Liaison Officer Bengaroo, and that Hurley had also watched the surveillance footage of Mulrunji as he lay dying in the cell.

Challenged about this later, Inspector Williams suggested that a witness reviewing evidence while a matter was under investigation could only make their evidence “better or more accurate”. It’s fair to say that Queensland’s crime community will no doubt be looking forward to the formal adoption of that loophole.

But it’s the interview by Webber and Williams – the two police brought in specifically to ensure the highest standard of ethics – of Lloyd Bengaroo which provides the greatest insight into how Queensland Police operates to protect one of its own.

At one point during the interview, Webber asks Bengaroo why he didn’t see what happened after Hurley and Mulrunji had crashed to the floor, even though he (Bengaroo) was standing right next to the doorway.

Bengaroo replied: “I just stood there because I was thinking, um, if I see something I might get into trouble myself or something.”

You might think that telling two Inspectors of Police from the Ethical Standards Command that you deliberately looked away while a six-foot-seven-inch cop weighing 115 kilos wrestled with a five-foot-eleven-inch Aboriginal weighing 74 kilos might elicit some sort of grilling.

Webber simply replied, “Oh, OK,” before he and Williams moved on to a new line of questioning.

It seems knowing when to ‘look the other way’ is all in a day’s work in the Queensland Police Service, although it didn’t wash with Coroner Clements.

“How these senior investigating officers could have let that response remain unexplored was as wilfully blind as Bengaroo chose to be.”

The QPS remained in charge of the investigation for six days, until the autopsy report was finally completed. By then, it was already apparent that the investigation had been very badly compromised.

The police report sent to the pathologist, signed off by Kitching, neglected to mention that Bramwell had claimed Hurley assaulted Mulrunji just prior to his death. Coroner Clements described this information as “crucial”.

On November 24, the Crime and Misconduct Commission took charge of the investigation. Officers were due to arrive on Palm Island on November 26. But it was too late. A few hours before their arrival, the autopsy report was publicly released on Palm Island at a tense community meeting.


A powder keg is lit

Palm Island Mayor Erykah Kyle read out the verdict of the autopsy report to a packed meeting of community members in the main square outside the Palm Island store: Mulrunji’s death was an accident. He tripped up a single step, fell onto a flat floor, and somehow cut his liver in two.

The island erupted, and within minutes, the police station, police barracks and the courthouse were on fire.

It’s impossible to know what finding the pathologist may have made had he been told that a police officer was accused of assaulting Mulrunji shortly before his death. But we do know what medical experts furnished with all the information subsequently found.

“The consensus of medical opinion was that severe compressive force applied to the upper abdomen, or possibly the lower chest, or both together, was required to have caused this injury,” said the coroner.

In her summing up and findings, Coroner Clements repeatedly described Hurley as untruthful during proceedings.

“I find that Mulrunji did punch Senior Sergeant Hurley outside the police station as he tried to resist being taken into the police station…. Senior Sergeant Hurley did respond to Mulrunji’s punch by himself punching Mulrunji…. I reject Senior Sergeant Hurley’s denial as untruthful.”

And this:

“Senior Sergeant Hurley… asserted that he was not put out by the fall and did not react against Mulrunji – a most unlikely response from a man who considered his lawful authority and personal position of power was being challenged, and in his own police station. Despite a steady demeanour in court, Senior Sergeant Hurley’s explanation does not persuade me he was truthful in his account of what happened.”

Coroner Clements rejected almost all of the key elements of Hurley’s testimony, with one notable exception: “I find that Senior Sergeant Hurley’s repeated clear statements that he fell to the left-hand side of Mulrunji are in fact what occurred.”

Having already noted in her findings that Hurley’s lawyer had conceded that if the injury occurred after the fall it necessarily inferred a deliberate application of force by Hurley, Coroner Clements added:

“I find that Senior Sergeant Hurley hit Mulrunji whilst he was on the floor a number of times in a direct response to himself having been hit in the jaw and then falling to the floor. After this occurred, I find there was no further resistance or indeed any speech or response from Mulrunji. I conclude that these actions of Senior Sergeant Hurley caused the fatal injuries.”


A system fails

Former Director of Public Prosecutions, Leanne Clare.

It’s a well-known matter of public record that following the coroner’s findings, the Queensland Director of Public Prosecutions, Leanne Clare refused to charge Hurley over the death, claiming there was no reasonable prospect of a conviction.

During the ensuing media furore – which included substantial interest from overseas – Clare made a strange reference to additional evidence which she had personally gathered, although she never disclosed what this evidence was, or where it came from.

Under intense political pressure, Premier Peter Beattie finally announced a review of the DPP’s decision. In January 2007, Sir Laurence Street – a former NSW Supreme Court Chief Justice – found Hurley had a case to answer. Clare’s decision was overturned, and Hurley was charged with manslaughter and assault, and for the second time suspended from duty on full pay.

It’s also well-known that in June 2007, Hurley was acquitted on both charges, although he finally did accept that he must have caused the fatal injuries to Mulrunji. Hurley maintains, however, that it was a tragic accident.

Had Hurley been a citizen, that would probably have been the end of the matter. But as a sworn police officer, Hurley still had to face internal investigations. In December 2006, after the DPP had announced Hurley would not be prosecuted, Queensland Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson issued a press release aimed at restoring some public confidence in the service.

“The Queensland Police Commissioner, Bob Atkinson said today that the QPS acknowledged the Director of Public Prosecutions announcement that the DPP would not be proceeding with any criminal charges against Senior Sergeant Hurley, and the Crime and Misconduct Commission advice that, ‘… no disciplinary action before the Misconduct Tribunal or by the Queensland Police Service can be taken against the police officer in relation to the cause of death or in relation to the charges of assault or perjury….’”

What Atkinson does not mention was why the CMC said no disciplinary action could be taken against Hurley from matters arising out of the coronial process.

Coroner Clement’s findings provides the clue:

“A direction was necessary to obtain Senior Sergeant Hurley’s evidence on the basis that the answers may incriminate him…. According to law those answers are not admissible against Senior Sergeant Hurley in any other proceedings except for the offence of perjury.”

In the same release, Atkinson notes:

“The CMC media release also advises that, ‘… Any other disciplinary charges against Senior Sergeant Hurley arising from the Coronial Inquest are now the responsibility of the QPS.
“In that regard the QPS will now closely examine all the undetermined criticisms in the report of the Acting State Coroner levelled against Senior Sergeant Hurley and other members of the Service to determine if any disciplinary or other actions are warranted. The Service will liaise with the CMC in respect of that process.”


Why no action?

Almost a year and a half later – and three and a half years after the death of Mulrunji Doomadgee – the “undetermined criticisms” from the coroner against Hurley and “other members of the Service” remain undetermined.

A fortnight ago, NIT contacted the Queensland Police to ask why. The QPS issued a written statement in response:

“The Queensland Police Service has not finalised its investigation into the actions of officers involved in the investigation of Mr Doomadgee’s death.
“These investigations will be finalised as soon as possible and those determinations would be overviewed by the Crime and Misconduct Commission.
“The allegations against individual police officers involved in the arrest and custody of Mr Doomadgee, including Senior Sergeant Hurley, will continue to be progressed internally. However, these matters may not be able to be finalised until other court proceedings are completed.
“Pursuant to section 50 of the Coroners Act 2003, Senior Sergeant Hurley has commenced legal proceedings to review some of the findings of the Inquest by the Deputy State Coroner’s (sic) into the death of (Mulrunji). This review is before the Townsville District Court.”

Which could equally read, ‘Queensland police will investigate the allegations of misconduct against Queensland police who were investigating allegations of misconduct against Queensland police’.

Coroner Clements wasn’t kidding when she noted in her findings, “It is regrettable that even in these proceedings some senior police officers have not been prepared to acknowledge the lack of sensitivity shown in the investigation and how it must damage public confidence.”

You need only reverse the situation to realise that in Queensland, it’s one rule for the police and another for everyone else. Imagine if a coroner’s court had found Lex Wotton responsible for the death of a police officer? Imagine if the same court found several of Lex’s friends assisted him shortly after the death?

Now try and imagine the Queensland Police suspending investigations into the death because ‘Lex and friends’ say they’re innocent and are seeking a judicial review?


Cops cry foul

Of all the community outrage expressed over the Palm Island riot and the charging of Chris Hurley, few cried foul louder than Gary Wilkinson, president of the Queensland Police Union of Employees (QPUE).

Wilkinson publicly described Clements’ inquiry as a “witch hunt” which was “… designed to pander to the residents of Palm Island, rather than establishing the facts”. He also alleged that Clements had ignored “mountains of evidence” which supported Hurley, but embraced evidence from “drunkard” Palm Islanders.

Wilkinson called on the Director of Public Prosecutions to “see through this rubbish” and throw the case in the bin “where it belongs”.

Unsurprisingly, Wilkinson was charged with contempt of court.

In March 2007, the offence was found proved, but Wilkinson managed to escape conviction after publicly apologising to the coroner prior to his trial. He was ordered to pay court costs, which the QPUE helped fund.

Six months later, Wilkinson was back under investigation again, this time by the Crime and Misconduct Commission. But the alleged offences had nothing to do with Wilkinson’s apparent temper.

In August 2007, the CMC began an investigation into allegations that Wilkinson, along with several other senior union officials, obtained fraudulent valuations of vehicles owned by the QPUE, and then sold them at substantially discounted rates to family members.

The investigation remained secret until The Australian newspaper broke the story on October 20 last year.

In Wilkinson’s case, the allegation specifically related to him selling a QPUE-owned Toyota Camry to his wife for around $11,000. The vehicle was reportedly worth $23,000.

“It is understood a licensed motor dealer at Shorncliffe, to Brisbane’s north, provided a valuation for the car sold to Mr Wilkinson’s wife…. A friend of Mr Wilkinson – who was a former employee of the Queensland Police Credit Union – contacted the Shorncliffe motor dealer on behalf of Mr Wilkinson,” The Courier-Mail later reported.

An apparently relaxed Wilkinson denied any wrongdoing, telling The Australian that he was most likely just the victim of a smear campaign.

“A number of union staff and officials have been interviewed and the union is co-operating with the investigation” he told The Australian. “We understand the CMC’s investigation is nearly complete, and we’re confident it will reveal no wrong-doing, and will conclude with no adverse findings against the union.

“Inquiries of this type arise from time to time, given the political and legal environment in which we operate.”

But the CMC’s findings did not clear the union, nor did it clear Wilkinson. Late last year, the CMC constructed a brief against Mr Wilkinson and sent it to the Department of Public Prosecutions. Leanne Clare – the public prosecutor who refused to charge Chris Hurley – also refused to prosecute Wilkinson.

Earlier this week, the CMC declined to outline the reasons provided by the DPP, however a CMC spokesperson emphasised: “We acted entirely on advice from the DPP and the DPP advised no prosecution should be brought.”

The DPP declined to provide NIT with an explanation for why a court will not decide Wilkinson’s fate. Wilkinson – a long-serving, influential former police officer has escaped prosecution yet the public is not entitled to know why.

As for the Union, it has a new president, and a new process for disposing of union vehicles, but one wonders what the 9,500 members of the QPUE think of their monthly membership fees ending up in the back pockets of union officials.


The wash-up

Just three months after telling The Australian there were no problems, Wilkinson retired from the police service, citing a chronic back problem for his departure. Wilkinson now lives north of Brisbane and has retired on a full police pension.

Chris Hurley is still at work on the Gold Coast, although he reportedly works in a non-operational role at regional headquarters. His appeal against the coroner’s findings is expected to be heard later this year. [Ed’s note: The coroner’s findings were ultimately overturned. Hurley retired from Queensland Police in 2017 on medical grounds, while facing multiple criminal charges including assault, over unrelated matters.]

Inspector Webber, one of the officers who seemed unsurprised that Lloyd Bengaroo deliberately looked away while Hurley dealt with Mulrunji on the watchhouse floor, is still a serving police officer based in Townsville. [Ed’s note: Webber eventually conceded sharing a beer with Hurley on the evening of the killing, while he was investigating, was inappropriate.]

Inspector Williams – the co-interviewer of Bengaroo and the officer who thought that evidence might improve if witnesses got to review it – is still based in Brisbane.

At least three of 16 police sent to Palm Island immediately after the death in custody to bolster numbers in expectations of the riot are suing Queensland Police for stress-related injuries.

As for the folk on Palm Island, they’re still fighting their own demons.

Tracey Twaddle, Mulrunji’s partner for the last decade of his life, still grieves her loss. So does Mulrunji’s community, and his family. On November 2 last year, they commenced civil proceedings against Senior Sergeant Hurley and the Queensland government.

In total, almost 30 Aboriginal people were charged over the Palm riots. About half of them were convicted, with jail time ranging from a few weeks to almost two years.

Terrence Alfred Kidner, aged in his early 20s, thus far has received the harshest sentence – he is serving 16 months after pleading guilty to arson. At his trial in May last year, Kidner’s defence barrister, Bruce Mumford, told the court Kidner had the mental capacity of a seven-and-a-half-year-old. Mr Mumford said Kidner was apologetic when he confessed.

Lex Wotton goes to trial in October and is facing more than 13 years in jail. [Ed’s note: Wotton was convicted and jailed for two years. After his release, he successfully sued the Queensland Police for racial discrimination, and led a multi-million compensation payment and apology to Palm Islanders from the Queensland Government.]

In late 2006, three days before the resumption of the inquest after a short break, Mulrunji’s son, Eric, hung himself.

Three months later, Patrick Bramwell, the friend who shared a cell with Mulrunji and attempted to comfort him as he bled to death on the floor of a police cell, also took his own life.

Chris Graham is the publisher and editor of New Matilda. He is the former founding managing editor of the National Indigenous Times and Tracker magazine. In more than three decades of journalism he's had his home and office raided by the Australian Federal Police; he's been arrested and briefly jailed in Israel; he's reported from a swag in Outback Australia on and off for years. Chris has worked across multiple mediums including print, radio and film. His proudest achievement is serving as an Associate producer on John Pilger's 2013 film Utopia. He's also won a few journalism awards along the way in both the US and Australia, including a Walkley Award, a Walkley High Commendation and two Human Rights Awards. Since late 2021, Chris has been battling various serious heart and lung conditions. He's begun the process of quietly planning a "gentle exit" after "tying up a few loose ends" in 2024 and 2025. So watch this space.