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Coronial inquest into historic death of two Indigenous girls hears of failures to adequately preserve evidence

Dechlan Brennan -

The following article contains names and images of people who have died, as well as graphic and disturbing details.

An inquest into the historic deaths of two Indigenous girls has heard a crime scene expert had misgivings about the way the accident site, and crucial evidence, was handled.

Senior Constable John Ludewig from the physical evidence section of the crime scene unit based in Dubbo, took part in the investigation into the accident in Bourke, NSW, that resulted in the deaths of Jacinta Rose 'Cindy' Smith, 15, and her cousin Mona Lisa Smith, 16, in the early hours of December 6, 1987.

Ian Alexander Grant, 40, was found by witnesses with his arm draped across the body of a bare chested and partially naked Cindy.

Appearing via video link, Mr Ludewig told the inquest normal protocol would have been for his unit in Dubbo to be contacted on the day of any accident. Instead, he wasn't asked to come to Bourke until December 7.

"First and foremost, we should have been advised," he said.

"I could have been there within about five hours."

By the time he arrived at the scene of the crash in mid-afternoon, he noted evidence had not been collected to the standards he was used to.

Counsel assisting the coroner, Peggy Dwyer SC, asked if the gathering of evidence accurately from a crime scene investigation - in a timely response - was imperative.

"Absolutely," Mr Ludewig replied.

On arrival at the crash site – 63 km north of Bourke - he was surprised by the lack of markings indicating various aspects of the crash, including tyre marks and the point where the vehicle left the road, which he told the inquest were routine elements of a crash investigation.

"I would have expected to see… a paint marker on the side of the road where it (the car) left …I don't think there was anything there," Mr Ludewig told the court.

He said he felt like he had gone from "crime scene investigator to picking up a few things".

The inquest has heard both Bourke detectives sergeant Peter Ehsman and sergeant Vaughn Reid determined Mr Grant was the likely driver - believing his version of events that he allowed Mona to drive the car before it crashed - whilst simultaneously disbelieving his story that Cindy had made a sexual pass at him.

Other witnesses told the court that Mr Grant had initially admitted he was the driver, before changing his story when he was made aware of the two girls passing.

At the trial in 1990, Mr Grant was found not guilty of drink driving causing death, with a further charge of interfering with a corpse being dropped on the eve of the trial.

He died in 2018.

Storage of vehicle

Mr Ludewig said he was surprised the vehicle involved in the accident - a ute - had not been stored in a secure way at the Bourke police station.

Evidence tendered showed the vehicle was first towed to Enngonia, before being insecurely held at the Bourke cotton gin.

"Essentially I would have expected it to be seized straight from the scene and taken to Bourke…not to be carted around on a truck," he told the court.

"I just thought it would be a mandatory practice to seize the vehicle and keep it secure.

"I felt that it should have been locked in a secure shed for further examination."

Asked by Coroner Teresa O'Sullivan if he needed a key to get into the vehicle when he arrived at the site, Mr Ludewig said no one was there.

"I didn't need to get access to it, it was just open," he replied.

"Leaving it in the open at the cotton gin is just fraught with danger," he noted later in his testimony.

When asked Dr Dwyer if the vehicle should have been preserved and forensically examined, Mr Ludewig was unequivocal.

"100 per cent," he said.

On Tuesday, former detective sergeant Raymond Godkin of the NSW Police Accident Investigation Unit, told the inquest he was incredulous at some of the details overlooked during the investigation by detectives.

"I have dealt with over 500 road accidents, and I have never dealt with one as bad as this,' he said.

Both Dr Dwyer and barrister representing the families, Julie Buxton, asked Mr Ludewig if he had expressed these concerns about the investigation's lack of due diligence to the detective in charge, Mr Ehsman and Mr Reid.

He told the court that as a lower ranking officer, he wouldn't "argue with two sergeants".

"I don't think it'd be pleasant; you'd be put in your place," Mr Ludewig said.

In his testimony, Mr Godkin expressed a view of resentment from some Bourke officers at his presence during the investigation.

"I didn't get a very good reception at all," he said of his arrival in May 1988.

"I've said it many times, I never got any cooperation from any of the officers at Bourke."

The stretch of Mitchell Highway where the crash took place (Image: National Justice Project)

"I can still hear them laughing."

The inquest also heard from Betty Anne Edwards, then 14, a relative of Cindy and Mona.

She spoke of being approached, along with a friend, by Mr Grant on the evening of December 6, and him asking if they needed a lift, an offer they declined.

"He leaned over and opened the door for us," she told the court.

"He asked us if he wanted a drive home."

Ms Edwards said it was strange for someone to pull up when everyone was walking around, and she was scared when they were asked if they wanted a lift.

Another relative, Carl Smith, then 19, said he had warned girls in the community in the past to stay away from motor vehicles.

"Don't do that sh*t," he recalled saying.

After telling Mr Grant she didn't want to get in the Hilux ute, Ms Edwards told the court she witnessed Mona and Cindy run across the road in the following ten minutes, asking for a lift home to the 'reserve' - a part of Bourke where a portion of the Indigenous community resided in 1987.

"I should have stopped them," she said.

"I'm sad for them… I've thought about them all my life since I was 14."

Ms Edwards said she saw the Hilux - which she identified as a different one to the vehicle involved in the accident - not make a u-turn towards the reserve as she expected, but drive the opposite way, with the girls laughing.

"Cindy jumped in first, then Mona jumped in…they didn't turn the corner to go into the reserve," she said.

"I can still hear them laughing.

"I've got that car embedded in my brain since I was 14."

The inquest will reconvene on December 19.

13YARN 13 92 76

Aboriginal Counselling Services 0410 539 905

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