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Inquest hears initial investigation into the death of two Indigenous girls was inadequately conducted

Dechlan Brennan -

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

A non-Indigenous man should have faced manslaughter charges for his role in the horrific deaths of two Aboriginal girls in 1987, an inquest has heard.

Detective Inspector Paul Quigg gave evidence to the coronial inquest about his reopening and reviewing of the police investigation into the deaths of Indigenous cousins, Jacinta Rose 'Cindy' Smith, 15, and Mona Lisa Smith, 16, in December, 1987.

The two girls, described as "like sisters", were found beside the wreckage of a ute on the Mitchell highway, between Bourke and Engonnia.

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

He was later acquitted of driving-related offences with a further charge of interfering with a corpse being dropped on the eve of the trial.

Mr Grant died in 2018.

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

Appearing before the inquest after a two-week adjournment, Detective Inspector Quigg was asked if he believed the original criminal charges against Mr Grant were correct.

"I believe manslaughter would have been more appropriate," he said.

Detective Inspector Quigg told the inquest the then director of public prosecutions' (DPP) decision to withdraw the interfering of a corpse charge was the legal decision made at the time, but he believed the "charge sequence" should have proceeded at Mr Grant's trial.

"I believe from the evidence that I've reviewed in relation to the brief of evidence, there was sufficient evidence to proceed with that particular indictment at trial," he said.

The court has heard from multiple former NSW officers who were disappointed at aspects of the investigation, including the inadequate storage at the local cotton gin of the ute involved in the accident.

Former Senior Constable John Ludewig previously told the inquest when he arrived at the cotton gin, the vehicle was left out in the open and unlocked.

Detective Inspector Quigg said the NSW police would not have towed the ute to an unsecured area.

State Coroner Teresa O'Sullivan then asked if it sounded like the ute had only been moved by the police, not seized.

"That's correct," he replied.

He also told the inquest it was apparent the original investigation contained "major flaws", conceding his extensive history of working in major crime meant he identified "a lot of basic investigation techniques, lines of enquiries, tasks had not been completed".

"I can say that unfortunately the NSW Police investigation from 1987 onwards was inadequately conducted and that was a major failing in relation to evidence was lost," Detective Inspector Quigg said.

As a result of this, he believed a lot of questions remained unanswered about what happened to Cindy and Mona.

Article from 1987 reporting on the families grief after Cindy and Mona's death (Image: SMH archives/Dechlan Brennan)

Former detective in charge questioned

One of the focal points of the inquiry has been the role systemic racism and bias played in the original police investigation.

The court had previously heard the girls' mothers were not directly notified by police after they died, nor were they questioned about Mona's inability to drive a manual vehicle.

Mr Grant had told investigators Mona was the driver of the vehicle; a recount they had accepted. A detective later involved in the investigation previously told the court he had "no doubt" the girl could not drive the ute in question.

Former sergeant detective Peter Ehsman led the initial investigation, previously telling the inquest he was unable to recall any racist language ever being uttered by his colleagues, nor was he aware of any tension amongst the Indigenous community towards police.

Reappearing to give more evidence on Tuesday, Mr Ehsman offset some of his previous statements concerning his former colleagues, saying he had given it more thought "in hindsight."

"I have heard that sort of language in various places, maybe in the police station, maybe in the bowling club, maybe in the community," he said.

Counsel assisting the coroner, Peggy Dwyer SC, inquired about the rationale behind accepting Mr Grant's statement that Mona was the driver, without ever getting a statement from her mother.

"I'm not saying that you were intending to be racist, but that you made an assumption about a stereotype that either of these girls could drive. Do you accept that?" Dr Dwyer asked Mr Ehsman.

"No", he replied.

During his previous evidence, when asked why he didn't question how a 16-year-old could drive a large, manual ute, at 100 kph, Mr Ehsman said: "It's not unusual for young, unlicensed kids to be driving."

He also said he believed the information from Mona's family concerning her inability to drive that type of vehicle weren't relevant.

L-R holding sign Fiona June Kerrie and Dawn Smith are still campaigning for justice for Mona and Cindy (Image: Supplied/National Justice Project)

Failures of investigation

Mr Ehsman was also asked why he didn't charge Mr Grant with interfering with a corpse, despite believing it was likely. Cindy was found in a state of undress, with her underwear around her ankles. Mr Grant also said Cindy had sexually propositioned him – something Mr Ehsman previously told the court he believed to be false.

Dr Dwyer put it to Mr Ehsman that he didn't charge Mr Grant with any offence.

"I forget what charge I charged him with, but we looked up the appropriate charge," he said.

When asked by Dr Dwyer if the failure to ensure the chain of evidence by adequately storing the motor vehicle hindered the prosecution, Mr Ehsman conceded this was a possibility.

He told the court he was unaware of who had made the decision to store the vehicle at the cotton gin - despite it never having been used for evidence storage previously.

The final day of hearings is on Wednesday, with Coroner O'Sullivan likely to deliver her findings in February.

13YARN 13 92 76

Aboriginal Counselling Services 0410 539 905


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