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Inquest into deaths of Mona Lisa and Jacinta Rose Smith hears key detective had no specialist training in crash investigation

Dechlan Brennan -

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

The lead investigator into the death of two Aboriginal girls in 1987 says he never heard any racist comments from police officers during his 29 years in the NSW police, as he was forced to defend initially releasing a suspect despite believing he had sexually interfered with a corpse.

The Coronial inquest into the historic deaths of Jacinta Rose 'Cindy' Smith, a 15-year-old Kunja Budjiti and Wangkumara girl, and her cousin Mona Lisa Smith, a 16-year-old Murrawarri and Kunja, is taking place in Bourke, NSW

The bodies of the two girls were found next to the wreckage of a ute that had crashed on the Mitchell Highway north of Bourke, NSW, in the early hours of December 6, 1987.

A non-Indigenous male, Ian Alexander Grant, 40, was found with his arm draped across the body of a bare chested and partially naked Cindy.

Mr Grant, the owner of the ute, told police at the time he had been driving, but later recanted and claimed it had been Mona behind the wheel.

He was found not guilty of drink driving causing death by an all-white jury in 1990, with a further charge of interfering with a corpse being dropped on the eve of the trial.

Mr Grant died in 2018.

Evidence 'failures'

Former sergeant detective Peter Ehsman, a retired Bourke policeman who led the investigation into the accident, was questioned about his role in the investigation.

The investigation has been said by experts to involve a myriad of 'failures,' - such as securing the scene of the crash, measuring tyre marks, and making sure all relevant witness statements were taken.

Mr Ehsam accepted, in hindsight, those tasks should have been performed as a lead investigator. He told the court that before moving to Bourke as a detective, he had never received any specialist training as a crash investigator.

The motor vehicle involved in the accident was stored in a lock up away from the station and no statement was taken from the person in charge of the facility to establish a 'chain of custody.'

Asked if this was a flaw in the investigation, Mr Ehsman responded: "not really."

He told the inquest after calling up the scientific crime scene unit in Dubbo, he "left them to their own devices"- despite being the lead investigator - to gather evidence.

"I expected them to do their duty, they are the scientific officers, not me, so I left them to their own devices," he said.

However, he later admitted in hindsight a thorough investigation would have gotten fingerprints from the motor vehicle and the vehicle should have been properly stored for forensic investigation.

Grant as the driver

Mr Ehsman also denied Constable Kenneth McKenzie's claims at the inquest on Tuesday that he gave information regarding who was driving the motor vehicle.

Constable McKenzie said Mr Grant initially accepted he was behind the wheel, before changing his story when he was told the girls had passed away. A second witness also told the court they were privy to this conversation.

He told the court this information was passed on to Mr Ehsman.

Mr Ehsman denied this conversation took place, and said he was of the belief Mr Grant was the driver, something he claimed had never wavered during his investigation.

He said he believed Mr Grant was lying about Cindy propositioning him sexually, but he had no reason to doubt he wasn't telling the truth when he stated Mona was behind the wheel of the car when it crashed.

The failure to ascertain who was driving was one of the reasons behind Grant being found 'not guilty' during the 1990 trial.

Counsel assisting the coroner, Peggy Dwyer SC, asked if Mr Ehsman accepted Mr Grant's statements at "face value."

"That's what he said, yes," he said.

"It's not unusual for young, unlicensed kids to be driving."

Dr Dwyer put it to him that as a "detective…it's part of your role to investigate whose driving.

Dr Dwyer noted all evidence showed Mona could not drive a manual car, was unlicensed, and the family had only ever seen her drive an automatic once.

Mr Ehsman told the court he didn't believe this to be relevant.

Furthermore, Mr Ehsman was asked if - after hearing statements from Mr Grant about Cindy wanting to cuddle him, which he believed to be a lie - did he think Mr Grant saying he wasn't the driver could be self-serving.

"I believed what he was telling me," Mr Ehsman said.

Asked if fingerprints from the steering wheel - which was never tested - would have made a difference to his view on who was driving, he said the "thoughts didn't enter my mind"

Coroner Teresa O'Sullivan asked why, if Mr Grant was suspected of a serious crime involving a juvenile, was he not put on bail.

Mr Ehsman argued they had to "work out what charges were going to be laid".

"So because you didn't know what to charge him with, you just let him go," the coroner replied.

Barrister Julie Buxton, representing the families, inquired as to why a charge of abduction wasn't pursued, with Cindy being only 15 at the time.

Mr Ehsman said it wasn't something he ever considered.

"It just never entered my thoughts; I didn't follow that line of inquiry at all."

Racist attitudes

The inquest is also seeking to understand the racial attitudes at play in the Bourke area at the time of the crash, and if systemic racism or bias played a role in the investigation.

Mr Ehsman told the inquest he had received no training around the contextual pain felt by Indigenous people in the area due to colonisation, and was not aware of any racist attitudes in Bourke towards Aboriginal people.

Dr Dwyer recounted language in which a first responder to the scene reportedly stated: "You've got two dead g**s here."

When asked if he had ever encountered any language similar, Mr Ehsman said he did not believe so.

He said he was not aware of any tension Indigenous people in Bourke felt towards the police nor could he recall any racist language in the area.

When challenged by Dr Dwyer if he ever heard racist or degrading terms towards Aboriginal people in his time working in Bourke, Detective Ehsman said he hadn't.

"Really?" Dr Dwyer replied.

Asked if it would have been beneficial to know that Aboriginal people in Bourke had a lack of confidence in policing, he agreed that "It could have been helpful".

However, in a series of further questions, Mr Ehsman told the inquest he "never came across bad race relations" when he was stationed in Bourke, and said he was never aware at any time of an officer of the NSW police disrespecting Aboriginal people.

When read several racial slurs understood to be used at the time, Mr Ehsman said he had never heard any of them uttered by NSW police towards, or about, any Indigenous person.

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

Constable didn't believe Grant's story

The inquest also heard from Constable Christopher Clarke, who interviewed Mr Grant at the hospital immediately after the accident.

He said that whilst he had no recollection of any racial language from police, he didn't deny that it could have taken place.

Asked if there was a divide between Indigenous and non-indigenous people in the town, Mr Clarke said he "would be a fool to sit here and say that didn't happen."

He told the inquest that both Mr Ehsman and himself had similar views on policing.

"If a person is committing an offence, it doesn't matter what their race is," Mr Clarke said.

"Peter had a high respect for everyone whether they were Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal."

Asked if he believed it was his role to question Grant's statement at the hospital - where he said he didn't touch Cindy and wasn't behind the wheel of the car - Constable Clarke said he didn't believe so, but "there are suspicions every time you talk to a person."

"I didn't believe a large majority of what he was saying, but I believed my purpose was to get an early version of what happened that could be explored later on," Mr Clarke said.

With the benefit of hindsight, he agreed he "could have asked more questions, but I didn't" when confronted with the information from Mr Grant that Cindy was apparently naked, but nothing sexual had taken place.

When asked, as an experienced police officer, if he would have kept the vehicle, he agreed.

"In this case, I would have seized the vehicle."

The inquiry continues.

13YARN 13 92 76

Aboriginal Counselling Services 0410 539 905

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