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"I hurt every day and every night" - Mother of Mona Lisa Smith never heard from police after daughter's death

Dechlan Brennan -

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

The mother of one of two Indigenous girls killed in 1987 has told an inquest into their deaths that she was never spoken to by police after the incident.

The coronial inquest into the deaths of Jacinta Rose 'Cindy' Smith,15 and Mona Lisa Smith, 16, resumed on Thursday, with Mona's mother, Aunty June Smith, telling the court her daughter was a good child who loved to sing.

"Mona was a beautiful baby, and she grew up…a lovely, happy go lucky girl," Aunty June said.

"As she got older, her and her cousin Cindy were always together every day. They were just like two little sisters."

A widow, Aunty June told the court she "took on all the kids and raised them the best way I can."

"I hurt every day and every night," she said.

"I think about my daughter and my little niece and what they could have turned out to be today…they could have been mothers…but they never got to be that way."

The inquest heard the bodies of the two cousins 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.

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

Aunty June told the court she had heard rumours Grant would often fraternise with Aboriginal children in other towns, telling the court: "He wasn't a very good man to do those things."

"Everybody spoke about it," she said.

"I didn't even know the man…to hear things like that, you know, I don't know why they do these things…if you've got a wife you don't need to chase young girls."

The inquest heard on Wednesday that two police who had interviewed Mr Grant suspected he had sexually interfered with Cindy's body after the accident.

Mr Grant 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.

'I never sleep at night'

Aunty June said the death of her daughter and nieces had a detrimental impact on the next 36 years of her life.

In emotional testimony, and wiping away tears, Aunty June told the court that she "used to say to the kids, 'Don't say her name.'"

"I couldn't speak her name for ages because it used to bring back all the horrible memories of what happened to her," she said.

"When you lose somebody it's the worst thing that could ever happen to you."

In an emotional courtroom, Coroner Teresa O'Sullivan commended Aunty June - as well as her sister - on their advocacy, saying it was the reason the inquest was taking place.

"It's so obvious what a beautiful mother and grandmother you are," the coroner said.

"Your presence in court is so powerful and strong and is giving everyone strength."

Aunty June said Mona's death left her with insomnia and resulted in her disconnect from members of her own family in Bourke.

"That's why I never sleep at night…the littlest noise I hear, I walk all night…I sit up to six or seven [am]…I don't sleep," she said.

"It's been going on for 36 years and I still never got over it."

Never visited by the police

Aunty June said she'd never been visited by the police about the death of her daughter and niece and told the inquest they should have come and "explained" what happened.

"If they knew all this information they should have come down and spoke to me," she said.

"I wish they would've; if they'd done the right thing in the first place we mightn't have been here."

When asked by Counsel assisting the coroner, Peggy Dwyer SC, if the admission of deficiencies by the people involved in the investigation was of any comfort, Aunty June said she was happy to hear it said in court.

"When they said that it wasn't investigated properly; it wasn't," she said.

"If they'd done the right thing in the first place, we wouldn't have been here today. The girls would be resting in peace too…it's very hard to rest when you don't know what really happened."

Mona Lisa Smith (left) and Jacinta Rose 'Cindy' Smith (Image: National Justice Project)

Race relations

The inquest is examining if systemic racism or bias played a role in the original police investigation.

The court has heard individuals involved in the accident admit deficiencies in the investigation, including oversights concerning the gathering of evidence and holding the motor vehicle involved in the accident securely.

Former detective sergeant Vaughn Reid, one of two detectives at Bourke in 1987, said he and sergeant detective Peter Ehsman, came to the belief Mr Grant wasn't behind the wheel, but was effectively operating the ute when the accident took place.

"I took the view that even though he wasn't operating the... vehicle, he was assisting the girl driving the vehicle, he said.

"If I could have laid a more serious charge, I would have. I would have done anything if I could."

Mr Reid, who was emotional at times during his appearance via video link, expressed regret at some of the investigatory elements being completed inadequately - including not taking photos of Mr Grant's injuries - and accepted from Dr Dwyer that some things could have been improved on in hindsight.

"It was a deficiency, quite right," he said.

"A regrettable deficiency."

Mr Reid told the inquest he was aware of the tension between Indigenous and the police in the town, saying conversations with the First Nations community had been an "awakening for me."

Despite not recalling any specific incidents, he didn't deny that Bourke police could have used racist language.

"I'm sure I did. I don't remember c**n…but I'm sure other similar words were used," Mr Reid said when asked what racist language may have been uttered.

The memories of Bourke as a racially hostile town differed with those of Mr Ehsman, who told the court he had no knowledge of racial tensions in the town.

"I never came across bad race relations when I was in Bourke," he told the inquest on Wednesday.

Recounting a story in his later career of working with an Aboriginal person spoken to rudely by service staff, Mr Reid said he was profoundly impacted by the commonality of the exchange.

"I got the impression this was so common - people just ignored it - which I found so disturbing."

He told the court Mr Ehsman and the local Aboriginal liaison officer had struck up a good rapport and he had never heard him use racial language.

"I can honestly say I never heard him [Mr Ehsman] - privately or publicly - make any derogatory comments about Aboriginal people."

Bourke Court House

The accident investigation

Dr Andrew McIntosh, an expert on biomechanics and ergonomics from Edit Cowan, , said a more comprehensive examination of the ute involved in the accident could have assisted the investigation, but noted there were limitations placed on him by the evidence gathered.

"The vehicle was not comprehensively documented," Dr McIntosh said.

He gave comprehensive testimony on the extent of the injuries of the people in the car. He agreed with Dr Dywer that the injuries to Mona were consistent with a motor vehicle accident and not an assault.

"In total, her injuries are very consistent with an unrestrained occupant being ejected," Dr McIntosh said.

"She has an unusual head injury. It's certainly not an injury that you would see from a blunt force impact."

Mr Grant's injuries were in line with not being ejected from the motor vehicle, however he stated the cousins were likely unrestrained and had left the vehicle at some point during the crash.

He stated Cindy's injuries were consistent with this theory.

"They were moving at the speed of the vehicle, but outside the vehicle, and interacting with the ground," Dr McIntosh said

Mr Grant had told police in the wake of the accident Mona had allegedly accelerated the vehicle up to 100 Km/h on the Mitchell Highway

In discussions about who was driving the vehicle, Aunty June said Moana had never driven a manual car, and only once an automatic.

Dr McIntosh said this would make it very difficult for Mona to be the driver of the car at the time of the accident.

"I think you'd continually just stall the car; you wouldn't be able to get it up to highway speed," he said.

However, he noted he could not say with certainty who was driving the vehicle at the time of the crash.

The first paramedic on the scene, Ronald Willoughby, knew the family. He said he didn't believe the story told to him by Mr Grant because he knew the Smith family, and even lived on the same street as Jacinta

"I don't think they would have known how to drive a car," he said

"I knew Dawn [Cindy's mother] and the family, and I knew the girls, and that didn't seem like they would do that."

He said he was never asked to give a statement, something he done before and after in previous accidents.

"I don't understand why we weren't asked to do a statement," Mr Willoughby said.

"That's when the memory of a motor vehicle accident is so fresh."

The inquest continues.

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