Bowraville murders: families still fighting

In 1990, my 16-year-old cousin Colleen Walker-Craig was murdered. She went missing from my home town of Bowraville on the mid-north coast of New South Wales. Within months of her disappearance, two other children were also taken; Evelyn Greenup was 4 years old and Clinton Speedy-Duroux was 16.

Early in 1991, the remains of Evelyn and Clinton were found on a stretch of road outside of town. Colleen has never been found, but her clothes were discovered weighted down in a river at the end of the same dirt road.

From very early in all of the cases, the same name consistently comes up – Jay Hart (who has now changed his name). However, due to a delayed and lacklustre investigation into the disappearances, nobody has been held accountable for the killings.

Bowraville’s history is marked by a deep racist divide. In the old movie theatre on the main street, the first seating row, separated by a partition, was designated for use by the Aboriginal community, who were allowed to enter and exit only from a side door after the film had begun. At the bottom pub, my grandparents had to sit out the back near the stables if they wanted to be served. Aboriginal people weren’t allowed inside.

Bowraville was visited by Charlie Perkins and anti-racism students during the Freedom Rides of 1965. Ann Curthoys, a freedom rider, kept a diary of her experiences. “The discrimination in the town was absolutely shocking – by far the worst we’d encountered”, she wrote of Bowra. “The two populations were almost completely separate. At first we weren’t sure where to start – the town was just so bad.”

The murders

In September, it will be 26 years since my aunt Muriel Walker-Craig (Aunty Moonie) last saw her daughter Colleen. I was born a couple of years after she disappeared but feel like I know her. Her story, and the injustice inflicted upon our family, have always occupied a space in my consciousness.

I sat down with Colleen’s sister Paula Craig to ask her what Bowraville was like before the murders. “You could go to Bowraville and be safe; it felt like a family, it felt more safe growing up”, she says. Most Aboriginal people lived out of town, around “the mission” – the Bowraville Aboriginal Reserve, a remnant of Australia’s apartheid history.

It was there that Colleen was last seen – at a party on 13 September. A few days later, Paula remembers her mum asking around at a local football game if anyone knew where Colleen was. “It was surreal for me; it felt like she was just gone on a holiday, that’s what I kept thinking and hoping”, Paula says. “It didn’t really hit me until much later that she actually is missing, but I know mum knew that something was wrong.”

Aunty Moonie couldn’t make police take notice. When she went to them, they refused even to make an official report. “Their thought was that she went ‘walkabout’”, Paula recalls. When my aunt showed them a picture of her missing child the police joked about her light skin colour: “Are you sure she’s yours?”

“They really didn’t take mum serious at all.” Paula talks about my aunt forming search parties, covering the bush around the town. “There was no official search for Colleen; the only time they really did something was when the fisherman hooked her clothes”, she says. That was six months after she was reported missing. The police combed that part of the river but didn’t investigate the findings or look anywhere else.

On 4 October, less than three weeks after Colleen disappeared, her cousin Evelyn went missing from a house three doors up from where Colleen was last seen. Numerous witness accounts tell of Jay Hart hanging around outside the window of the room where Evelyn was asleep in bed with her mother Rebecca Stadhams (Aunty Becca) and brothers.

One witness recalls hearing Evelyn crying in the night. As she approached the room to investigate, she heard a loud thump, after which Evelyn stopped crying. Later that night, Hart would be seen rushing out of the house, leaving the room where Evelyn was asleep.

Aunty Becca woke the next morning to find Evelyn missing. After searching for her, she went with her sister Michelle to the police station. The reception they received was similar to that which Aunty Moonie got.

Bowraville was then a town with fewer than 1,000 residents. Two children were reported missing within weeks of each other. “Well, what do you want me to do about it?”, was what a police officer told Aunty Becca.

“There was a lot of anger and frustration, and we weren’t really getting anything from them”, Paula said as she recalled the first rally to demand action that the families held outside the Bowraville police station in 1991. “They never answered any of the questions that the families were asking.”

It was years later that they discovered that the first investigator sent into town wasn’t there to chase up leads but to investigate the families for child abuse. “He wasn’t even a detective; he knew jack shit about homicide”, Paula recalls, still angry.

Clinton Speedy-Duroux (Bubby) was the third child to go missing. The 16-year-old was last seen alive in Hart’s caravan on 1 February. Clinton’s nephew Marbuck tells me about his experience growing up and learning about his Uncle Bubby. “I always remember from a really young age knowing about it and fighting for Uncle Bubby and the girls”, he says. “You know, dad would always talk about him to us. It’s pretty much been a fairly big part [of our lives]; we are always organising, trying to get it out there and get it heard.”

 “Growing up in Bowra, for me it was like the families and the Aboriginal community were getting involved, but there’s people that have lived here for 30 years and haven’t heard about it. I mean, how can you not hear about it?”, he says. “I’ve always looked at this as being because we’re not worth enough.”

Families fight for justice

When I ask where he thinks the case will go now, Marbuck reflects on the ups and downs of our fight for justice. “It’s constantly something to look forward to, like we get ahead and then we keep getting knocked back again.”

Every time the case appears to move forward, the door is slammed in our faces by the very institutions that claim to deliver justice to all. Not if you’re Black. Justice for us means full gear riot squads lining the halls of the Port Macquarie court house when Hart was acquitted of Evelyn’s murder in 2006. It means the police sergeant telling my Aunty that her daughter was too white to be hers. It means three children killed in quick succession because the person responsible figured no-one much would care. 

 Hundreds of people rallied outside the NSW parliament on 5 May, still fighting to be heard. My Aunty Leonie led a chant demanding premier Mike Baird come outside and face the families. He didn’t, but we went inside, there to witness the debate on a bill that might mean Hart could face another trial. Greens MP Mehreen Faruqi addressed the Legislative Council and pointed out that justice would have been swift if the children were white.

Liberal MP John Ajaka spoke about why the government wouldn’t support the change in law. He appeared unmoved as families got out of their seats and walked out in disgust. “If these were your kids”, someone yells across the room, without finishing the sentence. Their point is devastatingly clear nonetheless. If these kids were white, everything about the last 26 years would have been different.

We know well that we cannot rely on the NSW government to deliver justice. The only reason anything has ever happened in this case has been because the families fought. Speaking to my cousins, it is clear they share a resolve. We want to find Colleen’s remains so we can finally put her to rest. All three families want justice and will keep fighting until we get it.