Ronnie and Irene Jimbidie with a photo of their missing stepfather Wombat Williams. (ABC Kimberley: Erin Parke)
A Japanese pearl diver walks to the edge of his lugger to relieve himself and falls overboard.
- Special inquests are being held to clear a backlog of missing person files
- The court relocated to Broome because of the high number of Indigenous people missing in the Kimberley
- Testimony heard includes stories of witches, supernatural forces and payback killings
‘Witches’ tell police of a murdered man whose body is never found.
A Broome man tells his priest he’s scared for his safety, and vanishes within hours.
They’re among the intriguing cases dug up from depths of the WA Police missing persons’ files, and examined afresh in a series of inquests held in the far north of the state this week.
In three days of hearings at the Broome Courthouse, Coroner Evelyn Vicker has heard evidence relating to the suspected deaths of nine people, all men who vanished from the remote Kimberley region in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s.
The hearings have exposed the particular challenges of solving long-term missing persons cases in outback Australia, where many local Aboriginal people believe strongly that spirits and witch-doctors can cause a person’s death, and speak about payback killings in hushed tones.
“With Aboriginal people when they go missing, never to be found again, 95 per cent of the time it’s to do with cultural things,” Fitzroy Crossing woman Irene Jimbidie said.
“Payback or troubles from before they were even born, it’s just carried on with the next generation, and often that’s why people go missing.”
Irene Jimbidie and her brother Ronnie attend an inquest into their step-father’s death at the Broome courthouse. (ABC Kimberley: Erin Parke)
The day Wombat Williams disappeared
Ms Jimbidie heard two hours of evidence in the Broome courthouse about the day her beloved stepfather went missing, in December 1988.
Wombat Williams was aged in his late 50s when he vanished into the bush during a Wet Season camping trip on the coast north of Broome.
“We’ve been waiting 31 years to get some answers, so it’s good to finally hear the police report read out aloud,” she said.
“The day he went missing, he was going into the bush in his shorts and thongs, and he had a small axe and he was going hunting like he always does, looking for goanna.
“When my mum found out he was missing, she was hitting herself with a rock and crying. It’s had a big effect on her and us, because he was the backbone of our family.”
Wombat Williams was last seen on a camping trip on the north coast of Broome in January 1988. (Supplied: Irene Jimbidie)
The police concluded Mr Wombat died in the bush, and found no evidence of foul play.
But Irene and Ronnie Jimbidie suspect their stepfather may have fallen foul of the kind of cultural forces that the ‘whitefella’ court system struggles to comprehend — that a person can be killed not only through physical harm, but through a more sinister intervention by senior lawmen.
Under gentle questioning from Coroner Vicker, Mr Jimbidie told the court that the place his stepfather vanished from was a sacred place where Aboriginal people could disappear.
“Something happened to him, by someone else. He came to me and showed me, the spirits,” Mr Jimbidie said.
“When they murder someone, they don’t leave any evidence.”
Coroner Vicker thanked Mr Jimbidie for his testimony, but explained the difficulties of proving if other lawmen were involved.
“If I understand correctly, there appears to have been a cultural dispute that was long-standing and that may have affected his welfare,” she said.
“There’s just no evidence to go on, apart from your father’s cultural beliefs. There’s nothing under our law that would allow you to pursue that further.”
But she assured the Jimbidies that their stepfather’s case would be reopened if fresh evidence emerged, or if remains were found that could be DNA tested for identification.
‘They’ll never find the bodies’
It’s the kind of cultural gulf seen constantly in courthouses across northern Australia, as Aboriginal people try to explain beliefs and practices that often don’t even have equivalent words in English.
Outside the court, Mr Jimbidie explains the belief that some senior Aboriginal people have the ability to eliminate a person, in a way that will never be detected.
“People don’t talk about it much, but in Aboriginal way, a lot of people been taken away because of punishment or blame, and a lot of the time it’s because of revenge,” he said.
“That’s why, even to this day, people are still going missing — that’s the truth.
“And Aboriginal people, they don’t leave any evidence and you can’t find them, that’s the scary thing.”
Wombat Williams is believed to have died in the bush, though his remains have never been found. (ABC Kimberley: Matt Bamford)
But the siblings leave the court satisfied that they found out all they could about Mr Wombat’s suspected death, and put their beliefs on the record.
“My Dad was my hero, because being a half-caste kid, he treated me like his own son, and he taught me everything I know today,” Mr Jimbidie said.
“He meant the world to me and I still miss him today. So I feel a lot better coming here today and getting it off my chest with my sister and my son.”
Police guided by ‘witches’
This week’s inquests are the result of a special project funded by the WA Government, to try to clear a backlog of missing persons files.
More than 40 files will be examined with Coroner Vicker’s finding due to be released in the first half of 2020.
The court relocated to Broome because of the disproportionately high number of people who’ve gone missing in the remote Kimberley.
Many of the missing people are Aboriginal men, who had a habit of going bush for long periods — a fact that the Coroner’s court heard delayed search efforts.
Often, as in the case of Aboriginal stockman Simon Marbin, local people reported spirits passing on information, and speculated that a payback killing had occurred.
The tall, gaunt horseman disappeared after eating breakfast at the Bayulu community.
Speaking via video-link from Perth, pastoralist John Henwood said Mr Marbin was one of the hardest working men on Fossil Downs Station.
“He was a gentle man, not aggressive — he wasn’t married but he was a hell of a nice guy,” Mr Henwood said.
“He was very good at his job — he was clever with the horses and just gifted at what he did.”
Simon Marbin was a respected stockman at Fossil Downs cattle station at the time of his disappearance. (Supplied)
The court heard that Mr Marbin had been hospitalised not long before his disappearance after being attacked by a group of men from a desert area east of the station.
The initial police report said local Aboriginal people believed Mr Marbin had been murdered.
“The community had called in two witches to smell out Marbin,” the report read.
Police officers were taken to a track near the Muladja community, where the spirits had indicated the body had been left.
“No evidence to support the witches claims,” the report concluded.
“Police thanked them for their help.”
Piecing together what happened to the people decades after they disappeared is proving difficult, with many witnesses deceased or aging, and paper records patchy.
In the case of Japanese pearl diver Toshiyuki Hatakeyama, police struggled to locate family in Japan to notify of the inquest.
Mr Hatakeyama was aboard the pearl lugger ‘Kim’ when it hit rough seas off the Kimberley coast.
The 20-year-old was standing near a rail, apparently relieving himself, when a large wave struck and he toppled overboard.
“I’m quite satisfied he’s deceased,” Coroner Vicker told the court.
“He must gave been injured in some way in that fall, so I’m satisfied that he went straight under the water.”
The young diver remains an enigmatic figure, with no gravestone to record his suspected death, and no photograph found.
Pearl diver Toshiyuki Hatakeyama was last seen falling from the deck of the lugger ‘The Kim’ in 1979. (Supplied: State Library of WA)
One of the final cases heard was of Papua New Guinean man Michael Peta, who disappeared in Broome in 1975.
He had moved to the Kimberley for work and was engaged to be married to a local Aboriginal woman named Patricia Paddy.
The police report states they’d broken up just prior to his disappearance, with local Catholic Priest describing Mr Peta as being in an agitated state.
“He was concerned about his physical safety from people whose identity was not clearly apparent,” the report stated.
Hours later, after retiring for a nap, Mr Peta vanished.
There were rumours of violence, and that his ex-girlfriend had been pregnant, something Ms Paddy denied.
But the court heard she too appeared to be missing, with no trace of her recorded for more than 20 years.
Their are further regional hearings scheduled as part of the long-term missing persons project in Kununurra, Northam and Kalgoorlie.
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