ROYAL COMMISSION INTO ABORIGINAL DEATHS IN CUSTODY REPORT OF THE INQUIRY INTO THE DEATH OF JOHN PETER PAT
BY COMMISSIONER ELLIOTT JOHNSTON, QC
ROYAL COMMISSION INTO ABORIGINAL DEATHS IN CUSTODY
Secretary: John Gavin 45 Flinders Street
Assistant Secretary: Jill Sheppard ADELAIDE SA 5000
GPO Box 1005
ADELAIDE SA 5001
Reference: Telephone: (08) 223 6222
Fax: (08) 223 7825
30 March 1991
His Excellency the Honourable Sir Francis Burt, AC, KCMG, QC
Governor of Western Australia
PERTH WA 6000
In accordance with the Commission issued to me on 21 June 1988 and subsequently varied, I have the honour to present to you my report of inquiry into the death of John Pat at Roebourne on 28 September 1983.
The same report is being provided to His Excellency the Governor-General in accordance with Letters Patent issued by him.
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Roebourne is a very significant place for Aboriginal people. This is a place where Aboriginal law has made for all Aboriginal people. The Aboriginal people are now suffering. They are sick in the heart. We need assistance to overcome the problems that have come since Europeans came here. We want the Royal Commission to help us with our ideas.
Yulbi Warri - Yindjibarndi Elder.
John Peter Pat died of closed head injuries in the juvenile cell of the police station lockup in Roebourne on the night of 28 September 1983. He was almost seventeen years old. Earlier that night he had been arrested during an incident involving several police officers and an Aboriginal police aide. All officers were off duty at the time. The incident of which I speak was a fight outside the Victoria Hotel in Roebourne. The participants in the fight were several Aboriginal youths and several police officers. Of the five Aboriginal men arrested, John Pat was the only juvenile. During the fight he suffered a closed head injury which rapidly caused his death.
After his arrest, Pat was placed in one of the two police vans which attended the hotel and he and the other Aboriginal men who were arrested were taken to the police station. They were then unloaded from the vans. There, in the station yard, Pat and at least two other prisoners were assaulted to varying degrees by some of the police officers.
Pat was placed in an unconscious or semi-conscious state in the juvenile cell and left there until he was found dead during a cell check. When he was found is a matter of great importance.
Following the death there was a police investigation conducted at a very high level. This was somewhat ineffectual. An Inquest was commenced in Roebourne about a month after the death, at the conclusion of which four police officers and a police aide were committed for trial on a charge of manslaughter. They stood trial in the Supreme Court at Karratha and all were acquitted.
The death of John Pat became for Aboriginal people nation wide a symbol of injustice and oppression. Suspicion and a continuing sense of injustice in the Aboriginal communities throughout Australia saw the anniversary of John Pat's death marked by demonstrations calling for justice. International media attention focussed not only on his death but on the conditions in Roebourne and on the calls of the Aboriginal people for an inquiry to find the truth about this and other deaths.
The evidence before the Commission in this inquiry, both that given orally and that tendered in documentary form, was extensive and complex. The fact finding task has not been an easy one. I make it clear that I have not been able to find the truth about all aspects of the death. This report is necessarily lengthy but even so I have not dealt with all the issues which arose in the course of the inquiry but have limited the report to a consideration of the major events surrounding John Pat's death and its aftermath. At this stage I propose to give a brief overview of these events so that the report can be read in context.
Earlier on 28 September 1983, there had been a meeting of the W.A. Police Union of Workers ('the Union') at Karratha. It was a special meeting attended by Union officials from Perth and about twenty police officers from the Pilbara region.
Among those police attending the meeting were three officers from the Wickham police station.
Police from the Roebourne police station also attended. They were Senior Constables Ian Frank Armitt, Steven Alan Bordas, Terence James Holl, Sergeant John Patrick Devaney (the sergeant in charge of the police station) and First Class Police Aide Michael Walker.
The meeting was held at the Karratha Traffic Office, and at its conclusion the police went to the Karratha Golf Club for a few drinks at a function arranged by the Union.
After the golf club closed some of the police officers arranged to go to the Victoria Hotel in Padbury Street, Roebourne, for a drink prior to returning to their homes.
The Roebourne police eventually left Karratha for Roebourne at about 8.30pm driven by Sergeant Devaney in his own car. The Victoria Hotel is on the comer of Roe Street which is the main thoroughfare through town and Padbury Street which from Roe Street runs in a westerly direction and intersects with Sholl Street.
The Wickham police officers arrived at the hotel at about 9.00pm. They entered the saloon bar, also known as the Top Bar, and took up a position in the middle of the bar.
The whereabouts of John Pat during the day cannot be specified with any precision. However, it would seem that at some time in the evening prior to 9.00pm he was drinking with a group of friends in an area known as 'Plonk Valley'. This area was in the bush at the end of Padbury Street where it runs into Sholl Street. This area is more particularly located between the house then occupied by Mr Thomas Albert McPhee and his wife Mrs Coralie June McPhee (now Storey) and the Community Health Clinic. Aborigines who lived in the village would use this area not only as a drinking place but also as a short cut from the village to the centre of town. A significant portion of evidence at the Royal Commission hearing involved an examination of an account of a fight which McPhee said involved John Pat and which occurred outside his house.
When the Roebourne police arrived outside the Victoria Hotel, there was a dispute between a young Aboriginal man, Ashley James, and his defacto wife, Ann Stock. Two of the Roebourne police told them to go home.
The off duty officers sat in the saloon bar, known as the Top Bar, of the hotel but the Wickham and Roebourne police did not sit together as a group, nor did they mix with one another. Some alcohol was consumed by the police. A bar person, Catherine Mary Elizabeth Park (now Mrs Land) was serving behind the bar. She and the Roebourne police knew each other. Dawn Makeham, another of the staff, was on duty in the public bar--known as the Bottom Bar.
Ashley James entered the bottleshop and was seen by someone in the Top Bar who remarked that he was in the bottleshop. Armitt spoke to him.
Upon hearing that Ashley James was in the bottleshop, Holl left the Top Bar, went into the street, and entered the bottleshop.
An altercation then occurred between James and Holl which precipitated the events which followed.
Holl then left the bottleshop and waited outside for Ashley James.
When Ashley James came out of the bottleshop he was intending to go home with his friends. An argument developed between Holl and James. A fight broke out between them and some other Aboriginal men joined in.
Meanwhile, in the bar, Armitt noticed that Holl was missing and he went to the door to check on him. He went out into the street and saw fighting, with Holl surrounded by about five Aboriginal men. Shortly after Armitt, Devaney and another, Bordas and Walker left the Top Bar. The accounts of what followed, given by the police, the participants in the fighting and onlookers, varied considerably. However, there is no doubt that Ashley James, Lennis James, John Pat, Geoffrey Lockyer (another Aboriginal man) and the Roebourne police officers (apart from Devaney) who were in the Top Bar were involved in a fight to varying degrees.
After leaving the bar, Devaney got into his car and drove to the police station--which was approximately 500 metres from the hotel--to obtain reinforcements. The Roebourne Police Station is situated on the comer of Carnarvon Terrace and Queen Street. Carnarvon Terrace is the extension of Roe Street.
Devaney called on the police officers on duty there (Constable James Young and Police Aide Cider Gilby) to come to the hotel. However, Gilby did not see or hear Devaney. Meanwhile, a police van from Wickham containing Constable Michael Emmanuel and the licensee of the Wickham Hotel, Adrian Delint, had pulled up at the Roebourne police station. Delint was also overseer of the Victoria Hotel, both hotels being owned by the same proprietor. On hearing a call to attend the hotel, Emmanuel drove his van to the hotel. It was closely followed by Young and Gilby in the Roebourne police van. A taxi driven by a Mr Armstrong also went to the station. Armstrong told Gilby there was a 'blue' on at the hotel.
The Wickham van pulled up in the middle of Padbury Street parallel to the hotel and the Roebourne van parked a few metres in front of it but angled slightly towards the kerb. When the vans arrived, the fighting subsided.
Appendix 1 is a plan of the hotel area showing the position of the vans.
I find that during the course of the fight John Pat sustained the closed head injury which rapidly brought about his death. There were several incidents during which John Pat could possibly have sustained this injury and I discuss them in some detail in Part Ten. For present purposes, I simply say that it is most likely that John Pat incurred his fatal injury in an altercation with Armitt as the latter attempted to effect Pat's arrest. He had been punching at Armitt and, when one of the punches connected, Armitt said he moved to arrest him. Pat went over backwards onto the ground probably striking his head and Armitt fell on top of him. What happened thereafter is contentious and I examine those events in some detail in the report.
During the course of the fight, several arrests were made. John Pat was the first person to be placed in the Wickham van. Peter Coppin was arrested by Bordas and was also placed in the Wickham van. Although Coppin was arrested for disorderly conduct, at the Roebourne Police Station a charge of hindering Armitt, not of disorderly conduct, was preferred. Brian Munda was arrested on a charge of hindering Armitt and Roy Smith was arrested on a charge of hindering Holl and they were also placed in the Wickham van.
Lennis James had been arrested for aggravated assault on Armitt and resisting his arrest by Holl. He was the only person arrested who was placed in the Roebourne police van. On 26 October 1983, a further charge of aggravated assault on Bordas was preferred against Lennis James.
After the prisoners were placed in the vans, Holl, Bordas and Armitt returned to the Top Bar. Walker had gone back to the bar some time earlier. Armitt spoke to Cathy Park about his facial injuries and was offered a paper towel with which to wipe his face. He declined the offer. The officers variously finished off their drinks or collected their change and returned to the police station.
Read full report by downloading a copy below.
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