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‘Eerily similar’ murder cases go cold as police explain away the truth

The young boy's body was found in the waterhole weighed down with a kilo of rocks stuffed down his shorts.

Key points:

  • In 2007 an Indigenous boy was found dead in suspicious circumstances near Borroloola. No-one was ever charged
  • In 2013, Indigenous woman Sasha Green was found dead in suspicious circumstances in Tennant Creek. Again, no-one was charged
  • The NT coroner was scathing about the police investigations into each of these cases

There were footprints from an adult and a child leading to the waterhole — but only the adult's footprints led away.

The Raggett family told police it was unlike the boy, who they asked the ABC not to name for cultural reasons, to wander off.

He especially wouldn't head to water, and was always the last to jump into a swimming hole.

But police ignored their knowledge of the eight-year-old.

They thought the death was an accidental drowning and would spend the next few years twisting the facts to back up that hypothesis.

When the police did eventually admit to their mistakes, they promised they had learnt and would never repeat them.

And yet 10 years later, a different Aboriginal family is reeling from police mistakes that were "eerily similar" to the Raggett case.

This is the real life Mystery Road, where Indigenous deaths are explained away by those who are supposed to find the truth.

And the people who coronial inquests say are likely to be guilty of heinous crimes are never charged.

The Raggett family plays in their yard in Borroloola

'It was like a joke to them'

"He was a joyful, friendly little boy, he would make friends with any kids, he loved making kids laugh, he was the happiest one out of all of the kids," said the young boy's carer, his auntie Adrianne Raggett.

In October 2007, the young boy's family had a funeral to go to, but he decided to instead go and stay with his dad, who was living nearby in Borroloola.

They left, and never saw the boy alive again.

But when the family raised the alarm that the boy was missing, they say the local police didn't seem to take their concerns seriously.

"They were huffing and said 'Are you sure he's gone, he's not with family?' and I said 'We asked everybody'," Adrianne said.

"It's like they didn't want to bother doing their job or go and look at him. We showed him this foot track and he said 'Are you sure that's his foot track? He might be just going for a walk?'

"I said 'No, he's not going for a walk, because there's another adult foot track next to him', and then they turned around and laughed and walked off.

"It was like it was a joke to them."

The young boy was found a few days later in a muddy waterhole a few hundred metres from his house.

A muddy waterhole, surrounded by long grass and a couple of trees

A witness said he saw a rock the size of a bread and butter plate fall out of the boy's shorts when he was lifted out of the water.

Later, two rocks weighing just over a kilo were also found still in his shorts.

This suspicious fact was overlooked.

"They think he slipped in the water so how the hell did big rocks end up in his shorts?" asked Ms Raggett.

With the accidental drowning theory firmly ensconced in the minds of the police, they made a series of mistakes that meant they would never catch the killer.

They didn't set up a crime scene, they didn't search the area immediately for other clues, they didn't show a shirt they found which they assumed belonged to the boy to his family for identification, and they took months to send items they did take for forensic testing.

That meant when a beer can picked up from near the waterhole was found to have DNA that matched the profile of a known child sex offender who lived in the area, it was months too late.

A red singlet belonging to the boy, who was found bare chested, was assumed to be irrelevant.

When it was shown to the family a full three years later, they immediately identified it as what the boy was wearing on the day he was missing.

A soccer shirt was also found and dismissed as unimportant.

Adrianne Raggett wears a bright blue shirt and looks into the camera

Years later, the nearby child sex offender whose DNA was found on the beer can told the coroner that he had lost a soccer shirt matching that description.

And then when the waterhole was drained, there was a group of rocks sitting on top of a muddy bed, while other ones that had been there a while were nestled into the mud.

Could these rocks have been used to weigh down the body and been dislodged?

An autopsy found rocks weighing 1004 grams in the boy's shorts, but concluded that he probably fell and hit his head.

Swabs were taken from under the young boy's fingernails, as well as his anus and mouth, with a view to have them tested to see whether there was any resistance, or perhaps evidence of a sexual assault.

But before those samples could be tested, they were accidentally destroyed by police.

And with them went any hope of finding solid forensic evidence backing up a theory which might contradict that of an accidental drowning.

With that theory settled in their minds, the police then ignored their general orders to file a report for the coroner.

The coroner's office pressed police, eventually became fed up with waiting and listed the matter for hearing despite the file being incomplete almost three years after the death.

No-one has ever been charged.

'I accepted no apology'

The police eventually recognised their mistakes and conducted an internal review.

A number of officers were called to explain their actions to the coroner.

Police realised that the accidental drowning theory didn't stack up, and that they were about to be called to account.

Superintendent Kristopher Evan who conducted that review apologised to the Raggett family in court.

"As a disciplined and professional force, the Northern Territory Police Force should have done much better," he said.

"As a Superintendent I've been authorised to make clear to the family of the young boy and to the Borroloola community that the Northern Territory Police apologise for the mistakes that we made.

"The community is entitled to expect better from their police force and on this occasion they didn't receive what they should have got."

Ten years later, Adrianne Raggett is still in no mood for police apologies.

"I accepted no apology. Why should I? They shat on us," she said.

"Wondering why the police haven't done their job. Why? They should have done their job. It's their job, they protect us.

"If we were white people, if he was a white child, they would have done their job properly. Search properly, found other evidence."

Louise Rankine holds a photo of her daughter Sasha Green, who was found dead in Tennant Creek in 2013.

Mistakes repeated a decade later

But while reviews were done and recommendations implemented, 10 years later the police made virtually almost all the same mistakes.

Sasha Green died in Tennant Creek in 2013 from a stab wound to her thigh.

Her de facto partner was found lying next to her.

Police sent an inexperienced detective, who followed a theory that she had inflicted the fatal wound on herself.

That detective wasn't supervised properly, proper crime scenes weren't set up, the partner was let go from police custody, and there was some evidence he cleaned up crime scenes and intimidated witnesses.

The detective applied for a major crime declaration for the case, which would have dramatically increased the resources for the investigation, and also demanded the oversight of an assistant commissioner.

But that ended up on the desk of his Superintendent and went no further.

The declaration wasn't made for almost four years.

The police took forensic samples from the dead woman, and then somehow destroyed them before they were examined.

Once again, police didn't submit a file to the coroner for years, and not until his office started asking questions.

The hearing was announced days after the ABC interviewed the parents of Ms Green.

Close up view of Louise Rankine, left, in a patterned dress with Casper Green on the right in a green shirt.

When those hearings came around, Coroner Greg Cavanagh, once described by the NT News as "the Oscar Wilde of the NT judicial system", said the police mistakes were "eerily similar" to the Raggett case.

In the three days of hearings in Tennant Creek, his patience was tested by the family's barrister, who was trying to make a case that institutional racism was to blame for the continued failings of the NT Police.

But his frustrations boiled over when police gave evidence of how Sasha Green's forensic samples had been destroyed.

"I don't want to have another inquest where forensic material of relevance I find has been destroyed. The whole concept of cold case investigations must be redundant up here if these kind of exhibits are going to be destroyed, and I continue to find them destroyed," he said.

"I don't understand why it's happening, Madam. And, it continues to happen."

The family's lawyer tried to argue that institutional racism was the root cause of this repeated failure.

Not that any constable or detective was racist, but that the police system as a whole treats Indigenous people differently.

Coroner Greg Cavanagh stands out front of the Tennant Creek court house.

The coroner didn't accept that in his findings, because it wasn't raised until late in the hearings and wasn't put to the appropriate police officers, telegraphing, perhaps, how a finding of institutional racism could be made in any similar inquests.

But the coroner also didn't hold back.

The police investigation was "botched" by "incompetent, inexperienced" police, he said.

The senior ranks were not spared the coroner's wrath, either.

"Criticising the lower ranks is difficult when the higher ranks were aware of the problems and did nothing," the coroner found.

"What is particularly frustrating is that the higher ranks were spoken to specifically about these problems.

"Not only did that make no difference, their response to the inquest was late and inadequate."

Another officer, this time up a few rungs on the rank ladder, issued another apology.

"On behalf of the NT Police, I apologise to the family and friends for the delays in the investigation and prosecution of this matter," Assistant Commissioner Michael Murphy said.

"As a professional and disciplined service, the NT Police should have done better, and the family and community are entitled to expect better from their police force.

"I apologise for the mistakes we have made and again we are deeply sorry for your loss."

Once again, the family didn't accept the police apology.

Once again, in another suspicious death investigation of an Indigenous Territorian, no-one has been charged.

No-one from the NT Police was available to be interviewed for this story.

In a statement, Assistant Commissioner Murphy said the police would implement the coroner's recommendations, although he didn't specify from which coronial inquiry.

He also said police would undergo "unconscious bias training".

Pink bougainvillea flowers frame the left side of the photo, while the Raggett family sits on chairs behind.

'We trust no-one'

In her well-kept garden in Borroloola, under flowering bougainvillea trees, Adrianne Raggett sat with her mother May, and other family members.

Neighbourhood kids come and go, but every time someone walks into the yard and leaves the gate open, it is quietly closed.

"We can't trust our kids to walk out of the yard now, we don't know who to trust," she said.

"Even to go down to the shop we have to be with them, we have to drop them at the school and pick them up when they finish. We trust no-one."

Ms Raggett is devastated that another Indigenous family has been denied justice due to the failings of the NT Police.

"It's Aboriginal people again, they won't do nothing, they won't carry on the investigation," she said.

"It's pathetic. Because we're black people they didn't want to keep going with their investigation.

"They treat us like dirt. We asked them nicely to help us but they didn't."

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