STORY BY SEBASTIAN NEUWEILER AND TYNE LOGAN
Carol Roe paces the corridor of the South Hedland Police Station lock-up. The sound of wailing can be heard throughout the police station as she cries out to the granddaughter she lost eight months ago. Her daughter, Della Roe, and granddaughter, Sherona Roe, echo the sound as they find the strength to step into the cell where their granddaughter, daughter and sister was detained in August last year.
Ms Dhu (so named, after her death, for cultural reasons) had been held in the lock-up, for unpaid fines, when she became one of the more than 500 Indigenous Australians to die in custody since 1980.
Police Senior Sergeant Dean Snashell opens the white door to cell number three and Carol Roe feels sick with grief. The room, hardly bigger than a parking space, is deathly cold.
All three women feel this is where Ms Dhu died.
“Go to the light baby,” Della Roe calls over the cries and singing.
As tears fall onto the concrete floor, the women feel warmth flow into the room.
“She’s already gone,” Carol Roe says.
The afternoon before, Ms Dhu’s family visited the Hedland Health Campus where last year she had been taken three times while in custody, complaining of pain to her ribs.
During the family’s visit to the hospital, Pilbara regional medical director Phillip Montgomery told them that on Ms Dhu’s first hospital admission she had been given the all clear after 20 minutes.
On her second visit she had been given an ultrasound on her chest, cleared and sent back to the lock-up with painkillers.
On her third visit, she had arrived at the hospital cold and lifeless.
Ms Dhu was a Yamatji woman, from Geraldton. She was 22 years old when she died on August 4, 2014.
Eight months after her death, four generations of Ms Dhu’s family sit on a bus with broken air-conditioning, for 25 hours, travelling from Geraldton to South Hedland in search of answers about how Ms Dhu died in State Government care.
They arrive in Port Hedland in the dead of night. It has been hard to sleep knowing that in two days they will meet the Western Australian Premier, Colin Barnett, for the first time since last October when he made a series of promises to Della Roe on the steps of Parliament House.
It is harder still, knowing that after the sun comes up they will be visiting the two places where Ms Dhu spent her final hours – the South Hedland Police Station and the Hedland Health Campus. When they arrive at the lock-up where Ms Dhu was held and possibly died, they are denied permission to go into her cell. They leave the lock-up feeling disheartened.
They decide that tomorrow they will ask the Premier to allow them into the cell. They will also ask him when an inquest into her death will be held. They don’t want to wait the usual two years or more.
The next day, Thursday April 30, the Roe family gets ready to meet Barnett at the South Hedland Recreational Centre. Marc Newhouse from the Perth-based Deaths in Custody Watch Committee of Western Australia Inc, which advocates on behalf of the family and is responsible for organising the trip, is there with them.
They sit in a large room at the rear of the building, running through the questions they plan to ask the state Premier.
Della, Carol and Sherona wear hand-made T-shirts, each with a picture of Ms Dhu on the front, and these words:
Shame, shame, shame Australia.
Death in Custody.
Aboriginal woman died in WA 4 August 2014.
Truth and Justice for [Ms Dhu].
They want to know when they can expect a coronial inquest and they want Barnett to understand the pain and anguish they are going through.
Carol and Sherona are on one end of a long couch, across from Newhouse. Della sits alone at the other end.
“I can’t do this,” she says.
Before anyone can console her, a commotion erupts. Men and women with cameras and recording equipment move quickly down the hallway.
In the middle of the media scrum is Barnett. He walks briskly with his eyes staring straight ahead.
Della stands and walks closer to the window. Barnett turns his head and slows his pace. The two lock eyes. He bows his head, ever so slightly.
Newhouse grabs a pile of documents that has been sitting on the table, and moves the family out of the room. They are met outside by Barnett’s staff and security people and are quickly ushered down a narrow corridor and behind two gymnasium doors.
This is the first time Barnett and the family have spoken to each other since October 2014, when he made his public promises to Della Roe. On the steps of Parliament House, he said he would do his best to work with his ministers to reduce deaths in custody and the number of Aboriginal people in the state’s jail system.
“I will do that. You then judge me on whether I succeed or not, but I give you that commitment today,” he said at the time.
“I promise you, whatever the truth is we will find it. And I am very sorry for your loss.”
Western Australia has the highest rate of incarceration for Aboriginal people in Australia, almost 70 per cent higher than the national average. In WA, Aboriginal incarceration is 22.3 times the rate of non-Aboriginal incarceration.
After an hour behind closed doors, the family, Newhouse and Barnett step out into the cool corridors of the recreation centre. Barnett leads the media into the nearby gymnasium. He raises his hands, signaling he will speak before any questions are asked. He announces that the coronial inquest into Ms Dhu’s death will begin mid-year.
“I think it’s a very sad case and I don’t think anyone quite knows the full story or the full truth,” he says.
“But, I’ve reassured the family the coronial inquiry will detail exactly what happened, the sequence of events and if there’s been any failing within the government administration I will certainly apologise for that.”
Following the meeting, Newhouse expresses surprise at how soon the inquest could be held.
“In the experience of the watch committee, a coronial inquest into a death in custody can take two years upwards to get started,” he says.
“If the inquest does begin within the next two months it will be within 12 months of Ms Dhu’s passing.
“That is completely unprecedented and sets a new benchmark.”
Della says she was worried before the meeting, and had even thought about not coming, but she thought it went well.
“It seems like we’re getting a bit closer to what we want and it seems like [Barnett]’s starting to understand where we’re coming from,” she says.
Just 24 hours earlier, the trip had almost seemed a waste of time for the Roe family.
The family had visited the police station and hospital hoping to finally receive some answers as to how Ms Dhu died.
At the police station, their first destination, they met Senior Sergeant Dean Snashell.
They were walked through two heavy-duty doors with security codes, through an office and into a boardroom where they asked many questions. They wanted to know how and why Ms Dhu had died and who was responsible. The senior sergeant could not answer. He did not know.
The family had one final request.
“I need to see her cell,” Della said.
“I need to get my closure.”
The request was denied. Orders had come from an Assistant Commissioner in Perth denying the family access. Instead, they were led through the office to a white door. From here they could look through a small window into the corridor leading to the row of cells where Ms Dhu had been held.
There they laid a heart-shaped wreath in her favourite colours – pink and purple.
Outside the entrance to the station, just to the right, stood a large boulder with a plaque affixed to its surface. It read:
We recall with thanksgiving the memory of those Police members who gave their lives in the course of doing their duty.
We pray that God will preserve among us the good of their example and that we too may prove faithful.
The plaque was unveiled 15 years ago.
Beside this memorial, Carol laid two crosses for her granddaughter, painted in red, yellow and black.
Though a compromise had been reached, the family had not got what they came for. Nor were they any closer to finding out how Ms Dhu had died.
As an emotion-charged April 29 drew to an end, it became clear to the family that getting into the cell would be one of the main items on their agenda for tomorrow’s meeting with the Premier.
On the morning of the 30th, Barnett sits on one side of an enormous grey table, staring down at his hands. He rubs his thumbs together.
“I need to go into the lock up,” Della tells him from the other side of the table.
“I need to go into my daughter’s tomb and lie a wreath and cross for her.
“Please, I just need closure.”
Barnett pauses for a moment and then nods, excusing himself from the room. He has one of his staff contact the Police Commissioner 1600 kilometres to the south, in Perth.
The family and Newhouse stay at the table, discussing the announcement The Premier has just made about an early date for the coronial inquest.
Barnett returns 15 minutes later.
“Okay, you can go into the cell,” he says.
After 20 minutes inside the lock-up, Carol, Della and Sherona join Della’s 11-year-old daughter Yolonda and her cousin outside. Yolonda had been waiting outside because Carol said she was too young to go into the cell.
Della takes hold of Yolonda, and hugs her tightly to her chest, stroking the back of her head as her tears fall into Yolonda’s hair.
“It’s cold, it’s so cold in there,” Della says.
Carol is not far behind but, unlike Della, Carol is smiling. She rubs Della’s upper arms.
“It was really hard for us to go into the station, even the front entrance was hard thinking about what [my granddaughter] went through,” Carol says.
“It was like walking into a morgue or freezer.
“Then we felt the warmth and that’s when she travelled, that’s when she left us.”
The family receives some comfort from the cell visit, except for one 11-year-old.
Yolonda embraces her grandmother and explains that, because she hadn’t been allowed into the cell, she hasn’t been able to say goodbye to her sister.
Carol asks her what she’d like to do.
“I want to plant a flower,” she says.
Yolonda and Carol walk back into the station and ask to speak with Senior Sergeant Snashell, who grants them permission.
“Someone suggested a desert rose,” Carol says.
“It’s a strong, beautiful plant – if no one waters it, it will live until the rain comes.”
Senior Sergeant Snashell walks through the sliding glass doorway to the station. He stands with his hands in his pockets, smiling as he watches the grandmother and granddaughter scoop red dirt aside with their hands.
Yolonda plants the rose in the soft soil beside the memorial plaque for fallen police officers. The two crosses rest against the plaque from the day before. She moves them beside the desert rose.
The Senior Sergeant walks closer to Yolonda and the desert rose. He promises he will take care of it for her.
Carol takes a deep breath and holds it in for a moment.
“I can go back home now, I know she’s not here,” she says of Ms Dhu.
The family shares a moment of tranquility. The visit has provided some resolution, but many of their questions will remain unanswered until the coronial inquest.
As mid-year approaches, the Office of the State Coroner is yet to set a date. A spokesperson says it is not possible to indicate when the inquest into Ms Dhu’s death is likely to be held, but the Coroner’s Court is “making every effort to progress the matter as soon as possible”.
Photos by Sebastian Neuweiler and Tyne Logan.