Biographical Non-Fiction posted September 27, 2015


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Aboriginal man dies in jail cell.

Death in Custody

by Aussie


The Chronicle, February 1997: Palm Island death: Young Aboriginal, Minnamurra (Jimmy) Wahroonga dies in jail cell overnight.

Auntie Mary smoked her clay pipe as she sat in the empty cell where her grandson died two days ago.

"I bin talkin' to Jimmy, he bin tellin' me he was kicked so much he died," mourning the death of her grandson, she cried tears of grief.

The old woman wiped tears from her face. Now her eighties, frail and wasted. She sat on the bench where her grandson died, she looked straight at the ceramic toilet bowl where the spirit of her Jimmy sat talking to her.

"He put the boot in and kicked and kicked, and kicked!" Grandma could see through Jimmy to where the green paint had peeling off the old walls of the cell.

The elders of the Wahroonga tribe were stirring; trouble brewing. Anger and outrage in their hearts, determined to destroy the white man's jail.

Earlier in the day, a police helicopter had landed and escorted Sergeant Bill Brookes safely away from Palm Island. The police knew there would be trouble over the death of Jimmy Wahroonga. Brookes was the only white policeman on the Island.

Old Mary mumbled a blessing for her grandson and promised that he would have a big ceremony to send him home to the spirit land. He was angry, after telling grandma about his death, how Brookes had dragged him into the cell and started kicking him. The official cause of his death would surface as an autopsy had to be held on mainland Australia.

"I was drunk as a skunk, knew I would be picked up by that copper. It was my birthday. He just couldn't stop kicking me into that damn cell," wailed Jimmy.

The police investigation began almost immediately; Brookes was adamant the boy tripped and fell heavily on the corner of the cell bench.

Mayhem had broken out on Palm Island. As Auntie Mary sat and watched as Jimmy's spirit left for the promised land.
Tribes built huge fires on the lawns of the jail, smoke billowed into the night. Sledge hammers and other tools used to smash the Police Station. With grog in their bellies, the men were red-eyed and mad. No one could talk sense to them. Auntie Mary sat in her gunyah, she didn't agree with the men, her way was talking around the campfire. Her grandson was gone, but he was restless; he wanted that copper to pay for his death.

For three days the tribe continued to destroy any remnants of the Police Station and that jail where Jimmy died.
Suddenly, the sound of a helicopter hovering overhead; catalyst of breaking up the tribes and bringing order to the island.

Sixteen police officers were dropped on the island, heavily armed and ready to put down any more trouble. The Elder, Camaringii, who were also Jimmy's Father, sobbed out the story to the Chief Constable:

"My boy, he only eighteen, him have big birthday bash, got too drunk. He not used to strong grog." Camaringii held his head in his large hands and cried like a child.

Chief Constable Forbes was business-like but aware of the grief the people were going through, especially Camaringii. He wanted an investigation, he tended to believe that Jimmy didn't fall and bleed to death by himself.

The lawns of the old Colonial buildings looked like a bomb crater. Much damage had been done. The police put the tribal members to work erecting wire fences and trying to bring some sense of order to the place, they still carried AK47's on their shoulders. The dog-squad, Alsatians, were a good deterrent to those who would want to cause more trouble.

The broken body of Minnamurra (Jimmy) Wahroonga had been autopsied in Brisbane. The results of that autopsy showed he bled to death from a crushed spleen.

Three months had passed since the enquiry into his death in custody.

Brisbane Court House: Sergeant Brookes sat in the dock, dressed in his neatly pressed police uniform.

"You say the man was drunk?" Asked the prosecutor.

"They're always drunk, " replied Brookes.

"We're not interested in the population of Palm Island, answer the question." Judge McElroy banged his gavel on the desk.

"Sorry, sir. Yes, the man was very drunk, as I tried to get him into the cell, he fell against the bench, Your Honour." Brooke's answers were less flippant now.

"Did you check on the man overnight?" Prosecutor Soames hugged his Book of Law.

"Er, well, no I didn't, I left him to sleep it off," Brookes blushed at the memory of how he handled Jimmy.

Brookes were sick to death of his stint on Palm Island and had become indifferent to the wails of the women as he jailed their men for being drunk. Drinking amongst the aboriginals was a daily habit. Grog being flown in from the mainland. There was no work, nothing much for them to do and so they drank, women wandered around drunk also.

"So you found the deceased on the floor of the cell, is that correct?" Soames coughed, covered his mouth and sneezed.

"Yes, he was already dead." Some remorse in Brooke's tone of voice.

This would be a Kangaroo Court. To the outrage of the Palm Islanders. Brookes was found not guilty of causing the death of the prisoner in custody and re-instated as a police officer in a rural town.

The instigator of the Palm Island riots, Jimmy's brother, John Wahroonga, was subsequently charged with inciting a riot to cause damage to Government property and served six months in a Brisbane jail. Auntie Mary had no justice for her grandson and when his body was finally released, brought back to Palm Island and buried next to his grandfather, Mary sat by the graves and talked to the boy and her long-dead husband.
Some think she had lost her mind. But she knows how Jimmy died and all about the white man's justice. Mary waits for her time to join her grandson. Long time ago when whites stole aboriginal land, they bribed the tribes with grog, flour and sugar. Three types of food that their bodies do not tolerate, it makes them fat and the drink sends them mad.

















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Contest entry: Death in Custody did happen on Palm Island (small island off the coast of Queensland, Aust.) Names changed to protect the people. No justice for the boy who was kicked to death by a white policeman. After the death, the Govt visited the island and made it a 'dry' place, no liquor flown in. The men were given work on new buildings and support was shown for all of them. Jimmy's spirit is still restless over his murder.
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