The crooked Charters Towers cops who escaped the Fitzgerald Inquiry
The disappearance of a lone hitch-hiker on the outskirts of Townsville in 1982 has led to the uncovering of one of Australia’s greatest rogue cops. Merv Henry Stevenson is an ex-stock squad cop and former Inspector of Police in Townsville. He emerged as the great untouchable from the far-reaching Fitzgerald inquiry.
On Wednesday, November 3rd 1982, a twenty year old man from Perth was on the trip of a lifetime around Australia when he mysteriously vanished. Tony Jones had no more than a few dollars on him when he rang his family in Perth from Townsville to organise a rendezvous with his brother Tim who was waiting for him 900km away in Mt Isa. They were meant to meet up and continue on to Perth, Tony hitching, Tim riding his push bike. Tony was never heard from again. His bank account was untouched and a dole cheque due a couple of days later was never collected.
With the police showing little interest in the matter, members of Tony Jones’s family flew to Townsville and so began one of the most publicized missing persons cases in Queensland, a case that has brought a tremendous amount of shame on the Townsville Police Force for their ineptitude at almost every turn in the ensuing 30 years. The family have been instrumental in pushing for a National Missing Persons Database, Missing Persons Week, and a number of other significant reforms.
They never stopped searching for answers and along the way appear to have uncovered a chapter of police corruption that is noteworthy as much for escaping the notice of the Fitzgerald Report as it is for the scale of its corruption.
A young firebrand investigative reporter, now a high-profile ABC presenter in Brisbane, exposed the sinister workings of a group of stock squad cops that were known as the Crooked Crooked Cattle Company, and in particular a man by the name of Merv Henry Stevenson, a man whose name has been mention in parliament by the likes of Bob Katter jnr and former premier Wayne Goss.
In 1992 on the 10th anniversary of the disappearance of Tony Jones, Perth private investigator Mick Buckley travelled to Townsville to follow-up a lead that the police had not only failed to follow-up on, but that had only been made known to the family some 7 years after the police became aware of it. Some years later the coroner was highly critical of Det. Chris Lill for failing to pursue this critical lead. He stopped short of calling it a cover up.
The lead came from a witness who believed he was drinking with the missing hitchhiker who entered the Rising Sun Hotel in Townsville with a man who had picked him up earlier and who suggested they get a meal there before driving to the next town, Charters Towers, to stop the night before going on to Mt Isa the next day.
The younger man sat next to the witness and said his name was Tony and that he was hitching out to Mt Isa to meet his brother before heading on to Perth were his family lived. The witness later saw a photograph of Tony Jones and was certain that this was the person he spoke to that day.
The man who entered with Tony was described as being neatly dressed like a station owner visiting the city, and his vehicle was described as a white or light grey Toyota ute with two 44 gallon drums tied in the back. The witness was able to remember this man’s appearance in great detail and provided Det. Lill with a great deal of information over the phone, even though it was another six months before Lill bothered to get him to make a signed written statement.
Private investigator Mick Buckley arrived in Townsville in 1992 after arranging with Lill for a police artist to draw up a sketch of the man the witness saw with Tony at the Rising Sun Hotel.
The following events took place.
Det Lill faxed the sketch and details to all police stations in the region. He called the Charters Towers station (137 km west of Townsville) to find out why they had not responded. They thought it was a joke. “You’ve sent us a drawing and description of Merv Stevenson!” Lill’s jaw dropped. “Jesus, you’re bloody right”.
The next morning Buckley arrived at the ABC radio station in Townsville to be interview by John Nutting. He was greeted by a man named Steve who asked him how the search was going. Buckley mentioned that he was chasing a guy name Merv Stevenson at which moment Steve excused himself. He picked up a phone on the reception desk and spoke to John Nutting in the studio. “Guess who they think it is?”. “Merv Henry Stevenson” came the reply without a moment’s hesitation.
After the radio interview Steve invited Mick Buckley back to his home nearby. The dining table was piled a foot high with documents and every wall was covered with aerial maps, title deeds and flow charts.
Steve went on to explain that he had been investigating Merv Stevenson for some time, along with other members of the so-called Crooked Creek Cattle Company.
Over a ten year period, pretty much the decade preceding the disappearance of the Perth hitchhiker, there were 10 mysterious suicides by associates of Merv Stevenson. Steve pointed at property lines on maps and at title deeds and other documents, and explained that each mysterious suicide resulted in money or property falling into the hands of Merv Stevenson. One of the those suicides was that of his defacto wife who shot herself in the head – twice.
As Steve described it, Det Warren Hansen, who was later to become Superintendent at Townsville, went to visit Stevenson to discuss the matter of his defacto wife who was dead with two bullets in her skull. In Steve’s words, they had a cup of tea and Hansen signed the death certificate – no suspicious circumstances.
He went on to say that Stevenson was part of the so-called Crooked Creek Cattle Company comprised of Charters Towers stock squad cops who were known to be involved in cattle duffing on a grand scale. There was the suggestion of drug dealing and other crimes. The mayor of Charters Towers at the time was involved in defrauding pensioners of antiques and other property.
It appears that a number of people entrusted to look after the interests of the citizens of Charters Towers were more intent on looking after their own interests – and acting with impunity it seems.
Let’s get back to the case of Tony Jones, missing for ten years at that point. It may appear to be something of a major breakthrough that an officer from his own station had nominated Stevenson as resembling the sketch of the man seen with Jones just hours before he disappeared. It was not just the resemblance to the sketch either, it was everything that the witness had described, his manner of dress, the sun scars on his forearms, the low crown hat, and his vehicle, including his habit of tying two drums to the rear, not just a single drum that would suffice most people. Remember the jaw dropping response from Lill when he realised that this was in fact a stunning likeness to Merv Henry Stevenson?
Despite front page headlines in the Townsville Bulletin stating that an ex-cop was a suspect in disappearance of Tony Jones, this line of enquiry was never pursued by the police.
In fact, Stevenson’s good mate Det Warren Hansen was quoted at saying at that time that the best lead that they had was a reported sighting of Jones nearly two weeks after his last phone call home on November 3, 1982.
A coronial inquest in 2001 failed to call Warren Hansen to give evidence despite him being initially in charge of the case and later Superintendent overseeing the case. The coroner should have found that Hansen’s statement to be nothing less than a cover up. Here’s why.
In the weeks following Nov 3,1982, there were several reported sightings of Tony Jones. These were confusing to his family, firstly because it appeared that the man witnesses described was travelling back away from Mt Isa towards Townsville, and secondly, it just made no sense at all that he would still be around and not contact them and not touch his bank account. His last known withdrawals were of around $10 on each of the two days prior to his last call home, suggesting he had no more than a couple of dollars on him on Nov 3rd.
What the family were later to discover was that Tony had shaved off a full beard just two days before arriving in Townsville on November 3. They made sure that each of the witnesses saw a photo of Tony without his beard and with features much clearer than the one that was being circulated by the media which showed him with a full beard. Each of the witnesses were quick to change to their minds upon seeing the photo. Not only did the man they saw have a beard but his features were much darker, more European looking. Later they were able to confirm that the man the witnesses had all seen was in fact an Italian man travelling in the opposite direction.
Hansen knew that there was no validity to these sightings, it was reflected in the police running sheet and it was described in the book Searching for Tony several years earlier.
For Jones to still be alive two weeks later and to not have touched his account or contacted his family, meant in fact that there was no reason to think he was not still alive today. It was a preposterous statement and its only purpose was to deflect suspicion of his old mate Merv with the suicidal missus with the two lumps of lead in her head.
How has Merv Henry Stevenson escaped investigation all these years?
Stevenson died in 2001. He was never investigated over the disappearance and suspected murder of Tony Jones.
What is more remarkable is that he has never convicted, or even properly investigated, for crimes that seem to be common knowledge in his part of the world. A journalist with an impeccable reputation investigated this man and found compelling evidence that he may have committed crimes of the most serious order. This was not hearsay or suspicion, these were paper trails and hard documents that showed that he was profiting nicely and often from otherwise healthy and sane people falling off the perch at the rate of one a year over a decade.
What’s more, this information was made public in the 1990s. If a man is accused by a radio station of murdering ten people, and he does not sue that station or that journalist, what are we left to think?
And if allegations are made such as those about Merv and the so-called Crooked Creek Cattle Company, and the police choose to turn a blind eye, what does that say about the culture of that police force?
It may well not have been Merv Stevenson that was seen at the Rising Sun Hotel with Tony Jones before his suspected murder, but given that there are no other names, no other leads in that long-standing case, why was he not investigated?
Stevenson is dead, so is his mate Warren Hansen. But who else from the Crooked Creek Cattle Company is still alive? Who remains in the police force as corrupt influences?
Tony Fitzgerald conceded that his inquiry would not catch every crooked cop, and that some that they did investigate were less guilty than some that they chose not to. I believe the crooked cops in Charters Towers, and doubtless in others towns in that region, operated with impunity during the 70s and 80’s, possibly still. There is a code of silence that kept them under the radar. There was fear in the eyes of those who were interviewed about Stevenson during the Tony Jones case and clearly he had friends in Townsville to support him when he was nominated as a suspect in that case.
There is a second inquest underway in the Tony Jones case. Counsel Assisting, Mark Le Grand, formerly worked on the Fitzgerald Inquiry. Will he be the man to break the code of silence, or will he be yet another in a long line of officials and men of the law who have simply looked the other way?
Mervyn Henry Stevenson is surely one of the great untouchables, the crooked cop who laughed at the Fitzgerald inquiry, who laughed at Wayne Goss when he asked questions, and who cocooned himself with self-serving cops who learned much from him about pure rat cunning and stunning chutzpah.
Let’s hope that the second coronial inquest of Anthony John Jones, to be heard by Qld state coroner Michael Barnes on a date to be fixed, brings the notorious deeds of Merv Henry Stevenson to the attention of the public and perhaps to someone who cares enough to scratch a little deeper.