Old 01-31-2007, 07:47 PM
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A place where people vanish
Tuesday, January 30, 2007
Men have been vanishing into the outback void around Tennant Creek. Police are damping down talk of a serial killer but there are rising fears in this post-Falconio world. Paul Toohey reports.
Three men, all of them white, all travelling alone, simply evaporate from Northern Territory highways, in roughly the same area, in the past nine months. In each case, they leave behind motor vehicles and possessions. At a glance, there's a common thread. But police refuse to talk in terms of a serial killer and are not linking the disappearances.

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This is a place where people vanish. Peter Falconio is the standout example, although some vanish by choice. Think of Keith Murdoch, infamous for becoming the first All Black to be kicked off a tour. It was Wales, 1972, and Murdoch had been pub-brawling. Either ashamed, or angered by his harsh treatment, he abandoned New Zealand but turned up years later, in 2001, in Tennant Creek, where he was called to a coronial inquiry to answer questions about the death of a young Aboriginal man who'd been left for dead down an open-cut mine.

Murdoch was never implicated by the coroner, but he didn't like the attention, refusing to talk to journalists who were desperate for him to tell the story of his missing years. And then he vanished again.

In April last year, a Toyota Camry belonging to Perth man Brett McGillivray, 26, was found abandoned in a truck bay at Attack Creek, 80km north of Tennant Creek. The keys were still in the ignition. Ground and air searches revealed no trace.

On November 26, New Zealand man Jamie Herdman, 26, was at the Hi-Way Inn, 400km north of Tennant Creek. He appears to have abandoned his vehicle, leaving personal possessions. No one at the inn remembers seeing Herdman, even though his dreadlocks might have marked him as noticeable, as would his white van, which was decorated in landscape art by an Aboriginal mate from Broome.

An off-duty policeman reported seeing Herdman hitching 500m south of the Hi-Way Inn, on Sunday, November 26, but Herdman's dad says there's now doubt about this. Jamie's keycard was last used at the Hi-Way Inn on that same day.

Then, on January 21, Oswald Orman, 37, from Queensland, set off hitching from the Barkly Homestead, on the Barkly Highway, 200km east of Tennant Creek. He hasn't been seen since. For a few hours, Territory media were on the verge of reporting that a serial killer was at work. But Orman's strange behaviour gave us all a cold shower.

Orman arrived at the Barkly Homestead on Tuesday, January 16, in a white Datsun ute. He parked in an area reserved for coaches and began dismantling his car. Asked to move, he declared he was starving and was given $50 by the roadhouse manager.

Orman, a sufferer from schizophrenia and known to Queensland institutions, stayed where he was, pulling apart the motor and arranging the parts neatly - fanatically so - on a table. He pulled off the doors. Someone wondered, ruefully but not cruelly, whether he was looking for the CIA listening device. Then Orman took off, heading east on foot towards the Queensland border. Orman's backpack was then found at a rest stop 50km east of the roadhouse. But no Orman.

The case of Stan Dobias, 60, who also disappeared from Attack Creek, on September 9, 2005, is not described in the same breath. Dobias was suffering from Alzheimer's. He was a caretaker at the Attack Creek gravel pits and had gone to lock a gate and has not been seen since. It is widely accepted that he became confused, wandered, and perished.

Those who live up and down Territory road stops are familiar with the phenomenon of people with problems taking themselves to the open road to find something but, instead, losing themselves. Lubos Gencur, 42, from the Czech Republic, was last seen hitching near Curtin Springs, east of Uluru, on April 4, 2005. He had a history of trying to kill himself and it seems the bush finally accommodated him. He hasn't been found.

Jamie Herdman's father, Steve, in Darwin to do what he can, says Jamie had no history of mental illness. But he had departed Broome on November 24, where he had been working as a removalist, in an upset state. And in a real hurry.

"He was in Broome, had a really good job, and his boss speaks highly of his work ethic," said Steve Herdman. "He'd been working on his van, completely stripping it down and rebuilding it - he was always going to be doing a trip around Australia, but that wasn't supposed to happen till March."

Two days before he left Broome, Jamie, with a good mate and a cousin, had hired a dinghy and had a day on the water. His companions told Steve he was in great spirits. On the day he left, his boss, the last person to see him in Broome, told Steve that Jamie "was in a very distressed state". He was unable to pry from Jamie what the problem was.

"Something in those two days has happened," said Steve Herdman. Territory police flew to Broome on Tuesday to try to find out what that might have been.

Early reports that Jamie had been driving an overheating Kombi conjured visions of Falconio and Joanne Lees. Steve Herdman told The Bulletin that Jamie's van was a Nissan in good working order. But the fact he left beer, money and a phone behind in an unlocked car, windows wound down, was troubling.

Police initially speculated Jamie may have wandered into an Aboriginal community. They appear to have gone cold on the angle. "People are ringing in with supposed sightings," said Steve, "but it's a mystery." He said he would hold out hope "until we find him".

Steve's not thinking about serial killers. "We don't read too much into that," he said. "But we look at it as an advantage, because it's getting the attention of the media to focus on missing people in the area."

Throw the weird story of Ricky Megee into the mix and loved ones must start to wonder. Megee, 35, claimed that on January 24 last year, after driving up from Adelaide, he was flagged down by a group of Aborigines out of Kalkaringi, on the Territory's Buntine Highway. He said he was drugged, knocked out for three days, woke up, saw a man with a weird mask and was drugged again - by a white bloke with a gun. He then spent 70 days in the wilderness living on frogs and leeches.

Some of this seems to have been drawn from the plot of Batman Begins, although the part about living off leeches rings true, as Megee's weight loss was catastrophic. But Aborigines with knock-out drops, masks, and white men with guns and more knock-out drugs? The story's a beauty, but it doesn't scan.

Truth may be stranger than fiction, but the mind is stranger than everything. Put a vulnerable or distressed person in wide open spaces, with no medication or, as the case may be, no support of friends, and bad decisions can be made. McGillivray's parents, Colin and Rosa from Perth, said their son was on some medication but showed no indication of being unwell. Brett just took off in his Camry, telling no one where he was going.

When they heard about Jamie Herdman and then Oswald Orman, their reaction was understandable. "We first assumed there was another [Brad] Murdoch out there, but the police don't think so," said Colin. "I can accept that. There is another link here."

Colin McGillivray says he can understand people thinking a sprawling landscape might help shake off their troubles. "The Northern Territory seems to be a place where people who don't want to be found seem to go. It seems to be a place people can disappear."

Accordingly, police know their priority is to find the missing people, dead or alive, before they start hunting for maniacs.
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