Who cares when a young black mum is murdered?
Black Lives Matter. Those three words have evoked protests across the globe and divided opinions. The words mean different things to different people.
To an Aboriginal family in an outback border town of NSW they have a very real meaning.
What is sometimes missed when discussing the current protests around 'Black Lives Matter' is we are not only talking about Aboriginal deaths in custody.
There are broader issues, families of murdered victims who are Aboriginal are concerned the murder of their loved ones won't be treated the same as non-Aboriginal victims. History shows they have reason to be concerned.
The opening scene of the 2013 Australian movie 'Mystery Road' starring Aaron Pedersen shows a young Aboriginal woman found deceased in a stormwater culvert under a highway in the Australian outback.
This is strikingly similar to an actual crime scene confronted by police 10 years earlier, when the decomposed body of Aboriginal lady, Theresa Binge, was found dumped in a storm water culvert under Boomi Road, 10 kilometres south of Goondiwindi.
It could be said this is not entirely a coincidence. Like most fictional stories, writers often draw on true life incidents or their own personal experiences.
The writer and director of 'Mystery Road', Ivan Sen, is a relative of Theresa Binge. Ivan and his family still feel the pain of Theresa's murder.
Unlike Mystery Road, where the murder was solved, whomever is responsible for taking Theresa's life and leaving her body like roadkill on an outback highway is still walking free.
Recently I spoke to Ivan because I wanted his help. Through his work it was apparent to me he understood how racism and biases - real or perceived - stop indigenous people getting justice.
Growing up a Gomeroi person in northwest NSW, Ivan remembers hearing many stories as a child about murder and violence affecting on his extended family and community.
However, only when he became an adult did he realise the names that dotted the local landscape were in fact symbols of the past. Ivan told me of locations with names such as Slaughterhouse Creek, Massacre Creek and Black Gully Shoot.
I am embarrassed to admit that when he mentioned those places, they meant nothing to me. I googled the names after our conversation and I was shocked: a clear and undisputed history of white men massacring black men, women and children simply because they could. This wasn't a secret. These are the official names of the locations where hundreds of Aboriginal people lost their lives. If you have any doubt about why Australia's first nation people are angry, I'd invite you to go to google and do the same.
Theresa was 43 years old when she died. She came from a large family and was the mother of four: James, Daylene, Hanna and Hazel. Sadly, Hazel died in a house fire in 1982. Daylene, who was 20 at the time of her mum's death, described Theresa "as a bit of a gypsy, who loved life and was greatly loved by her family and friends."
What her family know about Theresa's death is she was drinking at the Victoria Hotel at Goondiwindi in Queensland with a local man. She left the hotel with him shortly after midnight on Thursday 17 July 2003. This man has told police Theresa went home with him that night and they had sex. He said Theresa had breakfast with him and left in the morning.
Like most murder mysteries, there are conflicting accounts of sightings of Theresa after this.
Theresa's body was found 12 days later in the stormwater culvert across the border in NSW. She was naked except a pair of tracksuit pants and one jogging shoe. It appeared her body had only been at that location for a short time although the decomposition of her body would indicate she had died around the time of her disappearance. This suggests her body was moved well after she was murdered.
The cause of death is not known but there was bruising to her face and she had a significant amount of alcohol in her system.
The message behind the Black Lives Matter protests in part is why I first met Theresa's daughter, Daylene Barlow, in 2016.
She reached out because she knew of my work as a homicide detective reinvestigating the murder of three Aboriginal children in Bowraville.
Theresa's family had concerns that her investigation may have been affected by the same lack of police interest shown in the initial stages of the Bowraville investigation, where local cops didn't take the reports of missing children seriously and missed vital clues.
Then Homicide Commander, Detective Superintendent Mick Willing, agreed to let me look at Theresa's investigation and follow up any necessary leads.
Assisted by local police and homicide staff I reviewed the original investigation and it was pleasing to see the original investigation was thorough and professional. This was not Bowraville all over again - but we still didn't have an arrest and it was my job to find out why.
Records showed a comprehensive review of the investigation was carried out by the Homicide Squad in 2007 where further avenues of inquiry were identified.
On 4 February 2009, Deputy State Coroner Jacqueline Milledge delivered an open finding stating, 'the manner of death is homicide by person or persons unknown'. The Coroner also made a number of recommendations, referred the matter to the Cold Case Unit and commended the Officer in Charge on his investigation.
It appears to me this is where all the good work is undone. It was apparent key recommendations from the 2007 review had not been carried out. So a team of highly motivated detectives and I began chipping away at the investigation.
That led to a meeting in a modest home on the outskirts of Moree one particularly hot afternoon in March 2018, where I made a commitment to Theresa's family. "I promise we will do everything we can to find out what happened to Theresa," I said.
It was an emotional meeting attended by Theresa's family, local police and myself. The family got an opportunity to vent and we reassured them that we cared and were committed to finding out what happened. We shared refreshments and some selfies were taken and it felt like progress had been made.
Then in late 2018, I was directed by my command to stop working on this investigation so it could be reviewed again. I thought this was unusual and would affect the progress we were making. I can't say what has been done on the investigation since that time.
Sadly, what I do know is since my retirement I am regularly contacted by Daylene who tells me police are not contacting her or returning her calls when she is trying to find out what's happening with her mother's murder investigation. This is extremely disappointing.
Now I'm out of the police there is not a lot I can do for Theresa's family other than tell their story. As Daylene said, "I just don't want my mum forgotten, we have to find out what happened to her. We are not going to give up, we hope the police don't either. Mum's life is important. It shouldn't matter that she is Aboriginal."
This brings me back to what Ivan told me: "This lack of identification with indigenous victims by the establishment is a direct reflection of a lack of connection and empathy with indigenous Australia. In a way I don't blame the establishment for its racist attitudes. They have been inherited by the generations who have come before them."
Ivan's comments are non-divisive and very measured. He goes on: "This not just a police problem, it's a societal issue which is not confined to Australia. The police are in the front line and are easily targeted for not doing their job in a situation that all Australians are complicit in."
As an ex-homicide detective, I hope NSW Police give this investigation everything they have. I think this crime is solvable.
As Theresa's daughter Daylene said: "Mum's life is important. Black lives matter too."
Next time your mind turns to the 'Black Lives Matter' protests, look beyond the angry protesters and the issue of black deaths in custody. Those are part of the picture. But there is also a very real fear in every indigenous family: when we are victims of crime, nobody seems to care. If our children are harmed, will the authorities take our concerns seriously? If we are murdered, will anyone be charged? Do we get a lesser form of justice simply because of our skin-colour?
Theresa Binge was a loving mum who harmed no-one. She was murdered, and nobody has been charged. If she were white and living in Mosman, would things be different? I suspect so. Theresa's life mattered. Black lives matter.
Originally published as Who cares when a young black mum is murdered?