The neck is stretched out, the head thrown back, the legs straight and stiff. The fits are brought on or made worse by the slightest touch, sound or light. Finally, one dreadful seizure follows another, until they are continuous and death ensues.
That short passage describes the effects of strychnine poisoning on a dog and is an excerpt from an article in the Centralian Advocate, published in Alice Springs in December 1948 during what the local veterinarian described as an ‘epidemic of dog poisoning’ in the town.
Thirty-four years on Alice Springs was still ‘suffering the regular ravages’ of a serial strychnine poisoner (or multiple poisoners) who over the years have been credited with the deaths of ‘dozens, if not hundreds’ of dogs in Alice Springs.
In late March 1981 the target species changed from dogs to humans. The effect of strychnine on a human is no less horrific that that described by the local veterinarian above.
Around sunset on the last Saturday in March 1981 Robin Mervyn Ulapuntu went to the rear of the Uniting Church building in Todd Street in central Alice Springs. There he found an almost full bottle of Yalumba Barossa Cream Sweet Sherry that was soon taken from him by Keith Jennings.
Jennings and his companions Amos Inkamala Jambajimba and Lily Abbott were joined by Howard Ross Jabanunga and some of them apparently drank a little from the bottle.
What none of them knew was that the gifted sweet sherry bottle was laced with at least a spoonful of strychnine. A fatal dose was estimated to be 80mL or around two mouthfuls.
Alice Springs’ locals – and Territorians as a class – have long enjoyed the dubious reputation as the world’s greatest consumers of alcohol by volume. Indeed, we’ve long celebrated a song titled “Oh, we’ve got some bloody good drinkers in the Northern Territory” as a local anthem.
In the early 1980s “plonk” – sickly sweet fortified dessert wine – had the dual attractions of low price and high alcohol content – and was the preferred drink of choice for many Aboriginal drinkers that congregated in Alice Springs from the surrounding pastoral wastelands long alienated from them. You could get well pissed for not much money.
In the 1980s the preferred plonk of Aboriginal drinkers in Alice Springs was the ‘very sweet’ Orlando’s Yellow Label Sweet Sherry. Yalumba’s Autumn Brown Sweet Sherry came in a close second.
The bottle of Yalumba Barossa Cream Sweet Sherry found by Robin Mervyn Ulapuntu did not find much favour with Jennings and his companions and Ross took his bottle for a walk further down Gap Road near to the Traeger Park footy ground.
There he met Dick Bundy Jabarula who, like Ross, was already half-shot. Ross, an epileptic, drank some of the liquor and fell to the ground shaking and was fortunate in gaining the attention of a policeman that lived nearby, who took him to the close handy Alice Springs hospital where he was admitted for observation.
Dick Bundy Jabarula took his bottle of Yalumba Barossa Cream Sweet Sherry for another walk just after sunrise the next morning when they entered the riverbed camp of Aboriginal people near the town casino, and Jaburula offered the bottle around.
What happened next was, as the Coroner D. J. (Dinny) Barritt later observed, ‘immediately horrific.’ Members of the group began to convulse and soon Nabutta Abbott Nabarula was dead.
Police and ambulance officers soon attended and David Charlie was taken to hospital where he also died.
Douglas Wheeler, Isiam Abbott Nabarula, Dick Bundy Jabarula, Bronson No. 2, Sammy Inkamala and Sabin Jagamara were admitted to the Intensive Care Unit, whilst Gilbert Daniel Jungari-Jungala, was admitted to Ward 6.
Tilosa Nagamara, Corrie Cooper, Louis Nambijimba, Roy Larry, Johnny Mulla, Lolene Nungari, Jo Anna Nambijimba and Nari No. 2 Ramble were admitted for observation and left.
In all, 17 people were poisoned in the riverbed that day, two fatally.
Northern Territory media snapped to their speculative and imaginative worst, hinting that one Aboriginal man the subject of police enquiries and who had left town over the weekend might be responsible for the poisonings and was the target not only of NT Police enquiries but also for retributive traditional “payback” punishment.
The NT News reported comments by an unnamed senior police officer of the possibility that a ‘Ku Klux Klan type’ group may have been responsible.
A week later the police were discounting the racial motive, noting that the area where the bottle was first found was frequented more by European ‘derelicts’ – the local term for chronic alcoholics of all colours and alcoholic preferences – than by aboriginal drinkers.
The poisonings soon faded from view in the media but police maintained their investigation. The NT government posted a $20,000 reward for information.
Sixteen police officers – including an eight-member task force from Darwin led by Detective Chief Inspector Colin Pope – conducted the investigation that saw police door-knock ‘every house and caravan’ in Alice Springs and travel to remote communities and interstate to interview persons of interest or who may have had information relevant to the investigation. A clairvoyant from Adelaide was interviewed but provided no assistance. More than sixty-four witness statements were taken and those from Aboriginal witnesses were made without the benefit of an interpreter.
One matter that was revealed during the police investigation was the lax regulation of the sale and possession of strychnine in the NT.
In his report prepared in mid-April 1981 Detective Chief Inspector Colin Pope noted that the NT’s Animal Industry Branch “currently has in its safe approximately 30 pounds of strychnine that has been handed into them over the years … strychnine is sold commercially in 50g packs for about $25 a pack.”
Further investigations found that illegal possession of strychnine was widespread across central Australia.
In his Coronial Findings, Coroner Barritt recorded that:
Some had possessed this poison for up to 25 years. Inquiries also revealed Elders Goldsborough Mort to be the only licit source of such poison. Pastoralists or other station agents purchased their supplies from this one source in Central Australia. Strychnine from this source is sold in 50g (less than 2 ounces) packs. Checking stock, supply and sale records over an 18 month period, the records indicated 5150g for sale, yet the stock in hand and recorded sales indicated 5325g, a discrepancy of 175g … But these poisonings were not an isolated occurrence in Alice Springs. For years the town has been suffering the regular ravages of a dog baiter, using strychnine in his or their baits.
In the next part I will look at the conduct of the Coronial Hearings by Coroner Dinny Barritt and look at the evidence given by the victims of the poisoner to the NT Police.