The road to Ti Tree Station, July 2021

Forty-one years ago today, eight Anmatyerre men left the Aileron Roadhouse north of Alice Springs in an old Holden station-wagon after a day of solid drinking and headed home to their families at Ti Tree Station, sixty kilometres to the north.

Within an hour one of them was critically injured and another – for cultural reasons identified as Jabanardi – was dead, shot by NT Police officer First Class Constable Laurence “Jack” Clifford who would later be charged with Jabanardi’s murder, the first NT police officer to be charged with murder in recent times.

As they turned off the Stuart Highway onto the gravel road to Ti Tree Station just after sunset they were unaware that Clifford and his colleague Constable Malcolm Warren were engaged in the pursuit of a separate carload of men from the small township of Willowra – further to the west of Ti Tree station – who Clifford believed had also been drinking at Aileron.

That pursuit was abandoned after about five kilometres and Clifford and Warren turned their paddy-wagon around and headed back to the Ti Tree police station. A few hundred metres before they reached the intersection of the Ti Tree Station road and the Stuart Highway they saw the approaching Holden station-wagon.

What happened next remains unclear despite lengthy police enquiries, committal hearings and jury trials, a Coronial Inquiry and, many years later, a Report by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCDIAC).

The most commonly accepted version of events is based upon the six-week Coronial Inquest conducted by Gerry Galvin, then Chief Magistrate of the NT and that was adopted by Commissioner Elliott Johnston QC in his RCDIAC report into the death of Jabanardi as being the most accurate account available to him.

The following is a paraphrased account drawn from Elliott Johnston’s RCDIAC report.

As they returned to the Stuart Highway Constables Clifford and Warren saw a vehicle travelling towards them being driven erratically and with one blown headlight. They activated the paddy-wagon’s blue flashing lights and drove straight at the approaching car, coming to a stop in a head-on position with about 3 metres between the vehicles. Clifford and Warren approached the car and arrested the driver, Geoffrey Pepperill for driving under the influence of alcohol.

Geoffrey Pepperill was placed in the rear cage of the paddy-wagon and two of his brothers followed, purportedly in the exercise of police protective custody powers. As Clifford and Warren went to place a fourth man in the paddy-wagon one of the men inside kicked at the door and all the men in the cage escaped. Then followed a fracas, with some of the men from the station-wagon joining the paddy-wagon escapees in common cause against Clifford and Warren. Clifford used a cut-down pick axe handle he’d stowed under his belt as a baton, this soon being taken from him and used against him to inflict a wound to his head that required nine stitches.

The fracas escalated and Clifford retrieved his personal revolver – not his police-issue service weapon – from the front of the paddy wagon and, while still fighting with at least one of the men, shot the fourth Pepperill brother – Freddie – in the chest at point blank range. Further shots were then fired, apparently in warning, before a final shot was fired at the reportedly advancing Japanardi, who was shot in the stomach and died soon after.

That summary is incomplete because at this time I do not have access to Court and Coronial records.

I first came across contemporary media accounts of the events at Ti Tree while researching historical systemic racism in the Northern Territory earlier this year. It soon became clear that the voices that were missing from media and subsequent academic and legal analyses were those of the Aboriginal people involved.

Last week I travelled to Ti Tree and met with members of the Pepperill family who told me that most of the men from the station-wagon had passed away but that two were still alive.

One is old and frail and did not want to speak to me. The other survivor – for privacy reasons I will call him by his skin name of Jakamarra – was keen to tell his story.

Jakamarra’s account of events that night is at stark odds to the account adopted by Commissioner Elliott Johnston.

Among other matters, Jakamarra says that he told Geoffrey Pepperill to pull over when they first saw a car – with headlights on full beam and spotlights on – driving straight towards them and did not know it was being driven by police until they approached the station-wagon.

He did not see the blue flashing lights on the paddy-wagon as claimed by police. Secondly, Jakamarra says that Clifford assaulted him twice as he was taken to the paddy-wagon, a matter he raised with police during his record of interview the next day but that was – as noted by Coroner Galvin as a fundamental criticism of the police investigation – not subsequently pursued by police.

Jakamarra also says that Constable Clifford did not recover his pistol from the motor vehicle but that he saw him unzip his jacket, remove the gun from a shoulder holster and then shoot Freddie Pepperill in the chest at point blank range.

Jakamarra says he called out to his countrymen in the Anmatyerre language that Clifford had a gun and they should all “run away.”  

Perhaps the most important diversion from the account summarised above concerns the fatal shooting of Jabanardi.

Jakamarra says that rather than advancing on Clifford in a threatening way, Jabanardi was about 10 metres away from where Clifford and Jakamarra were still struggling and – following Jakamarra’s warning that Clifford had a gun – was running away from the scene when he was shot by Clifford as he turned to check on his countrymen.

We may never get to a “true” version of what happened on that dirt road forty-one years ago. Further details may be found in the many thousands of pages of Court, Coronial and RCDIAC transcripts and the numerous submissions, statements, correspondence and exhibits used in those matters.

Constable Clifford was acquitted of the charge of murder at his jury trial at Alice Springs in October 1981. He remained in the NT Police until his retirement in 2003 and passed away the next year. I have been unable to locate any further information about Constable Warren’s career with the NT Police after 1980.

The murder trial of NT Police Constable Zachary Rolfe is scheduled to commence in Darwin next Monday 26 July however, as the Crown prosecutor is currently in lockdown in Sydney that date is expected to be confirmed or postponed this Thursday 22 July 2021.