Mr DAVID SHOEBRIDGE ( 19:42 ): At 3.45 a.m. on 5 October 1995 tragedy struck the small township of Werris Creek, just south of Tamworth. Stephen Smith, known to his friends as Whiffy, was struck and killed by a northbound freight train. Since that time Stephen’s family and friends have been searching for answers. Stephen’s death is dreadfully similar to the death of Mark Haines, who was struck and killed on the same train line just a few kilometres north. I have spoken in this Chamber before about Mark’s death, and Stephen’s case is no less worthy of attention. Like Mark, Stephen was only 17 years old when he was killed. Stephen was also an outgoing and popular boy with a life full of friends, promise and love. Stephen was also proudly Aboriginal. Neither death has been explained. Stephen is more than a forgotten statistic. He remains the son, brother and friend of those he left behind. As the local paper recorded in the week after his death, Stephen was:
A Champion Bloke. If you ever had the chance to talk to Whiffy you could not help being optimistic about the future of our youth. If you went to a picnic Whiffy was the one with the mass of kids thronging around … Leadership, teamwork and sportsmanship, an example to others.
This is the boy who, according to the local Oxley police, lay down to die on an obscure and distant part of the rail line. It has never made any sense. The last time Stephen was seen alive was by a security officer who was driving on patrol along Hawker Street in north Quirindi at 1.25 a.m. Just before then a local had also seen Stephen on the street. Both report seeing him hitchhiking. Stephen lived in Werris Creek, 20 kilometres up the road towards Tamworth. He had been to a party that evening in Caroona and had been driven back to Werris Creek late in the evening with friends.
Alcohol had been consumed and forensic reports later showed Stephen was intoxicated that evening. The local who spotted Stephen noticed him because she was woken by the sound of voices and a dog barking. She saw two boys across the street and a third, who has been identified as Stephen, walking along the street hitchhiking. She said he was “dragging his feet and looking terribly tired to me. He was waving his arm as though he was trying to hitchhike a ride.”
One of Stephen’s closest friends told police that they had known each other since they played footy together at age five. Before getting their driver licences they had often hitchhiked between Werris Creek and Quirindi. This included from time to time when they had been at parties and “had a few beers”. Hitchhiking is far from unusual in regional New South Wales where public transport is absent. But Stephen was not found dead on the road between Quirindi and Werris Creek. He was struck by a train that was coming around a bend on the rail line miles from the nearest road.
I have been to the site with Stephen’s father and brother. I have travelled back along the route he was said to have taken that evening. From where Stephen was last seen in north Quirindi to where he was struck by the train is a 1.5 kilometre walk along the main road to Werris Creek. That is followed by a sharp turn off the main road along a dirt side road for another 2.2 kilometres where it crosses the rail tracks. It is then almost two kilometres further up the rail line, away from all roads, to the point just south of Quipolly Creek where Stephen was killed as he lay directly across the tracks.
Almost all of this long walk would have been in pitch blackness with no street lights and no passing traffic—and all done by a fatigued and intoxicated young man who was earlier seen hitchhiking. In his police statement Stephen’s closest friend said that in all the times they had been together—and they had been in each other’s pockets since the age of five playing footy together—Stephen had never walked along the railway line and had never spoken about it. However, they had often hitched along the main road. He said Stephen being on the rail line was “an action out of the ordinary”.
A series of investigative leads about Stephen’s death have been brought to the attention of the local Oxley police, but the family have never had it explained to them why none produced results. A coronial inquiry was held in February 1996 and it concluded Stephen was killed by a train. No person of interest was identified and no viable reason was given to explain why this successful vibrant young man was walking along the train line, let alone why he lay across the train tracks. Just months after the coronial inquiry police obtained hearsay evidence of an alleged confession to Stephen’s murder. Again the family have not been told why nothing came of this. They still want answers.
Young, vibrant Aboriginal boys do not just lie down and die on train lines. Answers that are irrational and wildly out of character would never be acceptable to explain the deaths of non-Aboriginal young people. It is no wonder that Stephen’s family do not accept it as an explanation for their son’s death. This is why I am referring Stephen’s case to the New South Wales Homicide Squad. Twenty years later we may never know all the answers, but Stephen’s family and Aboriginal people in the cities and regions deserve far more than they have been given to date.