Enngonia Road: Death and deprivation in the Australian outback

By Richard Stanton

  • Ginninderra Press 2017
  • ISBN-13: 9781760414726
  • RRP: $35 (pb)

Reviewed by Paul Henderson

The author gives a very good summary of what this book is about at the end of the text. The story is about “…a sad encounter between three people that left two of them dead and the third defending himself against some nasty changes…It is a story of despair from beginning to end.”

Ennogonia Road is an interesting account of an incident where there were few, if any, winners.

In the early hours of Sunday morning, 6 December 1987, two Aboriginal children, cousins Mona and Jacinta aged 15 and 16, died in outback New South Wales in a one car accident near Enngonia, a town which is 63 kms from the town of Bourke, which in turn is 782 kms from Sydney. The car was driven almost certainly by Alex Grant, a 40-year old itinerant worker, who had previous convictions.

Later, Grant was finally charged with three offences. He was sent to trial at a committal hearing and from there to court. Almost two years after the car accident Grant was cleared by a jury in a district court in Bourke. The author strongly argues, with a great deal of evidence, much of which was circumstantial, that Alex Grant was guilty of all three charges.

There are many good features of the book. Richard Stanton has undertaken considerable research with many footnotes to elaborate. He has provided a largely unemotional account in what must have been a very emotional time for a number of people, especially those of the local Aboriginal community. He visited the site where the events unfolded.

Stanton also explains the tricky legal aspects of the case with care and detail. He explains fully the terms “the O’Connor defence”, the “No Bill Tactic” and the mens rea term, relating to a sound mind. He takes the reader carefully through the relevance of these terms to the Grant case.

It is obvious that the author has many frustrations with the case. Certainly, some of the police could have better handled the search for and presentation of the facts.  When Grant was held by the police in Bourke, no fingerprints and no mugshots were taken. Much later, the police, unwisely, had the trial put back by three months, giving the defence valuable time.

The police evidence compared poorly with the slick and professional manner of the Sydney lawyers for the defence. There was a long delay between the event and the trial. Also, the author points out that police could/should have interviewed more quickly after the tragedy and should have interviewed others. Stanton points out that Grant’s costs were paid for by an anonymous donor or donors. Who were they?  Should this have been made public?

It was a complicated case for the police. The two Aboriginal girls were dead at the scene, while the other person, Grant, was drunk for hours after the accident occurred, changed his story and said he could hardly remember anything of what had happened. It was difficult to prove who was the driver. When the police later examined the vehicle, inexplicably parts of it, for example the steering wheel, were missing and very little could be found out about Grant’s background.

Grant was originally charged with five offences, which were later reduced to three charges. Two related to the fact that Grant drove a car while intoxicated which resulted in the death of the two girls. The third charge stated that Grant “offered indignity to a dead human body”. While Grant may have got off on the first two charges, it seems more than likely that he, and he alone, exposed the body of one of the girls after she died.

The author also points out that were other issues happening in the police force. The Wran NSW Government had set up the Lusher Inquiry into the NSW police force, which led to much restructuring of the force in regional areas. Were police preoccupied with this? Also, following the death of an Aboriginal person who had died in police custody in 1987 there was a riot in the region, known as the Brewarrina Riot, where police, including Constable O’Neill who was investigating the Grant case, were injured. Relations between police and Aborigines were not good.

Sometimes the author writes a comment, which seems to have little obvious connection with the case. Stanton makes the assumption that because Constable O’Neill, together with Detective Ehsman, were injured by Aborigines O’Neill may have been more sympathetic to Grant rather than the two girls. He leaves this hurtful comment about O’Neill in abeyance.

On another occasion, Stanton writes about Christine Nixon, who was in the NSW police force and later went on to be Police Chief Commissioner in Victoria. She also gave her opinion about the Lusher Inquiry. He refers to Nixon, in a throw away line, as the “disgraced former Commissioner” and then moves on offering no reason why he describes her in this way.

Stanton describes the town of Bourke as “ … a moribund violent town on the edge of the outback” which is a very harsh, unsubstantiated comment. It is also not made clear why he contrasts the Ennogonia Road case with the Lindt café terrorist attack in 2014 and the use of careful factual analysis in the Lindt case, without providing more evidence. Why mention this 2014 case at all?

Towards the end of the book, Stanton makes a brief reference to the Protestant/Masonic power base within the police force in NSW at the time of the Enngonia incident and compares this with the recent “injection into NSW party politics of the Catholic Church…” Stanton himself then says this “is outside the scope of this work.” I agree. Then why raise the issues in the first place?

Although the book is very comprehensive, it is also repetitive. The questions asked by police and the responses by those interviewed are repeated time and time again, with very little new material introduced. The book is divided into three sections; 137 pages are devoted to the events leading up the Committal Hearing and 59 pages to the Committal Hearing itself. Surprisingly, only a few pages are devoted to the actual court proceedings, given that the court case in Bourke only lasted six days. While the early parts are very detailed, more explanation was needed about what occurred at the trial itself, as this would have been useful to the reader.

Enngonia Road is a very good read. Richard Stanton suggests that Alex Grant was guilty of all three charges and I agree with his carefully explained accounts and conclusion. However, once one examines how the prosecution handled the case, it is not surprising that Grant walked away from the court a free man.

Paul Henderson is an author and educator