The Racially Charged Crime That Rocked An Island In 2004, a respected policeman was accused of murdering an aboriginal man on Palm Island, a secluded territory off the coast of Australia. Chloe Hooper details the case in her new book, Tall Man: The Death of Doomadgee.

The Racially Charged Crime That Rocked An Island

The Racially Charged Crime That Rocked An Island

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The title of Chloe Hooper's new book references a threatening mythical being — a "tall man" — that exists in Palm Island lore. Monty Coles hide caption

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Monty Coles
Tall Man
Tall Man: The Death of Doomadgee
By Chloe Hooper
Hardcover, 272 pages
List price: $24

Read an excerpt

In 2004 on Palm Island, off the coast of north of Australia, a 36-year-old Aborigine man named Cameron Doomadgee was arrested as a public nuisance for swearing at a police officer. He was brought into the police station for booking. Forty minutes later, he was dead.

Senior Sergeant Christopher Hurley, the policeman investigated for beating Doomadgee to death, did not seem like someone — policeman or otherwise — who would commit the crime. A tall man who volunteered with Aborigine children, Hurley had been honored for his police work and was considered friendly and just in the aboriginal territories where he served.

Hurley claimed that he fell on Doomagee and that his bulk caused Doomadgee's internal injuries. But Deputy State Coroner Christine Clemens delivered a more damning report. She said that the initial arrest had been unjustified and that she was convinced Hurley had caused Doomadgee's death by falling on him sharply with his knees.

Novelist Chloe Hooper, who was invited by the defense to witness and write about this case, recounts the crime and its aftermath in her new book, Tall Man: The Death of Doomadgee.

"The case became front-page news in Australia," she tells Scott Simon. "It really divided people enormously. Police officers and also members of the general public took to wearing blue armbands with Senior Sergeant Hurley's registration number in support of his cause."

But even before Domadgee's death, remote Palm Island was a hotbed of tension. Established in the early 20th century as an "open air jail" for indigenous Australians who had misbehaved on reservations, the island was still completely segretated as recently as the 1970s.

"It's now a place where life expectancy [for Aborigine people] is 20 years less than for a non-indigenous Australian and there are vast issues of alcoholism and violence," says Hooper.

Doomadgee was arrested for swearing, says Hooper, but witnesses say that he was just singing the popular song "Who Let the Dogs Out." According to Hooper, "dog" can sometimes be a code word for police on Palm Island.

"Who knows why this morning, out of all of the mornings, Senior Sergeant Hurley found this so offensive," says Hooper.

Hurley decided to arrest Doomadgee, and when they arrived at the station Doomadgee gave Hurley "a quick jab to the jaw," says Hooper.

Another man being kept at the station, Roy Bramwell, swore that he saw Hurley assault Doomadgee. But Bramwell's testimony lacked credibility; he had been arrested for assaulting his girlfriend and her sisters and had consumed 40 beers earlier in the day.

"The problem with this case from the beginning [was that] so many of the Aborigine witnesses in the case had been drinking heavily. Their testimony was extremely easy to pick apart," says Hooper.

Two years after Doomadgee's death, an all-white jury acquitted Hurley of the crime. He went on to get a job working in Surfer's Paradise, which Hooper describes as "a plum police posting just south of Brisbane."

Hooper speculates that Palm Island's tumultuous history may have contributed indirectly to the tragedy.

"If you are in a place where there is great violence, do you become violent, too?" she wonders. "The longer I spent in some of these remote places, the more extraordinary it seemed to me that this doesn't happen more often."

Excerpt: 'Tall Man: The Death of Doomadgee'

by Chloe Hooper

Tall Man: The Death of Doomadgee
By Chloe Hooper
Hardcover, 272 pages
List price: $24

On Australia's remote Cape York Peninsula there are spirits with long, thin arms and long, thin legs that move unseen in the night to do evil. By day they slide back into the country's sandstone cliffs, living in the cracks. On rock faces, in gullies and gorges and caves, their stretched-out bodies are painted in red ocher with all-seeing white eyes.

To find them I flew and drove to the tiny town of Laura, in Far North Queensland, and followed a guide along narrow walking tracks thousands of years old, up a steep escarpment. At the top, the guide yelled out a greeting to the spirits. Otherwise, he said, they would come and cut out our kidney fat.

It had been years since anyone had visited this place. Recent rains had left the saplings vivid green, and the ferns that grew from rocks made hanging gardens. This was a wet-season camp, a network of boulders and caves whose walls and ceilings were covered in layers of paintings maybe fifteen thousand years old: kangaroos, crocodiles, emus, dingoes, yams and their twisting roots, weapons, beehives with swarms of bees, stars; all the things of the cosmos drawn so they might multiply and release the bounty of the land.

Along one cliff wall, the orange and brown hues of the sandstone morphed into more recent figures: paintings of two white men lying down. They wore red half-moon caps and blue shirts, and were naked below their waists, their skin a pale, creamy ocher. Both men had rifles. They were police. This site was used for sorcery, purri purri.

On a cave wall a kilometer or so away, the guide had shown me a scene painted in the late nineteenth century of a European wearing jodhpurs and boots. He was midair, vainly holding to the reins as he was thrown from his horse. A rifle flew from his hands. A naked woman lay on the ground. Perhaps the man had stolen her; it was common on the frontier. Whoever painted this wanted to kill the European, to "doom" him, as the self-taught ethnographer W. E. Roth termed it a century ago. A man could be doomed to be struck by lightning or crushed by a falling tree, though it would not be the lightning or the tree that killed him, but the curse. The Aborigines called it "singing" him.

Sorcery paintings became more prolific while northern Australia was being colonized. In 1872—nearly a hundred years after Captain Cook claimed the continent for Great Britain—gold was discovered in a valley near Laura. When local Aborigines speared the Europeans' stock or pilfered their supplies, white settlers and then troopers—white and black—set out from the town in "dispersal" parties. The Aborigines tried to use purri purri against the whites' rifles, magic objects that could produce thunder and lightning. They tried to sing the guns and to sing the gun's "fruit" or "kernels"—the bullets—so they ­wouldn't fire straight. But the place-names marking Cape York's red-dirt roads tell the story: Spear Creek, Rifle Creek, Double Barrel Creek, Revolver Creek. A photograph of the Laura Native Mounted Police from around 1880 shows five Aboriginal troopers in their uniforms with peaked caps and rifles, flanking their tall white commander. Some traditional Aborigines lived like fugitives in these hills until the 1920s, but influenza and the troopers kept coming their way.

I stared at the blue-shirted men on the cave wall and thought that the motivation to paint them must have been strong. Blue pigment is very rare: someone had gone to great trouble to find and mix these paints. The smaller of the figures had two blue dots for eyes, the larger one brown-dot eyes and a cross that counted for a nose and mouth.

The second man was two meters tall and horizontal. Under his shirt he was reptilian. His pale skin had been crosshatched like a ­crocodile's—every part of it, including his penis. Below him a great serpent, painted in red ocher, reached four meters along the cliff face. The snake's tongue was striking the sole of the man's bare foot. This snake was the instrument of doom. Inside its body were stenciled handprints, like signatories to an execution. "I curse your foot, I curse your leg, I curse your heart, your shoulder, your neck," the guide said quietly. This was not a generic trooper. The people who painted him knew him. They knew his height. They knew the color of his eyes.

On the slow walk back down, nothing stirred in the bush. I asked the guide if he knew Chris Hurley, a white policeman who had once worked in the near deserted town of Laura down below. Hurley was popular in the Aboriginal communities and frontier towns where he chose to serve. He'd been decorated for his bravery. And he was tall, I said, two meters tall like the figure on the cave wall.

For two years I had been following his story: one morning, two hundred miles away on Palm Island, he'd arrested an Aboriginal man for swearing at him. Forty minutes later, the man, Cameron Doomadgee, was dead on a cell floor with injuries usually seen in fatal car accidents. Hurley claimed his prisoner had tripped on a step.

The guide did not know him. Policemen ­don't last long in these places. So many passed through, he said, that it was hard to remember one from another. But he knew the case. Everyone in Queensland knew the case. In a few months' time, Senior Sergeant Christopher James Hurley was standing trial for manslaughter.

Excerpted from Tall Man by Chloe Hooper. Copyright © 2009 by Chloe Hooper. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster Inc., N.Y.