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Years Fail To Heal A School In Trauma

Sydney Morning Herald

Saturday December 12, 1998


An 86-year-old man faces court over a 1970 double murder, writes GREG ROBERTS.

The mood is sombre as staff and students at Townsville's Aitkenvale State Primary prepare for its 75th anniversary celebrations. Long buried or distant memories of one of Australia's most heinous crimes, the murders of the Mackay sisters after their abduction on their way to the school 28 years ago, are flooding back.

Townsville has been rocked by the charging of Arthur Stanley Brown, 86, with the murders of Judith Mackay, 7, and her sister, Susan, 5. At their school, time has not abated the horror at the crime. "Little kids like that, that type of crime, it is the most terrible nightmare for anyone," says Mr Doug King, the principal.

Most of the information that now forms the basis of charges against Brown was available to police in 1970. The officers involved simply did not appreciate its potential significance. It took a fresh eye to discern that crucial evidence had been overlooked.

Brown is now so frail that police had to help him as he shuffled into the Townsville Magistrates' Court this week. He was allowed to sit at the Bar table instead of in the dock because of his poor hearing. "I don't imagine he would be a security problem," observed the magistrate, Mr Ian Fisher.

The Mackay sisters were waiting for their school bus 200 metres from their home when they disappeared. Their bodies were found two days later, 25 kilometres away in a dry creek. Susan was on her back, dressed only in panties. Her naked sister was face-down 50 metres away. Their green uniforms, inside out, were nearby. Both had been raped, stabbed and strangled.

Their parents, Bill, a meat-worker, and his wife Thelma, left Townsville within a few months. Now living in Toowoomba, Bill Mackay will not say if he is relieved by the developments. "We have just been trying to maintain our privacy and wanting to put it behind us."

When the sisters disappeared in 1970, Arthur Brown, then 58, was a carpenter with the Queensland Public Works Department, doing building renovations at the Aitkenvale school.

When arrested recently, Brown, not a suspect in earlier investigations, lived in a quiet street in the suburb of Rosslea with his second wife, Charlotte. Neighbours told police they kept pretty much to themselves.

When the girls disappeared, police were looking for a then relatively late model Holden sedan. A police spokesman, Mr Brian Swift, now admits this probably was not the right vehicle and the focus on the wrong one could have hindered investigations.

"We have interviewed witnesses now who were not interviewed in depth at the time," he said.

Mr Neil Lunney, a former soldier, had reported to police at the time that while driving near Townsville he saw two girls in school uniform in a vehicle whose driver appeared to be trying to avoid being seen. Police discounted Mr Lunney's evidence then because the vehicle was not a Holden; now they believe the girls were in the car he saw and that Brown was driving.

Mr Charlie Magarry was head of the Townsville RAAF's dog section. He was not called in by police, who had no dogs of their own, until two days into the search. "Enough time had elapsed by then to make it difficult for the dogs to pick up a scent," he said.

He vividly recalls how distressed Bill Mackay was when presenting his daughters' clothing for the dogs to scent. "He was a very upset man. It was awful," Mr Magarry said.

Two months ago, in a routine audit of the case, Detective Inspector Peter Barron, head of the Queensland Homicide Squad, was sufficiently interested by some evidence to establish a task force of nine to reopen investigations.

Mr Lunney and other witnesses were interviewed again, but some witnesses had died. Retired police involved in the original inquiry were questioned.

Among new witnesses helpful to police were two of Brown's relatives. Mr Swift says the inquiries unearthed new evidence and put new perspectives on old material.

Police will allege the sisters accepted an offer from Brown to give them a lift to school. It is not known if they knew him.

Police have interviewed several of his former workmates. In the Townsville office of the Public Works Department's successor, Q-Build, a deep sense of dismay is palpable. The acting regional manager, Mr Steve Drew, said: "Nobody here wants to talk about it."

Brown refused to be interviewed when police served a warrant on him at home and refused to provide a DNA sample. In court this week, his defence counsel, Mr Mark Donnelly, told the court his client strenuously denied the charges.

Brown has also been charged with 45 child sex offences allegedly committed against six girls aged between three and 10 between 1970 and 1977.

Police had applied successfully to the court for the DNA sample and opposed Brown's bail application, arguing that he was likely to kill himself and his elderly wife.

Brown was granted bail yesterday on the murder and the other charges when he appeared separately before magistrate's and Supreme Court hearings.

The committal hearing is set for February 10.

© 1998 Sydney Morning Herald

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