Charles TUDAWALI aka Charlie MARTIN
Crocodile likely took missing WA teenager
A vulnerable teenager who vanished in extremely remote bushland in Western
Australia's far north more than 40 years ago was likely taken by a crocodile, an
inquest has heard.
Charles Tudawali was visiting people at Munja Station, about 350km northeast of
Derby, in December 1976 when he went out with a group of older boys to catch
But Charlie wandered off on his own after a disagreement about how to find their
way back to camp, the WA Coroner's Court heard on Tuesday.
Indigenous trackers from the area helped with an extensive air and land search
for the 13-year-old over several days and believed it was likely Charlie had
been taken by a crocodile.
"At the time that Charlie disappeared, this particular area had several
waterways which were likely infested with crocodiles, and the area was known to
have wild dingoes and snakes," counsel assisting the coroner Lyle Housiaux said.
The court heard the boy had a mental disability, epilepsy and no bushcraft
skills, and his family believe he was dead.
Coroner Sarah Linton will hand down her findings at a later date.
Coroners Act 1996 [Section 26(1)]
RECORD OF INVESTIGATION INTO DEATH
I, Sarah Helen Linton, Coroner, having investigated the disappearance of Charles
TUDAWALI (aka Charlie MARTIN) with an inquest held at the Perth Coroner’s Court,
Court 51, CLC Building, 501 Hay Street, Perth on 29 May 2018 find that the death
of Charles TUDAWALI has been established beyond all reasonable doubt and that
the identity of the deceased person was Charles TUDAWALI and that death occurred
on or about 15 December 1976 in bushland near Munja Station in the Kimberley as
a result of an unascertained cause in the following circumstances:
Counsel Appearing: Sgt L Housiaux assisting the Coroner.
MISSING PERSON REPORT
1. Charles Tudawali, known to his family as Charlie, has not been seen or heard
from since 15 December 1976. He was 13 years old when he went missing in
bushland near Munja Station, in the far north of Western Australia.
2. Munja Station is in the Walcott Inlet area of the Kimberley. It is a remote
part of the world, approximately 320 kilometres from the nearest main town of
Derby. It is a difficult land area to search, with very poor access and
communication, particularly back in 1976. Locals initiated a search as police
officers from Derby were unable to join local searchers until 18 December 1976.
A coordinated search for Charlie then continued until 24 December 1976, but no
sign of him was ever found.
3. On 12 April 2017 a report was prepared for the State Coroner by Detective
First Class Constable Tom Blakely. Detective Blakely submitted that, based upon
the police investigation conducted in 1976 and the years since, it is probable
and reasonable to conclude that Charlie Tudawali is deceased.
4. On the basis of the information provided the State Coroner determined that
pursuant to s 23 of the Coroners Act 1996 (WA) there was reasonable cause to
suspect that Charles died in 1976 and that the suspected death should be
investigated. Following that direction it is a requirement that a coroner must
hold an inquest into the circumstances of the suspected death.
5. I held an inquest at the Perth Coroner’s Court on 29 May 2018. The
documentary evidence comprised a report of the police investigation into
Charlie’s disappearance, with related documents. 1 Detective Sergeant Stephen
Perejmibida, the former Officer in Charge of the Missing Persons Team of the WA
Police, gave oral evidence at the inquest to expand upon the information
provided in the report.
HAS DEATH BEEN ESTABLISHED?
6. Charlie was born on 2 November 1963. He was Aboriginal and lived with his
parents at Mowanjum Mission, near Derby. He was visiting family at Munja Station
around the time of his death.
7. On the morning of 15 December 1976 Charlie had gone with a group of older
boys to muster horses. The older boys had tried to discourage him from coming
with them but he had been determined and he was eventually allowed to accompany
them. When the group decided to return to their camp there was a disagreement as
to which way to go home. Charlie believed he knew the way, even though he was
not familiar with the area. The older boys began to walk home and they believed
Charlie was following them from some distance behind but eventually the other
boys lost sight of Charlie. They called out to him and climbed a tree in an
effort to locate him but could not find him.2
8. When the other boys arrived back at the camp Charlie had not arrived and he
did not return after them. The older boys told Charlie’s father what had
happened. Charlie’s father went looking for Charlie but could not find him.3 The
other adults at the camp joined in the search but no one could find any trace of
the missing boy.4
9. Although he was 13 years of age, Charlie had been born with an intellectual
disability and was described as having a mental age of a 7 year old. He had also
been diagnosed with epilepsy and was required to take his epilepsy medication
three times per day. He did not know bushcraft and his parents did not believe
he would be able to survive long on his own in the bush.5
10. At about 7.10 am on 16 December 1979 Derby Police received a report via
radio from the Royal Flying Doctor Service reporting Charlie’s disappearance.
The Royal Flying Doctor Service had received the information via the Munja
Native Radio. Investigations were commenced by Derby Police.6
11. Attempts by police to contact Munja Station were hampered by poor radio
reception but eventually contact was made and it was confirmed that Charlie was
still missing. A land search had been coordinated by people at the Munja Station
and people from nearby Mt Elizabeth Station had also assisted in the search but
no sign of Charlie had been found. Radio contact with Munja Station continued to
be intermittent from this time.7
12. On 17 December 1976 an Aboriginal Police Aide found a total of six
footprints, believed to belong to Charlie, were found between a creek and Mt
Daglish, about one hour’s horse ride from the station.8 It was believed the
tracks led to water. The footprints could not be followed due to rough terrain
and the trail was lost. Over the passing days there were heavy rains, which
wiped out any further trace of the tracks.9
13. Derby police officers were unable to assist in the search until 18 December
1976 as a charter aircraft to transport them to the station was not available
until that time. He police officers conducted an aerial search only as they were
unable to land due to a waterlogged airstrip. Nothing was found during the
14. Radio contact was re-established with Munja Station on 21 December 1976 and
it was reported that approximately 15 local people were involved in the search
for Charlie but he still had not been found.11 A further aerial search was
conducted by police on this day but again no trace of Charlie was found and the
plane still couldn’t land.
15. On 22 December 1976 a police search party departed Derby and was able to
land at Munja Station. A large search, including police officers and members of
the local community carried out a search over two days involving men on foot and
on horseback. Aboriginal trackers and Aboriginal police aides were also utilised
in the search. No trace of Charlie was found.12
16. Aboriginal trackers from the local area provided information that the area
was infested with crocodiles, dingoes and snakes. Using their local knowledge
they indicated that the absence of howling dingoes and low-flying birds and lack
of smell suggested there was no corpse and, taken with his last known footsteps
near water, it was suggested that Charlie may have been taken by a crocodile or
drowned in a creek.13
17. The search party was recalled on 24 December 1976 and the police officers
returned to Derby. No further coordinated searches were conducted.14
18. Investigators from the Missing Persons Team have conducted recent checks to
confirm that Charlie has not had any interaction or involvement with government
agencies since the time he went missing. Given the time that has elapsed none of
the original witnesses or Charlie’s family members were able to be located and
19. At the conclusion of the inquest I indicated that I was satisfied beyond
reasonable doubt that Charles had died but that I would have to give further
consideration as to what conclusions I could reach about the circumstances of
his death, given the limited information available. DATE, PLACE, CAUSE AND
MANNER OF DEATH
20. Based upon all of the evidence before me, I am satisfied that Charles died
sometime on or about 15 December 1976, the date he was last seen. The people
that knew him best did not believe he would have survived more than a couple of
days at most given his limited mental abilities and the harsh terrain.
21. As his remains have not been discovered, Charlie’s cause of death is unable
to be determined.
22. It is possible Charlie died from natural causes as there was fresh water
accessible but it was not believed he would know how to find food. It was also
considered very likely that he could have been taken by a crocodile or met an
accident, such as drowning in a creek. Given the different possibilities open, I
make an open finding as to the manner of death.
23. Charlie Tudawali died sometime on or about 15 December 1976 after becoming
lost in bush in a remote part of Western Australia. His family accepted in the
days after he went missing that he had died as the understood the reality of the
harshness of the terrain and the dangers it presented to a vulnerable boy like
Charlie. Sadly, the exact circumstances of his death must remain unknown as his
remains were never found.
S H Linton Coroner 31 May 2018