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Gavin Spencer Jabaljari, Police Aide number 39.

Police Aide Gavin Spencer Jabajjari joined the Northern territory Police in June 1985. He was a well respected member who met an untimely end in 1991.

The tragic death of Aboriginal Police Aide Gavin Japaltjarri Spencer

Two decades have passed since the tragic death of Aboriginal Police Aide Gavin Japaltjarri Spencer in the searing heat of the Gibson Desert. Gavin, a respected member of the NT Police Force was remembered at a memorial service held in Yuendumu recently. Friends and family joined together to remember the man who tried desperately to save the lives of his companions on a simple journey that ended with four deaths and, remarkably, the birth of a baby.

On Wednesday, March 13 1991 Gavin Spencer and a group of 11 family and friends were travelling from Alice Springs to an outstation just over the WA border. They should have arrived at their destination the next day. Gavin and five others arrived safely at Nyirripi and were joined by another six people – Gavin’s wife Caroline and five children, including the couple’s three daughters. A minor mechanical problem resulted in a tragedy with the deaths of Gavin, his two young daughters, Vivian and Gemma, and another little girl, Bronwyn. They perished in the harsh Gibson Desert where temperatures soared into the mid to high 40s during the day. Gavin was a Warlpiri man from Yuendumu. He had maintained a strong bond with his culture and bush skills while working for the NT Police Force. He knew how to survive in the desolation of the outback but even with this knowledge the harsh environment claimed its victims. The group was on the last leg of their journey when the radiator of their Land Cruiser was holed. Gavin tried to get the vehicle to their destination but was forced to turn back towards Nyirripi.

The police investigation revealed that when the car could go no further the remaining water in the radiator was put into a jerry can and shared out among the adults and children. Gavin did not take any of the water. The group then started walking back towards Nyirripi. Nanu Gibson Nungala and Cartai Nabaltjari, who was pregnant, remained near the Emu bore. It was here that Cartai gave birth to her baby boy. The mother and child are still well and reside in W.A. Some members of the group continued walking. Others rested. While the drama was unfolding in the desert a car drove out looking for the group but didn’t travel far enough along the road. It wasn’t until the Saturday morning, two days after the group should have arrived at its destination, that Gavin’s wife, Caroline and their two-year-old son Berenton walked in to Nyirripi and the alarm was raised. As preparations were made to begin a major search Doris Nabaltjari and her six-month-old child arrived in the community, but before she could tell them anything she lapsed into unconsciousness.

Three kilometres from the Emu Bore police found the body of Gavin Spencer. The rescuers followed tracks and found little four-year-old Gemma Spencer and 10-year-old Bronwyn Gibson. Nine-year-old Vivian Spencer was the last to be found. Remarkably the other eight people, including toddlers and a new born babe, survived the ordeal. The group had tried to walk more than 40 kilometres in extreme heat. Gavin was an expert tracker. At the time of Gavin’s death Senior Sergeant Mick Vanheythuysen was quoted in the newspaper as saying, “He was one of the NT Police Force’s best trackers and his skills as a police aide were invaluable. “I have been with him and seen him track criminals for kilometres through town, across bitumen roads and lawns, to eventually knock on the door to nab our man.”

The Coroner, in his finding, wrote, “Gavin Spencer was a highly regarded member of the community, both by Aboriginal people and the police force for whom he worked. He was an experienced tracker and bushman familiar with the area through which he travelled on this tragic journey. That he should perish in this manner highlights the dangers of travel in desolate areas.” Gavin’s and the other deaths was a tragedy of massive proportions. Today Gavin Spencer is remembered with the Gavin Spencer Memorial Trophy, awarded to the most outstanding graduate on each Aboriginal Community Police Officer squad.


The following article was printed in the September 2006 edition of the Drum and gives the background into the Gavin Spencer Jabaljari – Police Aide / ACPO Most Improved Award which has been presented at each Squad since 1991

Gavin Spencer—the story behind the trophy

Printed in 'The Drum' - September 2006

Fuller Manuscript p.60 When Aboriginal Police Aide Gavin Spencer died in tragic circumstances in March of 1991 he was mourned by everyone who knew him. At his funeral police of every rank mourned him as a “phenomenal and inspiring man” whose untimely death left an irreplaceable gap in the ranks of what was then known as Aboriginal Police Aides – now Aboriginal Community Police Officers. Gavin was with a group of 12 people travelling from Alice Springs to Kintore when their Toyota broke down about 50 kilometres from Nyirripi. Gavin was a well-respected traditional Walpiri man from Yuendumu who was famous for his tracking abilities and bush skills. But that was not enough to stop him perishing in the Gibson Desert along with three young children. It appears Gavin stayed with his three young daughters aged six, eight and four and another young girl aged 10, while the rest of the group walked to get help. In temperatures reaching 50 degrees centigrade and no water, Gavin tried to keep the children alive and protect them from dehydration by digging shallow indentations in the ground and covering them with sand. When rescuers found them three days later, only the six-year-old remained alive. Gavin became a Police Aide in 1985 and served with distinction. He was credited with helping to solve some of the most difficult cases in Central Australia by tracking the offenders over barren and rocky ground. He could tell from the tracks whether they belonged to a man or woman, how tall they were, how old the tracks were and even if they belonged to a ‘whitefella’ or a ‘blackfella’. His skills were so remarkable that the Assistant Commissioner for Southern Region, the late Andy McNeill, took Gavin to Sydney to be one of the keynote speakers at the 64th World Association of Detectives Conference. He made his speech before 160 detectives from Canada , West Germany and other European countries. For this strongly-traditional Walpiri man who didn’t drink, and tried to walk a firm line between his two cultures, to have died at just 32- years-old, was, indeed, a tragic loss. The Gavin Spencer Memorial Trophy awarded to the most outstanding graduate on each Aboriginal Community Police Officer squad is a fitting tribute to a man who was a true inspiration in his community.

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