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Sundown Murders

Sally (Thyra) Bowman, her daughter Wendy Bowman aged 14 and a family friend Thomas Wheelan aged 22 were murdered on Sundown Station in December 1957. All three people had been beaten about the head and shot. Their 2 dogs had also been shot.

Sally and her husband Pete lived at Glen Helen Station in the NT and were travelling by Standard Vanguard sedan to Adelaide via Alice Springs with Whelan and the two family dogs. Peter and their other daughter Marion had taken a plane from Alice Springs. They had been last seen at Kulgera near the SA border where they purchased petrol. The road to Adelaide was little more than a unsealed track at the time. When the group did not arrive in Adelaide after 3 days and had not made contact a search was launched resulting in a RAAF Lincoln Bomber aircrew from Woomera spotting the vehicle under a clump of trees at deserted Sundown Station about 40 miles south of Kulgera on December 13. The bodies were under blankets and canvas a mile away from the car after Noel Coulthard (son of Kulgera Station manager Roy Coulthard) found tire tracks while riding his motorcycle. The case was investigated by NT and SA Police. Detectives Charles Hopkins and Kevin Moran from the SA Homicide Squad worked on the case from the outset under the oversight of Detective Inspector Gil Gully and traveled to the crime scene which was just on the SA side of the border. They traveled by a Holden vehicle accompanied by two Port Augusta detectives in a Ford 1-ton utility and took 30 hours to reach the crime scene. Police Officers from Oodnadatta and Finke (in the NT) also assisted along with local residents and six Aboriginal Trackers from local stations. In the NT Bill McKinnon, Pat Grant, Ron Hughes and Jim Conmee worked on the case. Charles Hopkins described it as the 'longest, most arduous and most testing' investigation that he had experienced. A witness mentioned a grey Zephyr towing a green trailer travelling north to Alice Springs. Raymond John Bailey was an itinerant worker travelling north in a Grey DeSoto (similar in appearance to a Zephyr) in search of work with his wife and young son. Bailey was arrested in Mt Isa on 21 January 1958 for false pretenses and possession of an unlicensed weapon. He was later charged with the Sundown murders and extradited to Adelaide. He was convicted and executed in Adelaide Gaol by hanging on 24 June 1958. The weapon used in the killing had been taken from a Wirrulla man several months before the murder when he skipped town without paying for it. Ballistic tests showed it to be the same rifle used in the murder. Bailey sought a stay of execution stating that he had killed the real killer and he was flown to the crime scene to attempt to locate a body. None was located and his story discredited. Suspect hunt turns up a witness - the following account of how a suspect became a witness was provided by Barrett J Carr JP, BSc. There were three brothers, Hassel, Marsden and Oxley Gordon-Brown. I did my National Service with Marsden and Ian Williams in 1953, Marsden was the second eldest. Oxley did his the following year and I am certain that Hassel didn’t do National Service, as I think he was 3 years older than us. Hassel was an accountant in the Queensland Housing Commission, Marsden and Oxley were Electric Fitters and Ian and I were Licensed Plumbers/Drainers/Gas Fitters. Oxley/Ian/myself joined the RAAF in 1958 and eventually Oxley stayed in the RAAF, Marsden became a Mechanical Engineer Uni graduate and I became a Civil Engineer Uni Graduate, Ian was killed in a car crash while in the RAAF. The three brothers had a FJ Holden, and Hassel and his two mates decided to drive from Brisbane, across to N.T and then down to Adelaide. Marsden,Oxley, Ian and I accompanied them to Oakley, West of Toowoomba, on our motor bikes and then returned home. Oxley, Ian and I joined the RAAF the next year. The papers were full of the murders and that the police were looking for a certain colour vehicle (forget which colour), the three boys didn’t see any car fitting the description mentioned in the papers, so didn’t come forward and report to the police. Quite a few weeks after, a police sergeant came to the house at Normanby, Brisbane, and Oxley (subsequently a Squadron Leader in the RAAF), was sitting on the front steps, and said to the sergeant ‘what do you want’, who replied ‘why what have you done’. Eventually Hassel went to the police station as he and his two mates were the main suspects, due to their arrival in Adelaide some time after the time of the murders. This was when the police first found out about the Grey Zephyr which was actually a DeSota. What had happened as told to us by Hassel, was that they met this chap close to the South Australian Border, he asked them if they wanted to buy some opals, when they said no, he then offered to sell them a 22 rifle. Again they declined using the excuse that they had only enough money to buy petrol to get them to Adelaide. Discussing it later all three agreed that they were suspicious of him as they didn’t like or trust him, as there was something rather weird about him. Luckily, they then drove straight to Adelaide and immediately on arrival booked into the motel. The police then worked out that they didn’t have time to drive North to the murder scene and then South to Adelaide. Thus Hassel became the principal witness and was flown to Adelaide on quite a few occasions for the trial. Hassel didn’t get the reward that had been posted, as the police said that he didn’t come forward on his own accord. The whole problem was the paper reporting that the police were looking for a different coloured car and the three knew that they hadn’t seen the one mentioned in the newspapers. Without the info from Hassel I doubt if they would have succeeded in finding the murderer. Just as a follow on, Hassel’s nephew Lee Gordon-Brown (Oxley’s son) was involved in the Monash University shooting. For his bravery he was awarded the Royal Humane Society medal for bravery and then the Gold Clarke medal as the bravest act in Australia for the year. He was then nominated for the Gold Stanhope Gold Medal for the bravest act in the Commonwealth for that year. He didn’t received the Clarke medal (but noted in the records) as the Stanhope medal superseded the award of the Clarke medal. He was also awarded the Star of Courage. What isn’t mentioned is that Lee was bleeding to death from his wounds, and whilst still holding onto the killer and was becoming faint. When others took over he received first aid which saved his life. Oxley didn’t know much about the shooting and especially his sons involvement until the trial

The scene of the Sundown Murders - photo courtesy of the South Australian Police Historical Society from an article in the "Hue and Cry" newsletters.

The specific article relating to this investigation is written by Reuben Goldsworthy and printed in the October 2009 newsletter. It is listed in the sources at the bottom of the article.

The Sundown Murder investigation is an example of multiple jurisdictions working on a single case. The crime was committed in South Australia against people from the Northern Territory and the offender was apprehended in Queensland. The investigation also highlights the difficulties of policing and investigation in the remote areas of Australia and the maturing of forensic science in this country.

A gathering of the investigation team. Back LtoR: 1.Charlie Hopkins, 2.Kev Moran, 3.Mohr (Def.Councel), 4.Gil Gully, 5.Bill McKinnon (NT), 6.Alf Horsnell, 7.Pat Grant (NT), 8.Ron Hughes (NT). Seated LtoR: 1.Jim Conmee (NT), 2.?, 3.Les Maddaford, 4.Eb Scarfe. On Floor LtoR: 1.Keith Lockwood, 2. Frank O'Neill - photo courtesy of the South Australian Police Historical Society

photo courtesy of the South Australian Police Historical Society

Chris Hopkins - photo courtesy of the South Australian Police Historical Society

- photo courtesy of the South Australian Police Historical Society

Sources: - Story written by Reuben Goldsworthy

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