TWO strike forces investigating the 1997 abduction of Jessica Small have fallen under intense media scrutiny in the past month, but for very different reasons.
Elements of Strike Force Carica and Carica II came before deputy state coroner Sharon Freund as she examined the circumstances of the Bathurst teenager’s abduction and presumed murder 17 years ago.
At the start of the inquest last August, counsel appearing for the Commissioner of Police, Michael Spartalis, readily conceded the initial investigation into Jessica’s disappearance was “deficient in a number of respects”.
But the sad, shameful reality is that when Jessica Small was abducted, the police involved in her investigation did nothing.
When Ms Freund handed down her findings at the conclusion of the inquest last week, she described the initial investigation as “an indictment” on the investigators involved, adding “their assumptions and prejudices not only compromised the investigation”, they “may have also put other lives at risk”.
Jessica Small was last seen alive when she and her friend Vanessa Conlan accepted a ride home in a white Holden Commodore in the early hours of October 26, 1997.
A scuffle broke out when the car was on Hereford Street and Vanessa fled and managed to raise the alarm. Jessica has not been seen since.
The first officers to respond to the Triple-0 call, Sergeant Peter McFarland and [then] Senior Constable Peter Rooney, both told the inquest they had no reason to doubt Vanessa’s version of events, so it remains a mystery why investigators didn’t take the abduction seriously.
Among the critical failings of the original investigation was that officers did not take statements from witnesses who approached them in the days following Jessica Small’s abduction – in particular Robert Fitzpatrick, who, in 1997, lived at 34 Turondale Road, Eglinton.
Mr Fitzpatrick gave evidence that just minutes after Jessica was abducted, he heard panicked screams and saw a whitish coloured car – which he described as either a Holden Commodore or Camira – stop near his house.
Mr Fitzpatrick said he thought he heard a woman call for help. He then saw a hand come over the driver’s shoulder from someone in the back, at which point a scuffle took place, with the driver kneeling and reaching over the back of the car.
Mr Fitzpatrick saw the driver open the boot of the car and search for something. He heard a “little bang” before the driver knelt on the front seat over the back seat before driving off.
When he later heard about Ricki Small’s daughter going missing, Mr Fitzpatrick said he went to Bathurst police station to report what he’d seen.
Police took his number and said someone would contact him. When no one did, he went back into the station and a detective spoke to him.
But no one took a statement from him until Strike Force Carica II was formed in 2007 to take over the case.
In a scathing conclusion, Ms Freund said it was “beyond belief” that Bathurst police chose not to take a full statement from Mr Fitzpatrick in October 1997.
But there were other deficiencies identified by Ms Freund.
She said officers involved with the original investigation had formed a view – without proper basis or any real investigation – that Jessica had falsified her disappearance.
And no officer in charge was appointed to co-ordinate the original investigation – something Detective Sergeant Peter Smith, who headed Strike Force Carica II, said he had never experienced before.
Finally, the initial investigators failed to canvass those present at Bathurst amusement centre Amuse Me on the night of October 25, 1997, despite evidence Jessica had spent some time there during the night.
Nor did they attempt to then take any statement from those people as to what they observed that may have been out of the ordinary.
Such a canvass, Ms Freund found, would have undoubtedly uncovered the crucial evidence of William Ross, who was working at the Amuse Me Centre the night Jessica went missing.
Mr Ross gave evidence at the inquest that on the night Jessica was abducted he had spoken to a man, aged about 34, who identified himself as working at the Oberon Timber Mill. His description of that man matched that of the driver given to police by Vanessa Conlan.
Mr Ross said the man had singled out Jessica at Amuse Me, saying: “Who’s that? She looks like she’s out for a good time.”
It was just another example of how police had failed Jessica – right up until the formation of Strike Force Carica II under Detective Sergeant Smith.
DETECTIVE Sergeant Peter Smith took carriage of Strike Force Carica II in October 2007, with the assistance of Detective Inspector David Laidlaw, Detective Sergeants Robert Hollows, Matthew Packham and Graham Robinson and Detective Senior Constables Peter Brain, Matthew Fullham, Luke McAneny, Sharon Neil, Kellie Veness and David Willey.
He was ultimately handed responsibility for the investigation after Jessica’s mother, Ricki Small, publicly pressured NSW Police to finalise the investigation into her daughter’s abduction.
In September 2007, NSW Police announced a new Strike Force into Jessica’s abduction; detectives attached to the homicide unit would handle the case.
The key difference between the two investigations was immediately apparent: Detective Sergeant Smith and his team never doubted Vanessa Conlan’s version of events.
Detective Sergeant Smith spent two years reviewing the case, re-reading statements and interviewing key witnesses who had been originally ignored by police, and finally came across a piece of information that proved pivotal.
The evidence showed a man who worked at the Oberon Timber Mill was at the Amuse Me Centre in Bathurst on the night Jessica Small disappeared and had made specific inquiries about the teenager in the hours leading up to her abduction.
Subsequently, the Carica II team spent months tracking down and interviewing every male employee aged between 18 and 30 who was working at the timber mill in 1997.
Their tenacity also brought other critical points to light.
On the night Jessica Small was abducted, a woman phoned Bathurst police to report a car – similar in description to the one in which she was abducted – had been seen driving to a secluded area of Beaconsfield Road, near the Fish River. The car remained there for a considerable period of time.
Initially, police made no connection between that call and the Jessica Small case, but Detective Sergeant Smith believes Jessica was in that car.
In July 2012, investigators excavated in the hope of finding Jessica Small’s remains. No new clues relating to the case were identified, but police were still of the view Jessica was in that car, although her body was not buried at the location.
The work of Carica II has not been lost on anyone.
On the opening day of the inquest, when Mr Spartalis offered the concession on behalf of the original investigation, he said Detective Sergeant Smith and his team had compiled “one of the most comprehensive briefs of evidence” he had ever seen.
It is well known among his peers that over the past seven years, Detective Sergeant Smith has devoted almost all of his time to this investigation.
Ms Freund also commended Detective Sergeant Smith on his work on the case but for Jessica Small and her family, the reality is, it came 10 years too late.