• Jimmy James OAM, wearing his medal, awarded after rescuing an abducted 8-year old girl. (John Stokes)Source: John Stokes
A little known true crime story, vividly told as an interactive documentary, has won the prestigious Betty Roland Prize for scriptwriting.
Julie Nimmo

1 May 2020 - 3:08 PM  UPDATED 2 May 2020 - 8:36 AM

Every parent's worse nightmare would include a scene where their child goes missing. 

Worse still, the child cannot be found.

This was the reality of the Pfeiffer family in 1966 when their 8-year-old daughter Wendy was abducted after Sunday lunch, just metres from her family’s farm house in the Adelaide Hills. 

Wendy's parents raised the alarm. A desperate search began.

Over 150 people searched for three days and two freezing nights.

Wendy could not be found.

It took two Pitjantjatjara men just under two hours to find the girl.   

Understanding how Jimmy James and Daniel Moodoo read the bush for signs of Wendy and then to learn how she survived her ordeal, is nothing short of astounding. 

It is all revealed in 'Missing', written by Walkley Award winning journalist/producer Kylie Boltin, who this week became a joint winner of the Betty Roland Prize for scriptwriting at the NSW Premier's Awards.

Spoken in Pitjantjatjara and English, it is a story that has never been told in detail before.

The interactive documentary is a visceral experience, told through the dual perspectives of Wendy and Jimmy. And a warning, the content is distressing.

Wendy's harrowing fight for life is informed by the survivor herself, her story voiced by young actor, Mia Jonson. 

The other hero of the story is Wendy's lead rescuer, Jimmy James. Now deceased, Jimmy's account is voiced by one of his relatives, Trevor Jamieson, an actor on stage and screen.

By casting Jamieson, the listener can tap into an authentic connection back to Jimmy - the two share Pitjantjatjara ancestors. 'Missing' expresses the continuum of skill and knowledge, taught over thousands of years that led to Wendy's eventual rescue.

Boltin wrote the narration from original interviews with Wendy and a small number of Jimmy's own accounts recorded after the rescue. Its emphasis is on Jimmy's sense of humour and deep care for the child, who he calls 'little fella'. 

Back when the two Pitjantjatjara trackers were asked to join the search, Jimmy and Daniel did not hesitate to help. The had worked with the Police as trackers for many years.    

But this search was incredibly urgent. 

Wendy's brother John was only 16 at the time. He shared his recollections in the long-read that accompanies the interactive documentary;

'Day Two: Monday 24th October 1966

At first light, John recalls the “empty panic” that set in.

The police were already preparing [parents] Gladys and Alan for the worst.

“I had a sick feeling in my stomach,” he says.'

Hauntingly, only 10-months earlier the three Beaumont children had been abducted from a South Australian beach, never to be seen again. Their memory was fresh in everyone's mind at the time of Wendy's abduction.

On the third day, at 5:30am, Jimmy and Daniel set out. They travelled through 20km of bushland, asking the search party to walk directly behind them. 

Jimmy noticed Wendy's exhaustion in her stumbles. He felt her fear when they discovered the imprint of her body in the base of a tree, curled up tightly. Only Jimmy and Daniel heard her cries, when others thought the sound was a lamb.

Eventually, Jimmy James could see Wendy sitting under a tree, but he chose to stand back, instead guiding her father and brother directly to her.

While searching, no-one could have known what happened when a stranger pulled over in his car and asked Wendy for directions. In the moments that followed, the stranger dragged Wendy into his car, stabbed her repeatedly before dumping her in the bush in the belief she was dead.

There were no witnesses to Wendy's abduction. She had been walking alone with her dog.

Miraculously, the little girl survived and now lives in Melbourne.

In 2017, Wendy Jane Pfeiffer shared her memories with SBS journalist/producer Kylie Boltin for the ground breaking interactive documentary and long-read.

'She doesn't talk about it: two of her three children do not know that she was abducted, brutally stabbed and left for dead.

It is only because I have promised to rewrite the way the story has been told – including how Wendy survived in the bush alone and the heroic actions of Pitjantjatjara trackers Jimmy James and Daniel Moodoo, who found her when 150 police and volunteer searchers could not – that Wendy agrees to these exclusive interviews.

She wants to set things right.'

Wendy's motivation to finally reveal her story, was to honour her rescuers.

At the launch of the interactive in January 2019 Wendy explained, “I walked 12 kilometres over a 42-hour period, becoming more and more dehydrated and totally exhausted. Today, I’m lucky to be alive. While it is bittersweet to reflect on that time, 'Missing' is a beautiful way to thank Jimmy James, without whom I simply wouldn’t be here.” 

This excerpt from the long-read, shines a light on the skill and experience of the man who saved Wendy's life.  

'In a career with the South Australian Police that spanned 40 years, Jimmy James tracked close to 100 escaped prisoners and people lost in the bush.

Together with Daniel Moodoo, he helped solve the Sundown murders in 1957 and the Pine Valley murders in 1958. Jimmy James is responsible for the successful capture of escaped child killer James George Smith in 1982. He was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in 1984.

The police I speak to including retired Detective Chief Inspector Bill Newman – who first came across James in 1959 – talk of him with utmost professional respect. 

“Jimmy could see tracks on the ground that I couldn’t see and most white people couldn’t see,” Newman reflects.

There is also a deep, painful irony in the fact that when Jimmy James was working to reunite Wendy and her family, the South Australian government was forcibly separating Indigenous children from their families and communities.'

The NSW Premier Award Judges' praised the project in their comments, "Missing is a poetic and tautly constructed retelling of this extraordinary true story. Using an innovative interactive documentary structure to bring to life Pfeiffer’s and James’ converging paths through the wilderness, Boltin creates a compelling tapestry of memory, historical fact and contrasting points of view. Her deceptively simple script delivers a complex and suspenseful reading experience that feels astonishingly real." 

Key to its success is the extensive collaboration undertaken with Wendy and her family, along with the families of Jimmy James and Daniel Moodoo.  Original interviews in Melbourne were conducted by Roslyn Oades for SBS and research was done by Debra Shulkes. 

'Missing' was photographed on location by Tamara Dean with illustrations by Arrernte artist, Thea Perkins. It was designed by Jono Yuen and built by SBS Labs.

Boltin explained her motivation and acknowledged her collaborators in her acceptance speech.

SBS management are thrilled with this prestigious accolade. “It’s fantastic to see this important Australian story recognised in this way. 'Missing' is demonstration of the power of innovative and collaborative storytelling in exploring moments and issues that shape the nation.

"We’re proud to be able to share the experiences of Wendy and Jimmy as a way to bring together communities to reflect on and celebrate what it means to be Australian today.” said John Godfrey, Head of Unscripted at SBS.

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