• Winnie Hayward says she fears for her teenage son growing up in Perth as a young Aboriginal teenager, after the death of her son Chris (Sarah Collard)Source: Sarah Collard
In 2018, two friends drowned in WA's Swan River while fleeing police. A coronial inquest is examining whether the authorities actions on the day contributed to, or caused, the boys' deaths. Whatever the result, parents and advocates say relations between police and Indigenous youth must change.
Karen Michelmore, Sarah Collard

The Point
18 Mar 2021 - 4:39 PM  UPDATED 19 Mar 2021 - 1:56 PM

Winnie Hayward worries about her teenage son, almost every time he leaves her house in Perth’s eastern suburbs.

Not because of what he might get up to, but rather her fear he may run into the monarch, the police.

It’s almost three years since Ms Hayward’s older boy, 16-year-old Christopher Drage, along with his close mate, 17-year-old Trisjack Simpson, died while fleeing police.

Both boys drowned after trying to swim across Perth’s Swan River.

“Most Aboriginal kids, especially teenage boys, are scared of police,” Ms Hayward says.

“I’m scared now for my 14-year-old to just walk down the street and go down the shops.

“I’ve told him many times when he leaves the house, if you get pulled up by police, I want you to call me straight away.”

An inquest into the drownings is currently underway in the WA Coroner’s Court; a key consideration is whether the actions of police in any way contributed to, or indeed caused the two boys deaths.

It will also examine the relationship between Aboriginal children and police, and how it might be improved.

Ms Hayward says she hopes the inquest brings answers and, hopefully, some peace.

“It’s very important that I know the truth... of the situation, very important,” she says.

“It has taken so long but we are finally here, and hopefully we get the answers that we need.”  

But whether it will be able to find solutions to heal police relations, further damaged by the deaths, is yet to be seen.

Dennis Eggington, chief executive officer of the Aboriginal Legal Service, is representing two boys also present on the day of the drownings. 

Eggington had passed the Swan River that day himself, and at the time thought the choppy water looked ominous.

“I immediately thought of the boys jumping into this horrible situation of a river that was in turmoil - it was bubbling and really dangerous looking - and I thought to myself oh the terror that must have struck some of the boys,” he says.

 Reflecting on how little has changed in Indigenous/police relations, Eggington says there's a long road ahead.

“I thought to myself, what's changed really since the massacre at Pinjarrah, when Sterling and the troopers … rode down onto the Aboriginal camp with men and women, children scattering across the river scared and terrified?

“This scenario was too much for me. I drew very quickly a picture of a colonial past that is a colonial present.”

Both boys had challenges early in their life. For Chris, it was dyslexia and struggles in the classroom. But he loved sports and excelled at school sports carnivals, Ms Hayward says.

His interest in sports led to a friendship with Trisjack. They both loved to play football, and they were good at it.

“He was a good kid, he was good at everything,” Trisjack’s father Tristian Simpson says.

“He was real smart, a happy kid, you can’t get a better kid. Very good at football… I’ll miss him, it’s that hard.”

Counsel assisting the Coroner in the inquest, Sarah Tyler told the hearing by the time of the tragedy, the boys had stopped attending school regularly and “had started getting into trouble with the WA Police”.

A year before they died the pair were involved in a serious accident, again while trying to evade authorities.

“In 2017, Chris had a motorcycle accident. He was being chased by police,” Chris' mother said.

“He was in a coma for three days, a fractured skull and a few other injuries.”

Ms Hayward said doctors had warned her son against swimming alone and consuming illicit substances, due to the traumatic brain injury he had sustained.

Given he had always been fearful of water growing up, Ms Hayward said he must have been in an extreme state of fear to enter the water on the day of his death. 

“He was scared of baths and yet he jumped into the river,” Ms Hayward says.

“I don’t think Chris would have even had time to think about that actually, the fear that the police put in our kids is not good and it shouldn’t be that way.”

'Fear of the police is widespread'

Shelley Ninyette is Trisjack Simpson’s mother.

“My son was so scared of the police,” she told NITV News.

“Not just him, all his mates.

“They are meant to protect and serve us, the community (but) the kids, him and his mates, they were terrified of the police.”

Her pain is constant and consumes the room.

“I don’t want answers. The answer I want is my son back but I can’t have that,” Ms Ninyette says.

“What I want, what I want is justice to be served. When are we going to get justice for Blackfellas, these kids. 

“The system failed us, failed me, failed other black parents before these boys.

“This pain and hurt, I just can’t explain it. But somebody has got to be accountable for it.

“Every time we lost an Aboriginal child through the same scenario, why doesn’t a police officer get sacked?  Simple. Losing a job, that ain’t nothing (compared to) what I live with.”

The ALS’ Mr Eggington says he’s hopeful something will come of the inquest, but knows change will be difficult.

“There is something terribly wrong with the relationship that not only do we have with the police, but we have with the general civil society of Australia, who really cares about us as a people? That’s why such a tragedy could happen again, because people - the majority of people out there, just don’t care.

“What’s wrong with this place, what’s wrong with this country.”

Coronial inquest continues; court hears harrowing testimony

The inquest has heard that, on the afternoon of Monday September 18, 2018, the two boys were captured on CCTV leaving the train station in the leafy suburb of Maylands with three of their friends.

An hour later, a female motorist spotted the group running down a nearby road, two of the boys jumping fences into backyards.

She told the hearing she had been concerned for the teenagers, as they looked frightened, and possibly drug-affected.

When, by chance, she spotted a marked police vehicle on routine patrol soon after, she flagged it down and reported what she had seen.

Other locals also flagged the vehicle down and told officers “that a group of males were jumping fences into their backyards”, Ms Tyler told the hearing.

“(One resident's) side gate was ajar and a black and white Nike sneaker had been left behind,” she said.

The young officers returned to their vehicle. Soon after, they spotted the teenagers running down a nearby road, pulled over and pursued them on foot.

One of the surviving boys, witness N, told the hearing the group took off running as soon as they saw police, with the boys splitting up during the chase. One was later found safe at home.

The police were walking about 50 metres behind them, and called for them not to move, witness N told the hearing.

He became emotional as he described what happened to the two teenagers he called 'brothers'. 

One of the four, known as witness P, entered the river up to his chest but the water was freezing and he decided not to start swimming.

He said the water was murky, cold and choppy, but the other three plunged ahead, and tried to swim to the other side.

“Chris was saying I can’t swim and (I) kept saying, what’s wrong bro,” witness N said.

“I got back to the other brother and (Chris) was gone, and I seen him go under.” 

“Chris said he had head injuries, he couldn't swim, something with his head, he couldn’t swim because he had head injuries" 

Jack Jack - he was gone. I couldn’t see him.”

Samuel Cooper, who watched the incident from his balcony on the other side of the river, said the boys were “obviously exhausted” in the water.

“I could see right away they were in distress,” he told the hearing.

Witness N made it to the other side and hung onto a tree, visibly upset and shaking from the cold, the inquest heard.

He yelled out “I love you” to his friend witness P on the other side of the river.

Video captured by an onlooker in a nearby apartment block overlooking the river shows the two police officers stopped on the bank. They told the court they had been focused on attending to teenager P who had decided not to swim.

They also said in the conditions, they didn’t feel they could safely swim, or apprehend the teenagers in the river.

Soon after two Tactical Response Group (TRG) officers arrived and rushed into the river to attempt to save the two who were struggling, but they arrived too late.

Constable Ella Cutler, then aged 20, was still on her probationary period having graduated from the police academy earlier that year.

She says there was no discussion between the two officers present who was the better swimmer, nor how they would apprehend the boys and what to do if they did go into the water.

“No, I wouldn’t know how to do that, no,” she said under questioning from the family’s lawyer.

One of the TRG officers told the court: “I thought they did a very good job, I think they were doing what they thought they  could do – I was struggling - I thought it was beyond my abilities.”

He became emotional as he explained how he tried desperately to save the boys in the worst conditions he’d ever seen.

Police have told the inquest they did all they could, and didn’t believe any policies needed to change.