John Pat's family is devastated the number of Aboriginal death's in custody continues to climb, almost 40 years after the violent death of the Yindjibarndi teenager sparked a nationwide call to action and triggered a Royal Commission.
Lindy Kerin, Karen Michelmore

The Point
14 Apr 2021 - 9:24 AM  UPDATED 14 Apr 2021 - 10:00 AM

Roseanne Pat never knew her cousin, but his death in a stone cell in Western Australia’s remote Pilbara region continues to have a huge impact on her life.

“It’s always inside of you, it's something that scars you for life, it's always inside of you like a scar,” she told The Point.

“It’s something we’re not going to forget about.”

John Pat’s death in 1983, in Ieramadagu or Roebourne, thousands of kilometres from the corridors of power in Canberra, caused a national outcry.

The outpouring of anger and grief after his death triggered the push for a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. The inquiry would eventually examine 99 cases, including John Pat’s.

Since the final report of the commission was handed down 30 years ago this week, 474 more Aboriginal lives have been lost in custody. Five of those deaths have occurred in the past month.

Roseanne Pat is devastated that nothing appears to have changed.

“We were meant to put a stop to it," she says.

“But they’re still happening. Death in custody happened in our family once and we don't want it to keep on happening to other families.”

John Pat's Aunty Esther is still haunted by what happened in Roebourne in 1983.

“Them other boys were fighting, and then he jumped in,” she says, wiping away a tear.

“They killed him, you know. We all cried for our nephew.”

John Pat died on the night of 28 September 1983 after a brawl between a group of local men and some off-duty police officers.

The officers had been drinking at the Victoria Hotel in Roebourne after a police union gathering that day in the nearby town of Karratha.

The fight erupted outside, and John Pat, a month shy of his 17th birthday, suffered what would be a fatal blow to the head.

Along with four Aboriginal men involved in the brawl, John Pat was thrown into a police van. He was taken around the corner to the small, stone police lock-up.

A witness told the Royal Commission the men were dragged from the police van and savagely beaten by the officers.

Semi-conscious, John Pat was put into the juvenile cell. Two hours later, he was dead.

The officers were charged with manslaughter and later acquitted by an all-white jury in Karratha. They were all reinstated to duty and never faced any disciplinary action.

Roseanne Pat remembers the pain felt by John Pat’s mother Mavis.

“She used to cry every time, you know. I seen her crying and I wondered why she used to cry and mum told me about it then, that we had a loss, a death in custody.

“My Aunty was always sad inside. She didn’t know how to talk about it. She always cried for her son.“

The old cell is no longer used, but it remains a visible part of the police precinct.

“They should’ve knocked it down a long time ago, demolished it or something,” Roseanne Pat says.

“We don’t want to walk past and have memories of what happened.”

Roseanne Pat is determined that her cousin’s story isn’t forgotten by the wider Australian public. It’s something she promised John Pat’s mother Mavis, just before she passed away.

“The last breath on her death bed, she looked at me and she told me, ‘It's up to you now, I'm leaving’,” she says.

“She looked at me and she was like, ‘My turn and my times are over now, and I want to pass this over’.

“I want my Auntie's voice to be heard because it's been so, so long. I want her to rest in peace.

“It happened in our family once and we don't want it to keep on happening to other families.”

‘We’ve fallen down’: Patrick Dodson 30 years on from Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody
Former commissioner for the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and current Labor Senator Patrick Dodson says continuing deaths in Australian prison cells are a national shame.