The family of a young Gomeroi man missing for three months in northern NSW say they won’t give up until he is found.
The family of 22-year-old Gordon Copeland have been out searching daily in Moree, along the Gwydir River, after he disappeared in the early hours of Saturday July 10 after an interaction with police.
Unhappy with the police response, they applied for the Coroner to take over the case, and today police launched a massive three-day search over a rugged 12km section of the river.
A police critical incident team, overseen by the Professional Standards Command, is also investigating all the circumstances of Mr Copeland’s disappearance.
“All of this we’ve done ourselves,” Gordon’s aunt Lesley Fernando told reporters.
“We’ve just been very proactive, and non stop searching.
“We won’t give up, we won’t, until we bring Gordon home.”
Fresh three-day search underway
Authorities today began scouring the rugged terrain, with specialist teams including police divers, the dog squad, the mounted police, drones and on-water vessels.
Some 70 police and SES personnel are involved in the three-day search, along with family members and local community members.
Ms Fernando said it was clear it would be a recovery mission.
“Unfortunately, with the time that it has been, it’s clear that Gordon’s not with us anymore,” she said.
“He deserves a send-off and a place where we can go and sit.”
A traumatic three months
Ms Fernando said the loss has been devastating for the family.
“Gordon was very well-loved by our family and friends, he was a very placid young man.
"I don’t think anybody should have died this way.”
She said the community support had been incredible.
"The amount of emotional turmoil that it's caused on our community - far and wide we've got responses and messages and calls from greater NSW and all over, sending the deepest condolences and sympathies, and they're all kind of supporting us from afar."
Police search to focus on "the raft"
Police said it was the third significant search undertaken since Mr Copeland disappeared.
Superintendent Steve Laksa, New England Police District Commander, said the search would focus on an area stretching from where Mr Copeland was last seen, to an area known as the raft, “which is a congealment of trees and debris, where the river stops”.
“I have never seen, myself, such a significant search for an individual,” Supt Laksa told reporters in Moree.
“Today really gives a family an opportunity over the next three days to identify locations of the river that they feel need to be searched.
“There might be certain locations which we may not have searched or we may have searched, but we want to give them the opportunity to identify those locations, and we'll go back to those locations with our specialist resources including the divers.”
Communication "can always be better"
Supt Laksa conceded communication with the family could have been improved.
“To be honest, communication can always be better, but obviously we’re confronted by our current pandemic at the moment, we are confronted by other operational police demands," he said.
“You could always communicate better, you could always provide more time to victims and family members, people who are suffering. But, you know, I think we've always had open ears, always allowed an open communication with the family members.”
The family has called for the release of the police officers’ body cam footage, but Supt Laksa said it was a matter for the Coroner.
“We would truly like to know the events that led up to his disappearance that night,” Ms Fernando said.
A police statement issued three days after Mr Copeland's disappearance said officers from New England Police District had attempted to speak to him, after earlier seeing a speeding vehicle.
"However, he allegedly ran from police and was seen entering the Gwydir River," the police statement said.
Independent investigation needed
Greens MP David Shoebridge said the police had given conflicting information to the family, adding to their trauma and uncertainty.
He called for an independent investigation by the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission.
“I can't understand why it's taken the family to have to go back time after time to the police to get the most basic investigation done in this case, a proper search for this young man's body,” Mr Shoebridge told NITV.
“If this was not an Aboriginal family I can't imagine that this kind of effort would be required to get police to do the most basic thing.
“There's only one reason why this police search has restarted and that's because the family have been demanding it.“