Warning: this post contains details some may find distressing.
On a bitterly cold day in May 2015, a resident of a local beachfront property was standing at one of his windows when he noticed something unusual washed up on the shore. He walked down to the beach to find it was a man, drifting at the waters edge. After dragging the body further up onto the sand, he then went back to his house to call police.
We arrived at the address a short time later, left our car in the driveway then walked down to the beach where the weather conditions were only getting worse. Even in the brief few moments when it wasn’t raining, the wind coming off the water produced a constant salt water spray that was so cold my face and hands were soon completely numb.
This was no swimmer. It was an elderly man, wearing black shoes, black pants, a white long-sleeved shirt and a woollen jumper. Additionally, and rather oddly, he also had a length of rope tied around his upper body.
I’d often heard of police who’d gone through 10, 15 or 20 years in the job without a problem, before finally coming undone over a particular scene involving a particular victim. Someone who reminds them of their partner, their mother or their sister. Sometimes it’s a child who is the same age as their own. There is no dissociating from something like that, I don’t care how hardened or experienced you are.
For me, when I walked over to that man’s body, it was like looking down at my own father. This man was the same age as my father, he looked the same and even dressed the same.
My father has been in and out of hospital over the last few years and has developed a long list of health problems. The first time he went to hospital was when he caught pneumonia, and I suppose that’s what started his bad run. I remember visiting him one day, walking into his room and thinking I was in the wrong place. The image of him sleeping in his hospital bed was so far removed from every image I ever had of him, that I didn’t recognise him at first. He was no longer the protector, but the one in need of protecting. Seeing him like that, it was as if he had aged overnight. He had become weak, frail. Vulnerable.
I saw all of the same things in this man lying dead in the sand.
The man had no visible injuries and the only items he had in his possession were a plastic comb, a bus ticket and $13 cash. He had no identification on him at all.
He was wearing several layers of clothing, with sand between each layer. His socks were full of sand, his shoes were full of sand and this wasn’t just the kind of errant sand you’d typically accumulate after a day at the beach, this was deliberately packed. Furthermore, the rope tied around his chest was roughly severed at one end, as if it had been attached to something heavy which at some point had broken away.
We checked for any recent missing person reports, but at that time on a Sunday morning, there were none. Then we did a line search up the beach, but could find no personal items we could link to the man.
It was likely that the man had come off the nearby pier, so I tasked one of the local vans to check the area for any abandoned cars. But they had no luck either.
The man found washed up on the beach that day was subsequently transported to coronial services as, “Male Unknown.” He remained nameless until about eight o’clock that night. The constable who’d been driving me that day was at home when he saw something on facebook about an elderly man missing from the eastern suburbs. He contacted the station investigating the missing person and the two incidents were quickly linked. The man’s body was later identified by his family.
Over the next couple of days, we were able to piece together some of his last movements. We traced the bus ticket and found he’d used it only once, to catch a bus into the area at about 5.00 PM on the Saturday. He then made his way to the pier where he would’ve waited until darkness, or at least until all the fishermen had packed up for the day.
Maybe he’d found the rope and an old tyre lying around the pier. They are plenty of boat-building yards in the area and things like that wouldn’t be hard to find. But I didn’t think so. It seemed to me that he had come prepared.
Maybe he was carrying something when he got off the bus. A bag or a suitcase containing a length of rope and filled with books or maybe one or two paving stones.
He would’ve gone to the beach first. He would’ve knelt or sat in the cold sand, digging up handfuls of it and meticulously packing it into his socks, his shoes and between his layers of clothing.
Feeling much heavier already, he would’ve then walked off the beach and along the pier, stopping once he’d reached the end to tie the rope around his chest. The other end he tied around whatever he had chosen to drag him down under the water. He didn’t want to risk floating to the surface and possibly surviving this day.
What was he thinking as he did this? Did he think at all or was he just going through the motions? The one thing I am sure of is he would’ve been bitterly cold. He would have been freezing, even before he went into the water.
He steps off the pier and starts to sink straight down. He holds his breath maybe a second or two before the water pressure or maybe just the icy temperature shocks him completely and makes him gasp for air. His lungs fill with water and then it’s all over.
At some stage in the next few hours, the rope snaps and his body floats to the surface. Whatever was weighing him down remains on the bottom of the bay. His body then drifts with the tide in the darkness of night, eventually washing up on the nearby beach.
I’ve been over this scenario a hundred times in my mind, I just can’t help it. Then every time I go to the beach or anywhere near the pier, I go over it again. Sometimes I’ll add an extra little detail. It’s like hearing part of a story, but you want to know the whole story, so you use your imagination to fill in the gaps. I try to make this particular story as painless for the main character as I possibly can.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this particular job, and I know that’s because of the similarities I saw between the victim and my father. I knew that’s what it was, right from the start. Sometimes you can be upset by something but not know the reason why, and that just makes it worse. It’s like fumbling around in a darkened room, trying to find a way out.
I suppose that by going over it all in my mind again and again, I was eventually able to complete the incomplete picture. That this was my way of processing it.
It was the first time in months that I was able to make any kind of sense of any of it.