ABOVE: Google Earth image of Laramba, a bush settlement north-west of Alice Springs. The killings happened in the vicinity. BELOW: One of the convicted, Travis Gibson. Having had his jaw broken was one of the triggers of the drunken payback raid.
By KIERAN FINNANE
Five out of six were drunk on the night.
One out of six is a reformed heavy drinker, sober on the night.
Two out of six are alcoholics.
Four out of six had parents who were alcoholics or heavy drinkers.
Two out of six are married to alcoholics and these couples have had children.
The two victims of the six were drunk at the time of their deaths.
In the evening of December 22, 2009 six men left Alice Springs in a red Ford Falcon, bound for Laramba, a small settlement of some 300 people, around 200 kilometres to the north-west. Four of the men were armed: one had a large military-style knife, another a tyre iron, and two had nulla nullas (clubs). They were also travelling with grog: on a trip that takes around two and a half hours, they drank one and a half cartons of VB beer and a cask of Moselle between them, all but the driver. This was on top of grog that at least some of them had consumed during the day.
There was a purpose to the trip: the six intended to confront men at Laramba over a long-running dispute between their family, the Gibsons, and the Dixon-Stafford family. In particular, they were going to look for brothers Adrian and Watson Dixon and another person, who were seen as responsible for the assault on one of the Gibsons some months before, breaking his jaw.
By midnight two men in Laramba, not the Dixon brothers, were dead, as a result of stabbings to the thigh.
Two days later the six men were each charged with two counts of murder.
Last Thursday, a year and a half later, the six pleaded guilty to variously recklessly or negligently engaging in conduct that caused the death of the two men and were sent to gaol for between six and 13 years, with non-parole periods set for between three and six and a half years.
And so another sad milestone was reached in a woeful story of lives blighted by alcohol and violence, of a shattered settlement that in two years has lost at least four of its men by unnatural causes, with six more now taken out of circulation for years to come.
All six men are related to one another. Travis and Luke Gibson, aged 24 and 21, are full brothers. Gilbert Dixon, 44, is their maternal uncle; Rodney Gibson, 39, their paternal uncle. Thomas McMillan and Lawrence Rice, both 37, are extended family members. Gilbert Dixon, as his name would suggest, is also related to the Dixon-Stafford family: Adrian and Watson Dixon are his “cousin-brothers”, that is the fathers of the three are full brothers.
The origins of the dispute were deaths that had occurred in the course of 2009. Two Gibson family members were killed in a car accident. They were the father of Rodney, grandfather of Luke and Travis, and the brother of Rodney, uncle of Luke and Travis. A Dixon-Stafford family member was also seriously injured in the car accident. Another Gibson family member, brother of Rodney, father of Luke and Travis, died of cancer in the same year.
The court was packed for the sentencing of the six men. Justice Judith Kelly said she had been told that the deaths of the Gibson family members in 2009, as well as “some other disturbances and disputes”, had had a “very disruptive effect” on relationships between the two families and “they fell into dispute”. It was in this context that Travis Gibson had had his jaw broken. (Travis approached this newspaper at the time, when his face was still swollen from his injuries; his complaint was that his family had been forced out of their three homes in Laramba by the Dixon family.)
There had been attempts to settle the dispute, including by Gilbert Dixon and his mother, but these were rebuffed and Justice Kelly said the Gibson family “were really compelled” to move away from Laramba, some to Aileron, others to Alice Springs. Gilbert went as far as Adelaide, with his wife and youngest sons, but was asked by both families to return and help resolve the dispute.
On the fateful day, according to the agreed facts read by Justice Kelly, Travis had been drinking at Hoppy’s Camp. He and his uncle Rodney, a non-drinker after an earlier period of problem drinking, decided on the trip. In the afternoon Rodney drove around Alice, collecting the other four. He found Thomas McMillan drinking in the Todd River. Luke had been drinking at Hoppy’s and was already drunk. Gilbert Dixon had had seven beers before setting out.
Nearing Laramba, on a dirt track near the settlement, they found a drinking camp in full swing, with many present “heavily intoxicated”. Although Adrian and Watson Dixon were not present, five of the offenders got out of their car, four of them armed, and declared they’d come “for a fight”. Many in the camp got up and ran away, but Travis punched one “full drunk” man in the head and Luke, armed with a nulla nulla, ran at a woman. She escaped into the bush. Next they turned their attention to a man, Kwementyaye Glenn, sleeping in the passenger seat of a blue Holden. Travis and Luke punched him and Gilbert stabbed him on the inside left thigh, causing a deep wound and severing an artery. Kwementyaye Glenn would die from his injuries.
Gilbert then handed his knife to Lawrence Rice, who till that point had been unarmed. Gilbert returned to sit in the Ford Falcon, while Lawrence used the knife to slash the tyres of a white Mitsubishi Challenger and others in the party smashed the rear and front windowscreens.
Their next victim, Kwementyaye Tilmouth, was standing next to the blue Holden, using it to support himself as he was extremely drunk. He struggled with Travis, Rodney and Luke as they punched him in the head and face and struck him with their weapons. Then Lawrence came up with Gilbert’s knife and stabbed Kwementyaye Tilmouth in his upper left leg. There were two wounds, one of which severed an artery. He too would die as a result.
With prompt treatment by people who knew what they were doing, the two men may not have died, but what chance of that was there on a dirt track outside a remote desert settlement?
Throughout these attacks, Thomas McMillan had remained in the car that the six had arrived in. The only time he left it was to warn one of his nephews, among the group of Laramba drinkers, not to “jump in”.
The offenders then smashed the windscreens on the blue Holden and finding another woman hiding behind the white Mitsubishi, Rodney threatened her with the tyre iron, while Travis punched her in the mouth, splitting her lip.
The six then drove back to Alice and went their separate ways. The next day news broke that the two men had died. Rodney got the weapons used in the attack and hid them along the creek between Hoppy’s and Charles Creek camps. Gilbert in the course of the morning turned himself in at the Alice Springs Police Station, saying that he had stabbed someone. Police spoke to Rodney later that day and he showed them where he had hidden the weapons. He was arrested and charged. By the end of the day Luke and Travis as well as Thomas were also arrested, and Lawrence was arrested the next day.
There were no victim impact statements tendered but Justice Kelly said it was obvious that the victims had “suffered” and had had their lives “cut tragically short”.
Gilbert Dixon was sent to gaol for 13 years, with a non-parole period of six and a half years for recklessly causing the death of Kwementyaye Glenn and negligently causing the death of Kwementyaye Tilmouth.
The court always hears something of the personal circumstances of the offenders during sentencing. Justice Kelly said that Gilbert already had an extensive criminal history, including 14 convictions for aggravated assault, in 1986, 1994, 1995, 1999, four counts in 2002, and in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008, and 2010. He also had a number of convictions for breaches of bail, breaches of suspended sentences and failures to comply with restraining orders.
(Justice Kelly made the point that offenders with criminal histories were not to be punished again for those crimes but the histories meant that they were not entitled to leniency accorded to first offenders, nor to be considered as a person of prior good character.)
Gilbert was raised in a household of heavy drinkers – both parents as well as uncles and cousins. He became an alcoholic early in life. His wife is also an alcoholic. They met through drinking. He has been through treatment at CAAAPU (Central Australian Aboriginal Alcohol Program Unit) twice but relapsed after both programs. All of his offending has occurred while he was drunk.
Justice Kelly said she’d been told that he did not drink when he was at Laramba, “a dry community” (though that designation does not seem to have prevented a lot of people being very drunk there on the night of December 22, 2009).
Gilbert is an initiated Arrernte man, who was raised and has lived mainly at Laramba and at Hidden Valley town camp in Alice Springs. He completed primary school and went to Yirara College for Years Eight and Nine. His first language is Arrernte; he also speaks Anmatjere and is described as “reasonably proficient” in written and spoken English.
He worked as a stockman at Jinka and Tanami Downs stations; was employed by Tangentyere Council and an outstation resource centre doing fencing, horticultural and construction work. He also worked as a groundsman and doing maintenance at MacDonnell Range Caravan Park.
He is a father of six, three by a first wife, three by a second.
Justice Kelly said she accepted that he was truly sorry for what he had done and together with all the offenders, he had signed a letter written by Thomas McMillan, apologising to the family members of the deceased men.
Lawrence Rice got 11 years in gaol, with a non-parole period of five and a half years, for recklessly causing the death of Kwementyaye Tilmouth and negligently causing the death of Kwementyaye Glenn. He had a “fairly lengthy” criminal history: going armed with an offensive weapon at night in 2009; causing grievous bodily harm in 2007; aggravated assault with a weapon causing bodily harm in 1994; six other counts of assault in 1998, 2004, 2005, 2009; threatening behaviour in public in 2000; and numerous breaches of parole, suspended sentences and bail, and failure to comply with a restraining order.
He is single with no children and was raised by his grandmother and an aunty in Santa Teresa. He was born with leg problems, and had to wear calipers as a child. He went to school at Santa Teresa and went on to complete Year 10 at Yirara College. He has worked variously on CDEP programs and doing stockwork. Although he was drunk on the night of the offending, there was no mention of chronic problems with alcohol in his case.
The remaining four offenders were all sentenced for negligently causing the deaths of the two victims. Where relevant, the sentences also dealt with the pleas of all six offenders relating to aggravated assault on other victims and criminal damage.
Rodney Gibson was sentenced to 11 years in gaol, with a non-parole period of five and a half years. He is an Anmatjere man, had one conviction for assault in 1994 and one for criminal damage in 1998 – “a long time ago”. He was born and raised at Napperby, primarily by his mother; his father is dead. He is currently single, but has two children, aged 19 and 12, and one grandchild. He had limited schooling, but has worked as a stockman and in mechanics. He had a history of alcohol misuse, “now resolved which is to your credit”, said Justice Kelly. He was the only completely sober member of the group the night of the offending.
Justice Kelly considered him the most culpable of the “negligent” group, pointing to his age and to his “father-like relationship” with Luke and Travis and to his role, with Travis, as instigator of the raid.
Travis Gibson was sent to gaol for 10 years, with a non-parole period of five years. He had no prior convictions. He is an Anmatjere man who spent most of his life at Laramba, raised by his father. His mother had problems with alcohol and he had had no significant contact with her. He went to school at Laramba but cannot read and write English. Justice Kelly said she had been told his spoken English has improved since he has been on remand in gaol.
He is the father of two young girls and was living with his wife at the time of the offending. He has done work-for-the-dole in unskilled jobs at Laramba but aspires to train as a mechanic (his father was a skilled bush mechanic).
On the night of the offending he was intoxicated by both marijuana and alcohol.
Luke Gibson received a sentence of nine years, with a non-parole period of four and a half years. The youngest of the six, he had no prior convictions. He has been married for two years and has an infant son. He has never been employed.
Thomas McMillan was sentenced to six years, with a non-parole period of three years. His criminal history was not extensive: a conviction for assault in 2005 and a number of breaches of suspended sentences and failure to comply with restraining orders.
He identifies primarily as a Central Arrernte man, though his mother is an Anmatjere woman. As a child he lived initially with his father’s family at Santa Teresa but his father became an alcoholic and left the family to live in Alice. His mother subsequently moved between town and Santa Teresa. Thomas was then cared for by step-parents, who encouraged him to go to school and to play footy. After leaving school at age 16 he went to live with his mother in Alice and himself became addicted to alcohol.
He worked for Tangentyere Council on CDEP programs and for a period at the Papunya store. Returning to Alice he struggled to maintain work because of his drinking. He is married with a seven-year-old daughter but has not been employed since his marriage. His wife also has alcohol problems and their daughter is mainly cared for by an aunt. His wife is closely related to the deceased victims of the six.
Justice Kelly was told that upon his release he intends to live in Santa Teresa, to become sober and to play “a more hands-on role” with his daughter: “I hope you achieve that aim,” she said.