Witness threatened at murder charge hearing: ‘You’ll be dead’


CORRECTION, September 15, 2014: This matter was dealt with in the Magistrates Court on February 27, 2014. The man charged pleaded guilty to ‘intimidation of a witness’. What he actually said was not made clear in open court. However, the Alice Springs News Online has recently been told by the man’s legal representative that, while his words were threatening, they did not included the “murderous” threat in English reported here. He was sentenced to six months, suspended after four, much of which he had already served, having been in custody since his arrest on October 30, 2013. Conditions were imposed for a 12 month period to prevent him from further interfering with the trial.
UPDATE, 1pm: A 44-year-old man has been charged today with “intimidation of a witness, make threats to kill a person and attempt to pervert the course of justice”, according to a police media release just to hand.
“I’m going to cut you, you’ll be dead”: these are the words I heard directed to a witness in the Alice Springs Magistrates Court yesterday, part way through the preliminary hearing of a murder charge against Sebastian Kunoth.
Right: Inside Abbott’s Camp where the alleged murder took place, photo from our archive (2008).
The words in English were part of a stream of speech in an Aboriginal language, uttered by a man as he was ejected from the courtroom. The same man had briefly disrupted the hearing earlier by taking a seat next to the accused at the bar table. The man appeared to be ‘under the influence’, needing to steady himself as he moved. When Magistrate David Bamber told him that that was not a place for the public to sit, he said “Sorry”, and referred to Mr Kunoth as “my son” (likely to be in the Aboriginal kinship sense).
The witness, Janet Wirri, did not visibly react to the apparent threat, but it brought the hearing to a standstill as prosecutor Stephen Geary sought to have the man arrested for intimidation of a witness. Mr Bamber said he was not sure of what was said. The police later took statements in relation to the matter.
Ms Wirri had almost reached the end of her evidence under cross-examination from Mr Kunoth’s defence lawyer, Tanya Collins.  In fact when the hearing resumed she was excused.
It was the second occasion of concern regarding possible interference as a witness gave evidence. Earlier in the day Christine Peterson had seemed very reluctant to adopt as “true stories” her statements given to police. She appeared worried and uncomfortable. There were mutterings and gesticulations from the gallery prompting Mr Bamber to speak to those present, telling them that they could not speak or gesture to the witness.
He asked Ms Collins if there was a reason for so many people to be present. She said they were members of her client’s family. Mr Geary asked for them to be removed. Mr Bamber enquired particularly about one man who had “plonked himself” next to her client. At this time Mr Kunoth was not at the bar table but sitting on the bench directly behind. Ms Collins spoke to the man and said that he could leave.
After he left Ms Peterson agreed that the first of her statements, made in town, “must be right”. The second, made at Papunya, seemed to worry her more but she did finally accept that it was true. She continued to appear anxious throughout her evidence.
After three days set down for this hearing the court has heard from just ten witnesses, six of whom were present at Abbott’s Camp “on or about” December 25 last year when the deceased, a young woman, R. Nelson, received the injuries from which she died a few days later. Thirteen out of eighteen witnesses were summonsed. Warrants have been issued for the arrest of those who have not appeared and Mr Bamber reluctantly has allowed a further day for the hearing – three was already a lot for a committal, he commented.
In fact the warrants were issued on day one, Monday, after just three witnesses appeared, only one of whom was present at Abbott’s Camp on the critical night. The fact that he is in custody might have helped with the timeliness of his appearance.
Police plans to pick people up for the next morning were interrupted by the discovery a woman’s body in the river (now being treated as a non-suspicious death following autopsy). Mr Geary, arguing for an extra day’s hearing “in the interests of justice”, said he believed the missing witnesses will be found – he has left police “in no doubt” of their importance. They include Lionel Minor, the “most important” witness from the defence point of view, he said. The hearing will continue on December 12.
The likely cause of Kumunjayi Nelson’s death was a fracture to the skull at the base of the brain. It was, in the opinion of forensic pathologist Terence Sinton, the result of a severe level of force (on the scale “mild, moderate, severe, extreme”).  It caused bleeding over the surface of the brain and contusion (bruising) at the front of the brain (opposite the site of impact).

The picture emerging of the circumstances surrounding Kumunjayi Nelson’s ultimately fatal injuries is of a drunken party at Abbott’s Camp starting on Christmas Eve last year.
Left: People at Abbott’s Camp fought hard for it to be declared a dry area well before the Intervention which banned alcohol in all town camps. That didn’t seem to stop anyone on Christmas Eve 2012.
One man, Elwyn Brokus, gave evidence of starting the day at a pub (the “Peanut Bar”) with six schooners; that was followed by taking a 24-pack back to the camp to share with friends in the afternoon. Later, just before bottleshop closing time, he and a friend bought four 30 packs and a “four corner” (one litre bottle) of Jim Beam in readiness for the next day. He and the friend sat down to share one of the 30 packs that evening. He estimated that he drank half of it, 15 cans.
Later in the evening a big party got underway at House 4 – lots of people, men and women, dancing and music. Mr Brokus had left the party when he heard arguing. He recognised Sebastian Kunoth’s voice, speaking in Luritja, asking “Where’s Lionel, I want to see him?” Sebastian was wearing only shorts and was carrying a stick, according to Mr Brokus. Later Lionel told him he had had a fight with Sebastian. Mr Brokus knew the two men were “enemies”.
Stephen Morgan was at the party. He saw Kumunjayi Nelson there, dancing together with lots of other people. He was “full drunk from rum”, consumed earlier in the evening. At the party he topped up with a couple of VBs. He was standing in the kitchen, “dead drunk”.
Did he see Sebastian Kunoth do anything? No. Did he see him holding anything? No. Did Sebastian Kunoth hit him? “Just once”. Did he see any fight between Sebastian and Lionel Minor? No, “I was sitting down in the park, drinking, I didn’t see nothing”. Did he see Sebastian hit Lionel with an iron? “No, I was at home asleep.” Did he see Sebastian with Kumunjayi at House 4 at any stage? “No, I must have been drunk at that time.”
Christine Peterson is Stephen Morgan’s wife. It was she who was worried about accepting her statements to police as “true stories”. She was at the party with her husband. She said she was drunk, having shared Jim Beam and beers with him. She gave evidence that Sebastian Kunoth “pushed” her husband, “just a little push”. She described Sebastian as “a little bit sober”.  He’d shared some beer and Jim Beam with them earlier. At the party he also pushed her “a little bit”, she said.
She said Sebastian got angry when he saw his partner dancing. He pulled her by the hair and she ran. He followed. She and Stephen left by another door. She saw Lionel Minor standing outside in the dark. Some time later, “little bit longer”, she heard girls sing out for her to call the police and ambulance.
Re-examined on her evidence by Mr Geary she said Kumunjayi ran from House 4 by herself, that Sebastian was still inside. Was he near Kumunjayi or away from Kumunjayi? “Must be long way, I was drunk too at that time.”
Neil Peterson had been drinking whisky, a “four corner Jim Beam” with his wife, Barbara Wheeler, starting at about 2pm. Later they went to the casino. On return they had another “four corner”. Was he quite drunk by the time it got dark? “Yeah, yeah.”
He saw Kumunjayi dancing at the party. He knows Lionel Minor but didn’t see him – “I was drunk”. He saw Sebastian Kunoth. Did he look drunk? “No, little bit.” Barbara Wheeler however described him as “full drunk”. She said he didn’t hit or touch her and she didn’t see him hit or touch anyone else.
Janet Wirri pays the rent at House 4. Her family was shouting her on Christmas Eve. They’d been to the bottleshop at “the Gap Motel” in the afternoon to buy four or five bottles of Poker Face chardonnay. Later they went back to get a 30-pack of beer. One of her group also had some rum. Ms Wirri agreed she was full drunk from wine before she started on the beer. Later she qualified: “I was drunk but I could see.”
She was sitting outside resting when she saw Sebastian Kunoth walk past, through her front gate and into the house. After Sebastian went in, did lots of people come out? “Might be, I was outside.” She later heard voices screaming. She saw “them two fighting”. Which two? “Them two, husband and wife.” They were “a little bit far away”. The estimated measurement was 20 metres. What did she mean by fighting? “He was holding her down … that’s when I told them to leave it.” What happened next? “Sebastian then walked off.” Did she stay or walk off? “… I came straight back …”
At this point, the muttering in the gallery began, followed by the apparent threat to Ms Wirri as she sat in the witness box.


  1. Another great story for Alice Springs. No wonder people say this is the most dangerous place in Australia. Our tourist numbers are dropping by the second.

  2. Time to reduce spending on wasteful things in the Alice and double your police force and give them the power to do their job.
    Oh yes, and cut the political BS and start handing out some real punishment to all races. It’s do this or lose your city.

  3. Time to get fair dinkum about stopping the rivers of grog flowing. Tougher demand side and supply side measures needed. Time to listen to John Boffa and PAAC, time to get tough with sit down money and the alcohol lobby. Time for Tony Abbott to get fair dinkum because the NT Government won’t.

  4. Was the man charged today with “intimidation of a witness, make threats to kill a person and attempt to pervert the course of justice” granted bail?
    We often hear that the prisons in the NT have a disproportionate number of indigenous Territorians behind bars. This may be true, but it may also be true that crimes in the NT are committed to a disproportionate degree by indigenous Territorians.
    What is beyond maybe is that for five decades we in the NT have allowed a situation to develop in which indigenous Territorians have been groomed to think they can drink with impunity while being supported with sit-down money.
    Can anyone truthfully express surprise at a fully predictable outcome such as outlined in this article?
    I can hear the apologists cry that it’s getting better. But is it? Is it really? I would question that assumption in the light of this article, and when in today’s press we read that remote region schools have been declared a universal failure. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/policy/universal-failure-of-remote-region-schools/story-fn9hm1pm-1226750862566

  5. In regard to Hal Duell’s comment, it’s not just Indigenous Territorians who “have been groomed to think that they can drink with impunity”.
    Australians generally, confuse the privilege to consume alcohol with a perceived democratic right not to be told what they can or can’t do.
    A certain section refuse to see that reducing supply would be good for the entire community.
    Ian Sharp comments that it’s time to limit supply and demand for alcohol, but the alcohol industry is more focussed on the merits of volumetric taxation than reducing profits and have been proven to be useless at self-regulation.
    It’s indeed time for the Abbott government to reform the NT alcohol issue, because the money spent on Indigenous programs will be that much less effective.
    Selling grog to easy targets has proved to be a good little earner in the NT. It’s time we had some discrimination.

  6. After a family night out last night, my wife and I were travelling home along Stott Tce, heading east towards Gillen at around 10.30pm. Just after travelling through the lights near Monte’s, I noticed a woman sitting in the middle of the road. As I slowed and moved left to avoid a collision, the woman moved to position herself in front of my car.!!!! At this time I noticed a large number of people approaching my now stationary vehicle. In fear of being car jacked and left with no other option, I drove my car up the gutter and through the old Melanka site. Whilst trying to navigate pot holes, my wife screamed, exclaiming that we were now being pursued by a group of people. I could not believe this was happening.
    I live in Alice Springs as a permanent resident. Both my wife and I work. I have three children that attend school here. We are positive community members. This experience has left me feeling scared and particularly uneasy about the apparent free range these wandering drunks have in our little town Alice. What is more disturbing is the level of self harm I see, the lack of respect for human life and the blatant disregard for civil order. The last time I checked, I understood that we have a comprehensive set of by-laws that prohibit antisocial behaviour to include, consuming alcohol in a public place, littering, behaving in an abusive or threatening manner, spitting, urination and /or defecating in a public area.
    As a rate and tax payer I expect that as a minimum these by-laws are enforced and preserved.
    Whilst we tolerate this behaviour you can forget selling Central Australia and Alice as an outback getaway. If I were a tourist and witness to this kind of behaviour I would be repulsed. If I were an investor – no thankyou. As a resident I tell you that I am fast becoming disenfranchised. As a parent – super concerned, and through a child’s eyes – I cannot bear to imagine.
    If ever there was a time to enforce vigorously those laws that protect our safety and provide everyone with positive safe space that time is NOW.
    SO. (WHAT CAN YOU DO ?) When you see someone in our town litter, spit, urinate, defecate, swear, behave in a threatening manner, politely let them know it is not acceptable (if you feel like this will not result in your own safety being compromised ) and/or report it to a law enforcement officer.
    As a Central Australian let’s be proud of what we have and take a stand against the behaviours that so many of us choose to ignore. DON’T TURN A BLIND EYE. If we don’t take a stand we will surely watch the alluring qualities of our outback town disappear before us.
    Concerned Alice Springs Resident

  7. I remember when I was a kid getting off the school bus and saw the majority the inhabitants of the town camp intoxicated and fighting, most were from remote communities runing amuck in town.

  8. @ Russell Guy
    I agree with you 100%. Too much drinking goes on all over Australia. No argument. But I live here. Hence my statement.
    @ Concerned Alice Springs Resident
    Yes, the by-laws. Perhaps instead of humbugging young skateboarders for ID, our Council Rangers could be put to better use by targeting the truly offensive behaviour we see all around us. Like you said, we become used to behaviour that has no place in a civilised urban centre. If we don’t stop it, it will consume us. It has already tarnished us.

  9. @ Hal Duell. Nov. 1 10: 25PM.
    You appear to have missed the point of my post. I was referring to Central Australia.
    The current situation where alcohol-abuse is having a negative value on the social amenity of our region can be sheeted home eqaully among (some) non-Indigenous.
    Further, the grooming from sophisticated marketing and promotional campaigns occurs in liquor outlets and sports fields, suggesting that life without alcohol is somehow not the norm. These campaigns are devised by non-Indigenous.
    Identifying other non-Indigenous groomers such as the two pubs that sell take-away seven days a week, including surrounding roadhouses, rather than declaring Indigenous as solely responsible is to point out that the impunity mocks police attempts to modify the patholigcal behavior that is twice the national average in terms of “where you live.”
    The “core culture” promoted by the Chief Minister grooms non-Indigenous Territorians to believe that they have a right to consume with impunity.
    A discriminating eye can see this quite clearly.
    It remains as to whether the Abbott Government, together with Senator Scullion and Warren Mundine can see it.

  10. @Russell Guy
    As I wrote, and the point I was making – “What is beyond maybe is that for five decades we in the NT have allowed a situation to develop in which indigenous Territorians have been groomed to think they can drink with impunity while being supported with sit-down money.”
    It’s not just the excessive drinking, but that coupled with the sit-down money that is proving such a lethal combination.
    We have done this, all of us. No question. But what I see on the streets and read about in the newspapers and on sites such as this overwhelmingly details the effects of the agreed (?) grooming on Indigenous Territorians, and through them and their actions, on the rest of us.
    To not acknowledge that is, I think, missing the point.

  11. “Bob” please call me on 0418 890040. I have deleted your comments because an email I sent to the address you nominated bounced back. EDITOR.

  12. @ Hal Duel.
    While not disagreeing with you, the “us” and “them”, i.e., non-Indigenous and Indigenous (white and black, if you like) is not helpful.
    It’s excessive supply of alcohol, not sit down money that’s the causal factor in lives lost.
    Grog-abuse is an undeclared civil war in Central Australia and everybody’s losing.
    It’s obvious that Alcohol Mandatory Treatment (AMT) is not going to stem the rivers of grog, but turning down the tap will. All social programs, including welfare, are compromised by it.

  13. @Concerned Alice Springs Resident – I can sympathise. When I first came to Alice, the taxi driver from the airport told me to be careful – he was pushed off his bicycle by an Aboriginal, without any provocation whatsoever, whilst riding a path – and had a shoulder reconstruction interstate as a result.
    It’s a violent place.
    I think it is folly to ignore evidence, if this issue is to be resolved.
    Supply is a factor. But so are consumption behaviour, factors correlated to consumption associated violence, as well as consumption independent factors that lead to violence.
    If it were simply an issue of supply, logically we’d all be affected indiscriminately, as perp or victim.
    I think it is fair to say, nominally and per capita, most perps and victims are Aboriginal compared to local whites or seagulls.
    Another observation – if it’s not one solvent, its another, in some communities which have issues breaking out of the cycle of poverty.
    In SE Asia, it’s glue. More locally, it’s petroleum.
    Although it is important to contain the catalyst, we should also consider geocultural issues, including enabling role models, addressing isolationism, tribalism and cultural issues which must change from within.
    I think if the local outlets were extinguished, we’d open the door to Aboriginal moonshiners.

  14. Having just read the comments here to this date, I feel obliged to make a point.
    There appears to be a consensus that there is “too much grog” available in the Alice, and a tendency for all Australians to over participate. Absolutely not the case. You will find that the consumption of alcohol is fairly standard worldwide, at least in the western world, and to even consider “rationing” the amounts available in the Alice is no answer, in fact it would be an abuse of human rights. You cannot trample on the rights of the general population simply because the administration cannot get it right.
    It seems to me that the only answer here is to limit the availability of grog to those that are causing this problem, namely some of the Aboriginal population, and any of the rest of the population that habitually abuse alcohol.
    This system would, of necessity, require some sort of proof of ID to purchase alcohol and also require the severe punishment of those that would try to get around any regulations put in place, i.e. those known as “grog runners” which in the past were generally (though not always) taxi and bus drivers that had access to the missions.
    Make the selling of grog to dry missions and people that have been ordered by the courts not to use alcohol a crime, punishable be very severe fines or imprisonment, and you will see a drop in the violence and antisocial behavior.

  15. @ Russell Guy
    I think we agree that there is too much alcohol in the equation.
    We also agree that closing the take-aways for one day a week would help. I am perhaps a bit more fatalistic than you on this in that I reckon there is a snowball’s chance in hell of that happening anytime soon. I would, however, love to be proven wrong.
    But where we seem to part ways is while you seem to be addressing all of Central Australia, I am more parochial in that my concern more or less stops with Alice Springs.
    And within Alice Springs, I think that until we are willing to call a spade a shovel, we will continue to beat around the politically correct bush.
    To go outside Alice for an analogy, for the longest time anyone willing to criticise Israel has been almost automatically branded an anti-Semite. Here anyone willing to say the behaviour of some indigenous Territorians is this town’s main problem is almost automatically branded a racist. Neither are true, and, until we are willing to overcome the debilitating consequences of not naming and shaming, we will continue to avoid the problem and miss any chance of growing past it.
    The “us” and “them” you mention is not the reductionist black and white so many use as a default excuse / accusation. It’s much more nuanced than that. It’s more educated and urban as opposed to uneducated and remote. That doesn’t fully explain the us and them thing either, but it’s closer than trying to color-code it.
    And it is for that reason that I think an empowered Lhere Artepe is crucial to our future. They will have to get over some recently reported financial misadventures and find a unity that, again reportedly, clan and family based infighting has prevented.
    But if they can do that and represent the native title holders of Alice Springs as I believe they were first set up to do, then, and in conjunction with the Town Council and other local bodies such as the Chamber of Commerce, we can sort out our problems and stop the slide that is seeing far too many empty spaces popping up all over town.
    This can all happen. It’s not that hard and it’s not that far away. But first we must look our problem in the face and name it for what it is.
    And in my opinion that problem is alcohol + sit-down money + uneducated indigenous Territorians from remote parts of the Territory drifting into Alice for no good reason and getting up to no good.

  16. Nobody that I know of is talking about “extinguishing the local outlets”, it is a matter of implementing a day / days free from the seven days per week take-away, despite how the nay-sayers have it regarding the Thirsty Thursday experiment and implementing a floor price.
    Both of these would have immediate productive results, especially if taken together. We don’t know how productive until implemented, but it’s preferable to present nay-saying.

  17. Just cause some people can’t control their drinking does not mean other people have to miss out. Selling of alcohol should be like this
    – people must be dressed neatly and clean
    – not to be sold to people in taxis unless they are dressed appropriate
    – if cars look unroad worthy they should not be sold
    To put basic standards in place will control this problem. I love a beer and I should be able to buy one when I want.
    It’s ridiculous that alcohol is a problem it should be easier to control no matter what culture. Otherwise ban certain people both white and black.


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