Clues missed in baffling murder
TONY Jones had only stopped back into Townsville for a quick pub meal.
He was hitchhiking around Australia on a six-month working holiday, and was on the home stretch. From Townsville, he planned to hike 90 minutes to Charters Towers where he would crash, before waking the next day and heading to Mount Isa to meet up with his brother Tim.
The pair of them would then make their way home: Tim on bike, Tony by thumbing rides. The pair never met up, and Tony was never seen alive again.
The case of Tony Jones - missing since November 3, 1982, and presumed murdered - has never been solved, although the family feels they are getting closer.
They have been relentless in seeking justice over the past 36 years, but have faced numerous roadblocks. The case has become one of the most high-profile missing person cases in Australian history, notably also because it was grossly mishandled by police, many of whom have subsequently been tried or charged for corruption.
It is emblematic of the Queensland Police culture during the 1980s, which the Fitzgerald Inquiry found to be "debilitated by misconduct, inefficiency, incompetence and deficient leadership."
ANONYMOUS LETTER TIPS OFF POLICE
Brothers Tony and Tim Jones had spent a week in late October 1982 staying at the Sun City Caravan Park in Townsville with two other travellers. While Tim set off on the arduous 900km ride to Mount Isa, Tony opted to take a quick side trip to Cairns, before meeting up with his brother. He was in Cairns for less than a week, but he clearly made an impression there.
The most high-profile piece of bungled evidence in Jones' case came in January 1983, when police received an anonymous letter claiming to know the whereabouts of his body. The letter was postmarked Cairns, and read: "I believe body of AJ Jones buried in or near Fullarton River bed within 100 yds west southside Flinders Hwy. Lochiel."
Police searched the area for two days to no end, dismissing the letter as a cruel hoax. Jones' family weren't so sure, urging police to use DNA profiling in an attempt to identify the letter writer. The police declined this request for years, until sheepishly admitting in 2007, 25 years after Jones' disappearance, the letter had been misplaced some years back.
An even more compelling piece of information was completely mishandled at the time. A witness told police he had joined both Jones and an older man at the Rising Sun Hotel in Townsville the day he stopped in for a meal; the older man had picked up Jones earlier in the day, and suggested they stop at the pub for a meal before heading to nearby Charters Towers. The witness struck up a conversation with the pair, who told him of their plan. This was the last time that Jones was seen alive. The witness provided a sketch artist with a detailed description of the older man, his vehicle and identifying scars on his arms, but it wasn't until 1992, a full decade later, that police actually published an identikit picture of the suspect.
So, why the delay in revealing this information to the public? Well, the suspect looked strikingly like one of their own.
The identikit picture was published on November 2, 1992, a decade after Jones was last seen alive. Within 48 hours, police had fielded numerous calls that claimed the identikit sketch matched "a former policeman" as the Townsville Bulletin put it - namely Mervyn Henry Stevenson. The vehicle and scars were also a match.
At the time of Jones' disappearance, Stevenson had just retired from the force, after 35 years of service that saw him rise from a rookie bush cop in the tiny township of Coen, to superintendent in charge of the Townsville Police District. His was a storied career, but less than two years after his retirement, Stevenson's reputation was levelled by charges of corruption. A confidential police report accused Stevenson of being involved in cattle-stealing and failing to adequately investigate various drug-related offences, nor the suspicious suicide of a fellow officer.
These charges were dealt with "internally", meaning they required Police Commissioner Terry Lewis to approve. Lewis vetoed the recommendations of the police report and Stevenson was never investigated.
The Opposition police spokesman at the time, Terry Goss, was incensed, tabling the confidential report in Queensland Parliament. "Instead of the normal procedure being followed and the suspects being charged and brought to trial," he stated, "there is intervention at the highest level - when I say "at the highest level", I mean within the Police Department - as a consequence of which no charges are brought."
This wasn't an isolated incident. Terry Lewis was subsequently charged with 23 counts of perjury, corruption and forgery, one of which involved him forging Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen's signature on an official police statement. He was stripped of his knighthood, and sentenced to 14 years prison.
Mervyn Stevenson died in December 2001, a heroic bush cop who was inducted into the Australian Stockman's Hall Of Fame, which celebrates "pioneers of the Australian outback".
CATALOGUE OF INCOMPETENCE
It wasn't until early 2002 that the findings from a long-delayed coronial inquest were passed down, declaring Jones a victim of homicide, despite no body being found. Because there was no specific place of death, no death certificate was able to be issued until 2006, when Queensland law was changed.
The family reviewed the inquest documents in 2007 and were astonished to find a number of important leads were neglected during the investigation. Witnesses who came forward in 1982 weren't interviewed until 2001, while other statements and evidence taken at the time were missing or dismissed. The investigation didn't start until three days after a missing-person report was filed and only after the distraught family travelled from Perth to Townsville to file it in person. Jones' dental records were lost, and replaced with those of an Anthony Jones. Coroner Ian Fisher was unimpressed, saying "more attention should have been given to early investigation".
Incensed, the Jones family petitioned then Queensland attorney-general Cameron Dick to reopen the inquest, a request ignored until 2010 when the government launched a campaign entitled "Walk a day in my shoes". Jones' other brother Brian seized the opportunity, sending Dick a pair of Jones' shoes with a note that asked him to walk a day in the shoes of a victim of Queensland crime.
Moved by the symbolic gesture, Dick reopened the inquest the next day.
In 2011, the family met with more examples of gross police incompetence. A grazier told the family that in 1982 he had handed in evidence found at a campsite in Cloncurry, a township 780km from Townsville. He, and a retired police officer, had stumbled across remnants of camping gear, as well as a letter addressed to Jones by his mother.
Despite the importance of these artefacts, nothing further was done with this evidence, and it seems to have been lost or destroyed over the decades. It took a further nine months from the time the family were alerted of this evidence for a search of the area to be conducted. Not surprisingly, given the 29-year lag, this turned up nothing. Detective Acting Inspector Mick Walker told media at the time they were "still investigating" what happened to the evidence all those years ago. Two days after the search, a former prisoner made a more startling claim.
A man, who was incarcerated at Townsville Correctional Centre in 2000, told police his cellmate Michael Laundress admitted to a murder back then that strongly matched that of Jones. This confession came a year before the inquest begun, and 18 years after the murder, so the prisoner didn't make the connection to Jones until late 2011.
"I did a bloke in out near Mt Isa," Laundress apparently confessed. "He was hitchhiking at the time and I buried him out there."
This seemed like the most substantial breakthrough to date, however by this point the inquest had stalled, being marred by excessive delays and the replacement of the coroner mid-inquest.
In October 2015, Laundress died without making a statement. The inquest was still on hold. The most substantial lead to date had been allowed to extinguish.
'WE WANT ANSWERS': FAMILY'S ANGUISH
Since Laundress died, the family has been faced with continued resistance from police. Jones' brother Mark tells news.com.au it has been maddening.
"Detective Sergeant Brendan Stevenson has become so hostile (towards the family) that he has sought legal advice about possible action against the family for criticisms made during the inquest, as well as to find legal reasons not to keep the family updated as to any progress with the investigations," he said.
The Jones family have been tireless in chasing down leads, but keep meeting roadblocks within the force. A tip-off that one of the suspects had given away a rifle that matched one Jones was carrying was passed onto the police, who took many months to interview the witness.
"When they did speak to him they showed him an image of the wrong rifle - and duly dismissed that line of inquiry," Mark said.
"Efforts by the family to rectify the mistake have been treated with hostility and at one point we were advised that any further inquiries we might have about the case should go through the coroner."
Those with information about the case have started bypassing the police, providing "significant information directly to the family", after which it seems to stall.
"We are without a point of contact within the police to follow up such leads in good faith," Mark said.
"There is a mounting backlog of leads that remain yet to be properly examined and the case remains in limbo, where it has been for some years."
Mark claims three witnesses gave statements claiming a suspect confessed to murdering a hitchhiker in Hughenden at the time Jones was passing through the town. Despite this, nothing further has emerged.
"The family has passed on critical new information to Homicide in Brisbane but they have washed their hands of it," Mark said.
"No matter what past bungling there has been or what acrimony exists between police and the family, it seems that is not up to Brisbane Homicide to get involved in a case in Townsville.
"So we are left with more of the same."
As with many cold case, as time goes by, leads are extinguished, vital witnesses die without making statements, and numerous opportunities are lost. The Jones family are pleading that, after 36 years, the proper resources are spent on solving this case.
"Surely it's time to apply the mercy rule," Mark said.
"Our lives have been on hold for too many years. My father is 93 and we want him to have some answers.
"The police got off to a bad start and never recovered. It is now an adversarial situation and we bump up against the same problems over and over again. Intervention is required if this case is to be resolved and the family of murder victim are to go back to their normal lives.
"Leaving such a complex case to regional detectives might have political benefits - but they have had a 36-year crack at this.
"We just need the right people to be watching and, where possible, get this investigation back on track."
A $250,000 reward for information on Jones' death is still available.