The Flinders strip of tarmac runs for hundreds of miles from Townsville on the north east coast and snakes into the hot western interior of that huge country. There is no mystery about it from what I can tell. Over many years people have disappeared and been murdered, most of them are young, some are children and the road has been billed as particularly dangerous. Statistically you could find as many killings and suspicious circumstances in a square mile of any city in the world.
It all sounds fascinating though especially when you look at the terrain. It is wilderness country and to many of us the Flinders Highway is otherworldly. For example in the UK you are hard put to find a square mile with no-one strolling about or a square two miles without a house. Below is a totally random snapshot of this route, I just put in the name and searched Google, there are many such stretches in this almost 500 mile long road.
I wrote an article about Flinders and I mentioned the case of 20 year old Tony Jones. Mr Jones was walking the earth, a reference I take from pulp Fiction. The modern word is back packing. It is what some young people have done for a long time. They set off to ‘checkout’ the world. He was in a loose co operation with his brother, Tim, who chose to travel by bicycle. They would pick a point on the map and meander there and meet up.
Back in 1982, of course, we didn’t have the instant connection with the world we have now. You had your home phone, work phone and payphones. Mr Jones used payphones to keep in touch with his family in Perth.
According to the below ABC news article Mr Jones last had contact with his family when he called his mother on 3rd November. That same day he had also talked to his girlfriend. In another account ( we find this a lot) the last person he spoke to was another brother. Regardless of who he spoke to it was the last day that Mr Jones was heard from and the last day there was any activity on his bank account.
During the chat he was told that his cycling brother was already almost 600 miles away in Mount Isa. So Mr Jones began his hitchhiking journey from Townsville in the east hoping to get to Mount Isa within a couple of days.
Mr Jones had been on this tour for about six months so he was not new to this sort of life. He and his brother had met up on various occasions spending a few days to a week with each other. The reason Mr Jones was way behind his sibling was that he had taken a trip to Cairns from Townsville for a couple of days before starting out west.
Over the years that have rolled by since his family have been the strongest of advocates for him. They have poked and prodded the authorities into action and still as I write they are fighting for witnesses to be contacted who should have been interviewed a long time ago. Of course that is one way of looking at it. While the family maintain things have not been done to investigate the fate of their boy, the cops are a bit hamstrung when it comes to defending themselves. For every accusation in the media that they have been lagging or incompetent all they can say is pretty much nothing. It has all the elements of a missing person case that at the same time has been ruled a murder. While it is an ongoing, if sporadic, investigation they can’t give details.
A major issue is the landscape. I mean you can just die walking out there. If you put on your boots to plod along the Flinders from Townsville to Mount Isa it is estimated it could take you three weeks if you walked eight hours each day. The average temperature in a town called Hughenden (230 miles/380km from Townsville) is 96 degrees Fahrenheit in November. Currently Hughenden ( you will hear of this place again) has just over 1000 people resident there. Another settlement along this road, Charters Towers, has about 2000. Villages dot the route in between but many, like a place called Torrens Creek, have only 70 people calling them home.
Back in 1982 you are hard pressed to call this a busy road that could offer a basketful of witnesses in any investigation. Then you have the variables. When, and if, did Mr Jones get a ride in a car? How long did that ride last? Did he then get in another car? How long did that ride last?
He was not the only backpacker out in the region at intervals of time and distance. Was he later confused with other young travelling men as seems likely? Did he become sick or injured and sadly the elements took him?
It has to be the first consideration. After all Australians seem to be almost proud of how deadly their home can be. It is summed up by a saying I have heard a lot over the years:
EVERYTHING IN AUSTRALIA WANTS TO KILL YOU!
There are variations to the words but they relate to the number of snakes, insects and other bigger things that you can fall foul of there.
The Murder Theory
Personally I don’t think the environment is the most likely reason Mr Jones disappeared. This was a young guy on a desolate but often travelled road. He had no illness and given his desire to get to his brother in Mount Isa he had no reason to stray far from the highway.
Hitchhiking has always been a dangerous pastime. I for one would rather take my chances with the snakes than on the random good intentions of a stranger. Another fact in favour of Mr Jones being able to take care of himself is that he kept a .22 rifle broken down in his rucksack. That might be no good for sudden self defence but it indicates he wouldn’t have starved out there.
The Investigation That Has Gone on For Decades
After Mr Jones did not just turn up with a shamefaced explanation for his absence the police began to look for him. When nothing came up to explain the situation they looked harder. I should point out that there are very strong grounds for the belief that the cops did not try all that hard. There have been judicial arguments over the last 39 years that could fill a book. I will put them in some order a little way down.
Sticking to the investigation you had wilderness and a missing 20 year old man. Also over a distance like the one we have you are not going to have endless boxes of cops ready to be opened and spread around. A reward of $20,000 was offered for information about the ‘suspected murder’ of Mr Jones in 1983 but apart from that nothing much came of the early years.
Notable breakthroughs have come and gone. Along with them seem to be a list of missed opportunities and lost evidence.
A local to a place called Cloncurry said he had handed a letter to the police way back in 1982. He and an ex copper had found a trashed campsite. There was this letter which was addressed to Mr Jones which had been written by his mother. Nothing was done and the cops lost the evidence over the years. This information would have been crucial at the time. It potentially placed the victim only 75 miles from his destination. That would have been a far better point to start a search than the entire length of the Flinders.
Another witness could have helped out as well. He believed he had sat and talked to a man fitting the missing person’s description in a Townsville pub. The man could well have been Mr Jones, he was with an older man who had offered to give Mr Jones a ride to Charters Towers.
The witness gave a description that was made into an artists impression. In particular it described scars on the mans arms.
The sketch, of which there are two versions, was not circulated at the time. It was finally made public in 1992 and among the suggested names was one of the police’s own. A former officer called Stevenson had his name connected with this man in the pub because of the scarring to his arms. He was never interviewed about it though. Nor were two others who the public suggested. The first sketch was the only one that looked like Stevenson. The second sketch did not. It is all very confusing. Many of the ‘suspects’ in the case were dead by the time the police were directed to follow them up by a coroner.
A prisoner came forward to say a cell mate had confessed to doing a hitchhiker harm at the time Mr Jones had disappeared. This guy is now dead and that lead was hardly part of a hotly pursued line of enquiry.
Then you have what the police decided was a hoax but the family feel was a lost opportunity. A letter was sent to cops in January 1983. It suggested where Mr Jones could be found and the location was 30 miles east of Cloncurry. The writer said that Mr Jones’s body could be found in the Fullerton River bed near the highway.
In fairness police searched for two days yet found nothing. Later the family pushed for quite awhile to have the letter DNA tested. Eventually the cops had to admit they couldn’t find it.
One of the most fascinating leads came in the form of ex partners giving accounts about two men from Hughenden. The women, formerly in a relationship with the men, say that they variously confessed to killed someone. One of the men had specifically said he had been part of a murder and disposed of the body in a slaughter house using high powered cutting tools. These disclosures were said to have been made when the man was drunk and highly emotional. The other man had not been as forthcoming to his partner. She, as I recall, said he would say he had killed before when threatening her.
During a hearing a few years ago the women repeated these allegations in front of a court. According to a report a former family friend said they had heard one of the men confess as well. Police said they had looked into the allegation but could not find any evidence to support charging the men.
Are You Confused?
If you are wondering what was going on with the Queensland police back then maybe I can help. The corruption that was uncovered later in the 1980s made some other police scandals look like locker room gossip. A judicial review said of the service in those days that the cops were:
‘Debilitated by misconduct, inefficiency, incompetence, and deficient leadership’
I take no pleasure in printing that, however, it is a matter of record as stated by a commission set up to review many corruption and incompetence allegations. It certainly leans heavily to support the view that Mr Jones’ murder was not properly investigated.
For example one senior cop was knighted back in those days. Fast forward to now and we look back on the same cop who was stripped of his knighthood and was sent to prison for 14 years. That same cop was in charge of the area around Townsville back in 1982. I mean it does smell doesn’t it?
So What Happened To Tony Jones?
I was talking to a British guy in France 10 years ago. He told me of a trip to Scotland he and his mate went on. They were motorbiking around. One night they stopped at a place in deepest Scotland. They had a few drinks and were walking back to their lodgings when they were jumped. The outnumbered pair received a real beating. The guy I was talking to described his injuries and a lengthy stay in hospital.
Why had they been attacked? The girlfriend of one of the Scottish lads was so shocked by the violence of her partner she stood witness for the prosecution. In her testimony she related that the motive had been because the bikers were English.
I am a city kid and I learned long ago that country youth does not always behave like the tourist brochure might indicate. It is not all cream cakes and bright smiles of welcome.
That may explain what happened to Tony Jones. It fits with the testimony of those women in Hughenden. Their partners would have been young country boys who came across a Perth city kid.
Then you have the Cloncurry evidence. The letter found in the remnants of the campsite that had come from Mr Jones’ mother does not mean he was there. It just means his gear got there. It is curious that the letter sent to police stating where his body could be found indicated a burial site only 30 miles along the highway from the campsite. Even more striking is the prisoner who supposedly told a cell mate he had committed a murder said it was done near Mount Isa. Is it stretching it to say that in an area that vast Cloncurry could be described as near? It is the sort of thing that a person could say especially if the listener may have heard of Mount Isa, a place of 18000 people, over an unknown place called Cloncurry with a population of less than 3000
Then you have the artists pictures. The witness described not just the older man but also his car. All those factors fitted with the recently retired cop. The pair were said to be going to a place called Charters Towers 80 miles west that evening. Charters Towers was this ex cop, Stevenson’s, home territory. The allegations against him were never proved and that should be noted. Also, and most importantly, the Jones family assert clearly that Stevenson was not responsible. In a letter to the North West Star news website brother Mark not only explains why he thinks Stevenson was dragged into the investigation but also he clearly says the family know who murdered their brother.
In the ABC news article, dated 4th April 2018, the family elaborate on the North West Star comment. They believe the answer lies in Hughenden. Mark Jones said that the theory is that young people picked up his brother and something prompted his murder. In some ways this case reminds me of the murder of Alonzo Brooks in 2004.
Outsiders should not see the countryside as populated by some lovely breed of people. I believe the low murder rate of rural areas is purely down to the fact there are less humans, it isn’t because they are less violent and cruel than any other group.
I would love to know what the family of Tony Jones know. Is it based on the story those women told about their ex partners? I have no right to know. It is their pain, their effort and all I can do is wish them the best and hope they get the right person to stand for what they have done.
Currently the reward for the right information is $250,000 Australian dollars.