In the early hours of a cold morning in May 1994, three Aboriginal boys were placed into separate police vehicles by six officers in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley.
Though they hadn’t committed a crime, the boys — aged 12, 13 and 14 — were driven to the swampy industrial suburb of Pinkenba, 12 kilometres from the CBD.
A wide-ranging suppression order means the ABC cannot identify anyone involved in the case.
“They took [the 13-year-old] up to the bridge, and they said they was gonna throw him off, and then we heard a splash,” the youngest of the three, now 38, told the Thin Black Line podcast.
“I thought it was him — and I just started shaking then.”
Police denied threatening the boys — either to make them get into the cars or while at Pinkenba — but they did admit it was wrong to dump them at the site.
Through their union, their actions were excused as an act of frustration, but for the broader Aboriginal community, the incident exposed a toxic culture within the force that many feel still exists today.
Now, two of the boys involved are speaking out for the first time, as experts warn over-policing of Indigenous youth is still prevalent, and still perpetuating a vicious cycle of crime for vulnerable kids.
From the Valley into three police cars
The three boys who were hanging out in the Valley mall that night were part-time street kids, in and out of school at the time.
Like Daniel Yock, an Aboriginal teenager who died in custody only six months earlier, they had strong connections to Cherbourg, an old Aboriginal mission north-west of Brisbane.
The eldest in the group remembers them “just running around Brisbane as kids” — kids who would “just cruise around and get coins, go play games. We weren’t into drugs or any of that.”
As the boys began to walk back home to a hostel in Brisbane’s West End, the 13-year-old saw a group of police, and was struck by a feeling of unease.
“They told us to ‘get in’,” he says. “One each car. Three cars, two policemen to each car.”
He recalls initially refusing — but tired, cold and eager to get home, they eventually got in.
“We didn’t wanna jump in the car with them. We did — but we didn’t.”
They hadn’t committed any crimes, and they weren’t under arrest.
Dumped at Pinkenba
With his friends traveling in two other separate, marked police vehicles, the eldest soon realised something was wrong.
“I hit the window and said: ‘Here! The police station is this way.’
“They ignored me a couple of times and then I kicked out, and he said, ‘Oi! Stop banging on the windows or I’ll pull over there!’
“It shut me up because I realised … ‘Man, we’re not going to the station.’ I was like, ‘Man, where are we going?'”
The boys were taken to Pinkenba — a low-lying industrial suburb scattered with machinery, barbed wire fencing and murky waterways.
It would later be alleged during committal proceedings that the police made a number of threats, including to cut one boy’s fingers off, and to throw them in the water.
The boys told investigators from the Criminal Justice Commission that police instructed them to remove their shoes and throw them into nearby bushland.
The eldest says he asked how he was supposed to get home.
“And they said, ‘Walk.’ I said, ‘Fuck off, you can’t do this.’ They just drove off.”
Kids picked up ‘for any reason’
It was dawn before they made it back to Fortitude Valley. They went straight to Nancy Fisher — a Birri Gubba woman, born in Cherbourg, who “looked after all the young ones” so much so that she’s known as “Mum Nancy”.
“They explained to me that the coppers took them out to Pinkenba,” Nancy remembers.
“I was very, very upset because [of] the state they were in… they were shivering. It was cold.”
She gets upset when she talks about seeing the three boys that morning – and says the same thing happened to her and some of her friends when she was just 13.
“The coppers, they grabbed us in the Valley, took us all the way up to Mount Coot-tha,” she says, referring to a lookout about 10km from Brisbane city.
“They made us walk all the way barefooted from that place to here, to the highway — until a beautiful old good Samaritan gave us a lift into the Valley.”
Now a top Indigenous silk, Tony McAvoy was working as a solicitor for what was then the Aboriginal Legal Service in Brisbane at the time the boys were dumped at Pinkenba.
“My recollection is that kids were being picked up for any reason,” he says.
“If they were standing on the street corner at the Queen Street Mall and the coppers came by, they’d do what they wanted to move them on.”
In the days after the incident, Jim Banaghan, the Queensland Police Union’s city branch president, made a statement defending the actions of police.
“The officers thought that, rather than charging them, it was best to drive them away and give them the chance to reflect on their misdemeanours and hopefully see the light,” he says.
“They realise it was the wrong thing to do and have put their hand up.”
But tensions between the Murri community and the police — already strained after the death of Daniel Yock six months earlier — ratcheted even higher.
Running from the police
From a young age, all three boys had developed a resentment towards and distrust of police.
Mr McAvoy believes over-policing, whether it be through racial profiling, unwarranted surveillance or stop-searches had compounded the issue.
“A lot of the kids were conditioned just to run from the police,” Mr McAvoy says.
“They see the police coming, they run, because they’d get picked up and they didn’t know why.
“And then the police would chase them because they think they must be running away for some reason. And it just went on.”
Running from police can have tragic consequences.
In 2018, two Aboriginal boys in Western Australia drowned after diving into a river to evade police, who had pursued them following reports of “teenagers jumping fences”.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people make up 55 per cent of Australia’s youth prison population.
Amanda Porter, a criminologist and researcher at the Melbourne Law School, says over-policing of Aboriginal youth is directly reflected in detention, bail and remand statistics.
“Sadly, despite a wealth of empirical evidence by the way of royal commissions, national inquiries, academic and policy research, not to mention a resounding chorus of experts asking to raise the age [of criminal responsibility], governments have so far failed to act,” Dr Porter says.
In the Pinkenba case, the officers claimed that by removing the kids from the mall in Fortitude Valley, they hoped to discourage them from committing crimes in the future.
But what is the impact of unnecessary interaction with police?
Larissa Behrendt, a distinguished professor at the Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research at the University of Technology Sydney, says over-policing has the potential to push vulnerable kids into a cycle of reoffending.
“When Indigenous children have contact with the criminal justice system they run the risk of becoming institutionalised and find life in prison easier to navigate than life outside,” she says.
‘We felt like we was on trial’
Within a few days of the Pinkenba incident, an investigation into the boys’ claims began, and they were taken back to the industrial suburb to recount their experiences.
This was conducted by the Criminal Justice Commission, the body established in 1989 to restore confidence in public institutions after an era of political and police corruption in Queensland.
At the time, Michael Barnes — now the NSW Ombudsman — was the chief officer of the CJC’s complaints section, and remembers it was treated as “an extremely serious matter”.
“Obviously these were quite young boys, who according to their version of events, had been treated horrendously,” he says.
Subsequently, all six officers involved were charged with three counts each of deprivation of liberty — kidnapping.
In early 1995, a committal hearing, where it would be determined whether the matter would proceed to trial, began in the Brisbane Magistrates Court.
Since the police had already admitted to taking the boys and dumping them at Pinkenba, the central issue became whether they got into the police cars willingly.
Despite being the alleged victims in this case, the boys felt like it was they themselves who were being put on trial.
The youngest recalls the defence barrister “made us look bad, by bringing up our little histories … like it was our fault, you know?”
Perplexed and emotional
Prior to the CJC hearing, the Aboriginal Legal Service had asked Diana Eades, an expert in critical sociolinguistics and intercultural communication, to interview the boys and write a report about any communication issues they might have while giving evidence.
She remembers listening to the committal hearing and thinking it sounded like the boys were the accused.
“In fact, it was so hard that even the magistrate referred on three different occasions to one of the witnesses as the defendant rather than the witness,” she says.
Two years earlier, Dr Eades had developed a handbook for lawyers on how Aboriginal English can be misinterpreted in the courtroom, often to the detriment of Aboriginal witnesses.
“A really important one is the phenomenon that’s now widely known, I hope, in the legal system as gratuitous concurrence,” she says.
“That is the pattern of answering a question by appearing to agree to whatever you’re being asked, even if you don’t necessarily actually agree and quite often even if you don’t understand.”
Dr Eades recalls that the boys appeared perplexed and emotional throughout proceedings in the committal hearing.
She noticed her handbook on the desk from where the defence barristers conducted the cross-examination of the Aboriginal child witnesses.
“There was evidence they had read my best practice handbook. And so they did allow a lot of silences. But they then used them to intensify their attacks.”
A focus on their criminal history
In February 1995, the six officers were cleared.
Crucial to the ruling was a failure of the prosecution to demonstrate that the boys did not get into the police cars willingly.
In handing down his findings, Magistrate Robert Quinlan cited the boys’ criminal history, telling the court that they had “more knowledge as to their rights in relation to the police than the ordinary child in the street”.
Dr Eades said she found the intense focus on their criminal history as opposed to the alleged actions of police a major concern.
“It wasn’t about what happened on the night in question, but was about how they each had a criminal record,” she says.
“And of course, the criminal system deals with people for their criminal records. This was a completely different case where they were alleging something had happened to them. But it was all turned on its head.”
Mr Barnes also says that attempts to erode the boys’ credibility as witnesses likely impacted on the ruling.
“It’s always difficult to prove criminal charges, and criminal charges frequently involve the balancing of competing credit among witnesses,” he says.
“Also, as you know, the defendant always gets the benefit of the doubt.”
‘My life would’ve been different, maybe?’
The eldest of the boys was in art class at a juvenile justice centre when he saw the verdict.
“I remember reading the newspaper. ‘Hey brother, come look at this.’
“It had a cartoon of six police officers laughing at the sentence … the ‘Pinkenba Six’.”
Today, four of the six officers involved continue to work for the Queensland Police Service. All declined to be interviewed.
The youngest still gets emotional when speaking about what happened that night.
“I was only 12 and I didn’t really know about things outside of Cherbourg. And I didn’t really think that this shit could happen, you know,” he says.
“To see [it] in movies is one thing, but to see it happen here?
“My life would’ve been different from all that, maybe?”