Dispatch: The Recent Derbal Yerrigan Drownings and "Aboriginal Deaths-in-Custody"


The Recent Derbal Yerrigan Drownings and “Aboriginal Deaths-in-Custody”

Dr Carl Hughes

MB BS   B(Med)Sc   Cert Diving Med (R.A.N.)

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains details of deceased persons.

A tree in a public park is adorned with an Aboriginal flag. Flowers, balloons and photo frames are laid around the tree.

Memorial for JackJack and Chris, Derbal Yerrigan, 2018. Photo: Michelle Bui.

The local Noongar Community in Perth is still grieving over the recent, tragic deaths of two Aboriginal teenagers (Trisjack Simpson and Christopher Drage, aged 17 and 16 years) who lost their lives in the cold waters of the Derbal Yerrigan (Swan River).

The media has reported that the boys drowned as they attempted to ‘dive and swim away’ from local police.

The boys’ deaths are being treated as “deaths in police presence” and the Office of the W.A. Coroner will conduct an inquiry into the full circumstances of the drownings.

The W.A. Police Commissioner, Chris Dawson advised:

“(The) two boys are believed to have got into difficulties in the middle of the river… and (then) succumbed to the conditions…. and were not seen to resurface…this is nothing short of a tragedy”

Commissioner Dawson added: “I offer my condolences to the families of the two boys.”


This is not the first time that a young Aboriginal has drowned in similar circumstances.

In Dubbo in 2003, another Aboriginal youth (known as R.S.), drowned in the nearby local Wambool river (Macquarie River). R.S. drowned near a well-known local bridge, named in honour of a famous Dubbo Aboriginal citizen, Tracker Reilley.

In similar, tragic circumstances to the Derbal Yerrigan drownings, R.S. was observed by Dubbo Police near the ‘traditional’ Macquarie River. In other words, R.S. was now close to the local river “in the presence of police.”

For those with experience of the historical consequences for an Aboriginal person being “followed”, or “pursued”, by police in such circumstances, the “Red Danger” warning lights would have been flashing and the bells would have been clanging.

For R.S., this was now an extremely dangerous situation.

Letter by Robin Sheiner to The West Australian Newspaper, it reads 'Dear Sir, I am distressed to read the commentary around the recent drownings of the two Aboriginal teenagers 'in police presence'. For me, it is reminiscent of the drownings of many Aborigines that occurred at the Murray River in WA when a phalanx of soldiers on the 25th October 1834, was deployed specifically to 'punish the [A]borigines.' Here I quote from the original log book of my ancestor, John Septimus Roe, who was in the punitive party as the Surveyor General at the time. "On meeting with an [A]boriginal tribe at 'the Great River'", my ancestor writes in his journal, "the ten mounted soliders among the party, rifles loaded, fired upon the [A]borigines who had leapt into the river. No men of the tribe survived and eight women only who, with their children, watched in silence as their men were killed." The question becomes how far, as a society, have we advanced in our attitudes to Aboriginal people? Do we think, as the dominant population of white people, that our lives are of more value? Also, a simple question, why does my Aboriginal grandson and his friends, intelligent, law-abiding and university educated, get taken aside and searched when they enter shops? The final question - why did the 5 young teenagers run from the police? Had they imbibed, unsurprisingly, their own history of police confrontation and Aboriginal youth incarceration numbers? Yours faithfully, Robin Sheiner. (The author has given Deathscapes permission to publish this letter, which was originally sent to the West Australian newspaper. The letter was not published by the West.'

Dr Hannah McGlade speaks at the John Pat memerial, which can be seen to the left of the frame. Native flowers are laid around the memorial. A building in the old Fremantle prison complex can be seen in the background.

Hannah McGlade discusses Robin Sheiner’s letter at the annual remembrance ceremony for John Pat at Fremantle jail, 23 September 2018.  


From a physiological point of view, a cold, free-flowing, freshwater river is a very hazardous environment, even for a strong, fit swimmer.

Royal Australian Navy Clearance Divers are arguably some of the fittest athletes in any Navy. (Under combat conditions, they train to remove explosive mines from ships.) Clearance Divers accept that they cannot swim against a current of about 2.5 knots (approximately ‘walking pace’) for any length of time. Therefore, attempting to swim against a moderate current (say about 3-4 knots) is almost an impossible feat. When a low water temperature (say about 10 degrees Celsius, as in both the Swan and Macquarie River cases) is added to the situation, the danger of hypothermia and drowning increases considerably. The chance of a swimmer drowning in such a river is now very real.


As reported in The Guardian (Australia) “Deaths Inside” database, two other drowning deaths are recorded where the Aboriginal person involved was “trying to flee the police”.

In 2012, a 37-year old Aboriginal man reportedly drowned in the Djarlgarra (Canning River at Thornlie, W.A.). He attempted to evade police. It is believed that he jumped into the Djarlgarra as he tried to flee from police. (His body was not recovered until 7 days later.)

In 2013, a 40-year old Aboriginal man reportedly drowned as he attempted “to evade police” by swimming across the Millewa (Murray River, downstream of Berri, South Australia).

It is reported that neither the 37-year old, nor the 40-year old, were charged with any crime.

Flowers have been laid at the banks of the Derbal Yerrigan. People gather by the river can be seen to the left of the frame. Apartment buildings that overlook the river can be seen in the background along with trees and bushes that line the rivers' edge.

Memorial for JackJack and Chris, Derbal Yerrigan, 2018. Photo: Michelle Bui.


It is worth considering the real dangers for Aboriginals when they are being “pursued” or “followed” by police.

Many Aboriginal families have expressed their great anxiety when they are informed that their son, or daughter, is being “pursued” by police (for any reason). It is well known that Aboriginal youths tend to panic in the presence of police.

Whether the youth is ‘justified’ in his/her panic state, the fact is that many do panic.

A possible reason for panic is the fact that most Aboriginal families are aware that a family member (perhaps a distant relative) is likely to have experienced contact with the Juvenile, or Adult, Justice System, or even possibly a family Death in Custody.

Whatever the reason, a panic reaction (usually out of all proportion to any alleged charge) is quite common.

T.J. Hickey and Redfern (February 2004)

Perhaps the most well-known, recent Aboriginal death in custody which involved police “pursuing”, or “following”, an Aboriginal youth is the case of the death of T.J. Hickey, aged 17 years, in Redfern in February 2004.

T.J. had dealings with the Walgett Children’s Court and probably knew that there was an Apprehension Warrant in existence when he became aware that police were “following” him, as he cycled along the streets of Redfern.

Although there is still some controversy concerning the exact mechanism of T.J.’s death, it is known that he was “peddling very fast” as two Redfern Police vans “followed” him through the streets and lanes of Redfern.

T.J. may have “panicked” seconds before his death.

What is clear is that his body was propelled over the handlebars of his bicycle and that he became impaled onto the steel bars of a fence at the rear of a Tower building in Waterloo. T.J. was impaled by the neck on the steel bars.

As police walked towards him, he was still impaled on the fence. He cried out:

“I want my Mum… I don’t want to die !!”

A child rides a bicycle, he turns toward the camera and holds up a photo of TJ Hickey that obscures his face. Justice for T.J Hickey Rally, Gadigal Country, 2018. Photo: Charandev Singh.


What does the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody have to say about Aboriginal Youths and the Justice System ?

Unfortunately, the observations and Recommendations of the Commission are as relevant today as they were at the time they were written by the Learned Commissioners:

  • Aboriginal youths are incarcerated at higher rates than non-Aboriginals
  • Alternatives to detention should be actively implemented a.s.a.p.

The relative dangers of a “Police Pursuit”

The dangers of:

  • a “police pursuit” or
  • “a (close) police presence”

need to be weighed against the danger of harm (or death) of the youth(s).

I feel sure that the Royal Commissioners would urge police to adopt a position of “great caution in their operations.”

As discussed above, there are very real physiological dangers of hypothermia and drowning where a “scared” and “panicking” Aboriginal youth is in close proximity to a free-flowing, cold, fresh-water river.

Without doubt, consideration should be given to an early “calling off” any chase, or pursuit, of Aboriginal youths in such circumstances.

Additional Police Operational Training seems to be required urgently.


Dr Carl Hughes is a forensic pathologist who worked closely on a number deaths in custody inquests with the late Uncle Ray Jackson and the Indigenous Social Justice Association. Read detailed bio here.


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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are respectfully advised that this website contains images of and references to deceased persons.

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