Chris Hurley’s story led to the Gulf of Carpentaria where, from 1998 to 2002, he’d been Officer-In-Charge of Burketown: I decided to go there. The Aboriginal activist Murrandoo Yanner sent his youngest brother, TJ, to the Burketown Pub to look after me. Around his neck, TJ wore a tobacco pouch he’d made from a kangaroo’s scrotum. A vicious nineteenth-century bushranger’s t-sticles had been fashioned by his captors in the same manner: the idea struck him. A wallaby’s balls, he explained, were too small, but a kangaroo’s could hold an ounce of tobacco. Next to the pouch hung a snakeskin tobacco-paper holder. TJ showed me a snakeskin stubby holder, a snakeskin lighter, and a boomerang he’d made. (He told me he could also crochet but that if anyone poked fun he’d punch them in the mouth.)
The next day TJ picked me up to go fishing with his wife, Sasha, and their three children. In a town where there was nothing much else to do, fishing was the highest form of hospitality. TJ was lean, handsome, athletic, and a heavy drinker. ‘I was born to drink beer, everyone in the Gulf is,’ he said – Beer transcended race.
We sat at a river bend surrounded by white-trunked eucalypts and paperbarks. White waterlilies floated on the water. Sasha, a quiet, flawless girl, didn’t want the kids getting too close because of crocodiles, or too far back because of snakes. TJ strung a series of fishing lines in the water. He moved lithely, stepping quickly on a network of eucalypt boughs, adjusting and checking each line as if playing some complicated song. He caught a large catfish and rebaited the line with a northern dwarf tree frog, Litoria bicolor, the type you see on tourist brochures.
I wanted to steer the conversation to Chris Hurley but TJ was giving me a lesson in Gulf etiquette. In traditional hunter-gatherer communities, there are no Hurleys to go to; in broken hunter-gatherer communities, like Burketown, the Hurleys are obstacles to be manoeuvred around – for the men, anyway.
‘Like just say I have argument with someone at the pub,’ said TJ, ‘you’ve got that mentality that to ring policeman, you’re a frightened cunt, you’re a yellow-bellied, lily-livered cunt and you can’t deal with your own problem, you have to go and get bulliman. For a blackfella to get a policeman on another blackfella is just a downright dirty thing,’ he explained. ‘If someone fucks around with your pride or dignity it’s up to you to sort it out yourself. If someone stole my car I’d just wait till I found him then I’d break his fucking legs.’
TJ Yanner didn’t like police much, but he thought a lot of Chris Hurley. The word he used was charisma. ‘Because Hurley was charismatic it never gave you an inch to throw him out of the circle. He wasn’t too hard to like. He didn’t walk past without saying g’day, even if he didn’t like you. If he didn’t like you, there was all the more reason to come past you and say g’day, and find out what you were doing. He was fun. He’d get up and dance, and make a clown of himself, and come up with some jokes. He could make you laugh, that cunt.’
Or make you cry. When one girlfriend left him, Hurley told the Yanners’ mother, he’d found a message scratched in one of his saucepans – ‘Fuck You!’
Sasha, TJ’s wife, said Hurley was a womaniser. He liked white and black women. At least one wife in the town had considered leaving her husband for him. Murrandoo said there was a rumour that the woman’s husband offered ‘ten, twenty thousand for anyone stupid enough to knock him off’. In Murrandoo’s words, ‘He’d screw anything that wasn’t nailed down.’
‘He was drunk there one time at the hall,’ Sasha said. ‘He was on the dance floor, he lift me up and swinging me around.’ He did the same at another dance and the girl hit her head on the concrete. He was ‘too bloody exuberant’, the man who saw this told me. ‘Big people don’t get it, they don’t understand their own strength.’
Chris Hurley was a man of large appetites. He was the life of the party. He was loud, raucous, opinionated – and with a lot of people, after fifteen minutes or so, the act wore thin. The girl working the cash register at the Burketown service station told me: ‘I thought he was a sleaze.’ In 1995, in the Cape York community of Kowanyama, and in 1998, in Surfer’s Paradise, he’d been the subject of formal complaints of s-xual harassment from female police officers. The Crime and Misconduct Commission declared both unsubstantiated. In these years Hurley was moved to a new posting.
Later, I met the simmering Vernon Yanner, taller than his brothers, a sleek mover with the same gruff charm. In September 2001, Vernon Yanner and Hurley had ‘a big knuckle-up’ when Hurley, after a session at the pub, decided to confiscate Vernon’s new motorcycle. Vernon told me:
He was driving off on it so I threw my boot at him, crash-tackled him off my bike, ended up wrestling there in the gutter. He had my head under wFater for a while trying to drown me. Then I had his head under the water for a while trying to drown him. I had his head under water when the boys pulled me off him . . . We won’t stop until one of us weren’t kicking.
Murrandoo said to me after we had the fight, ‘Go and apologise to Hurley then you won’t be charged. He wants you to apologise to him.’ And I said, ‘Fuck him.’ And he said, ‘Well, fuck him, but still he’ll charge you with this and that. You don’t have to like it, just go and apologise and you won’t be charged.’ I went up and apologised to him at the police station: ‘Sorry about that.’ He just went off: ‘You little smart c-nt! You should fucking take a leaf out of your brother’s book, you cunt! I should just fucking take you to jail now!’ And I said, ‘Get fucked, you cunt! I’ll see you in court.’ ‘So you don’t want me to drop charges?’ ‘No, not if you’re going to speak to me like this. You can go fuck yourself.’ And I walked out. I didn’t like him full stop.
Hurley charged Vernon, but later, in light of the circumstances, the charges were dropped.
The year 2001 was a crucial one for Hurley. There was talk among other police in the Gulf region about the Sergeant’s seeming lack of control, over both the Burketown locals and himself. He had applied for a promotion to Senior Sergeant of Mornington Island, the Aboriginal community north-west of Burketown. When he missed out, the Yanners said, he was acutely disappointed. For a man with a carefully plotted career plan like his, the rejection was a major setback.
As Murrandoo saw it, rather than blaming the police hierarchy who had slighted him, Hurley seemed to blame the community – in other words, Murrandoo and his brothers. Hurley withdrew. He didn’t go to the school to work with kids as much. He chose not to socialise at the pub. He had put up with all of them for three years and it had not paid off.
Heeding the warnings of his superiors, the Sergeant pulled back from the Yanners and soon had his eye again on the prize. One day a visitor to Burketown got trapped in a culvert. Murrandoo’s uncle, Johnny Yanner, went to Hurley and told him if they did not act the man would drown. Hurley drilled into the culvert and they saved the man. For this, in 2002, he received a Police Commissioner’s Certificate in recognition of his ‘intelligence, promptitude, resourcefulness and dedication to duty far exceeding what might reasonably be expected from a member of the police service in the execution of his duty’. Hurley’s career was back on track. In November 2002 he was promoted to Senior Sergeant of Palm Island.
Now, by the river, TJ’s children climbed a gum’s diagonal bough, riding it. One child fell flat onto her back. Shocked, her face crumpled into tears, and I rushed to pick her up. Shortly afterwards TJ’s toddler son plonked down on a chair that folded in on him and he too fell and wept. Again, almost without thinking, I rushed to steady him. TJ told me it was better to leave them. He wanted his children to be able to look after themselves. To be able to fight. His wife could give a man a black eye if she needed to. TJ had concluded it was better to be nasty in this world. Otherwise people made you their bitch. He quoted a Slim Dusty song:
It’s a hard, hard country
It’s a hard, hard land
And to live in it you gotta be
A hard, hard man.
TJ sat drinking, not catching many fish. He planned to swap the catfish for turtle with a relative. He complained about a man who had come fishing with money in his pocket so no one had caught anything. I had a credit card in mine and wondered if it was my fault.
Extracted from The Tall Man by Chloe Hooper, published by Hamish Hamilton, $32.95, out June 30.