Cold case detectives told LandCruiser belonged to land council chief
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Cold case detectives told LandCruiser belonged to land council chief

A Toyota LandCruiser that may be connected to the disappearance of Julie Buck and Richard Milgin has been traced to the chair of the Kimberley Land Council.

By Richard Baker

A distinctive Toyota Troop Carrier that police have been told may be connected to the 1994 disappearance of Julie Buck and Richard Milgin belonged to the present chairman of the Kimberley Land Council.

Episode four of The Age’s investigative podcast seriesWrong Skin reveals that West Australian Cold Case Homicide Squad detectives recently showed photographs of the Toyota to people in the Looma community and nearby areas as part of their investigation into Julie’s 1994 death and Richard’s disappearance.

The Toyota was registered to KLC chairman Anthony Watson at the time the couple disappeared. He is the son of land council founder and former chairman, senior traditional owner John Watson.

Julie was the promised wife of elderly renowned Looma artist Jimmy Nerrimah when she was found dead at the age of 23 in December 1994. She continued seeing 24-year-old Richard Milgin in defiance of tribal rules which deemed the couple to be "wrong skin".

No cause of death has been established for Julie, and Richard remains a missing person. He is also presumed dead. Detectives recently handed a detailed investigation report on both cases to the WA Coroner.

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Wrong Skin, which is the Kimberly phrase used to describe a relationship forbidden under tribal laws, examines the possibility that traditional punishment may have been a factor in Julie’s death and Richard’s disappearance.

Several people recall seeing or hearing about the Troop Carrier and a smaller car being packed with senior tribal men from Looma and nearby communities around the time Julie and Richard were last seen alive.

A Troop Carrier is a long wheelbase LandCruiser that can seat 11 people. They are prized possessions in the Kimberley.

Some of the senior tribal men reportedly seen in the Troop Carrier had allegedly previously threatened Richard with harm if he did not end his relationship with Julie.

Witnesses also recall the Troop Carrier being spray-painted a different colour shortly after the couple went missing.

As land council chairman, Anthony Watson, 47, is the most powerful man in

the Kimberley. The KLC is the representative body for all Kimberley people, and receives about $20 million in federal funding a year to help get native title recognition for traditional owners.

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Anthony Watson was around the same age as Julie and Richard when they disappeared and he knew both of them.

The Age is not suggesting Anthony Watson was involved in the death of Julie or the disappearance of Richard. He declined to answer questions.

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But the recollection by several people in and around Looma in 1994 of his Troop Carrier being seen full of senior tribal men around the time the couple disappeared has made the vehicle, and who had access to it back then, of interest to police.

John Watson, Anthony's father, has been nominated by several Looma people as potentially being able to help solve the mystery of what happened to the young couple. This is because of his status as a senior traditional law man and his association with many of the male elders alleged to have been troubled by Richard and Julie’s relationship. Most of these senior men have since passed away.

John Watson and his son Anthony Watson.

John Watson and his son Anthony Watson.Credit:Kate Geraghty

John Watson was a founder of the 40-year-old KLC and has twice been its chairman. He has been a leading figure in the Aboriginal land rights movement and remains a strong advocate for traditional culture.

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The Age is not suggesting John Watson, who leads the Jarlmadangah community about 30 kilometres from Looma, was involved in Julie’s death or Richard’s disappearance.

The KLC, one of Australia’s most famous land councils, named its $15-million Broome headquarters after John Watson and another respected leader, Frank Sebastian.

The land council has managed to secure native title across the vast majority of the Kimberley, an achievement which has the potential to deliver benefits to many Aboriginal communities.

But this process has also led to the KLC being offside with some people in the community, who accuse it of favouring certain groups over others and withholding anthropological information supplied by families.

The Age sought to contact John Watson through the KLC but the land council said it could not assist because he was no longer a director. It also tried to make contact through his son, Anthony Watson.

Court documents obtained by The Age reveal a long history of friction between the strongly traditional Jarlmadangah community and the majority-Christian Looma, despite strong family links between both places.

In 2005, Anthony Watson was convicted of an assault that inflicted grievous bodily harm after he broke into a Derby home and violently assaulted Darren Skinner. The two men had been having a personal dispute.

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Mr Skinner was nearly blinded in the attack in which he was hit with an iron star picket. Anthony Watson’s sister and John Watson were also charged with inflicting grievous bodily harm in relation to this incident.

But John Watson’s charges were discontinued shortly before the matter was heard in the Derby District Court. Anthony Watson’s sister was convicted.

Anthony Watson and his sister were told by District Court judge Paul Healy that they had given Mr Skinner “a fair old thrashing” and their actions could attract a jail sentence of more than 10 years.

However, both Anthony Watson and his sister received positive references from leading figures at the KLC and had clean records. Judge Healy sentenced both to 18 months in prison wholly suspended.

Of the conflict with Looma families, Judge Healy said: “Unless you sort it out this generation, it’s going to keep on going … otherwise it’s going to flow and continue disrupting the two communities, Looma and your community, for a long period of time and probably the wider community as well.”

The Age can also reveal John Watson was charged by police in 1999 after he shattered the leg of a Looma woman with a club during a game of cards.

He admitted causing the damage to the woman, who required extensive surgery and has never walked the same since.

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But The Age understands the magistrate in Derby received letters from supporters of John Watson which explained that there was cultural punishment context to the incident.

Many in Looma, though, say the incident had nothing to do with culture.

John Watson is understood to have received a light penalty and the Looma woman received a payout from the West Australian Criminal Compensation Tribunal.

John Watson remains a justice of the peace who can preside alongside another JP in the Derby Magistrates Court when there is no magistrate in town.