SIX foot three, solid build, gentle nature and an easy laugh.
Jeffrey Brooks was hard to miss and hard to forget. He had the kind of enthusiasm that comes easily in your early twenties and he was in a hurry to get things done.
Newly married and fresh out of university with a degree in marine biology, he already had his dream job and kids weren’t far away. His story shouldn’t have finished this way.
One leg hangs awkwardly through the open door of the farm ute, a body slumped across both seats, head pushed up against the passenger side. There’s a shotgun wound to the upper chest, and a hell of a lot of blood.
An old farm shotgun lies not beside, but underneath the body. An Akubra has fallen in the grass next to a large pool of blood, but it’s 11.4 metres away. What happened?
This was the baffling crime scene that greeted police on a crayfish farm at Beenleigh in 1996, not far from the bright lights of the Gold Coast. The body was that of 24-year-old Jeffrey Brooks. He was working there at the time.
Early on, it appears, police concluded it was an accident. A self-inflicted gunshot wound which happened when Jeffrey went to take the old shotgun out of the ute and it went off. In that moment, perhaps it seemed a reasonable conclusion.
But from today’s perspective the police scrutiny of the crime scene has left some significant questions unresolved.
Gun shot residue tests, done to prove that a person either did, or did not fire a weapon, were never done. Not on Jeffrey Brooks, or even his three fellow farm workers who were some of the last people to see him alive. No attempt was made to take fingerprints off the old farm gun, nor complete crucial ballistics tests. Vital interviews with alibis and witnesses were not done until months later — or not at all.
Back then, the coroner found the police investigation was thorough. It delivered an open finding, which means on the evidence presented there wasn’t enough proof to rule an accidental death, or foul play. Stalemate.
After that, the world moved on, the crayfish farm was sold, the three farm workers split up and went their separate ways. Jeffrey Brooks was forgotten.
I came into this story after reading an article and listening to a podcast by Courier-Mail journalist Kate Kyriacou. She urged me to visit Jeff’s parents in Invarell, New South Wales. I was not prepared for what I would find.
In a room in an old farmhouse, tables, chairs, the floor, every available patch of space crowded with evidence. Twenty-two years of letters, phone calls, gun tests, police statements and photos.
Wendy and Lawrie Brooks are certain their son was murdered, the kind of certainty that eats and claws at you from the inside. What would you do if you knew, I mean you really knew your son was murdered, and no one would listen to you?
FOLLOW THE EVIDENCE — WHAT’S THE MOTIVE?
Jeffrey was employed at the crayfish farm by the men who owned it. They had employed three farm workers to run it for them, workers who had previous experience with aquaculture. For five years it ran at a loss — they’d pumped in close to half a million dollars and still it was a disaster. At the eleventh hour they tried something new. They hired a young marine biologist keen to make his mark on the world, and asked him to find out what was going wrong.
Jeffrey Brooks was a country kid, honest and straight up. So when he found out farm workers were selling large amounts of crayfish on the black market for cash, he did an unusual thing. He not only told the owners, he told the workers he knew what they had been doing.
Not long after that, the farm was shut down. The workers were losing their livelihoods and two of them were losing their home. They blamed Jeffrey and it got bad enough that the 24-year-old told multiple people he was frightened he would be shot.
FOLLOW THE EVIDENCE — THE PHONE CALL
Jeff made a phone call on the day that he died. A phone call that no one on the farm knew about. I know because I interviewed the man at the other end of that line. Not surprisingly he remembers it word for word.
Jeff’s words were hurried and anxious, but clear: “I’ve found something, I’ve found a book, I’ve got to go, someone is coming”.
Jeff then finished that call with something strange, he said. “Curiosity killed the cat.”
Within hours Jeff was dead.
I’ve read the transcript of the coronial inquest, the witness statements, even the interviews. The content of this phone call was never mentioned. Why?
FOLLOW THE EVIDENCE — GUNSHOT WOUND
The pathologist made a detailed examination of Jeff’s body. He measured the gunshot wound on his shoulder and found it to be three centimetres in diameter. When a shotgun fires a shell, the pellets leave the end of the barrel and they start to spread outwards. The further from the end of the barrel, the wider the diameter of the wound.
So by a process of elimination we can re-create what happened to Jeff that day to see if it’s physically possible for Jeff to have shot himself accidentally. Could he have been that close to the gun?
To make sure we get this right, we imported a camera from Asia. It shoots at 32,000 frames per second, slow enough to see individual gunshots pellets in mid air. Slow enough to get the exact wound diameter and spread of pellets to match Jeff’s wound. The results are astounding.
FOLLOW THE EVIDENCE — IF IT EXISTS
I have never worked on a story where so much police evidence has, in the end, mysteriously gone missing. The gun itself, X-rays, autopsy photos, Jeff’s clothing… the list goes on. As the inquest delivered an open finding, that evidence should have been preserved.
The coroner didn’t have a problem with the police investigation 20 years ago, but plenty of other people do today. And more importantly, what does the officer in charge of that investigation have to say? I don’t know because he declined an interview.
Back then he was Detective Superintendent Michael Condon, today he is the assistant police commissioner of Queensland.
ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS TO THE RIGHT PEOPLE.
The evidence suggests Jeff didn’t die by accident. The evidence suggests Jeff was murdered. So what happened? There were three farm workers on the property on the day of his death and it’s clear they don’t want to be found. So when I walked up a sunny Queensland street with a camera crew to confront the man who could well know who pulled the trigger I have a million questions to ask and his reaction is not what I expected.
On the eve of Sunday Night’s special investigation, and the development of fresh evidence, the Queensland Attorney-General has ordered the coronial inquest into Jeffrey’s death will reopen.
Denham Hitchcock is a senior reporter with Seven’s Sunday Night.
Sunday Night airs on Sunday at 8.15pm on Seven and 7PLUS
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